Jul. 5, 2007

My Papa’s Waltz

by Theodore Roethke

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Poem: : "My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke, from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. © Random House. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

My Papa's Waltz

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the first great travel writers, George Borrow (books by this author), born in Norfolk, England (1803). By the time he was 22, he could understand 12 languages, including Welsh, Hebrew, and Danish. In 1833, he was hired by the British and Foreign Bible Society to travel all over the world distributing Bible translations, and he wrote about all the thieves, revolutionaries, gypsies, soldiers, politicians, and priests that he met along the way. His most famous book was a best seller called The Bible in Spain (1843), about his adventures in Spain while attempting to distribute Spanish translations of the Bible.

Borrow said, "I am invariably of the politics of the people at whose table I sit, or beneath whose roof I sleep."

It was on this day that in 1880 that George Bernard Shaw quit his job in order to write full time. He followed his mother to London when he was 20, hoping to make something of himself. His aunt got him a job at the Edison Telephone Company. He tried to write in his spare time, but eventually decided that he couldn't write and work at the same time. So on this day in 1880, when the Edison Telephone Company announced the consolidation with a competing firm, he used that as an excuse to quit. It was the last non-literary job he ever had.

At first, his decision seemed to be a disaster. He had to live on one pound a week from his father and whatever his mother could spare from her job as a music teacher. He spent his days in the British Museum Reading Room, reading and writing, but his first five novels were all rejected. He finally gave up on fiction and began to focus his energy on becoming a critic. It took 10 years after Shaw quit his job before he began to make a living as a critic and then began to produce the plays that made his name as a writer. He lived with his mother all that time, and she never complained about supporting him. He later said, "My mother worked for my living instead of preaching that it was my duty to work for hers; therefore take off your hat to her and blush."

It's the birthday of cartoonist Bill Watterson (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C. (1958). He created the cartoon strip "Calvin and Hobbes," which ran from 1985 until 1995. He studied political science in college, and originally planned to become a political cartoonist. He got a job at the Cincinnati Post, but his editor insisted that he focus on local politics, and Watterson couldn't get a handle on the Cincinnati political scene. He lost his job after a few months and began drawing up plans for possible comic strips, including a strip about a 6-year-old boy and his stuffed tiger. This idea caught the attention of the United Features Syndicate, but they told Watterson they would only run the strip if he would insert a "Robotman" character that could be sold as a toy.

Watterson didn't want to turn down his first possible syndication deal, but he also didn't want to give up control over his own characters. So he rejected the offer. But his strip was eventually picked up by Universal Press Syndicate.

Once the strip became wildly popular, Watterson began to get offers to license the characters for toys, T-shirts, greeting cards, and movies. He could have made millions from all the merchandising opportunities, but he decided to refuse all the offers. He said, "My strip is about private realities, the magic of imagination, and the specialness of certain friendships. [No one] would believe in the innocence of a little kid and his tiger if they cashed in on their popularity to sell overpriced knickknacks that nobody needs."

Watterson worked on the strip for 10 years, and then decided to retire and devote his time to painting. He has declined any interviews or photographs since his retirement, and hasn't shown any signs of returning to cartooning. But in 2005, he published The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, a three-volume set containing every Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that ever appeared in syndication.

Bill Watterson said, "There is not enough time to do all the nothing we want to do."

On this day in 1954 Elvis Presley recorded his first rock and roll song and his first hit, "That's All Right (Mama)," which had originally been written and recorded by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup.

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