Let’s say you meet a guy at a party and the conversation inevitably turns to the question “What do you do for a living?”
You: Oh, I’m a (fill in the blank here).
Guy: Really, do you like what you do?
You: Oh, it’s okay. I’m mean, I was hoping to work as a (insert dream career here), but, you know, things didn’t work out, and, well, I ended up doing what I’m doing now. How ’bout you? What do you do?
Guy: Well, I’m a professor of literature at San Francisco State University, I have wonderful family and we live in a very nice part of Marin county. Also, I host a daily talk show on the local public radio station that’s pretty popular.
You: Wow! That’s impressive. You’re a professor and you get to host a talk show? You must be pretty happy about your career.
Guy: I suppose. I just wish I could have written a novel instead of talking to writers about their craft or teaching great novels to students who are often bored with what I have to say.
You: A novelist? But what if no one read your work. Do you think you would wish that you had pursued some other career?
Guy: Probably not. I mean to have that kind of drive, passion, and facility with words…that, to me, is just an artistic ideal that sounds wonderful.
You: Yeah, I guess it does when you put in that way you do…you know, with a twist of regret. Come to think of it, it’s understandable to get romantic and misty-eyed about not writing the great American novel. I mean, I don’t see people regretting not owning a donut shop as they settle into their Golden Years.
Guy: I hate you.
The “Guy” in my little fictional scenario is Michael Krasny who is a professor of literature at SF State, does live in Marin county with his family, and hosts a very popular talk show on KQED in San Francisco. And throughout his book, he has regrets at not having written and published a novel that critics and the public would have seen has the natural heir to the writings of Saul Bellow. The successes he’s gained in a career that is most noted for his interviewing skills rather than written work, is chronicled in his memoir that may have little interest outside the Bay Area. That’s not to say that Krasny doesn’t tell a compelling tale and, at times, has wonderfully novelistic touches that make me wonder what works of fiction he would wrought if his creative urges overtook his more natural tendency for conversation and analysis.
For me, the high points of the book come when he reveals his most human moments. You have to understand that to listen to Krasny’s program is like sitting in on a graduate seminar where a high level of sober discourse is taking place. The guests on his show may strike emotional highs and lows, but Krasny remains even-keel throughout. It’s that public persona that gets pierced when he recounts two episodes that make me wish video cameras were as ubiquitous then as they are now.
I Am Human (Part One)
“I called her. I asked her out. She put me off a number of times, but I was persistent. I took her to my West Main efficiency. I cooked for her. The would-be playboy bachelor trying to win over the beauty with his nonexistent suaveness and no real culinary skill — only suddenly, incomprehensibly, I was besieged by the runs. In so small an apartment I could not, would not, use the bathroom for fear of audible, frightful flatulence. “Oh. I left something in the car,” I explained breezily, then ran downstairs to the small, private, basement bathroom outside…Ten minutes later I was back in the kitchen cooking, and then I was suddenly under attack again. “I’m sorry. I need to make a phone call.” Another race down the stairs and into the refuge stall in the basement where all my human sounds went unheard, wondering why, God, do you give me diarrhea now? Why, when I have in my apartment a beautiful, class, brainy, Jewish girl — the kind my parents, especially my mother, dream about for me — do you make me have to race out repeatedly to flush out my guts?”
I Am Human (Part Two)
“The Southern Illinois hiring committee takes me to what they considered to be the best eating place in town, an Italian restaurant in the local Carbondale Holiday Inn. I feed on what I later described…as rancid-tasting lasagna and then proceed with the hiring committee to the home of the English department chair.
Seated around the fireplace, with burning logs, Howard Webb (the department chair) informs me in a serious, nearly pious way that the committee wants to hire me…I tell him I am grateful and humbled by the offer. “Will you accept?” he asks, with great solemnity, as if offering me a throne, and after a few seconds of silence, I bolt.
The flight, the drinks, the lasagna — all of it is doing its work on me. I am throwing up in Chairman Webb’s toilet, retching and vomiting while Chairman Webb and his colleagues wait by the fireplace with no clue as to why I ran off after his tendered offer…I flush the toilet. To my horror, it overflows.
A question I pose. What does one do in such a situation? What would you do? You’ve puked your guts into the toilet while a group of serious academics are waiting for you to return after they’d just offered you a tenure-track professorship. All your vomit is coming up from the toilet and is swimming around in the water like small minnows just below your ankles, and the water is ever starting to seep out from under the closed door of the small bathroom. So what would you do? I tell myself that it’s best to tell the truth…”
Those moments above are telling because if you accept the premise that the artistic urge is one that is fraught with joy, pain, illumination, grief, and a multitude of other emotions that bubble up and inform your art, then Krasny’s human urges gave him moments of clarity that helped him choose the path that would truly give him the most joy in life. Yes, having a bout of diarrhea while trying to impress your future wife, or vomiting in the home of the man who just offered you a job seem rather odd moments that alter your life course. But in the context of the question that formed part of his life’s philosophy (i.e., “How should a good man live?”), it’s clear that being with the love of his life and finding a place where his teaching style would find a home are, for him, the answer to that challenging question.
Still, despite all that, there’s a subtext of regret that gets carried throughout the book. Regrets about not being a published novelist, regrets about not being appreciated and supported as a commercial radio talk show host on KGO, and regrets about not being able to break out of local public radio and be a star with millions of listeners on National Public Radio. Maybe it’s ego, maybe it’s ambition, maybe it’s dreaming big dreams. But after reading Krasny’s book, I think I’ve found his fictional analogue: George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life. Despite all his big dreams, George was destined to be moral anchor of Bedford Falls, and didn’t understand how important his role was in society until he saw what life was like without him in the world. In the volatile and dynamic world of the Bay Area, it’s important to have temperate and analytical anchor on the airwaves M-Th from 9am to 11am to counter the AM radio talk show blowhards who can opine ad nausaum but rarely edify.