All Booked Up

When I listen to my writer-friends talk about the hundreds of books they own, I always feel like I don’t have enough. As if some certain number of books would make me more writerly, more intellectual, somehow better.

Never mind my four-shelf, glass-fronted barrister’s bookcase and the tall arts-and-crafts bookcase, both full of weaving and art books, or the several shelves on new-age spiritual matters. Never mind the sixty-odd cookbooks spread between kitchen and dining room (never mind, also, that I don’t cook). Never mind that I love lying in bed looking at the rows and rows of books in the three seven-foot-high bookshelves covering the opposite wall. Some shelves are stacked double. I can’t see titles, but I can see blocks of color and shapes, and they make me feel good.

One night I thought, that’s actually a lot of books. The next morning I counted three shelves worth, averaged, then multiplied by the number of shelves. The result was staggering. I didn’t have to go to the other rooms (did I mention that I have books in every room except the downstairs bathroom?) to know that I have more than a thousand books. I guess I can join the big kids.

I’ve always culled my books regularly, taking those I’m done with to West Side Books for credit. If I’m not running a credit at WSB, I feel uncomfortable. A little bit self-defeating, but fun. When the de-clutter bug hit, I amped up my disposal efforts. Even emptied a couple of shelves. Not that that makes much of a dent when you’re talking about a thousand books.

I heard about a serious writer who has no books. Her attitude is, if I can get it at the library why do I need to own it? This sounded eminently reasonable; I rushed right home to empty my shelves.

No such luck. There are reasons why I’m keeping almost everything. To begin with, I found that most of my books can’t be checked out of the library. They’re too long out of print. They’re on some esoteric subject. They’re from some tiny press. They’re self-published. They’re academic. Public libraries keep only what’s popular.

If it’s a series, it’s unlikely that you can check them out in the right order, or maybe the library has only two out of three. I know this from years of reading speculative fiction trilogies. Finally I just started buying them. In fact, that may be when my collection began to get out of hand.

Sure a lot of my books are available, but I still don’t want to get rid of my specific edition. While the library may stock it, theirs wouldn’t have these wonderful illustrations, that fabulous leather binding, it wouldn’t be a first edition. What about my 55-book King Arthur collection? Yes, you can get many of those in the library. But this is not about reading, it’s about having, and enjoying, the body of literature. Ditto my collection of books on the Beats and hippies.

Then there are three or four shelves of books I’m using for research on my own writing, and will want to refer to again and again. I could check them out every time, but that would slow me down, and just when I needed one, it would be out on extended loan, or the library would have dumped it because I’m the only one interested.

Some books have sentimental value. When I bought the fiftieth anniversary collector’s edition of The Hobbit, which falls into the ‘special edition’ category above, I could have, one might even argue should have, tossed my original paperback. How could I? The collector’s edition languishes pristine on the shelf in the living room with a first-edition Hemingway and some beautifully-bound antiques, while I reread the paperback every couple of years. In the days when it was new to America, I loaned it to friends and family, writing everyone’s initials in the front of the book.  Yeah, you can get The Hobbit in the library, but you can’t get the soft feel of those old pages; the foxed edges; the completely detached front cover, which now doubles as a bookmark; the memories and history. No way am giving all that up.

Now here’s my dirty little secret. I bet I haven’t read half the books I own. They’re part of that research collection; they looked interesting when, rich in credits, I found them at WSB; I inherited them from my parents or grandparents. One is a text from my freshman year. I feel obligated to read it – someday – so they don’t rescind my degree. Most of the books I actually read do come from the public library.





