One More From Ben: ‘Confessions’

posted in: Art, Chicago, Word Nerd | 9
Sleep, city. Looking north from the Adams and Wabash el station. Image: Wikipedia.

 

 

Remember last week, when I told you about 1001 Afternoons in Chicago?

I’m still reading it, meting out the remaining entries in Ben Hecht’s book so that the miracle will last as long as possible.

Last week, I shared an excerpt, and for tonight’s Sunday Evening Post, I’m going to share a full entry from the book. The piece is called Confessions. It’s one of the best things I have ever read, I think. The humanity, the specificity, the simplicity — it’s remarkable, at least to me. So I typed up the piece, just for you. I like to type up or write out longhand passages of writing written by far better writers than myself. Like a painting student copies a masterwork in order to learn how to paint, copying down other people’s writing is one small thing I do as a writer. It’s an interesting exercise because guess what? Great writers also have to actually write the word “the” in lots of places. They also have to decide, finally, how a piece should end. And begin. We’re all faced with the blank page. We’re all using the same words. We’re all human — right, Ben?

Maybe you think sharing another Hecht excerpt this week is a bit lazy. “This again?!” some of you might say, though I don’t think any of you will say that because you’re not the type. The thing is, it’s been a good but super intense weekend, I’m deep in preparation for QuiltCon (!), and I’m not feeling well. And so, I can either rest on the shoulders of giants and make us all happy, or paste together something mediocre for you and make us all sad. Not a tough call, really. I’m pretty sure I’ll post again this week; my sea legs are feeling stronger.

 

Confessions, by Ben Hecht, from 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, 1921.

The rain mutters in the night and the pavements like dark mirrors are alive with impressionistic cartoons of the city. The little, silent street with its darkened store windows and rain-veiled arc lamps is as lonely as a far-away train whistle.

Over the darkened stores are stone and wooden flat buildings. Here, too, the lights have gone out. People sleep. The rain falls. The gleaming pavements amuse themselves with reflections.

I have an hour to wait. From the musty smelling hallway where I stand the scene is like an old print — an old London print — that I have always meant to buy and put in a frame but have never found.

Writing about people when one is alone under an electric lamp, and thinking about people when one stands watching the rain in the dark streets, are two different diversions. When one writes under an electric lamp one pompously marshals ideas; one remembers the things people say and do and believe in, and slowly these things replace people in one’s mind. One thinks (in the calm of one’s study): “So-and-so is a Puritan … he is viciously afraid of anything which will disturb the idealized version of himself in which he believes — and wants other people to believe … “ Yes,m one thinks So-and-so is this and So-and-so is that. And it all seems very simple. People focus into clearly outlined ideas — definitions. And one can sit back and belabor them, hamstring them, pull their noses, expose their absurdities and derive a deal of satisfaction from the process. Iconoclasm is easy and warming under an electric light in one’s study.

But in the rain at night, in the dark street staring at darkened windows, watching the curious reflections in the pavements — it is different in the rain. The night mutters and whispers.

“People,” one thinks, “tired, silent people sleeping in the dark.”

Ideas do not come so easily or so clearly. The ennobling angers which are the emotion of superiority in the iconoclast do not rise so spontaneously. And one does not say “People are this and people are that … “ No, one pauses and stares at the dark chatter of the rain and a curious silence saddens one’s mind.

Life is apart from ideas. And the things that people say and believe in and for which they die and in behalf of which they invent laws and codes — these have nothing to do with the insides of people. Puritan, hypocrite, criminal, dolt — these are paper-thin masks. It is diverting to rip them in the calm of one’s study.

Life that warms the trees into green in the summer, that sends birds circling through the air, that spreads a tender, passionate glow over even the most barren wastes — people are but one of its almost too many children. The dark, the rain, the lights, people asleep in bed, the wind, the snow that will fall tomorrow, the ice, flowers, sunlight, country roads, pavements and stars — all these are the same. Through all of them life sends its intimate and sacred breath.

One becomes aware of such curious facts in the rain at night and one’s iconoclasm, like a broken umbrella, hangs useless from one’s hand. Tomorrow these people who are now asleep will be stirring, giving vent to outrageous ideas, championing incredulous banalitiies, prostrating themselves before imbecile superstitions. Tomorrow they will rise and begin forthwith to lie, quibble, cheat, steal, four flush and kill, each and all inspired by the solacing monomania that every one of their words and gestures is a credible variant of perfection. Yes, tomorrow they will be as they were yesterday.

But in this rain at night they rest from their perfections, they lay aside for a few hours they rest from their perfections, they lay aside for a few hours their paper masks. And one can contemplate them with a curious absence of indignation or criticism. There is something warm and intimate about the vision of many people sleeping in the beds above the darkened store fronts of this little street. Their bodies have been in the world so long — almost as long as the stones out of which their houses are made. So many things have happened to them, so many debacles and monsters and horrors have swept them off their feet … and always they have kept on — persisting through floods, volcanic eruptions, plagues and wars.

Heroic and incredible people. Endlessly belaboring themselves with ideas, gods, taboos, and philosophies. Yet here they are, still in this silent little street. The world has grown old. Trees have decayed and races died out. But here above the darkened store fronts lies the perpetual miracle … People in whom life streams as naive and intimate as ever.

Yes, it is to life and not people one makes one’s obeisance. Toward life no iconoclasm is possible, for even that which is in opposition to its beauty and horror must of necessity be a part of them.

It rains. The arc lamps gleam through the monotonous downporu. One can only stand and dream … how charming people are since they are alive … how caring the rain is and the night … And how foolish arguments are … how ban al are these cerebral monsters who pose as iconoclasts and devote themselves grandiloquently and inanely to disturbing the paper masks …

I walk away from the must smelling hallway. A dog steps tranquilly out of the shadows nearby. He surveys the street and the rain with a proprietary calm.

It would be amusing to walk in the rain with a strange dong. I whistle softly and reassuringly to him. He pauses and turns his head toward  me, surveying me with an air of vague discomfort. What do I want with him? … he thinks … who am I? … have I any authority? … what will happen to him if he doesn’t obey the whistle?

Thus he stands hesitating. Perhaps, too, I will give him shelter, a kindness never to be despised. A moment ago, before I whistled, this dog was tranquil and happy in the rain. Now he has changed. He turns fully around and approaches me, a slight cringe in his walk. The tranquility has left him. At the sound of my whistle he has grown suddenly tired and lonely and the night and rain no longer lure him. He has found another companionship.

And so together we walk for a distance, this dog and I, wondering about each other …

Stay: Ben Hecht, Chicago, Me, and You

posted in: Art, Chicago, Paean, Word Nerd | 23
Ben Hecht’s book, opened to the first full-bleed spread, with illos by Herman Rosse. This alone is reason own “1001”, but it gets better from here. Image from the Newberry Library here in town. Don’t be mad, I’m promoting books!

 

Today, a book interfered with all the work I was supposed to do. I’ll have to get up very early in the morning to catch up, but I don’t care. There was nothing I could do. Today, there could be nothing in the world — thank God — but this book, the delicate snowfall, and the pub where I sat, in the window, reading for two hours. The barstool I selected was inside Miller’s Pub, est. 1935, a Chicago institution, shielded and admired by the el at Wabash and Madison.

The book, A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, started as a column in the Chicago Daily News 1920s. The author, Ben Hecht, is a name some of you might recognize, but if you do, I’ll bet it’s because Hecht achieved screenwriting stardom in Hollywood in the 1940s, writing or doctoring scripts a whole bunch of classic films. But before he decamped for Hollywood, Hecht was a dyed-in-the-wool Chicago newspaperman. He started writing for the dailies here when he was just 15, and he was good at what he did. What he did was write well about stuff that happened in the city he dearly loved.

Some years before the column began, Hecht left the News to work in publicity. He wanted to make more money and get away from the grind of reporting round the clock, so he went for it. He hated the publicity business, though, and was quickly miserable. His editor wanted him back and had an idea of how to get Hecht and keep him interested. He asked Hecht if he’d like to write a different sort of column for the News, one that explored the people of the city, but this time with a decidedly narrative tone. Hecht could interview people as he usually would, but then, rather than file a Q&A or a “This happened and this happened” piece of reportage, he’d have license to make the vignettes almost … poetic.

For years. In the preface to the 1922 book containing dozens of these “afternoon” characters — this is the book I couldn’t put down this afternoon — I learned that Hecht loved writing this new column so much, he’d do it when he was sick, tired, traveling, depressed, etc. He called the column “A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago” (a Scherezade riff, obviously) and he filed a column every day.

The humanity in these pieces is almost agonizing. Page after page of poignant, funny, achingly true portraits await you as the author tells Chicago through its people: prostitutes, auctioneers, homeless people, businessmen, shop girls, tattoo artists — this is all in the early 1920s, remember, but every single word is as true today as it ever was. People lose jobs and lose their families, they hope and dream, they forgive — sometimes they die, too. I was crying at the bar, trying to hide my face from the nice couple sitting to my left who were in Chicago for a nice weekend. I’m glad they didn’t ask me what I was reading; I would’ve rhapsodised and scared them away.

