I was almost going to break my “one image per post” rule, but if you don’t stand for something, you’ll post anything.
When it was certain I would come on this road trip, I had a matter of days to get everything together. I immediately made a mental list of all the thousands of items I would need to go out and get (e.g., leather jacket, campsite hand-wash detergent, a carton of Gauloises, etc.) but I decided to buy nothing that wasn’t absolutely, positively necessary. I’ve been making a lot of purchases recently — a gal’s gotta watch her pocketbook.
But one of the things that seemed absolutely, positively necessary was a robe. I have a robe, but it’s big and fluffy. “Big” and “fluffy” are not words welcome when you’re driving across Death Valley in a Subaru. I was having fun with the “buy nothing” preparation tip I was on, so I decided to make myself a packable, pretty kimono. And so I did.
Quilters have “unfinished objects” (UFOs). UFOs are portions of patchwork that have not yet been turned into a quilt and therefore sit on a table or in a tupperware container, waiting to get their day in the sun. Patchwork is much happier in a quilt, so I keep my UFOs to a minimum; still, I have a modest collection of orphan piecing. So I took blocks and patchwork units from my UFO bag and incorporated them into my kimono — and by the way, cutting into finished patchwork is horrifying and exhilarating and every quilter should try it once. The “pattern” for this thing was just figuring out how to make a back and two front pieces. Then I double-lined it for softness/durability and voila! The patchwork kimono. I made an obi, too.
I cannot express to you how perfect this thing is. I mean, in general, it’s perfect to me because I made it with my hands and my brain. But on this trip in particular it has been astonishingly useful. It’s a picnic blanket. It’s a robe. It’s a towel. It’s a blanket for the car. It’s padding for a seat. It provides shade and wind cover. And it’s a quilt, of course; many women (and men, and children) have traveled this westward route over the centuries with a quilt at their side. So there’s some kinship going on.
If you’d like to see more pictures of my kimono (including several with me actually inside the thing) please visit my Facebook page.
I’m going on a road trip. Today. I’m at the airport right now.
Many months ago, my friend Claus planned a 4-week trip through the American west. He would hit Rushmore, he would hit Yellowstone, Tahoe, San Francisco, and many points in between and beyond, ending at the edge of California. He would then turn around and head straight back to Chicago. We talked about me joining him, but I do not desire — nor do I have the ability, schedule-wise — to go west for four weeks. I’m a clean linen, coffee-in-the-lobby gal. I like showers.
But what if I joined the trip for ten days or so? Maybe I could do that. Maybe it would be fun. What if I hooked up with Claus in Salt Lake City and did the San Fran, Death Valley, Tetons, etc. part? Maybe I’d stay on through Berkeley. For the first time in a long, long time, I have two weeks without travel for work. I believe people do summer vacations, don’t they? Interesting concept.
And so, after much deliberation and anxiety (I have different bathroom needs than most people and there is some camping involved over the course of the trip, which puts a great fear in my heart) I decided that yes, I would add a woman’s touch to the “Go west, young man” thing.
I’ll be checking email and blogging, though there may be a few off-the-grid days. Claus thinks I should leave my laptop behind but a strange rash appears all over my body when I think doing about that. I can’t make sense of beauty (example: Ano Nuevo California State Reserve) or pain (example: middle-of-the-night trip to a campground bathroom with a flashlight)* without writing it down. So the journal comes with and the laptop comes with.
Also coming with: Wet Ones wipes, a bandana, a hoodie, books, sunglasses, sunscreen, sneakers (you actually cannot wear heels in Death Valley, I hear), deodorant, and my favorite snacks that will surely be gone by Day 2. I’m really, really excited now. I see a lot of this country with the work I do, but I’ve never been to Yellowstone, I’ve never seen the Grand Tetons, I’ve never camped in California.
Let’s do this. Let’s have an adventure. I board the plane in ten minutes.
*I may possibly have lost my mind.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: I stayed on the trip for three weeks. Posts to follow explain and detail.]
If I have one iota of coolness in me, I learned it at the Motley Cow Cafe in Iowa City.
When I was a junior, the guy I was seeing wanted to get a bartending job at the newly opened and clearly rad cafe, so we went in one day so he could talk to the owner. They didn’t hire him, but they hired me. (Sorry, Wes.) I worked there for the next two years as a waitress and sometime prep cook and I can say with certainty those were two of the best years of my life thus far. I learned about food, about wine; I learned how to dress, honestly. Everyone in the Motley Cow orbit was cool and soaked up the codes.
