Sound Words


The veterans in the writing group have their essays in The Subway Ride. Phoebe Chen from Wesleyan University approached us back in February about having them contribute to the Spring 2016 issue with the theme of “Sound.” Everyone wrote, and one contributed an incredible free-hand drawing.

I’ve been following The Subway Ride on Facebook and on the website.  The videos have a range of whimsy, sharp political commentary, beauty, and experimental creativity.

Phoebe brought the paper copies to the group tonight. The production values rival the best-designed publications and the content – well, here’s what the editors have to say about the contributors:

Wesleyan students and staff, residents of Middletown and other parts of Connecticut, professional artists, and more. The age of our contributors ranges from 6 to 102 years old. [They came from] the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education, Veteran’s Writing Workshop at Russell Library, One MacDonough Place, Vinnie’s Jump and Jive dance studio, Green Street Teaching and Learning Center.

The result isa  dynamic and evocative publication that even on a quick skim fulfills its aim of inclusivity. I can’t wait to dig in.

What I’m About To Cook


This is actually another “what I’m reading” but falls in the category of a beautiful new world of food and culture. I learned about The Beetlebung Farm Cookbook: A Year of Cooking on Martha’s Vineyard when author Chris Fischer described (on The Moth, I think) preparing dinner for the Obamas at his restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard. He described the hovering Secret Service checking out the ingredients and the frenzy in the kitchen. Aside from the humor, Fischer’s recipes captivated me because of his reliance on produce he and his staff had grown, fish and shellfish they’d caught, and yes, meat they’d slaughtered. There was this coupon from Barnes & Noble that was due to expire so…

The book arrived today, and it’s even better than I expected. Beetlebung was the name of Fischer’s grandfather’s farm. The family had lived on the island for 250 years, and Fisher plants himself firmly in the soil and on the sea.

Gabriela Herman’s photographs capture the misty, glowing aura of the Vineyard. We have the raw ingredients – a doe-eyed rabbit still alive, pig carcass, flank steak, but also a basket of eggs, real apples in multiple sizes and shapes, radiant leeks, and bunches of asparagus,

Like Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila Latourrette’s This Good Food: Contemporary French Vegetarian Recipes from a Monastery Kitchen, Fischer cooks according to the season. “From the Woods and Garden” chapter in “Longer Days” features the leeks and asparagus in a soup with new potatoes, young pea leaves, and the zip of lemon and yogurt. Even though it’s in “Secret Summer” of “Last Swims; First Jackets,” I’d serve the soup with Lobster Pan-Roast with Tomato Butter Crostini: lobsters, tomato paste, sherry vinegar, lots of butter, and French bread.

That “Secret Summer” recalled my days in Old Saybrook after the summer people left and the Sound was still toasty warm but the air was turning fall-cool.

We had the blackberries and the asparagus and the lettuce and the peas but did not benefit from Fischer’s creative use of seasonings and combinations of ingredients.

Now to search out the freshest and the best.

What I’m Reading Now


This post didn’t go up yesterday because of some trauma.

Another in the series. It was supposed to be available in March. I had ordered Before the Deluge: A portrait of Berlin in the 1920’s by Otto Friedrich because it was on Bowie’s Top 100 list. It took so long to arrive I forgot why I ordered it. The state ditched the private company that had been transporting interlibrary loan books. What used to take two or three days now takes weeks, in this case nearly two months. The librarians are on the receiving end of public vitriol for something that’s not their fault. Plus there are piles and piles and piles of books in the hallways, in offices, behind the circulation desk. They are a hazard to the staff. I’ve decided if the library is any closer than Stamford, I’m going to pick it up myself. This of course represents a huge detriment to the environment and a greater waste of my time.

With the rant finished, I found Deluge more than worth the wait. This portrait of Berlin is frightening, depressing, and necessary. It should be required reading for high school and students, along with policy makers and politicians.

The Berlin of the 1920s bears a frightening resemblance to our own country in 2016 . Before Hitler ever appeared, there were individuals and groups vilifying minorities, especially Jews, even though a great many of them worked in leadership positions in government as well as in institutions of higher learning, the arts, and finance.

Opening with the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm in 1918, Deluge paints an image of a society in transition to a dark and appalling place. I skimmed the tedious discussion of politics but relished the descriptions of the great flourishing of the arts in the city. The creators bear names that endure to this day: Kurt Weill, Bertholt Brecht, Russian emigré Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Mann. Actors Peter Lorre and Marlene Dietrich  make an appearance. Not all were born in Berlin, but everyone contributed to the rich and vibrant culture of the city. Will Lin-Manuel Miranda be our Brecht/Weill?

