antiApple has launched a massive update, probably in response to the hacking Friday, even though the event seemed to use fridges and thermostats.

I clicked the update icon just before four p.m. Nothing happened for about twenty minutes. I logged out of iTunes, Safari, Word, etc. Still nothing. Came back to find the little lecture about security update, so I hit “update.” Got one hour and something. Went away and came back and it said two days and change. Clicked on something and it dropped back to two hours. I had to run out and when I came back the download had stopped. I exited and relaunched. For the past hour it has said “249 MB of 489 MB” calculating.

Can’t wait to see what it says in the morning. …

Election Cake


As I made up the mince pie filling yesterday for its month of aging, a story about Election Cake was airing on NPR.  The guests said the cake predated the country and bore the name Muster Cake. In colonial times the men gathered to march and shoot. The cakes became a meal in one – fruit, nuts, dairy, flour, and of course booze. All in all, enough it sustained hungry men (all men) after they traveled, sometimes long distances, in the days before drive-up burgers.

I remembered that my mother had at one point talked about making Election Cake but do not remember eating it. I could find only one reference in her journals, written when I was living in Philadelphia: “want to make a Hartford Election Cake [her emphasis] – therefore the little list of pecans and yeast and raisins.” A note on the day after Election Day indicates she never baked it.

So I wondered, was there a difference between the standard version and the Hartford version?

The recipe in the NPR link dates from 1796. It must have made about thirty cakes as it starts with thirty quarts of flour. The author omitted instructions for how long to bake it or at what temperature.

An old recipe for Hartford Election Cake resembles the dreaded fruitcake with the addition of icing. It has much less in the way of spices and booze than the 1796 version. And neither recipe has the pecans Mother planned to include.

What’s Cooking America declares Election Cake (Election Day Cake) fruitcake, “Also known as Oak Cake, Hartford Election Cake, and Training Cakes, because another name for Election Day was Training Day.” Training Day equals Muster Day. Connecticut gets the credit for the earliest reference. It apparently became Hartford Election Cake when it was used as a bribe in 1830. Interesting that this recipe subs currants for raisins and does contain nuts.

Regardless of size and ingredients, I will not be baking it no matter its name.

Please Vote


It’s not yet Election Day, but early voting has started in many places. One of the candidates for president wants to repeal the Nineteenth Amendment.

I always vote for myself and on behalf of family members who couldn’t. Until 1920 my grandmother and my great aunts had to watch from the sidelines. Reports are that Aunt Anna Louise James was one of the first women to register in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.

Once the law allowed, they were never denied the opportunity to participate. All I could see after that comment about the Nineteenth Amendment was my mother, my grandmother, and all those women rising up in horror.

And then I thought, if he wants to repeal the Nineteenth, what about  the Fifteenth? It passed after the Civil War, enfranchising black men. It’s been on the books for 150 years but was violated everywhere south of the Mason Dixon Line for years. And it is still is in a great many places, North and South.

The victims included my grandfather, Walter Elijah Petry. He was born a slave in Louisiana. As a young man, he was able to serve on juries and participate in government. By the time he moved to New Iberia in 1900, the state of Louisiana had disenfranchised black men.  I remember my dad saying with great bitterness that even though Grandfather Walter owned property and paid taxes, he wasn’t allowed to vote.

At that moment I decided I will vote at every opportunity. When I do,  I think of the ancestors: Bertha, Helen, Anna Louise, Walter, and all the others denied their rights.

Please vote, if not for yourself, then for your relatives who couldn’t.

Email Hell


At one point the main inbox was up to 980 something. I began serious winnowing and am now down to 714 – it was below 700 when I went to bed last night. And that’s just one email. The others have 130-ish, 60-ish, and 18 in another. Also not including sent email, drafts, etc. And trash, all that trash, which has to be deleted again.

It was with a sense of relief that I turned to in Slate’s “The Key to Ending Inbox Anxiety Is One Simple Word: Delete.” Abby McIntyre suggests giving each a five-second test and then choosing delete, archive, reply. She does it immediately, which I don’t because it interrupts the workflow. Guess I’m one of the people she’s doffing her cap to while saying that I “hack my productivity” because I only read emails twice a day (late morning and mid- to late- afternoon) unless someone asks me to look for something right away.

