Monday Feb. 15, 2016

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Hope and Love

All winter
the blue heron
slept among the horses.
I do not know
the custom of herons,
do not know
if the solitary habit
is their way,
or if he listened for
some missing one—
not knowing even
that was what he did—
in the blowing
sounds in the dark,
I know that
hope is the hardest
love we carry.
He slept
with his long neck
folded, like a letter
put away.

“Hope and Love” by Jane Hirshfield from The Lives of the Heart. © Harper Perennial, 1997. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is 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 said, “In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.”

It’s the birthday of songwriter Harold Arlen, born Hyman Arluck in Buffalo, New York in 1905. He wrote over 400 songs, including “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Stormy Weather,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” and “Over the Rainbow.” “Over the Rainbow” was the last song he wrote for the movie The Wizard of Oz, and it came to him on a rainy day as he was driving down Sunset Boulevard in his convertible.

It’s the birthday of Susan B. Anthony, born in Adams, Massachusetts (1820). She was one of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, and her plainspoken, hard-hitting speeches rallied people around her cause. One time a fan wrote a poem in her honor, and she replied: “I find in a very handsome lavender envelope a poem inscribed on lavender paper, addressed to Susan B. Anthony. Since I know nothing of the merits of poetry, I am not able to pass any opinion upon this, but I can see that ‘reap’ and ‘deep,’ ‘prayers’ and ‘bears,’ ‘ark’ and ‘dark,’ ‘true’ and ‘grew’ do rhyme, and so I suppose it is a splendid effort, but if you had written it in plain prose, I could have understood it a great deal better and read it a great deal more easily. Nevertheless, I am thankful to you for poetizing over me — although the fact is that I am the most prosaic, matter-of-fact creature that ever drew the breath of life.”

It’s the birthday of cartoonist Art Spiegelman (books by this author), born in Stockholm, Sweden (1948). He grew up in Queens with his parents, who were Holocaust survivors. Before he even knew how to read, he would page through Mad magazine, and he said that he wanted to be a cartoonist “when I found out cartoons were drawn by people.” He began publishing cartoons in local papers. When he was a teenager, a scout from the United Features Syndicate approached Spiegelman about drawing a syndicated comic, but he turned them down. His parents wanted him to be a dentist, but to his father’s disappointment, he went to college to study art and philosophy. He was hired by the Topps bubblegum company as an artist and creative consultant, and he spent the next two decades designing packages, stickers, and cards for them. They gave him free rein to apply his cartooning talent; he said, “Topps was my Medici.”

He traveled around the country, drawing his cartoons from the drafting table in his van. He said that he began “taking LSD as casually as some of my contemporaries now drop antacids.” At the age of 20, he had a breakdown and spent a month in a mental institution. There, he hoarded objects — little pieces of string, scraps of paper, paper clips, and trash. He realized later that he was behaving just like his father, Vladek, who had developed the habit while he was in Auschwitz and had never been able to get over it. He said, “It was an attempt to find an extreme experience that would help me to understand him better.” Shortly after his release, his mother committed suicide. The relationship between Spiegelman and his father grew even more distant. A few years later, he published his first directly autobiographical comic, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” about his mother’s suicide. He wrote: “As an art form the comic strip is barely in its infancy. So am I. Maybe we’ll grow up together.”

In 1978, he was 30 years old, and he felt ready to take on a longer-format piece — a comic that could have the weight of a novel. He was struck by a comment that a film professor friend of his had made: that in early racist cartoons from the silent film era, African-Americans were drawn in a style similar to how mice were drawn in cat-and-mouse cartoons. He couldn’t speak for African-Americans, but he thought the parallel also applied to the depiction of Jews, especially after he discovered a Nazi propaganda film depicting Jews as rats. So he tried out drawing a three-page comic about his father as a mouse, set partially in “Mauschwitz.” The concept stuck with Spiegelman, and he decided to expand it into a graphic novel — a work that would portray the horrors of life in Nazi Germany, but also give an unsentimental portrayal of his difficult relationship with his father decades later. He visited concentration camps in Europe, talked with Holocaust survivors, did painstaking research, and conducted more than 40 hours of interviews with his father. In his comic, he depicted the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, the Poles as pigs, etc. He said: “It’s crazy to divide things down the nationalistic or racial or religious lines. And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? These metaphors, which are meant to self-destruct in my book — and I think they do self-destruct — still have a residual force.”

When he finished his book, Maus, no one wanted to publish it. It was turned down by almost all of the major New York publishers, accompanied by letters praising the work but explaining that it was too unpleasant, too odd, or impossible to sell. Spiegelman and his wife, Françoise Mouly, published it in their own underground comics magazine, Raw. Finally Pantheon paid him a small advance. When it came out, Maus (1986) was a huge hit, both commercially and critically, as was Maus II (1991).

His other work includes In the Shadow of No Towers (2004) and Breakdowns (2008).

It’s the birthday of American cartoonist Matt Groening (books by this author), best known for creating The Simpsons, the irascible cartoon family from Springfield. Groening was born in Portland, Oregon (1954), the middle of five children, and the son of a filmmaker and cartoonist named Homer.

It was while working at a pizza store in Los Angeles in the early ’70s that he began drawing and selling a comic called Life in Hell, about a pathetic, oppressed rabbit named Binky. He’d been using the comic as a way to describe his life in L.A. to friends who lived elsewhere.

He was writing a music column for the Los Angeles Reader, but he hated it because pop stars annoyed him, so he made each column up and apologized the next week. But his editor loved Life in Hell and let him do that instead of the music column. The strip proved so popular that Groening was able to publish several books, including School is Hell (1987), Childhood is Hell (1988), and The Big Book of Hell (1990). James L. Brooks, a Hollywood producer and writer, loved the strip and asked Groening to adapt it as a series of shorts for his new television show, The Tracey Ullman Show. But Groening refused; he thought if the show tanked, he’d lose the rights to the comic. Besides, he said, “I think human beings resonate with audiences more than bunnies, but who knows?” Instead, he created a dysfunctional family and named everyone, except the punky son Bart, after the members of his own family: Homer, Marge, Maggie, Lisa, Patty. “Bart” is an anagram for “brat.” The Simpsons debuted in 1987 on The Tracey Ullman Show and became a hit. It was spun off in 1989 and is now the longest-running animated show in the history of television.

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