Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Smoking Poet has celebrated stogies and stanzas for five years

Mark Wedel | Special to the Kalamazoo Gazette
Posted:  04/24/2011 3:06 PM
KALAMAZOO — Five years ago, Zinta Aistars dreamed of opening a poetry/cigar lounge.

The Kalamazoo writer was in Austin, Texas, on a business trip and visited a cigar lounge. There, she saw how clientele “just dropped the stress of the world at the door,” Aistars said.

The owner had Aistars try some of the more expensive brands of cigars.

“It wasn’t the first time I’d lit up a stogie,” she admitted.

“He almost had me convinced that I needed to go back to Kalamazoo and open up a cigar lounge,” she said. “It would have this ambiance, a dusky atmosphere, and there’d be jazz in the corner and a poet might get up to read poetry from time to time. And people would just drop the stress at  the door.”

Back home, “my senses had returned, and I realized I didn’t have the capital for an undertaking like that,” she said.

Websites are not as expensive to launch, though.

Aistars created The Smoking Poet (, a quarterly online magazine of poetry, prose, music reviews and cigar reviews. In its virtual pages, it has featured nationally known Pushcart Prize winners such as Dorianne Laux and contributors from around the world. It also makes room for those whom Aistars calls Kalamazoo’s “poetry rock stars,” and local prose writers including Conrad Hilberry, Diane Seuss, Gail Griffin, Bonnie Jo Campbell, David Small and Stuart Dybek.

The Kalamazoo Friends of Poetry is throwing a five-year anniversary party for The Smoking Poet April 28 at The Wine Loft.

If You Go
“Putting on the Dog: The Smoking Poet Celebrates 5” Poetry celebration with readings by writers including Zinta Aistars, Rick Chambers, Michael Loyd Gray, Gail Griffin, Hedy Habra, Kathy Jennings, Elizabeth Kerlikowske, Colleen Kolhoff Little, Kate Lutes, Lori A. May, Amy Newday, Cheryl Peck, Elaine Seaman and Diane Seuss.

When: 7 p.m. April 28
Where: The Wine Loft, 161 E. Michigan Ave.
Cost: Free
Contact: 269-672-2622,

The event will include ...


Friday, April 22, 2011

The Latvian Easter Egg

by Zinta Aistars

Earth Day, Good Friday, Easter ... all coming up in this weekend and all seem closely connected to me, one with the other. Symbolizing it all ... a tiny globe, holding new life, a new beginning, a tiny miracle ... is the Easter egg.

Growing up, in our household we celebrated Easter, or Lieldienas, in the Latvian tradition. A part of that tradition was the coloring of Easter eggs ... but without any artificial food dyes. For weeks before, my mother collected the deep brown skins of onions, some a burgundy red, saving them for our eggs. On the morning of the coloring, my mother and my sister and I might also gather grasses or tiny leaves outside in the yard. She would then set a large pot to boiling, and in it water filled with the onion skins. The water would very soon turn a rich, warm brown. With red onion skins, it might turn a deep, dark red.

Plop in the eggs to boil, and in a few minutes they would be colored that wonderful brown. We would take some of the eggs and tie them up in cheesecloth with leaves and flower petals pressed against them. These eggs would emerge from the water with the pattern of the leaves and petals stained golden across them. Drizzling a bit of vinegar into that brown water might leave buttery yellow swirls across the brown eggs.

Best of all ... my father would bring his artistry to the egg table. With a needle, he would scrape designs into the deep brown shells of the eggs. Many times, these would be Latvian designs, but sometimes he would create a tiny bunny rabbit, or a bouquet of pussywillows or a little chick on the side of the egg. My sister and I would watch, enchanted. Sometimes the finished egg would be too beautiful to eat, so we would set it aside to dry ... and after a few weeks the egg inside would seem to have evaporated into thin air, leaving a delicate decorated hollow shell behind.

Other natural dyes could be used, too, although the onion skins are most popular in the Latvian tradition. Greens, yellows, blues, reds could be made from boiling various berries, tree bark, herbs and other plants, then the eggs dipped in.

Easter morning, returning from church service, we had "egg wars." No one could eat an egg until it was broken by someone else's egg on both ends. One would hold an egg firmly in hand, leaving one end exposed, and tap it against someone else's egg. It was hard to say who was winner, who the loser, because the one with the unbroken egg wouldn't be able to eat it until the shell was cracked. Then again, the one with the last unbroken egg was said to have the longest life ahead.

That Good Friday this year (2011) is the same day as Earth Day reminds me that we were given this earth as a gift, as a source of so many blessings. I think back on creating Easter eggs with natural dyes, and it pleases me that long before I became aware of organic foods, or studies about how food dyes have recently been shown to be linked to attention-deficit disorder and other behavioral problems in children, or that artificial concoctions rarely come without a hidden price or a side effect, in my childhood we were already using what was readily available at home. It never occurred to me to do otherwise when I had children.

