This time, we’re here with UK government-issued I.D. cards and and this time, it’s serious enough that we’ve rented our very own flat. (That our extended-stay Airbnb days are behind us is one of the many reasons Eric has been in a good mood since we arrived.) How long we’ll stay depends on the pandemic, the documentary, Eric’s work, and whether or not London will have us, I suppose. So far, the city seems cool with it, and the rest of the stuff I mentioned has to be taken day by day, and that would be true no matter where we live.
We’ve been here almost a month, but I’ve been timid about sharing the news. The timing of all this is odd, even shocking. If I heard someone was moving to another country during a global pandemic, I’d have an opinion. They’re moving now?? Couldn’t they just wait until the pandemic’s over??
But there were several reasons why we couldn’t wait, and besides, no one knows when the pandemic will be over or what “over” even looks like. If not now, safely, when? I assure you that Eric and I have been model pandemic-ans from the start: tests, masks, distancing, sacrificing holiday get-togethers, tuning in to various science-y podcasts when want to get good and scared (because the paranoid shall inherit the earth.) I also turned up the dial on my baseline introversion, which honestly — speaking as a true introvert — has been kind of awesome. Making two trips to England in less than a year’s time has been A Very Big Deal to us both psychologically and physically, and we’ve been as concerned about everyone else’s safety as we’ve been about our own. Nobody wants to make any of this worse, so we did all the stuff.
The stuff was no small feat, because you really cannot get into the UK right now without showing some serious paperwork. At O’Hare, we couldn’t even approach the ticket counter before showing the nice lady our documents. We each had to have proof of a negative COVID test (specifically the PCR kind, I think) within the past 48 hours and it had to be signed by a doctor; we each had to fill out a form on the UK government website (I brought a paper copy just in case); there was another form about having tests ordered for when we actually arrived in England; they needed proof of where we were staying; and then we had paperwork regarding the work visa stuff and obviously current passports and all that. We dutifully quarantined for 10 days and answered the phone when NHS called to check in on us — and they did, several times.
By the way, none of this felt invasive. None of it felt spooky or infringe-y. It was a relief. The very idea that we would be responsible for spreading the virus is unbearable. I was glad the authorities made it virtually impossible to do so.
But why did we engage that process? Why have we come here again? There are so many different ways to answer that question and because it feels really good to write again, let’s try on a few different styles. I now present to you a modest buffet of answers to the question: “Why have you moved, however temporarily, to London, Mary Fons?”
Cryptic: “Life unfolds in mysterious ways.”
Shakespearean: “Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale / Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man[so … do something exciting, like go to London during a pandemic.]” — King John (1598). Act III, scene 4, line 108.
Snippy: “None of your business.”
Busy: “Could we go over it tomorrow? I’m sorry, I’ve just got so much — yeah, yeah. Okay. Yeah. Thank you. I mean, I want to — exactly. Yeah, exactly. Right?? Yeah. Okay. Okay, bye. You too. Bye.”
Fatalist: “Chicago, London. Doesn’t matter. We’re all going to die. You wanna die in London, be my guest.”
Romantic: “London, oh bewitching mistress! How our tender hearts longed to return to her verdant* bosom!”
Simple: The company Eric is with has offices here, we love it here, and we’re both in our early 40s.
If not now, safely, when?
There have been plenty more changes since I last checked in with all of you, the second-biggest being that I’ve made a significant work change that will grant me a good deal more breathing room in which to write (!), read, and scheme. The specifics of the change aren’t public, yet, but they will be soon.
It’s so, so good to see you! Scone me!!
*This does actually make sense because London is technically a forest. That is a fact — I’ll tell you more about it soon.
I thought I’d mention that I’ve begun making goofy videos for the internet. I mean, they’re all chock full of fascinating facts and figures (well, at least a figure here and there for good measure) and they’re full of me, which, depending on how you feel about me, could be a terrific thing or a reason not to watch the content. Personally, it is hard for me to watch the content, but that’s because after all these years of creating on-camera vignettes for this or that purpose, I am still amazed that that is my face and that is my voice. But it is, and it is, and we now have more proof that I’m a moth to the silicon flame.
If you’re not familiar with YouTube channels — Eric was introduced only this year after I showed him — it’s pretty simple and can be a nice thing when you have interest in a person or a show on YouTube. You click on the channel (a little icon under the video screen, above the rest of the video thumbnails the channel has produced) and you click “Subscribe”. This means that when you open YouTube on your computer or device, you’ll probably see your subscription videos first in the lineup of suggested videos. If the person or show you’ve subscribed to has posted a new video, you’ll see that. (This is how my YouTube works, anyway; I hope I haven’t led you astray, though however you click it, the learning curve is tiny.)
There’s also a little bell that you can click, which means you’ll get a notification every time I upload a new video. If you like my content enough to want to get a notification the moment I post new videos, that means you really, really like me. Full disclosure: I do not have notifications set for any of my YouTube descriptions. I am allergic to alerts. They are distracting and there are just so many of them. Still, some people have told me that the Quilty videos I made for many years and the PBS show are often nice background audio for them as they work or fall asleep (I take this as a compliment) so if you’re under a deadline or you’re needing a nap, maybe you do want to know right away that I’ve posted something for you. That bell is the way.
I have come to learn that subscribers and bells — and “engagement”, which means comments and watching through to the end of a video, no pressure — are important for growing a YouTube channel, so I’m hoping to have some of all that. Perhaps you will tell your friends, neighbors, and countrymen and women that the best thing going on the internet is this scrappy 41-year-old quilt person’s YouTube channel. I have to try to get the word out somehow: It’s hard to accept that so many D-list celebrity gossip channels and channels featuring people playing blurry vintage video games, and people vlogging about absolutely nothing as they drive their car (this is all actual content) have subscriber numbers in the six digits when my channel is so tiny.
But all those folks started somewhere, right? For every popular YouTube channel, there was a first video game; a first “well, here I am in my car again,” vlog episode; a first makeup tutorial; a first mukbang … Mukbangs, by the way, are videos where people eat on camera. Like, they eat dinner, or lunch, or breakfast, and talk to you.
The internet — YouTube in particular — is a strange world, indeed. I have entered the YouTube because it’s a pandemic and it won’t be over for a very long time, I’m afraid, and I am having fun doing something new. I’ve entered it because I’m making a documentary and I need to prove to the suits that people want to watch me talk about quilts (and sometimes myself) on camera, but without doing tutorials, because I’ve done a lot of that and there’s so, so much of that already on YouTube. I’ve decided to make a channel because it’s still 2020 and all bets are off.
I hope you head over there and do the subscribe, like, watch, share thing. I’d appreciate it, and may the gods of YouTube be with us all. They can’t be all bad: Have you seen the puppy videos??
I’m composing a blog post about the legendary London fog — if you’re like me, it’s not what you think it is — but until then, I’d like to direct your attention to a little thing I put up on YouTube a couple days ago.
For the past couple years, I’ve been working a second job. My dream is to make a 10-part documentary series that tells the history — the whole history, in all its glory and complexity — of quilts in America. The story of quilts in America is the story of America itself, so I guess what I’m trying to do is tell the history of our country. It’s daunting, but I won’t give up until I do it.
From the start, the goal has been to pitch the show to a major streaming network, like Netflix, Amazon, etc. It’s essential that the beauty and cultural juggernaut that is the American quilt reach an audience that doesn’t already know about it. In increasingly digital lives, the tactile power of quilts is more important than ever: Quilts have been and will always be there for us — as long as we keep making them and valuing the people who do. (It’s in everyone’s best interest: Most quiltmakers give their quilts away, so if you’re hoping to have your own homemade, patchwork quilt at some point, hug a quilter today.)
Perhaps more pressing is the fact that our country is more divided than its been in a long time, and I sincerely believe that the story of American quilts can bring us together. It’s not a stretch. All kinds of Americans have made quilts for generations: rich and poor; Black, White, Brown, and Indigenous; in every corner of the nation, with fine or rough materials, with expert skill or with no sewing experience whatsoever, we have quilts in common. The quilt is a symbol of American ingenuity and the idea at the heart of our nation: each sovereign piece works with others to create a diverse, beautiful united whole that is far more powerful, together.
Under the direction of filmmaker Jack Newell (aka my brilliant brother-in-law), and with the financial support of Bee-Hive Productions, I’ve turned a few of my lectures on quilt history into what I hope are entertaining “shows” for YouTube. I’m calling it The Quilts Must Go On! because they have to; the title is a declaration as much as it is a kind of prayer. This little project is not the documentary; it’s just videos on the internet. But it’s been lots of fun to make.
I like to learn stuff and then share what I learned. Stuff is so crazy right now and has been so crazy. Maybe The Quilts Must Go On! will provide a distraction. Each episode is about an hour.
When Mozart was eight years old, he went on tour. That’s how you roll when you’re eight and you’re Mozart.
Accompanied by his awesome dad, Wolfgang hit 17 cities, all the usual suspects on the European drawing room circuit; Paris, Vienna, Rome, etc.
Their last stop was London. If I walk out my door this morning and hang a right, it will take me 13 minutes to get to 180 Ebury Street where Leopold and Wolfgang ended up living for about a year. Mozart wrote his very first symphony at 180 Ebury Street, aptly titled Symphony No. 1.
Say I decide to extend my hypothetical morning walk. Let’s say I swing by Gail’s Bakery and purchase a warm custard croissant and a hot cappuccino, and I think we can all agree that I should hypothetically do this. If I head south toward the Thames, it will take me 27 minutes to arrive at Cheyne Walk, slightly longer if my body feels weak on account of that demonically good croissant, so … Let’s say it takes me 35 minutes.
Cheyne Walk is just a quarter-mile long the way a lot of streets here are just a quarter-mile long. It runs along the north bank of the Thames between the Albert Bridge and Battersea Bridge, and Cheyne Walk is a lovely, lovely place, indeed. In spring, wisteria grows so high along some of the buildings it seems to pour down from the top; in autumn, well-manicured hedgerows are blanketed with crimson and gold-edged leaves, wide and fat and crispy, that sift down from the oak trees overhead. The apartment buildings would be imposing if they weren’t so charming, but they can’t get away from it. You might see a marmalade cat peeking through one of the tall, leaded-glass windows; all the pediments and pilasters are rounded; all the brick chimneys were clearly built to accommodate Santa Claus. Who wouldn’t want to live, at least for awhile, on Cheyne Walk?
The street has existed for about 300 years, so a lot of people have lived here. They have eaten their breakfasts, played their records, written and received letters, gone to sleep and gotten out of beds in these buildings. And it happens that a few Cheyne Walk residents made quite a name for themselves before, during, or after they lived here. This short street is notable not just for its beauty, but for all the notable people who lived on it. Dig:
George Eliot, author J.M.W. Turner, painter
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter
Thomas Carlyle, philosopher Bertrand Russell, philosopher W. Somerset Maugham, author
J.M. Whistler, painter
Hilaire Belloc, poet andhistorian
Sylvia Pankhurst, superstar suffragist
Henry James, author
T.S. Eliot, poet
Amazing, right? And that is in no way an exhaustive list of all the remarkable people who had/have addresses on Cheyne Walk — google it and you’ll see. But the names up there mean the most to me because those people produced work that resolves tumblers in the combination locks of my brain. Even better, all that work was completed and all those people were dead way before I was even born.
This is infinitely comforting to me.
George Eliot knew all about heartache way before I ever went through a breakup, and what she wrote about love was waiting for me. Rossetti’s paintings of female flawlessness existed long before I looked in the mirror and admitted, as I did the other day, that I’m not so young. Just as the bloom of youth in La Ghirlandata is eternal, so is the vague despair I feel when I discover that my maiden days are over. Countless 40-something women have looked at La Ghirlandata and felt this; to join their club is both a defeat and a relief. I’m not alone; none of us are. Books and paintings that stand the test of time remind me that as special as I am, I’m not so special. There’s pure encouragement in it, if you’re open to it.
London does the same thing for me. Did you know that London is 2,000 years old? Two thousand.
I didn’t know that until recently, but it’s true: In 43 AD, the Celts who were loafing around were sacked by the Romans, who established the outpost they called “Londinium”. From there followed more sacking, and fires, plagues, wars, revolution, political chaos, etc. And now, 2,000 years later, here we are, strolling down Cheyne Walk with croissant crumbs on our jacket.
London has endured and that endurance makes me feel good, cuts me down to size in the best possible way, just like La Ghirlandata. London is an old place. It’s seen my type before. It didn’t rejoice when I got here and it won’t weep when I leave, because London doesn’t care about me — or you — that much. Not in the same way that New York City doesn’t care about one person. New York City doesn’t care about you because it’s doesn’t have time for you, and this feels hostile, like the way a mean girl treats you in the cafeteria. London doesn’t particularly care about you but London has nothing but time, so it might decided to watch you as you about your day. And, because it’s seen everything, if you screw up — when you screw up — it’s not inclined to laugh at you. There’s nothing new under the sun and besides, London is tired. London doesn’t want to laugh at you; London wants its slippers and its cuppa. Do this or don’t, London says; try this or don’t. Be a person in London for a brief flicker of time, dear, if that’s what you want. Then London gives you a pat and turns her great, heavy head to the next upstart to eventually them the same thing.