The book is funny and beautiful and I want to share an excerpt with you.

If you know me, you know I love Michigan Avenue. I walk up that grand boulevard and walk it all the way back down as much as I can and much more lately, since some days I just don’t know what to do with myself. On those days or any day besides, Michigan Avenue, from 9th Street to Delaware is my spinal column and it keeps me upright. So, imagine my rapture when I turned the page of Afternoons to find Hecht vignette about my street that was so right, so brilliant, so true, big, fat tears plopped onto the page as I read. There is no comfort like the comfort that comes when you see that you are known by someone who knew you before you were born.

Here is an excerpt from the “Michigan Avenue” piece from A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, by Ben Hecht, 1921.

I have squandered an afternoon seduced from labors by this Pied Piper of a street. And not only I but everybody I ever knew or heard of was in this street, strutting up and down as if there were no vital projects demanding their attention, as if life were not a stern and productive routine.

[There] was no sign, no billboard to inspire me with a sense of duty. So we strutted—the long procession of us—a masquerade of leisure and complacency. Here was a street in which a shave and a haircut, a shine and a clean collar exhilarated a man with a feeling of power and virtue. As if there were nothing else to the day than to decorate himself for the amusement of others.

I begin to notice something. An expression in our faces as we drift by the fastidious ballyhoos of the shop windows. We are waiting for something—actors walking up and down in the wings waiting for the their cues to go on. This is intelligible. This magician of a street has created the illusion in our heads that there are adventure and romance around us.

There are two lives that people lead. One is the real life of business, mating, plans, bankruptcies and gas bills. The other is an unreal life—a life of secret grandeurs which compensate for the monotony of the days. Sitting at our desks, hanging on to straps in the street cars, waiting for the dentist, eating in silence in our homes—we give ourselves to these secret grandeurs. Day-dreams in which we figure as heroes and Napoleons and Don Juans, in which we triumph sensationally our the stupidities and arrogances of our enemies—we think them out detail by detail. Sometimes we like to be alone because we have a particularly thrilling incident to tell ourselves, and when our friends say good-by we sigh with relief and wrap ourselves with a shiver of delight in the mantles of imagination. And we live a charming hour through a fascinating fiction in which things are as they should be and we startle the world with our superiorities.

This street, I begin to understand, is consecrated to the unrealities so precious to us. We come here and for a little while allow our dreams to peer timorously at life. In the streets west of here we are what we are—browbeaten, weary-eyed, terribly optimistic units of the boobilariat. Our secret characterizations we hide desperately from the frowns of window and the squeal of “L” trains.

But here in this Circe of streets the sun warms us, the sky and the spaces of shining air lure us and we step furtively out of ourselves. And give us ten minutes. Observe—a street of heroes and heroines …

The high buildings waver like gray and golden ferns in the sun. The sky stretches itself in a holiday awning over our heads. A breeze coming  from the lake brings an odorous spice into our noses. Adventure and romance! Yes—and observe how unnecessary are plots. Here in the Circe of streets are all the plots. All the great triumphs, assassinations, amorous conquests of history unravel themselves within a distance of five blocks. The great moments of the world live themselves over again in a silent make-believe.

The afternoon wanes. Our procession turns toward home. For a few minutes the elation of our make-believe in the Avenue lingers. But the “L” trains crowd up, the street cars crowed up. It is difficult to remain a Caesar or a Don Quixote. So we withdraw and our faces become alike as turtle backs.

The Mystery, The Pageant

posted in: Art | 15
Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes, ca. 1850. Amon Carter Museum, 1999. Image: Wikipedia.

 

 

A quilt-world friend with a sizable internet presence told me recently, “The project I’m working on is under wraps for now, so on social media I’m not saying where I am or what I’m doing and my mom said, ‘You’re as mysterious as Mary Fons!'”

I probably don’t need to tell you how much I relished this. I hotdog relished it. Me, mysterious? A woman with a sock monkey mascot? A woman who still doesn’t have a new dishwasher? Fabulous!

I could understand the perception, though. I blog on the ol’ PG and am not always forthcoming about where I am and what I’m doing, not because I don’t want you to know; in fact, I desperately want you to know. I want you to know where I’m going for Quiltfolk magazine; I want you to know where the next Quiltfolk pattern is coming from; I want you to know about this other quilt-world project I have going that I can’t talk about, yet, but which is major.

But I can’t tell you everything because there is an order to things. I didn’t make the order. I make the content, the world makes the order. So, I tell you things as I can and hope you’ll stay until everything becomes clear.

Here’s what I can tell you:

I have come to upstate New York. I am near Syracuse. I have come here for a solid week to research and gather information from one of the most important living players in American quilt history. The reason we have set aside an entire a week is because a) I have a full-time job as editor in chief of a magazine and have many responsibilities from day to day which require my attention; b) it’s summer and everyone/everything is slow; and c) there’s so much to dive into with this person, we really need a year, not a week.

Here’s what else I can tell you:

I have been going through hundreds and hundreds of photographs, tin types, daguerrotypes, prints, and photos, all of which feature people and their quilts. That’s what this person has, among many other objects: He has photographs of people and quilts, starting in 1850, when photography became “a thing,” to around 1950. I’ve cried several times. I gasped, looking through the stacks, the boxes, the treasure. Put another way, I spent a day looking at humanity in photographs and stereoscope images and what I can tell you is that nothing has changed. We are the same. Humans are the same today as we ever were.

Sure, we have laptops now. We have polymers. We have the internet. We have blenders and vaccines but we also still have quilts. We still have families, cats, and dogs. Illness and death come to everyone and always has. Some of us have always mugged for the camera. There’s always been a person who blinked in a picture. We didn’t invent selfies in the 21st century; there are just more of them now and we can take them faster.

Being human is complicated, but today, I don’t think it’s so mysterious.

The PaperGirl Advice Column (and Summer Reading List)

posted in: Art, Day In The Life, Word Nerd | 27
Esther Pauline Friedman Lederer, better known as Ann Landers, in 1961. Photo: Wikipedia.

 

 

I have decided that this blog should become an advice column — but not the normal kind where people write to the columnist for advice.

No, this blog ought to be an advice column where I bring you my problems and quandaries and you give me advice! It already happens so often! Anytime I ask for it, I get great advice!

Whether I’m wondering about how to feel about public breastfeeding or the matter of having an emotional support animal or what book to start with on my summer reading list, the advice and counsel I get from PaperGirl readers is way more interesting and helpful than what I might dole out to you sitting here on my tuffet.*

Honestly, don’t you think that’s a fun idea? An “advice column” where the columnist is the one asking for the advice? Hilarious!

Thanks to all of you, my summer reading list is set. I didn’t tabulate exact votes, but it was pretty clear how things shook out. I am going to read my five novels in this order, as per your advice:

 

1984 byGeorge Orwell
The Goldfinch 
by Donna Tartt
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
Tender is the Night by Ernest Hemingway

 

It was pretty close between Orwell and Tartt, but I think it’s okay for me to start with the shorter work before I dive into the really long one. Henry James was definitely in third place, and David Foster Wallace and Hemingway were neck and neck bringing up the caboose, but I decided to let Hemingway come in last. He so often comes in first, doesn’t he? He’ll be okay.

Once I’m finished with Orwell, I’ll bring you my book report. It’s interesting timing: I’ve been thinking about deleting my Facebook account. I was going to bring you the case and — wait for it — ask you for your advice. Reading 1984 with that in mind, that idea about deleting Facebook, will be most interesting.

Thanks, gang.

 

*I’m not on a tuffet. I just needed to create a visual of some haughty Advice Columnist who thinks she knows everything and putting her on a tuffet seemed right. 

What Would You Ask Ken Burns About Quilts?

posted in: Art, Paean, Quiltfolk, Work | 14
A few of Ken Burns’s quilts in Lincoln. Photo: Melanie Zacek for Quiltfolk.

 

Something pretty cool happened last week: I got to talk to Ken Burns about his quilt collection.

If you got to talk to Ken Burns about his quilt collection, what would you ask him? After you asked him, would you hang up the phone and fall over on the floor and replay every second of the conversation in your mind to recall moments when you sounded like a dork or loser? Upon discovering that you probably did sound dorky at least at one point, did you console yourself that at least you interviewed Ken Burns??

That’s how it went for me.

Last weekend, Team Quiltfolk went to the Ken Burns quilt exhibit in Lincoln, Nebraska and we have worked tirelessly for the past 7-8 days (yes, I worked on it while working on my thesis) to bring you this free — FREE! — Quiltfolk Exclusive. It’s a 28-page, online-only PDF that you can by clicking this link and friends, it is very, very good. It’s been making the rounds on social media, but if you don’t use it much (like me), I hope this blog post gets to you.

Ken Burns was so nice. And the quilts are so beautiful. And Quiltfolk is so cool. I want this kind of wonderful experience all the time, this kind of blissful story to cover, but I know better. Some days, you just like, eat toast and you have to work on less-fun stuff.