The cafe was named for a town in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, which tells you half of what you need to know about The Motley Cow. The other half is that the food was incredible and the spot created a community: small restaurants in small towns tend to do that. There were many regulars and it was part of the magic of the place.
One of my regulars was Hans. Hans looked like Ernest Hemingway and was a big deal in town because he started the Intermedia department at the University. He taught there from 1966 until 2000 and has been an influential artist in intermedia and performance art in America for decades. I think there was a sandwich on the menu named after Hans. It was basically a croque-monsieur, if I’m remembering correctly.
One day, Hans asked me if I was interested in working on a project with him. I was floored. I was also intimidated and scared because a) Hans! and b) he wanted to record me screaming. Look, he needed audio of a young woman screaming — this is what intermedia artists do. Who am I to question? And I said I’d do it. He also wanted to take pictures of women in the woods, which I would’ve done except the women needed to be naked. The scream was all I was brave enough to do at the time, but it’s a bummer because the naked-women-in-the-woods project on went on to be a seminal one in for Hans. Just think: a picture of my naked, nubile, twenty-something body could be on the walls of MoMA right now. Dangit!
Hans picked me up from the cafe after my lunch shift one spring day in his vintage Porsche Targa ragtop convertible. I had never ridden in a convertible and the Targa was a decent one to break me in, I guess. I was wearing a long, pretty scarf (I had agonized over my outfit; what do you wear to a famous artist’s house to scream into a microphone? this is a wardrobe choice that would stump the most experienced stylist, I feel.) Hans told me I’d better take off the scarf because the famous dancer Isadora Duncan was decapitated when her scarf got caught in the wheels of a convertible.
“Thanks for letting me know, Hans,” I said. I was very pale.
The house was a farmhouse out in the country, every room filled with camera equipment, photography equipment, lighting, etc. I went. I gaped. I screamed. It was fantastic. And the lesson is that all you have to do is get out of bed in the morning and stuff will happen to you. If you show up, you will encounter adventures. If you say yes, you can go on them.
The Motley Cow Cafe is still serving beautiful food on Linn Street and if you’re in Iowa City, do yourself a favor and eat there.
Up on Washington Island we have a copy of a book edited by Shawn Usher called Letters of Note. Both Mom and I had an interest in the book; she bought it and I read it all during the week of the wedding. It’s a compendium of “letters deserving of a wider audience.”
There are scanned-in images of actual letters from actual people, e.g., Elvis to Nixon (he wanted to come over in the middle of the night), Aldous Huxley’s wife to her daughter (she administered LSD to Aldous, at his request, as he lay dying), Michaelangelo’s shopping list from 1518 (this is in Vol. II, actually, which I cannot wait to get.) There was one letter in the book that I cannot, cannot get out of my head. I found it online and I read it over and over again. If I get in big trouble for including it here, it’ll be worth it and of course I’ll delete this post.
Writer Rebecca West was in love with H.G. Wells. They eventually got back together and had a kid, but earlier in their relationship, Wells dumped her. She wrote this letter to him in 1913 and it is the most heartbreaking, beautiful piece of writing, I can hardly stand it. Take the time to read it. You will probably never forget it, especially if you’ve been in love and dumped. Most of us have been.
Dear H. G.,
During the next few days I shall either put a bullet through my head or commit something more shattering to myself than death. At any rate I shall be quite a different person. I refuse to be cheated out of my deathbed scene.
I don’t understand why you wanted me three months ago and don’t want me now. I wish I knew why that were so. It’s something I can’t understand, something I despise. And the worst of it is that if I despise you I rage because you stand between me and peace. Of course you’re quite right. I haven’t anything to give you. You have only a passion for excitement and for comfort. You don’t want any more excitement and I do not give people comfort. I never nurse them except when they’re very ill. I carry this to excess. On reflection I can imagine that the occasion on which my mother found me most helpful to live with was when I helped her out of a burning house.
I always knew that you would hurt me to death some day, but I hoped to choose the time and place. You’ve always been unconsciously hostile to me and I have tried to conciliate you by hacking away at my love for you, cutting it down to the little thing that was the most you wanted. I am always at a loss when I meet hostility, because I can love and I can do practically nothing else. I was the wrong sort of person for you to have to do with. You want a world of people falling over each other like puppies, people to quarrel and play with, people who rage and ache instead of people who burn. You can’t conceive a person resenting the humiliation of an emotional failure so much that they twice tried to kill themselves: that seems silly to you. I can’t conceive of a person who runs about lighting bonfires and yet nourishes a dislike of flame: that seems silly to me.
