Last time we spoke I told you I’d return to finish the tale of my smartphone situation. A long holiday with the family, some mid-level personal drama, and the problem, I suspect, of subconsciously not actually wanting to return to the topic kept me from it; I apologize for dragging my feet. But in the second half of my post, I planned to examine the existential despair that visited me upon activating my new iPhone and when you don’t feel like writing about existential despair, it’s my opinion that you ought to run with that as long as possible. You’ll be brooding soon enough; no need to rush things.
The short of it is this:
When fired up my new iPhone, Apple automatically populated the thing with contact information for dozens of people from the past six of my nine lives. I didn’t want that. I didn’t expect it. So that flood of fossilized information knocked me off my block, hard. There were old, old contacts in my new, new device, some so old as to be unrecognizable unless I concentrated very hard, and this gave me a headache and the existential despair I previously mentioned. Mona? Who the hell was Mo — oh dear God! Without Steve Jobs working his dark arts from beyond the grave, I’d have never thought of that person again as long as I lived, which would have been lovely. But no, Apple plopped her in my life without so much as a how-dee-do (on a Tuesday morning no less) and I was sucked into a downtown nightclub in 2010, going full idiot with Mona and her roided-out boyfriend whose name I blessedly do not remember because I didn’t put his name in my phone,Apple. I have myself to thank for that, I suppose.
There were a couple industry contacts that turned my stomach. If you don’t make a few adversaries over the course of 12 years in your field, you should probably take more risks. I have several adversaries. What I want is water under the bridge; what I don’t want are my adversaries’ phone numbers or every text message between us from the start of our relationship through to the bitter end, which Apple has graciously kept safe and sound in the cloud all these years, unbeknownst to my Android-using self.
But it was all there. And there were others.
Apple: Would you like to contact your ex-husband? Me: What?! No! Apple: Because we have his phone number and email add— Me: Oh my god … Apple: We saved it for you! See? Me: I’d like you to get very far away from me now. Apple: Wait! Where are you going? We also have the number for the cafe you used to work at! It closed three years ago but if you need the number, it’s right here!
All that mess notwithstanding, I gotta say: I love my phone. I’m glad I switched. And as humiliating as it is, I confess to waiting a whole extra week to receive my device because last month Apple announced the iPhone could now come a brand-new color — a very groovy alligator green — and … and … I wanted my phone in that new color, okay?? I did! I wanted the alligator green! And I don’t care who knows that I love my shiny, alligator green iPhone! I love the facial recognition function! I know Android phones have that too but I like the smiley face that pops up on my stupid iPhone when the robot inside of it gazes up at me, alright?? I love the tapback feature on iMessage! I love the way you can shoot lasers out of text messages! It’s amazing!
Me: Mary, you sheep! You worm! You don’t even like green! Apple: But you did though! Like 10 years ago!
After using an Android phone for seven years, I recently made the switch to an iPhone. If you are familiar with this blog, this is newsworthy enough for a two-part post. If you’re not familiar with PaperGirl, it isn’t.
Midway through my thirties, fed up with a bunch of features in Apple’s operating system and because I was already in a bad mood, I flung my iPhone at the wall and hollered “I’m quittin’ you for good, iPhone! I’m your fool no more!” I probably just groaned and set the phone down on the couch. But when my phone plan said I could replace my device for eight-zillion dollars instead of nine-zillion dollars, I marched over to the nearest AT&T store and told the disinterested salesperson with great conviction and bravado that I was there to switch to an Android.
“Okay,” said the salesperson, “they’re back here.”
He led me to a shabbier area of the store, kind of near the bathrooms. I signed my soul over to AT&T for four more years or something and walked out with a Samsung Note 2 or whatever version was out in 2015. Did I know how to use the Android phone in my trembling hands? No, but it was exhilarating. I knew a couple Microsoft/Android people, but they had always played for that team. No Apple users in my life, as far as I knew, had ever quit the cult of Steve Jobs. My boxy device was fresh evidence that you can’t make me. Look, you’re not a rebel if you just rebel every once in awhile. The tree of rebellion must be perpetually refreshed. Refuse to comb your hair, quit your job, change the kind of cell phone you use — this stuff is critical if you want to be a rebel and stay a rebel. I did all three of those things that year just so I could sleep at night.
Insofar as they had an opinion about my cell phone, my family did not like the change I’d made.
The problem had to do with text messages. As many of you know, texts within the Apple iOS are sent and received via the iMessage app. The Android operating system, not surprisingly, prefers not to use iMessage. Phones that run on the Android call their messaging app “Messages” or “Here Are Your Texts”, and the two different messaging apps don’t work well across devices. Many times, texts that came in from my family — iPhone users all — had to be downloaded (downloaded!) on my Samsung device before I could read them, and some never arrived at all. I’d start a thread not knowing that a family text conversation on a given subject had been going on, sometimes for weeks, via iMessage. It appeared I didn’t care enough to participate in their group text party, but a lot of the time I just didn’t know one was happening. I was terrible with text messaging already, so the disjointedness created further text tension.