On those days, remember these.

A Red Wall?!

posted in: Art, Tips | 29
There wasn’t a picture of a red wall, but this red door is roughly the right shade. Photo: Wikipedia.

 

I said the other day how I need a “new view” and as usual, many of you responded with interesting things to say.

Some of you told me (in the kindest way) to simmer down for the moment and focus on what’s in front of me; others told of their own “gypsy” nature and encouraged me to never stop wanting to view the new.

As usual, you must all know I see every comment, I do read them, and I definitely love them — even when they’re not in agreement with something I’ve written in a post. PaperGirl readers are a truly classy and intelligent bunch and you’re so generous, good grief. So it pains me to mostly not ever comment back but there’s no way. There’s just no way. It’s a big enough job that I could employ a social media person to help me, but that’s been true for years and there’s never been any social media person around here. Not replying to comments is impossible and lame; having someone else replying to you all feels costly and lamer. So here we are.

Wait! This post is supposed to be about a red wall!

My red wall.

I’m going to have a wall painted and the wall is going to be red. Can you stand it?? One red wall. Red is my signature color, of course; my “Heart Plus” logo features my favorite shade, viz. a bright crimson. I actually heard someone say when trying to describe a shade of red, “it’s like, you know, Mary Fons Red” and this pleased me a great deal.

I have painted walls bold colors in my day, but it’s been awhile. I’ve gone for airy and light these past few years and I will always need light and air or wall colors that communicate such things. But it’s time to warm up the joint a little. It’s time to see a new view! And since can’t pick up and move next week/month, it’s time to do something drastic. My west-facing wall (which is quite long) will be Mary Fons Red within the next week or two. And guess what?

I’m not painting that wall. 

Oh, it’s tempting. It’s allllways tempting to paint a given wall or room myself. Because painters are expensive. Because I can actually do it, after all, and what’s a little paint can/foam roller elbow grease? The trouble is that my elbows are killing me. I have no grease to spare. No, I’m going to find a reputable painting outfit and hire out the work. My red has been chosen. My decision is made. Bring on the guys with the ladders and the cute overalls.

Any advice on hiring painters or prepping for their visit? And how much is this gonna cost, anyway? I promise to take pictures and post them either on Instagram or on the FB page.

Red!

Ooooh … Quiltfolk Issue 06 : Arizona

posted in: Art, Poetry, Quiltfolk, Quilting, Work | 10

 

Are you ready for this?

On or about April 1, the sixth issue of Quiltfolk is coming soon, everyone. The bad news is that you still have to wait a little bit; the good news is that she’s the best-yet issue of Quiltfolk and I’m honored to be a part of the team. It’s cool if you watch this teaser video like nine times while you wait for your copy of Issue 06 : Arizona. Friends, you will not believe what we found when we went to the desert to investigate quilts. Wow, wow, wow.

Hold onto your cowboy hats.

xo
Mary

p.s. How about those red glasses on the blonde chick with the notebook?? I’m into it. 

New Philosopher Magazine Calling, or, ‘Pinch Me, I’m Dreaming’

posted in: Art, Day In The Life, Paean, Tips | 5
The Summer 2017 issue of my second-favorite magazine. Image: The New Philosopher.

 

A dream hath come true. Except I didn’t even dream it. I didn’t apply for it, I didn’t suggest it. I didn’t flat out campaign for this dream fulfillment: It just happened.

The New Philosopher asked me to be in their magazine!

Warning: I have to crow about the magazine for a minute before I tell you how I get to be in it. I just have to, and you should know that the magazine is not paying me to say any of this, nor are they paying me to be in the magazine. This is just pure love, right here.

This magazine, The New Philosopher, is my favorite magazine in the entire world  — after this one, of course. It’s quarterly, out of Australia, and it’s invaluable to me as a person who loves to think about and read about philosophy and philosophical questions but definitely can’t just haul out a copy of Heidegger’s “Being and Time” and have at it. Lucky for me/us, The New Philosopher breaks down huge, scary topics (e.g., property, fame, technology, etc.) in visual ways across its thick, glossy pages. Each issue provides the best aphorisms, thought-provoking art, amazing interviews, compelling tidbits, infographics — I could go on. The content manages to be fun while being thought-provoking, it’s beautifully rendered, and issue after issue deftly communicates big philosophical thoughts to non-academics like me. I’m amazed and delighted at the whole operation. Each issue is themed (e.g., Food, Growth, Fake News, etc.) and it’s just Christmas every time it arrives in my mailbox. If this magazine were a person, I would marry it.

I think I have made my point.

Now, in each issue, there’s a two-page spread called “Living Philosophy.” This feature spotlights five people — some fancy philosophy people, some just folks — who answer a short questionnaire. I have often thought how utterly, incredibly cool it would be to be included in that section, to be one of the “Living Philosophy” people. I never in a million, zillion years thought about even thinking it could ever, ever be a thing that would be real.

Well, it’s happening. A few days ago, I got an email from one of the editors: The New Philosopher has invited me to answer the questionnaire and be in the magazine. Me! In the New Philosopher! Answering the questions that I am about to share with you! Can you even stand it??

I swear, I didn’t not hint that I wanted to do this. There is no application process to be in the “Living Philosophy” spread. The New Philosopher just finds you. And the only way they could’ve found me is because a) I ordered a ton of back issues this summer and I sent my order with a pithy/praise-y note, and/or b) they enjoyed my one email to them a couple months ago which contained a copyediting suggestion. But … Then what?? Did they google me? What did the process look like?? Are they reading this blog??

[New Philosopher. Are you reading this blog.]

I need to lay back on a fainting couch or something. Before I do, I thought I’d share with you the incredible questions I get to answer. The questions are certainly no secret: This is a recurring feature in the magazine, remember. How would you answer these questions? Have you ever thought about some of them? Good luck! My answers and my headshot are due on Friday …

  • Top five books (fiction or non-fiction, they don’t have to relate to philosophy)
  • Favourite philosopher
  • Favourite quote
  • Documentary to recommend
  • Favourite artwork
  • Favourite piece of classical music
  • What is philosophy for you?
  • Why is philosophy important?
  • What is the biggest problem we face in contemporary society?
  • What do you hope to achieve from “doing” philosophy?
  • What is the meaning of life?

p.s. How am I going to tell Claus???

Miracle on John Wayne Drive: Happy Holidays to The Iowa Theater!

Viva la Iowa! (None of my pictures from last night are quite right, so I am gratefully using this one taken by the talented Todd Scott, when the Iowa’s marquee neon was first turned on.) Image courtesy the Iowa Theater website.

 

When my mom and my sister Rebecca Fons embarked on the project of the movie theater renovation in our hometown, I knew a few things for sure.

I knew they would do it “right,” aesthetically-speaking. I knew they would deal fairly in all business matters. I knew they would work hard. And I knew they would complete the project. None of this was ever in question.

And though I anticipated that, due to their approach, this non-profit movie theater/performance space would be financially viable, and though I hoped the whole project would be a success, I couldn’t know for sure if those things would come to pass. Well, the theater has only been open since late May and it’ll take at least a calendar year or two to understand how all this is rolling along, but so far, The Iowa Theater appears to have wind in its sails. The reason for this brings me to the third thing I didn’t anticipate:

The power of a well-run movie house in a small town.

To drive this point home, I need to tell you about Winterset’s annual “Festival of Lights” up on the town square.

The Festival of Lights is a kind of pop-up holiday fest that takes place the day after Thanksgiving around 7 p.m. A few shops stay open for business; vendors sell kettle corn and cider on the courthouse lawn (though you can be sure some grownups have something stronger in their cups); Christmas music is piped through the speakers; a horse-drawn trailer takes kids around the square; and various businesses, veterans groups, school groups, and cityfolk participate in a parade where candy is tossed to the crowd. The parade culminates in the appearance of … Santa, of course! And then Santa lights the Christmas lights on the square. It’s wonderful.

I was present at last year’s Festival of Lights when my sister and mother were neck-deep in theater renovations and plans, driving hundreds of miles back and forth from Chicago to Winterset and beyond, sourcing popcorn oil and dealing with studio screening contracts. The monetary and time investment was big. The work was intense. It was all happening.

My two sisters and I stood up on the square during the 2016 Festival of Lights last year, cheering for the parade floats as they went by, huddled together in the cold. Last year, The Iowa, which is smack on the square, was dark.

“This time next year,” my sister Rebecca said, shaking her head. “This time next year, we’ll be open. It’s gonna be awesome.” Then, in typical Rebecca fashion, she added, “I really hope there’s not some alien invasion before then or a global flood or something.”

No aliens, sis.

Last night, at the 2017 Festival of Lights, the cider was there, the kettle corn was there. Santa was there. And now, at the party, the Iowa Theater’s marquee blinkled and twinkled* and that beaut’ was there, too, open for business. Well, open for charity: If you brought a canned good or personal item, you got to see the 8 p.m. movie for free. Once Santa lit the lights, the theater was flooded, so many people on the square pouring into the Iowa with their food drive items and holiday spirits high. (I was working the door: I saw it, myself.) We ran out of seats way before we ran out of merry townspeople.

