Smells Like Summer

When the going gets tough, the tough … start cooking. There hasn’t been enough of it going on in my life for a while. So on Monday I went over the river (Coginchaug) and through the woods (Wadsworth Falls State Park) to Lyman Orchards. I love shopping there – the freshest and tastiest of fruit and veggies, mouth-watering pastries, excellent sweet cider. With a senior discount stuff is cheaper than the grocery store.

Not only that, I feel I’m supporting a family who supported African Americans long before many others did. William Lyman used to farm all day and at night take his wagon filled with escaping slaves to Farmington. This was in the 1830s, right about the time the Underground Railroad got its name – though the network had existed for decades before that.

Anyway, I filled up on various and sundry and began serious enjoyment of the smells and tastes of summer. Eating peaches over the sink because the juice is running down my chin. Biting into a cherry tomato that tastes like a piece of candy with savory tanginess thrown in.

Then there’s the basil. It sat on the counter for two days perfuming the entire house. Last night I tore up most of the leaves and made pesto, recipe courtesy of The Joy of Cooking: quarter cup each pine nuts and shredded Parm cheese, two cloves garlic, one and half cups shredded basil leaves, a ridiculous amount of olive oil. Blend until the whole thing turns emerald green. The recipe says use a mortar and pestle but my hand still can’t maintain for that long so I use the blender.

Now the house smells like basil and garlic.

Tradition says to serve it over pasta. It’s also excellent on toast and as salad dressing. It’ll go with those yummy tomatoes – and bell peppers of various colors – and carrots. In other words pretty much anything except those peaches, which are destined for cobbler if we don’t eat them all before I get to it.

What I’m Reading Now (Being Mortal)

Another in the series. I’m struggling to keep a minimal level of sanity. It’s much helped by Atul Gawande”s elegant prose and empathetic insights. He has charmed me through his essays in The New Yorker.

With Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, he produces a gift to humanity.

One indication of the impact of a book comes in the form of dreams. A few nights ago I dreamt that I watched an elderly man go into a basement. A friend arrived, but before we could go in after him, he returned. I watched him put a pill in his mouth and thought, “We’ve got to keep him from going back to the cellar.” I don’t try to dig into my dreams, but this one seemed pretty clearly to mean that I need to help people who are nearing the end of their lives – and to enlist my friends to do the same.

Dr. Gawande has taken many steps in that direction. Being Mortal offers guidance  for medical and nonmedical folk who think that the American way of death is broken, that people should not end their lives isolated in nursing homes or hooked up to ventilators and IV drips in ICUs.

The one big piece that’s missing for a large segment of the U.S. population is that we no longer have communities of people there for us in our last days.

Along with graphic descriptions of what happens when families don’t have “the talk,” Dr. Gawande serves up humor and uplift. One effort to change the trajectory allowed cats, dogs, birds, and kids (and plants) to interact with assisted living patients. Staff objected that they could handle human waste, but cleaning litter boxes was not in the contract. There were far more positives and not only for the patients whose longevity improved. Staff who brought their children to work had fewer absences.

Dr. Gawande’s own learning curve was steep and painful. It was possible in part because his family arrived recently from another culture. His father was an immigrant and also a surgeon, but in India his grandfather had a community that allowed him to maintain his status as patriarch until he was past one hundred, at which point he fell off a bus.

When the time comes, I want a Dr. Gawande as backup.

Enduring Narratives

In light of current events, I’m going to post a copy of the blog I wrote for Northwestern University Press to publicize the new editions of Miss Muriel and Other Stories and The Narrows.

  • A white police officer assaults a young black woman and shoots a man who comes to her aid; protests erupt.
  • Respectable African Americans decline to call the police when a family member goes missing because they fear the response.
  • White bullies attack a small black girl at school.
  • Teachers humiliate black students because of their race.
  • A young black man is denied employment despite his impeccable credentials.
  • A wealthy businessowner forces a media company to change its editorial policy by threatening to pull advertising.

Every one of these events is happening today.

