Andes Mint #18: The sheriff! His deputy! A dozen donuts! Funny books for little kids.

You love an assignment. Why wouldn’t you? So much easier than tromping around the lakes trying to sift through the zillion ideas that come floating up out of your scattered brain. If you worked for someone else who was always dumping unasked-for projects on your desk, maybe you’d hate them, but such is not the case.

“It’s your lucky day,” said someone close to you during a phone conversation a couple of years ago. “I have an assignment for you.”

Oooh! Goody!

“Yup, I know how you love an assignment,” said the someone. “And here it is: a powdered doughnut*.”

A powdered doughnut! Fabulous!

“Right?? It’s the perfect story,” said the someone, who could hear your happiness over the phone. “Don’t say I never gave you anything.”

This is just exactly the kind of assignment you most love. A single phrase. A single image. A single line from a song. A powdered doughnut: who could ask for anything more?

You immediately set to work. Work begins by picturing the doughnuts you have known: powdered, yes, but what about jelly –your favorite when you were tiny– and glazed, raised yeast and classic cake? Chocolate-covered Bismarcks, as they are known in the midwest, or Boston Creme, as they are known in the Northeast? Custard-filled. Apple fritters. Doughnuts with sprinkles, as they are known everywhere but upstate New York, and jimmies, as they are known nowhere but upstate New York.

And the granddaddy of them all: Persians, as they were sold at both Hemstrought Bakery in Utica, New York or in the back of Trumy’s in Mapledale, New York. Nothing compares to a Persian. Oh, you miss Persians.

But you digress.

Doughnuts, we have gathered you here today to discuss the fate of one of your brethren: the powdered.

You write all kinds of books. You most like writing novels and you least like writing picture books. These two reasons –the most-like and the least-like, are probably why you focus on both novels and picture books. The ends of the like spectrum. The extremes.

“Like” isn’t the right word, though. “Challenged by” is more accurate. Novels are hard, and they take you a long time because you never know what they’re really about before you begin. That means that you have to write, say, 900 pages before you start whittling and shaping what ends up to be, say, 220 pages. You have to create the granite before you can begin to chip it away to reveal the sculpture waiting inside.

But you love writing novels because they take so long. You can wander and meander and not have any idea where you’re going but it doesn’t matter. You’re open to serendipity. Take me wherever you’re going, novel, you think, I’m just along for the ride. As long as you manage a couple thousand words a day, that’s good enough.

Picture books, ugh. They’re the other end of the length spectrum, because they’re usually no more than 300-400 words, and they are so very hard for you. Trying to get one right is like capturing a firefly inside a jar and hoping it doesn’t die before you can figure out why it’s all lit up like that. (That analogy makes no sense and yet somehow it does make sense, to you anyway.)

The love and the hate, that’s what you like. That’s what challenges you. The safe middle, oh no. Perish the thought.

Again you digress. Back to the powdered doughnut.

This was one of those rare, so rare, so horridly rare, books that just kind of wrote itself. The Sheriff! His deputy! And their mission: to bring a dozen doughnuts safely home!

Writing it made you laugh the whole way through. You sent it off to the someone who’d given you the assignment in the first place.

“I knew you’d love this assignment,” she said, and then she started cackling in that semi-maniacal way she has. “Good job.”

Off it went to a fabulous editor –thanks, Nancy Conescu, for your smarts and your humor– and then to a fabulous illustrator, who came up with all those fabulous illustrations –thanks, Isabel Roxas, you little genius you– that made you laugh all over again. Fabulosity all around.

At some point in the whole process, you and the editor and the illustrator all sat around a restaurant talking about doughnuts and laughing. Here’s hoping that The Case of the Missing Donut makes you laugh too, along with some little kid you love.


*Doughnut became donut when I crowd-sourced the spelling on Facebook; the vast majority came down firmly on the side of donut. (Apologies to all the traditionalists out there. It hurt me too.)

Andes Mint #17: What I learned from my buddy John Klossner in sixth-grade math class

Sixth grade math class. Miss Hughes stood at the front of the classroom. She was short, young and powerfully built, with a sarcastic sense of humor that you and most of the class appreciated.