“We’ll do it again next year,” I said to the folks who got there too late. “Promise.”

So yeah, the Iowa is real. The community is responding to what they helped build. The theater couldn’t exist — nor can it continue to thrive — without all the support the community has given and continues to give, whether that’s approving grant proposals, buying pre-show ads, or simply showing up to watch the live performances or the movies.

“Wayback Wednesdays” are super popular; I went to see “Grease” the last time I was home and the place was packed, many attendees dressed up in Pink Ladies jackets and poodle skirts. At the screening of “Gone With the Wind,” a lady in her nineties stood up and said that she used to work at the Iowa as a teenager and when “Gone With the Wind” came out, she’d sneak in and watch it night after night, then go home and sob with love for Rhett Butler.

The “regular” movie nights are popular too, though some movies play better than others. Whatever the movie, with the Iowa Theater open again, Date Night is back in Winterset. Girls Night Out is back, too. Families come out together. Folks who need to get out of the house can get out of the house and come see a movie instead of … whatever else they had to do when the Iowa was dark.

This holiday season, there are a lot of good reasons to visit the Iowa; last night was just the beginning. The ballet group is doing “The Nutcracker.” The community players will present “The Gift of the Magi” later this month. You can see “Miracle on 34th Street” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” And since the theater will be on this year’s Winterset Tour of Homes, Rebecca’s planned to have”A Christmas Story” playing on a continual loop from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. — just drop in and out at your leisure, Ralphie.

Seeing my mom and Rebecca — and Steve and Marla and all the board members and the Chamber folks and everyone who has purchased a ticket or will in the years to come — seeing these people build this thing has taught me a lot. Namely, that it really is what you do locally that makes a difference in the world. It really is about our neighbors, about our backyards, about our communities.

Well, all that and lots of butter.

 

 

*blinkled and twinkled = a term I have just coined

Wallpaper, Hang It All

posted in: Art, Paean, Tips | 11
1024px-Carberry_Tower_-_Monarch_Double_Bedroom
Not my bedroom. BUT IT COULD BE. Image: Wikipedia.

 

I want to hang wallpaper.

Correction: I want a professional wallpaper person to hang wallpaper for me. I love the way wallpaper looks. It’s like fabric, right? Printed cloth for the walls. I’ve shopped and found some I like very much; it’s now a matter of getting it ordered and installed.

My love for wallpaper runs deep. Out on Meadowlark Farm, when I was a small, small person, I ran through room after room of tiny floral prints on all the various wallpapers of our farmhouse. (I do recall one wallpaper featured a big paisley, though; forgive my parents for decorating a house on a budget, in the mid-1970s.)

The kitchen got a buttercream yellow wallpaper; the upstairs bedroom got navy blue wallpaper with tiny pink rosebuds and leaves. There was another, paler blue in the living room, and I remember fiddling with the seams that ran down the wall. Thought I don’t specifically remember getting in trouble for picking the peeling paper, that obviously must’ve happened.

Wallpaper makes me think of my mom.

I believe she and my dad hung the wallpaper together out on the farm, but I wasn’t around yet to see either of them papering any walls. When it comes to Mom and wallpaper, my mental image involves her alone: not with Dad. I see Mom scraping wallpaper off the walls of our new, not-yet-inhabitable house in town after Dad left us for the last time and we left him for good. I’m just sure she scraped wallpaper by herself, standing up on a ladder; I’ll have to ask my mother if she hung new paper after she was done. Sometimes, you can’t remember these things.

I can tell you, however, that if she didn’t hang paper, she painted. And then she went off to make money to feed our family. We had support from our friends and Gramma, but when I think about my mom during the time of the divorce and our move into town from being out in the country, I picture my mother scraping wallpaper on a ladder in a bare room. Then I see the whole house, and how wonderful she made it by the end.

Hm.

When I started this post, I only wanted to write about how I want wallpaper in my condo, how I have wanted to put some up for a couple years, now. I wanted to ask if anyone in the Chicago area could recommend an honest/speedy paper-hanger.

My intention wasn’t to talk about my childhood, or the pain of my parents’ divorce, or the memory I have of a very lean and scary time when Mom had the weight of the world on her shoulders and my father disappeared in a cloud of confusion and angst. It wasn’t my intention to write about any of that; I just wanted to talk about the wonders of wallpaper.

(Maybe I did.)

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Approacheth: ‘Vietnam’ Airs Next Month on PBS.

posted in: Art | 4
Vietnam Women's Memorial, Washington, D.C., Veteran's Day, 2013. Photo: Wikipedia.
Vietnam Women’s Memorial, Washington, D.C., Veteran’s Day, 2013. Photo: Wikipedia.

 

If you have never plopped down on the chaise lounge or settee of your choice and watched a Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary, I hereby give you the rest of the summer to watch as many/as much of them as you can.

Long before I got sucked into House of Cards  (blame Claus) and way before I broke into a three-week-long Breaking Bad flop sweat, the only other time in my life I ever binge-watch television is when I have a Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary burning a hole in my tote bag. You see, I use a tote bag when I go up to my local library to get books and DVDs. Nerd. Alert.

The first film that made me do it? Ken Burns’s The Civil War.

If you don’t believe a 10-hour historical documentary from 1990 could possibly be as gripping as the lastest Netflix click-bait series, you haven’t seen The Civil War. It’s one of the most exceptional documentaries ever put to film and, I think, one of the most exceptional films ever made, period. The scope of the project, the genius editing, the way the director brought the material out of myth and into reality to show how that the truth, the facts, are far more agonizing and beautiful and surprising than the myths could ever be — oh, The Civil War just a masterpiece!

And all the Burns-Novick films are like that, they really are. (The whole team has won Oscars, Emmys, Nobel Prizes — I think? — and on and on, so you don’t have to take my word for it.) From Baseball to The Roosevelts to Jazz to The Central Park Five and all the dozens of others coming out of Florentine Films, these documentaries tell the story of this nation. I, for one, am interested in all of it.

This is all coming up because I was doing some research and realized that the next Burns-Novick doc — which I have literally heard about for years — is finally dropping on September 17, 2017 on PBS stations nationwide. That’s just over a month from now! The topic and the title of the film?

Vietnam. 

This picture has been 10 years in the making. Ten years. Guess how long it is? Eighteen hours. Eighteen! I can’t wait, though saying “I can’t wait to watch the events surrounding one of the most painful times in my country’s history” sounds wrong. But I know I’ll learn so much, that I’ll cry, that my faith in humanity will be reaffirmed. Burns said in an interview that war brings out the worst in people, but that it strangely reveals the best, too.

Check your local listings. All the early reviews say it might be his best film yet. Oh, and become a member of your local PBS station! I’m a member of Iowa Public Television and the WTTW affiliate here in Chicago. When I donate to PBS, I really do help cool quilting shows (heh) and docs like Vietnam get made.

Not unimportant.

My Little ‘Breaking Bad’ Problem.

posted in: Art, Day In The Life | 18
From L-R: My true love of all time, Jesse Pinkman, and the other guy. Screenshot by me, obviously.
From L-R: My true love of all time, Jesse Pinkman, and…the other guy. Screenshot: Me, gladly.

 

Remember a few months back when I talked about House of Cards? I shared how much I liked that show, how excited I was for the new season. Remember that? Sure. I remember that, too.

Hey, then do you remember how I swore I would never, ever, ever use this blog to talk about television because heaven help us the world is big and beautiful and full of so many three-dimensional, extra-legit things to do and see and look at and we have bodies! Do you remember how I said we have bodies and we’re so lucky to have them and we should use them?? We should use them to leap and shake like the Quakers (or milkshakes, whatever) and spin and at least get off the couch and not watch television for hours and hours, supine, on the couch?? Do you remember that?

Me neither. Because I didn’t say it! I should have. But I did not. And while it can be hard to remember things you did say, it’s harder still to remember things you did not say. In fact… Yeah, gee, I can’t think of anything harder than that. Unless you count…

Well, unless you know how hard it is to stop watching Breaking Bad once you’ve started, once you’ve really started in earnest and fallen irretrievably in love with fictional people who make terrible, terrible decisions, endlessly, with a soundtrack playing in the background and comic relief going for it. Stopping that train once it’s pulled out of that station? Forget it.

Yes, I did what many people told me for years to do: watch Breaking Bad. Ugh. It began… Honestly, I can’t remember. A couple weeks ago? It’s a blur. I said it’s a blur! Stop asking so many questions!

I’ll call Mike!*

Seriously, though: I was feeling soggy and blue, uninspired and feverish. I had no will. Would it last? Surely it wouldn’t, I told myself. But in the meantime, while I wasn’t doing much more than languishing, listless and pale — but somehow still beguiling — on the couch, why not take in a little Netflix? A lot of Netflix. Who would know? It’s not like ever said in black and white in front of thousands of people that I had some moral objection to TV, thank goodness.