  • The police shootings of black men in Ferguson and Baltimore and Milwaukee and Baton Rouge cause residents to march in the streets; sometimes the marches turn violent.
  •  Even law-abiding African Americans are reluctant to call the police. Cities around the country are experiencing a drop in crime rates because immigrant families have stopped reporting incidents.
  • Students threaten a young black boy in a Detroit suburb; in Pennsylvania, a series racial taunts at school sporting events force the athletic officials’ association to address the issue.
  • School districts in North Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana have suspended teachers during the 2016-2017 school year because of their treatment of black students.
  • The estate of Edward Albee refuses to allow performances of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because the role of Nick is to be played by an African American.
  • Boycotts or threats of boycotts have changed policies and practices throughout the country. Sports and entertainment companies abandoned the state of North Carolina after it passed legislation discriminating against transgender people; Fox News removed executives and broadcasters over myriad allegations of sexual harassment and failure to respond to women’s complaints; Google faces millions in lost revenue because companies don’t want their ads running next to YouTube videos from white supremacists and international terrorist organizations.

Years before Ferguson or schoolyard bullying or boycotts, Ann Petry explored each of these issues in her fiction.

The genius of Miss Muriel and Other Stories and The Narrows are that they take intimate personal stories and create lessons that continue to resonate.

  • “In Darkness and Confusion,” first published in 1947, is her interpretation of the 1943 Harlem riot. That incident followed the shooting of an African American soldier by a white police officer who was attempting to arrest a black woman. Petry gives the account extra heft through a protagonist who has just learned that his son is serving twenty years at hard labor in a southern military prison, precipitated by his refusal to go to the back of a bus in Georgia.
  • In “The New Mirror” (1965), the patriarch and the town’s black pharmacist, goes missing. The story illustrates how the family struggles to maintain a barrier between the public life of the store and their private lives. As part of that struggle, his wife and sister-in-law wait hours before going to the police – and they go in person, rather than risking a telephone call over fears that someone might eavesdrop on the conversation.
  • Petry writes of racial bullying in the 1944 story “Doby’s Gone” Little Sue Johnson attends school for the first time. On the playground and after school, the children taunt her and call her names. A boy threatens her with a long switch. Petry and her sister encountered just such an incident in Saybrook, Connecticut, in about 1912. Children threw rocks at them on their way home from their first day of school.

Petry’s third and final novel, The Narrows, is a layered and highly nuanced work. Set shortly after World War II and published in 1953, it is the story of a struggling African American neighborhood. At its center is the account of a doomed love affair between a handsome and brilliant young black man and a rich, white married woman.

  • As part of the flashback to his childhood, Link Williams recalls suffering indignity at the hands of a racist teacher. He gives the teacher the name “Miss Pause Dwight” because of the way she hesitates each time she says his name. His antipathy escalates when she casts him in a minstrel show as Sambo. Petry’s sixth-grade teacher had her read the words of the former slave Jupiter in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Gold Bug.” Both children suffer the humiliation of others mocking them. They come to view their blackness with shame. Both also encounter teachers who help them find a way through their pain to a greater understanding of in their race.
  • As an adult, Link works in a dive bar because he cannot secure any other position despite his Dartmouth education.
  • Mrs. Treadway, owner of a gun factory and the city’s principal employer, threatens to pull her advertising from the local newspaper because it is portraying her family in an unflattering light and publishing favorable stories about black people. The publisher capitulates and begins to feature negative stories about black criminals and ghetto living.

Ann Petry remained aware of the enduring quality of her narratives. She revealed this understanding in The Narrows with the epigraph from Shakespeare.

I tell you, captain, if you look in the maps of the ’orld I warrant you sall find, in the comparisons between Macedon and Monmouth, that the situations, look you, is both alike. There is a river in Macedon; and there is also moreover a river at Monmouth: it is called Wye at Monmouth; but it is out of my prains what is the name of the other river; but ’tis all one, ’tis alike as my fingers is to my fingers, and there is salmons in both.

Fluellen, King Henry V, Act IV, vii.

And more than sixty years later, we still inhabit the world Cesar the Writing Man posited when he scrawled the theme of the novel on the sidewalk: “Is there anything where of it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us.”

Finding Words

It would be good. Possible? I doubt it.

What words to use? I’ve been struggling since Saturday to describe my feelings about what happened in Charlottesville on Saturday: terror, despair, outrage, and fury. The images of the gutter rats showed they came prepared for battle.

Then I switched to uplift at the unity of the counter-protesters. They displayed courage and eloquence in the face of hatred, bigotry, and evil.