Leap Year Baby

On Leap Year Day my younger brother called to remind me that today would have been our older brother’s birthday. He would have been sixty-eight.  I never met him, and rarely think of him except in leap year. Here is a column I wrote for the North Denver News in February, 2008, the year we celebrated his fifteenth/sixtieth birthday.

baby boy allison

This part of the cemetery tells the saddest stories. The tiny lambs with the dates a few weeks, a few days apart. Those with only one date.
It is leap year day. My friends and I stand in a circle around one such grave, the birth date exactly 60 years ago, the date of death three days later. The child was never named, though I know my parents planned to call him Roger after their best friend. He would have been my big brother, the one who would have introduced me to cool music and his cool friends, the one who would have played catch with our little brother and protected him from the school bully.
I was about ten when I learned I almost had had that coveted thing, an older brother. My parents found his birth certificate while looking for something else. They showed it to my brother and me with no fanfare, but told the story of his short life with unhealed sorrow in their voices. I remember a blue ribbon and a tiny, tiny footprint.
I know the death of an infant is a wound that never heals. This one was especially poignant because he was born on leap year day and the entire city of Denver celebrated. Months later, my mother would meet a distant acquaintance who would ask after the baby because she’d read it in the paper. The grief was kept raw for a long time.
My parents rarely talked about that baby, and never about the hopes they must have had for him. Yet he was there, a shadowy member of our family, each of us carrying some thoughts about who he would have been in our lives.
As she grew older my mother began to say how she wished he had a headstone – the young couple hadn’t been able to afford one. She thought maybe she’d do it now, to make sure he had some place in human memory. But she never got around to it.
Because this is a leap year, the baby was in my thoughts. I found that the cost of a headstone was not prohibitive. I chose one, not with the traditional lamb, but with a boy flying a kite, spaniel at his heels, for the carefree childhood I wished he’d had.
And on his birthday I gathered a group of friends for a ceremony at his newly-marked grave. We read poems, sang the songs of 1948, told him how he had been loved and missed. I place on his grave things I wished he’d had in life – a handmade stuffed toy, a family photo, some favorite CDs we could have shared. People placed stones in memory of babies lost in their own families.
This I did to honor my mother’s wishes, to commemorate my parents’ love for that child, to make real his presence in our family, and to help heal for my brother and me the hole he could have filled. I did it to make sure that he is not forgotten.

Fill Up The Tank — With Music!

20150904_182253The Tank is running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for recording equipment and other improvements. You have less than a week to get in on one of the most amazing movements around. Go to before 1 PM, February 28, 2016 to donate. Or to learn more about The Tank and hear music recorded there, try

What is The Tank and why would you want to donate? To the welders who built it and the railroad men who set it in place, it was just a cylinder of steel. To several generations of Rangely high school kids, it was a place to do those things kids do behind their parents’ backs. To the musicians who discovered its mind-blowing acoustic properties back in the seventies, it was an underground recording studio. Now it’s becoming much more – a phoenix rising silver out of its ash-colored nest at the top of a hill. By dint of deep commitment, incredible organization, and amazing dedication on the part of many people, The Tank has entered a new incarnation as an international Center for the Sonic Arts.
I attended an open house over Labor Day weekend which gave me glimpses into all these histories, as well as one into the future.
The steady stream of townspeople included those who already knew The Tank and those who didn’t. One man told me, “it’s been here forever. Forever.”
Those who had never heard of it, walked around the outside, taking in its sheer bulk, admiring the scrap-metal sculpture on one side. One couple peered inside tentatively before taking off their shoes to enter. But then they quickly immersed themselves in the soundscape.
What is The Tank? It is all about that sound. The townspeople, old-time Tank visitors and newbies alike, got that. One woman, eyes wide, said, “it’s like a cathedral. The sound just blossoms.” Her hands spiraled up over her head. A man gave an impromptu Mozart concert, throwing his arms out to express how the notes reverberate in The Tank. His next piece was the ABC song. He said it didn’t matter. The Tank would give whatever you sing power. He was enthusiastic about what children could learn there.
It was the kids who got it best. Inside The Tank, I watched small children pick up first a rattle, then a tambourine, listening to the echoes with surprising attention. As one family emerged, the three kids chorused, “we have to come back here, Mom, we have to come back”.