Being in an old city like this — being in London — makes me feel like I’m part of the human race, no more, no less. Now that I’ve felt it, finally, I confess that I don’t particularly want to leave. With the exception of Chicago, the other cities I’ve lived in made me feel like I was auditioning for them. In London, I’m just cast.
I thought this second half of the first post about London would lead off with how I ended up here, but Mozart and Cheyne Walk got in the way. The reason isn’t so crazy: The company Eric is with has a London office, and the opportunity arose for him to work on a project here for a few months. We arrived in August; we leave the first week of December.
It’s only been in the past year that I figured out why this might be, and only a matter of months that I’ve been brave enough to admit it.
It’s not something a person is supposed to say. When the “What would you do if you only had a year to live?” question is posed, we’re expected to get a dreamy look on our faces as we picture ourselves meandering through Moroccan spice markets, skiing through Switzerland, eating caviar in Red Square. We’re expected to want to explore everywhere that is not here, wherever “here” is, the argument being that world travel makes you smarter, more compassionate, more interesting; everyone wants to be described as cosmopolitan, someone “at ease in faraway lands, with an exciting and glamorous character associated with travel and a mixture of cultures.”
To be ambivalent about wanting to see the world is to be seen as too simple to grasp the importance — the necessity, even — of doing whatever you can to crisscross the globe before you’re dead. And watch out, because being pitied is a best-case scenario: The real danger here is that you’ll be labeled a xenophobe, which is one of the worst things a person can be. “Xenophobe” isn’t 100 percent synonymous with “racist”, but it’s real close.
Much to my relief (and yours, no doubt), it is my admirationof and fascination with people who grew up in cultures other than my own that is behind my reason for not needing to travel the world. It comes down to one simple thing:
If I can’t speak the language of a place — and aside from having survival Spanish, you can bet I can’t — I’m miserable.
Language is as fundamental to the shape of a country as the indelible lines of its border. A people’s language nourishes the people who speak, read, and write it, and as they do, they turn the words and phrases over and over across centuries until their language is a smooth, polished stone, carried and shared within their culture. The language of a place is the code for its literature, its science and medicine, its faith and prayer. Language puts words to experience, which is to say that it is experience itself. To experience a place without access to its language is, to me, no way to experience a place at all.
One of the most distressing aspects of this, for me anyway, is that without being able to fluently speak the language of a country while I’m in it, I am locked out of the humor of its people. This is disastrous. Sure, the language of pratfalls is universal, but delighting in the way someone plays with entendre, rhyme, puns; the structure of a great joke and the syntactical eccentricities of the teller, the timing — this is the stuff of humor, and outside of love, humor is the only thing that makes life bearable. What people find funny — and I mean really, really funny — is everything. If you want to truly be with someone, or a nation of someones (and this is the only way I ever want to be with anyone), you must understand nuance. If I can’t read a sign on a shop door that says “Back in 5 minutes”, how am I to have a nuanced experience with a place? How can I truly be in a foreign land without being able to speak the language(s) there?
Some of you might say, “Well, Mary, then study some languages! You’re young.”
You are very generous, but I am no longer officially young. I’m 41, and if a woman is not a polyglot by my age, she’s probably not going to be one. Yes, I could still learn Arabic before I die — and I would love to, and German, and Norwegian, the language of my ancestors — but if I were serious about it, I could do nothing else. My life would have to be that of a full-time student for the next who-knows-how-many years and as much as I’d like to travel the world and finally be there, upending my whole life so that I can appreciate the best knock-knock joke in the Sahara seems like a lot of work.
Here’s the thing: I have had the privilege to visit a couple other countries, namely Italy, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, France, Germany, and England. And in all but that last one, I have found myself sad and suffocated much of the time. I don’t want to have just a few words to communicate with someone. I want to use more than the blunt instruments of “yes” and “no” and “thank you” and “no thank you” when communicating with another a human being and I do not want to force everyone I come into contact with — while I’m in their house — to speak English so that I can get around and feel comfortable. Why should they have to do all the heavy lifting just because I was born in a country that expects them to learn my language, but has never insisted that I learn theirs? On my soil, okay, we can speak English and I would love to, because I want to know everything. But when I’m in your country, I ought to speak your language and though I desperately wish I could, I can’t.
A philosopher said once that “Having a second language is like having a second soul.” I want like, 50 souls, but I only have one. And the one I have knows that language is her life raft. Without it, she drowns. In a foreign country. And she doesn’t know how to ask to use the bathroom. And she can’t read the poetry. And she can’t go see stand-up. And she can’t tell the difference between a sad love song and a song about someone who died. And she orders fermented mung bean soup when she thought she was ordering delicious cake. She knows she is supposed think all of this is mind-expanding, but she doesn’t think that. She thinks it sucks.
She’d give anything to read the plaques on the old city’s walls and marvel at the history of the country. She’d give anything to read a book written in the country’s mother tongue and understand something deep and fundamental about the place. She wants to exchange pleasantries with the kid at the bakery where she gets the bread every day and she wants to ask if there is coconut in the custard because she’s allergic, and she wants to understand that this pastry has coconut but that one doesn’t, and she want to be able to buy several of the second kind, thank you very much, and she wants to use exact change at the till.
She wants to not just understand the jokes; she wants to tell them. She wants to be in a foreign country where everything is different and she has the words to figure it out.
If you follow me on social media, you probably know that I’m in London. If you don’t follow me on social media and we don’t communicate IRL, London might come as a surprise. Heck, London is still a surprise to me and I’ve been here for two months.
There’s a lot to cover. But we have to start somewhere, and I’d like to start with social media. Let me put down my fish and chips. (Drops greasy wax paper into bin; wipes mouth with sleeve.)
This summer, after years of resisting all but the barest minimum of engagement on social media, I succumbed to her deadly embrace. For the past couple months I’ve been regularly posting content on Instagram, and it turns out that I like making short videos for the internet and captioning the pictures I post with more than brief, sterile descriptions and arbitrary timestamps, which is all I did with my Instagram photos for years.
I’ve not been completely out of the social media game, it’s true. I like Instagram because I genuinely enjoy taking pictures and it’s fun to throw my adventures into the mix with everyone else’s. It’s a good thing I like Instagram because at this point, you have to commit to at least one platform. My husband is a Twitter person, for example, but I never use it. So Eric, the Twitteriot, reads me breaking news and I, the Instagramarian, show him puppies. Neither of us do complicated dance breaks, as those are best left to TikTokerean youngsters who, judging by the volume of content they create, are very, very ready for the pandemic to be over.
But I never felt like I was doing Instagram — or any social media — correctly. In case you missed it, “doing” effective social media now basically requires a master’s degree. (I think I’m kidding, but it could be true.) Successful social media engagement is a scientific proposition. Or a militaristic one. Because if you want results, it takes a war-room approach: You have to tag things, always, and you’d better be cross-posting to all the platforms or you’re wasting your time. You have to use the right hashtags and follow others so they’ll follow you, but don’t just randomly follow anyone; you must be smart about the followed and the followers — and you need a lot of the second kind. No, like a lot. At all costs, you must not commit a cardinal social media sin in front of God and Mark Zuckerberg and everybody, because they will eviscerate you. What sin? It depends. And who is “they”? No one knows. It’s just them, and you’d better watch out because if they decide you screwed up, they will hate you. But who cares! It’s the internet. Everyone’s attention span has been worn down to a nub by this point. They’ll forget about it by tomorrow. It’s just social media! Have fun with it!
All this is vexing in the extreme, so my post volume has always been extremely low. Until recently, I never posted videos. And I’ve always been religious about writing as little as I could in any given caption or comment box. I mean, if you want to write 500 words on the internet, get a … blog.
Well that’s an interesting point, Mary.
Right, so about a month ago, I caught myself writing a paragraph’s worth of copy for a single Instagram caption. “This is a blog post,” I said to myself, looking up at the clock. I’d been at it for 20 minutes. “What are you doing?”
It appears that I’m still producing content on the internet, just in a different form. I’m not entirely comfortable with this arrangement, but I have to admit it reminds me of something.
From about 2001 to 2005, I was a hardcore performance poet, slamming my early-twenties heart out every Sunday night at Chicago’s legendary Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, the birthplace of slam poetry, the cradle of slam civilization. The form has extreme specifications: A slam poet goes onstage in front of a captive audience and gets a microphone. That’s it. No props, no costumes. She does not have access sound cues or lighting changes. It’s just her and her poem. And the simplicity of that set-up, the restrictions imposed by it, that spareness, it shapes the work in a beautiful way. You, the poet, have nowhere to hide. You have to come out swinging because you are the show and your poems and your performance provide the drama, the humor, the set and the scenery. But a good slam poet shouldn’t need light cues or a soundtrack to evoke emotion: The words and the delivery should be enough — and when performance poetry is done right, it’s more than enough.
By the way, everything I just said I learned in real time. And after years in the solo performance trenches, I had to admit that I desperately wanted to play with some props. Anything, really. Plastic lobster. Paper hat. Peanut butter and jelly. Anything. I had so many ideas! Imagine what I could do with just one tiny sound clip! My kingdom for a sock puppet! I had the word stuff down well enough; I needed to advance to the next level of making work for the stage: blackouts. Stage doors. Sound effects. Maybe someone other than my damn self onstage for once.
So I auditioned for the Neo-Futurists — a prop-friendly ensemble if there ever was one — and for the next almost-six years, I had all the plastic lobsters a girl could want. I got my paper hat, my light cues, all of it. The work I was allowed to do with the Neos was full-color and required tremendous physical effort. There was so much material in every sense of the word. The two eras shared much in common (e.g., wild creativity, breathless excitement, incredible people) but if Neo-Futurism was abundance, slam performance was austerity, and both eras brought tremendous gifts.
I think PaperGirl is slam. And my social media content isn’t Neo-Futurism, exactly, but it’s definitely a space where I get to use props if I want to, or goof around with sound cues, or make as many set changes as I please. You could make the argument that I’d better use all of those things if I want to exist in the dripping, gaping maw of social media. And doesn’t that sound fun.
So, if you want to hang out with me on my Instagram page or on my Facebook page, that would be nice. You’ll get a peek at London, and at Eric, every once in awhile. I styled a photo shoot for Liberty, and I posted about that. I am posting pictures of London, a city I am deeply in love with, which is alarming. And I’m filming a lot of quilt-related video content and that makes me happy.
Most of the content is on Instagram but I try to make sure it’s cross-posted to Facebook. However much I advance in the social media game, I remain deathly allergic Facebook. It’s bad. Facebook makes my throat close up and my body gets all scratchy and puffy and then I basically die of anaphylactic shock and then I’m buried and then I rise from the dead and come back and put a 1,000-year curse on Facebook for its crimes against humanity and then, just to be safe — and since at that point I’m a sentient, powerful ghost — I melt all Facebook’s servers and turn the resulting river of boiling plastic into a sweet, clear, babbling brook, which becomes a home for magic ducklings who grant me three wishes.
Oh, look: I have a chunk of fish left and a few chips.
This is the 15th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
I’m going to take a pause from Babs and tell you about Eric. And virtual reality.
Eric, by the way, is my husband.
Yes, I did get married, as many of you have either figured out, suspected, or been told by a trusted source. Eric and I celebrated our one-year anniversary one week ago.
The story of this occurrence is so lovely, true, and massive, I’ve struggled to write about how it happened, how it’s been, and how it is. I haven’t written about it explicitly until this very moment. I’ve begun many times and stalled, because there have been events in my 40 years life that are hard to write about, not for lack of wanting to write about them, but because writing is hard, but writing well is much, much harder, and when a sublime and massive event arrives, a writer who cares wants to write about that event not just well, but sublimely. She wants to write the story so that the text itself feels as lovely as the experience was, as true as it’s been, and as massive as it continues to be.
This is tall order for her brain and the poor English language, who will quickly wonder how it got into this mess. And, because the writer who cares knows it’s possible to make the English language tell the truth about sublime and massive things — the books on her shelf prove it — it makes it easy to stall. In fact, stalling is the easiest thing to do when a person wants to put into words a sublime, massive situation because the hardest thing to do is to get it right.
I should probably just tell you what happened, event by event. I could just aim for “simple” and forget “sublime”, just build small words, one by one, and let massive take care of itself. I’ll keep at it, I promise. I can’t help but try; there are two true joys in my life and they are writing and Eric. It would be lovely to marry them well.
I cannot believe I’ve shared this news in a post that features an image of a floppy disk of Frogger from 1984.
Okay, let’s talk about this quarantine business because it’s what’s on my mind. Is it on yours? Eric and I began our official, strict, shelter-in-place, safer-at-home experience on Friday, March 13th. That day, we took a Sharpie and wrote on the old, peeling wallpaper in the hallway: “Mary + Eric’s Covid Quarantine 2020” because it was amusing to us, like we were cartoons on a cartoon desert island, carving the days on a coconut tree. And that first week, we dutifully added a hashmark on the wallpaper each day. Perhaps we stopped because it did seem sort of silly, sort of fun, but there’s nothing silly about this.
Incidentally, I’ve always believed that aside from first-responders and ethical journalists, the people that deserve protection and respect in any society are the great standup comedians. That might seem strange to some of you, but the maestros — Dave Chapelle, Chris Rock, George Carlin, Louis C.K., Patton Oswalt, and Michelle Wolf come to mind — witness and artfully tell the truth about human nature. When they do, we’re given access to a measure of relief, since laughing at ourselves is often the only way to get any. But not even the greats can help right now, so who are Eric and I to ironically mark days in the hall? It stopped being amusing so we stopped marking the days and now they all run together.
