Amazing Grace, Amazing Food


Amazing Grace Food Pantry held its annual fundraiser tonight. Each year local businesses, churches, and civic and government organizations, donate soup, bread, and desserts. People pay according to their willingness and ability. Servers include politicians, heads of organizations, parishioners, and clergy. This year outstripped previous years in every way possible. There were more diners, more food, better selections, and terrific entertainment.

I met someone from every aspect of my life from lots of neighbors, to members of my weight-lifting class to hospital staff, to colleagues from the halcyon days at the Middletown Press, to library staff, to people from a couple of nonprofits I’ve served. There was no place to sit when Larry and I arrived, so we stood and chatted with various folks.

A brief introduction was followed by a woman singing. Everyone said, “Wow!” She was sitting down so no one could see. I thought her voice sounded a bit familiar and made my way toward the microphone. It was Kitty Kathryn. She married Larry’s dad after his parents divorced and calls him and his sisters her children. She did a rendition of “Amazing Grace” that made me cry and distracted me from the food.

Returning to ground, my comments began with, “Soup, soup, beautiful soup.” We migrated at the recommendation of a friend and neighbor to the lobster bisque, a donation by Blackbird Tavern. It serves great food and is owned by the son of one of the men in my veterans’ writing group. The politician who was serving adores Larry so we wound up with extra large helpings. Plus he was nearing the bottom of the tureen, which gave us extra lobster. Oh my. Sublime is the best description for the blend of meat, flavor, and texture. Word must have spread because I heard they ran out about twenty minutes later.

Next I tried a potato soup, “made with love” by the brothers of St. Pius. A garnish of herb oil added just the right spark to the comfort of the soup on a blustery fall night. Also delicious. Larry declared the firefighters’ chili excellent. Ditto a kale soup made with kielbasa. He had another, but I never found out what because he was too busy chatting with this former classmate, that veteran friend, and the myriad of neighbors.

It was approaching time for me to leave for the writing group meeting, but I decided to try one more. It was vegetarian vegetable. My brain had ceased recording because I’d chatted with so many people. I think it was made also “with love” by Holy Trinity Church. Anyway, it was delicious. I grabbed a piece of bread from one of the tables and proceeded to the desserts.

The young women from Mercy High School did not help much with recommendations as they pointed to each batch of cookies, brownies, cupcakes, pastries, etc., saying, “People really like that one. Those have been refilled twice.” I grabbed a cup of coffee and decided to try two from NORA Cupcake Co.

The vegan chocolate mini tasted fabulous, a little peanutty, a whole lot chocolate-y. The yellow cake version lost some of its flavor to the coffee that I swallowed to balance all that sugar. Just because it’s vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy! But it was all for a cause that needs as much support as possible and more than worth every penny donated.

RIP, Sleepy Dave

David Godwin, RIP

David Godwin

Well, now we know. It was a year ago that police issued a request for help in locating a missing man.

This report made it sound as though David Godwin was still living in Connecticut. I wrote a blog post, since disappeared in the great collapse, explaining that our friend Sleepy Dave had moved to Florida and was visiting the area when he disappeared.

Concern rose when we learned that his sister had received a letter indicating that he did not intend to return to Florida. Time passed with no word, and the family offered friends a chance to remember him during the summer. I was away. It troubled me not to be part of that gathering.

Before and since, we have assumed that he was no longer among the living. Without proof, though, there was always a glimmer of hope that he might still be with us. No more. It was really tough to read The Day story, especially knowing that his remains lay out for a year before anyone found him.

I’m going to remember the happy, good times. Most important in this household, he kept us supplied with the freshest of bluefish. Sleepy loved to go on fishing charters, treating a number of friends to a day on the water. He refused to eat fish, however, and would arrive back at Cypress, the local watering hole, with a huge supply, all neatly fileted and double bagged.

I broiled them, marinated them and baked them, smoked them, and turned them into pâté. I gave quantities to my next-door neighbor who grew up in Sweden and understands the joys of seafood in strong flavors. On occasion I would offer Sleepy a sample, and he would just shake his head violently while wrinkling his nose.

What Sleepy did like was beef – massive quantities of large cuts. His Friday night treat while he was working began with a beer (or three), followed by the King Cut, a thirty-two ounce slab of prime rib with potatoes on the side. As far as I know it was the only vegetable he ever ate.

I think he ate one or two of the celery sticks or carrots accompanying the twenty-four wings that became a preferred dinner after he retired.

He preceded the consumption of the beef  with the addition of massive quantities of salt from his personalized saltshaker, which had extra large holes. Once he’d finished the actual meat, he’d salt the fat and eat that separately. I tried not to stare but am afraid I watched with horror. Then he would fold his arms and soon be sound asleep at the bar. He never fell off the stool and often awoke to have another beer (or three).

The picture above does not do justice to the man. Besides his generous spirit, he had a great sense of humor, often expressed in his T-shirts and sweatshirts, which he would bring back from trips and give to honored friends. My favorite, which he wore fairly often said, “Paddle faster. I hear banjo music.” Ha!

