Happy Anniversary




My parents were actually married in March 1936, but always celebrated the ceremony performed on February 22, 1938. Here’s how I found out, the story lifted from At Home Inside.

Mother kept the actual date of her marriage a secret for her entire life. As I was cleaning out the desk in her bedroom after her death, I found an envelope with foxing around the edges. It contained a piece of folded vellum that read “Certificate of Marriage.” “That in accordance with the Laws of the State of New York On [the] 13th day of March 1936 Mr. George David Petry and Miss Anna Houston Lane were by me united in Marriage at Mount Vernon, New York.” Below that statement were the signatures of the person officiating and of two witnesses but no seal.

“What’s this?” I asked my dad. He gave a peculiar half smile.

“That’s when we were married.”

“What about February 22, 1938?” I had already unearthed another booklet of vellum, “A Token of Our Wedding,” containing Bible verses and stating that the Reverend Herbert P. Woodin had united George D. Petry and Anna H. Lane in Holy Matrimony in Saybrook, Connecticut. And even without the “token,” I had vivid recollections of the date and all the details because Mother delighted in telling the story of what happened at their wedding.

That story involved various male members of the family crying during the ceremony. Daddy asked her if he’d done something wrong, and Mother said no. Her father and her uncle and a family friend were mourning the disappearance of starched shirts, hot and delicious turnovers and muffins and biscuits. They were leaving on a train to New York.

Every milestone in our family seems to have a story.

Happy Ceremonial Anniversary, Mother and Daddy.

What I’m Reading Now (The Dalai Lama on What Matters Most)

In the mad rush to take care of various and sundry obligations I had a chance to stop at my friend Peggi’s Tea Roses Tea Room and to “sit, sip, relax” with a cup of Tippy Yunan and a housemade scone. While browsing the bookshelves I came across The Dalai Lama on What Matters Most: Conversations on Anger, Compassion, and Action.

The man engaged in conversation with His Holiness was Noriyuki Ueda, a professor formerly at Stanford and now at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. He says by way of introducing himself that he wants to “cultivate a new type of leader who combines expertise in the humanities and sciences and can cope with twenty-first century issues.” He’s awfully long-winded about it.

In the opening pages, his commentary runs ten lines, drawing a response of two words from His Holiness. The next exchange had Ueda speaking twenty-four lines with a one-words answer. The most irritating was a six-page commentary on the practice of Buddhism in Japan with the Dalai Lama replying in a few lines that precisely addressed the problem of inequality in the world.

Over all, His Holiness offers magnificent insights into the human condition, reflecting as the subtitle indicates on anger, compassion, and action. It would have been helpful if Professor Ueda had not spoken at such length.

What Matters Most is at once a big book running more than 300 pages, and a small one as it measures about five inches, perfect to slide into a pocket. And it contains treasures. Many pages have the most salient points set off from the larger conversation:

Anger that arises out of compassion is useful. Anger that is motivated by compassion or a desire to correct social injustice, and does not seek to harm the other person, is a good anger that is worth having.

All I could think of was those Parkland students drawing attention to the cowardly legislators in Florida.

Our whole society has lost sight of what is truly valuable. We judge everything on a material level, and we don’t recognize any other values.

Are you listening, politicians?

And my favorite, because it will help us all to become better more enlightened people:

We must first be skeptical and doubt everything, as we do in the modern world. Skepticism produces questions, questions lead to investigation … and investigation and experimentation bring answers.

If only our leaders were this enlightened.

Join Me

Here’s yet another chance to hear about Ann Petry and our amazing James family. I’ll be appearing February 21 at 7 p.m. at the Killingworth  Firehouse 333 Route 81.

My talk will include announcements about new and forthcoming editions of The Narrows, Miss Muriel and Other Stories,and Harriet Tubman, as well as Country Place, which has been out of print for more than fifty years.

Also, I’ll update everyone on the progress of the documentary Ann Petry and the James Family Letters. The talk will conclude with a video clip that previews what will appear in the completed film.

The program is free, but registration is required.  Please call the Killingworth Library at (860_ 663-2000 or visit the library  for more information.

What I’m Listening To Now (Thug Notes)

Sparky Sweets

Thug Notes presents literary critique gansta style. Greg Edwards Ph.D, aka Sparky Sweets, is rude, hilarious, and brilliant. Wish I’d had the chance to watch and listen to a dude in gold chains and do-rag delivering ten-minute “Cliff Notes” on great works of literature when I was in school.