It was delightful to see people enjoy sounds in The Tank. Sharing its unique resonant properties is the dream of those who are working so hard to turn a gigantic piece of scrap metal into what will be known as The Center for Sonic Arts. More than a recording venue, it will be for learning about music, about sound, about perception.
What is The Tank? I see it as the nexus of a new community. That weekend people who had never met made connections that will enhance their lives. Townspeople who didn’t know each other shared stories about their long-ago experiences, and talked excitedly about the music they’d just heard. Two guys who had driven up from Grand Junction, a couple of self-defined old hippies, spent a long, long time inside. Then one sought out Bruce Odland, de facto leader of The Tank’s renaissance, to find out how he could make the tank “a part of my life for the rest of my life”. Bruce’s genius and vision will no doubt find him a place. A man from Austin, just passing through, met San Antonian Mark McCoin, who has been involved with The Tank for years. On the spot, a Tank community sprouted in Central Texas. Paul, a recent transplant from Boulder, envisions an artists’ colony – all types of artists – growing up on the hills around the Tank. I’m in – I’ve already decided where to place my weaving studio.
One local couple understood both the sound and the community immediately. They went straight home to retrieve a huge old saw blade they thought would make a great gong. They were right.

They also donated other metal tools, including some gold-panning pans. Bruce and Mark staged an impromptu percussion performance on the deck between The Tank and the new recording booth. Bruce declared these repurposed tools “a gold mine”.
It’s a cliche to say that we need community in this fragmented modern world. But clichés get repeated for a reason. What is the The Tank? It’s more than the sound it makes. The Tank can actually be an agent of change, as its vibrations circle out into the world, just as they do inside – like the woman said, blossoming up and out.


Back to the Earth

20150421_103308I have spent the last four days with bright yellow fingertips and odd red spots under my fingernails. I’m suffering from something I’m going to call “dandelion fever”. Everybody knows you can use young, tender dandelion leaves in salads, and most people know that the roots are a coffee substitute and have some good health benefits. And of course, there’s wine. But recently I ran across some recipes for dandelion blossoms that I just had to try. I had no idea the flowers were edible.
It’s really a little late to try to make pickled dandelion buds, since most of the flowers are either wide open, or already gone to seed. But I did manage to find about ¾ cup spread over my 7000 square foot property. I pulled the sepals off, leaving that red under my nails, and put them in hot water to steep for a few days, then moved on to dandelion vinegar.
The vinegar was easier, since all you have to do is pick the flowers pack them in the jar, and cover with cider vinegar. It’ll be ready in a month. I have no idea what you use dandelion vinegar for. I guess it will make a nice vinaigrette.
When I finally bothered to taste a flower, I found it to be quite sweet. Good for salad dressings, but also good for sweetener. My third recipe was for dandelion “honey”. This is really dandelion-blossom simple syrup reduced down until it’s the thickness of honey.
I thought this would give me a flavored syrup, such as I get when I use lavender. Not so. I got something that tastes like honey! I mean really tastes like honey. How do people discover these things? My first thought was to imagine that out on the frontier, far from domesticated , this could have been a useful substitute on breakfast biscuits or flapjacks. But really, wild bees would be more plentiful than sugar, which would have to be imported from civilization. Maybe somebody just wanted to make her syrup yellow, and discovered the honey flavor as a byproduct.
It’s been decades since I did much wild crafting. In the 1970s, in my full hippie, back-to-the-land phase, my partner and I used to scavenge for Arizona walnuts (really too small for the effort, and so full of tannin that you have to boil them to make them edible), wild sunflower seeds (also very tiny), very tiny, thin-shelled acorns (also tannin laden), and roadside weeds that made good salads. We spent the summer gathering firewood, since that was our only heat come winter, and shared wild turkey (I don’t mean the alcoholic kind) at Thanksgiving.
In the past few years I’ve gotten into gardening, growing a lot of my own food in the summer. But somehow picking squash, or tomatoes out of my cultivated beds for dinner, no matter how healthful and satisfying, just isn’t quite the same as scavenging for wild things as I did when I was young. Ranging over my yard, I felt more in harmony with the Earth than I do when cultivating. Agriculture is a human invention. Gathering is a partnership between us and our Mother that is far, far older.
I had more fun with those dandelions that I’ve had doing anything with food for a long time. I fairly danced around the kitchen sterilizing jars, stirring syrup, pulling dandelion petals, rushing out for just a few more to fill the jar, not to mention putting the sepals and stems into the compost. I felt just like that hippie that I once believed I’d always be.
It will be weeks until I know whether my vinegar makes a good dressing. And weeks until I have buds to sprinkle into new potato salad. Apparently pickled dandelion buds are used in place of capers in Scandinavia. Maybe I’ll hate both foods. But it will have been worth it just to prepare them, just to go back in time to simpler days – mine and humankind’s.
Today is Earth Day, a day of remembrance and attention created by my generation. I consider it appropriate that I spent part of the day getting my buds into their pickling solution, and eating a lunch of pasta with basil and dandelion petals.

