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Black Lamb

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Pruning

Reculer pour mieux sauter

January 1st, 2016

BY EMILY EMERSON

On my ramshackle farm in the French sticks, the closest I’ve come to The Farmer’s Almanac is a thing called the Calendrier lunaire, which gives a schema for every month of the year, a complex color-coded diagram featuring an s-curve to indicate the times of the moon’s waxing and waning, with, scattered along this curve, tiny drawings to indicate constellations and signs (fire signs, air signs, water signs, and earth signs), drawings of grains or fruit according to which days are good for working with these, and something to do with Chinese seasons which I don’t yet have a clue about. I feel that if I could only understand it, the Calendrier lunaire would give me all the answers I need to get through life.

grapesAfter a lot of effort I figured out that the optimum time for me to prune my grape vines in February was only up to February 20-21 at the end of the moon’s waning; after that, I’d have to wait until at least March 7, which, according to an organic gardening book I have, is kind of late to prune vines in the Loire Valley. I drove around the countryside here to check out the vineyards in the area and discovered that all the old guys were pruning away on February 19, so I hauled out one of the tall wooden ladders and climbed up to our vines, which ramble along the front of our big south-facing stone barn. These vines hadn’t been trimmed in some time. My book told me what to do, to look for the ex-fruit-bearing shoots and trim them back to the first node, and give the new fruit-bearing shoots two nodes heading up, or something like that. That’s what I tried to do, though I have to admit that as a pruner, I’m a wimp. It’s so hard to cut off life, when I can see those little buds forming.

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Posted by: The Editors
Category: Emerson | Link to this Entry

House of mirth

It runs in the family

January 1st, 2016

BY MICHELE GENDELMAN

Television comedy writers are often asked how, where, and when they first learned to be funny. (The second and third most frequent questions are, “Why do all network comedies blow?” and “Can you get me free cable?”)

Many writers will say they didn’t discover their ability to make others laugh until they entered school, where they quickly found that their skills as class clown grew in proportion to the number of times they served detention. While I acknowledge the value of our educational system as a training ground for comedy (if for nothing else), it was my own experience — and that of dozens of other writers I know — that funny, just like charity and neurosis, begins at home.

womanlaughinginrockerWhen you’re brought up in a funny family, funny is really a sort of language you learn to speak, a lingua franca with a lexicon of puns and a grammar structured by Groucho glasses. A spit-take is a complete sentence, with a subject and a predicate. Equally as important as the ability to produce funny is the faculty for understanding funny when one hears it, sees it, or steps in it.

The roots of my family funny-tree run deep. My mother was the child of immigrants renowned back in Kiev for coining the phrase “The Czar we know is always better than the Czar we don’t know, as if anybody asked our opinion.” However, their funny was not confined to mere bons mots; as their arrival in this country three days before the October Revolution of 1917 indicates, they were also well-versed in that attendant comedic concept known as timing. Visits to my maternal relatives were splendid occasions of story-telling and joke-building, a middle-class Algonquin Round Table with Schlitz and pierogi standing in for dry martinis and lobster Thermidor.

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Posted by: The Editors
Category: Gendelman | Link to this Entry

Poet of parts

Trampled by the modernists

January 1st, 2016

BY STEFFEN SILVIS

In 1930, even while he tasted a touch of inspirational stray ash from D.H. Lawrence’s cremation urn, Witter Bynner was being thoroughly made a meal of by T.S. Eliot and the Moderns. Considered one of the leading lyric poets in America, Bynner had watched helplessly as his reputation, and that of his friend Edna St. Vincent Millay, were trampled by the followers of avant-gardists Pound, Moore, Stevens, and Eliot. Seemingly overnight, the definition of poetry had changed, and Bynner, at that moment eucharistically sampling his friend, found himself speaking a lost tongue. That James Kraft’s biography is titled Who Is Witter Bynner? measures the depth to which the writer’s name plunged into obscurity. Yet there are parts of Bynner’s work that demand rediscovery, if not necessarily the parts he would have wished.

bynnerFamily legend has it that Bynner arrived prematurely into the world in 1881 as his mother Annie raced down a flight of stairs to save a bird from a cat’s mouth. The resulting gentle youth became an ardent follower of Walt Whitman, to such an extent that rumors circulated that he was Whitman’s illegitimate son, a tale Bynner never hurried to quash. By his early twenties, Bynner was considered one of the bright hopes of American poetry, and despite his demotion by the Modernists, he devoted his entire life to verse until his death in 1968.