You didn’t much like math, but you hadn’t yet come to loathe it, with “having skipped eighth grade math and therefore lost way too much ground to catch up later” being a synonym for loathing.

The classroom was laid out in straight rows of those desk-chair combinations that you still see in classrooms wherever you go. You sat near the back in one of them, with your friend John in the desk ahead of you. John was tall and lean and blonde. He still is.

Miss Hughes rolled her chalk in her hands and covered the blackboard with numbers. Worksheets were passed around. Math books were opened to designated pages. In memory, it was always fall in math class. Or spring. Sunlight slanting through the big windows on the far side of the room. Green grass beyond.

John propped his math book open vertically on his desk so that his sketchpad was hidden below it. The sketchpad was full of caricatures: people, animals, scenes near and far. He drew with a black pen and he hunched over his desk. From all directions except yours and the others right next to him, he looked deeply studious.

You used to admire his artwork so much, back then when you were eleven years old. How could he draw so effortlessly? All those sketches came directly out of his brain and transferred themselves to paper with a few quick strokes of his hand and that black pen.

From the time you first met him, in sixth grade, which is when three area elementary schools combined into one middle school and then one high school, he was always drawing. When you picture John back then, he is hunched over his desk, tall body crammed into a too-small desk and chair. His blonde hair falls over one eye and the pen is moving over that blank page.

Everything he did with that pen was cool, from his drawings to his handwriting to the way he wrote phone numbers.

His initials: JK. But he used the back of the J to form the spine of the K, so that it was all one cool combo-letter. You admired that endlessly.

Phone numbers: He put dots, or slashes, between the area code and the exchange, e.g., 315/865.4734. That, too, you admired endlessly. In fact, you admired it so much that you stole it, then and there, and that’s how you’ve written down phone numbers ever since.

His drawings: He never stopped. Now he’s a New Yorker cartoonist. You still remember the day you opened up the most recent New Yorker to behold a cartoon that looked strangely familiar in style and substance. And there was his name, right there in the bottom of the panel.

What you learned from him, besides how to write down phone numbers: To prop your math book up on your desk and open a novel beneath it, so that once that math worksheet was filled out, you could read and read and read.

Like him, you were arrowing yourself in a single direction. We do best that which we love to do.

Andes Mint #16: Sleepwalker


A child enters your room sometime after midnight.
You know it’s your son by the silhouette of his cheek,
his spiky, sleep-tossed hair.
You say his name. He doesn’t answer.
You call his name again and
again, he does not answer.
It is your boy, isn’t it?
Or have you transformed a masked stranger into a
second-grader in blue plaid flannel pajamas?

A whisper of a laugh escapes him and
it does not sound like the laughter of the boy you know.
Someone else has come upon you,
insinuated himself into your family,
eased in on a black night.
Fear slips cold gloves around your lungs and
you can’t breathe.
Motionless on the threshold, the
stranger stares at you in darkness.

Next morning at breakfast the
eight-year-old is back. His spoon lifts
in and out of a cereal bowl, flashing silver.
He sees you gazing at him in the morning sun.
He smiles his gap-toothed smile.
After a minute you smile back at him.
You don’t want to think about
what you witnessed there, in the dark:
the man inside the boy, waiting to get out.

Andes Mint #15: Poem of the Week, by Jack Gilbert

Michiko Dead
– Jack Gilbert

He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.

For more information on Jack Gilbert, please click here:

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Andes Mint #14: Which will you choose

I woke up in the middle of the night last night curled on the far side of an enormous, cushy bed in an enormous, cushy hotel in the Rocky Mountains. It was 2:47, which is a time I often wake up.

It was black in the room the way only a hotel, with those magic light-canceling curtains, can be. I think of that particular blackness as Hotel Dark.

The one question on my mind, curled there on the edge of that bed so big an entire family could have fit onto it, was this: Which wrist are my birthmarks on?

These are two tiny Rice Krispie shaped birthmarks. They have been with me since birth (which is probably why they’re called birthmarks). This means that every day of my life, I have lived with my birthmarks, which are visible every time I look at that wrist.

But which wrist was it?

It was 2:47 a.m. and I needed to know. But I needed to remember, and not figure out the answer by quickly touching each wrist. It seemed crazy not to know which wrist was the birthmark wrist.