Whatever one's view of this weekend of holidays and blessings, of celebration of new and renewed life, of returning to the source to find hope for our future, I hold up the Easter egg as a reminder. We can begin small and grow to something that might indeed change everything as we know it, and for the good.

How to color Easter eggs in the Latvian tradition.

Celebrating Easter in Latvian tradition

The Z Acres Kitchen at Easter on Pinterest

Simple recipe for Latvian Easter egg coloring

Latvians Online on Easter traditions


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Dating Houses

by Zinta Aistars

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer." ~Rainer Maria Rilke

The day begins with a visit to my son. We fall into discussion about a mess of legalities in which he is embroiled; his heart is heavy with it all, as is mine, but we both strive to pick up one another's spirits. I bite my tongue to say aloud the words that burn in me ... I have lost faith in our system of justice, by now realizing that true justice is rare in the world, exceedingly rare. I know he, too, has lost faith. It has always, in the end, turned to one question alone: who has the power?

"You have always been my safe place," he says, and my eyes mist with sudden tears. I say nothing, only nod, but he knows, he knows, if there is one truth on which he can rely, always and throughout, it is my mother's love. His home in my heart will always be doors open.

And so, we talk of the future. We talk of a safe place called Home. We talk of a place with doors open. Life is so often about struggle, about battles we must wage and often lose, but go on to wage the next one if only because we have a safe place to go, an oasis, where we can gather our strength again, rest weary hearts and mangled spirits, make them whole again, if scarred.

I'm meeting with a real estate agent this afternoon, I tell him, and he smiles. He knows my hunt. He's been along for the ride for most of his life, but now has a hunt of his own. We are searching each for a place to call Home for the long term, for those deeper roots. We both need and want a Home of our own that isn't merely a stop along the way.

I have Gretchen searching for me in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and now I have Ingrid searching for me nearer to my work. In my fourth year of a daily 110-mile commute, even as I watch the rising prices of fuel, I am fast realizing there are yet two places in my future. That oasis where I wish to someday grow old, that quiet cabin in the woods (Gretchen's search), and that oasis now, where I can withdraw from the work day and rejuvenate for the next day. And the next. This now is Ingrid's search.

It is almost like looking for a new lover, I laugh, and my son chuckles. You check the ads, ISO a fine-looking build, may have started to gray a little at the temples, but otherwise sound of structure, with an open window on the world, easily accessible, yet offers peace, understands the needed moment for solitude, and can be counted on to withstand the occasional storm.

"You know, you and your lady Sarah could rent my house," I say. "That would save you the search for an apartment, and save me the frustrations of putting the house on the market ... "

"That would be great." His eyes light up. "I could work on building the new patio out back for you, build that fire pit you've wanted ... "

"Have to raze the old deck first."

"I could do that."

We sit for a moment in stillness, the electric shimmer of new plans, ideas taking shape, resolutions and dreams, stitching our thoughts together. His solution becomes mine, my solution becomes his, and we begin to realize how we can help each other get to where we want to be: Home.

"Call me later," I tell him when it is time for me to go. Ingrid is waiting. "I'll tell you about what I see today."

"I hope you find it," he says. "I hope you find that place you want."

"I hope you do, too. More than anything." 

The sky is thick and gray and heavy when I head for my car, spilling a sloopy rain that is thickening to something I will resist calling snow. I head out to meet Ingrid, and she is already waiting when I pull into the driveway of the first house of three we will view today.

I know instantly.

Odd, how something in us knows, within moments, even as we approach that first date, a hopeful new lover and yet will never turn into one ... because we know, before we have even come close, we know, this one will not, cannot hold us. Our mind wanders even before the conversation begins ...

I wander through the rooms of the log house anyway, and Ingrid trails behind at a polite distance, letting me get a feel for the place. There are elements of it I like. Of course, the logs, the warm ambiance of wood. But the kitchen is cramped, the spiral staircase to the upstairs master bedroom is esthetically interesting but difficult to climb ... and I try to imagine my old chow pup taking one look at it and heaving into a pile of fur at the bottom with a dog sigh ... or my elderly parents gazing up at the thin spiraling steps and shaking their heads ... and I bump my head against the low, sloping ceiling when I do make it upstairs, then consider that the bathroom is still downstairs ...

This won't do. As sweet as the wraparound porch might be around the log house, it is much too close to the road, the traffic zipping by.

No, I shake my head, no. On to the next house.

A sweet little cottage on a good-sized lake. I tell Ingrid the small space is just fine, I like a compact house that feels like a snug hug, as long as the view is to the light and the neighbors are far away ...

I peer out the window. The water is gray and even foaming a bit in the day's blustery winds, quite entrancing, but there, I could stretch my arm out the window and knock on my neighbor's window to ask for a cup of flour, please?

No, I shake my head, no.

