My bag is being packed for my trip to Berlin and I said I was going to tell you about some of the mail that has started to come in, but I realize that I need to do this first!
This year, I have the distinct pleasure of speaking this year for the kinda-sorta legendary Creative Living Lecture Series in Woodstock, Illinois. I’ll be there next week, January 19th. There are 400 seats in the theater and I have learned that they are almost sold out for the show! But there are still tickets left to come see me next Thursday, so if you can make it, get yourself a ticket and let’s hang out. Here’s where you can get the ticket online, or you can call or go here:
WOODSTOCK OPERA HOUSE BOX OFFICE INFORMATION Phone: (815) 338-5300 Hours: Monday – Thursday, 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM,
Friday and Saturday, 10:00 PM – 6:00 P.M. and 2 hours before performances.
(Visa, MasterCard and Discover accepted.)
The phenomenal Creative Living Lecture Series has been running since 1964 and is organized by the Woodstock Fine Arts Association. Reading through the history of that group is to read the story of incredibly passionate, dedicated people who had a vision for their town and also for the historic opera house where the series takes place alongside lots of other terrific productions throughout the year. The opera house is on the historic register and guess who performed there once? My husband across time and space: Paul Newman! Did you know that I am actually single because I am and have always been and will always be married to the most perfect man who ever lived on the Earth, Paul Newman? Orson Welles also performed at the Woodstock Opera House but I am not married to him. Just Paul Newman.
Creative Living has featured incredible speakers over the years, including: Dr. Temple Grandin, Maya Angelou, Billy Collins, Charlie Trotter, Beverly Sills, Martha Stewart, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Rick Steves, Studs Terkel, Joseph Epstein (one of my favorite writers!), Ann Patchett (one of my mom’s favorite writers!), Rick Bayless, Bill Kurtis, Gene Siskel, and so many other people that are amazing that I can’t believe I’m going to be a part of such a neat event. I get to breathe that air, man! Wow.
My talk is about my journey in quilting and I will also speak about the history of the American quilt and about designing fabric. I’ll have quilts to show, of course, and there will be books for sale that I will happily autograph.
Come to Woodstock! I can’t wait to be there and see you.
Heaven knows why I remembered this the other day but there it was. Gather ’round, and I shall tell you about the time a man named Python made me calf’s head soup.
It was 2003. I was living with my friend Will on Winona and Broadway, working as a brunch waitress on the weekends and trying to get my freelance writing career off the ground. I was at the Green Mill poetry slam every week, doing high school poetry gigs here and there, and basically hustling, as 24-year-olds do, to make ends meet while trying my best to have some fun. I managed the first thing okay and boy did I nail the second part. I was a wild child that year, for better and (mostly) worse.
At the restaurant, I worked with Norma. One part Rizzo from Grease, two parts Anita from West Side Story, twice my age and fond of Misty ultra-slim cigarettes when she took her break, Norma was the best part of my job. I adored her. (I wrote a poem some years later about her and the mischief we would make when we went out on the town.) One Sunday, Norma and I finished our shift and met back up at a bar around the corner from my place. The Lakeview Lounge closed years ago, but it was a tiny, crummy, hole-in-the-wall staple in Uptown for many decades. There was a minuscule stage behind the bar where — and I say this with love — crusty burn-outs — would play Lynard Skynard while they sipped warm Michelob and chain-smoked Camel hard pack cigarettes. Because of course in 2003 in Chicago, you could still smoke in bars. Heck, maybe the Lakeview closed down after the smoking ban went into effect. That place was 10% furniture and people, 15% alcohol and 75% pure cigarette smoke, both fresh and stale. Without any smoke, maybe it just ceased to exist.
Anyway, that night, the bartender brought over a round of drinks. “From the gentleman over there,” he said. The bartender’s beard was scruffy but not in a sexy, scruffy-bearded bartender way; it was just scary. He jerked his thumb over to a man sitting at the far end of the bar nursing what Norma and I would learn was a generous shot of Jameson’s and a Budweiser back. The man was forty-something, we guessed and wearing a fisherman’s jacket that may or may not have contained fishing lures and/or bait.
Norma and I raised our glasses to thank the man; he raised his glass back. And because that was how things at the Lakeview Lounge worked (and that’s how these things work everywhere, I suppose, if certain conditions are right) over the course of the night, Norma and I got to know Python. His name really was Python. He was from Transylvania — as in Transylvania, Romania — and he was a world-famous pinball designer. Only in Chicago, baby, and maybe only if you hang out with me. Unusual things do tend to happen in my life; hanging out with a celebrity pinball designer from the place where Dracula was supposed to be from could be considered unusual, right?
I liked Python. He was funny, strange, and a real b.s’er, kinda like me back then. He was also the most talented illustrator I had ever met and he really was famous in the pinball/early video game world; if you remember the arcade game Joust — the one with the knights on ostriches — then you know Python. He was one of the lead artists on that game and many other famous ones that gamer geeks admire a great deal. He hung out at the Lakeview and Norma and I (sort of) hung out at the Lakeview and so over the course of the next few months, I got to know him and he would draw little drawings for me. We became friends and talked about art and politics. He told me about the horrors of living under communism; I recited poems for him, which he loved. He never tried to take advantage of me and even though he was much older than I was, I was never creeped out by him. In the spring, he asked me if I wanted to spend the weekend at his ranch in Michigan and I said I’d love to go.
This is the sort of thing, by the way, that makes me feel okay about not having children. I mean, how did my mother survive me literally saying following sentence: “Hi, Mom! I’m going to spend the weekend in Michigan with a guy twice my age from Transylvania. His name is Python. His accent is really terrific. He designs pinball games. See ya!”
But the weekend was great. Python was a real outdoorsman, so I got to shoot a bunch of guns. I ate bacon straight from the smokehouse he built on the property. There may have been live chickens, but it was a long time ago, now. And on Saturday morning, Python asked me if I had ever had calf’s head soup. I said that no, I had not had the pleasure. He got very excited and said that he happened to have a calf’s head handy, so dinner was settled. I felt very scared for the first time that weekend but I helped chop carrots and celery, anyway.
I would learn later that calf’s head soup is also called mock turtle soup and that it’s not so crazy to eat if you live in certain parts of the world (e.g., Romania) or if you were fancy and lived at any point during the Victorian-era in England or the U.S. when it was all the rage among the upper crust. All I knew at the time is that there were chunks of a dang cow head boiling in broth all afternoon and that the clock was ticking: I was going to have to eat the stuff at some point and eat it, I did — and more than just the head meat, too. You see, Python insisted I eat one of the eyes.
“Oh, that’s okay, haha,” I said, feigning an eyeball allergy. But he wouldn’t let me off the hook.
“It’s the best part of the animal,” he said, holding the thing up on a spoon. “Just eat it, Mary. It’s so good for you! You will feel like Supergirl! More Supergirl than you already are.”
I can be brave when I want to be. So I did it. I ate the eyeball. And wouldn’t you know it: I felt like Supergirl. It was all the phosphorous. And yes, it was really, really gross. It was like a hard-boiled egg except that IT WAS AN EYEBALL.
I’m sorry to say that Python died a few years ago. I can’t remember how I learned of his death; we hadn’t been in touch in a long time. He had cancer. An article I read told about how all his friends and fans from the pinball and illustration world rallied around him to raise money for his medical bills. I hope he felt all that love when he was sick.
Remember me, Python? That poet girl? I’ve come a long way. Thanks for the snack.
Okay, you back? Good. Did you change your hair? You look great. Here’s a tray of light refreshments and a beverage. Where was I? Ah, yes. Hand me the pecans. Okay.
In 2011, the Neo-Futurists suspended Greg from the company. Put more simply: We kicked him out. Remember, this person’s behavior over the decades — decades! — had been destructive and poisonous, but it hit a crisis point that year (and if you want details, just google “neo-futurist greg allen tml closing” and you’ll get all the news stories and at least some of the awful details.) Calmly, firmly, the ensemble informed Greg that he was not allowed to be in Too Much Light for awhile and that if he wanted to play again, he would need to petition the ensemble to come back and then be a better person. He never petitioned.
The show went on. I went “inactive” in 2012 because of Quilty and Love of Quilting, a divorce, more health problems, a move downtown, etc. And while the show was going on and I was doing my thing, it appears that Greg was plotting revenge. This is my theory. This is only speculation. You come to your own conclusions when I tell you what happened next.