Pitch black. 2:48. 2:49. I forbade either hand to touch the other wrist. The vast width of the invisible bed stretched behind my curled-up back, and I was conscious of the seven pillows I had tossed to the far end.

Which wrist?

You have lived inside this body your entire life, I told myself. It seemed so sad that I didn’t know the answer, by instinct, by familiarity with my own self.

Nick Drake started singing inside my head, that haunting song of his: Which Will.

Then I started thinking about my face. I realized that I had never seen my face in real life. The backward reflection of it in a mirror, many times. The outline of my nose, and my Donald Duck-like upper lip that one time that the bee stung it.

But my actual face, the one that everyone else sees? Never. Not even once. And I never will.

I thought about how when I lace my fingers together and then look at them all twisted up and command one to lift, and another to twitch, most of the time, the wrong finger will lift or twitch.

How well do I know my own body?

Which will you go for? Which will you love? Which will you choose from? From the stars above. . .

Andes Mint #13: Walk slowly.

Walk slowly. All you can ever come to is yourself. (Middle Eastern proverb, at least according to the Reader’s Digest magazine you read it in, back when you were in middle school)

Three decades after you both graduated from that high school in the foothills, you feel a tap on your shoulder and turn to behold him, smiling, having recognized you in line. You’re back, from a thousand and more miles, to that place that you still call home, while he never left.

?? and !! and ?? and !!

And the whole time you’re smiling at each other and small-talking, a whole other conversation is taking place deep inside: that night you slow-danced together at the bar, when the drinking age in upstate New York was 18 and that’s how old you were, that summer after senior year, year of cut-offs and baby doll shirts you made by cutting up thrift-store nightgowns.

Dreamweaver on the radio. Roller skates around and around the gym on Saturday nights. Fribbles and blue cheese salads during your break at Friendly Ice Cream. Boys who pressed coins into the chocolate fudge in their sundae glasses for a tip, printed their phone numbers on paper napkins. The red Datsun pick-up that shifted like butter, that you drove up and down Glass Factory Road, Route 12, Route 274.

Sun-drenched days and long nights of crickets and mosquitoes and goodbye parties.

You were leaving soon and you would never return again for longer than a week. College for you, a carpenter’s toolbelt for him.

Now you get out  your old yearbook and flip through its pages. Feathered bangs. Turtlenecks. Serious eyes, composed smiles. Walk slowly. All you can ever come to is yourself. Decades later, you would still choose the same quote, still put it beneath that photo of you standing by that tree.

Andes Mint #12: Mother of Stars

Your mother woke you when you were a child, took your hand and pulled you from that little bed in that little room, led you downstairs and onto the cool cement porch.

“Look,” she said, and pointed to the heavens, pulsing green and blue and yellow. “It’s the northern lights.”

Tired, you leaned against the wooden porch post and held her hand. Angels dancing, is what it looked like to you. Silent angels.

* * *

Thirty and more years later you walked with your mother by a mighty river. You were in the lead. The two of you climbed a winding stair to a bridge and looked down at the wild water, churning its way south. You had just told your mother about something wild and churning inside yourself. She took your hand and held it.

“Everything will be okay,” she said. Her eyes filled but she looked at you steadily. “Everything will be all right.”

* * *

Years later, she told you that she had not been able to imagine how anything would possibly be all right.

“But I knew that’s what I had to say. That’s what you needed to hear.”

You’ve seen the northern lights many times since that night you were, what, four years old. But when you hear the phrase northern lights now, it is that first night you go back to. Your young mother, not yet 30, holding the hand of her little girl and pointing to something unearthly in the sky, something beyond any explanation that makes sense.

And for reasons you don’t understand, you also go back to that day by the wild water, her hand in yours, her voice calm, telling you that everything would be all right.


