So Thrilled

Lauren Miller, director of grants and programs for CT Humanities; Cynthia Clegg, president and CEO of the Community Foundation; me; Thayer Talbott, senior director of programs and operations for the Foundation.
From left Lauren Miller, director of grants and programs for CT Humanities; Cynthia Clegg, president and CEO of the Community Foundation; me; Thayer Talbott, senior director of programs and operations for the Foundation.

The Connecticut Humanities Council has awarded a $23,000 grant to plan a documentary on the James family. Award-winning filmmakers and my dear cousins Ashley James and Kathryn Golden and I will be partnering with the Community Foundation of Middlesex County, with support from the Old Saybrook Historical Society, to plan For Dear Mother’s Sake: The James Family Letters That Shaped Ann Petry.

The letters document the lives of the best-selling author’s family:

  • a grandfather, who escaped from a Virginia plantation during the Civil War and became one of the first black men to buy a house in Hartford’s North End
  • her uncle, a “Buffalo Soldier” who, after his service in the Philippine-American War, begged Petry’s mother to send money so he could bribe a Georgia sheriff to escape a lynching
  • an aunt who went alone to Hawaii to care for the children of lepers at the turn of the twentieth century and met the last queen
  • Petry’s mother, who operated three businesses while raising a family
  • an aunt who became the first African-American woman to obtain a pharmacy license from the state of Connecticut and operated a pharmacy for more than forty years.

Petry’s mother saved the four hundred letters that will frame the documentary. For more, see Can Anything Beat White? A Black Family’s Letters, which I edited and compiled.

Everyone involved in this project is ecstatic and looking forward to exploring the lives of people who had a major impact on  Connecticut and around the world.

We will be holding various events as we move along, so watch this space for further announcements.


Can’t Think


I was just beginning to think about what to put in the journal. It was 7:30 a.m. The sound of some giant machine chewing up the street shot me out of my reverie.

After circling the block for the last several weeks Yankee Gas invaded directly across the road.

The grinding continued on and off for three (?) hours, interspersed with the beep-beep-beep of reversing construction equipment. I was able to shut out some of the racket by turning up the volume on the music in my headphones, which probably wasn’t any better for my hearing.

Then around 1 p.m., there was an enormous thud as if someone had dropped the bucket of a massive pay loader. (I think that’s actually what happened.) Anyway the house shook almost as much as it did with the Kleen Energy explosion, thankfully without the casualties.

The result is that my brain power has fallen to the lowest ebb. Promise more of substance tomorrow — unless Yankee returns.

The Montgomery Burns Comma


(Or should that be Burns’ or Burns’s?) Thank you to my friend Jesse Nasta for inspiring this post.

So Montgomery Burns dies. Sorry, Harry, you lost a character. MB might return from the afterlife but seldom. He leaves a will. In a dream world Homer would inherit everything but awaken on an island surrounded by sharks with no chance of escape.

MB was of questionably sound mind when he made the will and left the money to Homer’s kids. MB is also in reduced circumstances  because of lawsuits over poisoning Springfield and Homer’s screw ups so the estate is only worth $10 million.

The document is duly witnessed but not read in a booklined study because that only happens in movies. It reveals the following: “I give, devise, and bequeath the entirety of my estate to Bart Simpson, Lisa Simpson and Maggie Simpson.”

A probate judge awards $5 million to Bart, while Lisa and Maggie receive $2.5 million each.

Of course Lisa and Maggie sue – using up most of the money in lawyers’ fees. The result stands because there was no comma between Lisa’s name and Maggie’s. The judge points to the insertion of the comma between “devise” and “and” to support the theory that MB knew what he was doing.

This scenario is based on an actual case, though I don’t recall whether there was a third comma in the boilerplate. The example  made my English Comp class pay attention to details – at least for the first couple of weeks.

The serial or Oxford comma, inserting it before the “and” or other conjunction for the last item in a series, remains the subject of fierce debate. Journalists omit it, a throwback to days of print. Tossing all those commas saves trees.

I’ve been inconsistent in the extreme, veering between omission and inclusion. In fact I’ve found mistakes in both my books.

On an unrelated topic, I’m tempted to edit the image to omit one “m” but won’t.

Creole Belle


I’m not going to post this entry as “What I’m Reading Now” because I listened to the audio book. In some ways that added to its appeal because Will Patton’s voice captured the soft drawl of the folks who live on the bayou. As mentioned, I decided to borrow it from the library because of the radio dead zone that pervades the hills and valleys between Connecticut and Williamsport.

Listening to the book was another of those out-of-time, out-of-place experiences that I’ve had over the years: reading The Feminine Mystique in Mexico City with men yelling “Hey, chica!” as they walked by me waiting for my group in the lobby of the Hilton; reading Angela’s Ashes on the beach in Hawaii; reading Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood among eucalyptus trees in California.

