Happy Birthday, Daddy!

George copy

It was never relaxing, but we always had fun, especially when the kids in their costumes sang “Happy Birthday.” I remember  years that we tag-teamed answering the door for trick-or-treaters as we tried to eat a birthday dinner.

Here’s a recap of some of the earlier posts on my dad’s life.

  • My dad told me that my grandfather had a falling out with his brother because Uncle Fisher refused to educate his children. My grandfather, on the other hand, sacrificed a great deal to send my father and his brothers and sisters to Catholic schools. Since there were only three high schools for black students in the entire state of Louisiana when my dad was young, my grandfather sent Daddy to New York where he attended DeWitt Clinton High School and enrolled at Columbia University, though he had to drop out for financial reasons.
  • I used to call my father the black Archie Bunker. To quote him referring to Vince Lombardi, he hated everybody regardless of race, creed, or religion. Except Jewish people. Daddy said he had the ultimate respect for Jews because they respected education above all else. And so did he.
  • My father’s garden not only nourished my body but my knowledge of plants. He and the other men in the neighborhood had a competition every summer to see who could do the best – the biggest tomatoes, the most corn, etc. Because of a couple huge cherry trees, we had a rather limited area for vegetables, so Daddy went for exotic rather than quantity. Being a Son of the South, he decided to return to his own roots, so to speak. One year he planted peanuts. They were great, but the next year the shells were about the size of a pencil eraser, and the nuts were practically invisible. He learned later that he should have turned the plot to clover for a season because it fixes the nitrogen that the peanuts take out of the soil.
  • And he could cook. My signature dish, well one of them. is Shrimp Jambalaya, which came up from the bayou along with the southern inflected vegetable garden. It’s basically stew made with rice and whatever vegetables, meat, or seafood one has hanging around, flavored with lots of Tabasco among other spices.

We never had jambalaya for his birthday because no one could make it to his satisfaction, so dinner would be roast beef in my little kid days and some crab and shrimp casserole when everyone had more or less given up meat.

So, Daddy, I hope you’re still tending your garden and cooking great food, and enjoying the little kids singing on this Halloween birthday!

Why Can’t the Yanks Be More Like the Brits?

One of my LinkedIn groups has a discussion thread titled “Where are you parking?’ It has to do with the delightful gaps between the English spoken in the USA and the same or similar words in the U.K., Australia, etc.

Here’s my original blog post on the issue, written in 2011, which was swallowed in the great Blue explosion.

JohnOK, so I “adapted” the headline from My Fair Lady. Sorry, Mr. Lerner.

The reason for my question arose several days ago. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to reject the plan to save the Euro caused a major kerfuffle in Britain. Parliament thought he had some ’splainin’ to do.

I couldn’t believe my ears when the Speaker tried to bring the House of Commons to order. Cameron rose, but the members just kept shouting.  “Mr. Speaker,” aka John Bercow, is apparently used to this mayhem.

Bercow: “The house must calm itself, taking whatever medicaments are required for the purpose. And the prime minister’s statement must and will be heard.” Just so you won’t think I made up that first bit, here’s the transcript and link to the audio on NPR.

The image that first came to mind was a bunch of middle age to elderly men popping Valium, Xanax, or maybe a shot or two of gin. Then they quietly crawl back to their seats, sucking their thumbs and clutching their blankies. Cameron is able to speak because his former hasslers in the place is asleep.Sam

Second thought, which has occurred to me before, was John Boehner could never pull off anything like it. He’d cry instead and then Barney Frank would hit him over the head or force the Valium down his throat.

Third thought, “taking whatever medicaments required” is so much more elegant than the old school “take a chill pill” or the more modern “chillax” (sp?) I can’t hear Boehner saying any of the above.

On a broader level, I have long wished that we could imitate the open debate of Parliament. Congress should have forced Bush to face down the members during the course of his eight-year reign. It would be good to see Obama there, too, but not nearly as much fun. Maybe if the members took “medicaments,” it would be a bundle of laughs.

My overall wish is for more elegant English on this side of “the Pond.” The Brits wax elegantly poetic. We like terse. I remember on a trip to Scotland thinking how wonderful it was to see the universal image of the little dog with the little poop coming out his behind and a line through the picture. The sign read, “Please do not permit your canine to befoul the footpath.” It’s almost a Shakespearean iamb. American translation: “Curb your dog.” The thought occurred that by the time the owner finishes reading the Scottish sign, it’s too late to prevent the deed. But the reader has enjoyed a wee bit of literary fancy in the meantime.