The podcast came across my radar when the Jane Austen Society’s newsletter linked to his episode on Emma. His appearance and street slang served as a perfect counterpoint to Austen’s elegant and genteel language. I laughed so hard my four mph walk slowed so I could catch my breath. I recommend Thug Notes as part of an aerobic workout.

A few samples: “Her panties hit the floor.” “Throwin’ game.” The Bateses are “homies.” Harriet is a “hood rat.”

On youtube, photos of the characters are “upgraded” cartoon style, but I prefer to listen to the podcast and create my own images.

Sparky knows his stuff – he wraps character and plot analysis, along with social commentary in outrageous language, calling Emma a numbskull and cracking on the rest of the cast in the best street language.

After the plot summary his literary analysis talks the proper lit talk with an explanation of “free and direct discourse.” And he gets the moral of the story right: actions count more than money or status.

The tag line for the show says it all, “You don’t know sh*t till you’ve watched Thug Notes.”

Next up: “Bad Ass Women in Lit.”

More Desolation

I had planned to post a funny list of reasons it costs more for a pet’s haircut than the owner’s. But I’m still too brokenhearted over this latest act of evil.

This essay by an angry and charismatic young man holds out hope for change. Cameron Kasky and his classmates join the tradition of young people on the vanguard of change: the sit-ins at the lunch counters, the protests against the Vietnam War, #BlackLivesMatter, and now #MeToo. May the Parkland students ignite an national movement.

I’ll just end with a plea that I first wrote after the carnage at Sandy Hook, which still tears at my heart.

Please, please, please do not let the gun control issue get subsumed under reform of mental-health laws. Yes, we need to make certain that people who are a danger to themselves or others receive needed help. But that care doesn’t negate the need for gun control.

On that issue, people should be able to have their hunting rifles and shotguns just as they have fishing poles and crab traps. Decisions about handguns should be made by individual jurisdictions. I can easily see different rules in West Podunk, Texas, and New York City. But why should anyone outside the U.S. military be allowed to buy and use the weapons used in Newtown and Aurora, the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and now Parkland? No one has yet to offer a good answer.

Launching ‘Black Panther’

Professor William Foster

My friend Professor William H. Foster III began the Black Panther experience tonight with an enthralling talk about the Panther, black comic books, history, culture, and lots of humor.

We met through a mutual friend but then discovered two two-degrees of connection. He grew up in a Philadelphia neighborhood where I moved about the time he left for Connecticut. When he arrived in Middletown, he rented a room from Larry’s grandmother.

Bill is a world-renowned expert on black comics and their authors, people that we lesser mortals can only gaze at in awe. With two books about these folks and their work,  and more on the way, Bill has established his credentials in a genre that deserves greater recognition for reflecting how we live — and how we should view the world.

During Thursday’s talk at First Church, Bill  put the film in context with discussions of the Black Panther Party and the 1960s experience, Roots and Alex Haley, along with the debt the world owes to Africa  for mathematics, architecture, and a great many of the crops we consume.

Bill’s animated presentation engaged his audience. He preached, even as he joked with the two little girls in the front row who seemed utterly entranced. He drew applause and “amens.”

Though I was familiar with many of the non-comic aspects of his talk, one concept floored me: There is a link between Prohibition and the birth of comic books.

Can’t wait to hear his assessment of the movie.

Valentine’s Day with a Broken Heart

Once again, I am feeling desolate The shooting in Florida has reopened the wounds of Sandy Hook.  Processing this newest trauma will take months. In the meantime I want to wish friends and family Happy Valentine’s Day.

The above is an Ann Petry original. Each year she composed a variation on “Roses are red” and sent it to her loved ones. The little running figures appeared in various forms in her notebooks and on pages where she doodled while on the phone and so forth, plus in the odd letter or note.

The halo came from the TV series The Saint. I’m pretty sure she had started her little running figures before show opened in 1962, but it’s possible she appropriated the whole thing. She did not watch the Roger Moore and co. before 1966, the year our family acquired a TV.

The reverse of the V’tine was never traditional. This harbinger of spring, I’m pretty sure, was cut from a greeting card she had received, a terrific missive to receive in dark and snow-ridden February.

And here’s Liz’s version with hope that all may live to say “I love you” to the special people in their lives. And may we never again have another Broward or Sandy Hook.

Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler/But Not That Way

A courir participant in Soileau. He’s unmasked and wearing a baseball cap (Los Angeles?!). Maybe he’s a capitaine.

To celebrate Fat Tuesday, I’m updating an entry from 2010.

The one place I don’t want to be this Mardi Gras is New Orleans. Not that I don’t love the city with its great food and fabulous music. It’s just that being part of a big drunken, topless party isn’t my idea of fun.

