Displaying articles for: July 2012

Man vs. Man


Two works stand alone together as the greatest books about the violent speech of human beings, and only one of them is The Nedley Papers, by Scott Zibsendale. The other is Gordon Grewer's Sticks, Stones, and the Dawn of Human Speech, which swept up the Caldecott award, the Newbery, and several other prizes for children's literature when it was entered with a fake slip-on cover to test whether the judges were actually reading the books. Both of these works explore the  theme of man versus man, especially The Nedley Papers, which is about boxing. The issue in both is how verbal violence exists within physical violence, and how written words, and the alphabet itself, are hieroglyphics of cruelty. Yet the books differ significantly: Grewer's concludes that humans will forever succumb to violent impulses, while, on the other hand, Zibsendale's biography ends with the classic line "Maybe boxing is outdated. Maybe touching in general. Maybe everything is outdated and we should just stop it. "(544. Mystifyingly repeated, all by itself, on 546). 

Sticks, Stones ... makes a bold statement at the outset: "The first words, unintelligible to all but the speaker, were an insult" (1). At the beginning of The Nedley Papers, Zibsendale talks about his first visit to Herb Nedley, in the 1920s, and says he was "speaking incoherently about immigrants and their fancy upbringings" (1). There is a profoundly meaningful connection between these two openings, because they both involve speech that is not understood by the listener.  And both proceed to mention arguing, during which understanding dawns on those present and leads to hostile, competitive feelings. Then punching happens in The Nedley Papers, while Grewer describes the outcome of Joan of Arc’s hilarious “crusted loins” remark before her accusers. And then finally both authors end with their conclusions, as one might expect.


Man vs. man conflict is strongest in Zibsendale’s chapter titled “The First Friend,” in which two teenage orphans are let loose in the streets of Cincinnati. After a week of unsuccessful work (dancing for gin), the boys decide to stage fights and let people pay to watch: “I invented boxing,” Nedley claims (383). During the first fight, the smaller orphan beats the bigger one to death and then turns his parentless wrath on a nearby bag-lady, whose corpse was buried in a pauper’s grave but was exhumed many years later, at Nedley’s request, to be preserved in a stance of baffled victimization. Only at the end of the book do we find out the smaller orphan was Nedley, and that the larger one was his blind brother Gordon (544).

Conflict is established in the foreword of Sticks, Stones... when Grewer describes meeting his publishers to discuss the finished manuscript. “The fat one said my book had too much padding, so I said his face had too much padding. Then, with tears in my eyes I reached over the desk in a gesture of apology, took his hand, and, for reasons I cannot explain, brought it down on his own paper spindle, which went clean through the other side of his pudgy palm”(xi). This anecdote sheds light on Grewer’s confrontational writing style, which was denounced by Sports Illustrated as “the product of a bad attitude.” Grewer also relates the “spindle story” so readers know why the publisher is insulted several times in every chapter. 


Unlikely as it may seem, Nedley turns out to be a hero in The Nedley Papers, and the book becomes quite nice, actually. Grewer sustains his antagonistic tone throughout the book, describing Native American tribes in which children strike their own elders and the British custom of hampering one another's esprit. While Zibsendale applauds a young Nedley standing up to the vicious Italian baker who splashes rancid milk in his face (26), Grewer appraises a similar retaliation scene involving two Confederate soldiers and some taffy as “something a fat-faced chairweight of a publisher would be too lazy to stop” (91).

In conclusion, The Nedley Papers and Sticks, Stones, and the Dawn of Human Speech are two of a kind, but not without their subtle differences. For instance, the books were published eighty years apart and make different claims as to which religion is the true path. The subject of verbal violence shared by these two books is best summed up in Herb Nedley’s introductory Glossary: “ 'On the Isle of Man, Fo-then'  means 'I feel like destroying you.' Could be the last word you ever hear, 'Fo-then.' Next words, which you don't hear:  'This guy is dead”(xviii).  Verbal and physical violence remain difficult to halt, despite the longstanding efforts of legal codes and moral systems: The topic will fascinate the young and horrify the elderly for a long time to come. And then, “eventually,” as the philosophers say, another Grewer or a different version of Nedley will persuade the world to put to rest its bludgeonings, its maimings. Its hurtings.