Many contain information that I use in my work or share with the veterans, etc. These are the ones that pile up along with paper issues of magazines and the NYTimes do.

One thing I don’t do is reread emails unless I get a response indicating that I’ve missed something, and then I can usually find it in the string, which I try to avoid. Also hated: people who hit “reply all” unless everyone else really needs to know the answer. Please. Don’t.

None of the options in the poll really applied to me, so I chose “circle each one like a hawk” because it was closest. I don’t know if it’s good that I’m part of 23 percent of the Slate-reading public who chose to answer the survey.

Anyway, I’ve resolved to winnow by deleting at least ten emails a day—starting tomorrow.

On the Radio



In advance of my lecture at Chester Village West on Tuesday, I spent a delightful half hour with Dave Williams and Ibby Carothers at iCRV.com.

The motto of iCRV (internet Connecticut River Valley)  is “The Stream Feeding the River Valley,” and indeed it does. Gardening and farming (that includes “horse talk”), music, festivals and fairs, fundraisers and plays, it’s all in the stream.

My time there passed in a flash as I previewed the lecture “An African American Family in Connecticut: From Slavery to Triumph.” This was my second appearance, as I had appeared with Cynthia Clegg at the Community Foundation of Middlesex County’s program, “Feel Good Fridays.”

Dave and Ibby keep things lively with insightful questions. They are the best sort of interviewers because they listen to the responses and can engage in follow up. Many folks are too busy worrying about their next structured question to pay attention when something deserves more information.

So we covered the landscape: the ancestors, my mom whose birthday is today, a couple of teasers about the lecture. Plus I did a brief plug for the veterans’ writing project. We’re invited to conduct a session at the radio station.

“Stay tuned” for announcements about rebroadcasts of the interview.

Invest in Writing

No image because Blue won’t let me frame without cropping. 

BookBaby showed up in my email inbox some time ago – courtesy, I think, of one of the guys in the veterans’ writing group. A blog post about rules for developing character that originated with Pixar is  geared to novelists but many of those rules can apply to any type of writing. The original list had 22 items. Here’s Liz’s shorter version, applied to writing in general. Grammar appears as in the original. My comments are in italics.

  • You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different. Always step outside of yourself. It will draw the reader in to your world.
  • Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite and rewrite. Repeat.
  • Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front. Sometimes it’s obvious. Often you’ll have to rewrite the whole book once the ending becomes obvious.
  • Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time. Before you let it go, let it sit for a week, a month, six months. Take one more look. Then if it still doesn’t feel good, move on.
  • Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it. Apply this to whatever genre you are writing. Read and re-read them. Make notes.
  • Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone. And never, ever talk about it before you put it on paper. Note that in this tech age, Pixar said “paper.”
  • Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it. That’s the passion. It allows you to keep going in the face of unspeakable sadness, anxiety, and pain.
  • No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later. I haven’t learned that one yet.
  • What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there. I can hear a man I worked for in Philadelphia who was a genius theater person saying, “Clarity.” That’s what it’s all about.

What I’m Reading Now


Another in the series. As I was revising the reading list, I wrote in my journal, “If I don’t finish some of these soon, the pile will fall over and concuss me.”

Red Stick Men arrived when I met Tim Parrish at the Mark Twain conference. He started to explain what “red stick” meant. I replied, “I know all about le baton rouge. My dad grew up in New Iberia, and my grandparents from Abbeville.”

Tim’s version of the red stick goes back much further: “the name … is a French translation of the Native-American isti huma …, which was the name given the blood-stained tree trunk used as a tribal boundary. The original red stick was located on Scot’s Bluff, now part of the campus of Southern University.” Whose blood?

My version of le baton rouge, probably not true, came from the Tabasco plant on Avery Island. The managers gave the workers a red stick to hold up next to the ripening peppers. If the color matched, they were ready to harvest. The person who told this story said the managers (white “overseers”) didn’t trust the workers (black, of course) to know when a pepper was ripe. Me, I’d trust the judgment of the people who had actually been doing the work for years.

So before I even opened this brilliant collection, I learned something. And I learned far more as I read through the stories. There are tormented oil workers and ironworkers. Women worn down and standing up. Epic storms. So much fighting, including the kids — especially the kids of “Complicity.” So many truly frightened people. Outrageous amounts of smoking and drinking and abuse of every variety. I wondered again if there was something in the water – or the air – that keeps  all this stuff closer to the surface down on the bayou. Or as we began to call it, “the swamp.”