I know there are many more  stories of his generosity and humor and all around good-guyness, and I hope everyone shares them.

Sleepy Dave, you are truly missed. May you sleep in peace at last.

Amazon, Again


The Verge  has aggregated a collection of stories about Simon & Schuster’s agreement to let Amazon publish its ebooks and new paperbacks. The key to all lies in this sentence: “But the deal is perhaps most strategically advantageous for Amazon, which reportedly can discount Simon & Schuster titles at will under certain conditions.” If that’s true I don’t see how S&S can say that the contract “preserves the authors’ share of ebook sales going forward.”

S&S apparently will in general determine the price of ebooks, which is significant, and could bode well for Hachette unless Bezos is so irate that the publisher didn’t kowtow before that agreement expired.

The image is the inspiration for the S&S logo, The Sower, painted in 1850 by Jean-Francois Millet. May S&S continue to sow.

Ten Books, Revised

jungleBack in early September my friend Janet Davenport challenged me to come up with ten books that had had a profound influence on my life. Here’s what I posted:

The Street, In the Matter of Color, Emma, Angela’s Ashes, Crooked Road Straight, Soldier Girls (reading it now), Silences, Black Roots in Southeastern Connecticut, Brother, I Am Dying, Blue Highways

I’m updating with an additional book. It was prompted by dueling “Bookends” columns in the September 14 NYTimes Book Review. The question: “ ‘The Book that changed my life’ is usually taken to mean ‘for the better.’ Can a book ever transform a reader’s life for the worse?” Leslie Jamison says “yes,” citing The Catcher in the Rye and The Collector, which influenced murderers, though she acknowledges that J.D. Salinger and John Fowles could hardly be held responsible for the actions of the deranged.

Francine Prose says a qualified “no.” She devotes most of the column to Devils, Drugs and Doctors by Howard W. Haggard, “an illustrated history of medicine that focused on plagues, venereal disease, mental illness and the horrifying extent to which women, in earlier eras, suffered the fatal agonies of unhygienic childbirth…” Prose was ten or eleven when she read the book and came away with the idea, based on a pointed question to her father, that people caught syphilis, etc. by “running around.” From then on, she walked.

I had a similar reaction to Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis’s The Jungle. Though I don’t believe it changed my life for the worse, I can’t say I really liked it. It did, however, have a more profound effect than any of the books listed above, except maybe for The Street, which of course shaped our whole family’s way of life.

The Jungle tells of Chicago’s meatpacking plants and the immigrants who drudge away in them. I read the book when I was, like Prose, an impressionable eleven or so. Not long after I had finished it, . I became violently ill from a dinner of franks and beans. The result was an abject, lifelong fear of vomiting. I am certain that a contributing factor to my illness was having just read the descriptions of the sausage casings filled with sawdust and rat droppings. The rest of it was probably just the flu. Anyway, I never again ate a hot dog and a few years later stopped eating meat altogether. At this point I’ve been meat-free for more years than I was a carnivore.

The other effect is problematical – and this was the one that I had forgotten until I read Prose’s essay.

The Jungle includes a wrenching scene in which poor Ona Rudkus delivers a premature dead infant in the attic of a squalid tenement because her husband can’t afford medical care or adequate housing. Just as the rat droppings and sawdust revolted me, that scene frightened me: First he hears her moaning and crying. “And then again came Ona’s scream, smiting him like a blow in the face … Her voice died away into a wail – then he heard her sobbing again, ‘My God – let me die, let me die!’ ” Not long afterward, she gets her wish.

That scenario frightened me away from ever having children – made me feel that the risk to life was too great. I knew intellectually that I wasn’t living in an early twentieth-century slum, that I would no doubt have enough money to pay for medical care, that millions of women all over the world had survived. None of that mattered. I was convinced I’d wind up just like Ona. And my mind has never really wavered in the years since.

‘We Were There’

Jerry Augustine, who has been with the group from the beginning.

Jerry Augustine, who has been with the group from the beginning.

It’s time to revisit the veterans’ writing group, which I’ve had the privilege of conducting for almost three years.

We Were There: Writing Your Military Experiences” started when Lauren Hillenbrand’s Unbroken became the One Book choice for 2012. A neighbor who worked at the library suggested me to conduct a three-week workshop. The story of Louis Zamperini (who died just recently) provided endless possibilities from his early days as a thief and scoundrel to his heroic survival during World War II.

The group started small, but the guys wanted to continue after the three weeks was up. About a year in they asked for instruction in English composition, so out came the textbook I had used at Capital Community College. We went through narrative, description, comparison, contrast, etc. I was supremely grateful that everyone in the group knows grammar, spelling, and all the basics.

Since then, we’ve grown in numbers and now have veterans from World War II, the Korean era, and Vietnam. They represent all branches of service including the Coast Guard. Two guys drive almost an hour to join us.

We are putting their stories into a book, which I think will appeal to a huge audience because of the variety of experiences.

Beyond the words, the guys have shared artifacts, some that evoke sadness or horror: a POW tag from WWII; a tag from the twenty-years late Vietnam veterans parade; an MRE that had spent time in Vietnam, which was still edible but not improved with age; and lately a piece of shrapnel that surgeons dug out of the heel of a seventeen-year-old Marine who was shot in his first combat on a tiny island in the Pacific during WWII.

