‘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 …

Nine People, Two Days

Dr. Mikao Usui,  originator of Reiki
Dr. Mikao Usui,
originator of Reiki

Reiki bliss has overtaken me during the last two days. I did a Reiki share on Monday, courtesy of the spiritual counselor in the Hospice Unit. Six of us gathered. Each one received Reiki from the other five. There is a multiplier effect when more than one person offers Reiki, so each eleven-minute session became the equivalent of fifty-five.  It also has a multiplier effect on the people giving it as the energy comes from the other practitioners. When it came to my turn on the table, it was a good thing people had their hands on me, otherwise I would have floated up to the ceiling. I slept like a rock last night.

Then today I went to continue the training of a new volunteer. She’s already a strong Reiki practitioner. I’m just showing her how to raise and lower the beds, adjust the lights, and biggest of all, how to find her way around the hospital. We offered Reiki to four patients, which means that each person receive double the benefit. The ones that were awake when we left were grateful.

At the end of this day, I’m about to float up to the ceiling again. Can’t focus my brain to write any more. Expecting another excellent night’s sleep.

What I’m Reading Now

"Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky …"
“Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky …”

Another in an occasional series. The only small things about Alexander McCall Smith’s What W.H. Auden Can Do For You are the page count at 137 and the measurements at 7 1/ 2″ by 4 1/ 2″ for the outside jacket of a hardcover.

I was aware of AMS’s affinity for Auden from reading the Sunday Philosophy Club mysteries. Isabel Dalhousie ruminates on the poet, along with her countryman Robert Burns.

Here, AMS brilliantly analyzes Auden’s poems as they uplift, educate, and inspire the ordinary person.

Having read a bit more than half, I’m entranced: My favorite observation so far is that Auden believed at one time that history was just a series of random events. This view moderated, at least as far as I’ve read.

AMS’s odd sense of humor flares early on. He writes that Auden responded to a Canadian burglar who had written to him and then adds a parenthetical: “Canada no doubt has its share of burglars, but for some reason there seems something surprising in the concept of a Canadian burglar—something vaguely oxymoronic.” Only a U.K. denizen could balk at the notion of a Canadian burglar. Also, I didn’t know things could be “vaguely” oxymoronic.

Twenty-three pages in, we learn about Auden’s appearance: “… the famous face, with its geological catastrophe of lines and crevasses, held the audience.” “Geological catastrophe” stands as an all-time great description. To apply it to the human face is sheer genius.

My only quibble, a tiny one, is that the editors let the book go too quick. Of course given the author, I could just be missing a significant point. The first encounter, in discussing politics between the wars, AMS used a version of the word “threat” three times in two sentences. “… the greatest threat was fascism, which was threatening the very basis of European civilization. It was against this backdrop of political threat …” seems inelegant for someone whose writing is normally so polished.

AMS is forcing me to re-read and think and feel, in depth. That’s what Auden can do for me. I’m buying this one, in hardcover, at a bricks-and mortar bookstore.

Painting Peace

My brilliant cousin Ashley James has another tour de force in the making, this time as a cinematographer.

I cried when I watched “Painting Peace: The Art & Life of Kazuaki Tanahashi”

The balance of art and passion expressed through action flows through a background of ineffable beauty.

The director is Babeth VanLoo, the woman who organized the Buddhist film festival that I attended in Amsterdam in 2010 when Kathryn Golden’s film “Zenju’s Path” premiered. Can’t wait to see the final version of “Painting Peace.”


In Defense of Mocking Accents


Slate offers a takedown of the Gawker “Ugliest Accent” competition. Josef Fruehwald claims the contest is just a cover for treating poor and less educated people to scorn and mockery.

I disagree.

First of all, Gawker is an equal opportunity bigot: “You all sound disgusting.”

Second, I knew some extremely wealthy and highly educated folks from Lawng Oiland. In fact we had a “people divided by a common tongue” incident when I was at Vassar because the Texas roommate of one such young lady couldn’t figure out how the New Yorker could live near the “Land o’ Goshen.” It was the Atlantic Ocean. As I mentioned in “Common Tongue,” the Philadelphia accent is pervasive in that area. I heard it, not just from the toll taker and the staff at the law school, but from lawyers. Geno Auriemma is neither poor nor poorly educated, but he talks Philufia. Likewise, did anyone think John F. Kennedy was a poor roughneck when he said, “Ahsk not …”? Don’t think so, though I have to agree that sometimes Bahston talk is incomprehensible to those who did not grow up speaking and listening to it.

Having been on the receiving end of a mock – for pronouncing the Connecticut city of Norwich “Norrich” as the residents do, I really don’t care if people think I’m a local. I do, however, refuse to say “New Bri-’an.” Anyway, it’s New Britain with a glottal stop in place of the “t.” The international symbol is supposed to beʔ〉but most people would read it as an errant question mark

Fruehwald makes one valid point – that as a credentialed sociolinguist, his job would become that much more difficult if people thought the point of the research was to make fun of the way they talk. I doubt, though, that many Gawker readers will be inviting him into their living rooms and presenting him with the evidence of their ethnicity or class status.

Other factors may put Fruehwald out of business, starting with the ubiquity of the “standard American English” spoken by news announcers, the late Peter Jennings notwithstanding. Then there’s the mobility of the population, which takes the residents of the “steaming, fetid stew of aural bile” otherwise known as New Orleans to the “squealing” streets of Los Angeles, or to any one of the various cities up the eastern seaboard. Based on Gawker’s list, these cities comprise half of the “ugly” accents. Of course they were home to large numbers of immigrants who settled in close-knit communities for several generations and passed the speech patterns from generation to generation – and from their neighborhoods out into the wider community.

By the way, the logo looks more like Mick Jagger’s tongue, which raises entirely different issues about class and income.

Quick Hit

Chaos reigned today. I have three active projects and managed work on all. Not sure how productive I was on any of them. Two more projects loom. Am I little hamster on a wheel going in circles and getting nowhere? Or a juggler with ever more pieces of china in the air?


My friends Michael Taylor, an expert juggler, and Peggi Camosci, who is learning
My friends Michael Taylor, an expert juggler, and Peggi Camosci, who is learning

The house is filled with eau de oil burner  as two guys spent the afternoon finishing the cleanup and turned the furnace on and off,  on and off. Couldn’t take a walk because the rain we’ve needed since July finally arrived in downpours and in nasty little drizzles.  Not complaining, though.

And the pile of clippings and odd pieces of paper expanded so much that I had to begin an excavation. Now the office looks a bit neater but I can’t find anything!

Back to emails, editing, and rewrites.