Anyway, this show has to end. I’m in Season 5, the last season. I cannot wait for it to be done because it is just too good. I’m not reading or writing. I’m not “going for a jog.” I’m not doing charity work and — horror — I’m not at the sewing machine. I’m just… Embroiled. Bewitched. Chained to a show that features such fine acting and writing, it’s criminal. Which is funny, except my life does not think it’s funny. My life wants my life back.

Also, it does not help that I am in love with the character of Jesse Pinkman and yes, I’m about six years too late and yes, he’s not real, but all he needs is the love of a good woman, okay? And I am that woman! What, you think I can’t be fictional?? You think I can’t have real love for a scripted person in a show that ended five years ago??

It’s a good thing I don’t write about TV shows on this blog, right? Impossible.

 

*a little Breaking Bad shout-out for my BB peeps

TELEGRAM FROM QUILT MUSEUM, LINCOLN, NE.

posted in: Art, Paean, Quilting, Work | 3
Patchwork hanging (detail.) Uzbekistan, 20th century. Photo: Me, at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, Lincoln, NE.
Patchwork hanging (detail.) Uzbekistan, 20th century. Photo: Me, at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, Lincoln, NE.

 

TELEGRAM FROM INTERNATIONAL QUILT STUDY CENTER & MUSEUM, LINCOLN, NEBRASKA, 8:46AM: 

At board meeting. STOP. Quilt heaven. STOP. Lunch w/hero Jonathan Holstein. STOP. Total dreamboat. STOP. Strategic planning and acquisition viewing. STOP. Good coffee. STOP. Never leaving. STOP. Seriously though. DON’T STOP. STOP. I don’t want to leave. STOP. Okay fine. STOP. Gig on Monday in Irvine CA. STOP. Not possible to stay. STOP. Okay I need to take a shower and get to second day of meeting. STOP. This telegram is costing 9,000 dollars. STOP.

Yours ever XOXO Mary. STOP.

Trapped In The Stacks!

posted in: Art, Work | 9
The National Library of France in Paris. Also known as Heaven Itself, as long as I can read French in heaven.) Image: Wikipedia.
The National Library of France in Paris. There wasn’t an image of the library where I was and besides, this photo is proof of heaven itself, as long as I can read French in heaven, which I imagine could be arranged.) Image: Wikipedia.

 

The other day, I spent some hours doing research for my Big Project in a downtown library. This library is a very, very quiet one. If you turn your pages too loudly, you get murderous stares from the librarians and the aides and anyone else in the place. I tried to open a piece of butterscotch and that was not gonna happen. The moment I pulled it out of my purse, two people looked over at me like, “Really? Really, with the candy?

So you can imagine the shock when I heard a very loud “knock-knock-knock!” It was a pronounced rapping on a wooden door: “Knock-knock-knock!” The library’s main reading room is a rotunda with storage spaces off its main floor and inside the round room are bays and stacks and shelves. You can’t really get lost in there but there are alcoves. There are nooks. What I’m trying to say is that I couldn’t where the knock was coming from.

I looked up when it happened. The gal at the next table over looked up. The squinchy library aide looked up and looked annoyed. No one came in or out, though, and there was no sound of a door opening or closing. But whatever. We all went back to our researching or our homework or our squinching.

Then it happened again, about five minutes later: “Knock! Knock! Knock!”

The gal and I looked at each other. Where was the knock coming from? I whispered, “That’s a knock, right? Someone is knocking.” She nodded and looked about. I got up and peered around our immediate vicinity and into the alcoves nearby. I spied an elevator; I hadn’t noticed it before. Maybe someone couldn’t get out of the elevator! I went over to it and pushed the button. But when the doors opened, the elevator was empty.

I decided the knocking was definitely the work of a library ghost. Hey, there was a library ghost in Ghostbusters. It happens all the time, people. And the moment I thought about there being a real-life (-death) library ghost, my brain went into Edgar Allen Poe mode, dreaming up storms and candles blowing out in the wind, of doomed lovers who die writing poetry in the library and haunt it forever. I imagined a gloomy scholar trapped in the stacks!

When I got back to my chair, the gal at the next table over widened her eyes a little and made a face like, “Okay, this is all super creepy.” And before I had time to think better of it, I whispered to her:

“One imagines someone trapped in the stacks!”

It just came out that way. I told you: I was in Poe Mode!

The girl looked at me like, “Ooo-kay. Let’s not pursue small talk.” But she didn’t have to worry; I had a lot of research to do and I needed to be available for the ghost if he needed anything.

 

Oh, Angela: Reading On The Couch.

posted in: Art, Sicky, Word Nerd | 21
Pre-1940s farmer's market, Ireland. Image: Wikipedia.
Irish farmer’s market, c. 1938. Image: Wikipedia.

 

It’s not like I’ve been flat on my back. Well, okay. Today I was flat on my back.

My day consisted of 2.5 naps and 2.3 bowls of miso soup with udon noodles. The naps happened because I am spooky tired and can’t seem to keep my eyes open. The udon happened because my weak hemogoblins are demanding quick carbohydrates. Normally I stay away from the demon noodle, but these are desperate times. As a result of all this drowsy noodle eating, I feel sort of worse than I did when I woke up. I’ve got that sick-in-bed noodle daze thing going on, you know?

Not every day in the past week has been like this, but there have been long hours on the couch or in bed. It’s very hard for me to allow myself to spend hours this way, but what can I do?

Well, I can read. So I’ve been reading. Most notably, I read Angela’s Ashes in about three days.

If you were even dimly aware of pop culture in 1996, you know the book I’m talking about. Angela’s Ashes was everywhere, a memoir of author Frank McCourt’s boyhood in Limerick, Ireland in the 1930s and ’40s. McCourt wrote it when he was 69 after a lifetime teaching high school English in New York City. The book won the Pulitzer Prize. It won the National Book Award. Angela’s Ashes won everything there was to win. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for three years. Six million copies have been sold to date. Hollywood made it into a movie. There are a zillion translations. It’s canonical.*

As for me, I was in high school in 1996 and too busy blasting PJ Harvey records in my Honda CR-X to care much about a tale of a hardscrabble Irish boyhood, so I skipped it. And I never did get around to reading it because, you know, life and a zillion other books to read. And if I’m honest, I do get a little resistant to anything that popular. I’m not a joiner and honestly, could it really be that great?

It’s better.

Angela’s Ashes is a masterpiece. It is perfect. A perfect book. Angela’s Ashes is a work of art that became a part of me, page by page. I moaned out loud as I read, anguished to the point of pain at the crushing poverty, the death, the cruelty of circumstances endured by this family. My eyes stung as catastrophe after catastrophe befell them; my eyes sting now to think back to the characters I grew to love.

And I laughed out loud, of course, because Angela’s Ashes is funny. It’s so funny you can’t believe it. I was shaking my head at what I read, wiping tears from my eyes from the laughter (or was it the sorrow?) marveling at this man, Frank McCourt. Not only did he survive his childhood, he found the humor and joy in it, too — and then he wrote it down so well we can survive with him and spew our tea all over our pajamas because he’s so entertaining while we’re with him. (Ask me how I know about that pajama/tea thing.)

My experience reading this book is universal to the point of being uninteresting, I suppose. It’s safe to say that everyone who reads Angela’s Ashes is deeply moved. Oh, I’m sure there’s someone somewhere who tried to start an Angela’s Ashes backlash, someone who “didn’t think it was as great as everyone said it was.” We’re all entitled to an opinion, but I would have a hard time understanding how anyone could encounter that rich pageant of humanity and beauty and misery and reject it in any way. Frank McCourt made the world a gift in the form of a book. And the copy I read I checked out at the library, which means it was free.

All of that, for free. ‘Tis a great world, indeed, Mr. McCourt. Thank you.

*Read the book if you haven’t; read it again if you have.

My Little ‘House Of Cards’ Problem.

posted in: Art, Day In The Life | 30
NOT GOOD. Image: Wikipedia.
HERE WE GO. Image: Wikipedia.

 

Sometimes my sister Rebecca will mention a hugely popular movie or a television show and I’ll say, “What’s that?” and she will smack her forehead and roll her eyes and say, “You are unbelievable.”

A good example of this was La La Land. We were walking along a few months ago and La La Land was apparently what every last person on the planet was talking about but I had literally never heard of it. When Rebecca discovered this, she groaned. “How is that possible?” she said, shaking her head. “Are you like in the world?”

Yes, but I just don’t see many movies and I don’t have a television. And though I definitely consume visual media, it’s not super mainstream media most of the time. I love to watch documentaries. I very much enjoy watching lectures and educational content on YouTube while I sew. Oh, and I’ve seen every episode of The Great British Bakeoff at least twice. But the big shows like Game of Thrones, Scandal, or [insert show here], I just sort of don’t get sucked into that stuff.

Except. Except for this one dark, gripping, tension-filled, beautifully rendered, twisty-turny, Shakespearean blinkin’ show called… House of Cards.