One month ago, the Neo-Futurists got a surprise. After being in negotiations with the company about how much they would pay him for the rights to perform Too Much Light, Greg went quiet — and then came a press release.
In the press release, Greg said that he was pulling the rights for the Neos to perform Too Much Light after 28 years running because of Donald Trump. If you’re scratching your head, here are a couple highlights from the press release:
Faced with the pending inauguration of Donald J. Trump, Allen has decided to let the existing Chicago Neo-Futurists’ license come to an end so that he can rebrand the show with a new diverse ensemble that embraces a specifically socially activist mission.”
“[The new Too Much Light ensemble] will be comprised entirely of people of color, LBTQ+, artist/activist women, and other disenfranchised voices in order to combat the tyranny of censorship and oppression.”
“I could no longer stand by and let my most effective artistic vehicle be anything but a machine to fight Fascism.” [Greg quote.]
Oh, the trouble with this. There are almost too many problems to list. But let’s try!
The current Neo-Futurist ensemble is made up of all kinds of folks, many of whom fit the description of the “new diverse” company he wants to build. So this can’t be his main goal.
By doing this with no warning, Greg instantly put around 12 hard-working, low-paid-but-paid artists out of work. How is this being visionary?
There is a New York City company and a San Francisco company, both of which also pay Greg to perform Too Much Light. He did not yank the show from them, only from Chicago. Interesting.
The Neos have always done interesting, highly-political work — and there were a variety of political opinions expressed on the stage, at least when I was around. And all kinds of people who fell on different places on the political spectrum came to the show. To make an ensemble that exclusively makes theater about one perspective on Trump/his cohort, this is not going to create conversation. This isn’t even going to sell tickets. I hope Greg is shopping for choir robes for his new, uber-progressive ensemble, because whatever show they make is going to be a lot of preaching to the choir.
So that’s all the bad stuff. Guess what? There’s good stuff.
The good stuff is that the Neos have been working so, so hard to get a new show up in the next few weeks. They’ve been raising money and have almost reached their goal of $50k. (I wouldn’t be a good Neo if I didn’t ask you to consider putting a buck or two in the hat; it’s easy and you’ll feel good knowing you’re…fighting fascism?)
And the other amazing thing is that when the news came out, all the alumni from 28 years of Too Much Light and the Neos, we circled the wagons, we lit the flares, we came together in support of the current ensemble and we’re doing a big benefit show for them on New Year’s Day. It’s the most extraordinary thing. You can’t get tickets because they sold out in five hours; I posted a note on Facebook and within minutes, it was too late. There are dozens of Neos, some coming from far away, to be in the show and be together, to remember, to play, to laugh, to cry. All that stuff.
We had a rehearsal on Tuesday and will rehearse all day Sunday leading up to the double-feature that begins at 7 p.m. The oversold house and the enormous cast, we will be proof that you can’t stop art — you can’t even contain it, can’t make it hold still.
By the way: New York and San Francisco? They quit. After hearing about all this, they didn’t opt to renew their rights to do Too Much Light. They’re standing with Chicago. Greg’s plan backfired.
As I said yesterday, being part of that company and being lucky enough to get to do TML for those years was like finishing school for my soul. I worked with people so talented it was almost embarrassing. We were rock stars. We were friends. The best art I’ve ever seen or made for the stage was the art I saw or made for Too Much Light and the Neos.
Too Much Light is dead. Long live the Neo-Futurists.
Many people who read the ol’ PG started coming around because we share an interest in quilting. You saw me on TV or online and poked around and hey, look: blog. You know by now I’m glad you’re here.
But there are other readers. The survey this summer (which you can still take if there’s nothing good on TV) showed me a goodly portion of people are here because we came in contact with each other via the world of Chicago performance. In 13-ish years in Chicago I’ve logged untold hours as a performance poet, I do a lot of “live lit” events around the city, and from 2006-2012, I was an active ensemble member of a theater company called the Neo-Futurists.
When I am dying — hopefully a long time from now, on a divan with comfy pillows, lipstick perfect — I will look back on my life and see plainly at that time — just I do now — that being a Neo-Futurist was one of the most gratifying and soul-affirming experiences of my time on Earth. More on that later.
Tonight, I want to tell you what’s going on with that company right now, for there is news. I aim to share the story so that anyone reading this blog, whether they’re Quilt Camp people or Chicago Performance Camp people, will come along. (And both of those things need to be actual camps.)
The Neo-Futurist ensemble was formed 28 years ago, back in 1988. The group became famous for a show called “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind: 30 Plays In 60 Minutes.” I’m not going to describe the show too much here, except to say that yes, there were 30 plays, we only had 60 minutes in which to perform them, the ensemble wrote all the plays and the show changed every week. It was not improv (go to Second City for that), and the short pieces were always true to our lives in some way.
This is because the aesthetic, or guiding principle, for the Neos was — and still is — to never pretend to be something we’re not or be somewhere we aren’t. So if I do a cheerleading routine with two other girls in Too Much Light about how I had my colon removed and how it really hurt, the audience at a Neo show knows that what I’m talking about really did happen. (I did a lot of plays about my colon circa 2011 but I never did a cheerleading routine. That would’ve been awesome.)
The one other thing to know about Too Much Light is that it was a phenomenal success. There were three performances every weekend; people would line up around the block to get in to see this thing. Our 120-ish seat theater would sell out most nights. Too Much Light became the longest-running show in Chicago theater history. Twenty-eight years that show ran.
Until it ended, very abruptly, at the beginning of this month. Which brings me to the meat of my tale.
Though the show changed every single week, the 30 plays/60 minutes format was created by a man named Greg Allen. Greg founded the company and owns the trademark and copyright to Too Much Light and the concept of “30 Plays in 60 Minutes.” Every year for a lot of years, the company would pay Greg for the rights to keep doing the show.
This was a terrible situation for the company to be in. The “rights thing” became a rug Greg could whip out from under us at any time. It didn’t have to be that way, but it was.
This is because Greg wanted it that way. A corrosive figure who behaved abominably within the ensemble, Greg abused his position of power in the company as Founding Director over and over again for years in ways too numerous and varied to detail, positioning himself for personal gain (e.g., teaching opportunities, lecture gigs, etc.) while the ensemble made the art and ran the day-to-day operations of the theater. His misdeed are legendary; every ensemble member since the company started has horror stories. He antagonized or manipulated the board of directors; he harassed ensemble members; he offended everyone; he hurt people. My grandmother would have called him “a real rat fink.” My grandmother would not like to hear what I call him.
You needn’t worry that I’m getting petty or assassinating his character: This has all been corroborated in the papers over the past month. The Tribune, the Sun-Times, the Chicago Reader, TimeOut Chicago, they’ve all covered this story because in Chicago, it’s pretty big news, what Greg did. Wanna know what he did?
Greg used the election of Donald Trump as an excuse to pull the rights to Too Much Light.
For the rest of the despicable story, for more juicy details, for my best attempt at an explanation of this foolish person’s behavior, and for a whole bunch of beautiful silver linings, tune in tomorrow, my gorgeous ones.
You may have noticed the pastfewposts offer scanned-in quilt blocks as the featured image. What can it mean?
Quilt blocks are pretty much 100% good. I’ve never met a quilt block that was made in anger, represented anger or resentment, or had an opinion about an election. And there’s so much anger out there, so much resentment, and so many opinions on either side about the long, long, explosive election, I feel like a quilt block is a life raft.
Everyone — on either side, in every corner, everywhere — can use a life raft. Sometimes it looks like we need one less, sometimes it looks like we need one more, but the truth is, we always need one: We just panic and reach for it at different times.
Also, quilt blocks are pretty, and this must never be seen as unimportant.
My mom made that block up there probably 15 years ago. She gave me a few loose blocks for a class I was teaching on color; she used the same blocks when she was out on the road. It’s cool to use some of the same teaching materials she used when she was out on her grind; talk about a legacy.
One of the magazines I subscribe to is The Sun. It’s primarily non-fiction writing, photography, and fascinating (long, yay) interviews with anthropologists, artists, authors, and other interesting human beings.
And then there’s this feature toward the back called “Readers Write.” The editors give a one- or two-word prompt and readers send in their brief story (100-400 words or so) or anecdote relating to the prompt. (Upcoming prompts include “Losing,” “That Night,” “Mischief,” and “Bad Habits.”)