Anyway, about Frogger. A few months back, Eric purchased a VR headset for his PlayStation. “VR” stands for “Virtual Reality” and that thing looked ridiculous. I married Eric at City Hall four months after we met, and never once, not a single time — even through some real gnarly days in the past year — have I wondered if I made the right decision. I love the man more every day. But I do confess that when this 42-year-old person, this brilliant man, this funny Valentine of mine put that plastic contraption on his head and started swinging these two blinking wands into thin air, I stopped what I was doing and thought, “Well, you knew he was a nerd when you married him, Fons.”
When he handed the VR thing to me, I flatly refused it.
“Absolutely not,” I said. “I’m sure it’s very cool, but I am a serious person. I cannot put a plastic headset on my head and look around at things that do not exist. I support your fun, but I prefer to stay in regular reality, thank you very much.”
Headset or not, I am not a video game person, anyway. The last time I “gamed” was in 6th grade, probably, bored enough on a hot summer day in Iowa to pick up a controller on our old Nintendo. I was pretty sure I’d never “game” again. Pointless!
But because he was so into it and wanted to share the experience with me, he finally wore me down.
“Just for a second,” Eric said. “Just put it on for a second to see what it looks like. There’s a field of bunnies! You can walk around and look at everything! And there’s bunnies!”
I took the headset from him, holding it like a bag of old bananas. I put it on my head. Lo and behold, there was a navigable, digital field of shimmering bunnies that looked so real that I became dizzy and terrified and clawed it off of me.
Then came the pandemic. And around Week 2 of quarantine, after braving the long line at Trader Joe’s and seeing pictures semi trailers full of bodies parked behind New York hospitals, slipping into a different reality started to look attractive.
On top of that, Eric somehow managed to score an Oculus Quest. The Oculus Quest is one of the newest, most advanced VR contraptions on the market and it is a world away from the one he originally purchased (the one with the bunnies.) The Oculus Quest is sold out absolutely everywhere, but he just kept checking the website, I guess, and one day he got lucky. The old VR thing had a cord that had to connect to the TV and those derpy wands; the Oculus Quest is wireless and the derpy wands have been replaced with sleek controllers you hold in both hands. The headset is light and …
Y’all, I spend at least two hours a day on that thing. At least. I love it. I’m obsessed! When I finish this post, I’m going to go into the living room and put it on and play Beat Saber until I’m positively dripping with sweat.
Beat Saber is consistently ranked as the best game made so far in the VR genre. You put on the headset and suddenly you are basically in Tron. It’s not Tron, but it is this digital world — a very beautiful one, with moving set pieces and gradually changing colors and pretty, glowy things far up over your head. And suddenly you have a light saber in each hand — a light saber! — and then the music starts and it’s dancey music that (mostly) isn’t lame, and then these glowing blocks fly at you and you have to hit them before they hit you!
I’m telling you, it really, really feels like you have light sabers, because the VR thing works visually but it’s haptic, too, so when you cross your light sabers over your head, the real-life controllers in your hands actually buzz and give resistance, like you’re crossing the streams of two light sabers! I don’t know what that would actually feel like because light sabers are not real, but they feel so real in the game and it’s just amazing. It’s really amazing.
I am getting very, very good at Beat Saber. In the past month and a half, I have moved up the ranks. I went from playing games at the “Easy” level to the “Normal” level. Then I mastered all the “Hard” levels. Now I’m crushing the “Expert” levels. The final level is “Expert+” and I’ve got my work cut out for me. The higher the levels, the faster the glowing blocks fly at your head and in Expert+, they go fast enough to make me laugh. It looks impossible. But when my faith flags, I like to think of Serena Williams and how she practices every day and she perseveres and she’s one of the best tennis players to ever play the game. And I pick up my sabers and I hit glowing bricks. Hard.
Thank you for reading about how I got married and also about how I play video games, now. “I am the one who” never thought I’d do either of those things again, ever, but here we are.
This is the 15th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
There are legions of people I admire — frontline healthcare workers come to mind — but I think we could all use a little more Babs right now, am I right? Much to my delight (though not at all to my surprise), the lady has been awfully popular around here.
However much her personality has chafed certain people over the years, I suspect Babs has been popular her whole life. I say this because of the pictures of her I’ve seen from her young adulthood looking achingly pretty in expensive dressed, and also something that happened at the building Christmas party.
First, you need to know that Babs has a great laugh, partly because she doesn’t laugh very often, not outright. Hers is a dry, acerbic sense of humor, so she’s generally the one making the joke, or the one pointing out the obvious. Babs is droll. She does not chortle; she would die before she’d ever guffaw. She’s more likely to simply acknowledge when something is objectively amusing. When she does laugh, however, out comes this surprising glissando laugh: “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” It’s musical. It goes up and down the scale. It’s the sound of pure mirth.
I discovered this laugh when I was over at her place one evening, obviously drinking wine. Babs was in an elegant pantsuit, freshly manicured, dishing about the condo board. She was trying to remember the name of the person who had most recently annoyed her.
“Oh, oh, wait,” I said, “is it the lady who always looks like this?” I squinted my eyes, furrowed my brow, and wrinkled my nose like I was smelling smelly garbage and said in a nasal voice, “Oh, hi Mary. How arrrre you?”
Babs opened her mouth and out came that laugh. She didn’t throw her head back, she didn’t lean forward. She just pushed play on that “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” music. She was delighted at my impression and I detected she was also impressed at my ability as a mimic. It felt a bit mean, poking fun at our neighbor, but I confess that I basked, just a tiny bit, in Babs’s approval.
Back to the Christmas party:
That night, I was feeling puffy. You know how you just feel puffy, sometimes? I put on a black dress that usually works, but I was just so puffy and my cheeks were blotchy and I had a blemish. I also have agonizing social anxiety, but it’s extra bad when I’m in large groups of people with whom I wish to make a good impression. But there was no getting around it: Making an appearance at this function — especially as the building’s newest resident – was essentially mandatory. I groaned and took my puffy self up to the seventh floor dragging Eric, who is even less enthused about these sorts of things than I am. He could stay 10 minutes and dip, I said; I’ll take one for the team and make the rounds.
In the host’s apartment on the seventh floor (a three-settee living room), people were milling about. There was a shrimp platter and finger sandwiches; there was focaccia; there were pinots blanc and noir and a basket of chocolate-dipped snacks. I took a deep breath and introduced myself to this and that person as I made my way from room to room, checking my teeth a zillion times for kiwi seeds and/or lipstick as I told people that I work in the quilt industry, yes, that’s right, yes, quilting, like quilts, for the bed, but there are other kinds also, and I’m the editor of the bestselling quilt magazine, yes, there is more than one quilt magazine, the quilt industry, yes there’s a quilt industry, is valued around 3.5 billion and you know, online dating is worth just 3 billion … I was getting more exhausted by the minute because being obsessed with the state of one’s teeth and explaining what I do takes effort when I’m meeting a new person, but it takes true endurance to meet so many new people I have to explain it six or seven times in two hours.
Finally, I spied Babs. She was perched on a settee (!) in the living room, holding court. When she saw me, she lit up and waved me over.
“Mary, I have to talk to you,” she said. I sat down, thrilled to be off-duty. It was this conversation that led me to concur that Babs has doubtless always been one of the popular girls and, though I cringe to say so, probably one of the mean girls from time to time. It was how she put a hand on my shoulder and turned us just slightly away from the crowd to basically whisper gossip in my ear. I was instantly uncomfortable with this, party because I have been present at parties where I was the one being whispered about and it’s such an awful experience, but — far more critically — I did not want to be cast as a scuttlebutt at this, my building debut.
Then Babs pulled me in. It was like Babs a tractor beam. She mentioned the neighbor I had done the impression of a few weeks back and again couldn’t remember her name. Before I knew it, I wrinkled my nose and said under my breath, “Oh hi, Mary” and out it came: “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” The laugh of the most popular — and potentially most resented — girl at the party rose above the sounds of the crowd and there I was, in cahoots with Babs.
I do adore her. I do admire her, but I don’t like to be in cahoots with anyone. I’m not a cahooter.
Oh, my dearlings! These blog entries keep getting longer and longer. I’ll finish up with Babs next time. I’m afraid that if I keep writing novels here in PaperGirl 2.0 I’ll lose folks, not because the content is bad (I’m enjoying writing to you more than ever, which I hope comes through) but because we are on the internet and when we’re in the strange, wide saddle of the internet, attention tends to slide off. It happens to us all, even Babs, who I know does a little online shopping from time to time.
The pandemic has brought its gifts, however ruinous and deadly it continues to be: Babs and I have become closer than ever in the past month. There’s no cahooting, either; just aid, affection … and phone conversations about Governor Cuomo:
“Oh, that Cuomo is just divine,” Babs said. “I wouldn’t mind snuggling up to him on a cold night.”
This is the 14th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
Since schools are closed, and I belong to the extremely fortunate demographic who doesn’t have to go “to” or “from” work right now, if I don’t take things in a different direction with this particular prompt, I won’t have much to say and we’ll all just be sitting around looking at each other until one of us starts crying or we start another card game, or we both start crying because we’re starting yet another card game.
I can’t let that happen, so I’m going to tell you about my favorite neighbor, Babs.*
Since Babs is the grandest of all the dames; since Babs is a force of nature; since Babs is the walking embodiment of a Babs in all the ways a Babs could possibly be, I can’t just dropBabs on you. I can’t just launch into Babs. One must be ready for a person like this; one must be prepared. Thus, I shall provide a bit of context, first.
One year ago this month, I collected all my belongings and moved them 2.5 miles to the north. I left Chicago’s scrappy, youthful, grimy-in-a-good-way South Loop for her crusty, gorgeous, fusty-in-a-good-way Gold Coast. It took fortitude; there were sacrifices. I went from having 1500 square feet of space down to 900; in the South Loop, I paid a wince-inducing HOA monthly assessment, but the assessment for this place is almost nauseating, especially with the mortgage on top of that; and if you asked me how much paint was peeling off the walls in my previous apartment, I would have said “none”, but if you ask me how much paint is peeling off the walls in this one, I will say “so much.”
So what. The place is half the size and needs significant work. But when you’ve got crown molding, parquet wood floors, bookshelves built right into the walls, and the original 1920 elevator with Art Deco brass details, you almost feel like keeping those paint chips in a pretty box on the mantle. (There’s a mantle.) And hey, when I scribble my signature on my check to pay the bills each month, I get to see my name on that check with my new address on it, and that helps me stop weeping long enough to tear the check off the pad and get it into the envelope.
In July, Eric moved here from Seattle. One day we decided to go for a walk.
“Most of the people in this building seem like they’re … older,” Eric said.
We stepped aside for Gordon (day doorman extraordinaire) to let in Mr. and Mrs. Ackerman, which took awhile. Outside, a man in a sweater vest with his socks pulled up was poking at a flower bed with his cane. He waved.
We waved back and Eric, who is 42, said, “Are we the youngest people in this building?”
It’s true: Most of the people who live in our vintage building might also be described as “vintage.” I won’t put my foot in my mouth and suggest a median age, but I will say that when there’s a notice on the desk in the lobby about a board meeting or a maintenance issue, the font is very large. This, to me, is an ideal living situation. People of a certain age rarely feel like putting on heavy boots and running back and forth on the floor above me; neither do they tend to listen to music loudly. If they do decide to listen to music loudly, it’s only every five years or so, and in this building you’re going to get Duke Ellington or Connie Francis or Beethoven if the person is brooding. Could be worse, right?
Eric wasn’t quite right about us being the youngest people who live here, though; down the hall on our same floor there’s a thirty-something couple and they are the youngest people here. Caitlin is literally a professional brain surgeon, which I think we can all agree is the best kind of brain surgeon. Her slightly younger French husband, Jean Luc, is a professional brain scientist, so these two are a good match. They got married in October. We had a little wine and cheese party up on the room last summer and Caitlin and I had more wine than cheese and it was fun because they are very nice people.
There are four apartments on each floor, and Lorraine and Alan live in the one directly across from us. Alan has been a university professor for absolute ages, and Lorraine bakes when she’s stressed.
“Mary, I’ve been stress-baking.”
We were chatting on the phone the first week of the official shelter-in-place order here in Chicago, which was somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago.
“Tell me about it,” I said, scraping cookie batter off the sides of a mixing bowl.
Lorraine sighed and said the least she could do was leave some goodies at our front door. I told her she didn’t have to do that and she said oh it’s no problem, and I said stay safe and she said you too, Mary, and say hi to Eric. When I opened the door, I was super happy to find two fat banana-walnut muffins, which Lorraine stress-bakes in mini-bundt cake pans. They are so moist you have to eat them right away or they’ll go bad. The muffins were, as always, tucked inside a small gift bag with ribbon handles. It’s safe to say Lorraine has a big box of small gift bags with ribbon handles in the hall closet at all times, because you never know.
Well, I guess that’s it for my neighbors. An interesting group, right? I’m so grateful we landed on such a good floor with —
Sorry, what’s that? Oh, did I say there are four apartments on each floor of our building? Huh, that’s funny … who am I leaving out? Who could be — ohhh. That’s right. How could I forget … Babs.