Friedrich synthesizes the state of creativity with a quote from Austrian import Arnold Schoenberg: “”Beauty appears only from the moment when the unproductive begin to miss it … Before that point it does not exist.” (p. 178) Have Americans started missing beauty yet?

Deluge also offers an insightful analysis of the Bauhaus style of architecture. We learn the history of Dada and the parent of “happenings,” those art/game/drama events of the 1960s and 1970s.

Friedrich observes, “In Berlin, as in most of the Western world, 1929 was the year of euphoric prosperity.” (p. 278). Of course it didn’t last.

Soon a few warning showers turned to a downpour. Unemployment and poverty increased among the peasants. The new decade brought inflation that ate away at wages. Company owners slashed salaries and laid off employees. The homeless gathered in tent colonies.

The city began to decay. British/American author Christopher Isherwood wrote, “A peculiar and all-pervading smell of hopeless decay (rather like the smell of the inside of an old cardboard box) came out of the interiors of these grandiose houses now converted into pretentious slums.” (p. 305)

The Reichstag could not govern because of bitter divisions among the members (Congress vs. Obama, anyone?), and the economic situation deteriorated. Goebbels, Goering, and Hitler built their influence and began driving crowds to a frenzy.

Friedrich wrote Before the Deluge while he served as an editor at Time. He had worked as a journalist in Europe and the United States. His clear prose leavens the decadent subject matter with bracing directness.

He rounds out the book with interviews, among them W.H. Auden, of people who survived the deluge and its aftermath. These are among the strongest aspects of the book as they add immediacy and liveliness to a subject that has the feel of a Cat 5 hurricane gathering strength.

Cats Rule, I Mean Cat Rules

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It’s Friday. It’s been raining since forever. My brain has no room for anything but Monday’s talk. So here’s a replay of a blog swallowed in the great Bluehost meltdown. The first time I read this, I laughed so hard I cried. The list is of course quite long, so I’ll run them in segments whenever Friday levity is needed.

Basic Rules for Running a Household

Doors: Do not allow closed doors in any room. To get door opened, stand on hind legs and hammer with forepaws. Once door is opened, it is not necessary to use it. After you have ordered an “outside” door opened, stand halfway in and out and think about several things. This is particularly important during very cold weather, rain, snow, or mosquito season. Swinging doors are to be avoided at all costs.

Chairs and Rugs: If you have to throw up, get to a chair quickly. If you cannot manage in time, get to an Oriental rug. If there is no Oriental rug, shag is good. When throwing up on the carpet, make sure you back up so that it is as long as the human’s bare foot.

Bathrooms: Always accompany guests to the bathroom. It is not necessary to do anything – just sit and stare.

Hampering: If one of your humans is engaged in some close activity and the other is idle, stay with the busy one. This is called “helping,” otherwise known as “hampering.” Following are the rules for “hampering”:

  • When supervising cooking, sit just behind the left heel of the cook. You cannot be seen and thereby stand a better chance of being stepped on and then picked up and comforted.
  • For book readers, get in close under the chin, between eyes and book, unless you can lie across the book itself.
  • For knitting projects or paperwork, lie on the work in the most appropriate manner so as to obscure as much of the work or at least the most important part. Pretend to doze, but every so often reach out and slap the pencil or knitting needles. The worker may try to distract you; ignore it. Remember, the aim is to hamper work. Embroidery and needlepoint projects make great hammocks in spite of what the humans may tell you.
  • For people paying bills (monthly activity) or working on income taxes or Christmas cards (annual activity), keep in mind the aim – to hamper! First, sit on the paper being worked on. When dislodged, watch sadly from the side of the table. When activity proceeds nicely, roll around on the papers, scattering them to the best of your ability. After being removed for the second time, push pens, pencils, and erasers off the table, one at a time.
  • When a human is holding the newspaper in front of him/her, be sure to jump on the back of the paper. They love to jump.

A Plea


It’s almost Mother’s Day.  I will put on a smile and endure. But every year I shed many, many tears because my mother isn’t here to say, “I don’t want any presents. Just give me a kiss. I don’t have to dust it.” It’s doubly rough because the anniversary of her death was just a week ago. It hurts to see people shopping for cards and gifts knowing that my gift will be flowers on a grave.

For several years, my mother-in-law, the wonderful Thelma McRae Riley, helped fill the gap. The family had marvelous brunches. I filled her apartment with lilacs from my yard. Except for one year when it was blazing hot, they always bloom right on schedule for Mother’s Day. Now she’s gone, too. The bouquets rest on her grave.