The third house makes me open my eyes a little wider as we drive up the long driveway, past great old weeping willows, past a dark-watered pond, past a tall evergreen shuddering in the wind. I don't quite know what to make of the place ... decking winding up and around, up a small hill, and the house sprawling this way and that, rows and rows of white windows ... yet my heart is beating a little faster.

Compact, no. I am a bit stunned by how the rooms open and expand and lead one to another. An enclosed back porch is so large that Ingrid says something about large summer parties, galas even, but no, I wave away the distant echo of clinking glasses and laughter and bubbling conversation ... no ... I see the pale gray light streaming in the walls of windows and I hear the deep silence of a Sunday afternoon, my papers and paints spread out on the table in the brightest corner, my flat smooth stones gathered from Lake Superior and Baltic beaches, and losing myself in the hours of creation ... this is a good space.

The bay windows in the living room and master bedroom, comfortable places to sit with a book ... the great white tub slanted under the skylight and the windows on the quiet woods ... a white froth building up, and hot steam rising, evaporating all the stress of the long work day ...

Wait. Wasn't I looking for a small and simple place? Who is this Prince Charming?

I don't know, I'm not sure, is this love at first sight or am I just enamored? Love takes time, I remind myself, a great deal of time to unfold that greatest of complexities. Can one truly recognize home so quickly?

Two acres of woods surround. Such peace. Such quiet here. I imagine my old chow pup spending his final years here, watching the chattering squirrels and gray rabbits, the birds resting in the branches, perhaps even a deer wandering in to catch his watchful eye.

I imagine long winter evenings warming myself by the wood-burning fireplace. I imagine watching the pond ice over in late autumn, the willow leaves caught like slender little boats in the frozen surface, then in spring sitting at its edge with a grandchild on a blanket spread out in the grass, reading The Wind in the Willows ...

Oh, wait. I don't have grandchildren. I'm veering too many years into the future. Is that wrong? Have I grown so distrusting in the odd weavings and twinings of my surprising life? Surely in this second half things will calm ... and there will be many such calm and quiet hours to while away. This might be the sort of house where one does indeed retire, leaving only for the occasional trip north to hear the crashing of Superior waves against the rocks.
I'm not quite sure what to tell Ingrid when we have wandered long enough through the place, examining spaces. I'm not quite sure what I will tell my son when he calls later for a report.  

We imagine we know what we seek, quite exactly. Then we are surprised to find ourselves haunted by something entirely different. Or is it that the deep place where our voice of wisdom lives knows, always knows, and only waits, ever so patiently, for our moment of recognition?

I shrug stupidly when Ingrid inquires. I have no idea yet what I will tell my son when he calls. A momentary seduction? Or the slightly uncomfortable learning to see myself in something bigger, better than I ever thought I deserved?

I know this: the answers are somewhere deep inside. I have time. I will allow for time to do its work, the steeping and simmering, mulling and musing, so often the workings of our minds during sleep, until understanding rises, ready to be revealed. I keep trying on different visions, living inside them for a moment in my imagination, then either abandoning them or deciding, at last, that I have found the oasis in the storm.

"Let me sleep on it," I say quietly to Ingrid, already lost in my reverie.

I glance back as we drive back down the long driveway. I pause at the turn of the road.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Death by Sitting or ... The Killer Duff

by Zinta Aistars

I read an article online recently that has been making the rounds--and with good reason. It was originally published in Men's Health and titled "The Most Dangerous Thing You'll Do All Day."

That perilous activity is inactivity. You know who you are. You are a lot like me: sitting at my desk all day long, working at the computer. That can be eight to 10 hours a day, and add to that the time you spend sitting in the car to get to the office and back home again and, in my case, you just added on a couple more hours.


Live like this, and the study quoted in this article says that we sitters are 54 percent more likely to die of a heart attack than non-sitters. I'm no mathematician, but that's a big number in my book. Worst of all, it makes absolutely no difference if you exercise before or after that long day at the desk, nor does your healthy diet matter. It doesn't even matter if you pass on that cigar. It's still 54 percent.

Sitting can kill you.

I read that and heaved a sigh. I walk my old chow pup for a brisk 30 minutes every morning before I head into the office. I eat only organic foods. I try (and still sometimes fail) to get at least seven hours of sleep a night. I spend time in solitude to meditate and relax, and I spend time with family and friends to maintain a healthy social network. I live within my means. I'm generally happy.

And still, 54 percent.

I took another look at my office. I can't quit my job, after all. My only option is to try to work in a few steps here, a few steps there, during my work day. As chance has it, my office is one of many that line a perfect square. I can get up from my desk, say, once an hour, and walk the square. Get the blood pumping a bit, and in just a few minutes be back at my desk again.

So there I go. Sometimes I do lose track of time and miss the hour, but several times now throughout the day, I get up off my duff and make the rounds. Funny thing is ... I've made my work day a little more pleasant just by doing this. Inevitably, I pass someone's office who might call out to say hello, so I poke my head in and catch up with a colleague. I've learned several handy dandy work things this way that have helped me do my job better, built better rapport with colleagues I may otherwise not see very often and felt surprisingly refreshed by the time I get back to my desk. My mind has cleared and I have a solution that I had been seeking all morning ...

