Day Twenty-Two, in which we fall far, far short of our stated goal

The goal of yesterday was to 1) compile a dance mix consisting solely of favorite dance tunes submitted by those who responded to the following question: “Favorite dance tune? Weigh in please,” and then 2) dance the entire mix through without stopping.

There were subsidiaries (not the right word, but I like it anyway) of this goal, which included things like “compile the dance mix in the order in which it was received,” which got that robot-lady voice going in my head all day (“your call will be answered in the order in which it was received. your call will be answered in the order in which it was received. your call will be answered in the order in which it was received.”), which impeded my progress.

There were interruptions, such as the fact that several of my friends –that would be you, Stinky and you, Tobin and you, Kay– submitted, respectively, the following tunes: You Are My Sunshine, Johann Froberger’s harpsichord “Meditation sur ma mort future,” and The Hokey Pokey.

Thanks, friends!

Especially you, Tobin!

Anyway, the whole second part of yesterday’s goal –to dance the mix all the way through without stopping, even to go to the bathroom– got completely derailed because I ended up youtubing all the songs, including Rock Lobster by the B-52s, which is a song I love so inordinately that I ended up playing it through twenty or thirty times and dancing to it alone.

I wish myself better luck today.

Day Twenty-One: We go on an outing

I live in the middle of a biggish city, a city known for its theaters and art galleries and museums and music and literature, and this means that every single day and night multiple artsy things are happening all over the place.

This means that every single day and night I could be out enjoying something artsy. The choices! The variety! The endless opportunities!

But the part of me that stands in the shampoo aisle, needing to buy shampoo and gazing from one shelf to the other, trying and failing to take in the dozens –hundreds– of species and sub-species and genuses (is that the right term?) of shampoo, and then walks away exhausted, overwhelmed, and shampoo-less, is the same part of me that tends to end up most nights lying on my porch swing reading instead of heading out into the cauldron of artistic activities that boils city-wide.

Wow, that above paragraph is a big mess, isn’t it. I’m not heading back in to change a word, though. I’m plowing on to tell you that instead of lying on my porch swing reading, my friend Kingsley and I headed out to the Kinship of Rivers Festival, held yesterday at the Soap Factory art gallery in NE Minneapolis.

This was something that I had never done before, Kingsley had never done before, and no one at the Soap Factory, given that this is the first year the Kinship of Rivers Festival has taken place, had ever done before. It was all new to all of us.

We watched a Tibetan Buddhist monk work on a mandala made of colored sand. All day long he would pray as he made the mandala, and at 7 p.m., long after Kingsley and I were gone, the mandala would be dedicated and the sand dispersed, half to the audience members and half to the Mississippi and Yangtze rivers.

We watched a huge wind chime installation being made.

We saw a lion sculpture, and Kingsley posed beside it for a photo.

We stood in a huge room strung with small cotton flags, each containing a handmade painting, inscription or poem, each of which will be offered up to a river somewhere in the world.

Finally, Kingsley met my friend Ping, who initially mistook him for my father. Which he is not. But in the car on the way home, he said, “I sort of am, though, if you think of me as having adopted you.”

Poem of the Week, by Patrick Cavanaugh

The Dubliners
– Patrick Kavanagh

On Raglan Road of an autumn day
I saw her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare
That I might one day rue
I saw the danger and I passed
Along the enchanted way
And said let grief be a fallen leaf
At the dawning of the day

On Grafton Street in November
We tripped lightly along the ledge
Of a deep ravine where can be seen
The worth of passion’s pledge
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts
And I not making hay
Oh I loved too much and by such by such
Is happiness thrown away

I gave her gifts of the mind
I gave her the secret signs
Known to the artists who have known
The true gods of sound and stone
And word and tint I did not stint
I gave her poems to say
With her own name there
And her own dark hair
Like clouds over fields of May

On a quiet street where old ghosts meet
I see her walking now
Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
That I had loved not as I should
A creature made of clay
When the angel woos the clay
He’ll lose his wings at the dawn of day

For more information on Patrick Kavanagh, please click here:


Day Twenty: In which we sit on a porch swing late at night

I read something last night that made me very angry.

That sentence alone —I read something last night that made me very angry— is something I’ve never done before. What I would usually write is something like this: I read something last night that made me very sad.

Or, I read something last night that upset me.

Or, I read something last night that frustrated me to no end.

Or, That’s ridiculous, you have no right to be angry over something so stupid. Stop it.

