And on Day Thirteen we cast our eyes downward

Today’s challenge? To find something on the ground, take it home, and use it for an interesting new purpose.

Here is what I found on the ground near Famous Dave’s BBQ, once I had hauled my sluggish self around the lake in pea soup-like humidity and gone to the Y, where I watched in awe as this lanky guy did the pull your arms together weight machine, the same machine that I load with a mere four bars, with every single weight loaded.

I was so impressed that I actually told him I was impressed, which I never do at the Y. Kudos to you, nameless giant-weight-lifting guy.

But, back to the thing I found on the ground near Famous Dave’s.


I had no idea what this thing could be. It’s made of what looks like bamboo, with what looks like bbq skewers threaded horizontally through tiny holes in the vertical, larger pieces. There are two large black rubber bands strung on one of the poles.

Some kind of weird homemade sling shot? That was the only thing I could come up with. It looked like nothing I’d ever seen, and I felt so lucky to have found such a great thing so early in the day. I plucked it up and took it home, where I showed it to the youthful companion.

Me: What in the world is this thing, do you think? It’s so strange! So interesting!

YC: It’s one of those things that hold up flowers. You stick it in the ground.


Of course it is.

The minute the words were out of her mouth, I looked at it and realized that I’ve seen a thousand of these things, stuck in gardens all over the city. All over the country, no doubt. They probably sell them 10/$10 at a giant store like Menard’s.

So my incredibly unusual possibly-homemade-slingshot-thing is not unusual at all. It’s still a thing on the ground that I found, however, so I forged on with the challenge and created the jewelry holder below.

Maybe I’ll start wearing jewelry now.

Day Twelve of the never done before challenge: Handstand!

Since it looks as if the universe doesn’t want me to eat with my left hand only, which is a nice way of saying that once again I couldn’t seem to manage even a sip of coffee without using my right hand hand, I’ve moved on to other things.

If you click here you’ll be able to see exactly what I’ve done with my time over the last two hours –and yes, that would be a full two hours, which you’ll find hard to believe once you click on the link, but I am nothing if not honest on this blog– but just in case you can’t really tell what’s going on in my little video, let me describe it to you:

That stick figure with the footless legs and handless arms (those things sticking out of her head are pigtails) is a girl.

She’s very unhappy because she can’t do a handstand (handstands are easier to draw than headstands, and yes, I do consider these pictures to be drawings).

She’s so unhappy that she even cries!

Then she decides to try to do a handstand one more time.

And this time, she succeeds!

See her big upside down smile? That’s because she’s so happy.

Then she un-handstands herself and keeps smiling.

See her giant teeth of happiness? (You might not be able to because the last few pages kept flipping too fast.)

Me to YC: This took me two hours to make.

YC: Really?

Me: Yup.

YC: Well, it’s really, really good.

Me: Thank you.

Day Eleven: Ugh again.

Despite the fact that I put an X on my right hand before I went to bed last night, as a reminder to myself of today’s challenge –to eat only with my left hand all day– I failed again. At 6:45 a.m. I stood in my kitchen before the giant jar of peanut butter, bike helmet on head, picked up a spoon, dug into the jar and conveyed the spoonful of peanut butter to my mouth all with my right hand. Completely ignored the X.

Tomorrow is another day, as Scarlett would say (again).

As penance for a third day of lefthand-eating-only failure in a row, I decided to tackle a challenge I’ve been dreading, which is to write a letter to my 16 year old self. This is something that a bunch of my writer friends have been doing on some site somewhere; I’ve only read one of them out of fear that I’d be cowed by their fabulousness.

Because I so don’t want to write this letter, I’m giving myself only ten minutes to do it, the way I give my students ten minutes to write in class every time we meet. That takes the pressure off. Sort of.

Ten minutes. No editing. Here goes.

Dear Sixteen-year-old self,

This is the only photo I could find of you, and it’s weirdly similar to a photo taken of herself by my friend Julie S. Like her at the same age, you held an instamatic out in front of you, hoping somehow to capture your own face, and pressed the little black button. The weirder thing is that I remember exactly when you took that photo. You had just gotten out of the shower. You were wearing cut-offs and that blue workshirt you wore every day back then.