You’ve literally ruined me. I’m burned down to my foundations. I may build myself again or I may not. You say obsessions are curable. They are. But people like me swing themselves from one passion to another, and if they miss smash down somewhere where there aren’t any passions at all but only bare boards and sawdust. You have done for me utterly. You know it. That’s why you are trying to persuade yourself that I am a coarse, sprawling, boneless creature, and so it doesn’t matter. When you said, “You’ve been talking unwisely, Rebecca,” you said it with a certain brightness: you felt that you had really caught me at it. I don’t think you’re right about this. But I know you will derive immense satisfaction from thinking of me as an unbalanced young female who flopped about in your drawing-room in an unnecessary heart-attack.
That is a subtle flattery. But I hate you when you try to cheapen the things I did honestly and cleanly. You did it once before when you wrote to me of “your—much more precious than you imagine it to be—self.” That suggests that I projected a weekend at the Brighton Metropole with Horatio Bottomley. Whereas I had written to say that I loved you. You did it again on Friday when you said that what I wanted was some decent fun and that my mind had been, not exactly corrupted, but excited, by people who talked in an ugly way about things that are really beautiful. That was a vile thing to say. You once found my willingness to love you a beautiful and courageous thing. I still think it was. Your spinsterishness makes you feel that a woman desperately and hopelessly in love with a man is an indecent spectacle and a reversal of the natural order of things. But you should have been too fine to feel like that.
I would give my whole life to feel your arms round me again.
I wish you had loved me. I wish you liked me.
P.S. Don’t leave me utterly alone. If I live write to me now and then. You like me enough for that. At least I pretend to myself you do.
I hung out with my new friend Carla last night at a cafe where everyone was way, way cooler than I will ever be. Carla and I were jamming on quilt world trends and interests. Carla is a proficient quilter and, in my view, has her finger squished squarely on the pulse of the Internet as it relates to quilts, quilters, and quiltmaking in America in 2015. I am not good at keeping up on all this because I am not good at keeping up on voicemail, let alone what hot UK designer is doing with partial seams. I’m not proud of it, but at least I know who to ask.
The conversation turned at one point to my own position in the quilt blogosphere. (I didn’t bring it up, please note!) It was uncomfortable to hear that in Carla’s estimation, I could do a lot better with sharing my quiltmaking process, the projects I have going, the day-to-day life I have as a person who regularly works with fabric and thread.
“It does seem that your projects sort of emerge when they’re done,” Carla said, munching a pear from her salad. “People like to see process. They want to know you better as a designer, I think, as a fellow quilter.”
Thus, a picture of my sewing table. My sewing table is also my table-table. I have no other table in this furnished apartment and it’s a good thing, too: to have a second table just for breakfast, say, I’d have to stack it on top of this one and then where would I put my washer and dryer? What you’re looking at up there is a fresh crop of fabric purchased in Kansas City; materials from the class I taught at the DC Modern Guild a couple weekends ago; my sewing machine; a candle that should not be there; flowers from my friend Jason that are very nearly dead but so beautiful I can’t toss, yet; and under all that, my mat, seam ripper, rotary cutter, a pattern I’m drafting, and previews of art for my upcoming fabric line.*
My design wall is directly behind the table and there are several things happening there, too. If PaperGirl were a vlog and not a blog, I would show you a full tour of my sewing area, but PaperGirl is not a vlog, will never be a vlog, and while we’re on the subject, I will never say “vlog” out loud, nor will I ever write it, ever again. Humans are capable of making good choices, as it turns out, and not allowing “v*og” into the vernacular is proof of this.
In the months to come, I plane to do a bit more curtain-drawing in this manner. There are big projects afoot and I’m champing at the bit to share about them. But don’t be surprised if one of these days “PaperGirl Too” pops up and Pendennis and I take you through how to make the quilt perpetually on my mind.
Hi, Chicago peeps and anyone who wants to make a pilgrimage for poems and possibly Scotch.
I’m honored to be the feature poet at the legendary Green Mill Cocktail Lounge for the perhaps more legendary Uptown Poetry Slam on May 3rd. That’s a Sunday night. The open mic starts at 7pm, then I do a half-hour of my classics (!), plus new poems and a couple covers, too. If I had more time, I’d absolutely love to do Prufrock, but that would be downright indulgent. After my set it’s time for the slam.