And then, there's the lunch hour. Has anyone noticed? Spring has sprung. The building where I work is sweetly located, giving me a choice of a walk through a residential neighborhood ... or an easy stroll to the city center, or a downhill jaunt to the Grand River (we won't talk about the uphill part coming back!). I can walk to the post office to mail a letter, or I can watch a fisherman tug a trout from the river, or I can stop into the book store to browse the shelves (and make sure I keep my wallet safely back at the office), or I can snap photos of spring flowers bursting up in neighborhood gardens.

And that two-hour commute every day? I'm working on that. I have a real estate agent booked to show me a log home that is nearer to my office, cutting my commute in half. I can't wait to see it. It has well over an acre of woods surrounding it, and a wraparound porch where I can wile away the lazy hours, sitting back and  ...



Monday, April 11, 2011

Going White

by Zinta Aistars

When I was young, very young, I tossed my long, dark curls with disdain and declared: When I am an older woman, I shall go white as nature declares. No dipping in dyes for me!

Easy to say, when you are young, very young, and you can still toss about long, dark curls.

Going salt and pepper, then white, no doubt has something to do with genetics. My father's father was snow white by age 40. I was working on my white top in my mid 30s. That's when I first began to notice those giveaway gray hairs, kinking up from my dark tresses, steely and with the uncanny ability to boing, boing, unwilling to lie peaceably with the rest.

For the first couple years, I plucked. Wound the gray strand around my index finger and give it a quick tug. Gone.

Somehow, with the passing of time that I didn't quite notice, too busy to notice, they accumulated to too many to pluck. But I was still so young ...

Other women in my family dip and dye. Why not me? Would it really be a betrayal of my feminist fiber?

High school senior
Perhaps not. Feminism is more about having choices than limiting them. It means that a woman can express herself, be herself, however she pleases to do so.

There's the key. Note, and read it twice, or thrice, until it sinks in: ... however she pleases. She. Not her family. Not her friends. Not the community. Not the workplace. Not the media. Not her husband or boyfriend or lover. Not her best bud or enemy. How SHE pleases.

Honestly, I'm not sure most of us know anymore what pleases us. Do we? Really? How do we peel ourselves away from all the magazine ads and photo layouts? How do we ignore the constant barrage of movie and television images? How do we ignore the pressures of the marketplace, whether we are on the "meat market" of dating or selling ourselves to an employer?

America is the land of ageism. We worship youth here. To the point of obsession. No, beyond that point. We are willing to die for it. We subject ourselves to eating disorders, lie down beneath the scalpel in hopes that it may carve away years, we baste ourselves in anti-aging creams and lotions. We dip and we dye. We hide the signs of age as if it were a shameful disease. To the point of mental disorder.

First book published ...
Why? Why this resistance to what is but the natural cycle of life? Why should any age have it over any other age? Each age has its own glory. Beauty comes in so very many forms. Why can we recognize only one narrow and shallow form and deny all others?

It's not that I think it is un-feminist to dip and dye away the gray. It is against feminism to conform ourselves to the expectations of others, to the mental disorder of an entire nation, to an unhealthy bias, a type of voluntary blindness. That isn't only unfeminist ... it is anti human. Anti life. Anti age, when you stop and think about it, means cutting life short.

When I moved past plucking, I did the dip. I gave in. A quick rinse, what's the harm. And then, when the ever more white roots grew in, who wants to wear a skunk stripe?

My mother tells me that when I was born, my hair was thick and black. In my youth, my hair was a deep, dark brown. Not once did I wish to be a blond. Or any other color. I loved my long, dark hair, even when it was unruly, and it often was. When it was too much in my way, I quickly braided it and let it hang down my back.

A lighter middle-age Z
In my heart of hearts, I knew that the hair dye was a personal betrayal. I was giving in out of fear ... that I might not get the job at the interview, that the man I was dating might cheat again if I showed my years (even if he was silver haired himself), that life would pick up speed and go by even faster if I let the gray grow in.

But I got the great job based on my many years of experience. The man I was dating had an addiction that had nothing to do with me; he couldn't stop cheating no matter how many somersaults I turned. Life was gathering speed, racing by, making me giddy, and I could not stop it, could not slow it down.

Then it occurred to me. I was missing big chunks of my life. If I kept trying to stop my 40s from zipping by, I might never experience my 50s. If I was 43 for 10 years running, how would I ever find out what it was like to be me at 44? 47? 50? 53? and all those secret years awaiting me yet.

For all our efforts, none of us have made time stand still.

Why do we want to? Why live our lives in constant fear of reaching the end? By living in fear, we aren't really living at all. I want to be free of all that.

