Free Donut Holes!

Free donut holes, my friends, free donut holes!

Available at the Red Balloon Bookshop on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, tomorrow morning (August. 10) at 10:30, when I’ll be reading that new little book over to there to the left.

“The Case of the Missing Donut.”

Stop by and say hi if you’re in town.


Andes Mint #24: The World Offers Itself to You

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,” says poet Mary Oliver, “the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting. . .” I was 18 when my parents drove me over from the Adirondacks and delivered me and my belongings to college. I remember watching them drive off in their yellow station wagon. It seemed to me that, although I hadn’t known it until just that moment, my life had broken open. As if anything was possible.

What do I remember of those years? Moments, one after another, held inside as if all time is one time, and we are all still together, there on that beautiful hill.

I remember asking my friend Tom, late one night at a party, “How can you fling yourself off that tower?” For years I, the non-skier, had admired ski jumpers, how they arced their bodies into the unseen air.

“It’s no big deal,” he said. We were sitting side by side in two large green chairs. “The air is soft. It’s like a pillow. It cushions you. You just go into your tuck and do it.”

What he didn’t tell me was that the “cushion” was there and then not there, and it could move you all over the place, depending on air pockets and wind gusts. I know that now, but what I have always gone back to is that first, long ago comment: You just go into your tuck and do it.

I remember stretching to Steve Winwood’s Arc of a Diver before heading out on late afternoon runs. I remember Charlie R’s sweet smile as I ran past him one day near Hillcrest. I remember smiling back. Out of all those days and years of running, why that one fall day, why Charlie alone, walking through falling maple leaves turned to flame? But there it is, a memory like a photograph.

And I remember sitting in a Social Anthropology class, listening to others discuss the assigned readings, through which I had dutifully plowed (50 pages read = one Andes mint bought at the Crest Room, prior to the night’s studying). I remember Mima N. shooting her hand up and asking a brilliant question. I remember thinking, “How did she even think up that question?” It was clear to me that my critical thinking skills were far behind. But anything was possible, wasn’t it? Maybe someday I, too, could think up, if not a great answer, at least a great question.

I remember that on Sundays, the New York Times was delivered to the door of the girls who roomed across the hall from me sophomore year. I remember thinking, I’ve never even read the New York Times. I remember thinking, Someday, when I’m a real grownup, I’m going to have the New York Times delivered to my door.

I remember visiting my friend Absalom on the third floor of our dorm and noting that it was possible to turn one’s dorm room into a shrine to John Prine, cigarettes, and thrift store army jackets. I remember redecorating Peter C’s room with a small collection of moth-eaten fox stoles and four plastic beer mugs.

I remember driving late one night, miles and miles in the darkness, Steve K. behind the wheel, Greg M. riding shotgun, me in the backseat wishing Steve would give me another square of his Cadbury Fruit ‘n Nut. The car was quiet, and Steve beat his hand against the steering wheel to a song inside him. Where were we going? Did we know?

I remember emerging from the underbelly of Sunderland Language Center one winter night when the stars above were like diamonds scattered on black velvet. My mind rang with the cadence of Chinese voices on the Chinese tapes I had spent hours listening to. Suddenly, all around me like an invisible chorus, came the sound of cheering. It rose out of the snow and the woods and the dorms and the town, and I stood there in the cold, filled with wonder. We had just won the U.S.-USSR Olympic hockey game, but I didn’t know that. It seemed only that anything was possible. That even the mountains, if they wanted to, could sing.

I remember standing in line at Security, waiting for my i.d. card on that very first day, behind a girl with honey-colored hair and hiking boots laced with red laces. Now that is cool, I thought. If only I had the imagination to lace my hiking boots with red laces.

“Can you tell me where Stewart Dorm is?” I said to this girl. I did not tell her how much I admired her red laces. That would come years later.

“I’m heading there myself,” she said. “My name’s Ellen.”

I didn’t know then that from that day on, three decades now and counting, each of us would be the voice and the laughter that the other longs to hear. That we would see each other through hardships we couldn’t have then imagined. That if not all things are, in the end, possible, they are at least bearable, if you have a best friend.

