First music: Edgar Winters Group.

What was the first music you ever bought with your own money?

The Edgar Winter Group album that featured the songs “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride.” I was in the eighth grade.

Any reaction from your parents?

My father came into the room and discovered the album cover with Edgar Winter in full glam rock mode, blindingly white bare-chested skin, over-the-top makeup, I think a feather boa or some such thing. He calmly took the album out of the cover, took a pair of scissors, and cut the album cover to shreds.

What did he do then?

He replaced the cover with another from his own collection and put a piece of white tape on it, carefully transcribing the title on the tape. Then he turns to me and says, “I know you spent your own money on this, and therefore you can listen to any garbage you want, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to have you turn to cross-dressing over your musical tastes.”

Do you remember the next music you bought?

Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. I would say at least 70% of the music I’ve bought since then has been classical.

(Tim Cook, Vermont)

First music ever bought with own money?

How old were you?

Ten, probably.

What did you buy?

Johnny Cash, at Folsom Prison. I can still see the cover and the record as it was when I bought it, still shiny and black and unscratched.

My allowance at the time was maybe $3/week, out of which I was supposed to buy school lunch. But if I made my lunch at home I could keep the school lunch money, so that’s what I did. I saved up and bought the album at a record store in Utica.

Why Johnny Cash?

He was my favorite. I grew up listening to him and to the other old-school country greats: Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette. But Johnny was always front and center, for me. He still is.

Did you ever see him perform?

I did. I must have been about the same age as when I bought the album. My family and I were on one of our summer road trips – we were in Canada and we saw him at an outdoor concert in Toronto. It was night, and it poured down rain and we sat there with our jackets over our heads. It poured on the stage too, and Johnny’s guitars kept getting soaked. When one got too wet he’d toss it off the stage and they’d toss him another one.

“If you all are going to sit there in the rain then I’m going to keep playing in the rain,” he said.

And he did.

Poem of the Week, by Rick Barot

Brown Refrigerator
– Rick Barot

You don’t have to understand it
but you will carry it anyway.
A couple whose baby died,
when they had to move
to another state, took the baby
from the years-long ground
and brought her with them.
They did this again a second
time, their memory always
tied to its embodiment,
new burials for an old grief.
In a short film I once saw,
ants lifted away the silver
and gold confetti from a party,
making a trail of suns
and moons on the floor.
The filmmaker must have put
something sweet on the circles,
like a painter dabbing
little points of white paint
to give highlights to an eyeball.
Some of the recipes that
a friend keeps making
go so far back in her family
the recipes are like snapshots
of villages and forests,
mountains and falling snow.
Apples and trout rise up
into the night’s constellations,
a dark without yellow stars.
What I remember of childhood
sometimes comes down
to the brown refrigerator
in our house. Its chrome
handle was always angry
with static, so that now when
I reach for the doorknob
or the gas pump, the sharp
charge on my fingers is
childhood calling its child back.

For more information about Rick Barot, please click here:


Poem of the week, by Helen Wickes

Single Thread
– Helen Wickes

When I was a weaver, I chose
a red silk thread to get me to the heart
of my creation and then back out,
across the loom, to whatever life was waiting.

And when you found the little red pathway,
buried between warp and woof, you were sure
you’d found a flaw. Please remember what happens

when there’s no exit. Years of breathing
wool dust, reeking of lanolin, staring into coils
of green yarn and blue—you go dumb.

You’ve heard the story a thousand times—
that trapped fox, whining and snuffling
then biting her paw
through the bone, and running off into the night.

The mind wants this: a door in the wall,
an open field, a narrow path
through the woods, an open field

For more information on Helen Wickes, please click here:


Poem of the Week, by Emily Rechnitz

– Emily Rechnitz

I stumbled in high heels
across the wood chips
of the Christmas-tree farm
to take my place with the other guests
under coarse pine boughs.

In a coned damsel cap
the bride glimmered
through the woods, materialized
at the altar microphone.

In the barbecue line
his mother whispered on my neck,
“I thought you would be the one!”