There were other drawbacks. I loved my phone’s stylus, mainly because I could draw faces in my notes app, but wasn’t possible to “like” an iMessage text or tap one with a little heart. I never figured out how to send a .gif and none of my advanced Android emojis would show up on an iPhone, so for seven years, no one in my life got to feel the love that I wished to communicate to them through an animated bunny hugging an animated bear. And I know it’s silly, but I felt a tiny bit sheepish when I pulled my Samsung out of my purse or got caught drawing faces in my notes app because Android phones are kind of like chinos from Sam’s Club: they cover the lower half of your body, and that’s all you can really say about them. They’re not elegant or sleek like iPhones. Being an Android person in a group of iPhone users feels a little like being the kid in the lunchroom taking off-brand cheese slices out of a sandwich bag while everyone else is unwrapping Kraft singles. iPhones and Kraft singles have a certain glossiness to them. You might be a rebel with a Samsung phone, but you are not glossy.
But I love that off-brand cheese kid! She never combs her hair! She’s awesome! And so, for the next seven years, I stuck to my guns and lived my life as a mostly proud Apple apostate. I figured out how to make texting work better and my family accepted they had to communicate with a weirdo — which was nothing new, let’s be honest — and life went on apace.
Then, about a month ago, there was a family emergency and I finally got the message.
*Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I am sucked into a vortex of nostalgia and pain, thanks to iCloud. Other stuff happens too.
Eric and I were onboard with masks early in the pandemic.
In fact, before face masks became widely available, I constructed a whole pile of janky ones out of vacuum cleaner bags and twist ties. I even made a YouTube video about it but took it down after a few days because I occasionally practice good judgement. Those runty little masks were made in a panic and looked like it. Sure, they were kinda punk rock and would have been better than nothing, but they were not fit to broadcast on the internet. Soon after I unpublished my video, tutorials on how to properly construct fabric facemasks from a pattern — the audacity — flooded the YouTubes, so I was extra relieved that I had yanked my video. In many areas of my life, my enthusiasm greatly outpaces my attention to detail. I’m aware.
Anyway, Eric and I committed to wearing boring, normal, well-constructed masks. We loathed them as much as anyone. But it all changed on that fateful day two summers ago when my veneer popped off my left tooth.
I was munching caramel corn, watching the Avengers avenge and bit down on what I thought was a kernel with lots of carmel on it, just a particularly crunchy piece. But after a moment, I sensed something strange … Was that cool air on my left front tooth? No, that wouldn’t make sense. I ate another piece of popcorn.
When the cool air feeling didn’t go away, I ran my tongue over my front teeth. Huh. My left tooth felt … rougher than the right one. It didn’t hurt or anything, but something was off. I put my finger on it. Oh dear. Oh no, no, no. Definitely rough. Could it be … oh dear God!
Like a bottle rocket had gone off on my side of the couch, I shot over to the mirror in our entryway. I stuck my nose up to the glass. I bared my teeth. The right front tooth looked normal, but the left tooth looked very, very wrong.
Instead of a tooth I could be proud of, I was looking at a shrunken little monkey’s paw tooth. Right there in the front of my face, on the left, yellowish and slightly filed down, was my permanent incisor with the accursed fluoride mark, same as it ever was, exposed after years of concealment. The veneer had broken off my left front tooth — and I had eaten it.
“Eric!” I screamed, “My veneer! My veneer came off! My veneer!!! It’s happening!!!”
Eric dashed over. He took me by the shoulders and turned me so I was facing him. “Hey, hey, it’s okay,” he said. “Are you hurt? Let me see.”
“Hm-mmn!” I shook my head and pressed my lips together. My head was bowed so low my chin was touching my chest. Have you ever wailed with your mouth shut? It’s kind of hard to do, but it is possible.
Eric smiled, but not in a mean way; I was clearly going through something. But once he confirmed that I wasn’t in pain, and heard me mumble through my closed mouth that I had a monkey’s paw tooth and was dying, he could see the humor in the situation.
“Let me see,” he said, chuckling. “It’s probably not as bad as you think. It’s okay. Show me.”
With the doleful look of a dog who has been caught getting into the garbage, I raised my head. I pulled back my upper lip and braced myself to see my husband look at me in horror. But he only hugged me and began to laugh quietly.
Honestly, it wasn’t that bad. It turns out that the teeth I have under my veneers aren’t withered, decaying brown stumps. They’re slightly smaller than they were when they came in, but not by much. They’re yellowish, but not because they’re unhealthy; they’re fine. But the fluoride marks are still prominent, and I stand by this. The veneers are warranted. I made an appointment at the dentist to get them replaced — I was sure the right one was about to go as well — but when I learned they couldn’t get me in right away, my despair returned. Eric still loved me but how could I go outside and talk to people?? How could I face them, disfigured and diminished as I was?
Then I remembered: face masks. No one but the dentist would see my monkey’s paw tooth because no one would be seeing my teeth at all. In fact, no one but Eric had seen my teeth in months.