The contributions are always incredible: real, sad, hilarious, true. The Readers Write prompt for this month’s issue was “First Impressions.” On the plane to Kansas last night, I read one of the best submissions ever.
If I get in trouble with the magazine for posting this, I’ll take it down. But for now, please read this piece by one Ms. Rebecca Levenberg from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was a pleasure to type up your story, Ms. Levenberg; thank you for writing it and congrats for being published.
“Six years ago I was hit by a truck while riding my bicycle to work, and I had to have my leg amputated. At the rehabilitation hospital I was assigned a peer mentor. Rob was the first amputee I’d ever met. When he offered to answer my questions, I had none. I was riddled with pain from a limb that wasn’t there and overwhelmed by the change to my body. Though I felt obligated to listen to Rob, really I just wanted him to leave.
The one thing I remember about that meeting is that Rob had oe by on his way home from the gym, where he went in the evenings after work. Rob went to the gym. Rob went to work. Rob was an amputee. This information gave me hope.
Over the next year I learned to walk with a prosthetic leg. The second year brought more independence, and I went back to work and to the gym.
That summer a man waved me down on a city sidewalk. “Can I ask you a question?” he said, eyes fixed on my prosthesis. Sure, I replied. His voice got quiet. “Were you born that way?” Were you born without your leg?”
I told him no, that I’d had my leg amputated after an accident. I wondered why he was asking: he had all four limbs.
The man pointed to a nearby hospital and explained that his wife had just had a baby boy born without part of his arm. “The doctor said he’ll never know the difference,” he told me. “Do you think that’s true? Do you think he’ll never know?”
What could I say? I had no idea. We talked a bit more, and I asked if the baby was healthy. The man said yes.
“Congratulations,” I said. “What’s his name?”
He told me, and for the first time since we’d begun talking, I saw a proud dad.
After we’d parted, I realized that I was probably the first amputee he’d ever met. Walking away, I stood tall and confident, just in case he was watching.”
The election is over, and Grand Canyon seems tiny in comparison to the divide between US citizens today. I’m at Midway Airport, headed to the Kansas City Modern Quilt Guild. The airport is a strange place right now.
A very close friend of mine supported the candidate that I did not support in the election. There came a terrible day when I told him I didn’t want to talk to him anymore because of his position. I straight-up stonewalled him, told him I couldn’t be his friend. I was wrong to do that.
Thankfully, I figured out how dumb that was — there are benefits to being in one’s late thirties —and about a day later (okay, maybe two), I called him up, apologized, and listened to him. I really, really listened. I learned why he felt the way he felt. Then I asked him if he would listen to me. He listened. He disagreed but understood a lot more about how I felt by the time we were done with the conversation. We hung up saying, “I love you,” and we meant it. We still mean it.
The quilt block up there is a Union Square quilt block, but I actually am dubious about this; a google search of the Union Square block will yield a different-looking block but I swear, that’s what the thing was listed as when I made it some years ago for a Quilty episode.
It’s a good one. Three fabrics. Forty-five pieces. Geometry. Harmony. With effort, concentration, choices, and interest, I made that block. A lot of people helped me get to the place where I was able to make that block: teachers, mentors, helpers, students, designers. Lots of folks.
Union. The word looks weirdly like “Onion,” come to think of it. And “union” is not dissimilar to an actual onion: complex, multi-layered, useful, problematic if you have an allergy or something…and yes, my analogy ran out but I am very tired.
I meet so many people on the road. I love you and all those beautiful quilts.
In my Quilt Scout column earlier this month I took on the “Are quilts art?” question. Being in art school, I’m approaching this question differently than I have in the past; turns out I still feel the way I did before but for better, sounder reasons.
The thing is, “Are quilts art?” might not even be the right question — but it’s true that quilts do occupy a funky place in the art/craft conversation and it’s more than worth turning over in your mind for awhile, especially if you have cookie bars and some binding to do at your next retreat.
Consider a Mariner’s Compass from 1890. Though beautiful and artful — impressive technique, intelligent color placement — it’s argued by some that it’s still just (!?) craft, because the Mariner’s Compass doesn’t have a deeper meaning behind it. There are no implications, no ironies, no symbolism. It’s a blanket. Sure, it’s a stunningly beautiful blanket, but but the woman who made the quilt wasn’t like, working out her grief about the death of her child through the patchwork in the quilt.
…Or was she?
That’s the trouble. The people who make determinations about what art is or is not are usually not the people making the quilts, recording the stories, or keeping the “blankets” safe. See what I mean?
Over the summer, I started making a quilt and with a deeper meaning behind it. Will someone know that in 100 years? Will someone keep the records? I can’t know. But I know that my quilt, “Bachelorette,” is a monochromatic Log Cabin I’m making using all my old sheets and pillowcases and my favorite white shirts from the past five years.
A lot has happened to me in the past five years. Divorce. Illness. Career stuff. Tens of thousands of words. So much love. Heartache. Moves. Moving back. So much travel. School. Change, change, change. And I was going to get rid of some old sheets in June and I was replacing some worn-out old white (and off-white) shirts in June and I stopped myself:
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” I said (out loud, of course.) “Not so fast.”
It’s going to be a big quilt. The paper-pieced blocks you see finish 7”; I have made 64 of them. I have 26 left or something daunting like that. I’m stitching in labels from clothes that I wore during — well, I’ll write the whole story later. That’s part of this quilt: The story of it, on paper.
It’s white, like paper. It’s softer, though, and lived-in. And it’s definitely art.
One of the serious, who-does-that?? advantages of getting my MFA in Writing at the School of the Art Institute (SAIC) — aside from the fact there’s a longarm in the textile department and they want me to use it — is that I have not one but two advisors and I meet with one of them every other week.
Week 1, I meet with Jesse Ball, who is A Very Big Deal. Guggenheim Fellowship, awards coming out his ears, OMG-level reviews in the New York Times, Atlantic, Paris Review, etc., etc. Sometimes I’m intimidated by him because he’s this rockstar type, but aside from one awkward meeting where I felt like a big dummy and didn’t have one intelligent thing to say, we’re peas n’ carrots.
Week 2, I meet with Sara Levine, also A Very Big Deal. Essayist in a bazillion “Best Of” anthologies, professor at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, reviewed by Oprah…it goes on and on. The truth is, all of the faculty at SAIC is this way and, as Claus told me this spring, it’s practically unheard of that a grad student gets an advisor appointment on a weekly basis.
“This is what you’re paying for,” he said. “And it’s worth every dollar.”
Sara is working with me on my book. Did I tell you I’m writing one? I have been poking at it here and there for over a year, but now it’s happening for real and that’s one part of the reason I’m doing this school stuff. It’s a book of essays about my life in quilting — and so, so much more — and the best way to describe it is to say that if PaperGirl is a snack, Piecing [working title]is a meal. A meal I’m prepping in the kitchen right now. You are gonna freak out when you see what I made you for dinner, you guys — in a good way, as long as I can pull it off.
Sara helped me so much the other day when she read a portion of a chapter and said, “This. This part right here when you talk about pre-washing and then you jump directly into moving to New York — that’s it. That dovetail. I want to see more of these moments. Where else can you dovetail two disparate things in the same way? Think like a woodworker dovetailing two pieces of wood. Does that make sense?”
Ever since she said that, I’ve been writing like an absolute maniac. Most of it is garbage. But it’s important garbage and at least a few chunks are keepable. And everywhere I look, I see potential dovetails; places where two things come together and they just fit, even if they’re not “supposed to” or I didn’t think they ever would.
And then the other night, I closed my laptop and went to the sewing machine. Because there was another dovetail I kept seeing. A fabric one.
I sketched out the paper foundation a couple times. The one up there, that’s the one I like the best. It’s an abstract shape and I’m a pretty traditional quilter, so it’s a departure, style-wise, for me. Do you see it? It’s a dovetail. And I made a few sample units with some sashing in between and I felt happy in a way that I haven’t ever before, not quite like this.
It’s happening. Writing and quilting and art. It’s coming together in this new way.
Someone said to me recently, “You’re all over social media!” and I was surprised to hear that because it’s really not the case.