The GUG Car Rules!

It’s like watching doctors do some sort of arcane test on your kid. They hook up all these cords and pipes and gauges and then they rev up his engine. And rev it, and rev it. That has to hurt! It hurts me. The skin of my arms puckers. The tech lets it slow, and I think, “OK, that wasn’t so painful. He survived.”
Then she does it again! Longer this time. I can hear his engine screaming over the sounds of all the other cars and all that equipment, even through the waiting booth glass. Screaming. My little engine. My sick little engine.
She lets him die back, and again I think the ordeal is over. But, again, she brings him up to screaming speed. Her face is annoyed and concerned as she watches her meter.
That’s when I begin to hope he will survive. I know he burns oil. Yeah, my mechanic babies him along with a special expensive synthetic 5W40 diet, but it’s only prolonging the inevitable. I was afraid this year’s emission test would be the end for him, and, while I love my new Lean Green Machine, the little brown Saturn is my soul mate. I adore him. I’ve had him since we were both young – well, in my case, much younger, if not really young. He was only three, a frisky colt. He’s now had the same plates for so long they’re battered almost beyond recognition. I’d consider replacing them, but he has become his tag – 753GUG. We’ve grown into each other. His seat conforms to my body perfectly. Every little thing I want is right at my fingertips. He knows my every need.
I went this morning with trepidation in my heart. I can’t afford a new engine; if I could, I wouldn’t have blown a fortune on another car. So if he failed it would be curtains. But I’ve been through this again-and-again routine twice before. Those times he produced so little effluent that they thought I’d unhooked the exhaust system. They brought mirrors on wheels to take a look. He was just a clean car. So when she keeps running it, I take a big breath of relief. If he’d failed, surely she’d just smirk in satisfaction – got one! – and move on.
She gets out, stomps off, the cute older guy moves the fan out of the way and drives him down the aisle.
Then that suspenseful moment while I wait for the results to print.
Yes, The GUG Car passed! Passed with flying colors, again far, far below the limit on every factor. A two-year reprieve. On the way home, my heart is so light, I treat myself to a new blouse, and him to a rare bath.

Dude, Where’s my Muse?

Here’s a piece I posted on Facebook a few months ago:

 Every writer has heard the rule – sit your butt in the chair and write. This strand of advice says if you set a time – 10 AM or 10 PM, doesn’t matter – and show up, pen in hand or computer on lap, at that time, day after day, eventually your muse will join you. Non-writers have a more prosaic term for it – habit. I know a lot of writers for whom this works. But it’s never worked very well for me.

I used to know how to meet my muse, though. Reliably. Any time I wanted. Turns out my inspiration is place-based, not time-based.

All I had to do was walk into Common Grounds Coffee House on 32nd, find a seat in the front room (the back room didn’t work), set my aromatic orange-ginger-mint tea on the table or the little shelf, and the juices began to flow.

            Over the past two decades, sitting in Common Grounds, I wrote in big black bound books, in little purse notebooks, on my laptop, in spiral-bound 5-subject notebooks with horrid-colored covers, on my netbook, on recycled greenbar printout, and on plain white paper borrowed from the barista.

            I wrote while watching a parade of scantily clad tourists buying ice cream and iced lattes to consume as they cruised the shops, and in an almost-empty room against a backdrop of huge, floppy snowflakes; to the rhythm of the never-ending traffic on thirty-second; while listening to Wednesday night bluegrass practice, taking time out for an impromptu jig with the older Irish gentleman, a regular; and when I just had to go ask what was playing, it was so great. I wrote while sharing my table with strangers, and while wishing the people at the next table would shut up and leave me in peace. I wrote sitting on the tiled ledge of the planter waiting for a seat, any seat; while eating pizza from across the street, and between rushing back and forth to the Laundromat to move my clothes.  For a while just past the turn of the century I wrote every Sunday night week after week, where, in an almost empty space, the same three customers pretended we’d never seen each other before, sharing nary a nod.