Bynner first established himself with two books of poetry: An Ode to Harvard and Other Poems (1907) and The New World (1915). Though both books contain commendable verses, one finds oneself agreeing with Richard Wilbur that there is too much lazy and obvious rhyming and “a fair amount of sincere and exclamatory gush.” In fact, Bynner achieves a kind of high kitsch with these poems that lards most of his “serious” work to come, insuring obsolescence. But with the Spectra poems (1916), Bynner reveals himself as one of American literature’s lost wits.

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Pedophile heroes of 9/11?

What if... ? Just what if... ?

January 1st, 2016

BY JAMES PRUNTY

The popular pejoratives “pedophile” and “child molester” have never made much sense, given the public’s preoccupation with youthful beauty. Conversely, the public’s nearly religious devotion to certain types of heroes, war heroes in particular, stands in stark contrast to the universal condemnation of pedophiles as pariahs. Why war heroes, or 9/11 heroes in particular, and not other types of heroes? Why pedophile villains, and not sleazy lawyers and accountants? Or better yet, banks and insurance companies? As big sellers of news, pedophiles and heroes confront us with a curious dynamic, because these angels and demons share much common ground.

splitHeroes and pedophiles are largely human creations that reveal far more about us than about the people upon whom the status is conferred. To begin with, the odds are very remote that anyone reading this is either. They are rare. In their own ways, heroes and pedophiles are both attractive and necessary. They sell a lot of advertising for newspaper and television, both of which shamelessly capitalize on the way these subjects stimulate the public imagination. Both frequently make the front-page news. Both evoke strong feelings, even in people who can’t name their elected representatives, can’t balance their checkbooks, or couldn’t care less about the most important issues of the day. Heroes have few detractors, pedophiles few defenders. Public reaction to both crosses all party and demographic lines. The two subjects are at the extremities of conversation: we discuss heroism comfortably in mixed company without reservation, but we can scarcely mention the word “pedophile” for fear of sounding vulgar, and the subject when raised arouses intense discomfort.

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Programmed to fish

January 1st, 2016

BY GREG ROBERTS

I was supposed to have done big things… but fishing got in the way. It was fishing that kept me from being the professor, the comedian, the writer, the big star. “You’re a funny guy — you could have started The Onion when you were in Madison, man,” said one of my old college chums. Maybe I could have. Maybe a lot of people could have. But if you sit at a fly-tying bench for six hours, further relaxed by forty-ouncers of Carling Black Label, there isn’t much cerebral juice left for the demanding task of writing The Onion.

fishI was clever enough to get invited to entertain at a few obscure venues. A dozen years ago, when I was playing the fiddle in a bluegrass band, a deranged banjo picker came up to me and said, “You’re him, ain’t you? The guy from the radio — from the Prairie Companion show.” He wanted me to sign his banjo skin with a Sharpie. I told him I was not that guy, that I just had a habit of delivering long, rambling monologues in a midwestern accent. I had done that for years in bars and ice shanties but was too distracted by fish to get my rap together and sell it.

Fishing sabotaged all those glorious might-have-beens. No brain surgeon or astrophysicist has spent more time at his craft than I have squandered at the fly-tying vise, laying down swatches of yak hair and polypropylene, and adding doll eyes with a glob of epoxy, hoping to make a sardine that the fish will think is real.

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Kramnik crushed!

Brawn over brain

January 1st, 2016

BY JAMES MCQUILLEN

Quick, name this sport: rival world champions, a shady multi-millionaire commissioner, drug testing, boycotts and shapely young women parading around in skimpy costumes. If you said professional wrestling, you get partial credit. The correct answer, of course, is chess. The governing body of world chess, led by its eccentric president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, has launched an all-out campaign to remake this most elevated of intellectual exercises into a fast-paced, high-stakes spectacle suitable for prime-time television.”
— Lev Grossman, Time

A frigid wind blew through Minnesota last Saturday night, but fans inside the Mall of America in Bloomington worked themselves into a hot lather of anticipation over this winter’s top sporting event: the first-ever FIDE-WWF matchup. Emboldened by the popularity of chess-playing heavyweight boxers Vitaly and Vladimir Klitschko, promoters chessvswrestlingpromised more thinking outside the 64-square box, pitting current world champion Vladimir Kramnik against perennial favorite “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.