Carl Foster is a graduate student who lives in New Orleans with his deaf chihuahua. He writes for literary journals and newspapers, and is at work on another chilling tale.



Onerous Word Problems


"In another study...[we] conducted an experiment ostensibly about music perception -- but that actually investigated how feelings of compassion might be increased.... We paired up participants in teams: one real participant and one confederate. First, they had to tap their hands on sensors to tones played over earphones. In some cases the tones led them to tap their hands in synchrony; in other cases, the tones led them to tap their hands in a random mismatching manner. We next had the participants watch their tapping partner get cheated by another confederate, which resulted in the partner's erroneously being assigned to complete a stack of onerous word problems." -- From an essay in the New York Times

Abstract: In our most recent experiment here at the Experimental Experiment Group, the results of which are about to be reported in next month's Journal of Incredibly Complicated Psychological Experiments, we asked two participants and two confederates to leave a room that was equipped with undetectable motion sensors and surveillance cameras. Both confederates had been told about the sensors and the cameras, but none of them knew that the other had been told.


The participants and confederates were led into the main room. They eyed each other warily. The two of us experimenters eyed each other warily, also, because we had designed the experiment so that we wouldn't know completely what the other was up to. In fact, it wasn't entirely clear at this point which were the participants and which were the confederates. This hadn't exactly been in the original plan but once realized it had worked out that way, we were like: OK, this is a little freaky but what the hell.


There were four doors to the room, each door leading to a corridor (with surveillance cameras) that ended in another room, where the confederates would be isolated until they decided to return to the main room. While in the isolation room, each confederate (at this point it felt safer just to presume everybody was a confederate) was asked to solve some onerous word problems. Each confederate knew that some of the confederates were confederates, but no confederate knew that he himself was a confederate. (We used all males, as we wanted to avoid pronoun complexities at the outset. We will run the same experiment next week with four women and the week after that with two men and two women, so back off!)


The two of us who were running the experiment had the choice to tell all of the confederates that a pint of gourmet cookie dough ice cream (confederates were left to imagine what brand it would be, which we thought might be useful for another experiment) and three million dollars -- a gift from the Garment Foundation -- would await the person who came into the room last. But neither of us running the experiment knew if the other had chosen to tell the confederates about this reward or not. Which, perhaps, was the point. That's for you to figure out.


Results: All four confederates left their isolation rooms, having ignored the onerous word problems. Why shouldn't they ignore them? Wouldn't you? Instead they hovered near the supposed reward room. But the doors were closed and the room was soundproof, so that this effort to game the experiment couldn't work. You should have seen them, with their ears to the door and all. Biting their nails, muttering, reaching for the doorknob, then pulling it back. We are talking three million dollars, here, plus ice cream. (Of course there was no three million dollars and just a puddle of indifferent vanilla in a dirty dish, but the confederates didn't know that. Or at least, not from me.) Reaching, pulling back, reaching, pulling back. We had to laugh. They stayed there for hours. Then days. Three million, they were thinking. Finally they all passed out from dehydration and had to be taken to the Emergency Room, where their fellow-patients who were not comatose were asked to solve some onerous word problems. They all refused.


Methodological Note: All of the onerous word problems were sourced from The Big Book of Brain Bafflers, which was acquired at a Society for Ethical Culture tag sale and which everybody in the psych faculty lounge agrees is about as onerous a collection as they come. There is one about trying to get two chickens and a hungry weasel across a river that we're still not sure can be solved.


Conclusions: Higher cognitive functions such as logical problem-solving ability may be adversely affected by a number of factors, including dehydration and a phenomenon we're tentatively calling "Frustrated Reward Expectation." We hope to refine and further test these findings with our next experiment, which involves a diamond necklace, extended sensory deprivation, and this really weird peg-jumping puzzle purchased at the rest stop just past Exit 54.


Daniel Menaker is the editor of Grin & Tonic.