I remember graduation day, crutching across the stage with a broken leg,  crying and crying and crying, because I did not want to graduate. I wanted to stay in that shining place forever.

Now here I am, all these years later, and I’m thinking about Neil Young, who wrote, “All my changes were there.” Not all of them. But that was the place where I lived all those moments. That place was the pivot for me, the place where I first turned around and glimpsed the wide horizons of the world. In some ways, I’m still there.

Like Tom said, the cushion might be there and it might not, and gusts of wind might move you all over the place. But you go into your tuck anyway, and you aim yourself into the future.

Andes Mint #23: Synesthesia

This mint is adapted from one in the archives, because at around one last night I realized that it was no longer dark-gray Monday but mustardy-chamois Tuesday, and I started thinking about synethesia all over again.

From a question in Padgett Powell’s book of questions: “If you could assign colors to the days of the week, what color would you assign Tuesday?”

This is an odd question. It implies that you – anyone – have a choice in Tuesday’s color, when in fact you don’t. At least, in your world you don’t.

Tuesday comes with its own color, as do all the days of the week.  Tuesday is a muted mustard-dun, solid color, no pattern. There’s a smooth feel to the color of Tuesday, like old chamois.

Wednesday? A clear blue. Slightly darker than robin’s egg, but on the bright light spectrum of blue. No navy, no dark. Another smooth-textured day.

Thursday is dark, similar to the ocean on a cloudy day. It’s a changeable color within that narrow realm. It can shift from dark gray to forest green, and there’s sometimes a dark honeycomb lace pattern within those dark shades. There can also be a bar of metal in Thursday, a rounded bar that occasionally emerges from within the dark, silent colors. Thursday is a beautiful day. It’s your favorite day of the week.

Friday is a patterned green, a mix of greens: the green of maple leaves in mid-summer and also the green of those leaves when darkened by rain. The pattern that shifts on the surface of Friday is the same sort of leafy light that plays across your skin when you’re lying in your treehouse. Friday is shades of green with shadows.

Saturday is gray-blue, light and porous, especially Saturday mornings. As the day wears on, Saturday darkens in shade but never solidifies; it is a day that retains its foaminess.

Sunday? Yellow, of course, although a yellow that doesn’t take its shade from the sun of its namesake. Sunday is an unchanging shade, a buttery yellow but a shade less dense than implied by the word ‘buttery.’ Sunday is an evaporating sort of day and so is its color.

Monday is dark gray but see-through. Monday is a color like looking through a fine-mesh screen window. Monday is an early color day and it stays dark screen gray until midnight, when it turns into Tuesday, and the chamois mustard-dun returns.

These are the way the days of the week appear to you. They’ve appeared this way all your life, each with its own color and texture and solid or diffuse light and patterns. You always assumed that everyone lived their days out with the same sense of color and texture, just the way that others see all the words spoken around them scrolling across the bottom of the movie screen in their brains, but guess what? Not everyone does. Strange.

Andes Mint #22: Off the grid dabblement

You’re the keeper of a tiny house on a hill in the woods in Vermont. The house is one room, 11′ x 19′, with a tiny sleeping loft and a tiny porch.

At first there was just land. Over the years –quite a few them at this point– you added electricity, tunneled up in a pipe from a pole down the dirt road. And a well, dug way down into the Vermont rock. There’s no plumbing, but there’s a pump. There’s also an outhouse. The outhouse has no door, but when you’re in it you’re looking out at the pine woods and a creek and a bluff rising above it, so . . . no complaints.

Then the tiny house came into being, first in the form of a kit that included lumber and a tin roof and insulation, nails even, which you bought off eBay. Some friends and you framed it up over four days in late fall and another carpenter friend finished the interior over the long Vermont winter, snowshoeing in and out because the dirt road isn’t plowed in winter.