Another sign I observed on board an omnibus — that’s a bus to you Yanks. And, no, it wasn’t one of those fancy red double deckers, just commuter transport going from airport to  train station or some such. The sign read: “Please mind the head when alighting from the omnibus.” American translation: “Watch your step.” Again, by the time the passenger has finished reading the U.K. sign, KLONK. But requested, oh, so politely.

What I’m Reading Now

push

Another in an occasional series. Push is a book that I should have read long ago. When it was published in 1997, it eluded me because it came out just days after my mother died. I wasn’t reading much of anything except work-related stuff. My friend Diane Isaacs did email me to let me know that as Precious begins her long, slow climb, she lists the books on her shelf at the halfway house. One of them was Harriet Tubman, Conductor on the Underground Railroad by Ann Petry.

When the film appeared in 2009, I was deep in multiple projects. It didn’t register until Mo’Nique won an Oscar for her role as the nightmare mother. And still I didn’t read it.

I’m reading it now because I have a presentation to make on Monday that will include references to women struggling to raise children by themselves. My main focus is Lutie Johnson in The Street. Sapphire’s wrenching tale out-horrors all that came before. Precious doesn’t just lack community, she has negative community – a father who rapes her, repeatedly, and fathers not one but two children on her. Classmates who ridicule her to point where she refuses to leave her seat even to use the toilet. And then there’s the mother who has waddled out of such a Grand Guignol of self-loathing that she unloads all her unspeakable horror on her child. That’s the one indefensible aspect of the book — that a woman could subject her own daughter to such torture. Yes, I know dysfunctionality starts at home but still …

For the most part Push offers a stunning portrait of an illiterate, defenseless child attempting to navigate a world for which she is wholly unprepared. Though I understand the purpose, I find the early journal entries with a translation an impediment to the flow of the narrative: “negv (negative)/wh? wh? (why? why?)/must/I li (lie) to misel (myself)/I/must/no (know) the truf (truth).

Overall, Push a tour-de-force.

Transportation

The production of Little Women was more than worth the voyage. Here’s the rest of the story.

My drive to New Haven’s Union Station had a major surprise at the end. The usual 280-degree turn off the Route 34 connector had disappeared. Instead, I drove past multiple buildings with big signs saying “Railroad Station Parking.” I began to wonder if the lot at the station had closed. I dread walking a couple of blocks from the station to my car at night. But no, the station lot was open and only about three-quarters full, a surprise at 10 on Sunday morning. Uneventful train ride. Even the usual loss of power around Stamford has disappeared. A nice walk from Grand Central to the well-hidden PATH station that’s part of the Penn Station transportation hub.

metro

PATH was jammed with a variety of humanity including hip-hop boys, girls in earrings the size of their heads and multi-colored weaves, plus some tourists speaking German? Polish? The women’s purses looked like they cost more than my entire wardrobe. They departed at Newport, which I learned was a big transfer hub.

I should have followed my first instinct and bought lunch from the food court at Grand Central or perused the selections in Penn Station, but I wasn’t sure how long the rest of the trip would take. The selections at Journal Square included a McDonald’s, a Subway, and a very iffy looking pub. The rest of the commercial “district” consisted of emporiums offering threading, check cashing, and rows of boarded up windows. I went back into the station and got an inedible veggie burger from Deli Plus or whatever.

Grabbed a cab and watched the scenery pass – many, many churches, some open, some not. Residential options march up and down long-ish blocks from apartments to brownstones to Philadelphia-style row houses. The basic stock is good, but most buildings are suffering from decades of neglect. Except for a couple of immaculate oases, trash blew everywhere.

New Jersey City University sits on the edge. The buildings are serviceable but basic. Sign of the location: concertina wire atop the fence surrounding the parking lot across the street from the theater.

Gabrielle walked me to the light rail, which would take me to PATH. This time I was the only person over 40 on the train (I think). When I got out, I was misdirected to the station and very grateful for the jacket I had decided to wear. Temps were in the 50s and 60s, but the wind blew at gale-force level.