If you’ve never been to the Green Mill for the slam, you have not lived. Oh, I mean it. That’s not hyperbole. There is nothing like the show at the Mill, a blend of poetry, bloodsport, make-you-cry beauty, and possibly Scotch. It’s hilarious. It’s not too long (7pm-10pm, tops), and the Green Mill itself is gorgeous and historical. If it was good enough for Al Capone, it’s good enough for us, right? You could make a night of it and stay for the jazz trio that comes in after the show. And hey, I know many people have dreamed of reading a poem at a microphone. This is your chance.
So come over. Get there early for a seat. I’d like to see lots of friends, of course, old and new. It’s a powerful, humbling thing to have a half-hour at the Mill microphone and I intend to kill it.
Poetry has been kind to me lately. Actually, it’s more than that: poetry has been texting me, taking me out to dinner, and smooching me at my front door. I’m pretty sure this means we’re dating. Whee!
The muse is a beautiful concept. Here’s the scoop: In Greek and Roman mythology, the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (I can’t pronounce it, either) presided over the arts and sciences, giving inspiration to those who were making the stuff. Just perusing the muses’ names and occupations, as it were, is poetic: Clio was muse to history keepers; Polyhymnia took care of hymn writers; Terpsichore handled choral dancing and song, and so on.
I owe Erato and Thalia because they inspire lyric poetry. I guess that’s what I write, though it sounds pretty fancy. I’d thank Calliope because she was a poetry muse, too, but Calliope visited the poets who wrote epics. So far, epic poetry is not my jam.
But it’s been incredible being visited by the muse(s) over these months. I always love poetry, but it’s not always so…close. I’m reading it, memorizing long pieces from Longfellow to Smith, grabbing Shakespeare bits here and there. And I’m copying all these poems down longhand. You know how painting students will copy a Picasso or a Cezanne to more fully understand the method and the genius of the artist? It’s just the same for poetry: copying a James Dickey, a Larkin, a Tennyson — other than memorization and recitation, copying a poem on paper is the best way to get your head around the beauty of it.
I’m not just studying, though. I’m writing, too. I’m in the zone, man! Naturally, a fair chunk of what I first put down is absolute garbage but there’s some stuff that I’m rather proud of. I’m so thankful that I’m in whatever phase I’m in; the muses are known to slip away as they come.
If you want to write, you have to read all the time because reading is the other half of writing. A person who is serious about identifying herself as a writer ought to say, “I’m a writer-reader.” We could get rid of that annoying hyphen and make it one word: writerreader. It’s hideous, but so are “stomachache” and “anodyne” and we get along with those all right.
Philip Roth said that the novel has about twenty-five years of relevancy left for the general public. Novels will still be written, he says, but the number of people who read them will get very small, similar in size to those groups of people who enjoy reading Latin poetry, say. Roth says that because print is changing so rapidly and because our pace of life is simply not matched to the form of a novel — neither in length or content — these particular sorts of books will fade away. Reading a novel takes focus, he says, focus and attention on one larger thing that we so often trade for many smaller things. “If you haven’t finished reading a novel in two weeks,” Roth said, “then you haven’t read the novel.”
While my hosts and I waited for a table at the restaurant in Georgia last weekend, I wandered into a used bookshop. I hunted for poetry but there was none to speak of, just a biography on Anne Sexton. (I think in my current brooding state five-hundred pages on the life of a brooding poet would be nothing short of disastrous.) The “Classic Literature” shelf drew my attention, but my perusal was desultory. As Roth said: a novel demands time and focus and I choose to spend mine elsewhere. Of course I read novels from time to time and I’ve read some pretty important ones (Crime & Punishment = hated it so, so much) but reading an engrossing novel almost unpleasant for me because I get too carried away. It’s the same reason I don’t watch or follow sports. A couple hours into great literature or the NFL and I start shouting at the book or at the television. I throw the book down and have some spasm on the couch because Character A is so stupid! stupid! stupid! or I jump up and down and twirl and hot-step when there’s five minutes left in the quarter (?) and my team is hanging on by a thread. I don’t like those feelings. I feel manipulated and vulnerable.