The soft-spoken champion entered the arena in a blue three-button jacket, yellow cardigan, and grey slacks; his opponent, vigorously pumping his fist at the roaring crowd, in a leather briefs-and-vest ensemble adorned with a glittering skull. This kind of sartorial unorthodoxy hasn’t been seen in the chess world since Bobby Fischer showed up for a 1967 Skopje tournament dressed as a milkman.

Kramnik drew white and opened with d4. Austin responded with a Chicken Wing Hammerlock, then rejected the subsequent Queen’s Gambit by treating Kramnik to an Airplane Spin followed by a Monkey Flip over the board, putting him literally on the defensive.

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Godawful din

Where music is always amplified

January 1st, 2016

BY RANDALL GILES

Chennai, India

All musical events here are frighteningly loud. People remember and are still amazed that when Yehudi Menuhin was in town at the Madras Festival, he forbade the use of microphones. This was simply not done. The smallest hall will amplify each performer individually, but not then mix the sound at all well, or the “sound engineer” will fiddle around with the levels endlessly during performance, never with happy results.

monkeysThe general civic tolerance for high decibel levels is amazing. I was in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu recently, a bastion of High Anglicanism in the southern-most part of India; villages with names like Nazareth and Bethany dot the landscape. Each has a church with a steeple trying to rise higher than the neighboring village’s, and each steeple has a set of loudspeakers. Some company has cornered the market on tapes to play through these loudspeakers to mark the hours between five a.m. and nine p.m. Just before the hour in every such village, the same cinema-inspired Tamil Christian lyric is blared, then a hugely amplified version of one of those tinny electric chiming clocks booms the hour, then there are two seconds of silence, and then a voice like one announcing train departures (loud and muddy) quoting some scripture verse. The whole experience takes no more than a minute-and-a-half, but it’s enough to blot out what ever one was previously thinking and raise the tension level for the following fifteen minutes, until the half-hour, celebrated by a single bong of the electric chime. There are ordinances against noise pollution, but no one seems to think of this as pollution.

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Category: Giles | Link to this Entry

The sweetest sound

Sometimes simple is best

January 1st, 2016

BY ED GOLDBERG

When I was a little boy, my grandfather told me that he had been in Spain and wanted to see a bullfight, but lacked the money to get in. As he stood by the gate, a haughty fellow walked up and said to the gatekeeper, “I am the toreador!” He was immediately ushered in.

A few moments later, another grand fellow walked up and announced, “I am the matador!” He was granted access, as the gatekeeper bowed and scraped.

Not long after, the process was repeated, this time by a dude proclaiming, “I am the picador!”

Whereupon, Grandpa walked up to the gate, declared, “I am Isadore!” and walked in.

pennywhistleGrandpa was born Isadore Banberger in Bucharest, some time in the 1880s. Family legend has it that he wandered Europe for a few years before immigrating to New York. He may or may not have financed his adventures by a run of con games and pool hustling. His eyes would twinkle while he refused to confirm or deny it.

My mother once told me that “he learned to cook and screw in six languages.” He could speak English, Yiddish, and Romanian fluently. He was conversant in German, French, and Italian, and he had a little Spanish. During the Depression, he helped keep his five kids fed selling Blue Coal, representing himself credibly in almost any ethnic neighborhood as a fellow countryman.

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Honorary Black Lambs

January 1st, 2016

BY BLACK LAMB

Once again we bring you new inductees to our roster of Honorary Black Lambs, once upon a time enshrined in The Ultimate Literary Calendar. Here are short introductions, with selected bibliographies, for two of literature’s singular figures, both of whom painted vivid pictures of America.

Robinson Jeffers , b. January 10, 1887, d. 1962

jeffersMany of Jeffers’s poems were in narrative or epic form, but he is also known for his shorter verse and especially for his depiction of the central California coast. He opposed American participation in WWII but won kudos later for his environmentalism.