After years of fear at the prospect of a veneer breaking off, it happened, but it happened during a global pandemic. I hadn’t counted on that one, but there it was. The pandemic is bad, don’t misunderstand me. But last summer, I was able to literally cover my mouth with a face mask to hide my dental shame and that was a gift.
I don’t remember how old I was when my permanent teeth came in, but I watched in horror as they did.
Aside from the trauma of losing all the damn teeth out of my head — can we all appreciate how bizarre that is? — my two front teeth arrived with weird marks on them. I remember being told these harmless whitish marks were calcium deposits, but that’s not correct. I’ll have to confirm it with my dentist, but I believe my teeth were discolored by the fluoride in the water I drank as a kid. My two sisters drank the same water and both of them have a couple tiny spots on one or two bottom teeth, but they didn’t get big ones on their incisors like I did. Do not assume that I was being dramatic when I wailed about my emerging situation. Once they had fully emerged, classmates whispered about my weird teeth and little kids were not shy in asking what was wrong with them/me. I was embarrassed and ashamed.
If my mother hadn’t appreciated how hard it was for me and saved up enough money to get me veneers when I was a freshman in high school, things would have been very different for our family. Rather than a vivacious, standard-issue teenager, I’d have spent four years covering my face with long, dyed-black hair. I’d have listened to Morrissey and Kate Bush exclusively, and I’d have smoked a pack of clove cigarettes every day and hated absolutely everyone except my poet boyfriend who I was in love with, okay, and who loved me for me, Mom, despite the cursed teeth that are obviously your fault and I will never, ever, ever smile again! You can’t make me! I hate this family!
In other words, I would have been the coolest goth chick in the known universe. But I still would have hated my teeth.
The veneers I got in high school lasted about 10 years. At some point in my twenties, my dentist in Chicago recommended we replace them and he did not have to tell me twice. From the moment the first set was cemented down, I have lived in fear that one or both of my veneers will pop off my teeth while I’m eating an apple (or something.) And when — not if — they do, I’ll surely find my teeth have rotted away underneath, and I’ll have to get them yanked out entirely and replaced with implants that have to be screwed into my gums and this will be painful and horrible. I will die with two metal stubs where my front two teeth should be because I will not be able to afford having them fixed, for in this nightmare scenario I have somehow become poor and destitute. Children will run screaming from me when I attempt to smile at them and when I try to speak, the only thing that comes out is a creepy whistle sound. I’ll be a scary, toothless, metal-stubbed mute washerwoman, shuffling along the alleyways of Chicago, hiding my toothless shame. This dental anxiety is and will always be in the back of my mind.
Eric and I were on the couch watching a movie when it happened. Not the washerwoman part: the busted veneer part.
It was summertime, and we were having a snack. We weren’t eating apples. We were eating caramel popcorn and you can just stop right there. I know as well as anyone with dental work that caramel popcorn is and will always be forbidden.
Well, I’m a rebel. A caramel-corn-loving, doomed, dentally malformed rebel who lives in fear. And that terrible day in July, this rebel was forced to face that fear. And it sucked.
*Tune in next time for Part Two of the story, in which I discover what my front tooth looks like after 20+ years of being concealed and how the pandemic was kind of okay for a few days.
I haven’t always resented makeup. And I don’t always resent it now. In fact, today I have a stress-induced blemish that is taking over my entire face, so my concealer is my best, best friend.
But — concealer notwithstanding — makeup is making me mad these days.
In the small village where I grew up, Montross Pharmacy sits on the west side of the town square. If you google “Montross Pharmacy”, you’ll find it’s described as a “pharmacy/gift shop/soda fountain”, which tells you a lot about Montross Pharmacy and a lot about the village where I grew up. You can get diaper cream, antibiotics, and Dr. Scholl’s products in the pharmacy department. And in high school, my friends and I would dangle our legs off the high-top chairs at the counter after school to wolf grilled cheese sandwiches and french fries (me), or patty melts and onion rings (Annie) and get green rivers to go.
It was in the gift shop at the front of the store where I got my first look at makeup. I’m sure Mom had some at home, but I don’t think I ever got into it. I was a tomboy for a long time because I did absolutely everything my older sister did. Hannah is now very, very good at makeup and seems to enjoy it immensely, but that didn’t happen until she was in college.
For me, it was middle school. As puberty had its evil way with me, I became extremely interested in the compacts of blusher (I swear they called it blusher back then) hanging on the back wall and the spinny racks stocked with strange- and wonderful-smelling lipsticks that were full of chemicals that I’d guess aren’t allowed in lipsticks anymore. There were mascara tubes — I had no idea what mascara was about and was therefore extremely wary of it for some time — and round boxes of loose powder with pounce puffs inside.
If you wear makeup today, you probably have products by Tarte, or bareMinerals, or Stila, or various items from the roughly nine zillion other options available from makeup specialty stores like Ulta and Sephora. None of that existed when I discovered makeup. Fancy city ladies may have gotten their cosmetics at department stores, but us country folk went to Montross Pharmacy for our makeup. And L’Oreal, Maybelline, and CoverGirl are still drugstore staples, God bless ’em, but when I discovered makeup, it was all about O.G.s like Wet n’ Wild, Coty, and Bonne Bell.