I don’t want to detract from the joy of others, but I would say this to the merchandizers who send emails and flyers: Please consider that a good many of the people receiving your messages will cry, not buy. Think of us just a little, please.

Guess Who’s Coming to Tea?

One option for the veterans’ writing group was: “You are organizing a dinner party for published writers. Which three would you invite? What would you most like to learn from them?”

Here’s my contribution:

apMy first invitation would of course go to my mother. I want to know how Ann Petry feels about the response to her writing as of 2016. And I’d ask what she’d want me to do to further her legacy – or would she? On specific works, who was the model for the Super in The Street and the Weasel in Country Place? What did she intend for the “Miss Muriel II” and “III,” stories about “Aunt Sophronia,” a/k/a Anna Louise James? Plus is there any way I could get enough information to complete the story of her father’s family? I’m pretty sure she won’t answer any of these questions, but perhaps with encouragement from her fellow writers, she might be forthcoming.

janeMy second guest would be Jane Austen. My questions are endless. Is she surprised that Pride and Prejudice remains more popular than the more subtle and sophisticated Emma? How did she feel about her family’s tangential connection to the slave trade? to British war efforts, including two against their former colony in the Western Hemisphere? What message or messages does she want her readers to take from her works? Did she have a favorite among her novels? Which one?

Mother didn’t share my enthusiasm for Miss Austen, saying that her
novels were too talky. So I’d leave the final choice of guest to Ann Petry. Based on her list of favorite authors, we have an enormous pool from which to choose: men or women, American or British, a West Indian poet (Derek Walcott). For geographic reasons, I’d urge Eudora Welty. Mother and I are New England born and bred; Miss Austen is of course English through and through. Adding a southern touch would offer balance. I’d also let Mother frame the questions for Ms. Welty. One I’m fairly certain would involve their views on writing characters based on themselves. They would no doubt bond over a refusal to talk about their art, something that I’m sure Miss Austen would understand.


The menu will consist of afternoon tea, and I’d discourage Mother from helping in the preparation. We’ll have a large pot of Lapsang Souchong tea. The tiered serving platter will have cucumber and watercress sandwiches on one level with crackers and the sharpest Vermont cheddar on another. For the dessert layer, it’s a tossup whether I’ll buy cookies – something lemony and bright – or make a lemon tart. I’ll buy scones with crème fraîche and lemon curd from Tea Roses Tea Room.

On another date, I’d have a second meeting with different writers and a full dinner menu.

Next Project


NOT Liberty and Justice for All” will explore some of the legal themes underlying Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Check out the Facebook page rather than the library website.

Like many legal procedurals, it’s got mystery, conflict, and great stories. Plus I might try to read a sentence in Latin – or not.

It will not include any reference to Go Set a Watchman

Hope to see you Monday May 9 at 7 p.m. at Russell Library.

Back to work!

What I’m Reading Now


Blog did not appear Friday because my ISP Netplex crashed at about 10:30 a.m. and didn’t return until almost midnight. It’s been three days, and no one has bothered to explain what happened or to offer a rebate on the twelve-plus hours of down time. Bad business practice.

The next book on my “American voice” reading list was Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The story of what Diaz calls “ghetto nerd” Oscar de León, a/k/a Oscar Wao is told from the viewpoint of Yunior, who spends his life chasing women.

Reading Oscar Wao was like riding a rollercoaster that makes unscheduled stops only to start without warning and hurtle off the tracks, flinging the riders out into an ill-defined and unfamiliar space. The footnotes add gravitas as they include graphic descriptions of Dominican Republic strong man Trujillo’s depredations, most especially a curse he’s sworn on Oscar’s family.

As mentioned in an earlier post, I interrupted reading a few pages in once I realized that Oscar Wao is not really an American novel. Though it starts in Paterson, New Jersey and returns there periodically with excursions into NYC’s Spanish Harlem, its heart and soul and greatest characters lie in Santo Domingo and environs. Its American “voice” veers from English to Spanish to Spanglish, sometimes in one sentence. I expected to find this technique annoying but came to appreciate the rhythm and poetry of the sounds even when I couldn’t understand the words. When necessary Babelfish supplied mostly comprehensible translations.

Like many other works on Bowie’s list, Oscar Wao observes the effects of transcending and transgressing physical and emotional limits with acute commentary on the struggle to become “other.” In this case that other is as American/English as Oscar Wilde.