The first thing to know about Babs is that I adore her. The second thing to know is that she is infamous around here on account of her rather mercurial personality. One doesn’t “meet” Babs as much as experience her, and lots of residents have had the Babs Experience because she has lived in this building for more than 30 years.
Babs is probably in her seventies, but it’s hard to say. For one thing, a lady never tells her age; for another thing, I have heard from several sources that she is heir to a kitty litter fortune and as such, has long been able to afford all manner of expensive creams, salves, and tinctures, so the woman could be a very well-preserved 90 for all I know. She wears French perfume and I’ve never seen her without lipstick.
The woman probably weighs 90 pounds soaking wet, but Babs would hate being soaking wet: It would ruin her hair! Her hair is a shimmery shade of light blonde appropriate for her age but let’s not ignore the fact that she is maintainingblonde and of course it’s always perfectly set, combed, and coiffed. Babs wears big, round dark sunglasses when she goes out and sometimes when she goes in: She waltzed into a condo board meeting once — fashionably late, of course — and kept her sunglasses on the whole time. She did remove her fur stole, however. I don’t know what animal sacrificed itself for Bab’s stole, but whatever it was, it was very soft and shiny. Babs didn’t say a thing the entire meeting and still managed to hold court; I could tell she was glowering at a couple people across the room who had somehow annoyed her. Believe me: It’s a rotating cast.
Babs has lived in Chicago all her life. When she was 16, she had a real-life coming out party. I’ve seen the pictures. She was a vision in silk gloves and the prettiest dress you’ve ever seen. Later, she ran her own boutique on Michigan Avenue. She’s buried two husbands and has lived alone for a lot of years at this point. I can’t recall just how long. A long time.
Babs is a voracious and extremely selective drinker of white wine. Sometimes she has to call our building’s maintenance man to help her get a cork out. This call occasionally comes around two or three in the afternoon.
Babs is a voracious and extremely selective reader, too. Her library is wall to wall books, all neatly lined up on the wide shelves. It perhaps needs not be said that Babs’s apartment — larger than our fixer upper by a factor of two at least — perhaps led to the very creation of the term “tastefully appointed”. At this point I’m betting you can guess with great accuracy what Babs’s place looks like, right? Right: damask drapes with silk tie-back cords; crystal candy dishes; lacquered wood furniture; still life paintings large and small; striped wallpaper; various platters. There is no dust anywhere, on anything because Babs has a maid that comes every week. There’s a sitting room and a dining room and — oh, you get the idea. The difference between the apartment Eric and I are quarantined in and the one just down the hall is the difference between The Little Match Girl and the Queen of England; extra matches, extra pearls.
Since this post is plenty long enough and there are card games we all have to get to, I’ll tell you more about Babs in the next post. But I cannot resist sharing one of many Babs gems before I go:
Five or six months ago, Babs invited me over for a glass of wine. It had become a kind of a regular thing at that point and I knew to drink slowly because every time I had ever said, “Oh, Babs, I think I’ve had enough for tonight,” she’d pooh-pooh me and take my glass into the kitchen for “just a little splash.”
That night, I was doing what I often do when I hang out with Babs, which is ask her a million questions about her life. Wouldn’t you? She’s as fascinating a person as I’ve ever met, and she also happens to be hilarious.
“Babs,” I said, knowing that at this point I can ask her anything, “Tell me about your husbands. Were you happily married?”
Babs gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “Oh, they were lovely men. I loved them, sure. But sweetie, I was terrible at being married.”
“I was always screwing around!”
[Babs and I will be back soon. Stay safe, everyone.]
*All names in this post have been changed, but none are as perfectly suited to the person described as “Babs”.
This is the 13th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
It’s Saturday night. The weather is perfect and you’re getting ready to go out to dinner.
There have been and will be nights in your life when you’d give anything to stay home and eat leftovers, but tonight is not one of those nights. No way. You’ve been looking forward to tonight all week. Maybe you’re meeting friends you haven’t seen in ages. Maybe your favorite cousin is in town. Maybe you’ve got a hot date — but like, a really hot one. Whoever it is you’ll be with at the restaurant about an hour from now, picturing their face(s) make you smile.
You get to choose who you’re meeting; this is as much your time machine as it is mine.
You feel gorgeous. You just do. When you look in the mirror, you like what you see. “Not bad,” you say to yourself, and you make a mental note to continue to drink more water because man, your skin looks good. You lean over the sink and do your eye makeup. Or maybe eye makeup isn’t your jam and you’re just rubbing out crusties. (Remember, these details are totally up to you.)
In the middle of doing whatever it is you’re doing there at the mirror, you remember the funny video someone sent you today, or that really good — omg so bad!! — joke your friend told you, or maybe you’re just caught up in how good you feel, but you laugh enough that you have to stop poking around your eye area for a moment. You eventually recover. All right, all right, you say; enough. No time for dilly-dallying. As you finish your maquillage, you think how for a second there you were like a kid giggling in class and also the teacher who told that kid to get back to work. This observation amuses you, and because it does, subconsciously your heart feels tender toward yourself, and this is how we ought to feel toward ourselves all the time but rarely do.
Before you leave the bathroom, you pause to appreciate your sink. It is sparkling clean. In fact, the whole house is clean. You’re clean, too, because you took a nice long shower. God, you love your soaps right now. The body wash and the shampoo and the conditioner, finally. One last check in the mirror confirms it: You are having a great hair day. Maybe the best hair day. Your hair looks amazing.
It isn’t until after you slip into your clothes that you realize you have just slipped into your clothes. Who does that, you think, but you do not question what has just occurred.
You walk to the closet to get your shoes. They are right where they should be. Let me be clear: You do not have to dig for your shoes. You do not yet know that you will have the best filet mignon/lobster bisque/mushroom risotto/crispy duck/endive salad/chocolate soufflé/raspberry panna cotta/warm bowl of tiny cookies of your entire life tonight, so, between getting to lean back in your chair at the restaurant later to clasp your hand to your breast and groan with pleasure at what is happening in your mouth and not having to dig for your shoes, should nothing else go right tonight, the evening would stand as an unqualified success.
Your phone buzzes: Your Uber will be here in five minutes. Perfect.
Ladies, you have a new purse. It has all the right pockets in all the right places. This perfect purse is about to become your favorite purse. You will fully wear out this purse over the next year or two because it is perfect. When it finally dies, you will spend as long you had the purse lamenting that you cannot find a purse as good as the purse you had that one time. “That one time” is now, and you and your purse have only just begun life together. This purse is not scuffed or marred; there is no open tube of lipstick currently bouncing around in the bottom of it. There are no straw wrappers, either. You grab your jacket/wrap/topcoat/shawl and you go out the door. You get into your Uber and your driver is kindly fellow, so when he says that you look nice, it’s not creepy. It’s great.
The kindly driver drops you off at the restaurant and you go inside.
The place is packed. There’s a throng of people in the vestibule; everyone’s chatting and working their way up to the hostess station to check in or ask if there are tables available. No tables right now, the hostess says, and she apologizes that the wait is over an hour. This is no problem because you have a reservation and wasn’t that smart! You are smart. You notice that the people who don’t have a reservation seem strangely okay with this because they are having a great night, too. The mood is convivial; the mood is good. The lights are low and everyone looks great.
Everyone looks healthy.
Behind the bar, the bartenders are barely keeping up but they are keeping up; later, they’ll high five each other and whistle as they count their tips. They raked it in tonight, boy, so they all do a shot and they say it really is a great gig and everyone gets home safe after the manager finally locks up for the night. One waiter and one bartender finally admit they’re falling in love.
In a few minutes, your friends/cousin/hot date will arrive and the hostess will take you to your table. You’ll maneuver through the dining room as waiters whisk past with trays and busboys pour water from green glass bottles. You’ll see a sommelier presenting a wine list and a maitre’d putting a napkin in a lady’s lap. You and your dinner companion(s) are seated. The conversation, the food, the tone, the spark, the learning, the surprise, the pleasantness, the force, the humanity — you’ll all have it all within minutes.
But right now, you’re one in that throng of healthy people waiting for tables. There are dozens of different conversations and you hear bits of this one and that one. People are smiling and laughing. There are pats on the back; in a corner, a couple steals a kiss. Someone comes in from the bar, sees his friend and when they greet each other, they hug. There are light touches on shoulders as people lean in to hear each other better. No one notices this physical symphony; it’s no more and no less than life itself. It’s life on a Saturday night.
Months later, a plague comes and steals these kinds of nights. They are gone for a long time.
As you sit in your home now, there’s no need to find your shoes. There are no reservations. You are not so far from people, but everyone is separated. You can’t touch anyone and you can’t see anyone. You’d give anything to see them. If you could go anywhere in a time machine, you’d go back and get ready, just like you did, to go to that restaurant and be jostled among the dinner crowd, waiting for your table on a Saturday night.
This is the 12th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
Rental car returned, I got a taxi back to my hotel at the Bellagio. The cabbie had the radio on and it brought bad news about the virus and the markets, and there was reporting about President Trump’s announcement the night before of an E.U. travel ban. My stomach was tight. The president wouldn’t just suddenly ground all domestic flights, I told myself; it would be disastrous to displace people under such circumstances. But what if the circumstance is a global pandemic and a stock market crash? What if, for reasons of contagion or economics, great chunks of domestic flights were about to be cancelled or significantly delayed? Forget Mexico: By the time we turned onto the Strip I was trying to calculate how to get the hell out of Las Vegas, and soon. Being in an unfamiliar city in the middle of the desert with two suitcases of dirty laundry and no husband? The back of my neck was clammy.
I called Eric. It went to voicemail.
Adding to the stress of all this was that my man had just spent some eight or nine days in the San Francisco/Oakland area. This was sub-optimal. The virus had been loose in the Bay Area for weeks, they said, and you may recall that when one of the first cruise ships full of infected people was finally allowed to come into port, it docked in San Francisco. Eric actually — albeit accidentally — saw the ship as it came in.
He picked up when I called back, but my relief was short-lived. It was time to cancel Mexico, I said. Too much had changed in the past 24 hours. To my astonishment, he vacillated. We’d be fine, he said, and if the situation was escalating, all the more reason complete our mission. You’re crazy, I said; did he really think leaving the country in an escalating situation was a good idea? We have time, he said. We do not, I said. Fine, he said. Fine, I said, but I didn’t appreciate his tone (always a great choice of words in an argument.) So … now what? He should come to Vegas so we could leave for Chicago, together, first thing in the morning. No, he should come to Vegas and we leave tonight. If there weren’t flights to Vegas tonight, maybe I ought to fly to San Francisco and we get a red-eye home. No, no, he should just fly to Chicago and I should fly … Wait, where the hell are we? Where are you? Where are you?
I want to pause here for a moment and make it clear — especially to those who think my fears were irrational to begin with — that I was not having a panic attack. I have had two actual panic attacks in my day and I was as far from one of those as I was from my front door. I wasn’t panicking. I was simply enduring the mounting tension that was beginning to give the atmosphere a personality and I did not trust that personality. I wasn’t shaking, I didn’t feel like crying; it just felt like every moment counted. It felt like every move I made had to be smart if I was going to stay one step ahead of all this.
We decided Eric would fly directly to Chicago, and so would I. We had to get home before things changed again. I opened the Southwest app on my phone. There was a flight out of Vegas to Chicago at 4:20 p.m.
It was ten to three.
This gave me just 30 minutes to pack, check-out, and get back to the airport.
When the cab pulled up to the Bellagio and the valet opened my door, it was all I could do not to run straight into the hotel, and sprint through the din of the cavernous casino to the bank of elevators. But I didn’t run. I walked.
This wasn’t an amble, mind you. I didn’t have time for amble. But I forced myself to sort of … glide. Yes, the clock was ticking, but a grown woman running through a public place — especially a busy hotel — would attract attention and surely, surely, I thought, everyone else had been listening to the news and were as tense as I was. It takes one person to yell “Fire!” in a theater to cause a stampede for the door, and this was precisely what I was trying to avoid. I put a placid look on my face and smiled when I greeted the elevator attendant. The doors closed. The car went up. When the doors opened again and I saw no one waiting for the elevator, I shot out like someone had fired a starting gun and whipped down the long hallways to my room.
Folks, I’ve never packed so fast in my life. Normally, I am organized to the point of being neurotic when I pack a suitcase. There’s a place for everything and everything goes into its place. A well-organized suitcase makes for a well-organized mind which makes for a well-organized trip, that’s what I say — it’s practically science! But that afternoonI did my best Tasmanian Devil, flinging things in as quickly as I could: Panties, boots, loose toiletries (pure agony), sneakers, books, notepads, nightgowns — this kind of packing job would’ve been physically painful if I had time to think about it.
The heavy door to my room shut behind me and I headed back down to the lobby. With two suitcases, it was even more important that I remain calm as I made my way back to the taxi line. I marveled at all the people at the slot machines, the craps tables, the bars, the restaurants, drinking their double vodkas as dealers dealt poker hands. I had visions of announcements over the loudspeaker, of shouts and crowds rushing to get out the door. Was this what foresight felt like? Was I leaving just in time to escape pandemonium and take one of the last on-time flights out of Vegas?