Moon Birds for Eternity


Eternity defies man's imagination and comprehension. It is not an object (in the way that this small, tri-fold leaflet printed on cornflower-blue bond paper is an object), nor is it a place (in the way that the northeast corner of 57th and Lexington in front of the Au Bon Pain where you accepted this leaflet from a bearded man in a plaid bow-tie and knit wool watch cap is a place); it is not a period of time -- such as the 36 hours that this leaflet will spend in your jacket pocket before you take it out to read it, somewhere where no one can see you (another place!). Eternity has no beginning and it has no end. This free leaflet about Eternity, to the contrary, has a beginning, which is now coming to a close, and an end, which is still several paragraphs off and on a different panel.


Man is a creature of time -- he tells time, takes his time, and keeps time. Some men bide time; others waste time; still others kill time. A lot of people wish they could stop time, especially when they have a dentist appointment, but time marches on, in this particular example accompanied by the whine of the drill. Yet time, as important as it is, has no relation to Eternity. Eternity is unique and incomparable. It has no measurable length, breadth, depth, nor heighth. It offers no opportunity to change our eternal destinies chosen for us by the Ruler, for it is everlastingly the same. It does not care whether you put an -h at the end of "height", for Eternity is not concerned with Spelling.


With the end of time, Eternity will reveal many wonders and miracles that cannot be understood in our day. When the Ruler returns all eyes shall see him (Dissemination 1:7). He will sit on a throne and "all nations" shall be gathered before Him in judgment (Michmethah 25:31; Thesmothetians 5:10). The skeptic finds such scenarii impossible. And that's understandable, since "all eyes" means billions of eyes -- those of every land and sea creature, the resurrected dead as well as the living, including zombies, but only the good kind. It boggles the mind to think of all nations gathered as one before the judgment throne -- especially when you realize how difficult it is to get representatives from the 193 member states to convene in the General Assembly of the United Nations without causing severe traffic problems in Midtown Manhattan, not far from where you first came into possession of this leaflet. Those who think it incredible, however, must remember that time will have fled and Eternity has no limitations. In other words, to put it in layman's terms, Eternity has all day.


After the judgment every man shall be rewarded according to the theretofore unseen and unknown (except by the author of this leaflet) records in the Book of Life kept almost impeccably by the Ruler (Discombobulation 20:12). The term "reward," as used here, means a recompense for good acts performed reasonably conscientiously. Notwithstanding the foregoing, no provision in this leaflet shall be construed to constitute a guarantee of any reward, either earthly or eternal. Cash value of leaflet 1/100 of one cent. Leaflet is a bearer instrument.


If a bird were to pick up one grain of sand and carry it to the moon, and in that fashion eventually carry all of Earth away, Eternity would still have just begun, but would be no nearer the end. (Think about that. Also think about this: Earth's moon was in fact formed in precisely the fashion just described, according to recent scientific findings, published in a separate, peer-review leaflet). For the wicked, this is the most distressing thought possible (the one about Eternity being a long time, not the one about birds making moons). However, for the righteous, who will be in Eternal bliss in Heaven, it will always be welcome. The righteous in Heaven, moreover, will be able to watch alien birds from other, younger planets making new moons in 3D!


Now in life -- when else, you might ask -- while there is yet time, our Eternal destinies can be decided. Are you ready for Eternity? This question demands your answer immediately. Today is the time to prepare for Eternity. If you are on your way into the Au Bon Pain, perhaps you will sit down at a table with your raspberry cheese croissant and coffee and ponder your fate; if you are leaving the Au Bon Pain, headed into work, maybe there will be a meeting today during which you can zone out for a bit.


Where Will You Spend Eternity?


"Eternity, n. (pl. -ties): Infinite or unending time; a state to which time has no application; timelessness ('Jeremy spent an eternity trying to explain why he was late.') -- anon."


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Matthew David Brozik strives to arrange words and symbols in persuasive and/or humorous combinations. More of his work can be read at www.imdb.name.


July 28: Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin eloped on this day in 1814.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

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Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.


When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).