Jun. 26, 2011

The Immutable Laws

by Maxine Kumin

Never buy land on a slope, my father declared
the week before his heart gave out.
We bit down hard on a derelict dairy farm
of tilting fields, hills, humps and granite outcrops.

Never bet what you can't afford to lose,
he lectured. I bet my soul on a tortured horse
who never learned to love, but came to trust me.

Spend your money close to where you earn it,
he dictated. Nothing made him crosser
than wives who drove to New York to go shopping
when Philly stores had everything they needed.

This, the grab bag of immutable laws
circa 1940 when I was the last
child left at home to be admonished:

Only borrow what you know you can repay.
Your mother used to run up dress-shop bills
the size of the fifth Liberty Loan,
his private hyperbole. It took me years

to understand there'd been five loans
launched to finance the First World War,
the one he fought in, the war to end all wars.

What would this man who owed no man, who kept
his dollars folded in a rubber band,
have thought of credit cards, banking online?
Wars later, clear as water, I hear him say

reconcile your checkbook monthly, and oh!
always carry a clean handkerchief.

"The Immutable Laws" by Maxine Kumin, from Where I Live: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010. © W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Pearl S. Buck (books by this author), born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker in Hillsboro, West Virginia (1892). Her parents were Presbyterian missionaries to China. The family was visiting the United States for a few months' furlough, and when Pearl was three months old, they returned to Zhenjiang in eastern China, where Pearl grew up. She learned to speak Chinese even before she spoke English, and didn't really comprehend that she was a foreigner until she was about eight and the family fled to Shanghai because of the Boxer Uprising. She went to a boarding school in Shanghai when she was 15, and then to Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia, where she studied psychology. She returned to China after graduation, to teach and to care for her ailing mother.

She married John Lossing Buck, an agricultural economist and missionary, in 1917. In 1920, they had a daughter, Carol, who was profoundly developmentally disabled, and in 1925 they adopted another little girl, Janice. In March 1927, the family was caught up in the "Nanking Incident," when Communist forces captured the city where they were living. They hid in a shack in a neighbor's yard while their home was ransacked and most of their belongings, including her novel-in-progress, were destroyed. Buck wrote about it in her memoir, My Several Worlds (1954): "There is something to be said for losing one's possessions, after nothing can be done about it. I had loved my Nanking home and the little treasures it had contained, the lovely garden I had made, my life with friends and students. Well, that was over. I had nothing at all now except the old clothes I stood in. I should have felt sad, and I was quite shocked to realize that I did not feel sad at all. On the contrary, I had a lively sense of adventure merely at being alive and free, even of possessions." The Bucks remained in China until 1934; in 1935, they divorced after 18 mostly unhappy years of marriage. Pearl bought a farmhouse in Pennsylvania and married her publisher, Richard Walsh, later that year; the couple adopted six more children.

Buck began publishing her stories in magazines like The Nation and Atlantic Monthly in the 1920s. Her first novel, East Wind, West Wind, was published in 1930, and her second, The Good Earth, followed in 1931. The Good Earth was the best-selling book of 1931 and 1932; it won the Pulitzer and the Howell Medal, and was made into a movie by MGM in 1937. She wrote two sequels to this, her best-known work: Sons (1933) and A House Divided (1935). The trilogy was published as a single volume, The House of Earth, in 1935. She was at work on a fourth book in the series when she died in 1973.

She was active in so many social causes, including civil rights and women's rights, that the FBI kept a file on her for years. James Michener said of her: "She was a spokesman on all sorts of issues: freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the adoptability of disadvantaged children, the future of China, especially the battle for women's rights, for education. If you followed in her trail, as I did, you were put in touch with almost every major movement in the United States — intellectual, social, and political."

She was featured on the radio program This I Believe in 1951, and she said: "Like Confucius of old, I am absorbed in the wonder of earth, and the life upon it, and I cannot think of heaven and the angels. I have enough for this life. If there is no other life, than this one has been enough to make it worth being born, myself a human being. With so profound a faith in the human heart and its power to grow toward the light, I find here reason and cause enough for hope and confidence in the future of mankind."

It's the birthday of impresario "Colonel" Tom Parker (1909). He was born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk in Breda, The Netherlands. He was fascinated by circuses and worked as a carnival barker as a boy. His father died when van Kuijk was 16, so he went to live with his uncle, a ship's captain, in Rotterdam and worked on the boats there. He jumped ship in America in 1929 and immigrated illegally; his family never heard from him again until they saw his picture in a magazine in 1961. He also joined the Army, adopting the name "Tom Parker."

When he left the Army, he went back to the carnival circuit, working for Royal American Shows for 10 years. He traveled up and down the east coast, and pulled a few cons, and got married to Marie Ross in 1935. She became his bookkeeper as well as his wife. Parker later claimed there were times when the couple lived on a dollar a week. He found work as a music promoter in 1938 and put his carnival-barking skills to good use selling concert tickets. Louisiana governor and former country singer Jimmie Davis gave him the title of "Colonel," in return for helping promote Davis's political campaign. The rank was honorary, and only applied only to the Louisiana State Militia, but it didn't stop Parker from using it for the rest of his life.

Early in 1955, he heard about a young singer by the name of Elvis Presley. Parker was excited by Presley's sound, and by that summer, Parker was acting as his "Special Advisor." He became Presley's exclusive manager the following spring, in March 1956. He got the singer on TV, lined up a seven-picture contract with Paramount, negotiated multimillion-dollar merchandising deals, and even came up with the idea to sell "I Hate Elvis" buttons to make money on both sides of the fence. He did all of this in his first year as Presley's manager, and he took a 25 percent cut of the earnings for himself.

In the early 1960s, Parker decided Elvis's future was on the silver screen, and he advised him accordingly. Elvis gave no live performances for almost eight years, focusing on movies and gradually losing popularity to bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. In spite of the bad business decision, Parker renegotiated his contract with Presley in 1967, persuading his client to give him a 50 percent share. After Presley's death in 1977, Parker still managed him, controlling merchandising and licensing rights.

Parker died of a stroke in 1997; Priscilla Presley attended the funeral, and in the eulogy she said: "Elvis and the Colonel made history together, and the world is richer, better, and far more interesting because of their collaboration. And now I need to locate my wallet, because I noticed there was no ticket booth on the way in here, but I'm sure that the Colonel must have arranged for some toll on the way out."

On this day in 1974, the first Universal Product Code was scanned at a supermarket cash register. The UPC bar code system was originally invented specifically for grocery stores, to speed check-out and help them keep better track of their inventory, but it proved so successful that it spread quickly to other retailers. The first patent for a bar code went to N. Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver in 1952. They didn't do anything with it for 20 years, because the scanning technology didn't exist yet. By 1972, Woodland was working for IBM, and it was there that the bar code design was perfected and the prototype scanner was built in 1973. The IBM 3660 included a digital cash register and checkout scanner, and the grocery industry, which had been collaborating with IBM on the invention, began requiring its suppliers to start putting bar codes on their packaging.

The first scan was made at a Marsh's Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, which had agreed to serve as a test facility for the new technology, and the first item scanned was a pack of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit Gum. There's no significance to gum being the first item scanned; it just happened to be the first thing pulled from the cart. That pack of gum is on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show