Or something more convoluted, like “I read something last night that made me angry, but then I thought it through and I wasn’t angry anymore.”

Anger, in general and directed at me, and especially coming from inside myself, has always terrified me. It’s something to be done away with as quickly as possible. Usually that means turning it into something else, changing the word itself from “angry” into “sad” or “frustrated” or “upset.”

That doesn’t get rid of it, though. What that does is turn it into something else that attaches sticky hands to your innards and stays there making you feel awful and shoving other things aside. I finally realized, a while ago, that the only way to get rid of it is to look at it and say its name.

Then it just sits there and eventually turns moldy and disappears. Like everything else.

Being angry is no more powerful than, say, being happy. So late last night, after I read something that made me very angry, I sat on my porch swing being all pissed off. And eventually the pissed-off-ness went away, on its own and in its own time.

Day Nineteen: Can you bake (an apple) pie?

Something I’d never done before last night: sat up late at my kitchen table with my friend Kingsley, looking at the family photos he’s brought with him from his home in Queens.

Kingsley: And this was taken at my father’s 70th birthday party.

Me: Look at that cake. And look at his smile!

Kingsley: He was so happy that night.

Me: He was a wonderful man, wasn’t he?

Kingsley: Everyone loved him.

I’m drinking a glass of water. Kingsley is drinking a cup of tea. The dog is asleep under the table. Hobbes the cat is prowling about, trying to sneak the dog’s food when he thinks I’m not looking. We’re going through the photos one by one.

Me: Look at your cousin Sally in this photo. She’s laughing, isn’t she?

Kingsley: She has so much fun. She laughs so loudly sometimes. Once in a while you do too; that’s how you and Sally are alike.

Kingsley, who is 78, is in his nightclothes: an old t-shirt and worn shorts. His house flipflops, which are jeweled and which he bought in Chinatown years ago, are on his feet. It’s been a long day for him. I picked him up at the airport, we went grocery shopping, and now it’s late and we’re sitting up in the kitchen so that I can see the family photos.

Most of the people in the photos, with the exception of Sally, who is 92, and Kingsley’s younger brother, are gone now.

I take my time going through each one. We come to a series of three photos, none of which feature family members and all of which are very Kingsley in that they feature food, in this case, a pie in various stages of creation.

Me: Were you making an apple pie here?

Kingsley: Yes. I was experimenting with apple pie-baking. I wanted to see if I could create a pie that wouldn’t end up with that soggy crust.

Me: And? Success?

Kingsley, nodding: Success. I used apples, walnuts and a lemon. You can see them here in the first photo. Then, instead of a top crust, I spread the pie with sour cream and grated lemon peel on top. That’s the second photo. Then I baked it, and some of the apples turned dark, which gave them a nice texture. The sour cream melted in and the pie turned out great.

Me: Hang on. I’m going to take a photo of each of these pie photos with my cell phone.

Kingsley: No, no. You can have the photos themselves.

Me: Are you sure?

Kingsley: Yes, I’m sure. Just keep them. I don’t bake pies anymore.


Day Eighteen: In which one goes against one's grain

Day Eighteen, in which one realizes that sometimes, one doesn’t want to do something one has never done before. One thinks, I just want to stick with the tried and true. But one has taken a vow, and one must forge on.

One casts one’s eye about the kitchen, wondering if something ne’er-done-before can be accomplished quickly, with little effort, and also with as few words as possible, since one is already incredibly weary of using “one” instead of “I.”

One decides to slice a cucumber and an onion in a way that one does not recall having sliced before.

Et voila.

One found this challenge easy, mildly interesting, and unexpectedly fruitful, in that it gave one a chance to practice having one’s own cooking show on television by speaking aloud to an invisible audience as one sliced and diced one’s vegetables.

Day 17: Camouflage

I had a friend, an old woman who lived nearby, who was born injured. Her hip was paralyzed. My friend was very small and when I hugged her I folded myself far, far down. She liked wearing leopard slacks around me because she knew I admired her leopard slacks.

She lived her whole life injured.

“She’s crippled,” I said in surprise when I saw her, facing someone else who had known her many, many years.

“No, no, no,” came a scoffing reply.

Scoffing-reply-person was wrong and she was also un-wrong. You’d never know my elderly friend was crippled. She danced, she walked, she worked all her life, she barely spoke of her injury. She never slowed down.

I’m seeing her in my mind now, alongside people like her, and animals like her.

A wee golden house near me holds a woman, a man, and a small feline companion missing one leg.