Can I get some love in the back for Bonne Bell. Also can I get at least a smattering of applause for Love’s Baby Soft. Thank you.
Eventually, I was able to buy a few cosmetic products with my allowance and got permission from Mom to wear it. I’ve been wearing makeup ever since. I am a pale-complected woman. Blusher helps those around me know I’m actually a living creature, and it makes me feel pretty. Blush is my favorite makeup product, with mascara a close second. It’s rare that I go out of the house without mascara. It opens up my eyes and … I don’t know, I just like mascara.
But like, these days? These days, so many females wear so much makeup. We all know how it happend. It’s the specialty stores, it’s the proliferation of cameras in our phones, it’s social media, it’s makeup tutorials on YouTube. The rise of the selfie gave rise to a makeup industry that, when I was a budding consumer, was valued at … okay, I’ve just spent 20 minutes trying to find the valuation of the U.S. cosmetics market in the 1990s but I’m getting nowhere and I need to get to the office. I can tell you that today, the U.S. cosmetics market will reach a value of 25 billion by 2026. It’s staggering, this change.
And lately, I’ve really resented “having to wear makeup”. Of course I don’t “have” to wear it. But I do a livestream show 2-3 times a week* and I don’t feel comfortable slapping on some moisturizer and leaving it at that if I have an audience. Makeup does give me a measure of confidence and after 30 years of wearing the stuff in the daylight hours — and sometimes after dark, if ya know what I mean — I feel weird without it.
But it takes time to apply it. I could be doing other things while I put on dumb makeup. And it’s expensive. And boys don’t have to spend time putting on makeup and boys don’t have to spend their hard-earned money on it and basically, I am having a very feminist moment with makeup and it’s not equitable and it’s not fair and I hate it.
And now I have to go because you know why? I have a video call in 20 minutes and I have to go put on some makeup. That’s literally why I’m ending this post right now with a weak closing paragraph. Not cool, society. Not cool.
*I’ll tell you more about this in the coming days, but until then, you should for sure tune in to Quilt Nerd. It’s live, free, it’s on Tuesdays @ 7pm CST and Saturdays @ 8pm CST, and I do other shows in between, sometimes. Go to twitch.tv/yomaryfons and get yourself a Twitch login and join me. It’s really fun and I’d love to see you.
There is a Jeni’s Ice Cream shop coming to my neighborhood.
When I discovered this, I screamed — for ice cream. If you know Jeni’s ice cream and live in my neighborhood or near it, you’re also screaming. It’s terrifying, all these screaming people, but it’s not like we’re screaming because we’re being chased by an axe murder or anything. We’re screaming for Sweet Cream Biscuits & Peach Jam, and Salted Peanut Butter With Chocolate Flecks, and Gooey Butter Cake, and Brown Butter Almond Brittle. There are others, and great tubs of them will soon arrive in the Gold Coast and I will commune with them.
This is not a sponsored post. In fact, it is I who pay Jeni’s Ice Cream for their goods and services. It doesn’t seem fair to pay a company lots of money (their product is not cheap) and then give them free marketing on top of it. But, since the ice cream-delivered dopamine hits I’ve enjoyed over the years have been made possible because of Jeni’s product, I suppose I owe them. For cold spoonfuls of Atlantic Beach Pie, Mexican Chocolate, Buttercream Birthday Cake, and Skillet Cinnamon Bun, I give, and give, and give, apparently. Pathetic!
Recently, Eric and I caught a matinee at the AMC on Ohio Street just off Michigan Avenue. When the movie got out, we walked north, toward home. Our route from the theater takes us past Connors Park, a tiny patch of land at the intersection of Rush, Wabash, and Chestnut Streets, and this was the location of my discovery. I know I’m giving you lots of street names, but I want to remember every detail, to mentally return to the scene of my future ice cream crimes.
And setting the scene is important because Jeni’s could open a shop in a ditch or serve customers through a subway grate and I’d still be happy about it, as long as that subway grate were 10 minutes from my home. But the decision to operate out of Connors Park? It makes this whole thing extra awesome.
I didn’t know that the tiny patch of land at the above intersection was considered a park; I thought it was just a very large curb. Indeed, the triangle-shaped island that is Connors Park comprises just .34 acres, bounded on all sides by a line of narrow shrubs. There’s an oak tree, three or-so benches, and birdbath-sized fountain, which is all that can fit around the biggest feature of Connors Park, a low, rectangular-shaped glass building plopped right in the center. I’ve always loved that building. It looks like a greenhouse. It was an Argo Tea for the longest time and I fondly recall several afternoons there, writing in my journal as the autumn leaves sifted down past the windows all around me. But the Argo Tea closed years ago — even before the pandemic — and the greenhouse sat empty.