Based on the late and weak statements from Trump, it is almost certain that the white supremacists and Nazis and Klan creatures will surface again and wreak additional havoc.

A note to the people claiming to be patriots: That statue you were marching to support was of a traitor to the government of the United States. It was put there in 1924. The purpose was to disguise the real reason for the Civil War.

For a brilliant argument for why those statues need to disappear from the public square, check out New Orleans’ Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech explaining the choice made in the Crescent City.

Well-meaning people say they hope this incident will inspire changes in the way our nation. Mayor Landrieu called it reconciliation. People said the same thing after the assassination of Dr. King and again years later after Dylann Roof gunned down nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina.

So I guess my main feeling is despair – the sense that these incidents will continue and will escalate.

A Whole New World

I don’t generally take pix of my food. This is from the website.

Thank you to everyone who sent best wishes and healing thoughts for my hand. Things are much better.

Don’t complain about any misspellings in what follows. Blame Google.

We celebrated Jack’s birthday, and he chose a Polish restaurant. Until today my knowledge of the cuisine consisted of pierogis, which I adore, and a brutal smelling drink called Wisniowka (pronounced “vishnufka”). Friends enjoyed it at one point, but I could never get it past my nose. The idea of doing shots of Cheracol turned my stomach. Larry always loved the gwumpkies (stuffed cabbage) that our friend Frannie made.

A whole new culinary world opened today at Staropolska in New Britain. There were fried or steamed pierogis with various fillings, steamed and fried kielbasa, potato pancakes that came with meals and as an appetizer before main courses. There were large plates with various meat products and potato accompaniments. Among them, a Hunter’s Stew with sauerkraut, cabbage, “meat,” and kielbasa.

There was so much else I wanted to try. Mushrooms, sorrel soup, borscht, barley soup. I settled on pan-fried fish (probably cod, though not specified). The non-traditional tartar sauce enlivened a bland dish. It definitely included scallions and something else elusive. Capers, maybe? The side of potato pancake arrived without the sour cream and applesauce that ganished the appetizer pancake. It lacked the kick of latkes but had the right crunch. Still it was all good enough to take home the leftovers. Adele and I agreed that the small cup of cucumber salad with dill garnish merited creating at home.

The star of the meal was the fruit soup with noodles. Sublime would not be too strong a word. It met the first requirement of any dish. It looked gorgeous — a mélange of strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries floating in a blue-purple sea of yogurt with a dollop of sour cream in the center. The spiral noodles peeked out,  not enough to overpower but enough to add a contrast of texture. I could have eaten the entire bowl and been perfectly happy. But the fish and pancake awaited, so I passed the bowl to my fellow diners. Those who tried it raved, too.

Altogether one of our best meals. Oh, and it was inexpensive. Definitely worth a return visit.


No photo. It’s too ugly.

Things had been in stasis with my hand since therapy ended – until this morning at 3:30 a.m. It’s not clear what came first, the shooting pain in my little and ring finger or the swelling in my wrist or the click and aching tendon in my thumb.

The sharp pain abated, and I went back to sleep, only to wake again at 7, at which point I got up and paced before settling down to work. The click and ache in my thumb moderated after a little wiggling. Serious Advil ingestion helped the shooting pain. Fourteen hours later my wrist and the area just above it still have that stretched and shiny glow. It resembles a serious spider bite except there’s no puncture wound.

I see Benadryl and more Advil giving a “come hither” look. The ortho folks made it clear that they can’t make any more money off me, but if it doesn’t go away, I’ll call my wonderful primary care doc.

What I’m Reading Now (Jackson, 1964)

Another in the series. Thanks to my friend Harvey Goldstein, I have a copy of Calvin Trillin’s Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years if Reporting on Race in America. It is a revealing series of essays that Trillin wrote beginning when he was on the “seg” beat as it was called, covering the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi and elsewhere.

Trillin writes with insight and compassion about the struggles of Dr. Martin Luther King and the foot soldiers of the movement. His writings serve as a stark contrast with the light and cute material in Alice Let’s Eat, which was my introduction to Trillin.

His sensitivity extends to all involved in the struggle. He has no problem calling a deceased government official “the late racist.” That understanding does not extend to women. He refers to the secretarial help at SNCC headquarters as “efficient white girls in cotton print dresses.” Never does he call a man, black or white, a “boy.”