I’ve seen legit social media masters and that ain’t me. Believe me, I see the benefits of being all up in the social media game, posting this video and re-tweeting that, but the only way I can increase my social media reach is to do more social media and I just don’t have it in me.
Being a blogger isn’t the same as being a social media whiz. When I write a blog post, I always let folks know by posting to Facebook and to Google+. And yes, I do enjoy Instagram, but I go in spurts: I’ll be stuck in a coffee line and post a few shots before I get to the register. But I resigned from Twitter because I don’t want to send text messages to the world. I have taken in some light Snapchatting, but I must be too old for Periscope — and I never made a single Vine. I don’t even play games on my phone! By the way, I know Pokemon Go is a game, but is it a social media gamey thing? Like, do you follow people’s games? Probably. I doubt I shall never know.
Using bitmojis is definitely not using a social media platform, but if I socialize with it via text messages, does that count?
In case you don’t know — you probably do — Bitmoji is an app for your phone that allows you to create a cartoon of yourself and then gives you hundreds of “bitmoji” illustrations to choose from to express hundreds of different emotions in your text messages, from “I love you” to “It’s red wine night!” to “Busted!!” to… Many other strange things, e.g., you, as a unicorn, blasting off a rainbow that kind of looks like a fart. It’s so much fun! I’m amazed at how much my bitmoji looks like me and how much my sisters’ bitmojis look like them. Sophie’s got a good one, too.
But yesterday I had a rather awkward text conversation with a friend of mine who is in his early fifties and made his bitmoji.
My friend’s bitmoji did not look like him. Actually, that’s not true: My friend’s bitmoji looked like him about 30 years ago. There were no lines on his face. He put himself in a polka dot shirt for crying out loud — he’s a t-shirt n’ sweater vest kind of fellow — and the body shape he chose for his bitmoji was rather…optimistic. All of these things I tried to tell him super diplomatically when he asked what I thought, but I when he texted me that he was depressed after hearing the feedback but followed up immediately with an “LOL, jk!!!” I knew we had a problem.
When Sigmund Freud was 63, he wrote about being horrified on the train one day when he realized the elderly gentleman he was observing was his own reflection. When I waited tables at Tweet, I worked for dear Michelle, who told me once, “It’s amazing to me when I give a man a wink and then I remember, “Oh yeah: I’m old. How about that.” My friend’s off-the-mark bitmoji showed me that we stay on intimate terms with younger versions of ourselves. Every once in awhile I see a picture of myself and I think, “How about that.” It’s not that I’m one foot in the grave; it’s that I’m not twenty — even if I feel like it. (I often do.)
Bitmoji did not pay me to write this post, unfortunately, but I do encourage everyone to go make one and enjoy it; but make it true to how you look. It’s more fun that way.
William Soutar is one of my favorite poets. I love him so much I wrote a poem about him once. (It’s not good enough to share, yet; maybe someday.) Soutar, who was born in Scotland in 1898, suffered from ankylosing spondylitis, a crippling form of chronic, inflammatory arthritis, and was bedridden for well over a decade as a result. But by all accounts — even in his sickbed he seemed to know everyone who was anyone in those days so there are many accounts — he was beguiling, charming, warm, and obviously an insanely gifted writer.
When Soutar was diagnosed, he didn’t freak out. When he realized that he would no longer be able to play football, or garden, or travel much at all, he said to himself, “Now I can be a poet.”
Who does that?
I also love Soutar because he was a dedicated journal keeper. Me too, Billy; me too. And leafing through a journal from 2013 the other day — I was looking for a picture that I still haven’t found — I came across a passage from Soutar’s journal that I had copied into mine. It’s about why a person should keep a journal.
Or a blog.
“If you ask me why I deem it worthwhile to fill up a page such as this, day by day — shall I not reply, ‘Worthwhileness hasn’t very much to do with it’? The most natural reply might be, ‘Because I cannot go out and chop a basket of firewood or take the weeds out of the garden path.’
Yet that wouldn’t be a wholly honest answer. We are all sustained at times by the thought that whatever we may be we are certainly a solitary manifestation of creation; not a single other creature in all the history of the world has been just as ourself — not another will be like us.
Why not put on record something of the world as seen by this lonely ‘ego’: here and there perhaps a sentence may be born whose father is reality.”
Thanks, William. It’s good to know you think about this stuff, too.
Today, I had my first class in the graduate Writing department and I am in love.
I’m in love with my professor’s incredible brain and I’m in love with her syllabus. I’m in love with the bike ride to campus (six minutes!) and I’m in love with all my fresh new notebooks. What’s wonderful about this place is that when I say I’m a quilter, everyone wants to know more because everyone here loves art, pattern, color, and making things with one’s own two hands (and feet, if you’re a quilter or a potter, of course.)
I am not in love with the elevator situation, however. I had a rather harrowing experience this morning.
Many classes at The School of the Art Institute (SAIC) take place at 116 S. Michigan Avenue and 112 S. Michigan Avenue. These buildings are across the street from the Art Institute itself and they are both very tall. I don’t know how many floors each one has, but I’m quite certain both have at least 14 because I climbed 14 flights of stairs today. Before 9 a.m. With a cup of coffee in my hand, a tote bag on my right shoulder, and a purse on my left one.
Hey, man, I’m impatient. If I’m at the bus stop for too long and the bus is nowhere in sight, I’ll just start walking. Why stand around and twiddle my thumbs when I can move my tushie and get a change of scenery? Besides, bus stops are grody. This impatience applies to elevators, too: I hate waiting for them. If it seems doable, I’ll take the stairs every time. This “don’t wait” philosophy is hardwired in my general disposition, but it also springs from having experienced long periods of my life when I was so ill and so weak I couldn’t walk. I’ve been in hospitals for months and weeks at a time and it’s certain that I’ll be back in those places again. I genuinely do not take for granted when I feel well enough to take the stairs, so I do. Within reason.
The three (only three!) elevators at the 116 S. Michigan building are tiny and date to the Mesozoic period. Seriously, these are the slowest elevators I’ve ever experienced. I think they go up or down a couple floors and then just need to rest or something, maybe make a phone call before they get back to work. And at 8:50 a.m., there are big crowds of students — mostly undergrads — all waiting for them. One is usually out of order and the other two creak open every 5-6 minutes and let in a trickle of people inside before creaking away again.
What floor was my class on, I wondered? I took a look at my planner. Eighth floor. I sucked in some air. Let’s do it, Fons. Boot n’ rally. And I began to take the stairs.
I had to rest at the fifth floor. While I was doing that, a couple undergrads zipped past me, laughing and talking while they were zipping up stairs because they are small children. (Neither of them were wearing heels.) But when I got to the eighth floor, I realized I had made a terrible error: I was in the wrong building. I was in 116 S. Michigan; I should have been in 112. There’s nothing like being out of breath and sad and panicked because now you’re going to be late to your very first department class during your very first days of graduate school.
What was I to do? Wait there for the elevator and take it all the way down, then walk to the other building and then go up another eight flights of stairs? Even I have my limits. Then I realized something. The two Michigan buildings are connected at the 14th floor! This was a good solution: I could just go up to 14 and then back down to 8 on the other side and maybe still make it right on the money. I looked at the elevators through the stairwell door. I looked up the stairwell at six more flights of stairs. I thought about my life. I thought that if I died in the stairwell someone would find me eventually. I took a deep breath, cursed loudly (it sounded awesome with the echo), and began my ascent. Again.
I was in my seat at 9:02. I was sweaty and gross and happy, actually, because that’s how bad I want this.
Here’s what the Humanities Council says of this program:
“Our Road Scholars Speakers Bureau invites Illinois authors, artists, and scholars to share their expertise and enthusiasm with people in communities throughout our state. It also enables local nonprofit organizations to present compelling, free-admission cultural programs to their communities at little cost to them.”
How cool is that?? This is a tremendous opportunity because it does exactly what I was talking about yesterday: It gives me an opportunity to answer the question, “What can a quilt do?” for an entirely new audience.
The lengthy application was due in June and I only heard yesterday evening that I got in. Apparently, the competition was extra fierce this year and stuff just takes a long time. I pitched a talk called “Quilts: America’s Greatest Creative Legacy” and now I get to do it! For money! At venues that will be packed (hopefully) with both quilters and non-quilters who will see quilts in a new light. Maybe those people will be inspired to make a quilt of their own; maybe those people will at least find new love for the quilts and quilters in their lives. There is no way under the sun this Roads Scholar Speakers Bureau is anything but a win-win-win-win for all.