However in free-fall the airline industry might be, even after all that’s happened and all that’s still to come, domestic flights still haven’t been grounded. There was plenty of time for me to get home from Vegas and plenty of time for Eric to get out of California. But that’s not what it felt like the second time I went to the airport 20 days ago. That afternoon, I felt like a mouse being chased by a cat, and in the nick of time, I had slipped through a hole to safety.
The hole is quarantine. And we’ve been here ever since.
This is the 11th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
On Thursday, March 12th, I went to the Las Vegas Airport — twice.
The first time, it was early afternoon. After a 10-day trip to Nevada, the time had come for the Quiltfolk girls to head home. One of them would fly to Denver, the other to Chicago.
Me, I wouldn’t leave till morning. Since Eric was in San Francisco at the time, we decided it made more sense for him to meet me in Vegas that evening and we’d fly to Mexico the next day. Though it would’ve been nice to swap out some of my travel clothes and get the mail, to go all the way back to Chicago only to turn around and head back west would only add more travel time. Plus, it was giving me a great deal of pleasure to practice saying the sentence, “Well, last week I was in Reno, then I flew to Vegas, then I flew to Cabo.” It sounded ridiculous and I suppose it still does.
So I’m driving to the airport that afternoon, and to describe the mood as “tense” doesn’t quite cover it. The team had gotten along great, we met extraordinary people, and we did solid work; the team was not the problem. The problem was that things in the world were starting to get very weird. Nevada is a large state, and as we drove across, up, and down it, we listened to the radio. We weren’t glued to it the whole time, but we were tuned in when the stock market lost 2,000 points in a matter of hours. We were tuned in when the NBA cancelled the season. We were listening when Italy went on total lockdown and we were among the first to learn that the WHO had officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
It was interesting to gauge the levels of alarm in the car: One of us was more or less unconcerned and felt everyone was getting too worked up; another of us was disturbed by the news but was taking a “let’s wait and see” approach, though she was becoming quieter by the hour.
As for me, I was gripping the steering wheel so hard my knuckles were white. I was trying to relax my jaw and trying not to make it worse by saying what was on my mind.
“This is not good,” I said, failing at that. “This is bad, you guys. This is very bad.”
When we spied a Wal-Mart just before getting on the interstate, I suggested we try one last time to find some hand-sanitizer. Without exception, every place we had stopped on our 10-day trip — and I mean every gas station, grocery store, convenience store, big box store like Target and Wal-Mart across the entire state of Nevada in towns big and small — that stuff was gone. Not one place had it in stock. It was unnerving, but now that the girls were headed into McCarran International Airport, into throngs of germy travelers from all corners of the world, going in without any tool of the bacteria-killing agent kind felt straight-up dangerous. But we found no hand-sanitizer at that last Wal-Mart, either. What we did find were entire shelves empty of cleaning supplies, toilet paper, paper towels, pasta, diapers, all of that stuff that by now, we’re all used to not seeing. But that Las Vegas Wal-Mart was the first place the three of us saw it, and I suspect our stomaches all dropped in sync. We headed back to the parking lot and got in the car.
I doubted the girls noticed that I was holding my breath the entire ride to the airport, but we all noticed after awhile that I had being driving the wrong direction for about 10 miles. We turned around — and then I missed my exit. I shook my head and forced myself to focus, but with the bad news streaming out of the radio, it took a great deal of effort. Something that had felt like it was slowly descending over the past week had officially pierced the ozone. Through no fault of their own, much of the information radio and TV news anchors announce is of marginal importance to most people; these last few days of our trip, there was an unmistakable edge to their voices that I hadn’t heard since 9/11. There’s no other way to say it: I was frightened. By the time we finally pulled up to the airport drop-off curb, no one was talking.
Now, at some point on the trip I had picked up a tube of Clorox wipes. “Let’s divvy these up,” I said, and we found a couple plastic bags. I pulled out the wet fabric and tore off portions for each of us. “Wipe down your seat,” I told them, “and your tray table and … Just wipe down everything, okay?” We all hugged goodbye and said “be safe” and “text when you get home” and “good luck”.
In the five or so minutes it took me to get to the rental car garage, three things became absolutely clear:
I had to call Eric, because there was nowhere I’d rather be in the entire universe than with him at that moment.
We were definitely not going to Mexico.
People were going to die.
In the next installment, I’ll tell you about the second trip to the airport. Stay safe, everyone.
This is the 10th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
Let’s get granular here: My first memory of all this, the moment when the coronavirus got real before the world became unrecognizable, was the day Eric and I booked two tickets to Mexico.
We had been reading about the outbreak in China. Week after week, more and more people were on a mandated lockdown and of course that seemed crazy. We saw the videos of quarantined people in Wuhan waving and singing to each other from their balconies, and though these types of videos have since been faked, those first videos were real. The videos, images, the trickle of news stories, and the firsthand reports were all evidence that yeah, it was crazy: There was a disease on the other side of the world that was so contagious and threatening to the way of life in China, the government wouldn’t let people go outside.
But that was still the beginning of it all, and it did seem far away. (And we figured the Chinese government was probably seizing the opportunity to surveil its citizens for other reasons, right?) Besides, our lives hadn’t been particularly affected by the H1N1, SARS, or Mad Cow outbreaks, so there was no need to get too worked up. Our ambivalence was a luxury; a lot of people died in those outbreaks. But who could blame us for more or less shrugging off the occasional, ultimately contained outbreak? There’s a baseline belief that America will always shield us from widespread contagion so we can go about our lives. Everyone has real worry — the mortgage is late, the kid is sick, the job is lost — but contracting deathly diseases from birds or pigs or rats or bats? Not here, and thank God.
The virus kept spreading, though, and quickly. A writer we like a lot who posts well-researched, thoughtful longreads on timely topics posted a piece about an encroaching problem due to the scale of this new virus. He was concerned about a disruption in the supply chain; specifically, the pharmaceutical one. As many of you have read (or knew already), much of the medicine we have in the U.S. is manufactured in China. Eric has chronic asthma and uses an inhaler regularly; I take several medications every morning to help out my guts and my brain. Everyone needs antibiotics at some point, and though its impossible to say the word “painkiller” without immediately being pegged as an opioid abuser, it is incontrovertibly true that there are times in our lives — hopefully very few — when we have blinding pain that Tylenol can’t touch. In other words, if these and other medicines we don’t (yet) need were not available, it would be bad.
Jokingly, Eric said, “Maybe we should go to Mexico and stock up on some of this stuff.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, right.”
But he brought it up again the next day and this time he seemed serious.
I looked at him like he had come into the room dressed as a flamingo. To begin with, it sounded just slightly illegal. It was surprising to me that Eric would suggest breaking the law; the only crime my husband has ever committed was stealing my heart — hey-o! I told him I did not particularly to go to federal prison for international drug trafficking, dear, and furthermore, taking medicine sourced from who-knows-where seemed unwise at best. Yes, if the article we read was right and the coronavirus would soon take down the manufacture and importation of critical pharmaceuticals from China, it would be wise to have a well-stocked medicine cabinet, and if it were legal and safe to go to Mexico and load up on reinforcements for ourselves and others who might need medicine in an emergency, I’d buy the tickets myself.
Several days later, we had Southwest confirmation numbers. In about two weeks, we would be on a flight from Las Vegas* to San Jose del Cabo.
What Eric already knew I learned through hours of research online. It is in fact legal for a person to purchase a three months’ supply of most (not all) prescription medications in Mexico. As long as it’s for “personal use” as legally defined, you are allowed to buy medicine and bring it home. Apparently, a whole lot of non-shady people do this on a regular basis. Certain drugs in the States that are astonishingly expensive can be purchased in other countries at a fraction of the cost and many of them are easier to get, anyway. Well, okay, I thought, but it still sounded like something out of Breaking Bad. How could a person be sure the medicine was safe?
On this topic, there were several things to consider. For one thing, my assumption that prescription drugs in Mexico weren’t safe was full-on prejudiced. Yeah, there are places in Mexico that are essentially lawless and should be avoided at all costs: Juarez, with its murderous gangs and pitch black market, is considered one of the most dangerous places in the entire world and a good deal of other border towns aren’t much nicer. But Mexico just happens to have other things going on, Mary Fons, as the good people of Oaxaca, Mexico City, and Cartagena, for example, will (icily) inform you. There are grocery stores, schools, theaters — and pharmacies — in Mexico, just there are here in good ol’ ‘Merica. Any boob that crosses into Tijuana at the end of a long night of partying and hits up the first farmacia they find to score Xanax (or whatever) is absolutely at risk of being fleeced for meds that are probably nothing more than sugar pills. But the vast majority of Mexicans are like the vast majority of Americans: People who need medicine when they’re sick. Frankly, I was ashamed that I had painted an entire country with such a broad brush; if nothing else came of all this, uncovering that gross bias was important.
So tickets were purchased. We’d be staying in San Jose del Cabo, a mid-sized city where people live and work. We wouldn’t be stepping a toe in Cabo San Lucas, aka Spring Break Cabo, where college kids guzzle buckets of rum from plastic cups and swim in STIs when they’re not swimming in the ocean. We’d be in the city three days and three nights, and I set about looking for a hotel. As I clicked through our options, my anxiety began to give way to excitement. There were really pretty hotels down there and it suddenly dwned on me that for the first time in my entire life, I had the opportunity to get acquainted with wildly exotic words like “lounge” and “poolside” and “deck chair” — in the middle of a Chicago winter. Beyond that, by the time the trip rolled around, I would be done with a three-month work marathon that included writing, editing, and going to press for Quiltfolk’s South Carolina issue (which ships to subscribers this week and is freakin’ gorgeous); debuting two new lectures at QuiltCon; planning Quiltfolk Nevada (!) and traveling for 11 days straight to get the content. No one is entitled to a vacation but … okay, I felt entitled to a damn vacation, even if it involved a mission that still made me feel like I might be called to the principal’s office.
But Eric and I never got to Cabo. A matter of hours before we were to leave, we aborted the trip. In the next installment, I’ll share the rather dramatic story of how that went down; we are all painfully aware of the reasons why it did.
This is the 9th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
I can stay home.
You can stay home, too, and you have to try the best you can to do that for as long as you can. We just have to stay home, all of us, today and for … we don’t know how long.
We must stay home because self-quarantining will slow the spread of the virus and that will give doctors and nurses more time to handle all the patients that are flooding into the hospitals, many of which are now setting up tents in parking garages. Please, please, please, PaperGirl readers and friends: Stay home.
My personal resolve to stay home for as long as I have to is made easier by my life circumstances. I have no illusions about that. Running water, functioning radiators, a fabric stash, and a wi-fi equipped laptop are extravagant luxuries compared to what many people within this city have to comfort them should they choose to self-quarantine. Millions of our fellow human beings in developing countries — humans every bit as susceptible to the virus as any of us — have far less still. Donating to the World Heath Organization and local food banks, which I did this morning and plan to do again, as much as I can, is one way I can help those less fortunate than I am, people for whom a decision to stay home for a long period of time is simply not possible.
There is so much I can’t do. I still can’t get my head around this. I can’t know what’s coming. I can’t beg our president to beg our nation to do what I’m begging of you: Stay home. I can’t make a vaccine or a test kit. Chicago was the first city in the country to close all bars and restaurants as of midnight last night, so I can’t go with my friends to go to a bar and listen to a piano player who might make us all feel better even for a few hours.
But the Journal Buddies prompt wasn’t “I can’t … ” It was “I can … ”
Well, I can stay home and sew. I can stay home and dance to the new Lady Gaga song on repeat, like I did yesterday, until I was a sweaty mess. I can stay home and vacuum (again.) I can stay home and kiss my husband* and tell him how grateful I am for him, how he is a hero, a genius, and a wonderful husband with whom I fall more in love with every single day. I can stay home with him a long time, that’s for sure.
I can stay home and try to work, though that is very difficult. I can stay home and have a video dinner party with some friends, something that is going to happen tonight, Sophie tells me. I can stay home and call my elderly neighbor and email her funny videos, which she is really enjoying since we can’t see each other in person right now.
I can stay home and write in my journal. I can stay home and do push-ups. I can stay home and stay informed. I can stay home and take a break from the news, too. I can stay home and put my hand over my heart and close my eyes and be still.
And I can stay home and write to you, from here. And I will. Promise.
For more information on why staying home is of utmost importance, this is an incredibly clear, readable, rational, vetted, and official message from Stay Home Save Lives organization. Please read it and share it with everyone on all your social media platforms, through email, or call someone who doesn’t use the internet and read it to them. They’ll be glad to hear from you, anyway.
Now go into that glorious fabric stash of yours. Start sewing. Go on social media and show and tell the world what quilt you’re going to start or what UFO you’re going to deal with. I mean, come on. We all know you’ve got them. We’ve all got them. And now we’ve got time to stay home and embrace them. There’s a hashtag growing you should use: #StayHomeAndSew. Personally, I love it. Those happen to be four of my favorite words in the English language: Stay, Home, And, Sew.
Hey, I know the others are a little sexier, but “And” is a very important word. It’s a workhorse. It gets around. Really, “And” is almost important as “Sew”. Not quite as important as “Stay” and “Home”, but it’s pretty good.
Let’s do this together as we stay apart at home.
Mary + Pendennis
*I did! I got married! The announcement post is drafted and now I’m fine-tuning it. I found the person who has the same shape heart as me, finally. I didn’t have faith he existed, but he does, and he’s sitting right over there, and we are together, at home.