Mercy, that show is good.

It was all Claus’s fault. A couple years ago, he started watching it and wouldn’t stop talking about how incredible it was. From the opening credits to the storyline(s) to the cliffhangers, he just went on and on about it. I finally decided to give it a chance, even though Mom said she and Mark tried to watch it but couldn’t get past a couple episodes because “the characters were just such awful people, honey.”

Yeah, no kidding. Murder, treachery, mutiny, little lies, big lies, enormous lies — the characters in House of Cards are more dastardly and dirty than the meanest Blackbeard-ian pirates that ever sailed the high seas. But they’re fascinating. I don’t know when I’ve ever been more into a television program than House of Cards. Kevin Spacey is irresistibly wicked. Robin Wright is terrifying and beautiful. I’m in love with the character of Doug Stamper, which, if you know the show, is super weird. But what can I do? He’s so wrong, he’s right.

The reason I’m bringing this up now is that Washington, we have a problem: Season 5 is starting at the end of this month.

This means I am about to be obsessed with watching a television show again and I was enjoying not having to deal with that, honestly. It’s kind of stressful. You see, I started watching the House of Cards when there were nearly four seasons already made and available to stream on Netflix, so I started at the beginning and watched episode after episode after episode until there were no episodes left to watch. I watched that show like it was my job. I’d start in the evening and I would watch it until 2:00 a.m., then dream about the show when I fell asleep! It was crazy.

Now, since I’m caught up, I have to see the show and then wait?? For an entire week??

Rebecca, this is why I don’t do this kind of thing. But if you want to get caught up on House of Cards, I would love to come over to your place and watch it together. We can eat popcorn and watch the pirates run amok!

 

Homespun Handcraft by Ella Shannon Bowles (Part Two!)

posted in: Art, Quilting, Word Nerd | 17
"Square In a Square" quilt, c. 1880. Probably Pennsylvania. Image: Wikipedia, courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“Square In a Square” quilt, c. 1880. Probably Pennsylvania. Image: Wikipedia, courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

 

Yesterday, I introduced the great book I found in a used bookshop. I promised to include an excerpt from the chapter on quilting and I kind of didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

The chapter on the “Old-Time Quilt” is really good. It’s so good that I tried to pare down the excerpt I selected but really could not force myself to cut out a single line! So I was typing for some minutes and you’ll be reading for some minutes, but I wouldn’t have kept typing or suggest you keep reading if I didn’t think it was worth it.

Here’s some of what Ella Shannon Bowles had to say about quilts back in the day. Remember, she was writing in the 1930s about “old-time” quilts in the “pioneer days.” I would go back to the text and pin down the exact years/timespans she’s talking about but I am very tired and still have homework. Let’s just call it “the nineteenth century” and call it good enough.

Enjoy. And may you all have full snuff boxes (!) and a “jolly feeling” all week.

“House-keeping was the goal of every girl’s ambition and her “setting out” was planned for years. When she had assembled a number of quilt-tops, a quilting was held. To it were invited every woman and girl for miles around. Usually the housewife planned to get the quilting out of the way before haying. The quilting-frolics, with their accompaniments of good cheer and jolly feeling, had an important social significance.

Before the guests assembled, the quilting-frames were brought in from the loom-shed. They were long pieces of wood, held together with wooden pegs thrust through gimlet-holes to form a rectangular frame large enough to hold the quilt. The frames were wound with flannel, serving as a foundation for sewing the quilt in place. First, the frames were placed upon the floor and the lining sewn in and pats of wool laid evenly upon it. Then the frames were carefully lifted to the tops of four kitchen chairs, and placed under each corner at such a height as would be most convenient for the workers. Then the patch-work top was laid across the wool-pats and pinned evenly all around the edge. Skeins of blue and white linen thread, braided to prevent snarling, a spool of red thread from the store, a needle-book, wax, and scissors were arranged on a table for the convenience of the quilters.

As early as one o’clock in the afternoon the guests began to arrive. The quilt-pattern was duly admired and then the consideration of the stitches to be used in the quilting was taken up. “Cat-a-cornered” and herring-bone stitch were favorites in rural parts of New Hampshire, though the pine-tree was liked by expert needlewomen. The women who could not gather about the quilt knit or worked on their own sewing. Tongues chattered as fingers flew and soon the quilt was ready to be rolled over the frames as far as finished. During this interval snuff-boxes were passed and then the guests who had not quilted drew up to the frames. When the last row of quilting was reached, the married women left the frames and, with jokes and rippling laughter, the girls began a contest to see who should set the last stitch. The damsel lucky enough to do this would be the first to take a husband!

Now the quilt was taken from the frames, shaken and folded and admired. Mrs. Rollins tells us that the finishing of a quilt was a gala day for the neighborhood. “It was unrolled and cut out with much excitement,” she says. “When Hannah took it to the porch-door to shake it out, the women all followed her, clutching its edges, remarking upon the plumpness of the stitched leaves, and the fineness of its texture. It was truly a beautiful thing, for it was the growth of the farm, an expression of the life of its occupants, a fit covering for those who made it.”

After the  men of the family were given their supper, the table was spread with a diaper-wove huckaback tablecloth. The cherished china was brought out and platters of cold meat, puffy biscuits, tarts, pound and plum cake were set out for tea for the quilters. Guests helped “clear up,” and then the husbands and the sweethearts came to take the women home.”

Homespun Handcraft by Ella Shannon Bowles (Part One.)

posted in: Art, Chicago, Word Nerd | 6
The book! Scanned by me.
The book! Scanned by me.

 

I found a gem today.

There’s a neat bookstore called Selected Works in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, halfway between home and school. (I’ll talk more about the Fine Arts Building another time; that gorgeous building needs its own post!) My friend Justin said that all the books at Selected Works are half off right now, so after we were done at the newspaper office, Justin, Sophie, and I made our way over to check the stacks.

In the craft and home decor section, I found a copy of Shared Threads: Quilting Together — Past and Present by Jacqueline Marx Atkins, a title I definitely needed for my quilt book library. It seemed Atkins’s book was the only quilt-related selection on the shelves but then I spied a sweet-looking, tattered little volume called Homespun Handicrafts. As I lifted the other books out of the way to get at it, I thought, “I’ll bet that book is pretty old. And I’ll bet there’s a chapter on quilts.” I was right on both counts: The book, written by Ms. Ella Shannon Bowles, was published in 1930 — and there is a terrific chapter on quilts.

I was right on both counts: The book, written by Ms. Ella Shannon Bowles, was published in 1930 — and there is a terrific chapter on quilts. Here are the chapters, which I will list because they are great:

I. BASKETS, AND BROOMS [sic] II. HER HANDS HOLD THE DISTAFF
III. THE WHIRR OF THE WOOL-WHEEL
IV. THE THUMP OF THE BATTEN
V. THE CLICK OF THE KNITTING NEEDLES
VI. HONEST STITCHES
VII. MY SAMPLER SPEAKS
VIII. AMERICAN EMBROIDERY
IX. THE ROMANCE OF OLD-TIME QUILTS
X. FINE WORKS
XI. FOLKLORE IN HOME RUG MAKING
XII. THE ANCIENT ART OF NETTING
XIII. LACE LORE
XIV. CANDLE-DIPPING DAY

Great, right?

“Her Hands Hold the Distaff” is almost the best chapter title ever written, but since the quilt chapter gets the word “romance,” I’m gonna say it’s ours by a nose. The book is not a how-to; it’s an account of “pioneer handcraft…which lent so much grace and homely joy to the struggles of the colonists.” (I think/hope “homely” meant something less negative in 1930?)

Isn’t it great to find new old books? Isn’t it cool to go to a used bookstore and find something that you never, ever would’ve known to look for in a library but is exactly what you needed to find?

Tomorrow, I’ll excerpt some wonderful stuff from the quilt chapter; for now, here is an excerpt from the forward:

The study of old-time American handicrafts is a trail winding on and on into delightful bypaths and unexpected turnings. It is difficult for an enthusiast to cease telling the stories connected with these homely arts of our ancestors, so I have limited myself to describing those crafts in the development of which women have played an important part.

It is my earnest wish that this book may serve not only as a guide to the old-time arts, but that it may stimulate the reader to understake the serious study of the development of the crafts of our foremothers as have such workers as Mrs. Atwater, Mrs. Sawyer, and Mrs. Taylor.

I sincerely believe that knowledge in craftsmanship will add beauty to everyday living. Laurence Sterne once made a statement as true in the twentieth century as it was in the eighteenth. He said, ‘What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life, by him who interests himself in everything, and who, having eyes to see what time and chance are perpetually holding out to him, as he journeyeth on his way, misses nothing he can fairly lay his hands on.’

May I leave this message with you?”

 

 

 

Being Open vs. Staying True to a Vision.

posted in: Art, Day In The Life, Tips | 16
Making artistic choices. It's like buyin' veggies at a farm stand. Photo: Wikipedia.
Making artistic choices. It’s like buyin’ veggies at a farm stand. (Please note the label on the box of shallots reads “Tooty.”) Photo: Wikipedia.