Wash that color right out of my hair ...
After all, being bi-cultural, I had spent enough time in Europe to know that not all cultures are so youth-obsessed. Elsewhere, the elderly lived with respect surrounding them. Why not here?

Why not begin with me... and the woman in the mirror. If I was dipping and dying for the right reasons, fine, but not because I wanted to pretend I am something I am not. My secret was that I was enjoying stepping into my 50s. In so many ways, this was turning out to be the best time in my life. My children are grown. My work has reached a higher ground than I would have thought possible. My artistic passions are blossoming into new directions, unexpected and tantalizing. I am stronger than I ever thought I would be, and in so many ways. I have dreams and I am realizing them.

The truth: my younger years were not such a happy time. There was a great deal of turmoil then, keen suffering, and struggle. I do not ever want to be young again. It was too hard. I like better the hard-won confidence I enjoy now. I am much wiser now, and I like who I am becoming. I like learning, evolving, unwrapping my life like a series of gifts, each one more precious than the one before.

A lighter day
Came that moment when I told my stylist: let's stop this. This is not who I am. Not anymore.

We started on a gradual process of letting the color go. A little more, a little more. My deep brown gained a few blond streaks. The streaks widened, and then the brown was gone. My hair was lighter and still lighter, and when the white began to show, I gazed at it in the mirror in wonder.

I have been utterly fascinated by this process, coming in phases. It hasn't always been easy. I have wondered at times if I shouldn't turn it back. For a moment, I would miss ... that other me. The me I knew so well, since earliest memory. Who is this now? She of nearly white tresses? She with fine lines around her eyes? I see history in her face, and she is me.

I feel a sudden tenderness. This place is new for me. I have resisted this, but now I gradually embrace it. There is a freedom in it. I begin to realize how often what I did, how I was, how I moved, how I danced through life was for the pleasure of others and not myself. Who am I when I dance for myself alone?

I'm not yet sure, but I am a bit afraid and a lot exhilarated. I know all about me, then. I know so little about me, now, and tomorrow, and decades into the future. I want to experience my life fully, as deep and as wide and as high as it will take me. I don't want to miss any of it. Any of me.

It's like walking into all new territory, and I motion to the stylist, no more. We are there now. I am cutting the last thread. Who knew it would be such an experience, this simple act so complex, so riddled with emotional tangents?

I'm glad I've decided to be present for it. Even if it is a little scary sometimes ... letting go of silly old fears.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Chip Off the Old Block ... and Life Cycles

by Zinta Aistars

That tree has got to come down. I wish it didn't. But it is broken nearly in half, split in this past winter's ice storm, when we lost power for several days. The world was glazed in crystal, beautiful but with an icy heart. Tree after tree snapped and went down, and two in my yard. One snapped against the edge of the roof, but the other spread its upper most branches like a lacy crystalline skirt across the width of the backyard.

It's spring. I saw a robin dancing across my yard this morning. The air was warm and sweet-smelling. I'd been procrastinating getting that tree down, but it is time. I had a warm Saturday ahead of me, perfect for yard work.

Alas, that break in the tree's trunk was too high. Even when I dragged a ladder across the lawn and propped it against the trunk, I couldn't reach to the spot where the trunk had snapped, now hanging on by just mere inches.
I called my father to ask if I could borrow a longer, stronger saw. Mine was for pansies, literally, big enough for flower stems at best, and wouldn't go through a proper twig. I had used my son's arm-length clippers to snap off most all branches from the trunk, creating great piles of kindling, but now for that half-snapped trunk ...

My father has passed his days of muscled strength. I remember well when I was a girl, and he could bring a shabby garden to order. I remember planting trees with him; he taught me to respect the life of a forest. The trees have spirits too, silent spirits, and the wisdom of the ages.

This time we were not planting a tree together, but pulling it down. I wanted my father's handsaw, but urged him to stand by. After numerous back surgeries, at 83, his foresting days were behind him ...

... or so I thought. My father can't stand by and just watch his "little girl," now nearly as white-haired as he, saw through a broken trunk alone. I had it to that last bit of bark, but couldn't quite reach high enough to cut through. We pulled on the trunk instead, both of us hanging on it like monkeys, bouncing the tree, bouncing, bouncing ... until there was a loud SNAP, and the tree split through ... and the two of us were down with it, on hands and knees, the fallen tree beneath us, in the grass, laughing.

"Are you all right?" I reached over to help my father back up again. "Your back?"

"Just fine. We got it down, didn't we?"

We did. As independent as I've become, doing most everything for myself and liking it that way, I realize how good it feels to work alongside my father again. He may be stooped, he may be white-haired, he may be fighting chronic back pain, but when we sit down to share a cold glass of apple cider, our work done, I think I see a sparkle in his eye. I wonder if he thinks sometimes about being a young man, straight-backed, and planting little trees with his little girl at his side.

