Sunday Aug. 30, 2015

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Trying to tie my shoes, clumsy, not able to work out
the logic of it, fumbling, as my father stands there,
his anger growing over a son who can’t even do
this simplest thing for the first time, can’t even manage
the knot to keep his shoes on—You think someone’s
going to tie your shoes for you the rest of your life?
No, I answer, forty-five years later, tying my shoe,
hands trembling with this memory. My father
and all those years of childhood not being able to work out
how he loved me, a knot so tight it has taken all my life
to untie.

“Knots” by Joseph Stroud from Of This World. © Copper Canyon Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of British physicist Ernest Rutherford, born in Brightwater, New Zealand (1871). His parents moved to New Zealand, they said, “to raise a little flax and a lot of children,” and he grew up on the family farm with his 11 brothers and sisters. They were poor, and Rutherford later said that his motto was: “We haven’t the money, so we’ve got to think.” When he was 10 years old, he was given a science book, and he was so excited that he immediately began setting up scientific experiments. His first experiment was building a miniature cannon, which immediately exploded. Undeterred, he kept up his fascination with science throughout his schooling, and by the age of 23 he had three degrees from the University of New Zealand.

He headed to Cambridge University to work as a graduate research assistant — the first time someone without a degree from Cambridge had won that honor. He invented a detector for electromagnetic waves, and he described the terms “alpha” and “beta” for positively and negatively charged radiation. He discovered the concept of radioactive half-life, and that atoms of one radioactive element could spontaneously turn into another. He is probably best known for developing a model of the atom, after discovering that most of the mass of an atom is concentrated in its tiny nucleus.

Rutherford won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1908. Although honored to win the Nobel, he was irritated that he had won it in chemistry, which he considered inferior to physics.

He said, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”

It was on this day in 30 B.C. that Queen Cleopatra of Egypt killed herself with a snake she had smuggled into her chamber where she was held captive by Octavian, formerly the political rival of her lover Mark Antony. Octavian had defeated Cleopatra and Antony at the Battle of Actium and had taken Cleopatra prisoner. When Cleopatra learned that Octavian planned to parade her as part of his triumphant return to Rome, she planned her own suicide. For centuries, it was assumed that the snake she used was an asp, but it is now thought that the snake was an Egyptian cobra.

It’s the birthday of American cartoonist R. Crumb, born Robert Dennis Crumb in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1943). His father was a combat illustrator for 20 years while serving in the Marines. Crumb’s mother was addicted to diet pills. It was an unhappy marriage. The family moved to Milford, Delaware, when Crumb was 12. He was dyslexic and had a hard time reading, so he preferred television and comic books, especially Little Lulu, Donald Duck, and Peanuts. Crumb said: “There were no books in our house. There were trashy magazines: my mother read movie and detective magazines. My father read the paper and that was it.”

His older brother, Charles, taught him to draw, and they spent hours drawing their own comic, called Foo, which they tried to sell to neighbors for 10 cents apiece. Because of his dyslexia, it took Crumb a long time to write the text, which may be why his later work tended to be more “literary” than work by other cartoonists. “I take the time to think out how to articulate things,” he said.

Crumb never went to college, or to art school. He went to Cleveland, instead, and began drawing novelty greeting cards for the American Greetings Company. He met other artists like Harvey Pekar, who would someday create the comic American Splendor, and Buzzy Linhart. His interest in jazz grew; he spent weekends haunting junk shops for old 78s. He became enamored of 19th-century engravings and graphic styles, and changed his drawing technique to one of cross-hatching. He was 19 and he walked the streets in an Abe Lincoln frock coat and stovepipe hat. Crumb said: “I was a teenage social outcast. At the time, it made me feel very depressed. Later, I realized I was actually quite lucky because it freed me. I was free to develop and explore on my own all these byways of the culture that if you’re accepted, you just don’t do.”

He began taking LSD in Cleveland, which profoundly affected his style and life view. One night he met two friends in a bar and, on a whim, with just pocket change, went with them to San Francisco, where he fell in with the artists in Haight-Ashbury. He sold his comics from a baby carriage and caught the eye of Janis Joplin, who asked him to illustrate the cover for her band’s next album. Overnight, it seemed, his characters of Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat were everywhere. His most popular imagery, though, came from a Blind Boy Fuller song: the long, legged, grinning men adorned by the phrase “Keep on Truckin’,” which became the symbol of hippie optimism. Toyota offered him $100,000 to use the imagery in an ad campaign, but Crumb said no. “Keep on Truckin’!” is the curse of my life! I didn’t want to turn into a greeting card artist for the counter-culture! That’s when I started to let out all my perverse sex fantasies. It was the only way out of being America’s Best-Loved Hippie Cartoonist.”

Crumb has lived in the South of France for the past 25 years, still using Strathmore vellum surface paper and Pelikan black drawing ink. He works at an old printer’s light table and uses a magnifying glass for the details. “I work in erratic spurts. Getting started is like getting a rocket off the ground. You need the most energy and the most push to get started; once you’re up there and you’re going, then it’s easier to keep going. Sit down and pick up where you left off, you know. Getting going is always tough.”

It’s the birthday of the children’s writer and illustrator Laurent de Brunhoff (books by this author), born in Paris (1925), the son of the originator of the French Babar the Elephant King books for children. At his father’s death, Laurent took over. His father created seven Babar books, and his son created more than 40 sequels.

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