I was hungry, tired, and dehydrated but uplifted by the show. As I sat on PATH, strains of “Off to Massachusetts” and “Small Umbrella in the Rain” were playing happily in my head when some thug turned on a boom box so loud the windows vibrated. This idiot or another announced,  “Two bruthas gonna do a dance for you. Feel free to pay what you want.” I did not look up but did pull my feet out of the way when one of them whipped past me. I am eternally thankful that they left at the next stop. I had the feeling they were running because a passenger was about to call 911.

Treated myself to a cab ride from PATH to Grand Central where I ordered a food court dinner of Pad Thai with tofu. I declare it superior to most of what I’ve eaten in restaurants in Connecticut – and cheaper.

Drive home uneventful. Thank goodness they hadn’t re-arranged the entrance ramp to the interstate.

Transporting

njcu

I had the pleasure of watching the New Jersey City University production of Little Women: The Broadway Musical. Sunday was a long day, and my eyesight is still recovering from fourteen-plus hours in contact lenses that are supposed to come out after eight. Please excuse typos.

For the two or three people (men) who have never read Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel or are unfamiliar with the story, here’s a quick synopsis. Jo March, a young and hot-tempered resident of Concord, Massachusetts, aspires to be a writer in the 1860s. Her early attempts are full of love and blood and guts. Publishers reject her efforts over and over. At this point I have to say that she is an exemplar (Barbara Sicherman’s word) for Ann Petry, Patti Smith, and Simone de Beauvoir. They didn’t do blood and guts and romance, but they did identify with the rejection and “odd duck” feelings that Alcott communicates so well. I felt as I watched that my mother was there, too, and that she approved.

Jo, her three sisters, and their mother struggle without their father, who has gone off to serve as a chaplain for the Union Army. Based on Alcott’s own life, Little Women features a threatening old man next door, his ne’er-do-well grandson, and the girls’ wealthy and judgmental aunt. Though there is real suffering (one of the sisters dies), Jo wins her success, and everything generally ends “happily ever after.”

The musical, which features rousing choruses and plaintive ballads, follows the novel with the ingenious addition of one of Jo’s early works, “An Operatic Tragedy.” As Jo sings the words of her “tragedy,” others act them out in full princess, villain, and hero garb. Clarissa, the heroine, is played magnificently by my friend Gabrielle Spotz, who has to perform the duet with Jo and echo Jo’s movements. It’s all very silent-movie melodrama style action with expert classical dance and operatic musical execution.

The entire cast performed magnificently. Jenna Ravenda (Jo) has a star-worthy voice and a comedic timing that should serve her well if she chooses to tread the boards across the Hudson.

Other standouts included Catriona Rubenis-Stevens as the officious Aunt March and Ashley Elrod performing affectingly as Marmee. Her solo “Days of Plenty” in Act II reduced even the tough guys in the audience to tears.

I am thrilled to have been part of this experience and wish everyone spectacular success for the remainder of the run.

Redux

 

baby

 

 

Following on my earlier practice, I’m reviewing the past six months of entries with updates, revisions, criticisms, etc.

Carmel Valley to “Leaving Carmel Valley“: Tristen and Julien returned last month from their honeymoon in Africa. He’s frantically busy, and she’s recovering from surgery to repair the dislocated shoulder she had re-attached herself when we first met last fall. I was disappointed not to spend time this fall with my friend Lucey, but we’re both wound up with too much to do. The time will be right soon, I predict.

Airline woes: We were delayed leaving Las Vegas on our return flight. I was delayed leaving Denver in July because “the pilot was late.” My seatmate said this was the third time on the same flight. Ash and Kathryn were delayed on their layover for the same reason. What’s with pilots that can’t get to the airport and/or airlines too cheap to hire adequate staff?

Meeting the Ancestors” had a payoff this fall when I spoke to my cousin Charlie James. It turns out that Sister Nandi, who brought my ancestors to me at the Artists for World Peace gathering, has known him for a long time and that I had met her at cousin Gert’s house way back when.

The Twain Twichell Walk (“Dream of a Walk” and “End of a Perfect Walk”) is paying dividends with programs at the Mark Twain House and Museum. Stay tuned for more “Redux” and for more about the presentation.

Amazing Grace, Amazing Food

grace

Amazing Grace Food Pantry held its annual fundraiser tonight. Each year local businesses, churches, and civic and government organizations, donate soup, bread, and desserts. People pay according to their willingness and ability. Servers include politicians, heads of organizations, parishioners, and clergy. This year outstripped previous years in every way possible. There were more diners, more food, better selections, and terrific entertainment.