            I wrote out of deep funk, and with such high energy that I could hardly stay in my chair. That one inspired a lively conversation among several of us about the future of the inner city, and made me some long-term friends.

Sometimes I indulged in flights of fancy, and sometimes my left brain kept careful order.

            I wrote poems and stories and essays. I wrote speeches and training materials and technical documentation. I wrote memoir, lists of things to do, Christmas cards, and letters – to friends and to the editor. I wrote emails. Nearly all of the columns I wrote for the now-defunct North Denver News were written at (and sometimes about) Common Grounds.

It’s not that I can’t write anyplace else. I write in bed, on my front porch, at other coffee shops (most notably the wonderful-for-many-reasons Zook’s), and in cars on road trips. But the words don’t flow as well, the ideas aren’t as clear. Sometimes my muse doesn’t show up at all.

The only place I knew for sure that I could sit down and expect to say what I meant to say was at Common Grounds – whether over breakfast or late at night. Beginning on the very day they opened in 1992, walking through that door was the key to my verbal creativity.

            Now they’ve closed their doors on 32nd. I thought I would have just a few weeks until I could settle in to my new home on 44th. But time drags on. My muse rebels. I circle my computer desk, but refuse to light. I head out to a coffee shop, then discover I’ve forgotten my notebook. I find more important things to do – scrubbing the floor or washing my hair.

            I begin to be concerned. Will my muse be able to find the new Common Grounds? Will she remain tied to the old location, forcing me to set up shop at Ink? Will she allow me equal time at each? Or has she taken this hiatus as an opportunity to flee?

            Where’s my muse? More importantly, where am I without her?

Bah Hum-Dead

Last evening I slunk about the house, curtains drawn, porch light dark, turning on as few lights as possible. I barricaded myImageself in my back-room studio, where my light wouldn’t show from the street.

Oh, there was a moment at the height of activity, when I I could hear all the eager, chirping little voices up and down the block, that I regretted my decision not to ‘do’ Halloween. But that brief bit of weakness was easier to bear than the continuous hours of standing at the door handing out individually wrapped parcels of long-acting poison.

My neighborhood has lots of kids. I mean lots. The first couple of years we lived here we kept a written tally – well over 300 kids each year. There aren’t as many now – the ethnic composition of Highland has changed from predominantly Catholic Hispanic to young professionals with few or no children. Still, from dusk until nine or so, it’s a steady stream, sometimes two or three groups arriving at once. If there are two of you, you can spell each other. Alone I have to stand tethered to the door for hours.

And it’s not like I know these kids, other than Cal next door and Emma and Holden across the street. There’s no chance to ooo and aah over their costumes or to ask them to perform a trick, as the adults in my neighborhood used to do, no called greetings to parents waiting down on the sidewalk.

These kids are goal oriented, already on the fast track to success. Their motto is ‘he who becomes undead with the biggest stash of sugar wins’. Up the stairs they run, at least getting their cardio in, flinging out their bags before they’ve even come to a full stop (my last traffic ticket was for just that). Often they don’t even offer the requisite ‘Trick or Treat’, but they always watch carefully to see what you’ve put in. If it’s not up to their standards in quality or quantity, you know it. Then it’s fly down the stairs, and on to the next house. I’ve hardly had a chance to become aware of their presence. But that’s ok because there’s someone else to take their place. They don’t have time for me, but I don’t have time for them either.

And not that I’d have much ooo-ing and aah-ing to do over their costumes. Most of them are Wal-Mart specials, carbon copies of this year’s action or movie heroes. A couple of years ago I got special treats to give to those kids with creative, homemade costumes. Managed to award about three out of – did I mention we have a lot of kids?

Last year I avoided the whole thing by going over to Diane’s. She lives in Sunnyside, just north of me. You’d think they’d have the hundreds of children that used to crowd my neighborhood. But no, we had time for long conversations between visitors. She had time to admire each child’s costume – more of them were homemade – and to say a few words to the parents. Without the crazy pace, Halloween was fun again.