Thought I’d share the good news. And for all my friends in Illinois, I think you can request me? I’ll be doing orientation and on-boarding stuff in the coming weeks. I’ll see you on the Road!
For those who don’t know, this spring I was accepted into the graduate school of The School of the Art Institute (SAIC) of Chicago. As of today, I am officially pursuing my MFA in Writing. Today was the first day of school.
I am in love. All day, I was reminded why I have chosen to do this thing. My reasons were everywhere I looked.
My career in the quilt world — a career I have been tirelessly building for seven years — is robust and was robust when I submitted my grad school application. Though I’m not doing TV right now, I have gigs with guilds, shops, and groups booked through 2018. My fabric line is selling well (the first line was extended and this fall there will be a new group, “Decades,” which is reproduction prints from 1890-2000.) My column for Quilts, Inc., “The Quilt Scout,” had its one-year anniversary and read widely; I’m curating a scrap quilt exhibition for Spring Market 2017 for QI, too. I’m hand-quilting quilts, designing new ones, I’m on the board of the International Quilt Study Center, and both my classes and lecture are sold out at QuiltCon.
Why am I giving you my dumb resume? Because as good as all that is, it’s not enough. Let me rephrase: It’s not everything. Quilts are more than the industry. They’re more than the latest trend. I love quilts too much to let them be just a career. My schooling is part of my Big Fat Grand Plan to do something bigger.
You see, there are a lot of quilters who teach on the road and do video. There are quilters who have blogs and write books and patterns. These people are my friends. They make crucial, vital work and I love every single one of them. Heck, I am one of them.
But I want to know what else a quilt can do. Who is writing about the American quilt in a way that engages a wider audience? If you can name one, great: There should be more than one. What does a quilt look like when it goes to art school? What non-quilting audiences can it reach? When it’s time to do my thesis, perhaps I’ll write a memoir of my life in quilts (a tell-all memoir, of course.) Maybe I’ll facilitate a citywide quilt-making initiative, teach Chicagoans how to quilt, and write about that. Why not try? Even if I get 6% return rate of participants, that’s 6% more quilts in my city. I’d read a book about that.
The reason I chose SAIC for my graduate work is because they encourage this kind of exploration. I can blend it all at SAIC. (Proof: They have a longarm machine in the textile department and they have a textile department.) Not once in this graduate school plan has my intention been to “leave” anything. It’s the opposite. For the next two years, I’m not stopping anything: I’m going deeper. You can’t keep me from my sewing machine — but instead of continuing in the typical grind of pattern-book-video, I’m thinking big. Real big. For longer.
My first class was this morning: Design For Writers.
Now, I didn’t make a scene, you don’t have to worry about me not making friends, but…I cried. I was so happy to be in that classroom with that award-winning professor talking to other creative weirdos about shape and line and color and words, and my eyes stung. I squinched my sleeve up and put it to my forehead because I knew, I knew.
If you live in Chicago’s South Loop, the last weekend in July is a good time to go visit Uncle Dan and Aunt Carol in San Diego, or finally take that True Manhood Workshop over there in Michigan (you’ve been hearing such good things.) If you can’t leave town, the last weekend in July is a good time to practice your emergency preparedness plan: can you survive four days without going outside even once? Is there enough water? Tea? Are your library books good until Monday??
It’s Lollapallooza weekend.
Since 2005, the four-day music festival extravaganza Lollapalooza has taken place in Chicago’s Grant Park. Grant Park is my backyard. Well, okay: I can’t lean out the window and spit on Grant Park, but I can lean out the window and hock a really intense loogie with a lot of torque behind it and I will totally hit Grant Park. It’s close, is what I’m saying. Guess how many people come to Grant Park for the festival each year? It’s somewhere around 160k.
It’s sorta cool that I might see one half of DJ duo Flosstradamus at my Peet’s Coffee. And I’m always happy that Chicago is a desirable destination for people who like this kind of thing. But mostly what Lolla means (if you’re local, you can call it that) is hordes of people, most under thirty and inebriated, cajoling, shouting, and running in flip-flops through the streets in t-shirts covered with paint, mud, and the insanely long list of bands and DJs playing the show. Michigan Avenue is essentially impassable from today until Monday. State Street is just as bad. Lake Shore Drive is a parking lot from the I-55 feeder ramp to Lake Superior. Sometimes when I tell someone I don’t own a car, they’ll look at me like, “That’s impossible!” and then I look at those people who are trying to get through Lolla traffic and I pray for them.
Our building (and I’m sure all the nearby ones) hires extra security this weekend and there are notices up in the building that remind residents to not let people into the building without permission, even if they offer you the rest of their six-pack of Pabst. One year, I saw some kids walking through the lobby barefoot. I’m pretty sure one of the girls lived here; I hoped that was true, not because I was concerned but because if you’re the kind of gal who likes outdoor summer music festivals and you live in this building, you’ve got it made.
Me, I can’t do crowds. I got spooked at Fourth of July this year and had to leave my friend early. We were in a city park! With families and dogs! If some firecrackers make me nervous, imagine what the throngs of Major Lazer fans would do to me. I can’t do the big show, but in an interesting turn of events I was invited to a party on Sunday that is loosely linked to the Lollapalooza festivities. I think I’ll go. It’ll be a smaller crowd.
I’ve been working on my syllabus for the blogging class I’m teaching at the University of Chicago. It starts on Monday, goes from 6-8:30pm, and runs four weeks. There are a couple spots left if you’re interested and it would be so cool to meet you. Do it!
The syllabus is just a guide for the students to know what’s up and a little map for me, structuring how I’ll go about giving away absolutely everything I know about writing a decent blog.
“Writing” is the operative term, here. Anyone with a computer and a mouse can open a blog. Making space for yourself in the blogosphere via WordPress, say, is easier than setting up your new remote control. (Far, far easier. I hate remote controls so much.) But that writing part. That’s what my class is about. Uncovering your voice. Pushing yourself. Exploring. As hard as writing is – and it is hard – that’s how rewarding it is when you get cookin.
Since not everyone who reads PaperGirl can make it to class (I’m looking at you, New Zealand) I thought I’d share some blogging essentials. We’ll noodle on these in class and go deeper via writing exercises, discussion, practice. There’s so much more – but you’ll have to come to class to learn it.
Until then, here are Pendennis’s 5 Blogging Essentials. He’s the secret to my success, you see.
1. It is all about content. Forget widgets, plugins, fancy web designers, social media, ads, and the rest. All that can come later. If you don’t have great content, you will have nothing to give. Content, content, content.
2. Your blog has to serve people.
It has to help in some way. Your blog can help people by offering shrewd editorial, gorgeous photography, easy-but-yummy recipes, scuba-diving news – anything. But it can’t be about you. My aim for PaperGirl is to offer you one tiny spot on the internet that feels real. Life is funny, and sad, breathtakingly hard and unspeakably beautiful. I give you what I see because I want to see itwith you. If all I wrote were complaints, if all I did was promote myself, if all I “gave” you wassecretly – or not so secretly – all about me, I’d be giving nothing at all. (I have a diary for all the “me” stuff. A blog is not a diary.)
4. Traffic doesn’t matter. Readers matter. …which is why No. 1 is No. 1. Do you want a zillion clicks – or a few thousand readers who can’t wait to see you’ve posted something? Google Analytics tells you something called your “bounce rate.” That’s what percentage of people click on your site and then click right on out. I’ma brag for two seconds to make a point: my bounce rate is 8%. That’s…not normal. I hope it’s because people come over and take off their coat and stay awhile. I’m hoping it’s because I’m following No. 1, though Pendennis is pretty cute.
5. Never, ever write a post about how you have nothing to write about. Ever!
No one, not even your mom, wants to read that post. And neither do you! Go take a walk, look around at stuff, think about stuff, then come back and try again.
I’m not a film critic. I’ve probably only seen a couple hundred movies in my life, and that’s a whole lot fewer than most, I suspect. So what I have to say about it might be of zero consequence, but I gotta talk about The Color of Money.
