Sunday Feb. 15, 2015

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On Approaching Seventy

Watching the hands of my son
kneading challah dough
on the maple cutting board
in my kitchen, a memory

rises of my mother
bending over our kitchen table
in Flatbush, pressing, stretching,
folding flour, water, eggs

into a living elastic.
Sometimes in my dreams, Mom
appears, whispers of her mother
in her kitchen in Zurawno

in the pre-dawn dark,
by the light of the kerosene
lamp, pulling and pushing
the yeasty challah dough

until my son covers it
with a clean white cloth
and leaves it in the warm
electric oven to rise.

“On Approaching Seventy” by Joan Seliger Sidney from Bereft and Blessed. © Antrim House Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1764 that the city of St. Louis was founded by the businessman Pierre Laclède and his 14-year-old stepson, Auguste Chouteau. Auguste's abusive father had abandoned him and his mother, Marie Thérèse Chouteau, and she and Pierre Laclède lived together in a common-law marriage. Laclede taught young Auguste about his business, and he brought him on his journey up the Mississippi to establish a trading post at the place where the Mississippi and Missouri came together. They stayed at a French fort about 50 miles south of what is now St. Louis, and looked for land. In November of 1763, Laclède found the place he wanted, a limestone bluff, and he marked trees and then went back to the fort for the winter. The river broke up in February, and young Auguste Chouteau and 30 workers went back to the spot to start clearing land on this day in 1764. There is some debate about whether it was February 14th or 15th, or another day altogether. Chouteau's son Gabriel said that the inaugural day was on the 14th, but Chouteau's own recollection of the event — albeit 40 years after it had taken place — listed the date as the 15th. Chouteau went on to become the most prominent citizen of the quickly growing St. Louis — he started out as a fur trader, and soon moved into banking and real estate.

It's the birthday of scientist and writer Galileo Galilei, born in Pisa, Italy (1564), who defended the scientific belief that the Earth was not the center of the Universe and was tried by the Roman Inquisition for heresy. He once prophesied that, in the future, "There will be opened a gateway and a road to a large and excellent science into which minds more piercing than mine shall penetrate to recesses still deeper."

Galileo was a mathematics professor at Padua when he first heard about a new invention from the Netherlands, the telescope. When he couldn't get his hands on one to even look at, he worked out the mechanics on his own. The spyglass everyone had been talking about could magnify objects to three times their original size. The instrument Galileo made with lenses he ground himself, magnified all the way up to 20 times. He was able to see the valleys and mountains of the moon, the Milky Way, and to discover four moons of Jupiter. In 1610, Galileo published the story of his telescope and the results of his studies as The Starry Messenger.

Galileo had been corresponding with German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who also believed that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the solar system. Kepler had been urging Galileo to go public with his theories for years and, though Galileo was tried and convicted by the Church for heresy, he was never tortured or excommunicated as the dominant narrative goes—in reality, he remained a loyal Catholic his entire life.

It's the birthday of comic book artist and writer Art Spiegelman (books by this author), born in Stockholm, Sweden (1948), the son of Holocaust survivors, who both suffered from depression and terrible nightmares.

The Spiegelmans moved to Queens, New York, where the boy fell in love with the art of Mad magazine and developed a passionate interest in comics and cartooning. By age 14, he'd sold his first piece of art to the Long Island Post.

When he was twenty, Spiegelman's mother committed suicide. He wrote an autobiographical comic strip about her and her depression and death. The experience was tremendously liberating and Spiegelman began to think about creating a comic about the Holocaust, with the Jews drawn as mice and the Nazis drawn as cats. As he later said, "Almost as soon as it hit me, I began to recognize the obvious historical antecedents — how Nazis had spoken of Jews as 'vermin,' and plotted their 'extermination'."

Those comic strips were collected and published in two volumes: Maus: A Survivor's Tale - My Father Bleeds History (1986) and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began (1991). The books told his father's story of surviving Auschwitz, as well as the relationship that developed between father and son as Spiegelman worked on the books. They were extremely successful and, in 1992, Spiegelman became one of the first cartoonists to receive the Pulitzer Prize for his work.

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