Favorite so far: “The Exterminator,” about a man with that job title. His ex-girlfriend asks, “ ‘Remember that night we were tripping on Scenic Highway by Exxon and you started yelling out the window they were burning up the world?’ ” Ah, yes.

I can hear the voices – southern but with a softness not found elsewhere. Even the Anglos have absorbed some Creole. Again, I’m learning more about Louisiana than I ever did from my father.

The epigraph is “busted flat in Baton Rouge.” They may be Kris Kristofferson’s words, but they will forever be in the voice of Janis, the white lady of soul.

Whose blood? Everyone’s.

Please Be Safe


It’s concerning to have family and friends living in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. Having survived nasty hurricanes including at least one Cat 4 as a kid, I am trying to imagine what it is like to be in the path of the one churning in the warmer waters of the south Atlantic.

Matthew has already killed and will strike again. All of you in the path, please don’t be a target. Those neon colors on the weather maps should have driven everyone to higher ground inland. Purple is as forceful as it gets.

So Linda, Vivian and Peerce, Tina, and Barbara Ann, please take care of yourselves.

Coming Soon


“An African American Family in Connecticut: From Slavery to Triumph” is part of Chester Village West’s Lifelong Learning Program, which includes talks about Hollywood icons of the 1950s and advice for maintaining heart health.

“African American Family in Connecticut” will introduce my amazing family to another audience: we have generations of nurturing women, the man who was coachman to a governor, a Buffalo soldier, and of course the always memorable Anna Louise James. I’ll feature bits and pieces of my books Can Anything Beat White?: A Black Family’s Letters and At Home Inside: A Daughter’s Tribute to Ann Petry. And of course there’ll be an update on the film project, Ann Petry and the James Family Letters.

The lecture will be October 18 (a Tuesday) at 4 p.m. at Chester Village West, 317 West Main Street. It is free, but registration is required. Call 860.322.6455, email Chester Village West, or visit the website.

Looking forward to seeing you!

RIP, Gloria Naylor


Gloria Naylor, the award-winning novelist, has been in the background of my life for the past thirty years. Her connection began when Mother wrote her a congratulatory letter on the receipt of the National Book Award for The Women of Brewster Place. Later, Ms. Naylor wrote the following when Beacon Press reissued of The Street:

40 years ago Ann Petry brought the world to its feet with the artistry she displayed in this painfully honest and wrenching novel. Once again a standing ovation is due for this American classic.

Mother wrote in her journal on Oct. 29, 1985, when the new edition arrived:

Yesterday a book package from Beacon Press – opened it and there was the Beacon Press edition of The Street published 40 years ago – and I swear the sight of it – the sight of that blurb on the front – written by Gloria Naylor … – the whole thing, the sight of this book in print – was for me a moving sight – brought back memories of the time when a representative of H.M. Co. told me in the company’s NY office that it wasn’t possible to say whether I had won the H.M. Co. Literary Fellowship but that they surely wanted to publish my novel.

Anyway I was so pleased – book sent first class – with a note saying that this was the first copy off the press.

She wrote to her Beacon contact, adding, “P.S. Hurrah for Gloria Naylor’s: “Once again a standing ovation is due for this American classic.”

A few years later, Ms. Naylor was the guest speaker at Ann Petry Day at Trinity College that my friend Farah Jasmine Griffin organized. It was a glorious day, and as a result Ms. Naylor had one significant impact on my life, though I’m certain she never knew it.

She and Mother chatted during a break, and Ms. Naylor expressed some regret at the delay in finishing her undergraduate degree. Mother said, “You shouldn’t worry about that.” She went on to explain that she thought the conformity in most education beyond high school stifled the imagination and the writer’s creativity. Better, Mother said, to learn on your own.

I was so surprised that I didn’t think to challenge her with names of the famous and talented, college educated, writers (besides Naylor): Balzac, Welty, Updike, Kafka, Malamud, Graves, Solzhenitsyn. Later I realized that by sending me to a liberal arts college, Mother had done her best to deflect me from her path.

Thank you, Gloria Naylor, for enabling this insight and for your major contribution to our literary canon. You died too young. RIP.