An article I read the other day referenced Scorcese’s 1986 film and I thought to myself, “Oh, yeah… The Color of Money. I should watch that.” Today has me feeling really puny, so my evening was me, tea, and a $2.99 YouTube rental of the classic pool shark vs. pool shark tale based on the novel by Walter Tevis. (I could get used to this, too; getting into bed and watching a streaming movie on a laptop balanced on one’s chest is one of the greatest things about being alive in 2016.)
It’s just a damn good movie. I’d pay a lot of money to watch Paul Newman and Tom Cruise just sit in chairs and make facial expressions, but in The Color of Money they do so much more. If you could bottle the swagger between them it would be do more damage than nuclear fission. Newman plays Fast Eddie, a first-rate but aged pool hall hustler. Eddie discovers Vince (Cruise), and takes him under his dark hustler wing. They go play in the fields of billiards and no one in their wake is safe.
Eddie teaches Vince his tricks. But then Vince plays Eddie. But then Eddie plays Vince right back. Turnabout, turnabout again. Newman — who, it cannot be denied, bears an eerie resemblance to my ex-father-in-law it almost ruined it for me — is so manipulative, so “Daddy knows best,” so “Let them hate so long as they fear” about everything you just hate him. But you find yourself desperate for his approval, just like Vince. And Paul Newman is my favorite male movie star of all time. I don’t think you can beat Newman for sex appeal, talent, and charisma. But Tom Cruise… I hardly have words. He was 24 when he made that movie. Twenty-four. He is boyish sex incarnate. He’s pure hormones. Phermones. It’s hot in here, I can’t think straight. Jesus, take the wheel!
But then there’s the girl. Yeah, the girl. An achingly young and pretty — but fierce — Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is Vince’s girlfriend and I realized that she is a Disney princess in human form in that movie. Watch it; you’ll see that I am right. Her character is great: layered, conflicted. One wonders if the film had a sequel, we’d learn Carmen was the one playing the boths of ’em.
Perhaps the single most compelling reason to watch this movie asap is this: those boys are actually playing killer pool. Newman and Cruise can play the game for real. I said “Waaaat??” several times over the course of the movie; you can’t believe you’re seeing what you’re seeing. Tom actually sinks an eight-ball while he’s looking in the other direction, being adorable. There are dozens of sequences that are filmed in one take and you see shot after successful shot pulled off by these impossibly beautiful men who are supposed to be acting. Fabulous.
It’s funny and depressing to note that when this movie would play on cable when I was in high school, I distinctly remember thinking, “In no universe will I ever be interested in a movie about pool. Ugh!”
Yesterday, around one o’clock in the afternoon, after a standard-issue (more on that in a moment) labor and delivery, dear, healthy Julia Diane was born to Heather and Sam and to all of us, really; as members of the human race, we can all be happy today that Julia is here.
When Heather asked me to be her second-in-command on the big day, I squeaked. I had no idea what it really meant, though. I had no idea that she was giving me such a gift. In fact, I feel a little embarrassed I didn’t freak out and burst into tears and fawn and do a backflip when she asked me; if I knew then what I know now, I would’ve.
I could fill a book with my impressions from yesterday, there’s so much. This post will be in at least three parts; I like to be sensitive to your time and I also need a shower.
I want to begin by telling you that when I was summoned to the hospital, I brought a book, a snack, and an almost neurotic sense of propriety. I was there to do Heather wanted/needed, but I figured I’d leave the room when things were gettin’ real-real. I had zero intention of being awkwardly there as two people welcome their child into the world; if there ever was a moment not about me, that would be it. Heather did want me there, though, to be present for both of them for the duration — and I think I hit the right note. I sat at the side, helped with ice chips, helped with some washcloths, did some light back patting and arm squeezing. None of the doctors ever glared at me and I’m 100% sure the glasses of water I got Sam and Heather after the whole thing was over were the best glasses of water they have ever had in their life. All I’m saying is that I could possibly do this professionally.
Heather is a strong, brave, beautiful woman. But I had never seen her look like a lion until yesterday. It happened when the baby’s head crowned and pushing had to get really, really intense. With her carnal, ancient task before her, my friend was so powerful and gorgeous, she looked like the strongest animal in the kingdom, doing the bravest thing that can be — must be — done. She was ferocious, focused, and utterly natural. It helped that her loose ponytail was all messed up and her hair was all over the place; Heather’s got awesome red curly hair and it’s generally mane-like, anyway.
But then, just after she’d been a lion, my friend would sink back into the bed in between those major contractions and whimper. She wasn’t crying; these were plaintive sounds of pain and exhaustion. All the strength she had for each round of pushing seemed to entirely vanish when she stopped; then, impossibly, she would find new strength and go again. I thought of the Rudyard Kipling poem, “The Female of the Species Is More Deadly Than The Male.” The poem examines why women will always be more lethal than men because we are the ones who give birth. Look at this:
But the Woman that God gave him, every fibre of her frame Proves her launched for one sole issue, armed and engined for the same; And to serve that single issue, lest the generations fail, The female of the species must be deadlier than the male.
She who faces Death by torture for each life beneath her breast May not deal in doubt or pity—must not swerve for fact or jest. These be purely male diversions—not in these her honour dwells— She the Other Law we live by, is that Law and nothing else.
Heather did her duty to the generations, if you will, and in witnessing it, I understood Kipling’s poem far better — and I’ve known the whole thing by heart for a long time. As I saw a woman endure childbirth, as I watched “She who faces Death by torture for each life beneath her breast” groan and whimper and gasp, I was deeply moved. I’m just not around this stuff very much. The last time I saw a brand new creature was when one of our cats had kittens. I was six.
If you want to find me this summer, check the public library. I’m in the stacks!
My friend Sophie has a new rule for books. Let’s call it the Sophie Book Rule. “If there’s a book I’m dying to read,” she says, “I make myself get it at the library first. Once I read it, if I feel that I must own that book, then I go buy it.”
This is a good rule I am now trying to follow. I’m “trying” because I am faced with the desire to buy a book 1.2692 times a day and this is and likely forever will be a thing. But it’s already getting better! Why, just this very afternoon I discovered an intriguing author and what did I do? I clicked over to the Chicago Public Library website and put it on hold instead of clicking over to purchase it at any number of quality online booksellers who also have brick-and-mortar shops. (Checking for local booksellers is Mary’s Book Rule.)
Look, I’ll never stop buying books. Not possible. But this return to the library is deeply satisfying. Being there regularly —and I’ve been every couple days for about a month, now, returning something or checking something out — connects me with a part of myself I forgot about.
I haven’t had this close a relationship with the library in a lot of years. I guess I’ve just sort of drifted from the public library. Was it the internet? Adult distractions? I’ve been reading this whole time, but it’s been text on screens and books purchased at the bookstore or online.
My sisters and I went to the public library in Winterset practically every day growing up. We would wait there for Mom to collect us after school or we were instructed to hang out there until our friends’ parents got home, stuff like that. The Winterset public library moved across town a few years ago; the old library building is the city building, now, but I bet you anything it smells the same and I still know all the rooms.
The summer was the best time to be a kid in love with the library because of Summer Reading. Summer Reading (this may not be a proper noun but I’m going with it) was a program to encourage reading in summer. The details of the program varied from year to year. Some years there were lists, games, stickers, buttons, prizes for numbers of books read; sometimes you just read stuff you found. The incentives I have forgotten completely. All I remember is the joy of a new stack of books with the check-out cards in the front envelopes. I remember the way the new books’ plastic covers were taut and the older books’ covers were loose and curled at the edges. I remember lazing on the couch in July, reading and reading and reading and reading and reading and then going to the pool and then coming home and reading and reading. This was a good way to spend a summer. It still is.
Sophie told me she used to feel possessive about books. I knew what she meant; sometimes you feel like a book was written for you and you alone and it can be hard to realize other people were also written to.
“But the library fixes that,” Sophie said. “Because when you check out a book from the library, you feel in the pages as you turn them all the people who read the book just like you’re reading it now, and it’s such a wonderful feeling. You’re together with them, you’re all in the book together at the same time. I love that.”
A few weeks back, I directed you to a Quilt Scout column announcing my leap into hand quilting. When I wrote that column I had quilted just a few inches of “Larkin” and was still afraid I was about to ruin the whole thing and regret the decision to try this thing. Indeed, I was not thrilled with the results at that point; I definitely didn’t feel like I had found my new best friend. Then three gigs bore down on me and it was shipping quilts, taking airplanes, teaching classes, and so on, so I left “Larkin” on my recliner, put my anxiety in a compartment labeled “Deal With Later”, and went off to work.
