A report from the “genius belt”

Posted By on Sep 25, 2016 | 1 comment


Yesterday was Museum Day Live! That exclamation point is apparently part of the official name of the thing. Although this next one is not! That one was my own. Exclamation points are fun sometimes! (Also mine. And here’s one more!)

Why the word “live” was added to the name of this day is beyond me. Does it denote that you have to be alive to visit? Or maybe that you can visit the museums live and in-person, which I think is implied by the fact that you’re visiting? I’m digressing, because I actually want to talk about what we did on Museum Day Live! But I’m just continually fascinated at how often good ideas by smart people (free admission to cool museums) get contorted into weirdly shaped little packages (“Let’s call it ‘Live!'”) by well-intentioned marketing people and corporate types WHO SHOULD NOT BE LEFT ALONE WITH WORDS.

Museum Day Live! sponsored by Smithsonian magazine (whose editorial staff, I’m willing to bet, were all WTFing over the live-plus-exclamation-point), and it allowed free admission to certain museums for one day.

Joe and I were kid-free for the afternoon, so we decided to visit the Pearl S. Buck Homestead. Pearl S. Buck, in case you didn’t know, was the author of The Good Earth. I read (part of) that book many years ago. If you asked me what it was about I would say that it illustrated the plight of the poor Chinese farmer in the early 1900s and you would think I was smart because you probably haven’t read the book yourself and that’s more than you knew. I would then probably admit that I didn’t finish the thing because I found it a little dull at the time. But I own the book and it’s sitting next to me on the couch right now so maybe I’ll give it another whirl.

Ms. Buck (as she is referred to by the docents on the tour) had a “homestead” not too far from where we live. While her home is quite the place, the lady herself is what fascinated me.

The first thing that really grabbed me by my attention glands (those might a real thing) was that Ms. Buck decided well before her death that her home was going to be a tourist attraction. What? Who does that? Who even thinks like that? Now, as I’m about to explain, you’ll see that Ms. Buck accomplished a lot in her lifetime. But still, it seems that she could’ve been content to just pass her house down to her kids and take her place as a footnote in history and not make the massive assumption that people would give a crap about her house after she died.

But no. In fact, she not only ensured that dopes like me would spend decades driving past signs for the Pearl S. Buck Homestead here in Bucks County, PA, but also that dopes in Virginia will drive past signs for the Pearl S. Buck birthplace. And a bunch of officials in China decided that dopes in that country will drive past signs for the Pearl S. Buck Family Villa and the Pearl S. Buck former home in Jiangsu Province.

Again … who does this? I kept wondering … was it ego? How could she even imagine that anyone would care about her life in the future?

Well, what’s interesting is this: Pearl S. Buck decided to make people care. She decided to plant a big, fat flag in her place in history and demand that people pay attention. She dared to take up space in a future that she would not see.

So check this out: Pearl (I can only keep up the Ms. Buck thing for so long) and her New York publisher/second husband bought the homestead in rural Pennsylvania because their ever-growing brood of adopted mixed-race children needed a little more elbow room. Does mixed race sound like a crude thing to say? It does to me, at least a little bit in the PC day and age we’re now in. But that was the term Pearl used, so I’ll use it, too. Back in those days — the 1930s and ’40s– mixed-race children were considered unadoptable. Pearl, who had lived most of her first 40 years in China, made adoption of mixed-race kids one of her pet causes.

But it wasn’t a “cause” in a cutesy ladies-who-lunch sorta way. Rather, she went balls-out with this. She rounded up a bunch of her rich and famous neighbors, like Oscar Hammerstein II, and James Michener (because apparently we reside in the “genius belt” of Bucks County, PA), and set about opening an adoption agency for these kids right down the street from her house.

Cool, right?

So while all this was happening, guess what else was going on? She was writing her Pearly butt off. The woman churned out at least 954 books (which is not true, but let’s say it was a lot), many, many short stories, and managed to nab a Pulitzer Prize AND a Nobel Prize for Literature. In fact, she was the first American women to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

AND she and her husband turned a barn on their property into a community center, where the 4-H Club and scout meetings were held. They sometimes used it as a roller rink. They had dances. Merriment abounded.