“Look! She’s missing a leg,” said my young companions when we saw her.

Small feline dashes from house, yard, alley, hopping gracefully, landing as if on springs. Does she ever slow down? No.

I know people who are in pain, people who are suffering, people who hide sorrow, hold sorrow inside, wrap arms around hidden pain so our world sees only a smile, a bend of head, eyes masking anguish and always, somehow, kind and loving.

I admire such people. Much of our human world is alike in such ways, I figure. Many of us –all of us?– camouflage pain, hide our inadequacies, walk and hop and dash along missing a leg, or dancing gracefully, masking a paralyzed hip. We choose courage, a good face, over despair, and we choose courage again and again and again. Choose courage enough and courage becomes one of our senses, always here, rarely acknowledged.

Much we lack, maybe all, can be made up for. Can be camouflaged. I wish so much I’d had a “t” available, for example, as I worked here in dawn silence, hunched over my keyboard. I never made myself go t-less before.

Hard, you know? Very, very challenging.

And possible.

Day Sixteen: and wild and sweet the words repeat

It was raining lightly in the early morning as my trusty canine companion, who answers to the human name of Pete, and I headed out. We were acting on a hot tip from a friend, whose mysterious instructions were only “Go to the Black Forest right away and look in the alley behind it.”

This was something I’d never done before, even though I used to eat at the Black Forest when I first moved to Minneapolis. The Black Forest was the site of a “wurst salad” which was as interesting as it sounds, and it was also the site of a Halloween night where I freaked out the bargoers by wearing my amazing half-black and half-white face mask, which fits so perfectly that people think it’s my actual face.

But enough of the Halloween mask and back to the hot tip.

Pete and I headed out from our house into the Black Forest/Whittier neighborhood, which adjoins ours and which we never walk in because we’re dumb creatures of habit and we stick to one of the four lake walks we’ve done thousands of times over the years.

Me to Pete: We’re so dumb. Why do we not walk in Whittier more often? It’s so cool.

Pete: ……..

Me: Do you want to hear a little Marcy Playground?

Pete: ………

I took that as a fervent yes.

Me: Hangin’ ’round downtown by myself
and I had so much time to sit and think about myself
and then there she was
like double cherry pie yeah there she was
like disco superfly

Pete: …………..

Me: I love that song!

Pete: ……………

After a while we came to the Black Forest, which is on a long street known as Eat Street for its dozens of great, cheap restaurants. At first I wondered if the mural on the side of the building is what my friend meant, because it’s so charming. I would like to go to the Black Forest and live in that castle for a while, breathe the pure mountain air and smile at fawns picking their way through the trees.

But this mural wasn’t something that I’ve never done before. It’s been here a long time, and besides, it’s not in the alley. Down the street, around the corner, and into the alley went Pete and I.

Holy crud. That, below, is the mosaic of my dreams, right there in the alley behind the Black Forest.

Those are the ending lines of a poem that I love so much that I memorized it many years ago and recite it to myself at least a few times every week. Magical words in glass and stone and cement, right there in an alley on Eat Street.

Me to Pete: Would you like me to recite The Summer Day to you?

Pete: ………………….

I took that as a fervent yes.

We walked home in the now-pouring rain to the soundtrack of Marcy Playground followed by Mary Oliver, a strange and felicitous combination.

Day Fifteen: Starting with a box

As certain of my students know, I usually don’t like books on the craft of writing. There are a few exceptions (Bird by Bird and Art and Fear, for example), but anything that attempts to lay out a set of rules makes me chafe.

More to the point, I’ve seen too many people read endlessly about how to go about making art without ever actually making art. Just jump off the cliff, I always think.

A while ago, though, a young friend recommended that I read a book called The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp, the famous dancer/choreographer. This recommendation came after an evening which included me having dinner with his parents, him wandering into the kitchen during dessert, and some sort of conversation about typing speed in which I proclaimed that I was the fastest typist in the history of the world, after which he challenged me to a typing duel.

Which I won, thanks, because I am the fastest typist in the history of the world.

This photo conveys absolutely nothing of the intense drama, shrieked curses and fisticuffs that were thrown throughout the duel.

Which I won, by the way.


Anyway, when things had calmed down, my young friend, who’s an astonishing musician and composer despite having just graduated from high school, asked me what I thought of the Tharp book and was so genuinely taken aback that I had not only not read it but never heard of it that I was shamed into buying it the next day. I then put it in a prominent place on my living room bookshelf, where it remained, unread, until today.