This is the 8th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
Because of my travel schedule, there’s no Sunday routine around here. No “sleep in ’till 10:00 a.m., blueberry pancakes at 11:00 a.m., then a sit-down with the Sunday paper until I’ve read it front to back” kind of deal. I get something going for a couple of weeks, but then I’m in Reno, or in San Jose, or I forget to grab the paper, or I can’t sleep in because I’ve never been able to sleep in.
Even still, if you aggregated all my Sundays over the past years and looked at them on a macro scale, we’d probably see a pattern of some kind, however unique my weekends might be.
You would definitely be able to say that there’s never been a Sunday like this one.
Today the atmosphere had a personality. The atmosphere should never have a personality, not on any day of the week. The air around us ought to be neutral, undetectable. The atmosphere should help facilitate our movements from day to day and that’s it. We should consider the atmosphere something that does not require much consideration.
But today we had no choice. I don’t know about you, but from the moment my eyes opened this morning after six hours of pointless sleep, I awoke to a different atmosphere. It was sitting on my chest, heavy and still. In the past days it has been drawing down, thick and bleak. I went to the kitchen to make tea and check what had happened overnight. I learned fellow Chicagoans were packed like lemmings into terminals at O’Hare, death rates in Italy are surging, and in Spain, citizens who leave the house must carry an official affidavit stating their business or face a penalty of fine or arrest.
I read and stirred my teaspoon around in my mug, and the atmosphere settled into a deep, wide chair to watch me as I became quieter and smaller. It’s watching us all right now as we do that. It has settled down on and around us all, watching us as we watch this.
It feels like the air does not have our best interests in mind. There’s too much weight to it, it’s not natural. The air is not moving the way it ought to. We’re stuck to our chairs, holding our breath.
Maybe it’s worse than that. Perhaps the atmosphere this Sunday was the way it’s supposed to be: neutral. But it’s too evil to be true. Neutrality or apathy in the face of calamity is the most terrifying thing of all.
Please, everyone, no matter what, as much as you can, I know it’s hard: Stay home.
This is the 7th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
The sea is good for seagulls. Sand is good for sandpipers. The beach is good for bunnies. But I am not a bunny, and I am not a bird. I am a human with mucous membranes, various cavities, and a pale, head-to-toe surface area that burns when subjected to prolonged daylight. I do not want sand squishing “between” anything, toes or otherwise.
In short, I do not like the beach.
But let’s not use this prompt to go on and on detailing why I have never understood or enjoyed something that a great majority of people love. Why ruin it for the rest of the otherwise perfectly sane, reasonable people who like to grease up their largest organ and sit half-buried the fine silt of ancient rocks, exposing themselves to the to the punishing light and heat coming from a ball of fire in the sky that in actuality is a dying star in the process of burning itself up, if that tells you anything — no, no. Rather than do that, especially with summer right around the corner let’s eavesdrop on the thoughts of the people in the above picture. Come with me, left to right, as we see what the squishing sand hath wrought.
Note: The picture was taken in 1975.
WOMAN WITH HER LEG UP
This Crisco isn’t doing anything. Sharon looked terrific the other night and she said she’d been “out all day with Crisco”, but I just don’t see the bronzing, at least not on my calves. My thighs look great. (She pokes her thigh.) I’ll give it another five. Gosh, I wonder what happened to Jimmy Hoffa. I’d buy a newspaper but they’re 10 cents, now. What am I, made of money? (Beat.) I’m really hot. Like, really hot. I need to flip, but I just … this Crisco … it’s so sticky. Crisco, Crisco. Wait, was Sharon talking about being out all day with Francisco? (She squints out at the horizon.) Who put that big building out there? I need to put my leg down. Maybe I’ll just take a little nap after I take another sip this dehydrating wine cooler … So … So tired all of a sudden …
Oh my god, I hate this. I hate this. I’m dying. The sun is burning me up. I’m going to die here. I’m going to die here, on Huntington Beach. (Mirthless laugh.) This is unbelievable. I’m going to burn up. I’m turning into a pork rind. I’m a physics professor and I’m turning into a pork rind. What’s wrong with me? Why didn’t I just say I was busy? The manuscript will be late. That’s real, now. I have less than three weeks, as of today. (She peers at MAN WITH HAT.) God, I hate that hat. It’s a child’s hat. It’s the hat of a small child. (Pause.) He should have asked me by now if I want to use it. Unbelievable.
MAN WITH HAT
Most offshore oil rigs are taller than the world’s biggest skyscrapers. Most people don’t know that. The first known offshore drilling occurred in Azerbaijan in the 19th century, and oil rigs are commonly referred to as “floating cities,” on account of all the workers living on them at any given time. Most people don’t know that, either. I’ll bet my date would love to hear everything I know about offshore drilling platforms. The sun is bright today. I’m so glad I brought my hat. I wonder what happened to Jimmy Hoffa.
FLAT WOMAN 1
(To FLAT WOMAN 2.) Karen? (No response.) Karen!
The horizon yields a shape mo’st strange. What mighty metal camel strides across the great and churning sea? Might the beast be a fearsome elephant, trunk raised to bellow a warning for all to —
THE KID’S MOM (Out of frame, right.)
Five minutes, Kevin. I won’t tell you again. We’re leaving in five minutes.
This is the 6th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
Two weeks ago, I unironically said,
“I need a one-way ticket to Boise.”
This is a sentence I had never said before. I’d never heard anyone say it. Anytime a sentence starts with — “I need a one-way ticket to” — perk up, because something interesting is about to happen. Usually, “one-way ticket to” sentences finish off with “Paris” or “Bahrain” or “Times Square!” (i.e., Hollywood places where Hollywood things happen.) But who cares! Everyone knows what happens when a person books a one-way ticket to Paris: They get lost in the rain trying to find the Eiffel Tower. Then they find it — just in time, of course. Then, the object of their affection just happens to be there, soaking wet, at the top of the thing. Then, One-Way-Ticket Person professes their love and they kiss as fake rain sprays their expensive eyebrows and roll credits.
But if a person is booking a one-way ticket that terminates in Boise, Idaho … I’m leaning in closer for that one. I have no idea how that one goes.
In my case, I needed a one-way ticket to Boise because I’m on the road for Quiltfolk magazine and the Boise airport was the closest airport to our first story location. Our first story location was barely over the Nevada state line, on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, where members of the Shoshone-Piaute Tribes live, work, and go to school. We rolled out at 6:30 a.m. and I drove us from Boise to the reservation, which took about 2.5 hours. Getting the (unsettling, unforgettable) story took about three hours. After we wrapped, we piled into the car and I drove 3.25 hours to the small town where I am right now, writing this. It’s a town about 2.5 hours from Reno … and we will roll out for Reno at 7:00 a.m. tomorrow morning.
My point is: It was a long day. But wasn’t the prompt for this post asking me about the most comfortable spot I can find?
The most comfortable spot I can find is this one. The spot I’m in right now, with you.
I am horizontal on the bed in my hotel room. It’s not a fancy hotel room; in fact, it’s worn and shabby. It’s also clean and safe. I am wrapped up in my robe, which I always bring on these trips, and I am cozy under the cashmere throw that I always bring on these trips and you might say, “Oh-ho-ho! Well! Roughing it, are we? Cashmereon theroad, Ms. Fons? Quelle horror!” but you must understand: I know what I’m doing. I have gigged for close to 20 years. I travel a lot, as many of you know, and there are simply a few things I need to keep the wheels on the bus. One of those things is my robe. Another one of those things is my cashmere blanket. I can’t remember the other things I need right now but none of them are as important — nor were they as expensive — as this luscious, raspberry beret-colored cashmere blanket.
It’s normal for me to want something I can’t have; it’s typical for me to wish something was different. Not now. I’m good. I’m grateful. Come on: I have a cashmere blanket and I got to say, “I need a one-way ticket to Boise”.
This is the 5th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
I’m pretty sure writing prompts don’t exist to force a person to “answer for X”, so I’m not going to describe what snow feels like.
I’d rather tell you about how it felt to look out the window of this new, old apartment about a month ago to see that snow had fallen through the night. I’d rather tell you that when I saw the snow on the trees and the courtyard and the roofs and stones, it was the first snow I’d seen since moving to this place, a place where I want live more than any place in the whole world, and I knew that the moment I saw a picture of this apartment, this exact one, and I don’t suppose I’ll ever want to live anywhere else in the world more than I want to live here. We all say “never” and “always” and “for the rest of my life” and those words don’t always mean much, but I can tell you that I only said “for the rest of my life” twice last year and I meant it both times and one of the times I said it, I said it about this place. I said, “I want to live here forever” and worked and worked and fought to make it real, and that morning, standing in the kitchen in my pajamas in the Gold Coast, in a kitchen that hasn’t been updated since 1965, with Geneva cupboards that have to be taken to an auto body shop to get repainted, next to a Magic Chef stove from the Pleistocene era; that morning, I knew my name, my address, I knew that I had found real love, and I knew that Chicago got two inches. I did not want, nor did I need, any other information. The moment was complete, and all I had to do was walk into the kitchen.
I don’t want to write about what snow feels like as much as I want to tell you how snow made me feel.
This is the 4th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
The joy of today is that I went to the gym and survived something called METCON3.
Until this summer, I hadn’t had a gym membership for 12 years.* I didn’t want or need one, because at some point in my early thirties, I discovered the joy of working out at home. It all started because the evil blonde sprite that trained Madonna for awhile put out a series of exercise DVDs, and it turned out that if I did those ghastly exercises faithfully at least four times a week, they would slim my shoulders and raise my butt. I’m serious. There was my butt, minding its own business, hanging out at one level and then I’d do the DVDs for a couple weeks and my butt would be raised up to the next level. With those DVDs, I had a next-level butt — and I didn’t have to leave the house to get it. I didn’t have to pack a gym bag or share a locker room with clammy strangers. I didn’t have to smell rubber flooring and, after I got the DVDs, it was free.
But there were lots of changes in the past year and one of the changes is that I joined a gym. My DVDs were worn out and I was getting real tired of the evil sprite. Besides, the closest gym in our neighborhood is an Equinox, and this was tempting.
Gyms and health clubs are a lot like coffee. At the base level, you’ve got your Sankas, your Folgers. These are affordable, serviceable brands that will supply your caffeine … but that’s about it. Then you’ve got your Dunkin’ Donuts-level coffee, which costs more, but it tastes a lot better and the cup has a logo on it. After that, you’ve got your Starbucks, and we all know that at a Starbucks, you have options. You can ask for alternative milks and usually get them. There are seasonal flavors and ceramic mugs available for purchase. The baristas write your name on your cup. It’s great.
It’s great until you get coffee at a place like Intelligentsia here in Chicago, or at a La Columbe, from Philly, or at Vivace in Seattle. Once you get a flat white or an Americano at a place like that, where they’re roasting the beans in the back and the baristas don’t make coffee so much as tend to it, and your beverage is so good you finally understand those coffee jerks who go on and on about “acidity” and “balance” and “tone” in a cup of damn coffee. Once you’ve tasted that kind of coffee from that sort of place — and paid a pretty penny for it, to be sure! — it’s kind of hard to go back to Sanka.
Equinox is the fancy kind of coffee. There are trainers there and they are all hot. There’s a sauna (also hot.) There are lots of fluffy towels and there is someone who folds them. To check in, you open the Equinox app on your phone and present the bar code to the person at the front desk. No big deal, except that above the bar code in big letters is your first name, so that when the (hot) front desk person scans you in, they’re able to say:
“Have a great workout, Mary!”
It’s weird but you’d like it, too. Equinox has a long list of desirable qualities, but what I like best are the classes. There are lots of classes you can take all throughout the week: spinning, barre, aquatics, yoga, and a variety of HIIT classes. “HITT” stands for “High Intensity Interval Training” and if you think any workout called “HITT” sounds like it would be aggressive and painful, you’d be right. Every class is different, but basically, you jump up and down, then you do push-ups, then you lift weights, then you want to cry, then you get back up and you jump up and down, then you lift weights, etc., etc., until you are released or literally dead.
METCON3 is a HIIT class. “MET” is short for “METABOLIC” and “CON” is short for “CONDITIONING” and — sorry for all that YELLING just now — the “3” is there because you do 10 different exercises (e.g., jumping up and down, lifting weights, crying, etc.) three times. Class is 50 minutes. Everyone has two fluffy towels at the start of class; at the end, we have sopping wet rags because of the sweat and the crying, which I think I mentioned.
METCON3 is as brutal — and effective — as it sounds. This week, I took that damned class three times. The joy of today is that I survived it. If there were a METCON4, my butt might just consider moving up to the next level.
This is the 3rd installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
I don’t feel embarrassed too often. I try to keep things in perspective, see, and you should too, if you want to live your life without experiencing “embarrassing” situations. The truth is, you can’t ever be truly, mortally embarrassed by something when being mortal is already humiliating.
So you had spinach between your front two teeth at the bar. You looked dumb and you totally blew it, no doubt about that. But an “Oh my God” moment is nothing in light of the fact that your taut, nubile body will eventually wither and sag and end up a tidy pile of brittle sticks. A ghastly prospect, indeed, and isn’t every man a prospector when he mines the mortal coil?
Perhaps you tooted at dinner.
