What I’m Reading Now


Actually what I just finished reading. When I became aware of the pre-Civil War era, there was this notion that except for Thomas Wentworth Higginson and a few others, the abolitionists didn’t write much. The theory was that those assisting people fleeing the tortures of enslavement wanted to keep their activities secret. Recent scholarship has given the lie to that idea. These folks wrote letters, recorded the stories of the people they aided, kept records, and generally left a trove of material.

Eric Foner, who has had a distinguished career as an author and professor of history, adds to that trove with Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. With a focus on New York City – the gateway — Foner tells the stories of the well-known: Harriet Tubman, Frederick Bailey aka Frederick Johnson aka Frederick Douglass, of Henry “Box” Brown, and the Reverend J.C. Pennington.

More importantly, Foner mines records kept by Sydney Howard Gay, a white man. Though it only covers 1855 and 1856, Gay’s manuscript as Foner says offers a “rare account … of the inner workings of the underground railroad in New York and its connections north and south of the city.” William Still of Philadelphia left a more extensive record, and his work has received more attention. But Gay’s legacy will offer historical fodder for years.

His group included black and white “operators,” and Foner places the free black population of New York at the center of the effort. An early leader was Connecticut native David Ruggles, who traveled the countryside raising money and awareness for the cause well before the term “underground railroad” came into common usage.

The star of these operators was Louis Napoleon, a New Yorker who helped some 3,000 on their way to freedom with food, clothing, shelter. He served as a legal clerk though illiterate by rushing to courthouses for writs of habeas corpus for alleged runaways. He also risked his own personal safety by traveling below the Mason-Dixon line to escort people into New York and on into safety, often in Canada.

As a counterpoint this bravery and determination, Foner highlights the resistance of the business and political establishment to the Underground Railroad effort as they helped southerners kidnap their “property.” Like a good number of Connecticut’s manufacturers, many New York businessmen relied on the custom and trade of the enslavers. With the complicity of judges and law enforcement, the New York elites were initially able to circumvent the efforts of the Underground Railroad workers.

Foner brilliantly describes how the Fugitive Slave Law began to change public opinion. Eventually time and tide rendered the Underground Railroad obsolete. In the poignant closing chapter, Foner outlines what is known of the conductors after the Civil War, much less about the black men and women than the whites. The son of one black operator, William H. Leonard, led a black volunteer fire company in Asbury Park, which shut down in 1907 because whites threatened to let fires burn.

Though the history covered in Gateway to Freedom ends more than one hundred years ago, it nevertheless provides an excellent framework for examining the struggle between the disenfranchised and the powerful elite that continues today.

One More Thing


There was one other big thing I learned at the CLA conference on Monday. I met Baker and Taylor – or at least their images. Having never heard of the company (am I the only person on the planet?) I went online and learned it (they?) is (are?) about the largest distributor of books/music/etc.

It seems Baker & Taylor the company had acquired Baker and Taylor the cats. And what endearing and peculiar looking creatures they were. I showed the souvenir tote bag to Larry, who thought they had been surgically altered. The search under mascots revealed “Scottish fold,” a breed of cat that I’ve never encountered before, which seems to date all the way back to 1961 and is the result of genetic mutation. The photo on the mascots page isn’t nearly as gorgeous as the tote-bag pics.


Apparently I’m not the only enchanted person. Scottishfoldlove reports they go for between $250 and $1,500. At those prices, I’ll adopt a shelter cat. Still, they’re adorable.

Learning Experience


Having had the pleasure of speaking at the Connecticut Library Association’s annual conference on Monday, I know I learned more than I taught. Christy Billings, my partner in crime in the veterans’ writing workshop, and I presented “Reaching Veterans at Your Library: ‘We Were There: Writing Your Military Experience’ ” to about thirty people. Here’s what I learned:

  • The conference is enormous. The parking lot at the Marriott in Groton (for some reason called the Mystic Marriott) has a parking lot that must accommodate 1,000 cars. There were very few left when I arrived this morning.
  • Librarians are an enthusiastic and energetic lot. I caught bits of many conversations about programs, patrons, and technology in the offing. People should take full advantage of these amazing people and their resources.
  • It is possible to compose a gorgeous piece of poetry in seven minutes. With permission of the author, I’ll post it in coming days.
  • There’s another book that includes Anna Louise James. Connecticut Humanities’ Gregg Mangan has just published On This Day in Connecticut History. I’ve added to the reading list.
  • The author of the poem introduced me to Brain Pickings. “The Workhorse and the Butterfly” captivated me immediately.
  • The Marriott thinks a good morning snack is a small cup of molten chocolate but serves really good coffee.