Selected Reading Poetry The Women at Point Sur, 1927. Cawdor and Other Poems, 1928. Dear Judas and Other Poems, 1929. Give Your Heart to the Hawks and other Poems, 1933. The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, 1938. Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems, 1965. Rock and Hawk: A Selection of Shorter Poems by Robinson Jeffers, 1987. Stones of the Sur, 2001. Letters The Selected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, 1887-1962, 1968

londongreekgod2Jack London, b. January 12, 1876, d. 1916

London made his living by writing short fiction and novels as fast as he could. He thereby published a very great deal in a short life — he died at forty. His depictions of the wilds of Alaska and the Pacific are the prototypes of this sort of frontier fiction, but he also wrote novels with socio-economic themes.

Suggested Reading Novels The Call of the Wild, 1903. The Sea-Wolf, 1904. White Fang, 1906. The Iron Heel, 1908. Martin Eden, 1909. The Valley of the Moon, 1913. The Star Rover, 1915. Short story collections Son of the Wolf, 1900. Lost Face, 1910. South Sea Tales, 1911. Non-fiction The People of the Abyss, 1903. The War of the Classes, 1905. Memoirs The Road, 1907. The Cruise of the Snark, 1911. John Barleycorn, 1913.

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Ask Millie

Worse than sticks & stones

January 1st, 2016

BY MILLICENT MARSHALL

Dear Reader,

Just when I was about to give up writing this month’s column because I hadn’t received any letters related to psychology and didn’t have any bright ideas what to do about it, providence smiled. Twice.

millieFirst, I opened a copy of USA Today and found that according to a recent survey by Harris, schizophrenics feel that they are “always,” “often,” or “sometimes” treated as if they lacked intelligence, and that the people they talk to “avoid the topic of my illness.” Further, many citizens seem to regard schizos as violent, would prefer not to have bosses (or dates) who have been treated for schizophrenia, and think the schizophrenic have split personalities.

In short, the kind of ground-breaking “news” we’ve come to depend on from USA Today.

Much relieved, I then received the following heart-wrenching letter.

Dear Miss Marshall,

My younger brother, who is slightly retarded, goes to my school, and I’m always getting in trouble for sticking up for him. A teacher told me, “You can’t get offended at EVERYTHING people say.” Well, exactly what CAN I get offended by? People talk to him as if he were crazy, and it hurts his feelings.

Fighting Mad

Dear Fighter,

You’re right, of course. It’s amazingly cruel what people will say to the retarded or the mentally ill, and schools shouldn’t put up with it. They should simply ban such language as unsuitable and not in the least humorous. I think you’re right to take matters into your own hands if the teachers and school administration won’t do their job.

If some kids, for example, are calling your brother a cretin, an idiot, or an imbecile, or even a madman, a crackbrain, a bedlamite, a loony, or a noncompos, not to mention a fool, nut, coot, lunatic, dolt, dunce, bonehead, simp, energumen, queer potato, hocky puck, noodle, mooncalf, numskull, rattlepate, fruitcake, or retard — why then, let ’em have it!

By the same token, if some of the punks think it’s funny to use the terms insane, nutty, crazy, demented, deranged, or unhinged; if they say your poor brother’s touched, far-gone, cracked, raving, barking, babbling, blithering, dithering, burbling, driveling, half-witted, slow, or simple, you should give them five across the lip.

Worse, if they intimate that your brother’s off his nut or his rocker or nuttier than a fruitcake, that he’s sharp as a bowling ball or dumb as an ox; that he has delusions of adequacy, is not playing with a full deck, lost his marbles, is quick as a tortoise on Prozac, or was behind the door when the brains were passed out — a good punch in the snoot would do a world of good.

I would say the same holds if any of the little bastards even imply that your sib fell out of the family tree or has a screw loose, that the lights are on but nobody’s home, or that if brains were dynamite he couldn’t blow his nose, or that if he were any stupider you’d have to water him twice a week, or that if you stand close enough to him you can hear the ocean. Pulverize them!

Even if your brother is proof that evolution can go in reverse, even if he stands around at school as if he were a fried chicken short of a church picnic, there’s no excuse for the sort of language those boys are using. There’s nothing funny about mental problems!

Millie

Send your query to Millicent Marshall care of Black Lamb (blacklamb63@comcast.net). Letters may be edited for length. Replies not guaranteed confidential. •

Posted by: The Editors
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