When you’re at the tiny house you divide your time between writing –you can sit on the porch and all you see are white pines and deer and squirrels and wild turkeys and once in a while even a bear– and hiking and making things out of rocks and dirt and wood.

The tiny house could easily be off the grid except for the fact that you’re completely dependent on electricity in order to write. Solar panels are a possibility but they’re way too expensive.

Nevertheless, you play around with off the grid sorts of experiments. One is a graywater filtration system. Graywater is water that’s been used for things like showers and washing dishes. (Blackwater is what comes out of toilets, but you don’t need to worry about that because of the aforementioned outhouse.)

You built your graywater irrigation system this summer, over the course of three days. If it looks just like a raised rock garden, that’s because it pretty much is.

Day One: Eye up the patch of dirt at the side of the cabin. Haul a whole bunch of flat rocks from the creekbed at the bottom of the hill up the hill to the cabin. That sentence makes it sound so easy, doesn’t it? It’s not. Those rocks are amazingly heavy, and prying them out of the creekbed is hard, and that hill is long, and your wheelbarrow is kind of rickety. Major labor, friends, major labor.

Day Two: Arrange all those rocks you hauled on Day One into a pretty, slightly irregular shape. Accept your friend’s offer of some extra topsoil and stand with him in the bed of the pickup tossing shovelfuls into the rock bed. Go to the hardware store and buy two lengths of corrugated pipe. Lay them into the garden bed and grade the dirt underneath so that they angle slightly downward. Test-drive the pipes by pouring several buckets of water through them to make sure that the water disperses evenly and doesn’t all cascade out the other end. Adjust grading as necessary.

Day Three: Go back to the hardware store and buy a bunch of peat moss. Cover the pipes with the peat moss and then take a shovel and do a haphazard job of mixing the topsoil with the peat moss. Dig the perennials your mother helped you divide from her garden out of the woods where you temporarily planted them three days ago. Arrange them in an attractive manner in the raised rock bed. Make sure you don’t try to plant them directly onto one of the pipes.

Et voila! Now you have a raised rock garden/graywater filtration system. Someday, maybe, you’ll have some sort of rudimentary plumbing inside the tiny house, and then you can let the graywater run out of a pipe and into the pipes now hidden in your garden. For now, you’ll empty your 5-gallon buckets of graywater into the garden, which would be a pretty sweet addition to the tiny house even if it didn’t serve a graywater filtration purpose.

Andes Mint #21: Poem of the Week, by Ellen Bass

Pleasantville, New Jersey, 1955
– Ellen Bass

I’d never seen a rainbow or picked
a tomato off the vine. Never walked in an orchard
or a forest. The only tree I knew
grew in the square of dirt hacked
out of the asphalt, the mulberry
my father was killing slowly, pounding
copper nails into its trunk.
But one hot summer afternoon
my mother let me drag the cot onto the roof.
Bed sheets drying on the lines,
the cat’s cardboard box of dirt in the corner,
I lay in an expanse of blueness. Sun rippled
over my skin like a breeze over water.
My eyelids closed. I could hear the ripe berries
splatting onto the alley, the footsteps
of customers tracking in the sticky, purple mash.
I heard the winos on the wooden crates,
brown bags rustling at the throats of Thunderbird.
Car engines stuttered, came to life and died
in the A&P parking lot and I smelled grease and coffee
from the diner where Stella, the dyke, washed dishes
with a pack of Camels tucked
in the rolled-up sleeve of her t-shirt.
Next door, Helen Schmerling leaned on the glass case
slipping her fist into seamed and seamless stockings,
nails tucked in, to display the shade, while Sol
sucked the marrow from his stubby cigar,
smoke settling into the tweed skirts and mohair sweaters.
And under me something muscular swarmed
in the liquor store, something alive
in the stained wooden counter and the pungent dregs
of beer in the empties, my mother
greeting everyone, her frequent laughter,
the shorn pale necks of the delivery men,
their hairy forearms. The cash register ringing
as my parents pushed their way, crumpled dollar
by dollar, into the middle class.
The sun was delicious, lapping my skin.
I felt that newly arrived in a body.
The city wheeled around me–
the Rialto movie, Allen’s shoe store, Stecher’s Jewelry,
the whole downtown three blocks long.
And I was at the center of our tiny
solar system flung out on the edge
of a minor arm, a spur of one spiraling galaxy,
drenched in the light.