The veterans’ writing group has been a learning experience for me, and I am grateful to Christy Billings, who keeps me organized and shares the guidance of the workshop. It is truly an honor to be working with these amazing men.

Seminole Dolls

I had a jolt of recognition as I read about the demise of a small store in Florida. (Google “A Century Old Landmark of the Everglades,” published July 5). It’s a story happening almost daily everywhere in the country. What grabbed me was a photo of a shelf full of dolls in bright dress. The tops fell cape-like to the elbow. The capes and skirts had stripes of various colors with embroidery and worked around and at inverted points along the skirts. Some dolls wore earrings. Most sported black felt hats with a wide brim turned up in the front.

There was a shock of recognition of the sort that comes when one experiences something for the first time in a long time. Those two rows of dolls returned me to days as a tiny child playing on the floor in my room. Someone gave me one of those dolls, perhaps two. Anna reports she had them, too.

They weren’t large, perhaps six inches high. They weren’t cuddly, but they added to my room an array of colors and a feeling that I was sharing the world with something exotic. I think it may have been my mother’s way of giving me dolls that looked more like me than  what appeared in the local five & dime.

I have no idea what happened to them. After reading the information on the Seminole website, I have a feeling they may have disintegrated:

More than just cloth-wrapped palmetto fiber husk stuffed with cotton, the Seminole Doll accurately portrays the clothing and hairstyle worn by traditional Seminole men and women. It is a favorite item of purchase at the many festivals and “powwow” events attended by Seminole vendors.

Now I understand what an amazing piece of work, and of heritage, they represent. They are also one more piece of my childhood that’s returned to bring me the consolation of memory.

Tall doll on right looks most like what I had.

Tall doll on right looks most like what I had.

Crying, Laughing

I cried tears of joy this morning when I read the news that brave young Malala Yousafzai was sharing the Nobel Peace Prize. If I keep writing about her, I’ll keep crying, so I’m turning to something utterly frivolous to end the week.


Thank Marketplace for presenting me with The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  The business connection was a question about how the youtube mini-episodes are making any money. No satisfactory answer yet. I  love that the company is called Pemberly Digital. Have to reserve judgment on how much of the choppy editing is deliberate.

I watched the first episode yesterday and had to stop because of an appointment – of course it opened with my favorite Jane Austen line: ““It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

The modern-day Lizzie has the same reaction that I did, which is, not a chance. And of course JA only meant it half seriously anyway.  The fact that modern Lizzie’s mother in all seriousness gave her a T-shirt bearing the quote bodes well for a great many laughs.

So pardon me if I post and binge watch the diaries.

Hachette vs. Amazon, Encore


Kevin Nance has written a thoughtful and balanced article for Poets&Writers magazine about the HvA dispute. (See the NYTimes Review from 10/5 for the reader rep’s take on why the papers coverage is not balanced.)

Nance observes that the issue goes miles beyond ebook pricing and involves whether books can be treated like the other commodities that Amazon sells. Most of the people he quotes say no because of the way books come into the world: the author’s “product” taking time, sometimes years, to create; then the involvement of editors, designers, and marketers. The process requires the contribution of all these people, whether the book gets to the public in hardcover, paper, or digital form unless an author wants to assume the entire burden of doing it all alone, or paying someone to do it. At that point one has no time to write or one needs to be a trust-fund baby to pay for everything.

Nance reviews the state of the dispute, from its inception about six months ago to the present, and concludes with a quote from Joe Regal. He believes that Amazon didn’t anticipate the forceful reaction to its Hachette slow-down.

Joe was the first agent I ever dealt with, when he was representing my mother’s works at Russell & Volkening. I checked out his current enterprise, Zola Books. “Read and buy ebooks on all readers, interact with friends and authors and support your local bookstore.” The list of new releases is impressive with fiction from Gillian Anderson and Colm Tóbín, and a memoir from Alan Cumming (looks like a blockbuster). Hachette books are listed at thirty percent off. I signed up for the newsletter. Can’t wait till the site relaunches.

Back To Work


My Reiki haze ended today with a presentation to Hartford public school teachers at the Mark Twain House and Museum. It felt great to be in the same place where my ancestors made contact with the Clemens family butler, George Griffin, who was their friend. I’m hoping that I left the teachers with some ideas for using Can Anything Beat White?: A Black Family’s Letters in the classroom.

I’m rolling from that to a bunch of other projects.

My filmmaker family, Ashley and Kathryn, will be here soon to continue production of a documentary about the James family and its influence on Ann Petry. Before they arrive I have to clean the house. I’ll be giving myself lots of Reiki before and after.

From there I roll into a lecture at Naugatuck Valley Community College to students of African American literature.

That will be followed by a talk to a women’s group about the veterans’ writing workshop.

Then in December I’m back at the Mark Twain House as part of the “Trouble Begins” series. I’ll be promoting that one as the time approaches.

Stay tuned …