Larry and I visited the year before Katrina. It was January, weeks away from Mardi Gras, and it was still pretty much a drunken mess. We left the hotel one morning just as the city’s super efficient cleaning squad was finishing its work. Boy, was that disgusting! I totally get why the authorities don’t allow glass and metal containers. The discarded plastic overflowing from trash bins and scattered in their general vicinity could have been recycled to supply the city all over again. And that was the cleanest part of the trash.

Added in 2018: I love that the head of public works is a woman and that she’s devised a way to keep all those beads out of the storm drains. Maybe they should be added to the levees.

No N.O. for me during the Mardi Gras party. What I would like to see, though, is a traditional celebration called courir de Mardi Gras (Mardi Gras run – I have no idea how they pronounce “courir”). My relatives on the bayou told me about it some years ago, and it looks like the smaller towns still follow the practice.

The tradition involves men, and recently women and children, wearing costumes and masks to conceal their identity making their way from house to house on horseback. They sing and dance or otherwise entertain the residents. When they are done they beg and perform for an ingredient for the gumbo pot that will feed the town.

Some of the outfits are uncomfortably close to Klan sheets that fell into a dye vat. One web site said the hats were meant to make fun of those worn by noblewomen during medieval times.

Daddy assured me that the Klan was never active in the bayou because most of the population was Catholic – and because the Knights of Columbus told the Klan “If you show up here, we’ll kick your butt,” or words to that effect. Turns out that probably wasn’t true.

It’s interesting that one site distinguishes between the “Cajun” courirs in the first eight locations and the ninth, the “Creole” courir in Soileau.

The best part must be watching the Mardi Gras as they are called chasing chickens around people’s yards. No, make that the second best part. The best part would be eating the resulting gumbo and watching the dancing afterward.

Apparently there are different traditions in more urban Lafayette where the men wore masks but did not beg for food. Rather they followed the practice of New Orleans where the krews stage battles, which are now mock battles but used to involve beaucoup violence. (“Meet me, boys, on the battle front/The Wild Tchopatoulas gonna stomp some rump.”)

More Art

Friday’s entry didn’t do justice to the breadth and depth of Pierre Sylvain’s work, so I’m doing another entry. I mentioned the influence of Cubism, but there is also folk art and neo- expressionism.

Door of No Return

Among the most stunning images are the black-and-white acrylic on board that portrays aspects of slavery and abolition. As soon as I saw them, I thought of the Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat,

Pierre’s “Door of No Return” is among the best expressions of the horror of the slave trade. The door is in a building “La Maison des Esclaves” on Gorée Island in Senegal where many captive Africans last saw their homeland.

The Radiant Child

With its bold colors and liveliness, Basquiat’s “The Radiant Child” forms a counterpoint to the dark and brooding “Door of No Return,” though the child’s American flag smile does have a macabre quality. (The meaning of “Apokhes,” which appears on several paintings, remains obscure).

Both artists’ images share an energy and a passion. Basquiat’s have more elements of folk art and appear rougher, but their messages of black empowerment resonate equally. People who control these things should arrange an exhibit of works by these artists.

‘Fantastical Journey’

‘Mambo’ by Pierre Sylvain

Middletown’s Russell Library has a magical exhibit on display in the lobby and reference section. Local artist Pierre Sylvain has mined his Haitian roots, along with American history and culture to produce “Fantastical Journey: voodoo, slavery, jazz!”

Pierre’s art defies adequate description. He works mostly in acrylic but stretches the form as he paints on far more than canvas. Glass and boards supply textures that enhance the images. He adds a collage effect with the addition of seashells and glass beads, as in “Mambo,” described as the female higher priest in the voodoo religion.

The black-and-white images in the lobby represent a powerful testament to the evils of slavery. “The Middle Passage” and “Door of No Return” could stand by themselves as a way to teach the pain and dislocation that afflicted millions, scars that remain today.

The most fascinating are the paintings on shutters. Many of them feature musicians blowing horns. The texture of the shutters gives the paintings an organic quality that suits the musical themes.

The images are accessible, though of course they grow on the viewer the longer one gazes. A number have people with one eye closed, or at least appearing as a slit. At first I thought it was a sign of injury, but the warrior “Woman of Caiman” will inflict wounds before she receives them. It’s the most Cubist aspect of Pierre’s work, at once enticing and mysterious.

Pierre calls another series “Grace and Movement.” With it he intends “to create a series that engages your mind and your spirit.” It surely does, as do the rest of his works.

The exhibit is up through March 31, thoughtfully after the end of Black History Month, and also offering plenty of time to go view it.