For more information on Ellen Bass, please click here:

Andes Mint #20: Haiku Friday!

Your friend Absalom
vows Haiku Friday! Feeling
lazy, so do you.

Did you manage to
write your chapters? Yes. Good girl.
Now you can go hike.

Tromp up the mountain,
tromp back down. Same mountain, same
tromp. Never gets old.

Stay back, rocks. Don’t roar
down just as I’m climbing up.
I don’t want to die.

Altitude brings stars.
Swimmy head. Laboring lungs.
Up and up and up.

Hard to write haiku
about the wind this high, the
way it blows so strong.

Or how other sound
fades. Come. Stand with me here, on
the roof of the world.

Here, the trees are thin.
Here, the sky lifts and stretches.
I could float away.

Andes Mint #19: Kingsley

Get up at 4:00 a.m., make and drink a cup of strong coffee, get dressed, wheel your roller bag out the dark path to the dark car, head to the airport, get on the first of two small planes that land you in the White Plains airport at noon.

Rent a car. Tap in the address where your friend Kingsley now lives into your tiny phone and then tap Start.

Avoid dwelling on your dread of driving in New York City traffic. Do what the robotic phone voice tells you to do. Err. Correct your errors by again doing what the robotic phone voice tells you to.

Glance to your right and see the New York City skyline gleaming along the river. Think it never gets old.

Find the place where Kingsley lives now. Walk in and fill out all the blanks in the Visitor registry. Take the elevator to the fourth floor. Wander blankly until you see his room and his name and the name of his doctor and his nurse.

Walk in and stand silently until he looks up from the mystery he’s reading. See that big smile spread across his face and feel its twin on your own.

Unhook a folding chair from the wall and set it up next to his bed. Sit there for six hours. Show him photos of your family on your iPad; admire his deft touch on the screen when he tells you he wants to “turn the page” while you narrate.

Google his favorite radio show host from long ago –Jean Shepherd– and download a podcast of one of his shows. Sit and listen together, his smile as he listens making you smile too.

Watch his face turn grim with pain. Call the nurse and ask for painkillers. Rub his legs to see if that might help; it does.

Meander through the last 18 years of friendship together. Remember when this? Remember when that?

Admire his new haircut. Tell him your mother sends her greetings, your children send their love. Tell him about your brand-new nephew Arthur and how much you love that they named him Arthur. Agree together that Arthur is a name.

As you sit and talk, don’t let yourself think about what is over now. Don’t think about the years and years in which packages arrived regularly, put together as he zipped around Chinatown collecting things for you that he thought you would like.

Don’t think, that is never going to happen again, walking out onto the porch and seeing a taped-together cardboard box sitting on it with his return address in neatly-printed Sharpie in the upper lefthand corner and your name in the middle, with the Alison in red and the rest in black.

Scold yourself for feeling sad about that, for feeling so sad at how hard it is for him to move his legs even a tiny bit now, because right now you are together, and he is happy, and you are reminiscing together, and what you need to do is focus on this moment and this moment alone. Can you do that? Yes. Kind of.

Maneuver the rolling table close to him when his dinner tray arrives. Accept his offer of the salad he doesn’t want to eat, along with the fork he’s not going to use for his soup and his hot dog. Answer his question about the ranch dressing in the tiny plastic packet.

As you eat, discuss some of the dozens of meals you have shared over these many years. Ask him about his mother’s cooking. Ask if they ate together as a family. Describe the meal you cooked last night using only vegetables from your backyard garden.

Tell him you have to go soon, because it’s a five-hour drive to Vermont. Tell him you’ll keep searching for that new kind of Pringles he’s so interested in. Tell him you’ll send him another mystery next week.

Hug him. Hold his hand when he reaches for yours.