Today’s challenge was to dive into the Tharp book, just open a page and start reading. Here’s what I opened up to.

Chapter Five: “Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box. Everyone has his or her own organizational system. Mine is a box, the kind you can buy at Office Depot for transferring files. I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me. . . If you want a glimpse into how I think and work, you could do worse than to start with my boxes.”

Reading this made me instantly jealous. I pictured a beautiful library in a beautiful Manhattan apartment, with dozens of built-in bookshelves lining the walls, each one filled with different beautifully-labeled Twyla Tharp project boxes. I was happy for her and sad for myself, because I have nothing like that. No records of anything. When people ask me to donate my “papers” for a particular book, I shake my head sadly and tell them I have nothing concrete, only cyber nothingness.

Me to youthful companion: I wish I kept a record of things in boxes, like Twyla Tharp does.

YC: You do.

Me: I do not.

YC, pointing dramatically: Then what are those?

Huh. Well, well, well. I guess those would be a whole bunch of boxes.

These boxes (above), which are on the walls of the upstairs “office” that I never work in, are all neatly labeled, and they look neat and tidy, but inside is a different story.

The “Travel” box, for example: maps and handscrawled notes and leftover euros and escudos and yuan and guidebooks and jotted-down directions to trailheads across the country.

These boxes? They contain ribboned bundles of letters, sorted by sender, some bundles containing hundreds, others only two or three, all of which I’ve been saving from high school on. These boxes have moved everywhere in the country that I have moved.

There are three whole boxes devoted to letters from my friend Kingsley. Each one of them is a work of art containing clippings and a manual-typewriter-typed letter in a handmade envelope.

There are a bunch of boxes labeled “Manuscripts,” which is a catch-all term including notes for novels and picture books, actual printed-out or handwritten manuscripts, contracts, photos, catalogues, and letters, all of which are jumbled up together so that if I ever need to get to a particular contract or manuscript, I will be completely unable to do so.

After wandering around my house noting all the boxes piled up in closets and on shelves, I have come to the conclusion that today’s challenge –to dive into a brand-new book on the creative process that I had never before read– is less about the book and more about a) the ever so slight similarity between the fabulous Twyla Tharp’s in-a-box process and my completely unfabulous box system, b) the fact that there’s a lot more tangibility to the way I go about writing than I would have thought, and c) the disquieting notion that maybe there are a whole lot of other things I don’t really know about myself.

Day Fourteen: In Chinese we call this "kuaizi toufa." Or at least I do.

All my life I’ve admired those women who grab their long hair, twist it up into a lump on the back of their head, shove a pencil through the lump and then walk around for the rest of the day with a perfect pencil-held bun in their hair.

I’ve attempted this little trick many times but with no success. The pencil immediately falls out, the hair falls down, and I’m left wondering what I did wrong.

Have I ever asked one of these women to show me the secret? No, and that right there is the reason that youtube was invented, so that people like me can learn 1) how to cast on in knitting when not in the presence of their best friend or mother, who are always happy to cast on for them, 2) how to cast off in knitting, because no matter how many scarves they knit while trying to quell their innate fidgetiness in meetings, they can’t remember how to cast off, 3) how to make fringe at the ends of their scarves for the tenth time once they’ve learned how to cast off for the tenth time, 5) how to make a flip book, 6) how to color their hair so that it doesn’t look too raccoony, 7) how to take a front door off its hinges so as to repaint it, 8) (fyi, something I just learned, if you type the number eight and a parenthesis after it into this blog it will come out not as the number 8 but as a strange little smiley face) how to do a quick+dirty fix on the rusty worn-off enamel part of their bathtub, 9) how to fix their disposal, 10) how to count to ten in Mongolian, and ETCETERA ETCETERA, you get the picture.

So. Today’s never before done challenge was to learn how to put my hair up in a bun using not a pencil but chopsticks. The thought of that right there –the use of two chopsticks instead a single pencil– gave this challenge a certain Asiatic flair that made me extra-happy.

You would be surprised, or maybe you wouldn’t, to learn just how many how-to videos pop up when you type the following question into youtube: “How do you put your hair up into a bun using chopsticks?”

It was amazing to find out, as I studied these tutorials, that in all these years of pencil-bun attempts, there was only one tiny maneuver that I had been leaving out. Had I only asked someone, or had youtube only been invented twenty years ago, I could have been wearing a chopsticks bun for decades now.