Eric was saying something to me when I saw the banner hanging on the building. The banner showed pictures of Jeni’s Ice Cream and the words “Coming Soon!”
I stopped dead in my tracks. I clutched my husband and raised a trembling finger to point at the sign.
My husband makes noise about not liking sweets — “I’m a savory person” — but he is weak in the presence of Jeni’s Ice Cream. Most people are His favorites are Brambleberry Crisp and Buttercream Birthday Cake. My favorites are, in no particular order: Pistachio Honey, Atlantic Beach Pie, Mexican Chocolate, Green Mint Chip, Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, Salty Caramel, Cream Puff, and Savannah Buttermint.
I’m serious, those are my favorites. All of them are my favorite-favorites. I will say that Cream Puff is my main favorite right now but that’s only because Pistachio Honey, the first Jeni’s flavor I ever had, is no longer available for some demonic, cruel reason. You always remember your first, you know?
Anyway, soon there will be a Jeni’s near our apartment. It’s the best news I’ve heard all month and I just wanted to share the news — but keep your hands off my ice cream.*
*I hate this cheesy ending but I have to get back to work … eating my ice cream. I hate that ending even more. I hate it more than I hate it when my Jeni’s ice cream is gone. Help. I’m stuck in a bad ending loop. Maybe Jeni’s will open a location in the Loop.
When I bought the apartment where Eric and I currently live, I knew it needed work. Everyone knew it needed work — that’s why I was able to buy it. The location, the building, the mise en scene; if I hadn’t gotten a discount, we wouldn’t have an address on our historic, tree-lined street.
But I did get a discount because the paint in the unit is an inch thick and the parquet floors are in terrible shape. The kitchen came with a Magic Chef stove ca. 1955 and a dishwasher from the pleistocene era. And the other day, one of the shelves in the inset bookcases literally collapsed. (There’s a joke in here about slouching toward Bethlehem, or Atlas shrugging, or the fall of the House of Usher, but that would require me to admit that I’ve still got a copy of AtlasShrugged. It’s a first edition and it was a gift and it’s hard for me to let go of books, alright?)
Now that we’re staying put in Chicago for the foreseeable future, we’ve got to serious about home improvement. Eric and I have been discussing needs and wants. We need to replace all the molding; we want to connect the kitchen and the the dining room by opening up the east wall. We need to install ceiling lights; we want a gold toilet.* It’s going to cost a bunch of money because this is a big city and that’s just how it is. Plus, Eric would be cool with standard-issue everything, but I’m fancy. I told him this before we got married. He knows.
To get it done, we’ll have to take out a home loan. This is terrifying to me. Borrowing money with our home as collateral — I think that’s how it works — is just a very grown-up thing to do. I feel like a child most of the time and children don’t take out home loans. Can we manage another monthly bill? It’s freaky to think about. Student loan payments have been suspended for two years now, but that party will be over soon. And the apartment may have been on sale, but property taxes don’t get markdowns. If we want to do the work, we’ll have to get the loan, but I want it to be lean, lean, lean. This means I/we need to save money or make some more of it.
Here are things I can do to save money:
no new clothes (I hate this)
no fripperies (I love fripperies)
no major travel (let a book take you on an adventure, loser)
Here are things I can do to make some extra money:
sell my old clothes (but keep a few or I won’t have ANY clothes because I can’t buy new ones, apparently)
grow my Twitch and YouTube channels (harder than it sounds but I’m working on it)
rob a bank (complicated)
If you have other ideas, feel free to comment below! If you know how to rob a bank in your old, dumb clothes while broadcasting it all live on the internet, definitely comment below.
Tea. Light and heat. Transport. Cell service. Socks. Aspirin. Butter.
Some things in life have to be purchased over and over and over again. There’s no way out. If you want to stay alive, you’re going to need supplies, and supplies wear out, run out, break, go missing, or you decide you hate yours, or the ones you got don’t work out, or you just want new ones. Not everyone needs the same supplies, but everyone needs some supplies, so you’d better get yourself some money because there’s no such thing as a free pair of socks.
For those out there with long hair, however, I’ve got good news: If you’re in a city, there is one supply that you will never, ever have to buy again, if only you pay attention.
I’m talking about ponytail elastics.
Maybe you call them “hair ties” or “ponytail holders” or “hair elastics”. You may go for the thin kind, where the two ends are joined with a speck of pinched metal. Maybe you prefer the thicker, fuzzy ones that are less likely to result in horrible snarls when you take them out. Whatever your preference, if you’re in a place that has miles of sidewalk, there are free ponytail elastics waiting for you. Some of you know what I’m talking about.
I’ve walked a lot of city sidewalks. A month after I turned 18, I moved to Chicago and I’ve been crossing her pavement ever since. Longtime readers of PaperGirl saw me walk through New York City and cross sidewalks in Washington, D.C. after I left. I didn’t write much while Eric and I lived in London, but you can bet we covered a lot of cement over there. And in each of those cities, without exception, I found many, many ponytail elastics on the ground. When you’re next in a city, look down. You’ll find them too.
