Feb. 5, 2013


by W. S. Merwin

Where it begins will remain a question
for the time being at least which is to
say for this lifetime and there is no
other life that can be this one again
and where it goes after that only one
at a time is ever about to know
though we have it by heart as one and though
we remind each other on occasion

How often may the clarinet rehearse
alone the one solo before the one
time that is heard after all the others
telling the one thing that they all tell of
it is the sole performance of a life
come back I say to it over the waters

"Sonnet" by W.S. Merwin, from Migration. © Copper Canyon Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of cartoonist John Callahan (books by this author), born in Portland, Oregon (1951). When he was an infant, a couple named Callahan adopted him from a Portland orphanage. He grew up in the city of Dalles, east of Portland. He had a strict father and was educated in Catholic schools, but he was a rebellious kid. When he was 12 years old, he stole a bottle of gin during his grandmother's wake, and soon became a serious alcoholic. When he was 21 he got drunk and accepted a ride from an equally drunk acquaintance, who crashed the car into a telephone pole going 90 miles per hour. Callahan's spine was severed and he became a quadriplegic.

That was 1972. Six years later, he said, "I knew with utter certainty that my problem was not quadriplegia, it was alcoholism." So he went to Alcoholics Anonymous, got sober, and went back to school. He was doodling during English classes at Portland State University, and he realized that he had a talent for cartooning. He started by publishing cartoons in alternative weekly newspapers, and by the mid-1980s was syndicated nationally. He was eventually syndicated in up to 300 publications.

He was an extremely controversial cartoonist, not afraid to be politically incorrect. The newspapers and magazines that published his work received constant letters from offended readers. Callahan targeted everyone, including disabled people, and many readers didn't realize that he himself was quadriplegic.

One cartoon shows a bookstore with an angry female cashier saying: "This is a feminist bookstore! There is no humor section!!!" In another, a sheriff's posse is standing around an empty wheelchair with the caption: "Don't worry, he won't get far on foot." He drew an exercise class for quadriplegics with the aerobics instructor saying: "O.K., let's get those eyeballs moving." Another, titled "A.A. in L.A." shows a man standing up and saying: "My name is Mort and I represent Chuck who's an alcoholic."

Callahan published two autobiographies, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot (1990) and Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up? (1998). He died in 2010 at the age of 59, from complications related to quadriplegia and respiratory problems.

He said: "I'm happiest when I'm offensive. I have a desire to tear people in half. I want to move people out of the suburbs of their mind. I want them to suffer, to feel something real. I have a lot of anger. I want to hurt people. At least a little."

It's the birthday of actor, director, and screenwriter Christopher Guest, born in New York City (1948). His father was a British diplomat and his mother was an executive for CBS. As a kid, he liked to look out the window and make up voices for the people who were walking by.

He went to college, spent a few years acting, and then joined the cast of National Lampoon, where his specialty was musical parodies. In 1984, he was hired for a one-year position on Saturday Night Live, and that same year he starred in This Is Spinal Tap. It was directed by Rob Reiner, but Guest and the two other stars ad libbed all the dialogue, so they are credited as writers. He played one of three members of a fictional 1960s heavy metal band called Spinal Tap, whose big hit is called "Listen to the Flower People." This Is Spinal Tap got mediocre reviews and not much attention when it first came out, but it went on to have a huge cult following. From then on, Guest used the model that had worked so well in This Is Spinal Tap — a barebones screenplay that let the actors improvise their own dialogue — and he has written, directed, and starred in several more pseudo-documentaries, often called "mockumentaries." His other "mockumentary" projects are Waiting for Guffman (1996), about a community theater in small-town Missouri; Best In Show (2000), about a competitive dog show; A Mighty Wind (2003), about aging folk singers who get together for a reunion concert; and For Your Consideration (2006), about actors who become obsessed with the rumor that they might be nominated for Academy Awards.

He said, "It's obviously inherently funnier to have in a comedy someone who isn't doing something very well."

It's the birthday of the playwright John Guare (books by this author), born in New York City in 1938. One summer he was on a family vacation in Atlantic Beach with his best friend, Bobby. The boys read an article in Life about a group of 10-year-olds who made a movie out of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer during their summer break. John and Bobby were 11 years old, and they didn't want to be outdone by some 10-year-olds, so John wrote three plays that summer, a trilogy he called Universe. He called up Life to inform them that an 11-year-old had written three plays, but they weren't interested. So he called Newsday and told them that not only had an 11-year-old written three plays, but that all the proceeds from the performances were going to be donated to the orphans of Atlantic Beach. But he didn't get a response. John and Bobby performed the plays in Bobby's garage for a week, and on the last day, a fancy black car pulled into the driveway, and in it were reporters from Newsday. They wrote up a review, and even published photos. Seeing the review in the paper was so exciting for John that he decided to become a playwright.

He went to see a play each week. And once he went to college, he started writing a play each year. He's written many plays since then, including Muzeeka (1967), The House of Blue Leaves (1971), Landscape of the Body (1977), and his best-known work, Six Degrees of Separation (1991). Six Degrees of Separation is based on a news story that Guare read about a teenage hustler who pretended to be Sidney Poitier's son and conned his way into the homes of wealthy New Yorkers.

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