But I bought a novel anyway. The edition of Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser was just too perfect to pass up and at $4.25 I couldn’t afford to. The story of Sister Carrie is kind of my own: country girl goes to Chicago and makes good/bad. How did Dreiser know to write my biography 80 years before I was born? But here it is, to my left, a book published in 1900 that sketches out great tracts of my experience in this life. It’s hard to put down for that reason; it’s also hard to put down because the late-Victorian mores are hilarious. Here’s how Carrie and a character I won’t name communicate their white-hot, all-consuming, life-destroying passion for each other, no kidding:
He leaned over quietly and continued his steady gaze. He felt the critical character of the period. She endeavoured to stir, but it was useless. The whole strength of a man’s nature was working. He had good cause to urge him on. He looked and looked, and the longer the situation lasted the more difficult it became. The little shop-girl was getting into deep water. She as letting her few supports float away from her.
“Oh,” she said at last, “you mustn’t look at me like that.”
“I can’t help it,” he answered.
She relaxed a little and let the situation endure, giving him strength.
“You are not satisfied with life, are you?”
“No,” she answered, weakly.
He saw he was the master of the situation — he felt if. He reached over and toughed her hand.
“You mustn’t,” she exclaimed, jumping up.
“I didn’t intend to, he answered, easily.
Sister Carrie has been called “the greatest of all American urban novels. I’ve thrown it across the room twice already, which means it gets at least three stars from The PaperGirl Book Review.
I feel so grateful to have a blog. Because I can share stories like this one with more than three people.
If you’ve been reading the past few days, you know I was in Chicago several days over the past week to perform poetry and teach writing workshops in a number of schools. I’m home in DC now, where it is about six degrees warmer. I have named each of those six degrees because I cherish them like I might my very own children.
One of the schools I visited is an affluent one. Real affluent.The parents who send their kids to the school are affluent, the neighborhoods these families live in are affluent neighborhoods, and the school, which is private, is therefore well-heeled by default. It’s breathtaking to see. The student body — remarkably diverse, I’ll note — has in-school yoga classes, an organic lunch program, and all kinds of autonomy in their day, as far as I could tell. On the walls of one hallway, I checked out the art on the walls: there was a sign that said, “All these pictures were made by code!” Meaning that the kids are coding, for one thing, and through their coding are creating fractals on paper. When I was their age, I think we melted crayons between wax paper. And I thought that was great.
There were cups of grapes on trays for the kids in case they needed a snack en route from like, Spanish XVI and microbiology. Did I mention this is a middle school? I have to make sure I say that the students are delightful. They’re engaged, polite, and 100-watt bright, every last one. I’ve been the school many times and it’s a joy, but it’s also disorienting.
At the beginning of my workshops, the teacher in the room will pass out sticky-back name tags so that I can call on the kids by name. Miss Tully (not her real name) was handing them out when a concerned-looking young man raised his hand.
“Miss Tully?” he said.
“I can’t put this name tag on my sweater. This is cashmere.”
I had been looking down at my lesson plan, but upon hearing this my head snapped up. “This is cashmere”? Did that ten-year-old boy just say that he couldn’t put a name tag on his sweater because it’s cashmere? My eyes were big as dinner plates. And the kid was not being a jerk. He’s ten. He was worried his cashmere sweater would get jacked up if he put on his name tag. He’s just doing him.
I’m at Washington, DC’s palatial, awe-inspiring Union Station, waiting for my Amtrak to Richmond, VA. I’m lecturing and teaching tomorrow and very much looking forward to it; not only do I get to earn a living in a soul-affirming way, I get to hang out in Union Station and then take a train for a couple hours, which is neat. I feel a bit lightheaded and dizzy today, but who cares when there is actual gold leaf on the domed ceiling high above my head. If I pass out I’ll get a great visual before everything goes dark.
Next week is almost entirely on the road. QuiltCon approacheth in Austin but before and after that, I’ll be in Chicago doing a number of poetry gigs for high schools and one middle school. In February and April every year there is lots of creative writing programming in schools in the Chicagoland area. You could say I’m on the circuit; I’ve been a visiting writer-performer at these sorts of events for many years, now.
Because I get paid to do them, they are jobs. But barely, because I love them so much. The gigs typically consist of me performing poems and reading stuff I’ve written in a big auditorium; sometimes I teach a workshop or two. There’s one high school I love the best — I feel like I shouldn’t say which one but you know who you are — because the students are incredible and the teachers are fiercely invested in their jobs. When I tried to figure out how many years in a row I’ve been to this particular Writer’s Week, I got pale: I think it’s nine. Nine years has zapped past me? Oh, boy.