You wondered if maybe you could capture something in a photo that would tell you something you didn’t know about yourself.

Now, I look at that photo and I think: You were on the verge. Of so much. If I could go back in time and tell you some things, here are a few things I’d tell you:

You don’t think of yourself as unhappy right now. You go to high school out in the country, you have friends, you belong to a bunch of things.

But in retrospect, you were waiting and you didn’t even know it. You were waiting for the doors of your life to blow open, for the sky to lift high overhead.

What can I tell you now, from this long perspective of time?

You can let up some. You think you have to push yourself every day, that you have to maintain some high rigid standard, be ultra-disciplined, but you don’t. Why are you setting your alarm every morning for 4:45? So sleepy.

Then again, that discipline will come in handy years later, when you have three little kids –yes! you do end up with three kids, just like you wanted!– and you get up at four because it’s the only time you can write in silence.

So many things that you think matter so much right now do not, in the end, matter. That one night you’re thinking about, when they took off and left you there? That doesn’t matter. Then again, it does matter, because they hurt you. Then, you blamed yourself. Now, you just think wow, what jerks they were.

On second thought, maybe things like that night do still matter, but when you get to my age, instead of blaming yourself –too ugly, too boring, all your fault– it’s clear that whatever you were back then, you at least weren’t mean.

All those times on the schoolbus, in school, walking the dirt roads past broken-down trailers, when you feel helpless in the face of others’ pain, will eventually be transformed into art. Even if you feel right now as if you’ll break apart from it, it will be worth it.

Most everything that you are going to live through will, in the end, be worth it.

It’s too late to go back and re-do things, but if I could, I’d tell you a few things that you’re too young to know:

When your grandmother and your father and your mother tell you not to change your plans, that the tickets are nonrefundable, that he knew how much you loved him, don’t listen to them. Go to your grandfather’s funeral, because when you don’t, you will forever regret it.

You don’t need to wash your hair every day.

Don’t listen when people tell you that love fades, that it becomes humdrum, ordinary, that this is the way it is for everyone. It’s not.

You are not ugly the way you fear you are.

Don’t be so afraid, out of self-consciousness, of trying things that it seems as if everyone around you already knows how to do. Skiing, for example. You’re going to go to a college that has its own snow bowl; learn to ski.

Four years from now, when that boy you have the massive crush on comes to your room in Hepburn Hall with a bottle of wine and bunch of roses, invite him in. Do not stand there in dumb shyness, your heart beating like a hummingbird, and thank him politely and watch his face fall and say goodnight and shut the door. Because that’s something else you’re going to regret forever.

When you’re afraid of something, tell someone.

When you need help, ask for it.

When your insides are whirling around and you feel as if you’re drowning, panicking and desperate, don’t put a calm smile on your face and walk around as if you’re fine.

There are lots of people who would love to help you.

There are lots of people who love you. You don’t know that yet, but you will.

You are going to be so much happier when you’re older than you could believe possible, and most of that happiness will come when you let go of trying to come across a certain way, when you just let yourself be.

It’s weird, but you’re going to live your life in reverse of most people your age. Awful things are going to happen to you when you’re young, and you’re going to feel much older than your friends. For many years your interior will not match your exterior.

But guess what? Time will go by, and your friends will catch up to you. Life catches up to everyone. The older you get the happier you get, the more rebellious, the less willing to suffer fools, to put up with shit. You’re going to feel so free when you get older.

So many years from the day you held this camera out and hoped this photo would reveal something you couldn’t explain, something you wanted so badly to know about yourself, you will look at it and feel this big sweep of love for that young girl, her whole life stretching out before her, as if she isn’t you.

But she is.

Day Ten of the never done before challenge: A Small, Good Thing

Both yesterday and today I failed at the never done before challenges that I assigned myself. Actually, it was the same challenge both days; yesterday I failed in the first minute of the challenge, while today I made it a full hour.

Who was it that said “Tomorrow is another day”? Scarlett O’Hara? If so, I’ll go along with her, despite the fact that I never liked her (she was too stupid to see how great Rhett was). Tomorrow is another day, and I shall try, try again.