But hand quilting this Kaleidoscope quilt is on my summer goal list and I don’t play around with summer goal lists, people: I mean business with to-do lists. So when I got home from Minnesota, I unpacked, locked the door, put on my favorite black cashmere pants and my halter top, pulled my hair into a ponytail, and settled into my favorite recliner with my quilt. I took a deep breath. I logged in to Netflix. And I started in — for real this time.
Guess what? I didn’t get up for four hours. Turns out, I love hand quilting.
Rocking a needle in and out of layers of fabric is an ancient gesture. Quilted textiles are featured on ancient Egyptian statues.. Stitching is a natural man/tool combination, like chopping wood with an axe or pumping water from a well. Using a simple tool creates simple pleasure. The act of loading stitches — going up, down, up, down with the needle through the fabric and then pulling the thread all the way through — and then doing it over and over until a pattern (and a quilt!) begins to reveal itself, this is inexplicably entertaining while putting a person in a tranquil place. You can’t type and hand quilt. You can’t cook and hand quilt. You can definitely binge watch The Office (both US and UK versions, though I’m working on the US version at the moment) and hand quilt, but that’s about it. It feels good.
The next morning, I stitched for two more hours and only stopped because my index finger was sore. In the evening, it was me and Larkin again, parked in the mid-century black leather recliner I found (in pristine condition!) in Washington, D.C. at a Salvation Army. This is what the chair was meant for: It was destined to be the chair where I quilt this quilt. If I sound like a convert, I am. I’m converted. I’m obsessed! I’ve worked on this quilt at least three hours every day since Sunday. Is my first attempt at hand quilting “good”? No, of course not. But that is so not the point. This is about doing something for the first time and enjoying it. I will never have another first-attempt. You know?
The Scout column got a big response because there are a lot of hand quilters out there. Well, ladies and gents, count me among your numbers. If you want more proof: Today I finished “Charlotte,” a spiderweb quilt top, and I made the back and basted it just so it would be ready for me to hand quilt when I’m done with Larkin.
Serious question: Is there a club I can join? I want a card in my wallet to announce my love to the world. Or a promise ring. Anything.
I’ve written and rewritten this post three times. It’s too special, I’m too excited, and as a result, nothing is coming out right. That’s ironic, because the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) thinks I’m good enough at writing to let me into their Writing MFA program this fall. By then, I’d better have my act together because I’m officially enrolled.
It’s been terrible keeping this secret; I got my acceptance letter in March. Claus was here, and when I opened the envelope and saw the good news, it was like I had a rocket pack on. Claus caught me and spun me around and around.
I waited to tell you because I wanted to share this properly. It’s a big deal, and not just because the SAIC is one of the finest educational institutions in the world, which it is. It’s a big deal because my life is changing with this. I engineered it that way, really; one day last fall when I was in Iowa to film TV, I burst into tears in the middle of my mother’s kitchen and admitted to myself that I wanted to study writing. I couldn’t deny it any longer and I began to research grad programs that very day. It became clear right away that the SAIC was the only school for me. I didn’t apply anywhere else.
So, the Art Institute of Chicago is the big, famous art museum downtown with the cool lions out front. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago actually started first, way back in 1866. The art the founders collected for students to study became the museum.
At the SAIC, a grad student can study textile art, performance, art therapy, art restoration, sculpture, painting, arts journalism, art history, interior architecture, writing — there are other departments I’m not thinking of. What’s extraordinary about the SAIC (one of the many, many extraordinary things) is that they encourage interdisciplinary study. They want performers to take sculpture classes. They want writers to take textile arts classes. They are legendarily good at educating creative people because they understand how creative people learn (i.e., by doing, usually by doing many things that appear unrelated.)
I submitted portfolios to Writing, Textile Art, and Performance. I had all the materials for each program because my entire life is interdisciplinary. But I wanted writing. I decided that if I got into textiles or performance, I wouldn’t go. Even if I could take writing classes while technically studying fiber arts or stage stuff, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to be a Writing MFA candidate. From there, I could study my other loves. And I got my first choice. So now, I can.
The School has a longarm in the Textiles department. What will my quilts become, now that I’m going to be in art school? What might it mean to use quilts in, say, a one-woman play? Will I write a quilter’s memoir? Will I create my own poetry magazine and if I do, will there be patchwork quilts on the cover? I’ll tell you that if I make a poetry magazine, there most certainly will be quilts on the cover. These are the sorts of synergies that are sure to occur when I begin school. I cannot wait. I am counting days.
My job is not one you quit — and I have no intention of doing so. I’ve got teaching and speaking gigs scheduled into 2018. New fabric is coming out in a few months. The Quilt Scout is going strong, I’m making quilts like crazy, I’m working on a pattern project, I’m curating a quilt exhibit at Spring Quilt Festival, I’m on the board of the Study Center. My career in the quilt world isn’t going anywhere — but it is changing (you’ll see me less on TV, for example.) But you watch: these changes will be nothing short of wonderful. You’ll see it all happen, right here. (Psst: it’s all for you, anyway.)
I’m scared. It’s so expensive. I’m taking out loans. It’s two years. It’s gonna be hard. But if I don’t do it now, when?
The Sound and the Fury. As I Lay Dying. Intricate, internal monologues woven through boundary-pushing modernist novel structures; characters so complex and layered they are thisclose to materializing on the couch while you’re reading; trailblazing treatments of racism in American literature; one of the longest sentences in all of literary history (just shy of 1,300 words) found in Absalom! Absalom! and he won the Pulitzer for Literature in 1949 so okay, fine. William Faulkner knows about writing.
But I picked up Volume II of the Paris Review Interviews the other day and I have decided that though Faulkner deserves his spot at the table of Best Ever Writers, he was not nice and I don’t like him. Does Faulkner need to be nice? No. Does he need me to like him? Certainly not, for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that he is dead. But while I agree with some of his rallying cry stuff about how an artist has to be painfully dedicated and driven and in competition with herself, I read some of his answers and became deeply depressed. Because the kinds of things he said directly contribute to countless writers — young and otherwise — who think it’s okay to develop into myopic jerks, okay to maybe nurture an alcohol problem, and definitely okay to not make rent, all because Faulkner was feeling passionate and grumpy the day he said this kind of thing on record:
“The writer doesn’t need economic freedom. All he needs is a pencil and some paper. I’ve never known anything good in writing to come from having accepted any free gift of money The good writer never applies to a foundation. He’s too busy writing something.”
I see. So a person should never apply for a scholarship? Never apply to a foundation so she can write her book? That’s cool. I’ll just keep working nine jobs and try to squeeze in my Sound and the Fury while I’m on the interstate. Did they even have health insurance in 1929? Then there was this, when asked if writing movie scripts could hurt a person’s writing:
“Nothing can injure a man’s writing if he’s a first-rate writer. If a man is not a first-rate writer, there’s not anything can help it much.”
Mr. Faulkner, how do you feel about success?
“Good [writers] don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich. Success is feminine and like a woman; if you cringe before her, she will override you. So the way to treat her is to show her the back of your hand. Then maybe she will do the crawling.”
These words strike me as not just harsh but barbarous and he must’ve meant it, because who cares about words more than William Faulkner? He cares about words so much that he says barbarous things to keep them safe, I guess, from people who abuse them, don’t understand them correctly, rub them together in ugly ways while he’s around to have to smell it. Look, I understand there are a whole lot of people in the world who would be better off being an actuaries, for example, than writers, but you know what? They/we will probably figure that out. And if they don’t but are blissfully happy writing their romance novels or whatnot, who cares, Bill? You’re a real piece of work!
I’m probably missing the entire point. Some Faulkner society will get a google alert that this blog post exists and they will laugh and highbrow-high-five each other at reading group. They can go ahead because I’m on Team Orwell and Orwell wasn’t nice but he wasn’t fancy, either.
When I was at home in Iowa last week, my mother called up the stairs: “Mary? I have something funny to give you!” I am always interested in getting funny things, so I immediately put down my book and went downstairs.
“Katy gave these to me,” Mom said, handing me two certificates on heavy cardstock. “She found them going through some boxes. I guess Mrs. Esser asked Katy to give them to you but she forgot. Isn’t that funny? They’re from 1996!”