Each year I do school poetry/writing gigs — and this goes for all the schools — I try to do something totally different. Last year, I climbed up on a ladder and set a poem on fire. I do a Neo play where I kiss a student (on the cheek) and one year I put on big sunglasses at one point and covered a Lady Gaga song as though it were a poem, which it is. This year, because I’m feeling mortal, I’ve decided to treat the gig at my favorite school as though it were my last ever. I certainly hope it is not, but I asked myself: “If I never got to come back to this school that I love so much, what would I tell these people?”
Giving a physical gift to an audience member makes a huge impact; I learned this from my years as a Neo-Futurist. But I don’t want to give a gift to one person in the audience; I want to give a gift to every last one. So what I’ve done is copy off little cards that say what I would say to these students if I never saw them again. But giving a slip of paper is lame and since I happen to be a quilter with way, way too much fabric in my scrap bag(s), I am stitching fabric to the back of every card (see scan above.) There are, um, thousands of these to be made. I’m about halfway through the stack. After I get back from Richmond, before I go to Chicago, I’m gonna have to race to finish them.
But it’s worth it. I’ll make some tea. I’ll turn on my podcasts. I have a lot of other work to do on Tuesday, but I’ll make it. Not every student will care about these cards, and I know that. Plenty will get tossed in the garbage, which is lousy, but come on: it’s high school.
Sorry I didn’t do a spoiler alert to those students who read PaperGirl. But I promise my “show” will be good and hey, if you care to, you can make a little space in your wallet ahead of time.
On the train late this afternoon, I was out of sorts. My psyche was pulling to the right while some other part of my self was tugging on the leash to go left. This is a strange feeling but I was on a wobbly train on top of it. Good thing I had a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee or I might’ve slipped through the cracks.
The train conductor announced the next stop: Smithsonian. I jerked up in my seat, seized with the desire to not go home but go there, to Smithsonianworld. Seeing some art would jerk my brain stem back into alignment for sure. I could do it fast, too; take a quick dip in the eternal pond and then get back to my day. The Smithsonian museums are all free, so you just walk right in, fill up your tank and walk back out the door. Surely a painting or some kind of strange installation would break my mini-fugue.
I decided this almost too late, however; right before the doors closed at the Smithsonian stop, that’s when I decided to execute my plan. I shot out of my seat at the last possible second — scaring the bees out of everyone, I’m sure — and jammed my body through the closing doors. I was the person that annoys everyone riding a train: the person who delays the train leaving because they’re standing in the doors. Sorry about that, comrades.
The doors released their silver jaws and I went, “Phew!” and began to walk away. Then I hear this, “Hey!” and I turn around to see my stocking cap flying through the air.
I had left my stocking cap on my seat and someone inside the train had chucked it out the doors as they closed for real. “Wow, thanks!” I called after the car as it pulled away. Someone threw my hat out for me. They saved my hat. I stood there for a second, feeling my heart get warm and my brain get right. Also, flying stocking caps = comedy.
Up at street level, I passed several museums but couldn’t go in. I couldn’t handle the Holocaust Museum, clearly; I couldn’t give proper attention to the African American museum or the Chinese art collection at another grand building I passed. I saw a Barbara Krueger exhibit advertised at the Hirschorn but no freaking way could I have handled Barbara Krueger today. I found the sculpture garden out back of the Hirschorn, though, and that was just right.
My stocking cap kept me warm as I walked among the statues.
On this Monday, let us pause for poetry. Have you ever read Elisabeth Bishop’s poems? I’m only now discovering them. Have you ever seen a sandpiper hopping around on a beach? I hadn’t until I read this poem written by Bishop in 1956.
The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.
The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.
– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.
The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focused; he is preoccupied,
looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.
1. Learning to spell my middle name in kindergarten (“Katherine” is long)
2. Opening a Roth IRA in my mid-twenties (I was a waitress and it wasn’t much of an investment but I did it, anyway)
3. Being included in the first-ever Best of Write Club anthology (out this month.)
Write Club is a live lit show started in Chicago a few years ago by writer-performer-genius Ian Belknap. The show goes in three bouts, with two writers per bout. A week in advance of the show, Ian pairs up the writers and assigns each pair two opposing ideas, e.g., Rain vs. Shine, Hello vs. Goodbye, Fire vs. Water, etc. One writer takes “Hello” and the other takes “Goodbye” and they go off and write a piece extolling the virtues of the side they drew. You get seven minutes up onstage to deliver the piece you’ve written, onstage, at the mic. No props, no costumes. There’s a clock that ticks down from seven minutes. There’s a packed house every week. The bouts get ferocious and amazing and heated. The audience goes crazy with love and loyalties. The winner of each bout is picked by the audience; whoever gets the loudest, frothingest cheering wins and the winner’s fist is hauled up into the air by Ian, just like you’re a boxer and the crowd goes wild. If you win your bout, you get to name any charity you want to give your prize money to and that’s what happens with your prize money.