I watched the bride and groom
shake hands, stared at his profile
til it buzzed, remembering
2 a.m. behind the high school
when we rocked on a blanket
rubbing jeans into jeans
until the moon jumped and I fell
off the hill slowly, a diamond in glycerine.

I remember walking down a road to meet him,
how the air tingled, in love
with how I looked in my underwear,
dancing in front of his mirror.

I could not find any recent information on Emily Rechnitz and her poetry – anyone out there in the know, please update me.



And on the 30th day, she looked forward to Indian food with a friend.

I was in the laundry room, folding mounds of towels and sheets and listening to one of my favorite doctor-writers, Atul Gawande.

Mr. Gawande was talking about how he recently spent time comparing operating room procedures to kitchen procedures at The Cheesecake Factory. He was impressed with the fact that within weeks, all the items on a brand-new Cheesecake Factory menu had been memorized, mastered and turned into an instinctive, practiced set of skilled motions by each of the Cheesecake Factory chefs nationwide. (I’m paraphrasing, but this is how I understood it.)

I listened carefully to everything he said, because I love Atul Gawande. He’s the guy who, years ago, wrote an article that entranced me. This article still entrances me –I still read it over and over– with everything that it has to say about how an ordinary person can get really, really good at something.

Becoming good at something, no, not good, great at something is not, according to Mr. Gawande, dependent on talent so much as a combination of endless practice, endless striving, a refusal to set a limit on yourself, and something else that I think of as an intuitive leap.

You trudge, you trudge, you trudge, you make miniscule progress that you can barely measure, you grow discouraged and disheartened, and then one day you wake up and poof!, you’ve vaulted onto a whole new plane of existence.

Listening to Atul Gawande talk about how the Cheesecake Factory kitchen is highly organized in terms of quality control, with an overseer who checks every single plate as it leaves the chef line, correcting the chef for every tiny aspect of the dish that’s not perfect, which results in incredibly fast mastery of each dish, made me think of another article he wrote a few years ago, about appendices and where to get them taken out.

The best place to get your appendix removed, as it turns out, is not the hospital with the most brilliant surgeons on staff. Nope. If you want your appendix taken out, you should go to a clinic that does nothing but take out appendices (appendixes?), one after another, dozens and dozens a day, by surgeons who do nothing else.

When I got my eyeballs fried I went to a doctor who does nothing but fry eyeballs, day in and day out, dozens a day. He’s an eyeball-frying robot and he does a great job, at least in part because the operation is so utterly familiar.

When I studied Chinese I spent hours forming characters over and over and over and over and over, one to each little box on the character-practice sheets. I don’t write Chinese anymore, but sometimes, if I need to calm down, I’ll sit and trace certain beloved characters over and over and over until the rhythm once again becomes automatic.

I think that great writing –great art, maybe– is a combination of a practice so ingrained and so familiar that it’s in your bones, along with a longing for, what, transcendence?, and an undying push toward perfection.

That perfection can’t be attained doesn’t make any difference. You just keep trying. The trying itself, along with the longing and the practice, will, eventually and often when you least expect it, vault you into a new level of mastery.

When it comes to writing, I’m pretty sure I know what I’m good at, and I also know what I’m bad at. (Apologies for that sentence, but I see no reason why we shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition.)

Most of the time, I choose to focus on what I’m good at and camouflage, distract from, hide, or eliminate what I’m bad at.

Listening to Atul Gawande gave me the idea for my final never done before challenge of the month: Identify an aspect of writing that I’m bad at, and get better at it. Do this by devising a process that combines rote practice with the possibility of a serendipitous Darwinian leap.

So, that’s what I’ll be doing this coming month. I’ve identified something specific I’m bad at and I’ll be working on it every day for at least ten minutes. You’ll have to trust me on this, though, because the official part of the Never Done Before challenge is, as of today, OVER.