AND she created a community library in her house, which was separate from her own library (yes, two libraries) that contained her personal collection of books.

AND she was an activist who was an early and vocal advocate for women’s and minority rights. (She blurbed The Feminine Mystique when it came out.)

AND she raised a giant bunch of children.

AND she supervised a working dairy farm on her massive property.

AND she was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Mead (who also hails from the “genius belt”) and she was invited to accompany Nixon to China in the 70s, but the Chinese government wouldn’t let her in.

AND she on the editorial board of DC Comics. (What? Yes. Really.)

AND … most of that stuff? Didn’t happen until she was almost 40. Her first book didn’t even come out until she was 38.

Before that, she spent most of her life in China as the daughter of missionaries, and then later, the wife of a missionary. She began writing to pay for the care of her severely mentally disabled daughter and to support herself if she ultimately decided to bail on her very unhappy marriage — which she finally did, after 18 years.

Divorce in those days? Scandalous.

Her later years were also scandalous. And sad, but in a different way. After her second husband died, Pearl took up with her daughter’s dancing teacher. Richard Harris, 40 years her junior, began to have a massive influence over her. History paints Harris as a charlatan. Pearl made him head of the Pearl S. Buck Foundation and (who didn’t see this coming?) things didn’t go well. That’s a whole big story in itself. Harris was accused of financial mismanagement, sexual abuse of young Korean boys, and a whole buncha other stuff.

Pearl was in her 70s at this point. She moved to Virginia (or maybe Vermont … it might have been Vermont …definitely a V state though) and set up Harris’s buddies in antique’s businesses and lived above one of the shops or something … like I said, there’s a lot to tell here. Weird.

It seems that she was estranged from lots of people when she died. Her will (who didn’t see this coming?) was a hot mess. She disinherited her children for Harris. The kids and her foundation fought him and the courts eventually settled in favor of the children. But then the foundation was like Hello? Can we have some money, please? and it’s all really a tangled mess that I haven’t untangled enough to be able to recount with any authority.

But, best I can tell, it seems that she left her various homes in care of the foundation as a way to support continuing work on her mission to promote inter-racial adoption. So BAM, future people! Thou willst PAY ATTENTION. And maybe not because of ego, but rather, humanitarianism. And maybe a little bit of ego. She was a complicated lady, as several biographies point out.

 

So if you’re still with me (congrats for reading this far about a dead author who wrote a maybe-boring book!),  you might be wondering why all this matters? I, too, am wondering that.

In order to justify the time we’ve all spent here, including my lengthy morning of Internet rabbit-holing on this woman, let’s extract some life lessons. Hey, why not?

  1. You can live many lives within this one experience that you think of as your one-and-only life.
  2. If you see something that needs done, and no one else has yet done it, maybe that’s because YOU are the one who is supposed to do it. When Pearl was interviewed a few years before her death, she stated that since no adoption agency existed that would place inter-racial kids, “I founded my own damned agency.” (Yes, I know she had money and fame and resources. I’m not saying YOU personally should go start an adoption agency. Do what YOU can within YOUR sphere of influence, OK? Quit bellyaching at me already. Sheesh.)
  3. Don’t be afraid to take up some space and make people pay attention to you.
  4. Speak out about things that matter.
  5. Getting out of a miserable marriage can be freeing in more ways than you can imagine.
  6. You’re never too busy to be creative. (Hi Patricia. Yes, I’m talking to you. Yes, you. Quit yer bellyaching. Also? Remember, you live in the goddamn genius belt now. Margaret Mead would certainly have none of your excuses.)
  7. If you’re rich and famous and old and widowed, and your daughter’s Arthur Murray dance teacher puts the moves on you, run.
  8. Exclamation points are fun!
  9. Putting the word Live! on anything that does not involve Kelly Ripa? Not so much fun!

Thanks for reading. Feel free to carry on with your lives now.

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