This time it was listening to descriptions of crushing heat, downpours, violent lightning, dried cane husks rustling under car tires, the smoke of burning fields, as I drove through green rolling terrain and came upon pristine red barns lacking power lines surrounded by cows or cornfields just beginning to tassel.

Creole Belle is one of the massive number of James Lee Burke’s crime novels. His anti-hero, Dave Robicheaux, is the homicide detective for the Iberia Parish sheriff’s department (pronounced “Ahburia”). Dave and his buddy Clete Purcell had worked for the New Orleans P.D. but departed under … circumstances. The men are Vietnam veterans and coping, not always successfully, with their demons from that time, along more recent and distant bouts in hell.

As Belle opens, Dave is waking up in a morphine haze from a murder attempt. He receives a visit from a young Creole woman he has assisted at various times. At least he thinks she’s visited and left an iPod with some music she recorded including her own rendition of “My Creole Belle.” No one else can hear the songs, and no one has seen the young woman in months.

Via Robicheaux, Burke does a good job of explaining the various layers of the meaning of the word “Creole” in South Louisiana. Both author and character are still fighting the Civil War, though one of the most sympathetic characters (victims) in the story is a young African American deputy sheriff and Robicheaux’s personal dealings with black people represent the way we should be treated.

The story runs along many parallel and intersecting lines, at times becoming downright preposterous.

Burke always sets his novels in a larger context. The Tin Roof Blowdown offered his take on Katrina and its aftermath. Creole Belle confronts the BP oil blowout – not a spill. According to Robicheaux’s angry and eloquent outburst, a spill occurs when there’s a little dribble of oil or other substance. This was an explosion, and Burke captures all the horror and violence of the blast of sand and oil and water that killed people – and a way of life.

I seldom read violent novels or mysteries, and listening to Creole Belle was even more difficult, but it is nourishing to hear Burke describe my father’s hometown. He includes Robicheaux’s walks from his house on Bayou Teche; by the Shadows, which my grandfather helped to restore in the early 1900s; to Victor’s where I ate; to Clementine where I also ate and mentioned in the earlier post because the poorboy (Clementine’s spelling) made me ravenous as I was trapped, starving, in a car with the most sophisticated nearby cuisine at McD’s. Burke left out Books on the Teche this time, but I remember it fondly as well.

With all its flaws, Belle kept me entertained for the return trip with no temptation to switch to radio.

Leaving Williamsport



I decided I didn’t need another day of a soaking run and so just packed and drank coffee with a mere glance at the paper. It is now Friday, and I haven’t finished the main news section. Leftovers from the previous week threaten the floor of my study.

We discovered an indoor connection to the Express next door on Sunday evening and so had breakfast there. I nearly replicated my yogurt and toast except I had to use butter in place of olive oil and left the blueberry jam in the bottom of the cup.

Betsy went to a gift shop before heading out. I hit the road after a quick stop for gas, which was forty cents a gallon cheaper than Conn. Lots of people were jogging across the bridge to South Williamsport. It lacked appeal because of the exhaust from the cars stopped at traffic lights at either end. The runners  didn’t seem to mind.

I made excellent time with only a couple of slow-ups and no complete stops for construction. Much lighter traffic contributed but also featured rows of eighteen wheelers. I considered the trade-off worth it once I’d left the hills of Pennsylvania where they race down hills to avoid poking up the other side.

All in all a most successful trip.

Williamsport Day 2


 I arose on Sunday and went for another run, this time along Fourth Street past the Herdic House along “Millionaires’ Row.” It featured lots of huge old mansions in good condition and tidy newer commercial buildings. People were arriving for an 8 a.m. service. Based on the cross on top, the church was either Episcopal or Roman Catholic. I’m guessing the former because of the lack of further ornamentation. The sign didn’t advertise a denomination that I could see, though I was watching for cars, pedestrians, and uneven pavement.

After I cooled down, showered, and dressed, Betsy and I crossed the parking lot to Wegman’s. It was a few minutes before 9, but the NYTimes had not yet arrived. We went to Perkin’s for breakfast. Many of the tables were full and a couple held ten or twelve people. A very filling breakfast of buttermilk pancakes and fruit.

The Times had arrived by the time we finished. It is the Washington edition, which may explain the delay. I miss the Real Estate and Metro sections, which are compressed into Business and the main news section outside the tri-state area.

We returned to further work, aided first by coffee (for me) and later by Casal Garcia accompanied by excellent bread that Betsy supplied, plus cheese and fruit.

The research proceeds at a snail’s pace with or without caffeine or alcohol, which is kind of sad. But I did manage to unearth some valuable nuggets.