Sushi Friday

oyamatypeOyama Japanese Cuisine in Cromwell has received two and half reviews with various type of B grades. It’s sliding. My impressions are reinforced by various online reviews. The setting remains – good parking, no sports over the sushi bar, a reasonable price for the quantity of food, a brown rice option (dried out and one corner absolutely cold at last visit.)

Pretty much everything else has declined, though. The miso soup’s flavor does not compensate for the lack of tofu, wakame, and scallion. Teddy, one of two actual Japanese sushi chefs in the area, retired, and the Chinese replacements don’t quite have it. The escolar lacked the usual buttery smoothness. One piece of the tuna had no crunch. The snapper refused to yield to my front teeth so I had to chew the large pieces whole. Even the salmon, usually flavorful and also buttery, had no personality.

The formerly unobtrusive and friendly service varied between obtrusive, with two waitresses having a loud conversation nearby and the hostess sniffling over her soup at a table behind me, and non-existent since the chef disappeared and waited until I was ready to leave to ask how I liked the food.

Revised grade: C+

Quick Hit


Not much to say tonight as my eyes are recovering from a day of contact lenses that felt like two little pieces of sandpaper. Even though temps did not reach 50 degrees today, the pollen in central Connecticut has begun its march toward full leaf and flower. Many folks are predicting a dreadful season because our god-awful winter. WebMD disagrees, saying mild temps are more conducive to those extra levels of sneezing, wheezing, eye-watering, etc .

Having awakened this morning with head nearly ready to explode and eyes swollen nearly shut, I predict a season of extreme suffering.

Please forgive mistakes. I’ll try more of substance tomorrow.

Eye of the Beholder


Corrupt politicians, like the poor, are always with us. This NPR report exonerates little old Connecticut. And unlike previous reports, New York, not New Jersey comes out on top, or rather on the bottom. And per capita, Louisiana retains top spot.

Here are some highlights from blog entries that Blue swallowed.

“What, Only Twelfth?” from December 18, 2008:

As I was composing this I kept thinking of alternate titles. “Corruption Three Ways.” “Not as Bad as the Neighbors.” “What’s a Bribe Between Friends?” The information comes from the New York Times.  (Update note: the link is gone.) I don’t know if it’s sad or funny to report that poor little Connecticut didn’t make it into the top ten for most corrupt state in any of the three tallies, even though we have a pretty significant roster: an ex-governor who left jail not long ago in connection with some funny business about a hot tub and bribe taking; a former Bridgeport mayor who is still in the federal pen for corruption; a state senator nabbed in the same probe is doing five years for accepting bribes; another former state senator who admitted he had contacted a known mobster about roughing up his granddaughter’s husband. And then there’s the truly despicable former Waterbury mayor who was being wiretapped for corruption when the feds caught wind of the fact that he was molesting two little kids. He pled to the corruption charge and is doing 37 years on the sex assaults.


In the reporters’ survey our little neighbor to the east took top prize. Of course Rhode Island has quite play list too: a former governor, the mayors of Providence and Pawcatuck, two Supreme Court justices who were forced out. That’s a lot of busy people for a tiny state. At No. 2 in this survey Louisiana was no surprise either. I won’t repeat the dead girl/live boy comment.

We can still use the slogan suggested by a law professor: “Not as corrupt as you think.”

“Corruption Eruption” from March 20, 2012

When I saw the Courant headline “Report: Connecticut Among Least Corrupt States,” my first reaction was to check the date. Nope, it’s not April 1. Then I looked at the comments following the story. Most of those folks agreed, as I do, that either someone paid off the Center for Public Integrity and their compatriots, or the researchers don’t know their iPad from their MaxiPad. (My characterization.) I mean if New Jersey gets the highest grade, I would think we’re measuring most corrupt, not least. Put “Connecticut, corruption” into Google, and after the news items, the first entry is for ex-con John Rowland, our former governor.