I met someone from every aspect of my life from lots of neighbors, to members of my weight-lifting class to hospital staff, to colleagues from the halcyon days at the Middletown Press, to library staff, to people from a couple of nonprofits I’ve served. There was no place to sit when Larry and I arrived, so we stood and chatted with various folks.

A brief introduction was followed by a woman singing. Everyone said, “Wow!” She was sitting down so no one could see. I thought her voice sounded a bit familiar and made my way toward the microphone. It was Kitty Kathryn. She married Larry’s dad after his parents divorced and calls him and his sisters her children. She did a rendition of “Amazing Grace” that made me cry and distracted me from the food.

Returning to ground, my comments began with, “Soup, soup, beautiful soup.” We migrated at the recommendation of a friend and neighbor to the lobster bisque, a donation by Blackbird Tavern. It serves great food and is owned by the son of one of the men in my veterans’ writing group. The politician who was serving adores Larry so we wound up with extra large helpings. Plus he was nearing the bottom of the tureen, which gave us extra lobster. Oh my. Sublime is the best description for the blend of meat, flavor, and texture. Word must have spread because I heard they ran out about twenty minutes later.

Next I tried a potato soup, “made with love” by the brothers of St. Pius. A garnish of herb oil added just the right spark to the comfort of the soup on a blustery fall night. Also delicious. Larry declared the firefighters’ chili excellent. Ditto a kale soup made with kielbasa. He had another, but I never found out what because he was too busy chatting with this former classmate, that veteran friend, and the myriad of neighbors.

It was approaching time for me to leave for the writing group meeting, but I decided to try one more. It was vegetarian vegetable. My brain had ceased recording because I’d chatted with so many people. I think it was made also “with love” by Holy Trinity Church. Anyway, it was delicious. I grabbed a piece of bread from one of the tables and proceeded to the desserts.

The young women from Mercy High School did not help much with recommendations as they pointed to each batch of cookies, brownies, cupcakes, pastries, etc., saying, “People really like that one. Those have been refilled twice.” I grabbed a cup of coffee and decided to try two from NORA Cupcake Co.

The vegan chocolate mini tasted fabulous, a little peanutty, a whole lot chocolate-y. The yellow cake version lost some of its flavor to the coffee that I swallowed to balance all that sugar. Just because it’s vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy! But it was all for a cause that needs as much support as possible and more than worth every penny donated.

RIP, Sleepy Dave

David Godwin, RIP

David Godwin

Well, now we know. It was a year ago that police issued a request for help in locating a missing man.

This report made it sound as though David Godwin was still living in Connecticut. I wrote a blog post, since disappeared in the great collapse, explaining that our friend Sleepy Dave had moved to Florida and was visiting the area when he disappeared.

Concern rose when we learned that his sister had received a letter indicating that he did not intend to return to Florida. Time passed with no word, and the family offered friends a chance to remember him during the summer. I was away. It troubled me not to be part of that gathering.

Before and since, we have assumed that he was no longer among the living. Without proof, though, there was always a glimmer of hope that he might still be with us. No more. It was really tough to read The Day story, especially knowing that his remains lay out for a year before anyone found him.

I’m going to remember the happy, good times. Most important in this household, he kept us supplied with the freshest of bluefish. Sleepy loved to go on fishing charters, treating a number of friends to a day on the water. He refused to eat fish, however, and would arrive back at Cypress, the local watering hole, with a huge supply, all neatly fileted and double bagged.

I broiled them, marinated them and baked them, smoked them, and turned them into pâté. I gave quantities to my next-door neighbor who grew up in Sweden and understands the joys of seafood in strong flavors. On occasion I would offer Sleepy a sample, and he would just shake his head violently while wrinkling his nose.

What Sleepy did like was beef – massive quantities of large cuts. His Friday night treat while he was working began with a beer (or three), followed by the King Cut, a thirty-two ounce slab of prime rib with potatoes on the side. As far as I know it was the only vegetable he ever ate.

I think he ate one or two of the celery sticks or carrots accompanying the twenty-four wings that became a preferred dinner after he retired.