Andes Mint #11: Credo


I believe in tenderness.
I believe in lying on your porch swing on a summer night and watching the passersby.
I believe in eating as many Oreos as you want.
I believe that climbing down the mountain is harder than hiking up.
I believe in standing in the doorway watching your small children as they sleep.
I believe that I have lived too much of my life in fear.
I believe in Mint Sprint toenail polish.
I believe that you can choose to be kind.
I believe that I would not know how to live in this world without my best friend.
I believe that the most fun place to eat in a restaurant is at the bar.
I believe that art has saved me from madness.
I believe that the older I get, the more I enjoy life.
I believe that I have done many things that scared me.
I believe that I am loved.
I believe in a world invisibly part of this world.
I believe that sick days are best used for days when you are not sick.
I believe in the CFTD method of parenting.
I believe that I have courage.
I believe in slant rhyme, slant worlds, and slanting roofs.
I believe you should listen to the same song as many times in a row as you want.
I believe in holding hands.
I do not believe that everything worth doing must be done well.
I do not believe that everything worth doing is difficult.
I believe that I have tried.
I believe that I have tried, at times, too hard.
I believe that I have hurt people I love.
I believe that the people I love know that I love them.
I believe that a single moment of truth and tenderness can redeem years of pain.
I believe what Stanley Kunitz said: that in breaking, the heart can break open.

Andes Mint #10: Steamed clams and boiled new potatoes

You were a small girl and the state fair concessionaire stands sold pink puffs of spun sugar in paper cones, mesh bags of tiny boiled red potatoes salted and buttered, paper containers filled with fried fat-bellied clams glistening with oil. Paper cups filled with lemonade made from a squeezed lemon stirred up with sugar and cold water.

Decades later you stand in your kitchen making lemonade in just that way: A single lemon, big spoonful of sugar, water cold from the tap. Stir.

Back then, in those state fair days, you wanted the world.

I don’t want to be normal, you used to think. Once you said it to your mother –I don’t want to be normal— helpless to explain what you meant, searching for the right word but not able to find it, then or now.

You wanted the world, the world, the world, all its oceans and continents, its mountains and valleys. Now you imagine your footprints, all the places you’ve been, all the faces you’ve beheld, all the days and nights of marvels.

So why is it that it’s a single afternoon at the New York State Fair you go back to, a single memory, you and your father, that man you were so often so afraid of but not on that day, not on that one day when you sat on a red stool beside him, under a red awning there at the fair, eating the salty buttered baby red potatoes, the fried clams that he treated you to?

You were seven, he was 31, and when you think of your panicky desire not to be normal, why is this what you remember?

Because that was the whole world, you hear a voice say, the whole world is everywhere, in every moment.

Andes Mint #9: Show me a girl who's not afraid

You and your girls and their friend were in London, staying in a sunny room with four twin beds at the top of four long, narrow flights of carpeted stairs that one of you always stumbled on at least once.

You strolled Kensington Garden and had afternoon tea. You admired Princess Di’s dresses, still and quiet on mannequins behind guarded glass. Toured the Tower, anxious the entire time because you could feel the spirits of the unquiet dead ghosting around you.

You rode the double-decker buses, hopping on and hopping off. Ate bangers and mash. Took the tube. Fed fat pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

Now you were sitting in a restaurant open to the sidewalk, the four of you at an oilcloth-covered table. There was too much mayonnaise on your sandwich. This had been happening all over London. Gobs of mayonnaise, white and thick and not Hellmann’s, oozing between bread. You wiped some of it off with your napkin.

“Too much mayonnaise yet again,” you said, and looked up to see three pairs of girl eyes fixed on you, three small girls frozen in fear.

“What is it?” you said, bewildered. “Girls, what’s wrong?”

“Is that man drunk?” one of them whispered, afraid to look at the man shouting and weaving on the sidewalk behind her.

You had barely noticed his drunken, ungainly walk, the repeated slur of his angry plea for a sandwich. Now you focused on him.

“Yes,” you said, “he is. But he won’t hurt you. You don’t need to worry. He’s just drunk.”

You went back to your sandwich and the ongoing mayonnaise issue. But when you glanced up a moment later, you saw that they were not eating. They couldn’t relax. Couldn’t shed their fear. They stared at you worriedly.

A great gulf appeared between you and them: you on one side of the table, three little girls on the other. It came over you that in their whole lives none of them had ever been the target of a drunken rage, ever been approached by a grown man with anything but tenderness.

Your heart twinged open and shut, open and shut, in pity and fear and love for the day that would come for each of them, no mother on the other side of the table to wrap her hands around theirs and tell them they were safe, that they had nothing to fear.