I can’t describe how incredible Write Club is because it’s late, my contacts are crunchy, and I have to be on a plane at 7am tomorrow morning. The best I can do tonight is to tell you that Write Club will leave you breathless. There is astounding writing talent in Chicago. We have so many brilliant people writing here, it approaches embarrassing. We’re stinking, filthy rich with good writers who are alive, which is to say nothing about all the ones who are dead (e.g., Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Lorraine Hanesberry, etc., etc.) I’m honored to call many of these (alive) people my friends and I’m goofy, nerdy, tripping-over-my-feet happy to be able to write alongside them every once in awhile. Write Club has expanded to San Francisco, Atlanta, L.A., and Toronto; more cities are sure to come, and I hope they do. But the show was born here in Chicago and it will always have the imprint of Chicago’s meaty fist in its forehead. Chea.
Anyway, The Best of Write Club anthology has come out and I’m in it. I haven’t stopped pinching myself. There are 24 writers in there and my friend Chloe and I start the whole book off with the essays we did for our bout, “Foreign” vs. “Native.” I drew “Foreign”. I won the bout that night, but a) Chloe’s essay is amazing and b) my first time at Write Club, I lost my bout. It’s a hard game.
I have a book sale going on right now and you should take advantage of that. But if you’re like me and you buy .8 books a day, get The Best of Write Club at a bookshop called The Book Cellar, or Amazon, or lots of places online. You’ll pay under $20 and get some of the best, freshest, most exhilarating writing you’re going to read this year. I saw a lot of it happen live and I’m telling you: these words are electric.
Note: I was at the Chicago Book Expo today to read my essay. That’s why I keep saying “here.”
I got the mail today and what was inside but a small, padded manila envelope from one Margaret Maloney. Margaret lives in Brooklyn and we had a blind date set up to go to a quilt guild meeting together this summer. I was unwell when the day came, however, and had only recently arrived home from an out-of-town trip. I was too pooped to pucker and bummed out not to meet Margaret.
Not long ago, she asked me for my mailing address, which of course I gave to her. Here is what she wrote on the card that came with the item you see above:
I hope that this Pocket Pendennis can be a help to you at times when a full-size sock monkey might be impractical. I think it is lucky — I worked on it on the train to and from a successful interview for admission into medical school. I’m sorry this city hasn’t been good to you — it doesn’t know what its missing! I hope our paths will cross another time.
I’m pretty speechless, Margaret. Thank you. Congratulations on getting into medical school and way to go being extremely articulate and possessing of stunning penmanship, but mostly thank you for hand-appliqueing my sweet little monkey on a quilted square. You cannot know how much better you made my day. It was rainy, I was sad, and my tummy is extremely mad at me these days.
My mother is writing a novel. I may have mentioned it.
She’s had her concept for years but in the past eighteen months she’s actually started writing the thing. At the start of the process she was brimming with confidence and wore her task with no sense of burden or doom. As she’s descended further into the pain and agony of writing a book that she very much wishes to be good, she’s decidedly less chirpy. My mother is the first to say that she has a lot to learn about writing; she’s joined several writing workshops, she’s read or is reading lots of books on how to write effective, engaging fiction, and she’s working every day on this project. She’s going at it the right way, now. She’s going at it like she’s going into battle.
When I’m home in Iowa or up at the lake house as I was for the past five days, I am the first to greet my mother each day. This is because she and I wake up about the same time and do the same thing every day, wherever we are: we write. She gets her coffee and her laptop and stabs away at her novel there on the couch; I get my Earl Grey and my current journal and write away in that, sitting in an easy chair (in another room.) We don’t say much at that hour — it’s usually before 6am — because neither of us has gotten up to chat. We’re up to write, good, bad, or ugly. What is true for me is true for my mom, too: that morning writing time is usually the best part of our day. No matter where I find myself in the morning — a Holiday Inn in Omaha, a brownstone in Manhattan, an airplane, etc. — I find my pen and spend time on paper.
Why do it?