In the meantime, I did do something new today. I went to the Wagon Wheel Cafe in Mankato, Minnesota. Have you ever been there? If not, you need to go. Here are some of the things you will see when you walk in the door.

Booths with tabletop jukeboxes.

Plastic menus with Specials of the Day paper-clipped to them. The specials are typed (on a manual typewriter) on 3×5 cards, and they look as if they’ve been in rotation for twenty or more years.

Sample special of the day, ordered by my elder male companion:

Bean Soup, Chicken Salad Sandwich, Beverage: $3.36. (I am not kidding you.)

Pie: $1.35/slice. I ordered cherry and my elder companions ordered banana cream and apple. They came a la Cool Whip.

After much contemplation of the tabletop jukebox, the patrons of the Wagon Wheel, and my elder companions, I put a quarter in, set the volume on “soft,” and chose The Way You Do the Things You Do by the Temptations, and they crooned to us while we ate our pie.

Day Nine: Ugh

One of my worst fears is losing use of my fingers. How would I type? How could I write? Horrifies me so much I have nightmares about it.

Voice recognition software is supposeod to be good, but I can only write when my fingers are flying on the keyboard. No planning things out ahead of time.

You would have to teach yourself how to type with your toes, is what I’ve always told myself. You would still be able to write, I’ve assured myself.

Some painters paint with a brush in their mouths. Touchstone screens would help, right?

But the idea of it –so slow, so laborious- has always scared the crap out of me.

And that is why today’s new thing was to type an entire post with my two big toes only, including inserting a photo. Here you go, people.

You have no idea how long this took me.

Never Done Before challenge: Day Eight

Day Eight (or Day Nem as we say in phonetically-spelled Mongolian) of the never-done-before challenge started out easy.

The challenge: select three words you’ve never heard of before and use each of them in ordinary conversation with a straight face, as if you assume the other person is familiar with the word.

This challenge, which sounds so easy, doesn’t it, took a sharp turn toward difficult right out of the box. That’s what happens if you’re a person who loves words and thinks you know a fair number of them. If you are such a person, I suggest that you turn to this site and see how you feel after a minute or so.

Choosing the words alone took me close to an hour, given the giant blow to my vocabulary ego and the fact that there are So Many Fascinating Words in the world.

It was obvious that I was going to have to narrow the search down immediately, so I randomly chose one word each from the B, N and M sections.

(That right there is a lie. I already knew the B word that I chose, but because it makes me laugh every single time I think of it, and also because my friend Absalom is at least as fond of it as me, I cheated and used it; sue me.)

The next challenge, using each word thrice in ordinary conversation with a straight face, was also difficult because I was on a 400-mile drive, with the only two other people in earshot being my two elder companions. This added a certain je ne sais quoi to our car conversations.

Conversation #1

Me to elder female companion: Have you ever had a bezoar?

EFC: A what?

Me: A bezoar.

EFC (adjusting hearing aid): A boudoir?

Me: Bezoar. B. E. Z. O. A. R.

EFC: What in God’s name is a bezoar?

Me: An indigestible intestinal obstruction.

EFC: Oh. (Pause.) No. (Pause.) So a bezoar is like a bolus then?

Me (impressed): Um. Yeah.

Conversation #2

Elder male companion (squinting at car loitering in the left lane of I-90): Look at that fool. Yapping on his phone.

Me: Yup. He’s a ninnyhammer.

EMC grunts in assent, accepting ninnyhammer without question; jury’s out on whether he actually heard the word or not.

EFC, on the other hand, pipes up from the backseat: What did you just call that driver?

Me: A ninnyhammer.

EFC: Is this another of those words, like bolus?

Me: You mean like bezoar? Yes.

EFC: Oh right. Bezoar. Bolus is stuck in my head now.

Me: At least it’s not stuck in your intestines.

Conversation #3

Conversation #3 never happened, because I completely forgot what my third new word was. All 400 miles I racked my brain as to what it could be, but all I could remember was that it begins with M and means “emaciation.”

But this was no problem, right? My plan was to return to the Dictionary of Difficult Words and look up my M word as soon as I reached the Sleep Inn in Sioux Falls, SD and then race downstairs to the elder companions’ room to spring it on them in an ordinary sentence.

