Tuesday Jan. 26, 2016

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“Cold as the moon,” he’d mutter
In the January of 5 A.M. and 15 below
As he tried to tease the old Chev into greeting
One more misanthropic morning.

It was an art (though he never
Used that curious word) as he thumped
The gas pedal and turned the key
So carefully while he held his breath
And waited for the sharp jounce
And roar of an engaged engine.

“Shoulda brought in the battery last night.”
“Shoulda got up around midnight
And turned it over once.”

It was always early rising as he’d worked
A lifetime “in every damn sort
Of damn factory.” Machines were
As natural to him as dogs and flowers.
A machine, as he put it, “was sensible.”

I was so stupid about valves and intakes
He thought I was some religious type.
How had I lived as long as I had
And remained so out of it?
And why had I moved of my own free will
To a place that prided itself
On the blunt misery of January?

“No way to live,” he’d say as he poked
A finger into the frozen throat
Of an unwilling carburetor.
His breath hung in the air
Like a white balloon.

Later on the way to the town where
We worked while the heater
Wheezed fitfully and the windshield
Showed indifference to the defroster
He’d turn to me and say that
The two best things in this world
Were hot coffee and winter sunrises.
The icy road beckoned to no one,
Snow began to drift down sleepily,
The peace of servitude sighed and dreamed.

“January” by Baron Wormser from Mulroney and Others. © Sarabande Books, 2000. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of cartoonist, novelist, and playwright Jules Feiffer (books by this author), born in the Bronx in 1929 — the year the Great Depression began, but also the year that several comic strips like Tarzan and Buck Rogers were born. Money was tight and his mother helped feed the family by drawing fashion designs and selling them for three dollars apiece. Feiffer hated going with his mother to look at the shop windows along Fifth Avenue and thought she was dragging him along just to torture him. She always encouraged him to draw, and gave him a drawing table for his room when he was 13.

After working for 10 years as an apprentice to cartoonist Will Eisner, Feiffer’s first solo professional gig came when The Village Voice hired him to pen a weekly strip called Feiffer. It was one of the first comic strips to deal with adult themes like sex and politics, and it ran for 42 years. His cartoons are collected in books such as Sick, Sick, Sick: A Guide to Non-Confident Living (1958), Feiffer’s Marriage Manual (1967), and Feiffer on Nixon: The Cartoon Presidency (1974). He’s also worked on several children’s books, a few novels, and some plays and screenplays — including the script for the 1971 Mike Nichols film Carnal Knowledge.

Feiffer turns 87 today, and he says that physical limitations have changed his occupation somewhat. “You can’t write a play and not hear it,” he said. “So the natural instinct was to pull together all of the forms that I have loved.” The end result was a noir graphic novel, Kill My Mother (2014). Reviewer Alan Cheuse likened it to “watching some lost Raymond Chandler film with a script by William Faulkner.” Feiffer said, “Each one of the 149 pages, I would sit down and say, ‘I’m not qualified to do this.’ And then I’d have to prove myself wrong. Every day was an act of excitement and an act of terror.”

It’s the birthday of British playwright Christopher Hampton (books by this author), born in Faial in the Azores archipelago (1946). His father was an engineer for a British communications company and was sent all over the world. His parents were interested in sports and social events. Hampton said, “I was the odd one out in the family, this small boy with thick glasses who read all the time.” He went to Oxford, studied modern languages — and wrote a play, When Did You Last See My Mother? It was performed at Oxford and made its way to the West End, and at the age of 20, Hampton was the youngest playwright ever to have a play produced on the West End.

He continued to write plays, including the comedy The Philanthropist when he was 23. Hampton said: “I had a conversation with my agent after The Philanthropist. She said, ‘You’ve got a choice: You can write the same play over and over for the next 30 years, and you’ll probably get even better at it, or you can decide to do something completely different every time.’ So I said, ‘As a matter of fact, I have started writing a play about the extermination of the Brazilian Indians in the 1960s.’ And she said, ‘Well, that’ll do it, dear.’”

He wrote the movie Dangerous Liaisons and also about 20 films that never got produced. He co-wrote the book and lyrics for the musical Sunset Boulevard, adapted Chekhov’s The Seagull for the stage, wrote the screenplay for the film Atonement (2007), adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel; and translated several plays by French playwright Yasmina Reza, including ‘Art’ (1994) and God of Carnage (2006).

It’s the birthday of comedian Ellen DeGeneres (books by this author), born in Metairie, Louisiana (1958). Her older brother, Vance, was considered the funny one in the family; Ellen wanted to be a veterinarian. But when she was 13 and her parents divorced, she found that her jokes cheered up her grieving mother: “My mother was going through some really hard times and I could see when she was really getting down, and I would start to make fun of her dancing,” DeGeneres later said. “Then she’d start to laugh and I’d make fun of her laughing. And she’d laugh so hard she’d start to cry, and then I’d make fun of that. So I would totally bring her from where I’d seen her start going into depression to all the way out of it.” She began to see the healing power of humor.

When DeGeneres was 21, she fell in love with Kathy Perkoff, a 23-year-old poet. Perkoff was killed in a car accident, and Ellen turned once again to comedy as a coping strategy. She wrote a monologue called “A Phone Call to God,” and performed it at her first stand-up gig in New Orleans. It was a big hit and launched her comedic career. A booking agent from The Tonight Show caught her act at the Improv in Hollywood, and host Johnny Carson invited her to appear on the late-night talk show in 1986. This led to appearances on the talk show circuit and, in the mid-1990s, her own eponymous sitcom.

The show was a solid hit, but in 1997, it attracted some attention — not all of it positive — when DeGeneres’s character came out as a lesbian. One affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama, refused to air the episode, and several sponsors withdrew their support. The episode won an Emmy, but the show was canceled the following year. DeGeneres launched her own successful daytime talk show in 2003. She’s also written a number of books, most recently Home (2015). She lent her voice to the Disney hit Finding Nemo (2003) and reprises her role as the forgetful blue tang fish in Finding Dory, which comes out later this year.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®