Of course much of the book illustrates how successful the movement was at removing the legal barriers to equality. What it also points up is the utter inability of people who disagree to carry on a civil conversation in 2017. Early on Trillin relays the courteous exchange of views between Dr. King and a young white man who disagrees with his position and tactics. These days I suspect that the white man would have concluded by hitting Dr. King and calling him a fascist.

Reading the chapter titled “The Zulus,” about the confrontations over New Orleans’ black Mardi Gras maskers, reveals how the elaborate regalia of today grew out of almost nothing. It serves as a portrait of how the marchers inspired fear of much lost revenue among the white establishment when the Zulus threatened to sit out the parade.

Jackson, 1964 offers something engrossing on every page.


Sweet Dreams

To:  Donald Trump

Fm: the extended Lane family

A mille from that gold-plated golf course where you will be living for the next two-plus weeks sits the Lamington Black Cemetery. At least seven Lane ancestors are buried there. The number is likely much higher since only thirty-six of the roughly one hundred gravestones bear legible names.

The Lanes who rest near you include three manumitted slaves. Where you ride around in a golf cart, they farmed and labored in other people’s fields and houses.

Among those buried at Lamington is a Civil War soldier who died two months after Fort Sumter. A second may lie there, too, in an unmarked grave. He was member of the U.S. Colored Troops who lived for more than twenty years as a disabled veteran. A murder victim may be buried there as well. No one knows the whereabouts of the girl who was stolen.

Those resting elsewhere include a woman who lived to be 104. Her grandson became the first African American to receive a pharmacy license from the state of Connecticut. His daughter was a bestselling author and my mother.

Most of the family left the area because the soils were not conducive to farming. (There is a reason they call it Sourland Mountain.) Among others not buried there (that we know of) are the conjure women, also the man who carried a toad in his pocket and had red eyes and could levitate. They watch over our family.

Sweet dreams.


Blog has inveighed against Microsoft’s Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar “tools” a/k/a “spel Czech.” This post figured out why my English 101 students couldn’t sort out “It’s” and “its,” “there” and “their.” If Microbrain can’t get them right, why would  my students assert themselves?

Lately I’ve been doing battle over the proper use of “myself,” “themselves,” etc. I wrote, “The more distance I put between myself and the barn, the harder my body shook.” Microbrain wanted, “… the barn and the harder, myself.” Huh?

Slate has published a column that vindicates my rants. Jacob Brogan hits one of my serious complaints, that MS wants to eliminate the passive voice. He cites many delightful sentences that don’t make any sense. My favorite is how it mangled the deletion of the word “actually.” Wonder what it would rename the “Love” movie.

Listening to Devil in the White City

When the FM stations died out except for the fire and brimstone channels and 880 in NYC went on repeat along the road to Syracuse, I started listening to Devil in the White City.

Scott Brick does full justice to Erik Larson’s tale of the design and construction of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (the White City of the title) – and to the horrors committed a few blocks away.

The early chapters focus on Daniel H. Burnham and the other architects who led the design effort. They encountered multiple obstacles and delays in bringing the designs to fruition. While details about the construction run on, the descriptions of the process are otherwise riveting.

I did not realize until listening to the book that landscape architecture was the poor stepchild of the profession. Frederick Law Olmstead, who was ill and elderly when he was hired on to design the lagoon and surrounds, browbeat and cajoled his way to making the grounds look dramatic and elegant.

Well into the narrative, a young engineer by the name of George Ferris makes an appearance. He was charged with creating a structure to best the Eiffel Tower, which in 1889 brought such renown to Paris during the Exposition Universelle. One can judge by the number of Ferris wheels vs. the number of Eiffel Towers how well he succeeded, though it ruined his finances and personal life. Or one can look at the enduring elegance of the tower and compare it to the locales where the wheels appear.

The parallel story of Herman Mudget/H.H. Holmes, who kills his way across the country and gets away with it for years, competes with the best of murder mysteries for gruesomeness. The investigation of the crimes with the discovery of bodies, bones, and gas chambers should have been a book all by itself.

Despite the brilliance of the work and Brick’s flawless performance, I reached the end still uncertain about the organizing principle. Combining the stories of two men who never met but who had a major impact on Chicago during the World’s Fair worked to a certain extent, but Devil in the White City could have been two equally successful books.