You tooted at dinner and you were not alone; there were other people having dinner with you. That’s pretty embarrassing, but — and particularly in this case — you’ve got to consider the bigger picture, champ. You can’t be embarrassed by a toot when you consider the mortifying fact that the most special parts of our bodies, the bits that are used for procreation and recreation are located directly next to the part of our bodies that produces — I’m trying to put this delicately — toots. That proximity, that ridiculous … arrangement is ignominious, indeed. Who does that? Who thought that was a good idea? The best cure for embarrassment to accept how absurd everything is already. Recognize that, and you shall fear no sidewalk banana peel.
Speaking of sidewalks, I did something embarrassing the other day.
It was about 8:30 in the morning. I was walking down Michigan Avenue, headed to my office for a day of research, editing, and munching cashew nuts, which I enjoy, and which are better for me than potato chips, which I also enjoy.
It had rained the night before and then the temperature dropped, so the sidewalks were either wet or icy, depending on whether the building managers had salted. The sky was bright and I was feeling pretty good until I noticed something gross. Every 20 feet or so was a modest pile of salmon-colored rock salt dumped out on the sidewalk. The piles were about as large as what you could hold in your two hands cupped together, and they studded the sidewalk for several blocks.
The wet, pink rock salt smears looked exactly — and I do mean exactly — like city barf.
City barf is any barf you see in the city. You see a lot of it in Wrigleyville after a Cubs game. You see it at a lot of bus stops, unfortunately. Sometimes you see it on Michigan Avenue. No matter where it is, seeing city barf gives rise to mixed emotions, at least for me: total revulsion, pity, and an almost Proustian moment when you picture the barfer’s entire evening — nay, their entire life! — leading up to the moment when they barfed, right there on the ground, in front of God and everybody. Mind you, you do not dwell on any of this, it’s a lightning quick cycle: see the barf; have the emotions; never think of it again.
That morning, there was a man walking a few paces ahead of me. I knew he was thinking the same thing about the pink rock salt. I knew it. He was looking at it too, I was sure.
I sped up to pass him, and as I did, I remarked to him, confident that he would respond in the affirmative and the two of us would enjoy a fleeting sense of city kinship as we both walked to our offices — I said,
“It looks like barf, right?? Not a great choice!”
The man looked at me and he looked terrified. Forget kinship. He was confused, grossed out, and clearly alarmed that a seemingly normal-looking woman was loose in the city, conning strangers in broad daylight, throwing them off their game by saying the word “barf” in a sentence.
I gave a little, “Heh, heh, well … ” and just zoomed up the street. I even zipped through a very yellow light so that I wouldn’t get stuck at the crosswalk with him and we’d have to either acknowledge that I had said what I said — which was about vomit, let’s not forget — or we would not acknowledge it at all, which would be worse, at least for me.
Was I embarrassed? I guess. But isn’t it more embarrassing that we throw up in the first place?
This is the 2nd installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
Just show up to class.
After many years of being a student in university settings, workshops, various training courses, etc., I really do think that getting your butt in the seat, week after week, is a fail-safe way to successfully get through any kind of schooling. Strive for straight A’s if you like; aim high and still just get B’s; do the bare minimum and land C’s, even D’s — it’s all the same in the end, at least in terms of passing the course. Just remember: “If you come to class, you will pass.” (I’m pretty sure I just made that up.)
Can you get F’s on all your papers and tests and still pass if you show up to class? Maybe. But the added benefit of attending every single class session is that you’ll probably learn enough to not get F’s in the first place.
I think the good attendance of a student is critical for teachers for a few reasons. Keep in mind that I have done my fair share of teaching, but I’ve been a student way, way more, so my thoughts here are speculative.
For one thing, coming to class is a show of respect. A student enrolls in a class. The student takes up a seat in that class, which means someone else cannot have that seat. And the underlying assumption is that the student will attend the class, sit in the seat, listen to the instructor, and participate, whatever that might look like for that particular course.
When a student blows off class (for a reason other than being sick or having an emergency) it sends a message that you, the teacher, aren’t that important, and that the class isn’t worth going to. This isn’t explicit, it’s implied. If it happens a fair amount, the teacher understandably has less patience with the absentee student when she is struggling with a lesson or asks for an extension on a paper, for example.
The other reason being absent from class is the fastest way to lose favor with your teacher is a purely practical one, from your teacher’s standpoint: When you’re gone, she has to work more.
She has to answer an email from you going over what you missed. She has to reply to your email back to her with a question about what you missed — and of course lots of people had questions about the same thing, but she went over it … in class. You might ask for more time to finish a take-home test, say, which means she has to grade all the tests for the people who were in class and then, a week later, she has to return to the task she thought she could be done with (grading the take-home tests) but there you are, handing over your peanut-butter smeared take-home test — come on, you know it’s got peanut butter on it — and now she has to find the answer key and lord knows where that thing went.
If you want to make your teachers happy, go to class. You can come to class in your pajamas. Don’t you dare be on your phone — I can’t deal with people who do that in an educational setting — but texting with your sister in class is better than texting with your sister not in class. And, though I know this sounds crazy, you can even come to class without your homework. You just have to show up.
I’d be utterly miserable if I were in the circus. I’d mope, I’d whine, I’d rail against the injustice of it all — because there are few circuses I would join willingly — and I’d end up taking it out on the other surely miserable creatures in my strange new circus family. This wouldn’t be helpful for me or fair to them, so then I’d feel guilty and feel more miserable but at that point, with all of us having to perform four shows a day, it might not matter.
Nevertheless, everyone would hear about it. That includes the new-in-town, understandably wary poodle trainer; the entire clown corps; the husband and wife acrobat team who works overtime every week knowing full well they absolutely should not do that given their line of work; the bendy girl; the other bendy girl who you pay extra to see (after dark, adults only); and Hugo, the old, old, old, old, old man who does all the costumes, including the tiny hats for the monkeys and my previously worn petticoat and velvet vest.
I’d fling myself into the shabby trailer Hugo uses for his workshop. “Hugo!” I’d cry. “It’s happening!”
Hugo has those wire spectacles with the thick, convex magnifying lenses that make his eyes so big he looks like a cartoon. He doesn’t look up from his sequins because it takes him a long time to move any part of his body. Besides, he’s heard this before.
“What’s the trouble, dear?”
I lie down on the floor for maximum effect. “Hugo, I’m not meant for this life. This classic vaudevillian, 1930s, Follies Bergère-style traveling circus life, I’m just not meant for it.”
“Sounds like you need a biscuit,” Hugo says.
I perk up but don’t show it and then moan again. “No, even a biscuit won’t help … I’m dying.”
“All right,” Hugo says, pulling out a spool of pink thread from a drawer. “I don’t think I have any left, anyway.”
Wait, what?! Hugo’s refreshments are legendary. No one knows where he gets the shiny blue tins of shortbread cookies, but he always seems to have them on hand when you really need one. And the tea he gives you on bad days is made with the same rationed teabags and powdered milk we all get from the circus commissary, but Hugo makes it taste creamier and gets his water hotter, somehow. No one can figure it out.
“Well, maybe it would help to have a bite of a biscuit. If you still have some.” I cough a couple times. “And … I think the sawdust is sticking in my throat. Do you have any, um, tea or anything?
Hugo smiles and gets up. He makes his creaky way over to the hot plate to boil water in a kettle as old as he is. “Yes, you ought to have tea right away. We can’t have you suffocating on sawdust; you go on at 6:30. And I think I do have a few biscuits left somewhere.”
I try to peek at which shelf he reaches into for the cookies but he looks back at me faster than I thought he was physically able to, so I squeeze my eyes shut and roll around like I’ve got a stomach ache even though I don’t. I hear the tin open and the rustle of crinkled cookie papers.
Hugo is bent over pretty far already so it’s easy for him to hand me a biscuit. “Sit up, darling. You don’t want to choke.”
“This circus is going to kill me,” I say, half the cookie in my mouth already. “Maybe today’s the day.”
The tea kettle boils and I get my mug of tea. It’s hot and creamy and tastes like my former life. Hugo, who dresses like Geppetto and smokes exactly two cigarillos every day, sits in his chair and I sit cross-legged on the trailer floor. I’ll have to have the Bearded Lady beat the dust from my skirts before my act. By the way, I’m with the lions on Thursdays and Fridays; Sunday through Tuesday I sell candy and peanuts and tell jokes, and on Wednesdays — my favorite day — I get to ride Trinket. (Trinket is our elephant.)
“Have you ever seen a performance of Cirque du Soliel?” Hugo asks me.
I shake my head. “No, actually. Are they any good?”
“No,” Hugo says. “They’re not real circus people, anyway. Oh, they’ll do some tricks. A few of them are double-jointed like Ricky. But their hearts just aren’t in it. There’s too much money in the thing, no doubt about it. You get too much money in a touring group like that, people don’t need each other. They go off after work and spend their money doing all kinds of who knows what. Here, it’s different. We don’t have much, but we get by. We help each other. And we have a good show.”
Puffs of smoke curl up into the costumes Hugo stores on hangers above his head. My vest and skirts came from that old stock. The cigarillo smell will never come out. I look over at Hugo, who has always been so kind to me. I hear Trinket bellow from across the grounds; it’s bath time.
This isn’t that bad, I think to myself. If I were in the circus, I guess I’d want it to be like this.
I can’t be naturally blonde. I can’t change another person. I can go backwards on skates, but I can’t really skate backwards. I cannot meditate. I can’t change the past. I can’t build a balsa wood airplane (or a balsa wood anything) and I can’t keep honey from dripping down the side of the jar. I’ve never been able to wait.
There’s this one thing I do really well, though, and that’s content.
All my life, if there’s a project that requires words, themes, angles, description, rhyme, structure, information, or rhetoric at all, really, I immediately produce a surplus of ideas. Need content developed, designed, or otherwise structured, I will assess what type of content is needed and take pleasure as “it” instantly takes shape. Every time, I snap my fingers and go, “Ooh! I got it!” and I often do. Yes, when other kids in 8th grade English class were lamenting to the teacher that they didn’t know what to write about, my pencil was already halfway down the page.
Does it sound like I’m bragging? I sure am! We live in a brutal world. There are horrible balsa wood airplanes you might be asked to put together and you might love a person who you can’t change, and you might actually want to have your tea in the morning without getting honey on your knuckles, but if you can’t do any of those things, you’ve got to accentuate the positive, latch onto the affirmative, and in my case, that means make content and make it good.
Imagine my agony when I finally felt ready to pick up the ol’ PG some months ago and found something wrong with my fingers. I had just cracked the laptop and was about to begin writing when I realized they were just sort of … hovering over the keyboard. But they couldn’t do anything else without a strong signal from mission control and I’m mission control and I didn’t know what to write.
No, no, I thought to myself; I’m just out of practice. Hang on. I sat back. I cocked my head to the side. I chewed my lip. I bit too hard at one point but all this was normal. A few thoughts did alight on the bean, but nothing got my fingers to work for more than a few listless minutes here and there. The great filing cabinet in my mind remained firmly locked. Denying that this was happening, I’d close my laptop or — far worse — keep it open and watch something outrageous on YouTube.
But it kept happening and I spent several weeks low-key panicking. The mind was willing, but the flesh was weak and it was an uncomfortable and foreign experience. Then one day, I remembered what English teachers use when their students find their usually active, imaginative brains drawing blanks:
Writing prompts. And they work.
My eyebrows raised up into my bangs. I got the prickly heat. I started to breathe through my nostrils. Oh no you don’t, I thought, backing away from the computer, I do not need writing prompts. Writing prompts are for students. They’re for break-out sessions at corporate team-building retreats. Prompts are for people with “writer’s block” but “writer’s block” doesn’t actually exist if you’re … if you’re writing all the time.
And there it was. I’m out of practice with you, darling, because I haven’t been writing you for a good year, now. Maybe it’s just a Tin Man situation and I just need a little oil to get myself moving again.
Well, Dorothy has arrived with her oil can, and Dorothy is something called “Journal Buddies”.
Journal Buddies is a website with thousands of writing prompts for kids. It came up when I was googling around and though there are endless websites with endless writing prompts, for some reason I just liked Journal Buddies. The site was created and is currently maintained by a person named Jill Schoenberg. I liked the list of “51 Exciting Things To Write About In A Journal” on its own, but then I read Jill’s bio page and I have decided she’s better than Dorothy with an oil can. She’s an educator and a publisher and the vibes are good. This was meant to be.
And so, as I cut myself a generous slice of humble pie with a scoop of rum raisin ice cream, topped perhaps with some pecans or something crumbly, it is my sincere pleasure to announce this PaperGirl is present and accounted for. Present and accountable, you might say: I’m doing this list. I won’t commit to taking them in order, but I’m going to write a post for every one of these prompts until I’ve done them all. After that, if I’m not back in the swing of the ol’ PG, we’ve got bigger problems. I’d rather not think about it.
Thank you, Jill Schoenberg, for being my journal buddy. Thanks all of you for being so patient and beautiful. God, I love a list.
Journal Buddies 51 List
I am the one who …
My first memory is …
My wildest dream vacation is …
If I were in the circus I would be …
I believe …
Describe a person you admire.
I can …
Sunshine makes me feel …
The most amazing thing I’ve ever seen is …
I’m thankful for …
What do you want the most out of life?
What are the characteristics of a hero?
What do you think of people who use profanity in public?
If I were famous, I would …
I wish I were there when …
If I were a fish in the ocean …
My favorite places.