Sometimes great old trees come down. Storms snap powerful limbs. But after my father leaves, I walk through my yard and see the tender green growth of spring. Purple crocuses bloom in my front yard. Daffodils are in tight yellow bud. Green leaves of tulips are coming up, unfolding, absorbing rays of the new sun. Along my back fence, the greening grass is filling with the wide leaves of violets, and the little flowers, my spring favorite, are spreading through the old leaves.

It's spring. The ice has melted, the great snows have passed, the earth is warming and soft, and new life, born and nourished by old life, is making itself known.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Countdown to Putting on the Dog: TSP Celebrates 5

by Zinta Aistars

Had dinner with a dear friend at Sushiya in Kalamazoo, Michigan - the Yum Yum Roll and the Crazy Boy - and then we decided to walk to The Wine Loft. After all, it's only three short weeks to Putting on the Dog: The Smoking Poet Celebrates 5!

Five years in the making.

Five years of reading submissions from ever finer writers in poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Five years of fun cigar reviews from aficionados, some great, some good, some stinky bad. Five years of writing book reviews, reading your masterpieces (and a few not so much), thrilled to lose myself in a world of literary treasure.

Five years and 18 issues. Each one better than the one before but not as good as the one to come.

Five years of art gracing our pages.

A couple mornings ago, I had the pleasure of talking to Lori Moore on the WKZO talk radio show, honoring April as National Poetry Month. Next week, I chat with Mark Wedel from the Kalamazoo Gazette. We talk about poetry - and that it is anything but dead. Poetry lives and poetry thrives, and on Thursday, April 28, at 7 p.m., The Smoking Poet poets and writers will read their work to you who will come to help us celebrate - five years.

Tonight, we find posters created by The Wine Loft with our cigar-chomping pup in his cap on their doors and on their walls. We are feeling the welcome. And counting the days to our anniversary event.


Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Clinging to Plastic Ducks

by Zinta Aistars

"Taking one’s chances is like taking a bath, because sometimes you end up feeling comfortable and warm, and sometimes there is something terrible lurking around that you cannot see until it is too late and you can do nothing else but scream and cling to a plastic duck." ~Lemony Snicket

I am being decidedly indecisive, and that is decidedly uncomfortable. I have read about studies that say too many choices can lead to misery. And I’m feeling it.

I suddenly remember Irma, and I sympathize. Irma was my mother’s very best childhood friend, close as sisters, right up until World War II separated them. One (my mother) fled the Soviet occupation to live in the United States, the other (Irma) remained in Latvia to cope with life in the Soviet Union. No comparison—Irma’s life was much harsher, and her health showed that harshness. She aged quickly and died still relatively young.

Still, the two friends did have a reunion. They separated as teen girls, reunited as middle age women. My mother crossed the border into the Soviet Union, and the two fell into a long and tear-christened embrace.

Then it was Irma’s turn to visit my mother in the United States.

I was along for the ride when my mother took her friend for the first time to an American supermarket. By then, Irma had been living under Soviet rule for several decades, and her every day meant coping with poverty, with a world destitute of choices. The State made all her choices for her. And choose what? She could walk into the store, ready to buy something, rubles in hand, alas, the store shelves more times than not were empty. Or nearly. Choices were few and far between. One took what one got.

So there Irma stood in the aisle of the American supermarket. She needed toothpaste.

The shelves were crammed, top to bottom, left to right, with boxes and boxes, tubes and more tubes, package after package of toothpaste. Not just one kind, of course. Every imaginable, every unimaginable kind. Mint flavor or peppermint flavor, gel or paste or streaked with both, for sensitive teeth or for dentures, with screw top or flip, with or without baking soda, teeth whitening or total health, for gingivitis or halitosis, with fluoride or natural, 5 ounce size or full size or family size, on and on the choices went, up and down that endless aisle.

Irma stood in the middle of the aisle and wept.

My mother and I hardly knew what to do. We stood and blinked at her. My mother wrapped her arm around her friend’s shoulder.

Irmiņ? Mīļā, what’s wrong?”

Irma wiped her eyes, her shoulders trembling. “So many choices … how do I choose? Which one should I buy? How can you live like this and not go mad?"

More recently, I’ve come across reference to new studies that seem to indicate that the rising misery quotient in the United States has something to do with too many choices. We get stuck standing in the aisle, overwhelmed by options, and finally want nothing more to do than to run screaming from the rows and rows of unmade decisions. Not that I would give up having choices ... I choose freedom to make my own, thank you, but too many choices can sometimes indeed be overwhelming.

That’s me standing in that aisle. Blinking. With trembling lip and hunched shoulders.

Options. New options keep arising. Choices to make, and surely all of them good. Or not. What if I choose wrong?

How long now have I been aiming to move back to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula? To the gorgeous Keweenaw, where Lake Superior washes the rocky shores and civilization is remote and the woods surround, filled with wildlife. I will be traveling north again in May, and once again meeting my Keweenaw realtor Gretchen to explore a list of new properties.

Even that is filled with choices. Cabin in the remote woods? Small house nearer town? A ready-made cottage or acreage to build? On shore or tucked back in the forest? For year-round residence or as a vacation abode for the occasional visit?

Now a new option has been tossed into the circle for consideration. I do much of my financial business with the Latvian Credit Union. Yes, there is such a thing, and they are located a very convenient few blocks from my office. My office, however, is not conveniently located. It requires a daily 110-mile commute, which I have been commuting now into my fourth year.

“Tired of it yet?” Jānis asks me when I stop by to say sveiks. I love doing business here. It’s more like sitting around with friends in a living room than banking. If you are of Latvian heritage, or married to one of us, you’re in. Make yourself at home.


He tosses a long roll of paper at me. I unroll it to find blueprints. I arch an eyebrow at him in question.

He tells me about a Latvian contractor, a man from Rīga, who comes in with a couple of builders now and then, buys up a bargain property, perhaps a foreclosure, renovates and puts it up for sale for a tidy profit.

I take a closer look at the blueprints. It’s a compact house, smaller than my current home, but I've been in the downsizing mode for some time now. I don’t need much space, I just need space to fit my needs.

A few days later, I decide to drive by the property on my lunch hour. Oh gee, nice … this is so close! Fifteen minutes on the road and I’m there. I am in the city, then I make a couple turns, and it feels like I am completely out in the country. Both sides of the street are heavily wooded, and neighbors are wonderfully distant one from the other.

I park at the end of the long driveway and decide to brave the mud to take a closer look at the house. The builders appear to be on lunch break; the bulldozer sits silent in the ravine, and the house is open. I walk around and around it, peeking in windows, then brave an open door.


I was hoping to do a quick drive by and cross this off my list. But what I have now is another option. Yet another choice, another decision to make. I like this place.

Granted, at this point, much is left up to the imagination. The house is gutted. Walls have come down. Siding is half peeled from the exterior. Windows are boarded up. The interior is littered with plaster and pieces of lumber, and I can see from one room into the other between studs.

Hey, I’m a writer. I deal in imagination. I stand in the living room and look through the walls to the master bedroom, the kitchen, the rooms beyond. I see myself sitting back on the couch, settling in with a book for a long evening read. I see myself stirring a delicious stew on the stove. I see where the dining area wall is going to come down, according to blueprints, to step out on a new deck, shaded by trees.

Driving back to the office, I wince aloud at how quickly I get there. The gift of time. Fifteen minutes to work where I now cruise the road for an hour.

But my northern dream? Can I do both? And what about my house back in Kalamazoo? And yes, that—what about Kalamazoo? I may work here in this city an hour north, but I live elsewhere, and back there, I have a network of family and friends, of favorite places, a neighborhood where I know every turn and corner like the back of my hand.

What about crossing the ocean? Now and then, here and there, I catch myself thinking about going back. What if I found a little house on the Baltic Sea? Could talk to the family about doing a time-share …

How long would it take me to sell my house? Would I get stuck with two mortgages? Save on commute time but roll back into debt in a buyer’s market?

My head spins. It’s getting really noisy inside my head. Dreams bump into other dreams. One decision closes down another. Or at least makes it harder to manuever. Fear of making the wrong choice paralyzes me.

I want to stand in the aisle and weep.

All I want is a bathtub to call my own at the end of a long, hard day. An oasis in the storm. A quiet place, a place of peace, where the waters warm and soothe, and nothing lurks beneath the scummy murk. Rubber duckies bob and swirl in the bubble bath.

Too much to ask? Too many choices.

When Reinis, the builder from Rīga, calls me to discuss my options, I am giddy with the pleasure of doing business with someone who speaks my language, and with that musical intonation that marks a Latvian from Latvia, not from here. I slip so quickly into a comfort zone that I have to remind myself … hey, wait a minute, this is still business, no matter in what language our negotiations.

Varēsi izmeklēt pati savas krāsas, kādas vien patīk,” he charms me. Make a commitment to the property now, and I can choose colors and paint schemes to my liking.

How long until the house is finished? Oh, six weeks. Maybe fewer.

I bite my lip. Could we make that six months? What if I need six years to decide?

What if I end up living in this house and wanting to drown myself in the bathtub because my duck could have been bobbing in the white-crested waves of Lake Superior? Or in the amber-dotted white sands of the Baltic Sea?

What if you buy here and continue to travel—north and across the ocean? a friend suggests. I feel an arm wrap around my shoulders as I stand in the long, seemingly endless aisle of tantalizing toothpaste packages.

I like mint. I’m pretty sure I like mint. Although the striped kind, gel and paste in one, is pretty appealing, too.

What if I choose the wrong color scheme?

One thing and one thing only is clear in my noisy head. I’m suddenly hungry for a dinner of succulent roast duck tonight. I head down the aisle to poultry.

Roasted duck ... Peking duck ... braised duck ... duck with Hoison sauce ... duck with plum sauce ...

Friday, April 01, 2011

All Fools' Day

by Zinta Aistars

"April 1. This is the day upon which we are reminded of what we are on the other three-hundred and sixty-four." ~Mark Twain

April Fools' Day fun hoax in Denmark
 Mark Twain may have something there. The homo sapien is certainly not the wisest creature walking the planet all the other days of the year, but at least on this one dayApril Fools' Daywe have a bit of fun with our foolishness.

First mention of this day was in Canterbury Tales by Chaucer in 1392, amusing tales peopled with several amusing fools, and the day is marked in various countries across the world with jokes and hoaxes and general poking fun. Some say it had something to do with a switch in calendars in France, with fools still celebrating the new year on April 1. Still other sources go as far back as the biblical figure of Noah, who mistakenly released a dove to find land on April 1 before the waters had receded.

Even the media and otherwise respectable public institutions have been known to get in on the practical jokes this day. There was the year that the space shuttle landed in San Diego ... Taco Bell purchased the liberty bell and the Lincoln Memorial was grabbed up by the auto industry and renamed the Lincoln Mercury Memorial ... the world's first mummified dead fairy, eight inches long, was discovered ... Expedia offered a flight to Mars ... NPR announced that Richard Nixon had second thoughts and was running for a second term ... the Tower of Pizza had fallen ... Burger King sold burgers for left-handed customers, with condiments conveniently dripping out the right side ... Google added Klingon in its lists of languages to use on your computer ... and, of course, there are the usual standbys of coins glued to the floor, salt in the sugar bowl, clear plastic wrap over the toilet seat.

So why all the foolishness?

Why not. With so much seriousness in our world now, a day of silliness can be healthy. Let loose and laugh! I've never been a fan of practical jokes, because they seem to always be at the expense of the person being pranked, but a shared laugh can be a good way for people to bond and to disperse tension and alleviate stress.

Sherry Ackerman writes in The Good Life: How to Create a Sustainable and Fulfilling Lifestyle that Americans have become obsessed with work and forgotten how to play. Recreation, she says, refreshes our minds and "re-creates" us. Chasing the "American Dream," too many of us live to work rather than work to live. Our happiness quotient is going sharply down, our stress levels up, as we focus on more "goods" rather having a good life.

"Recreation signals the body to regenerate from the cellular level on up. The brain functions as a computer and when the body operates optimally, there is constant feedback from the brain to all of the organs and other body parts, facilitating continual regeneration. The body, though, can't operate optimally without regular recreations ... recreation re-creates our brains: neurons crave novelty." (Page 111)

In other words, now and then, and on a regular basis, we need to unplug before we burn out.

Unfortunately, our American work ethic makes heroes out of those who work long hours, arriving early at work and staying late. Our identities are tied into our occupations, and when we are asked to say something about who we are, most of us list first our job title. We make excuses about taking a day off, feel guilty when we go on vacation, working extra hard before and after. We aren't really working smart, just working hard, and our tattered family and personal lives, our epidemic of obesity and depression, our sleep deprivation, show the evidence of neglect.

Time to play. We need to take the time to play, not as a luxury, but as a necessity. The re-created person, studies show, is actually more productive, works more efficiently (smarter!) and makes fewer mistakes, than the workaholic.

"Full time workers in most of Europe typically take seven to eight weeks of vacation and holidays each year," Ackerman writes. "The European Union requires its members to set a minimum standard of four weeks paid vacation, which applies to part-time workers as well. Finland and France require six weeks paid vacation, plus additional paid holidays."

"According to Harvard economist Alberto Alesina, Europeans are happier, and have less stress and insecurity, which is good for health and longevity. Supporting studies in the United States, for example, indicate that taking vacations cuts the risk of heart attacks, in male populations, in half ... longer, mandated vacations haven't undercut the competitiveness of other wealthy countries, and there's even evidence to suggest that they have increased their productivity." (Page 112-113)

Perhaps it's time to take a long, hard look at what it is that we value and how it is that we define ourselves. If accumulating "stuff" is our goal in life rather than accumulating good memories of time shared with family and friends, enriching travel, or just resting in the shade of a tree on a long, lazy summer day ... then maybe we really have gotten too far off our path in the pursuit of happiness. Instead, it seems to have become the pursuit of stuff.

If any good has come of our recent economic crisis, it has been a raised awareness of what we truly value in our lives. Even as we watch with horror the devastation of Japan in the tsunami and earthquake, the lesson seems clear. Putting value on the accumulation of goods rather than building a good life (being in good health, having a strong social network, family and friends, and enjoying the work we do rather than occupying our time with a job we dislike) is not the way to go. No point in living in big houses if we are constantly at the office working to pay the inflated mortgage and neglecting the family that lives there.

So play the fool. Have a good laugh. Call recess. Put your feet up and pour yourself a Guinness, and be sure to let it rest for 15 minutes before that first sip, or the foam won't settle properly into its creamy layer.

We need a little of April foolishness in our every day.