I began the challenge on my birthday, one month ago today, in a what-the-hell mood following the consumption of both a Sidecar and an Aviation at Jax Cafe in northeast Minneapolis.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, in a what the hellish sort of way. And despite the fact that I had no idea how much time it would end up taking, it still seems like a good idea. I’m glad I did it, dead mouse detonation and all. Thanks.

Day Twenty-Nine: "Just pretend you stepped on a chicken wing," said my friend. "Little crunchy bones, you know?"

Well, well, well. I had such a great thing planned for today’s never done before challenge. I was thinking about this great thing all day long, preparing to put in a couple of hours writing about it tonight.

Then I went down into my basement, which, just to give you a visual, is a really nice, finished, furnished, can-lights-in-ceiling, nice bathroom, bamboo-floor-with-rugs-here-and-there basement, to get some books.

As I was looking up at the bookshelves, I stepped on something on one of the rugs that gave under my heel with a distinct *pop*. The sole of my foot felt wet and gunky. I looked down –huge, huge mistake– to see that I had just exploded the skull and bowels of a dead mouse with my bare foot.

You might wonder about the sequence of events that followed this incident.

It’s kind of a blur in my mind, but I know that it involved shrieking on one foot into the laundry room, throwing my leg into the laundry sink, flooding the contaminated foot with a fire hydrant’s worth of water, then –for reasons I don’t understand– scrubbing the foot back and forth in cat litter, returning the foot to the laundry tub, and, finally, realizing that I was stuck with the burst-mouse foot and that like it or not it (the foot) was going to stay attached to my leg for the rest of my life.

I can honestly say that I have never exploded the skull and body of a dead mouse with my bare foot before. And that, my friends, is going to have to suffice for today’s challenge.

I leave you with this fatbooth photo.


Day Twenty-Eight: Ashamed to admit it

It’s been a long day, and my challenge –to learn how to hula hoop at long last– was completely thwarted by the fact that the only hula hoop in the house, the one that I’ve tried and failed many times to hula with, was apparently constructed for a toddler.

When I went to research the art of hula hooping this morning, preparatory to mastering it, I immediately ran across a website run by a very stern woman who informed me that it’s essential to buy the right size hula hoop, and that “the kind of hula hoops you can buy at Target” are way too small. Oops.

Who knew that I was supposed to have a hula hoop that, when stood on its side, comes up above my belly button? Not me. And I didn’t feel like heading out and trying to procure a regulation-size hula hoop today.

So the dog and I have just returned from a long walk, during which I was determined to do something new. There was a trail of brightly-colored gummy worms all the way down Dupont Avenue, and I thought of photographing them, but that seemed lame.

I’m tired. Sometimes you just don’t want to do anything new, you know? Sometimes you just want to go lie on your couch and listen to music and try once again to get into Wolf Hall, the novel that everyone but you seems to have no problem not only getting into but understanding without a flow chart. Nay, not only understanding without a flow chart, but loving to obsession.

The dog and I were only a few blocks from home, getting ready to cross the street, when we saw a nun on the other side of Dupont about a block away. There was something about this nun that gave me the willies. I don’t have anything against nuns, nor against clowns for that matter (why does everyone hate clowns these days), but my radar went up.

As the nun got closer I saw that she wasn’t a nun. She was a woman with long black hair wearing a pitch-black, long, swirling cape-robe. It’s close to 90 degrees out, but there she was, walking down the street with a big black bag clutched to her side.

And I’m ashamed to admit this, but all I could think of was that movie theater in Aurora and that high school in Columbine, and the black-robed gunmen. I told myself not to be ridiculous, that my neighborhood is full of people who wear anything they want and that’s part of the reason why I love it.

But still, I stood there watching the woman in the swirling black robe. Crossing the street would have meant walking right past her.

I didn’t cross the street. I turned and walked in the other direction. And so far as I can remember, that’s the first time I’ve done something like that.

Day Twenty-Seven: We enter an unfamiliar world

Last evening, led by my youthful companions, who know that my hatred of shopping is outweighed only by my love of spending time with them, I entered a never-done-before alternate world.