Our painting partner from the previous evening had raved about Bullfrog, a restaurant and brewery. I ran by it in the morning and realized we had seen it last year, as it sported a portion of the three-sided mural wrapping around a parking lot. Betsy had chicken and veggies. I had a stir-fry that the waitress claimed would be blindingly hot. It wasn’t. Plus they didn’t toast the sesame seeds, which meant they lacked any flavor.

Crashed after reading a few of the many Newsify items on my phone.

Williamsport Day 1


I began the day with a run along Pine Street north to the island with the farmers’ market. Impression: the rehab effort is proceeding but has still left a good portion of the city behind. Did some additional running on the return. At 7:30 a.m. it was nasty and sticky but not yet hot. I grabbed coffee in the lobby, then Betsy and I had breakfast at the restaurant. The omelets lacked cheese and most of the advertised veggies.

Returned to work on a project to be announced later. I came up with conclusions about some of the cast of characters, but the topic is still too amorphous to describe coherently.

We worked until five-ish, aided by a bottle of Casal Garcia.

Then we went to Rum Runners for dinner. I had a salad with grilled salmon on top – grill mix deliciously spicy. Betsy had steak and asparagus. Steak cooked medium rare, not medium. The only other people in the place left when they discovered they couldn’t get the Italian special. It was the wrong weekend.

From there we walked two doors to Wine and Design, a place where people paint and drink wine. I exorcized some of my painting demons but produced what I thought was a sub-par piece of work based on the sketch of an anchor. The upbeat instructor had to help me finish. No, I’m not going to hang it or share it with the public.

There were only three of us, the third being a tiny (short and almost emaciated) young woman, newly married whose parents had paid the $35 to reduce her anxiety. She spread enough of the acrylic paint on her canvas to soak through to the back and took way longer to finish than Betsy or me.

I was exhausted and crashed fairly early after reading a bit of an AMS novel that I know I’ve read before.

To Williamsport


Blog went on temporary hiatus because my friend Betsy McMillan and I did our annual writers’ weekend. We met half way in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

I was on the road by 9:30 a.m. Friday and made excellent time (even through Waterbury) until the Newburgh-Beacon bridge, which remains under construction from last year. There was only a minor slowup because most of the blockage is eastbound, something to look forward to on the way home.

There were two more huge construction projects but again just slowups because of the light traffic. I took a break at the Wallkill “text  stop” in New York and then again just after Wilkes Barre. On the way out I called Betsy who was stuck in massive traffic delays. The rest of the trip uneventful except I took the wrong exit for Route 15 in Pennsylvania. Siri redirected me with a loss of about 30 seconds.

After the stop outside Wilkes Barre, I turned off the radio and started listening to a book on tape, having learned from prior experience that even WCBS in New York can’t travel through the Poconos.

The book was James Lee Burke’s Creole Belle. The story is violent, and a bit funny. I’ll review it at some point. The first disc took me to within a couple of miles of the hotel. The best bit so far is the description of the oyster po’ boy that Clete Purcell gets from Clementine: fried oysters, shrimp, lettuce, onion, and remy sauce (the menu says Creole mustard) on a full baguette. Oh, my. It was well past lunch when I heard that. Now I was starving.

I arrived at the Holiday Inn at 3 p.m., meaning I had driven 5.5 hours, really five because of the stops. The biker guys from last year are back. The desk clerk is Elizabethanne. Checked in and then went to lunch – a barely warm crab bisque, rich creamy with a drizzle of sherry and a salad of greens, cucumber, a couple of cherry tomatoes and lots of radishes.

Came up and did odds and ends. Betsy arrived at 5. We hung out and had a glass of chilled red wine that she brought. Then we went to dinner at Peter Herdic House. She had a salad, I had smoked shad with toast points, a fierce horseradish sauce, capers, and cucumber. The shad comes from the Susquehanna and is smoked locally. We both had shrimp, which was crusted with Parm cheese, accompanied by green beans and fettuccine, which was pretty much tasteless except for the occasional blast of garlic.

Returned to the hotel where we chatted and drank wine until I crashed at midnight.

A Note on #Watchman


An unscientific survey indicates that many people think that Harper Lee never intended to publish Go Set a Watchman and that the elderly infirm author is being manipulated. I have no proof but the departure of a long-term advisor and other factors provide circumstantial evidence.

Two factors bolster my view that the skeptics are right. 1) I have personal experience that publisher HarperCollins ignores its authors when it comes to putting sales first; 2) I feel I am watching the reverse of what happened to my mother, who dropped out of sight and refused to allow anyone in. Her legacy stands on her terms.

As I said on FB, welcome to the publishing industrial complex.