And they’re all for the taking, my long-haired friend.
I’ve always assumed they got there by accident. Personally, I’ve never thrown a ponytail holder on the ground in a fit of anger. I can’t remember throwing a ponytail holder on the ground at all. If the one holding my hair back breaks, well, it goes in the trash. No, the sidewalk ponytail holders soaked in rainwater or baking in the sun got there by accident. I’m sure of that. Someone pulled off their scarf from around their neck and the hair elastic came with it, falling to the cement. Or an already loose ponytail holder was dislodged when someone put on their bike helmet. Its innocent, pink body was flinged into the air, alighting for a brief, glorious moment on a smelly, city breeze before dropping to the ground to be stepped on for eternity, or until the enormous spinning brooms of a street cleaner vehicle whooshes them into a gutter. Where they go from there, I cannot say.
Will you save them from this sorrowful fate? Will you, ponytail-having person, pick up the poor ponytail holder — a freesupply that in the drugstore cost way more than necessary — and give it a home? The next time you need a ponytail elastic because somehow you’ve succeeded in losing all of the ones you got at the drugstore a frickin’ month ago — will you pick this city fruit and restore its dignity?
Before the pandemic began, I had clothes that could be considered “outside” clothes.
Like so many of you, I tried to maintain some sense of normalcy amid the confusion and fear of those first few months. One of my strategies was to wear my outside clothes inside. I’d dress like like I was going to be seen in public, walk from the bedroom to my desk, perch on my chair and mostly meet deadlines. My desk was a tiny cafe table in the corner of the living room. Eric and I purchased it after we gave up the coworking space we had been renting downtown near the river. The table was barely big enough for my computer and keyboard but I made it work, wearing outside pants and an outside shirt. I even wore shoes for awhile.
But entropy always wins. As time passed, I stowed anything with buttons and zippers and embraced clothes that were soft and contained elastic at the waist and ankles.
That was two years ago. Today, I’m double-vaxxed and boosted. I mostly still wear my mask in public. (So weird that I sometimes forget.) Being outside is possible again. You can tell because today I’m wearing jeans with a button fly and my shirt doesn’t have a stain on the front. I put on my outside face almost every day.
It hasn’t been as fun as I thought it would be to get my outside clothes back into rotation, though, because most of my outside clothes have pockets. (None of my inside clothes have pockets.) As I hang things up, I check the pockets and it’s breaking my heart. It’s not just because the objects represent life pre-pandemic and that feels sad because the girl who last used these pockets had no idea what was on its way. That’s obviously part of it this time, but switching out warm-weather clothes for spring ones has always been painful for me. My pockets, myself: The objects people carry tell the story of their life (or at least part of a story.) It’s surprising how much you can learn about a person by going through them.
Here are the relics from my life in 2020:
lists (example: “H20, Wite-Out, Nutella, graham crackers, burrito stuff”)
used tissues (was I crying or did I just have a runny nose?)
plastic tabs for marking pages in books
awesome lipstick x 2
a wadded up five-dollar bill
a couple receipts
The lipsticks were dry but still useable. Plastic tabs will always be my #1 office supply item. I’m still on the same medication. The receipts were weird because a couple of them were from D.C. and I don’t go to D.C. anymore. I put the five-dollar bill in a drawer because I used cash in 2020 but hardly ever now. Lint is eternal.
The arrow of time only goes forward, but the arrow of time doesn’t have pockets. I’m not saying the arrow would ever turn around and go back if it had pockets, but it might slow down to catch its breath.
It’s sad but true: I’ve lost familiarity with the PaperGirl catalog. It’s fixable, but it’s going to take a while.
I’ll probably always remember my favorite posts from the past — this one about my younger sister’s love of a white shoe, for example, and then there was this whole thing; there are a few others. But to reacquaint myself with what I wrote from year to year, it’ll take time and consistency. Some of you know I like cross-referencing posts within a post, and I reckon this will rehabilitate me by default: If I want to link to a related post from the past, I have to find that post, which means I have to search within WordPress, the platform I use for this blog. The hits from the search will jog my memory and over time, if I simply keep showing up, PaperGirls past should come back to me eventually.
But if I don’t know what I’ve written, how do I know what to search?
I know what to search because I’m fundamentally the same person since I fired up PaperGirl 2.0 over a decade ago. If I happen to have cheesecake for breakfast and want to tell you about it, I can do a search for “cheesecake” and probably find something relevant. If for some reason someone starts talking to me about baseball and I want to tell you about it — unlikely but possible — it’ll probably come back to me that I wrote about how it was in Chicago when the Cubs won the World Series. That was six years ago, but I remember.
I’ve been looking forward to telling you about how much I loathe the “smart” devices we’re all supposed to use in our homes, now. But because I have loathed them from the moment Alexa was born, and I blogged several times a week from roughly 2013 to 2019, I’ve surely covered this. I looked back and yes, I have shared stories of this loathing. Well, this is another one of those times.