In this alternate world, I observed many things, such as bureaus hung on walls three stories high, giant signs which admonished us ominously to “get a cart” because we would “need one,” and an enormous escalator lifting countless passengers skyward.

Huge blue and yellow bags were seen everywhere in this world, and lo, huge carts were pushed grimly through mazelike aisles.

A caged chair was observed to be undergoing what looked like a crude form of electroshock therapy.

Giant bins were filled with things so cheaply priced that we began to feel panicky, as if we should buy them all if only because of their absurd cheapness.

Many conversations were overheard.

Conversation #1

Man to woman: Downstairs you can get a hot dog, chips and a soda for $2.50. They’re giving away food down there. Giving it away. And no line.

Woman: I don’t care. I want the Swedish meatballs. That’s what they’re famous for. We’re staying here.

Conversation #2

Woman to small child pushing cart: Honey, you’ve got to stay on the path and keep moving. We’re like buffaloes in here. We have to go where they tell us to go.

Small cart-pushing child to woman: We’re like buffaloes?

Conversation #3

Me to youthful companions as we shuffled through a labyrinthine cafeteria line: Why are all these people using walkers?

Youthful companions to me: Those aren’t walkers, Mom. They’re tray carts to hold your food.


In the end, there was a plate filled with Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and for $2 extra, soup or salad and a fountain beverage of our choice.

Everything in the ordinary world, once we managed to find it again after literally getting lost in this alternate world, seemed beautifully small.

Day Twenty-Six: Inspired by that guy with the giant red paper clip

Dream: to climb Machu Picchu the long, winding, non-touristy way.

Dream: to live for a while (or maybe forever) in Montana or Colorado or Wyoming.

Dream: to build a rock or stone terraced wall-garden-thing along the sidewalk in my front yard, fill it in with dirt and then re-plant the insanity that is my perennial garden back into it.

Dream: to get really good at swing dancing.

These are just a few of my many, many, many dreams. I was thinking about some of them at dawn today, and then that guy with the giant red paper clip popped into my mind.

Remember him? He began with the huge paper clip and bartered his way up the ebay ladder until he owned a house, in Canada as I recall. This was in the news a few years ago, and the whole idea intrigued and delighted me.

Barter: it’s the new money.

I used to do a food exchange with another family. Once a week, sometimes more, we would cook twice the amount of dinner, package it up and then go leave it on the others’ doorstep. This was an idea I dreamed up out of a (probably false) sense of imaginary nostalgia (imaginary because I never experienced it myself) for the way little communities used to work, or the way I imagine they used to work, in which everyone took care of each other and each others’ children.

The other family, as I recall, was initially hesitant, but game to try. The food exchange was a huge success from the very first day. There was no pressure whatsoever – if you were flat out one week, you didn’t have to cook extra. If you were in a cooking mood one week, you could leave food two or three times.

We already knew that we each liked each others’ cooking, so there were no unpleasant surprises. The food exchange brought us closer together as friends, even though most of the time the only interaction was coming home and finding a big shopping bag by your front door.

There was something about the fact that someone else had done the cooking, then carefully wrapped it up and taken it over to the other house. It made the other family (and me, when it was my turn to find food on my doorstep) feel as if someone else was watching over them, taking care of them.

That was a long time ago, and the food exchange has been over for many years. But I was thinking about it, and missing it, as the dog and I made our way around the lake at dawn today. The food exchange was a form of barter, and barter intrigues me.

Therefore, today’s never done before challenge: to offer up something possibly barterable in return for something that I would like to do/go to/experience.

What could I barter, though? The only potentially interesting thing I came up with to offer was naming rights to a character in a future book. But that idea, for many reasons, is a dicey proposition, so I rejected it.

But wait!

It dawned on me that I do have something of actual value that can be bartered, which is a one-week stay, for yourself or your family or your friends, in the charming little hotel apartment partially owned and operated by me and my youthful companions. Right here in the heart of a famously artsy biggish city, no blackout dates other than Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Uptown Art Fair.

Got anything interesting to barter in return? If so, let me know.