I got as far as the Dictionary of Difficult Words. But guess what? There are so many Difficult Words that begin with M, and so many of them are so fascinating, that I literally cannot locate the M word that means “emaciation.”

One hour, one Sleep Inn plastic cup of Bailey’s Irish cream over ice and a dozen times through my favorite songs on one of my favorite albums later, though, I do know the meaning of macradenous, musaceous, manustupration and melichrous.

Never Done Before challenge: Day Seven

You know what? Doing something truly new every single day is not all that easy. It’s only Day Seven, or, as we say phonetically in Mongolian, “dahshawr,” and I wish, like God, that I could take the day off and just bask in the glory of the accomplishments of the last six days.

But no. A challenge is a challenge, and onward I forge, despite the fact that I’ve also learned it’s not all that easy to gauge what new things will be easy and what new things will be hard.

Take learning to count to ten in Mongolian, which I figured would be pretty easy. Wrong.

I did expect that finally doing a headstand for the first time in my life would be hard, but I also expected that with the help of my youthful companion, I would be able to do it. Wrong again.

So today, on Day Seven, I felt like doing something super-easy, like painting my toenails an entirely new shade that isn’t the bright green they’ve been painted for close to a year now. Yet here I am in a Comfort Inn in Cody, Wyoming, with no access to any nail polish beyond the bottle of bright green.

But lo, what do we have here? Why, it’s a large paper clip, right on the desk next to me.

This large paper clip reminds me of when the youngest of my youthful companions was in first grade and made herself a necklace out of paper clips, a nice complement to the collection of shark tooth necklaces she was then fond of wearing. She wore her paper clip necklace to school the day she made it.

I was a little nervous that the paper clip necklace wouldn’t go over well, but I said nothing, of course, and of course –something I could have guessed now but not back then, when she was tiny– within days, most of the kids in her class were also wearing paper clip necklaces.

So, in honor of the youthful companion, and also because this is the easiest new thing I could think of, I sally forth with a brand-new earring.

Never Done Before challenge: Day Six

After a day that included hundreds of miles through the ever-changing Big Sky landscape, rows of wind turbines standing silent sentry on ridgelines, an escaped black Angus running along outside a fenceline looking desperate to get back in and rejoin his (her?) brethren, a close encounter with a semi, and a side trip to Ingomar, MT, ghost town home of the Jersey Lillie Cafe, an establishment that both my elder companions and I were too afraid to walk into, it seemed like a good idea to learn how to count to ten in Mongolian.

In case you, like me, were thinking that Mongolian must bear a strong resemblance to Mandarin, thereby making it super-easy to learn 1-10 in Mongolian if you already know Mandarin, you would be totally wrong.

Mongolian is nothing like Mandarin!

Something new that I thought would be a piece of cake took me close to an hour and many reruns of the Youtube video to master.

That doesn’t include writing down an approximation of the Mongolian non-English alphabet words in the tiny little notebook that my friend Julie S. gave me last week and then writing down a pathetic English phonetic equivalent next to each Mongolian word.

The effort has certainly not been in vain, however, because next time I find myself in Ulan Bator, I’ll be able to order up to ten –but no more than ten– Mongolian dumplings.

Poem of the Week, by Adelia Prado

The Mystical Rose
– Adélia Prado (translated from the Brazilian Portuguese by Ellen Doré Watson)

The first time
I became conscious of form,
I said to my mother:
“Dona Armanda has a basket in her kitchen
where she keeps tomatoes and onions”
and began fretting that even lovely things
eventually spoil,
until one day I wrote:
“It was here in this room that my father died,
here that he wound the clock
and rested his elbows
on what he thought was the windowsill
but was the threshold of death.”
I understood that words grouped like that
made it possible to live without
the things they describe,
that my father was returning, indestructible.
It was as if someone had painted a picture
of Dona Armanda’s basket and said:
“Now you can eat the fruit.”
So, there is order in the world!
—where does it come from?
And why does order, which is joy itself,
and bathes in a different light
than the light of day,
make the soul sad?
We must protect the world from time’s corrosion,
cheat time itself.
And so I kept writing: “My father died in this room …
Night, you can come on down,
your blackness can’t erase this memory.”
That was my first poem.

For more information on Adelia Prado, please click here: