Early in the morning–earlier than I’m normally out of the house–I am on a mission: I am bringing the donuts.
That means I’m not merely venturing forward on wet roads into the dewy mist in my white SUV with the dog hanging out of the window, noise pointed forward, the wind flattening her fur and widening her eyes, to bring back an assorted dozen toroid glazed and sugar dusted fried cakes. I am also buying coffee, one of those big boxes that will sit on the cluttered kitchen counter like a fuel canister.
Painting continues inside our house and my wife, who once supervised an army of contractors on a custom-built abode, decried that people who work for you should feel that you value them for more than a job well done. She has supplemented this nutrient-poor offering with industrial muffins, fresh fruit and, a nod to her Celtic origins, scones.
Of course, I won’t be eating much of that. I’ve been told repeatedly by a physician half my age that I could “probably do to lose” about twenty pounds. That and I hear my father’s voice, announcing that donuts are “not substantial,” that they do not contain enough of what is necessary for survival. To eat one is to surrender to the insidious dangers of sensory gratification. Why, would happen if we ONLY ate sweet, gooey food?
My smart-alecky answer: we’d die smiling.
His reply: Without any teeth, who would know if it was a smile?
And so, I am sugar averse. With the exception of four wisdom teeth removed in my youth, I have never had a cavity and, to the endless disappointment of my father (whose brother-in-law was an orthodontist) I never needed braces. I find the taste of most chocolate, including the chocolate mustard I sampled at the Hershey Hotel during a Chocolate Weekend, a bit bitter. I didn’t eat ice cream until I was four years old, hours after my tonsils were removed. My throat was sore. I could barely opened my mouth. One spoonful of French Vanilla, and I could swallow anything.
My mother was a chocoholic. Late at night, she’d fill a tumbler with a finger of dehydrated chocolate milk beads, stir in a splash of milk, stir it into a paste, and shovel it in while watching television.
My father didn’t have a tooth cavity until he turned 50. I have never had one. My mother just had to think about a dentist and a cavity formed.
But, in the same way I read stacks of comic books in summer camp, when I went to college, I discovered whole wheat donuts.
Gibson’s Bakery, a family business for several generations, sits in the center of the commercial district across Oberlin College’s beautifully green Tappan Square. Many a night, when I was uplate studying, or not, I’d put on a raincoat, set forth into dreary, dismal Northern Ohio gloom until I saw the bright, chrome sign and the warm, Edward Hopper-esque glow from inside, and felt the warm, dry, bakery interior air on my face, and smelled…whole wheat donuts.
I don’t know where the Gibson family found the recipe. I don’t know why they decided to make these from whole wheat flour. I didn’t believe such a delicacy was worth leaving my dormitory room until a fellow student handed me one and I bit into a heavily glazed, intensely sweet cake-like toroid which, my over-educated companion assured me, was not only the shape of a fusion reactor but also a model of human consciousness.
I went to college and I learned: there is a place in the substantial universe, for donuts.
When I graduated, I did not seek donuts to comfort me in my humiliation. Why, it can be astonishing how many industries, companies, going concerns that could use an English major –I had two majors, English and Religion, with minors in classics and history– and might even profit from the labors of an English major, turned me down.
As for that Religion major, well, when I’d call God, I’d get a busy signal.
Lo, I labored in a Georgetown, Washington DC supermarket, where I made sandwiches behind a deli counter. I worked every job in a natural foods restaurant, and took home the strangest leftovers. I sold fancy lamps at a lamp store.
One day I became so beaten down in spirit that only spoke in rhymed couplets, morning to night, no matter who I met or what situation I was in. I acquired a reputation from such desperate behavior, but I never left my sad world for the parallel universe of a glazed donut.
Until I tried teaching high school. I had taught college for many years as an adjunct: English literature, short story and novel writing. I had taught history at senior centers. I thought I could light up the sky with my wit, charm and fascinating lecture style.
Until I got my teaching certificate and became a full time teacher of 10th grade “academic” English. Academic was the school district’s code word for the lowest skill level, the dim, burn-out bottom of the pyramid that rises with Honor’s English and peaks at Advance Placement.
I looked out on a bunch of kids who could barely pull their eyes away from their cell phones. Here I was, an award winning professional writer of seven published novels, two non-fiction books and four thousand articles and cultural reviews that had appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Art & Antiques and forty other national and regional publications, and these kids did not want to hear about William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (most didn’t know who the historical Julius Caesar was). They didn’t care about British poetry. They didn’t want to wallow in the vile doings on George Orwell’s Animal Farm. They didn’t care who or what the Lord of the Flies really was. They had been made miserable by English teachers who insisted that poetry was an encrypted screed that had to analyzed, picked apart and otherwise autopsied to reveal rhyme schemes, metaphors, rhythmic meter, themes, tone and point-of-view.
I had written poetry. I knew published poets. On one thing we agreed: poetry was the heart singing. Look for anything else.
So, one morning I woke up a little earlier. The streets were still wet and I could make left turns and cross intersections without wondering when the traffic would pause. I went into a supermarket so empty of customers that I could hear every note of the music. The few employees who weren’t staking or unpacking were happy to see me. I went to the bakery counter and began to count the donuts.
The woman behind the counter asked me how many I needed. “Wait,” she said, “I’ll give you fresh.”
I brought the donuts, and napkins, for every student I had. One per person, I told them. You don’t have to eat one if you’re concerned that you might be allergic or diabetic, or if you’re training for sports, or if your parents would rather not have you eat one.
But, if you do, tell me how it tastes.
I agreed, licking the glaze off my fingers. I explained that English lit can be seen as a big meal that you’re going to eat. But…what would happen if, instead of beginning with the appetizer, which sometimes tastes so good that you don’t want to eat anything else, we went right to the dessert?
Teaching from bliss? Why not? We live in a time that is overflowing with great art, most of which is easy to understand and enjoy. Art should not be easy all the time. Works that do not yield their meanings quickly can provide lasting value to those who are willing to give the time and attention. Why not look for what is easy to understand and enjoy FIRST in literature, and then, when you’ve had dessert, start on the stuff that takes a little bit of time to chew?
I went on to say that one of the things that makes Shakespeare worth all the chewing was that there are so many things to enjoy, and many ways to enjoy them, that you always find something new. I confessed that both Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies have passages of clumsy writing, but they are still important works for what they say about humanity, government, the use of language to control, and good intentions gone bad. So, lets look at these works differently. When the going is tough, or confusing, BRING THE DONUTS.
During my third year of high school teaching, all food was banned in classrooms. No, my donut-fueled pedagogy wasn’t cited as the reason for the ban, but it was one of many reasons I decided never to teach high school again.
Earlier this summer, on a cross-country road trip, my wife and I dropped down from Interstate 80 and went down the two lane roads leading to the town of Oberlin. My wife had never seen the campus. We parked next to Tappan Square. The commercial strip now buzzed with restaurants. The movie theater where I saw Roman Polanski’s MacBeth (while exiting the theater, I saw one of my English professors waiting to go in and I told him the book was better.) was still there. And so was Gibson’s Bakery.
When the woman behind the counter assured me that the recipe hadn’t changed, we nervously bought a dozen whole wheat donuts. With so much that has happened to me in 40 years, how would they taste? Would that alternative universe welcome me again?
To mangle a line that Shakespeare didn’t put in his play: We came, we ate, we were conquered, again. The sugary, gooey, blissfully delightful donut universe opened itself to us, and said, what took you so long?