Lennon Had McCartney, Curious George’s Hans Rey Had Margaret Rey, and I Had My Best Friend, Jim.
For 15 Years My Best Friend and I Supported One Another’s Work. Then I Invited Him to Help Me Create Science and Design Projects for Children. It Would Be Our Last Creative Endeavor.
When Leonardo’s Science Workshop was published on January 1, 2019, I was caring for my best friend, Jim, who was fighting for his life. An inventor and entrepreneur who applied his own artistry to rock (as in sandstone) and drumming (as in rock and roll), Jim Striggow was my partner. And because Leonardo’s Science Workshop is about the blend of innovation, science and design, no one else in my world but Jim could have assisted me so well.
Jim read every word of Leonardo’s Science Workshop before I sent it to my editor. He had neither formal training in prose writing nor professional editorial experience. So where had he developed the skill to be able to advise me?
Jim once had read all of Shakespeare, he said, in order to not take a drink, and, over a few weeks in his early twenties, had read all of Tolkien while mending a broken heart. He had an affinity for literature. From his public school education he fondly looked back on just two teachers, his high band instructor and his English teacher, Miss Rowlandson. He remembered her encouraging his nonconformist questions and perspectives. He recalled her unconventional appearance: long, red hair and long dresses, the hems flaring and flowing as she walked the school halls. When he visited her class sometime after graduating high school, she asked him to make a social statement for students about his long hair, now well past the school-enforced length of 1 inch above the collar. The year was 1969 or 1970. I imagine she adored seeing her former top student.
Jim was a songwriter and the drummer for his band, Skyhook. (Don’t confuse this with the Australian Christian rock bank, Skyhooks.) Jim’s songs, which made it onto now-classic 45s, included “Handout” and “Blast Off.” DJs around Detroit gave airtime to the band and Jim’s tunes. One DJ considered managing Skyhook, but backed out after he asked his secretary to read the palm of each member of the band. Over the heads of the young men, their palms upturned to have their fortunes read, the secretary made eye contact with her boss, then gave a quick head shake to say she saw neither money nor fame. From a palm reading a business decision was made.
Skyhook had its fan base in Holly, MI, and groupies watched the band practice through the storefront of the building where bandmates also lived. In the gathering of hippies and wayward wives was an undercover detective on payroll with the local police to keep the Skyhook crowd under surveillance for drugs. The police recruit was awful at being a narc, however, because he became a Skyhook fan and Jim’s friend.
Skyhook eventually gained proper management and a professional critique of its stage presence. Jim may have used that experience to coach me when I was asked in 2014 to deliver a talk at TEDx Boca Raton. He was my toughest coach. He was the one-man audience to my practice sessions, and when his coaching had tired me to tears, he would insist I start from the beginning and deliver the talk again. He knew from life that strong outcomes need relentless attention, and so he was my TED Talk taskmaster. Some say I nailed that talk; others have told me I made them cry. Reactions to the talk notwithstanding, my contribution to that TED conference I credit to Jim.When Jim passed away in March, I lost my best friend. Now as I step back into professional life, I realize, with his passing, I also have lost my creative partner. For Leonardo’s Science Workshop he not only read every word, but was my photo and lab assistant. When you look at the back cover and see the homemade parachute against the clear, blue sky, imagine the man who dropped the parachute from the roof of a two-story house﹘over and over﹘until I felt I had the “beauty shot” the book needed (from the roof the drop is a quick, 5 seconds).
In chapter 5, “Rocks and Stars,” those are Jim’s hands on page 130, camouflaged in rubber gloves, revealing the do-it-yourself comet. It was a day in early summer, and Jim and I had just made a cosmic snowball. We were elated. It was one for Leonarodo’s Science Workshop. Doing the project made us happy, and we wanted everyone to make their own near-Earth impactor. Why not?
Late one night in spring 2018 I finished writing Leonardo’s Science Workshop. Chapter 3, “One Energy Source Flows to the Next,” was the last section I wrote and it felt gravely important because of the reality of climate change. The chapter includes narratives about energy conservation and renewable energy sources. I wrote the section on electromagnetism and how to create a small generator to create an electromagnetic field and emailed these to Jim. He read the pages yet that night.
And changed nothing.
“This has been my favorite part,” he said. “I like this section the best.” What about changes and edits, I asked. My taskmaster had none.
He was taking his hands away.
And turning his creativity to three music compositions, drum solos that he recorded between April and June 2018.
We did not know then that Jim had stage IV gastric cancer or that it already had metastasized to his bones. Perhaps it is more accurate to say I did not know. Jim knew something was wrong. The drum compositions were his own requiem.
For six months he had been back and forth to his primary care physician, a person he had trusted for 30 years, to report pain in his ribs, his spine, his hips. Always he was sent away with advice to see a physical therapist or get steroid injections in his spine or to exercise more. We went nowhere without an ice pack to numb his pain.
After more than nine months of his doctor looking for a second opinion, then going on vacation, then seeking a third opinion, we had a diagnosis. And the pain points Jim had felt for months would be addressed with radiation and chemotherapy. Chasing cancer pain would now be our focus.
I could write a book about Jim. And I might. He was creative and sometimes a genius. He invented the sippable hot cup lid, making it safer for people the world over to drink hot coffee while driving and walking and everything else.His creation, the Rock Garden, has beautified a section of Fort Collins, Colorado, that people exclaim over when hearing where I am from, not knowing that Jim was the project’s visionary and force, nor of the relationship we have shared. When I met Ira Flatow in June at BookCon 2019 for our panel discussion on the Creativity and Inspiration of Science and Math, the first thing he said to me was, Hey, how about that great Stonehenge-like park in Fort Collins. “Ira,” I said, “you’re not going to believe this, but . . .” and told him how the garden began on graph paper at my kitchen table.
So as you peruse and delve into Leonardo’s Science Workshop — when you make a comet or a wind-up dragonfly, do the electron dance or write with rainbow light — know that behind the scenes was a writer and photographer and her best friend, a man who himself, as with Leonardo da Vinci, blended art and engineering with science and design.