Eric doesn’t share my hostility toward smart devices. Google Home, Facebook Portal — he finds value in the accursed things, though he draws the line at cameras, thank God; so far, we have no Eye of Sauron (aka Nest) in our living room.
I might take Sauron over his latest installation.
My husband activated an app that gives a person the ability to control the lights in a room. It can also be programmed with specific settings that work on a timer. When evening comes, for example, he has programmed the lights to automatically switch to an Evening setting. This happens at 8:00 p.m., I think. Around midnight, the lights in our apartment switch off entirely. There is a motion-sensor component to this system, so the next setting, the Morning one, waits to come on until you rise from your terrific night’s sleep and it registers that you have walked into the living room. Eric has programmed the Morning setting to turn on all the lights.
It’s important to note that I refuse to install or use this app. Call me old fashioned, but I’m a person who’s super okay with turning lights on or off using hardware (i.e., switches), not software.
Here’s another thing Eric’s been up to: allergies. He’s had seasonal allergies his whole life and they plague him four out of four seasons but they’re extra pernicious this time of year. For the past couple weeks, my darling husband, who is not typically a snorer, has been snoring at night on account of all the trees having sex outside our window.
Though I’m fundamentally the same person I was when you and I were hanging out regularly, there have been some changes. Over the past couple years, I’ve become a light sleeper. I hate it so much. I have trouble getting to sleep. I have trouble staying asleep. And when Eric snores, all is lost. It’s so pointless to try and sleep in the bedroom, so lately I’ve have to take a blanket and a pillow out to the couch and try to sleep there. It’s the worst.
Remember when I told you how the Morning setting turns on all the lights when you enter the living room after midnight? Yeah. Well, when I get up at 2:00 a.m. and shuffle into the living room, practically in tears from the injustice of it all, all the lights come on. The first time it happened, I howled and covered my eyes like I was staring into the sun. I raced around, turning off the blazing lamps all around me but they would not turn off because they are programmed to stay on until the Afternoon setting kicks in.
“Eric!” I howled into the bedroom, “Eric! Turn off the lights! What is this?! Are you kidding me?!”
Eric woke up and reached for his phone to turn off the lights. I was furious. In the morning, I got up from the damn couch and told him that this ridiculous light-app thing had to go. But we both forgot about it, I guess, and that night, it happened again.
I managed to stay in bed last night, barely. When I got up this morning, I went into the living room to gather my things to take to the office. On account of needing to be able to see things, I went to switch on the lights … but the lights did not come on. Because it was Morning, and Eric had turned off the Morning setting as requested. This meant that I could not turn on the lights in my own home. I turned the switches on all the lamps several times: nothing. I packed my tote bag in the dark. I left the apartment practically grinding my teeth into powder.
Eric was still sleeping. He was sleeping so soundly, I probably could have murdered him without much fuss. In the dark.
I’m doing alright, I promise. That’s especially true this morning because being here again feels like I’ve just come into our favorite coffee shop after a long time away and the klatch — the klatch is you — is like, “Well, bless my soul! The ol’ PG!” I plunk myself down in a captain’s chair at our wide, round table. I take that chair not because I want to be captain; everyone’s in a captain’s chair because it’s just the style of this place. Everyone’s excited to hear what I’ve been up to for Lord’s sake, but I just want to hear about your lives and what you’ve been doing while I’ve been out sailing the high seas. Think of me as a wisened fisherman of few words, all yellow slicker and bucket hat, silently dripping several tablespoons of rainwater onto the floor which I wipe up right away with the napkin that came under my croissant. I might be a wisened fisherman of few words but I have manners. You are all relieved that I do not smell of shellfish or whales. It’s way too early for that. Marianne (friend Marianne, not mom Marianne), being immediately to my right, does detect a slight whiff of algae for the first 30 minutes or so, but she doesn’t say anything because she knows the smell of coffee cake baking in the cafe kitchen will soon overtake it. Plus, I’ve been through a lot.
Before long, everyone talking about the big race.
Spring and Winter are neck and neck. One day, it’s Winter’s race to lose. Freezing slush swirls all around us and everyone spits epithets and yanks their damned stocking caps down around their ears and the ears of their children to protect them from the slush and the epithets. But we’re talking about the race because this race isbest race of the year. Spring comes from behind. She pulls ahead by a nose! No one thought it could happen, but suddenly it’s 65 degrees and sunny and it stays that way long enough to get some green buds going in the trees along the street! This is wild! She could actually do this.
Woah, woah, woah, says Marj. Old Man Winter’s no quitter, she says, and eats a piece of my croissant. (She asked.) His age gives him experience and let’s not forget: He’s been working out for months. At that moment, Winter executes a full body slam: actual snow accumulation. The dumb jerk snarls and growls at Spring. He calls her a whippersnapper and blows her down with subzero winds from the north. Winter has always had his fans, but at this point most of the crowd is turning on him on account of him being so mean. Spring gets up, but she’s nervous. It doesn’t look good for her, doesn’t good at all. She’s so young. She’s green! Nothin’ but a colt, really, and going up against that metaphor. We hate to do it, but a few of start to pull on our salt-stained boots and get on home before the snow plows block the damn road. It’s too depressing.