He preceded the consumption of the beef  with the addition of massive quantities of salt from his personalized saltshaker, which had extra large holes. Once he’d finished the actual meat, he’d salt the fat and eat that separately. I tried not to stare but am afraid I watched with horror. Then he would fold his arms and soon be sound asleep at the bar. He never fell off the stool and often awoke to have another beer (or three).

The picture above does not do justice to the man. Besides his generous spirit, he had a great sense of humor, often expressed in his T-shirts and sweatshirts, which he would bring back from trips and give to honored friends. My favorite, which he wore fairly often said, “Paddle faster. I hear banjo music.” Ha!

I know there are many more  stories of his generosity and humor and all around good-guyness, and I hope everyone shares them.

Sleepy Dave, you are truly missed. May you sleep in peace at last.

Amazon, Again

sower

The Verge  has aggregated a collection of stories about Simon & Schuster’s agreement to let Amazon publish its ebooks and new paperbacks. The key to all lies in this sentence: “But the deal is perhaps most strategically advantageous for Amazon, which reportedly can discount Simon & Schuster titles at will under certain conditions.” If that’s true I don’t see how S&S can say that the contract “preserves the authors’ share of ebook sales going forward.”

S&S apparently will in general determine the price of ebooks, which is significant, and could bode well for Hachette unless Bezos is so irate that the publisher didn’t kowtow before that agreement expired.

The image is the inspiration for the S&S logo, The Sower, painted in 1850 by Jean-Francois Millet. May S&S continue to sow.

Ten Books, Revised

jungleBack in early September my friend Janet Davenport challenged me to come up with ten books that had had a profound influence on my life. Here’s what I posted:

The Street, In the Matter of Color, Emma, Angela’s Ashes, Crooked Road Straight, Soldier Girls (reading it now), Silences, Black Roots in Southeastern Connecticut, Brother, I Am Dying, Blue Highways

I’m updating with an additional book. It was prompted by dueling “Bookends” columns in the September 14 NYTimes Book Review. The question: “ ‘The Book that changed my life’ is usually taken to mean ‘for the better.’ Can a book ever transform a reader’s life for the worse?” Leslie Jamison says “yes,” citing The Catcher in the Rye and The Collector, which influenced murderers, though she acknowledges that J.D. Salinger and John Fowles could hardly be held responsible for the actions of the deranged.

Francine Prose says a qualified “no.” She devotes most of the column to Devils, Drugs and Doctors by Howard W. Haggard, “an illustrated history of medicine that focused on plagues, venereal disease, mental illness and the horrifying extent to which women, in earlier eras, suffered the fatal agonies of unhygienic childbirth…” Prose was ten or eleven when she read the book and came away with the idea, based on a pointed question to her father, that people caught syphilis, etc. by “running around.” From then on, she walked.

I had a similar reaction to Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis’s The Jungle. Though I don’t believe it changed my life for the worse, I can’t say I really liked it. It did, however, have a more profound effect than any of the books listed above, except maybe for The Street, which of course shaped our whole family’s way of life.

The Jungle tells of Chicago’s meatpacking plants and the immigrants who drudge away in them. I read the book when I was, like Prose, an impressionable eleven or so. Not long after I had finished it, . I became violently ill from a dinner of franks and beans. The result was an abject, lifelong fear of vomiting. I am certain that a contributing factor to my illness was having just read the descriptions of the sausage casings filled with sawdust and rat droppings. The rest of it was probably just the flu. Anyway, I never again ate a hot dog and a few years later stopped eating meat altogether. At this point I’ve been meat-free for more years than I was a carnivore.

The other effect is problematical – and this was the one that I had forgotten until I read Prose’s essay.

The Jungle includes a wrenching scene in which poor Ona Rudkus delivers a premature dead infant in the attic of a squalid tenement because her husband can’t afford medical care or adequate housing. Just as the rat droppings and sawdust revolted me, that scene frightened me: First he hears her moaning and crying. “And then again came Ona’s scream, smiting him like a blow in the face … Her voice died away into a wail – then he heard her sobbing again, ‘My God – let me die, let me die!’ ” Not long afterward, she gets her wish.

That scenario frightened me away from ever having children – made me feel that the risk to life was too great. I knew intellectually that I wasn’t living in an early twentieth-century slum, that I would no doubt have enough money to pay for medical care, that millions of women all over the world had survived. None of that mattered. I was convinced I’d wind up just like Ona. And my mind has never really wavered in the years since.