Jul. 1, 2002


by Maxine Kumin

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Poem: "Wagons," by Maxine Kumin from The Long Marriage (W.W. Norton).


Their wheelchairs are Conestoga wagons drawn
into the arc of a circle at 2 P.M.

Elsie, Gladys, Hazel, Fanny, Dora
whose names were coinage after the First World War

remember their parents tuned to the Fireside Chats,
remember in school being taught to hate the Japs.

They sit attentive as seals awaiting their fish
as the therapist sings out her cheerful directives:

Square the shoulders, lean back, straighten the knee
and lift! Tighten, lift and hold, Ladies!

They will retrain the side all but lost in a stroke,
the spinal cord mashed but not severed in traffic.

They will learn to adjust to their newly replaced
hips, they will walk on feet of shapely plastic.

This darling child in charge of their destiny
will lead them forward across the prairie.

It's the birthday of James M. Cain, born in Annapolis, Maryland (1892). He wrote the novels from which the films The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, and Double Indemnity were made. He described himself as "an ugly, Irish Catholic Mama's boy." His mother was an opera singer and his father was a professor, and they both corrected his grammar all the time. In a sort of vengeful way, his books are full of tough-talking characters who make a lot of grammatical mistakes. He worked as a reporter under H.L. Mencken and Walter Lippman, and his novels describe appalling crimes in terse, newspaper-style prose. In France, he was considered one of American's most important writers, and Albert Camus said that The Postman Always Rings Twice was the inspiration for his novel The Outsider.

It's the birthday of William Strunk, born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1869). He was an English professor at Cornell University, and he wrote a handbook for his students which he had printed in 1918, under the title The Elements of Style. Strunk never called it that himself, though. He always called it "the little book," with the emphasis on the "little." His instructions were so simple and arresting that his students remembered them for years afterward: "Vigorous writing is concise. Omit needless words. Make definite assertions." E.B. White, who took Strunk's courses while he was at Cornell, brought out a revised version of the book in 1959.

It's the birthday of Georges Sand, born Amantine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin in Paris (1804). She published dozens of novels, few of which are read now; she is remembered instead for doing just what she liked in an age where women were supposed to be timid and retiring. After the early death of her husband, she dressed in men's clothing so she could wander all over Paris alone. She had love affairs with many men, including Frederic Chopin. She wrote propaganda for the Revolution of 1848 which galvanized public opinion.

On this day in 1731, the first circulating library was established in the United States by Ben Franklin and a group of his friends. It was a subscription library - each member was to contribute a set amount of money each year, from which books from Great Britain and Europe would be purchased.

It's the birthday of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, born in Leipzig (1646). His father died when he was six, and he taught himself Greek and Latin so he could read the books his father left behind. Although he studied law, he spent his career as a librarian and an archivist in the service of noble families. He spent long stretches of time working through mathematical problems, and arrived at the methods of integral and differential calculus on his own. Newton had come to them earlier, but Leibniz published first, which infuriated Newton. He was one of the last of the great polymaths; he built an early calculating machine, did important work in geology, hydraulics, philosophy and theology.

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