The larger story is certainly revealing but not reassuring. The Center for Public Integrity and its co-investigators polled reporters. Of course New Jersey came in toward the top because the place has cleaned up its act so much compared to what it once was. I guess there was a big category for “making progress.” According to Paul Stern’s excellent analysis, we look good now because we were so bad before. That goes double for New Jersey.

And then they polled those who worked for government. How many people do you know who will call their boss a crook? I don’t think even mob guys do that.


Blog Is Back?


Blog went on involuntary hiatus. Here’s a brief summary of what happened in more or less chrono order, except some stuff is on-going.

  • The very early stages of a film project. Stay tuned.
  • A wonderful appreciation dinner for the hospital volunteers.
  • Preparing for a Connecticut Library Association presentation about the veterans’ writing workshop.
  • Walking some miles for the Twain-Twichell hike.
  • Dealing with book contracts.
  • Reading a manuscript submitted by one of the veterans.
  • Reading Gateway to Freedom. That will be a “what I’m Reading Now” as soon as my brain is functioning again.
  • A delightful break at Tea Roses with friend who fell in love with this refuge from the chaos of life.. Kudos to Peggi for five years!
  • The mayor’s black-tie charity ball.
  • A painful afternoon at the dentist, which included seven XRays and much pounding on my jaw/skull to fit the implant and add the crown.

Something of substance will follow.

At Last

spring1 spring2 spring3 spring4I’m in another of those hamster-on-a-wheel days, or juggling plates mode, choose your metaphor. Sunday was occupied with reading through journals, some dating back a couple of months. I couldn’t follow it with getting outside today to enjoy the first 70-degree day since last October or maybe September. But I did manage to photograph  these first happy harbingers of great weather.


Pimiento Cheese Sandwiches


Dear Kai Ryssdal,

You waxed eloquent on Marketplace in your disbelief about pimiento cheese sandwiches. It is clear from your derisive remarks that you had a deprived childhood, you poor dear. For sure you didn’t grow up in the South or know anyone who did. You must be one of about three people who has never heard of this quick, filling, unpretentious, and very inexpensive choice for lunch or afternoon snack.

Courtesy of the Food Network, here’s the recipe with my additions and suggestions in parenthesis.

Grate two cups of extra sharp cheddar cheese (the recipe calls for yellow, but it really doesn’t matter except for color). Add a half-cup of mayo, three tablespoons of chopped pimientos, two tablespoons of grated onion, a teaspoon of yellow mustard, an eighth-teaspoon of cayenne pepper (I’d double that amount). Salt and pepper to taste. Spread on white bread (traditionally with crusts removed.) (Tomatoes and lettuce are not traditional but don’t hurt.) That’s the basic.

Additions include bacon (also Food Network), Worcestershire sauce (Southern Living), a splash of  brine from the pimientos and garlic (Saveur). SL recommends grilling the finished product, but I’ve never tried that.

May I recommend you ask one of your colleagues from below the Mason-Dixon line to change your opinion by making your one of these great southern classics?

More Reading


Brenda Ueland’s If You Want To Write came to me through the usual mysterious paths. I had thought to present it to the veterans’ writing group and may still, even though it assumes that fiction and poetry are the preferred genres.

Nevertheless, Ueland offers a great many valuable insights, and she does so with the insights of a visual artist and a musician. She excoriates people who feel they must constantly be in motion, constantly “acting.” I’ll give just one example. The would-be writer, having sat down to write, encounters no useful thoughts:

No logical thought comes in the first minute or two… A sort of paralysis follows, a conviction of your mental limitations, and you disconsolately go downstairs to do something menial and easy like washing the dishes, while doing so (though not knowing it) having some wonderful, fascinating, extraordinary, original, illuminating thoughts. Not knowing that they are thoughts at all, or “thinking,” you have no respect for them and do not put them down on paper—which you are to do from now on! That is, you are always to act and express what goes through you.

[Her emphasis]

That this gem of a book first appeared in 1938 with a second edition appearing in 1982 and yet another in 2010, is a testament to the universal truths it presents in a way that puts English 101 texts to shame. Though Ms. Ueland drew her experience from teaching a great many women who were housewives or servant “girls,” their writing through her guidance endures.

I will recommend the veterans add it to their reading list.