But wait … you guys, you guys.
Spring’s still in this. She just kicked Old Man Winter in the — wow, she’s kicking him but good! Where did that come from?? Spring pulls forward, shaking chartreuse pollen from her mane. It gets in Old Man Winter’s eyes and he starts crying like a little — well, he’s crying, really crying! No one wants to be callous but we’re all secretly praying he’ll start sneezing like crazy and he does, which gives Spring an opening. To our shock, she goes for it, launching one of the riskiest moves in the book, The Triple Easter Bunny. No, we cry out! Spring, it’s too soon! You could die out there! Don’t be a hero! We’ll hold the line! Just a few more weeks — are you crazy?! You’re not ready!
The world stops spinning on its axis. We all hold our breath. She hops once. She hops twice. She hops a third time and … she sticks the landing.
The girl did it. She really did.
We all start whooping and hollering and throwing flower petals in the air. What a race, we cry, and Jim takes a piece of my croissant.
There comes a time in every young woman’s life when she hears the song ‘These Days’, written by Jackson Browne, first recorded by German model and actress Nico in 1967.
Maybe she first hears the track when a boy, trying very hard to impress her with how much he knows about 1960s American pop music, plays it for her at his apartment. The boy calls albums “records” even though he’s playing CDs because it’s 2002, or he’s playing the songs on Spotify because it’s 2022. After ‘These Days’ he plays something from The Velvet Underground (of course), followed by a Rolling Stones deep cut before moving onto motown. At the time, the girl — and the girl is you — doesn’t know much about American pop music except for the Beatles, so it’s all bit intimidating. But when the boy puts on a Sam Cooke record, you and the boy start making out, and after that, you know something about 1960s American pop music too.
Or maybe you heard ‘These Days’ for the first time in Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums. There’s a memorable scene in which Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, with her kohl-rimmed eyes and stick-straight strawberry blonde hair pinned back in a tiny barrette, steps off a bus and walks toward her adoptive brother. For a full minute, Gwyneth moves in slow motion toward her love (played by Luke Wilson) and there is no dialogue, only soundtrack: it’s pure pathos, set to music, and the music playing is ‘These Days’ by Nico, until she reaches him.
It’s definitely possible you heard ‘These Days’ at a party. (Incidentally, ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ is another well-known track on Chelsea Girl, the album — sorry, record — on which ‘These Days’ appears.) I wasn’t at the party where you first heard ‘These Days’, but I know what kind of party it was. I certainly what kind of party it wasn’t. It wasn’t a party with a beer pong table. Chelsea Girl doesn’t hang out at parties with beer pong tables. The table at the party where you first heard ‘These Days’ had wine bottles on it and someone named Sascha standing nearby expounding on Kant with modest success and, depending on how long ago it was, there were a couple of ashtrays in active rotation. Come to think of it, maybe I was at that party … I remember those ashtrays.
I intensely dislike ‘These Days’ by Nico. If I hear Jackson Browne’s unmistakable fingerpicking come through the stereo/computer and I’m in a position to do so, I’ll pop up and skip it immediately. If I’m in a situation where I can’t do that — if I’m at a party, for example — I’ll excuse myself to use the ladies’ room or make my way to the wine table to check on those ashtrays. I don’t want to hear it.
The reason I don’t want to hear it is because for me, the song reminds me of The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s famous 1963 novel. There comes a time in every young woman’s life when she picks up The Bell Jar; it’s sometime after she reads Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret and before The Story of O. Plath’s novel is brilliant because she was suffocating when she wrote it and when you read it, the novel all but suffocates you too. That’s how right Plath got it. I remember how the Esther, the protagonist — and the protagonist is Plath — would go for days without talking to anyone, sensing she was somehow underwater, being rolled over and over in the current of an all-encompassing sadness. Here’s how the first verse of Nico’s dumb song goes:
I’ve been out walking I don’t do too much talking These days, these days These days I seem to think a lot About the things that I forgot to do And all the times I had the chance to.
There are three more similarly suffocating verses and then it ends with this one:
I’ve stopped my dreaming I won’t do too much scheming These days, these days These days I sit on cornerstones And count the time in quarter tones to ten Please don’t confront me with my failures I had not forgotten them
I bear no ill will toward Nico. She was an Andy Warhol ‘Superstar’ by the way, and I’m an Andy fan. But her voice sounds like she’s been eating jam all day. And there’s a brief staccato section in the beyond emo string arrangement that is 1000 percent referencing Eleanor Rigby (it came out one year before) and we all know what a feel-good tune that is.
‘These Days’ is silence and suffocation and I don’t like it one bit. ‘These Days’ makes me feel bad, and I’m not fond of feeling bad. I’m particularly fond of feeling good, as a matter of fact, and I ought to be feeling good these days. In many respects, these are the best days so far.
Which this is why I’m confused that for the past several weeks, ‘These Days’ has been firmly stuck in my head.
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.