 

Learning is exciting and fun when you learn something you didn’t know before and you’re instantly excited about it. My experience in grad school so far has consisted mostly of this kind of learning. More often than not, it’s like, “Wow, a new author I love! Wow, a fascinating person I’ve just met! Wow, a school of thought I never conceived of before! Wow, world!”

But that’s not the only way to respond to learning new things. Responding negatively to new information is important, too. It doesn’t feel fun to not like a book you have to read for class, but really, this kind of learning is every bit as exciting when you take the long view. Finding out what you don’t like, e.g., the kind of work you don’t want to make, the books or authors or ideas you reject, this definitely help shape who you are as a person, a student, a maker, whatever.

And there’s another kind of lesson, I guess, that I’ve been thinking a lot about. It hasn’t been fun to learn it. It’s been uncomfortable and painful. But it’s been very important. Let’s see if I can explain.

If you’re a person who strives to to better, learn more, and do exciting stuff in collaboration other people, which is all of us, you need to be — nay, you want to be! — open to other people’s comments and contributions. Maybe you’re working on a project for work. Maybe you’re making a quilt. Maybe you’re writing a book. Maybe you’re a parent and you’re trying to raise your kids. Getting outside input is important. Listening to someone who has been there before is wise (especially if that person just got a raise doing the job you have, won a blue ribbon on her quilt, got a Pulitzer for her last novel and raised six kids.) The right advice can save you a lot of time. It could even save your life.

But.

There is also a time to listen to yourself. There’s a time to get advice from this guy, that guy, her, her, and him, and then do nothing that they told you to do.

And I was going to say that “it’s so so so hard to know when to trust yourself and when to take advice!” but the thing is, I’ve been dealing with this recently and I think… Sometimes, I think it’s easy. Sometimes, you absolutely do know the right thing to do, and the hard part is admitting that and then going for it.

Here’s my example.

My advisors are amazing. They’re embarrassingly talented. They’re wildly accomplished. They’ve won awards, they’ve published in the fanciest places. They’re successful and brilliant and they are genuine fans of mine who want the best for me. I’m pretty sure that when I’m not in school, we’re all gonna hang out because we like each other.

But over the course of this semester, without meaning to do harm or lead me astray, both my advisors were steering me away from writing the essays I’ve been writing and toward writing a chronological memoir. And what do you suppose I started doing? Yes! Because they are so great and smart and fancy, I slowly started change everything I was doing to fit that vision. I thought, consciously and subconsciously: They know better that I do. They’re older. More successful.

The problem is that I don’t want to write a chronological memoir. I want to write something that doesn’t look like that. And when I lost sight of what I set out to do, when I was changing what I was learning to fit someone else’s vision, all the joy fell out of my project and I didn’t write on my book for a long time. I miss it.

Life and work, it’s all a negotiation. You must listen to others. You must learn. You would be well advised to be well advised. Folks who can’t be told nothin’ are frustrating and lame. (And believe me: Writers who think every word they write is gold and precious are not going to get very far.) We all need editors, we all need help and input from other people.

But you also know things. You do. And you matter as much as anybody else.

 

A Different Kind of Mailbag: My PenPal (Part One.)

posted in: Art, Day In The Life, Luv | 5

Photo on 3-16-17 at 3.33 PM

 

I hope you don’t think I’m being unfaithful to the Fancy PaperGirl Mailbox. But I do have a kind of official (okay, really official) pen pal. I’m not going to tell you who it is. That’s for you to wonder. But I will tell you that that this person and I have many things in common.

We are both quilters. That’s how we met. We both love the American quilt: what it represents, what it can do, what it hasn’t been able to do, yet, and what it can be, if given enough time and space and attention.

We both work actively in the quilt industry (#clue) and do various things within it. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve had unusual career tracks, if you could call them “tracks” at all; we’re both trained in disciplines other than Fiber Arts, Family and Consumer Sciences, or any other quilt-related courses of study (not that there exist such courses of study, but hello, let’s make that happen.) Neither of us — however surprising in my case — learned how to make quilts at our respective mothers’ knees. We picked up quilting later in our still both young-ish lives.

We have both felt misunderstood at times, for different reasons. Really, though, they’re the same reasons. When you feel misunderstood, it doesn’t matter how you’re misunderstood; it just hurts when people say mean things.

Okay, key differences:

  • He’s in museums. I’m researching inside them.
  • He’s good with the phone, a better friend than I am or ever was, at least re: text message/voicemail reply time — and this is why we write letters.
  • He owns bow-ties.

We dash off a postcard whenever we get one from the other, picking up a conversation right where we left off. For example, I wrote to him about a big crush I have on someone that I’m not going to try and blog about/pursue, ahem. I told my penpal that the crush gave me energy, that I wasn’t going to do anything about it, but that it gave me a driving energy that felt really good. A week or so after I mailed that sentiment on a repurposed piece of hotel stationary, I got a postcard from my penpal that said only:

I understand your crush. My friend Glenn would say we are built that way. (We = the type of person you and I are.) So I say take whatever drive you can find and run with it.

Of course, just as in any good, long conversation, we frequently will introduce new ideas, new thoughts into the mix; it’s not just call-and-response. The other postcard that came with the latest batch said:

Interesting movement of dilemma. Life is either:

a) pure biology, a.k.a. you die and that’s it, or:
b) There’s more to it, a.k.a., our efforts are towards a greater good (or bad.)

Choosing one of these should dictate all future actions. Instead, I’m working on a personal legacy, which doesn’t answer either. Which one?

Indeed, [PENPAL], I think about this a lot. But I’m going to break our letter chain (for a moment, hang on) and answer you here, tomorrow.

Movies That Made Me The Woman I Am Today: Ode To “Baby Boom”

posted in: Art, Family, Paean | 9
I love absolutely everything about this picture. (Screenshot from "Baby Boom".)
I love absolutely everything about this picture. It was also very, very hard to pick a single image for this post. (Screenshot from “Baby Boom”.)

 

Awhile back, I praised one of my film heroes: the outrageously brilliant Goldie Hawn. I wrote about my family’s fierce love for the movie Overboard, Goldie, and Goldie and Kurt Russell’s love. My love was echoed by many people in the comments and on Facebook. Lots of us love Overboard and that’s why the world is gonna be okay. (Maybe.)

Someday, I will talk about my all-time favorite movie ever, on Earth, ever, ever — which would be Tootsie — but not tonight. Tonight, I need to talk about Baby Boom. 

If you haven’t seen Baby Boom, allow me to summarize the plot. No spoilers, don’t worry:

A high-powered New York City executive, J.C. Wiatt — played by the incomparable Diane Keaton  and more on her in a minute — gets a call in the middle of the night. She has inherited something from a long-lost cousin who has died suddenly. When she goes to pick up her inheritance, it’s a baby. She inherited her cousin’s baby Elizabeth. (More on that baby in a minute, too.)

J.C. Wiatt is like, “Are you crazy?! I’m a high-powered executive! I can’t have a baby!” and she tries to get rid of Elizabeth but guess what? J.C. Wiatt becomes attached to the lil’ peanut and can’t bring herself to give Elizabeth back. J.C. is forced to admit that she kind of hates her hectic life and her lame boyfriend and so she gets out of the game and moves herself and Elizabeth into a dream home in rural Vermont where she meets a hot, hot, hot veterinarian, played by Sam Shepard, and I’m not waiting to talk about him. Sam Shepard (the actor/playwright/mystical creature) is so incredibly handsome and charming in this movie, you will literally stomp your foot and slap your leg and go, “Oh, come on!!” because he is just ridiculous.

Anyway, J.C. goes stir-crazy out there in rural Vermont (she’s a high-powered executive!) and her house nearly bankrupts her because it’s a lemon. Besides, it turns out she misses the hustle n’ bustle of New York. At some point during the interminable winter, J.C. starts making homemade baby food for Elizabeth. Soon, she’s selling it in farmer’s markets and country stores around New England and before you know it, J.C. Wiatt’s got a tiger by the tail! Country Baby gourmet baby food is a hit! She’s back in the game!

Will she leave Vermont, the house, her new friends, and the hot, hot, hot veterinarian and sell Country Baby for millions? Will she move back to New York City with Elizabeth and raise her daughter in the most exciting place on the planet or stay in the slow lane? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

So now let me tell you something fabulous that I just discovered, unless you’re already clicking over to rent the movie on Amazon, a decision I fully support. Just come back when you’re done.

Check this out: Baby Boom was made in 1987. It was directed by Charles Shyer. It was written by Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyer. Guess what other brilliant Goldie Hawn movie my family loves as much as Overboard? Why, Private Benjamin,  of course. Well, guess who wrote Private Benjamin?? Nancy Meyer and Charles Shyer!! And Shyer directed it, too! And it came out the same year as Baby Boom! 