My least favorite places.
How a puppy feels.
My ideal day is …
Is it better to give or to receive?
If I had three wishes I would …
My most embarrassing moment is (or would be) …
Where would I go in a time machine?
Describe a rainstorm from above the storm clouds.
Write from the perspective of a mouse going down a hole.
Describe a rainbow to a blind person, and do it so that the blind person can say without a doubt that they have SEEN a rainbow!!!
What was your favorite meal?
What does snow feel like?
What does squishing sand through your toes feel like?
Write a letter to yourself 1, 3, 5, 10 or 20 years from now.
Write a letter to yourself as a child of ___ years old.
Write a thank you letter to your favorite teacher.
If I could be anything in this world, I’d be …
If I could be anywhere in the entire UNIVERSE, I’d be …
Write about the taste of peanut butter, how it smells, and how it looks.
How would you feel as a passenger in a space ship on the way to the Moon?
How can you make friends?
How do you keep your teachers happy?
Describe Sundays at your house.
Observe at least 5 things you see happen on your way home from school/work and write about them.
Describe a place from your past.
Describe your concept of luxury.
Describe a family member.
Describe your ride home.
Nothing can be worse than …
Write about your strengths and weaknesses.
Describe the most comfortable spot you can find.
The problem is … And this is what I plan to do about it …
“Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion.” — John Berger, 1972
I have nothing to wear.
Last winter, when my life fell into a blast furnace, there were eight items of clothing I could put on my body from day to day that didn’t make me want to crawl out of my skin. Those items were:
Levi’s jeans L.L. Bean wool sweater (red) L.L. Bean wool sweater (black w/pattern) Brown leather hiking boots with red laces Nike Cortez tennis shoes Double-breasted wool topcoat (camel) Wool scarf (gray) Knit cap (navy)
Anything else, and I was wearing a costume. This was a dissociative experience, and I was grappling with enough of those, thank you very much. Why couldn’t I wear any of my other sweaters? Or my white Oxford shirts? An Oxford shirt is about as neutral as an item of clothing can get, but when I put one on and buttoned it up, I felt like an idiot.
Strangest of all was that I couldn’t wear what has been my winter uniform for years: black pants and a black turtleneck. You’d think when a woman is experiencing major depression, black is the only thing that will do. Jeez, aren’t the depressed issued a black turtleneck and black pants at the door? But to me, black clothing does not communicate sorrow or a lack of vitality. To me, black clothes, aside from being chic (and slimming!) communicate a person in command of herself, someone who wants to be taken seriously.
What was happening to me was serious but I felt in command of nothing, and chic? Chic was a planet other people lived on. Whose clothes are these, I wondered, as I moved hangers back and forth in my closet. At some point I stopped opening my closet at all, ceased to wonder or worry about it and I simply put on the same thing day after day. I laundered my clothes often because I wore them daily. Processing laundry took great effort but it was a simple enough task and the smell of Woolite never lost its charm. I’m still grateful for that.
How I dreaded the coming warm weather. I’d be screwed. Dressing for spring and summer is awful for me every year, regardless of mental state; precious few of us on Team Black Turtleneck cross the line over to Team Tank Top, even if the Tank Toppers seem more comfortable than we are come Memorial Day. This year, I feared would be way worse.
The season changed. And by the time my hiking boots were inappropriate — early May, I think — my disposition had improved considerably. But I had not been wrong to worry about the clothes and in fact the situation was worse than I had anticipated. Not only had I not caught a ride on a rocket ship back to Planet Chic, I did not want to go. It was time to bring out my low-heeled suede pumps and my Marni blouse and my side-zip, slim-fit black Vince trousers, but when I went to get dressed in all that, you would’ve thought there was a tin of rotting tuna fish in my closet. I’d wince and shut the door and then just stand there with my head on the closet door, trying to envision any assemblage of apparel that would not make me feel like I was wearing a dead woman’s clothes. It was that bad.
Not everyone cares as much about clothes as I do, and there are those who care far more. My reasons for caring about what I wear (if you’ll allow me to psychoanalyze myself for a moment) are not hard to figure out. I want to control the narrative. Well-designed things make life easier and less ugly. Beautiful clothes make me feel beautiful. And I think it’s important to evolve as a person. Clothes, because there are so many directions one can take with them, are tools we can use to reflect — even spur or solidify — who we are right now.
And that, my peeps, is the heart of the matter: I don’t know what to wear because my current evolution is still in progress. It’s the same reason I can’t whip out a PaperGirl post like I used to: That person moved out, and it appears the other problem with losing your voice is losing your shoes. On a purely material level, it’s a drag to lose all those shoes — I have really great shoes — but on a psychic level, it super sucks. I can’t walk around barefoot. I can’t wear hiking boots every day. Crocs are never an option. But I’d pick any of those options before I’d wear the shoes of the woman who left all her stuff in my closet before she died. That’s creepy.
What’s my new look? As my friend Irena would say, “What’s the mood?”
Ten months later, and I still don’t know. It’s doubtful the mood will ever be what it was before. Perhaps that’s a start; that’s useful data. As the weather cools, I am eyeing my boots and my red sweater, but this may not be the solution. The new fear is that I’ll put those clothes on and they’ll feel dead, too.
But I’m alive. And I will live to shop another day.
If you’re reading this, I’ll bet there are some books in your house. It doesn’t matter what kind, but I’ll bet there’s more than 20. I don’t have hard data on this, but I was at an event in Indiana a few weeks ago and met a number of PaperGirl readers who were clearly book-owning people. It was a vibe.
If you’re like me, the books you’ve kept for years in your living room or den or office you’ve kept for an obvious reason: They matter. I think the books we keep are meaningful because they reflect to us and everyone else who we are — and/or maybe who we’d like to be. Our bookshelves speak volumes (I know, I know!) because they’re essentially an exhibit we’ve curated. The books on a person’s shelf say, “I’m a hopeless romantic”, or “My political views are central to who I am”, or “I’m a Christian”, or “I’m an atheist”, or “I’m an actor” or “Science fiction helps me deal with reality.” What do your books say about you? Maybe there are so many books on your bookshelves, they’re groaning under the weight of all that paper. In that case, what your books say is: “I can’t throw books out.” That’s your answer: You’re a person who can’t bear to let go of books.
The books on my shelves cover a lot of ground. I’ve got anthologies of humor writing wedged in next to a pristine set of Quiltfolk magazines, the ones I refuse to mark up, make notes in, or review incessantly so that the next issue will be better than the last. On the other shelf, I’ve got everything Camille Paglia has ever published. Next to all that is (for example) a collection of Saul Bellow letters and two or three Nabokov novels … which butt up against a tiny portion of my quilt history library. (The rest is in my basement storage unit at the moment.) To an outside observer, this quilt history/cultural fireband/chuckle fest/Lolita mix is super weird, but to anyone who knows me, the books on my shelves makes perfect sense: My library, myself. And it’s the same with you.
However mishmashed the subcategories may be, there is one prevailing genre within my shelves: Nearly everything fits into the genre of personal narrative. Personal narrative is nonfiction that comprises memoir, autobiography, diary, personal essay, and certain longform journalism. As a writer and reader, this stuff is my jam. It’s been this way since I was in high school. I don’t check novels out from the library, I don’t buy them, and I don’t read the few I still have in my possession. Why?
The way I figure, it’s unfettered reality I want — the “straight tea”, as the kids say. I’m curious about people’s direct experience being a human and if a person writes about that experience as honestly and thoughtfully as they can, I want to read that. In fact, I’m desperate to read it. Everyone has way, way more to learn than they think they do, and I know I’ll learn from people if I can access their respective alternate realities. Of course I realize that novels offer alternate realities, too, and that novels can weave reality in a lovely, different way, but I don’t want a surrogate. I don’t want a (however well-wrought) fabrication standing in between me and the story. I’m too impatient, as usual, but I’m also unapologetic about this: I want my reality uncut. Mainline me.
There are giants of the personal narrative genre. These people are my heroes. Those giants include James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag, Michel de Montaigne, Zadie Smith, Christopher Hitchens, David Foster Wallace … and Vivian Gornick.
It’s that last name we’re going to spend the rest of our time with, because Vivian Gornick wrote a book I have kept on my shelf for many years and I shall always keep it on my shelf. It’s like an old, worn, freshly washed bathrobe. The other day, needing one of those, I pulled that book down and leafed through, for old times’ sake. The content I found did two things: 1) it caused me to think about the books we keep on our shelves and 2) it broke open why I can’t get a grip on this blinkin’ blog.
First things first: Vivian Gornick is a genius at writing. Her writing is efficient and elegant — think Einstein’s theory of relativity. Her sentences have zero fat. There is no ego, no flourish. She doesn’t stand for that crap. She observes everything and then she writes down the truth of it, however mundane. She writes books and essays and critical reviews and they will inspire you and also depress you if you’re a writer, because guess what? There’s only one Gornick, baby. If you want a place to start, read her memoir about her relationship with her mother, Fierce Attachments.
Okay, okay, so Gornick wrote a book a few years ago called The Situation and The Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. When I was teaching writing at the University of Chicago, I used this book a lot, especially in the blogging class and the storytelling class. The book is one big revelation, but perhaps the biggest, baddest one is essentially this: to write about your life, you have to craft a persona, because a persona will give you the voice you need to write the story of your life. Here’s an excerpt from the book, and I know I’m just diving in here, but I looked hard for the right passage so I hope you’ll track with me on this:
“The writing we call personal narrative is written by people who, in essence, are imagining only themselves in relation to the subject in hand. … Out of the raw material of a writer’s own undisguised being a narrator is fashioned whose existence on the page is integral to the tale being told. This narrator becomes a persona. Its tone of voice, its angle of vision, the rhythm of its sentences, what it selects to observe and what to ignore are chosen to serve the subject; yet at the same time the way the narrator — or the persona — sees things is, to the largest degree, the thing being seen.
To fashion a persona out of one’s own undisguised self is no easy thing … Yet the creation of such a persona is vital in an essay or a memoir. It is the instrument of illumination. Without it there is neither subject or story. To achieve it, the writer of memoir or essay undergoes an apprenticeship as soul-searching as any undergone by a novelist or poet: the twin struggle to know not only why one is speaking, but who is speaking.”
This blog has existed since 2005. For more than a decade, save for a few periods when I’ve gone dark — as I’ve been lately — I’ve shared my life here and I have told you the truth. I am vulnerable here. I don’t bullshit you. I respect you, I respect myself, and I tell the truth and because of that respect, I cannot write things that are fake. The times when the blog has evaporated for a spell, it’s evaporated precisely because I refuse to be inauthentic, and sometimes it’s impossible to be authentic without turfing out. Put another way: If what’s going on with me is deeply private, if it is not for public consumption, yet, if it would compromise other people, if it simply makes no discernible sense yet, or if I’m just plain too scared to tell you, I don’t know how to write PaperGirl.
PaperGirl is fun. Yes, she’s vulnerable and open. We know that. I talk about sad stuff and bad stuff and gross stuff. But she bounces back. She’s a total dork, a complete spaz. She has perspective and she knows who she is. I love PaperGirl. She’s definitely real. She’s me. She’s a part of me, anyway, which means PaperGirl is … a persona. Absolutely authentic, no fake-out, no bullshit. But a specific voice from me who can take “the raw material of [her] own undisguised being” and tell you about it using a specific “tone of voice”, “angle of vision”, and with a certain rhythm to her sentences. I don’t want to get too writer-rabbit-hole-y on you — too late — but believe me: For years and years, when it was time to sit down and write PaperGirl, I mentally and involuntarily slipped on my PaperGirl shoes, cracked my knuckles, and voila: I could write about my life.
I’m afraid that persona has left the building.
Wait, wait! I don’t mean that in some dour, gloomy way. It’s weird and yes, it is sort of sad: I liked her. I liked that goofy, chummy, weird, sensitive, earnest PaperGirl. I hung out with her a long time, and so did you, and I love you very much, and she loved you very much. But after everything that happened this past winter and everything that has happened since, I can’t get those shoes on my feets. They do not fit. I observe things constantly that I want to tell you about, every single day, but I can’t get it on the page/screen. For awhile, every time I saw something I would normally zip out to you, I’d think, “Yes. That’s it. Tonight I can blog. Yes, I have to write about that, I have to share that. I love that and they’ll love that.” But that night, I’d try to put the shoes on and … I couldn’t write in that PaperGirl voice anymore and that was hard, but even harder was that I didn’t know what voice would take its place. Or if one would. That is a very scary thing for a writer and for a person.
The good news is simply that I’ve figured all this out, and I send my regards to Vivian Gornick. And because I’ve figured it out — that it’s impossible for me to blog like I used to because I’ve outgrown the PaperGirl persona/narrator — this means I can let myself off the hook. I’m not a bad blogger, I’ve just got a concussion. I’ll always write about my life; I just have to figure out who’s doing the writing.
In conclusion: If I let myself off the hook for not being “PaperGirl”, I think I can blog. I think so. There’s an opening. Thank you for all the emails and the comments and everything. You people are amazing. I’m doing pretty good and oh man do I have so much to tell you, big things and little things. I’m bursting to tell you, but I just don’t know what the PaperGirl 2.0 voice is, yet. I’ll get her. I’ll catch her. I get back on my feet. I’ll practice.