Katy is my second mom in Winterset; she taught in the school system there for many years. Mrs. Esser was my high school speech and drama coach. Both are extremely responsible women, fully invested in the well-being of every last one of their students, so it’s funny that the certificates never got to me. I don’t remember being frantic about not getting them, so Katy coming across them was indeed amusing and gave me a chance to reflect on my footloose n’ fancy-free days competing in high school speech contests.
Little known fact: I was on the cheerleading squad heading into my freshman year. I knew I was lying to myself and everyone else about this cheerleading business, but I was barely fourteen; how could I know my life? How did I even know how to read at that point? But on the second day of school I saw a flyer: “FALL PLAY AUDITIONS.” My heart raced. The very next day, I left cheerleading practice early, tried out, got a part, and put up my pom-poms forever. I was in love. Leaving cheerleading for The Stage (!) is possibly the only decision in my life I can point to and say “That was unequivocally the right decision.” Everything after that is debatable.
I was hooked, but outside the fall play and the spring musical, the only other outlet for saying stuff to an audience was debate (check) and speech contest; there was no drama club, no community theater in town. So along with some beautiful, geeky, awkward, brilliant friends, I competed in the statewide speech/drama competitions in categories like acting, group ensemble, poetry recitation, extemporaneous speaking, improv, radio announcing, etc.
Our group would travel with Mrs. Esser around the state to Creston or Valley or Roosevelt High along with hundreds of other students and their coaches. The schools would camp out on the gym floor and eat Twizzlers and drink Mt. Dew while each student went to do her or his bouts throughout the day. We’d all wait in physical pain until the clerks came and posted the scores. If you got three 1’s, you went to All-State. I went to All-State a bunch of times and I’m pretty sure I got awards there, too, but obviously the certificates or distinctions were not of lasting importance. What those competitions did was give me a sense of self, a feeling that I had something worth cultivating, a reason to keep reading books, to keep writing poems, to keep learning lines by heart. To keep trying my best, I think, is something I learned doing that for four years.
I threw both of these long-lost certificates away once I scanned the one here into my computer. I’ve lived this long without them and I’ve been all right. Besides, with all these pictures of me on the 1993 J.V. Winterset Huskies cheerleading squad, there’s just no room on the wall…
POST SCRIPT FROM THE EDITORS: The elegant and shrewd Ms. Joan Millman Schnadig pointed out to me that this certificate is exactly twenty years old to the day. June 3rd, 1996 is the date on the certificate — and it’s June 3rd, 2016. I actually wrote this last night, but if you account for the orbit of the Earth and entropy and all, this award was signed exactly twenty years ago today. Fabulous!
If you counted all the times I’ve seen the movie Overboard, and then added the number of times each of my sisters have seen it, and then added the number of times we’ve all seen it together, you would no longer be surprised as to how it is we can run the lines from Garry Marshall’s 1987 masterpiece from start to finish. You would understand how it is we can (and do) so frequently reference Overboard when we’re together, calling up scripted gems such as: “I just! Ate a bug!” or “Now Billy, when did we date?” or the perfect-for-every-occasion: “Roy?”
The day we learned that Goldie Hawn and co-star Kurt Russell (mercy!) weren’t just “together” in Overboard but “together” in “real life,” we were floored. Really? They’re a couple in real life? It was like Joanna and Dean from the movie were actual people who actually met when Joanna hired Dean to work on her yacht and was mean to him and then she fell off the boat, hit her head and got amnesia, then worked off the money she never paid Dean because Dean pretended she was his wife except things didn’t go according to plan because he was slowly falling in love with Joanna who he pretended was “Annie” but then Annie/Joanna regained her memory and saw she had been tricked and he almost lost everything but then Joanna/Annie realized she loved Dean, too, and she was happier with Dean and the kids than being the old Joanna who was snotty and shallow. And they rode off on a boat together! Into reality!! What?!
In my experience, spending time on celebrity Instagram or Twitter feeds is extremely productive if what you’re looking to produce is post-postmodern anxiety and/or lassitude. But I make an exception for Goldie Hawn’s Instagram account. I love to check up on it. She never posts, for one thing, so right there it’s already a winner: I don’t want Goldie Hawn to be a social media addict. It’s not right for her. Nope, there are just fifty or so pictures of her attractive family, some archival shots from her long career in Hollywood, and a number of pictures of her and her husband, Kurt Russell, clearly in love after all these years. (See photo.)
She’s seventy. He’s in his late sixties. They’ve been together for three decades. I cannot impress upon you how much joy and hope this brings to me. We loved Joanna and Dean in my family. We still do. Joanna (really “Annie”) and Dean are together after all this time, having weathered the storms of fame, of scandal, of tabloid trash, plus the regular ups and downs of parents and two people in a marriage, period, and this calms me. Pictures are only pictures, I know. But Goldie and Kurt are plainly crazy about each other. Am I wrong?
Good job, you guys. Please, please let it be true that you run lines from Overboard sometimes, just for fun. Please. The only thing that makes me happier than your enduring love is the thought that at the breakfast nook every once in awhile you just:
Goldie: “What was I doing out in the ocean?”
Kurt: “That’s something you like to do, go fishing for oysters at night.”
Goldie: “Oysters in a cold ocean at night? That doesn’t sound like me.”
Back in March, I was asked by an accomplished and incandescently beautiful woman at the University of Chicago if I was interested in teaching some writing classes over there. I yawned and told her I was washing my hair but that yeah, maybe that would work, and I told her I’d call her later that week. I forgot about it and then remembered and texted her, “hey u wat up. still want me 2 teach?”
Actually, that is not what I did. What I did was a backflip. I ran around the room and yipped like a dog. I levitated. Really? Teach at the University of Chicago? Teach writing at the University of Chicago? I sat down so my legs would stop wiggling and said that yes, I would like to do that very much. Would she like me to pitch some ideas for classes or was there something she had in mind? Could I get her anything? Coffee? Tea? A new car, perhaps? She said she’d love to hear my pitches — no car or coffee required — and within the week, all three of the classes I pitched to her were put on the schedule. These are they:
Blogging as Reflection & Reputation (4-week) Blogging isn’t just for political junkies or mommies — though if that’s the kind of blog you’re interested in writing, that’s great. Blogging at its best offers a platform for daily writing practice, self-reflection, the opportunity to understand the world a bit better, and to give yourself a presence online that extends far beyond your Facebook or LinkedIn page. In this 4-week workshop, learn the basics of blogging, do’s (#consistency) and don’ts (#oversharing), and gain confidence as a writer.
Stories Onstage (4-week) Everyone has a story to tell. Our stories can be sad, hilarious, thought-provoking, completely nuts, quiet, loud, weird, sweet — and are often a combination of all of that. In this 8-week course, we’ll put your stories onstage in the form of solo monologues. We’ll stretch them, bend them, shape them and generally play around with them to form a piece you’ll be invited to perform for an invited audience the last week of class. Writing and performance go hand in hand here to illuminate your life, your story. Bring paper and your voice.
Beyond Slam: Poetry on Its Feet (4-week) You may be familiar with the poetry slam: competitive performance poetry created in Chicago in 1982. Slam is here to stay, but the old tropes have fallen away, leaving the strongest elements of performance poetry as a gift to us all. In this workshop, write your life in poems, hone solo performance skills from a professional poet/slammer, and come closer to what poetry was originally meant to be: an aural tradition.
This poetry class is the first one up, actually; it began this week. The students I have are engaged, interesting and interested, funny, and excited to learn everything there is to learn about delivering a poem effectively while standing in front of a microphone. My core objective is to break them of any preconceptions of what a poem onstage looks like. I’m drilling into them that the typical slam poetry rhythm and schtick is dead, dead, dead; the only poetry worth sharing onstage, worth honing and rehearsing to perfection is the original poem, the true-to-your-own-voice poem, the poem that no one else could write but you. I can teach them how to win a slam, but I’d rather make it okay for them to be themselves.
You don’t have to be a student at the University of Chicago to take classes at the Writing Studio. So if you live in Chicagoland, come on by. The next class up is the blogging class (starts July 11th) and the Stories Onstage class is slated for September right now, but that might move up.
Teaching scares the poop out of me. But saying no to something that scares the poop out of me scares…more poop out of me. Did I mention I’m a writing teacher?