It feels great to be so consistent. It’s like, “Oh, no wonder I like this thing. It’s exactly like this other thing!” I love it when that happens.

So there are many reasons why Baby Boom is so good: comedic timing, pathos communicated without schlock, and swift pacing all come to mind. But most of all, I love that movie because of the character of J.C. Wiatt, the way Diane Keaton plays her, and — wait for it — J.C. Wiatt’s clothes.

The 1980s are not often given credit for being a fashionable decade. It’s generally understood that the 1970s were worse, which is something, I guess, but people think of the 1980s and they think of neon, shoulder pads, big hair, and acid-washed jeans. But this is so not all the 1980s were in terms of clothes!

J.C. Wiatt proves this. Her thick, cable-knit sweaters. Her luscious scarves. Her swingy, belted dresses with yes, shoulderpads. (They make a waist look smaller and shoulders broad and handsome, if you ask me.) Her handbags, her shoes, her broach. Her other broach. Her big glasses! Oh, those great big glasses. I love it all. So does my younger sister. We have been known to just randomly email each other screenshots of Diane Keaton in Baby Boom with the subject line: “FASHION GOALS.”

The clothes look great on Keaton because Keaton is gorgeous (she was 41 when she made that movie, by the way) and because J.C. Wiatt is a great character. She’s a woman who wants it all — and wanting it all is complicated. She’s got a big heart and big ambitions.She’s conflicted, but she’s trying her best. She’s smart. She’s funny. When I watch that movie, I find myself wanting to either be Diane Keaton and/or J.C. Wiatt, be best friends with Diane Keaton/J.C. Wiatt, have Diane Keaton and/or J.C. Wiatt suddenly be my other mother, and also be like Diane Keaton and/or J.C. Wiatt when I grow up. And then there’s Sam Shepard in the mix, so watching Baby Boom is an intense experience.

Tonight, Baby Boom, I salute you. You really have had a huge impact on me and my sisters. We look up to you and we appreciate you. Also, J.C. Wiatt has a quilt hanging in her dining room, so that pretty much seals the deal.

 

Whose History? The Quilt Scout Is IN!

posted in: Art, Quilting, Tips | 11
"A little spinner in a Georgia cotton mill." Photo: Lewis Hine, 1874-1940. Image courtesy Library of Congress by way of Wikipedia.
“A little spinner in a Georgia cotton mill.” Photo: Lewis Hine, 1874-1940. Image courtesy Library of Congress by way of Wikipedia.

 

The latest lecture in my menu debuted at QuiltCon on Saturday morning. It went well.

The talk, titled, “Standing On the Shoulders of Giants: A Brief History of the American Quilt,” is my best lecture yet, no question. I spent hours and hours and hours researching and making it just right — the slides themselves are artful and nice to look at because I have learned rudimentary Photoshop techniques at art school and that is exciting — and I’m stoked to take this puppy out on the road in the coming year. Am I coming to your area? Are you going to see this thing? It is very possible. If I’m not coming to an opera house, lecture hall, or quilt guild near you, why not? You should speak to Carmen.

The Quilt Scout this week examines something I had to keep in mind while giving a history lesson. I had to remember to push myself. I had to continually remind myself to ask: Whose history do I tell when I tell about history? It’s easy to see one version. There are lots of versions, though. If you’ve ever had an argument with someone who saw a situation differently than you did, you must concede this point.

Even if you’re not a quilter, I urge you to take a look at Quilt Scout today. It’ll get you mulling about responsibility, perspective, and like, the Industrial Revolution.

Baby, You’re a Star.

posted in: Art, Poetry, Quilting | 12
My first attempt at a Bethlehem Star. Block and photo: Me.
My first attempt at a Bethlehem Star. Block and photo: Me.

 

In the slam poetry world, there’s a famous saying: “The points are not the point. The point is poetry.”

This is usually said when a good poet gets beat by a bad one (something that happens with fair frequency in competitive performance poetry.) It’s kind of a “Better luck next time, buddy” thing to say, a condolence. But it’s also said because it’s true. The saying actually does get at the heart of the poetry slam. The idea behind the whole thing from the start was to get people to engage more directly and viscerally with poetry; who scored what or which poet won the night was never supposed to matter very much. (Note: When you’re the poet who won the night, it matters a lot.)

The picture up there is a process shot of my first-ever attempt at making a Bethlehem Star. The Bethlehem Star is an eight-pointed patchwork star and is notoriously tricky to pull off. For those who don’t do patchwork, it may look like I made this in the dark while drinking adult beverages, possibly blindfolded; the quilters out there will be able to see that I obviously just haven’t sewn together my eight “prongs,” yet. (Nor have I trimmed my dog-ears.) If I can get this post written in the next twenty minutes or so and still have some juice left, I’m going to try sewing it all together tonight and I might even try to cut my side pieces.

But quilters and non-quilters alike, take a look at those diamonds. The ones within one prong of the star. They’re not great. They’re not bad, but there are some jumps and some zig-zags, some places where the tips of the diamonds don’t kiss.* I may find that these eighth-of-an-inch imperfections add up to big problems by the time I go to set in my side pieces, and at that point, I’ll maybe have to un-sew things and make them fit better. I’m okay with that. I like to sew things accurately not because I’m a perfectionist or because I’m fussy, but because sewing is much more fun if you don’t have to keep fixing everything as you go along. Best practices make the process much more enjoyable overall.

However: If I find that my prongs work out and my set-ins work out, too, those not-perfect diamond points suit me fine. Because the points are not the point. The point is the quilt.

The point is the quilt.

I would rather have a quilt that I love, that is actively being made imperfectly, than a “perfect” quilt sitting in a box in my house, or a quilt that isn’t getting any love up there on the design wall. The points are not the point. My life is the point. The fabric that love, that’s the point. The quilt that I make that I will probably give to someone I love, that’s the point.

What else is there?

*Who ever said quilting wasn’t sexy? Ours is a world where diamonds kiss. 

PaperGirl Mailbag: Sexy Lady Fabric!

posted in: Art, Quilting, Small Wonders, Work | 18
Scan of Cranston Mills Print (not sure of year.)
Scan of Cranston Mills print; fabric circa 1950s.

 

Not quite a month ago, I announced that I got a post office box for PaperGirl. I’ve visited the box just once so far, a little before I left for Berlin. I got two letters! That felt so, so, so good. To dear Phyllis and the giver of the lace sample from Marshall Field’s (!!) you will be honored here soon as my first correspondents.

Now that I feel officially back from my trip — there’s more to say about Berlin but I just can’t right now — I’m excited to do errands. That’s how I know that everything is gonna be okay: when I get excited about errands again. (Note: It usually only takes me a few days and I get this fabulous, dust-yourself-off trait from Mom.) Probably my most looked-forward-to errand is to go check the PaperGirl mailbox tomorrow. I can’t wait. My innocent excitement, the big-eyed joy I get whenever I get a letter — in any letterbox to which I have a key — is immense, so go on! Send that postcard or box of gold bricks to Mary Fons/PaperGirl, P.O. Box 3957, Chicago, IL 60654-8777 today. Your mail will be cherished and kept. That’s a promise.

What’s neat about the letter I’m going to share with you now, though, is that it came to me before I had the box. I got this message via my mom (and maybe to Mom via the Fons & Porter office?) a few months ago. I put it into a stand-in briefcase I wasn’t used to using and misplaced it until a few weeks ago. Susan, I apologize: This piece of mail you sent is extraordinary and you haven’t heard from me, yet. Let’s do this.

Thank you so much for the fabric and the fabulous letter, Susan. You’re an excellent letter-writer, by the way, and of course I love your taste in fabric.

PaperGirl readers are incredible. Maybe there should be an annual PG convention. Or at least a retreat. We could all meet, swap fabric, stories, and read books and sew. I would seriously be into that. Anyone else? Okay, here’s Susan’s communique:

October 1st

Dear Mary:

I heard you and your mother on your short-lived podcasts (wish there were more) and on one you were waxing poetic about how much you looooove Springs Fabrics so I KNEW you would appreciate the enclosed ‘family heirloom.’

In the 1950’s my great aunt Vivian went shopping for fabric to make kitchen curtains and this is what she came home with. Now, in that era, many women in their 50’s and 60’s were proper and matronly. Aunty Vivian chose the fabric because she liked the colors, thought they would be perfect! Then, after she got home… She saw the design and was aghast; how could she ever let her friends see these ladies in her kitchen!

I was a teenager (good grief, where has the time gone?) and thought the Springmaids, from the ads for Springmaid sheets, were as clever as could be. Had no idea what I would do with the fabric, but I wanted it! 

Eventually, I covered a lampshade and stretched one repeat on a frame to hang next to the lamp. Yet I still had the enclosed piece and never could figure out what to do with it. Didn’t want to cut it up for a blouse, didn’t need a curtain, already had a lampshade… and so it sat in a drawer.

And, now it’s yours to pet and find a clever use for. I hope you enjoy it.

Susan Calhoun-Sousie
Fredericksburg, VA

 

1 2 3 4 7