Mom and I have different reasons for writing, but whatever compels people to get up before dawn to put thoughts into words is complex, so it’s hard to sort motivational distinctions. Most writers want all the things being a “good writer” confers; the order of the list of stuff might change, but the stuff stays the same. My mom wants to write a novel because she loves to read; because she wants the sense of accomplishment that being a published fiction writer would bring; she wants to show the world she’s good at something other than quilts; she loves and believes in her book concept; because writing it is hard but it is frequently fun; because it’s a challenge. She wants to be interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, too, and has a few of her replies already prepared for when the time comes.
I write for different reasons and before I say what those are, I must emphasize that Mom’s reasons are not better than mine, nor are mine better than hers. They’re just different reasons. I write because I would lose my mind if I didn’t. That’s not hyperbole; that’s the straight dope. The only way I can make sense of my life, this planet, what I see, what I experience, how I think, what I do, what you do, and what it all might possibly mean, is to write it down. If I don’t write it down, it didn’t happen. That’s figurative (read: “If it’s not written down, it didn’t matter that much”) but it’s also literal: If I don’t write it down, I fear it did not happen. There isn’t always reliable proof of the past. Were we there? Did she say that? Is he really gone? When did we go? What was I wearing? Could we have really felt that way and then felt another way? Life is but a dream: I’d better keep a record or risk waking up and forgetting it completely.
I also write because of something American philosopher John Dewey said that, when I came across it many years ago, stuck to my brain like a wad of gum on a theater seat:
“If you are deeply moved by some experience, write a letter to your grandmother. It will help you to better understand the experience and it will bring great pleasure to your grandmother.”
To make sense of the world, I have to write it down. If it brings pleasure to someone else, well, that’s some pie a la mode, right there. Most of it sucks. I’ll never be Mark Twain. I’ll never even be Erma Bombeck (who was great, in her Bombeckian way.) I’ll just be me, sorting it all out.
I’m not sure that it takes a village to raise a child; a few capable women can get the job done before the rest of the village wakes up. My single mom did a solid job with my sisters and me, but she had help from friends. Katy, her best friend for a long time, is the woman I refer to as “my second mom.” Katy has soothed, instructed, corrected, encouraged, congratulated, and supported me my whole life; she’s grieved with me and sorted things out with me, too. She’s not my mom; she’s my second mom — and that’s a beautiful thing.
Katy recently retired. We agree this is the beginning of an exciting time in her life. I sent her a present to mark the occasion, something I hoped could be of use: a Leuchtturm 1917 Large Ruled Notebook, a.k.a.,The Best Journal In The World. She might be compelled to write; in my view, major life transitions (really, all experiences) are best handled on paper. She might write songs in the notebook, or draw in it, or use it for grocery lists. She might not use it at all, and that’s okay, too. I just want her to have the best if she’s going to keep a journal of any kind. She deserves the best.
I’ve mentioned my journaling before, probably too much, but sending Katy a fresh Leuchtturm journal (and no, I can’t pronounce it, either) stirred me to truly make a start on a major project. I have a dream. The dream is a compendium. Here’s what that is:
noun (pl. compendiums or compendia |-dēə| ): a collection of concise but detailed information about a particular subject, esp. in a book or other publication.
• a collection of things, esp. one systematically gathered: the program is a compendium of outtakes from our archives
A collection — a book — of detailed information about a particular subject, systematically gathered. I want to make one. On what subject, you ask? Dolphins. I have to write about dolphins.
No, the compendium would be about me. My life. As reported here, in PaperGirl, and in my offline journals (most of which are Leuchtturm 1917 Large Ruled Notebooks, you see? Ah!) Pictures, drawings, poems. Handwritten, typed, copy of all kinds, metaphorically written in blood. Metaphors. Similes. All kinds of things, but mostly words on the only subject on which I am an expert: myself. If I do it right, it could be a real slice o’ life page turner. I mean, come on. I’ve got near-death experiences, torrid love affairs, physical agony, an affinity for large cities, and countless journeys around America by plane. I’ve got an ongoing existential crisis, a thirst to make and bear witness to art, and I write silly poems for fun. It’s all here in the blog and what isn’t here is in the journals.
Hot Tip: For those of you who own a copy of my book, look at the dedication. It says, “For A.” Can you guess who “A” is? “A” is my journal. I dedicated my book…to my book. That’s how serious I am about these things.
And so into my suitcase to go to Seattle tomorrow, I have packed all my medicine, my special snacks, my clothes, laptop cords, and two journals, one from 2009, one from 2011. I need to start digging into my material. It won’t be easy. I will cringe. I might cry. I will roll my eyes and furrow my brow.
One year ago Saturday, I met a fellow in Chicago by chance — or fate, if you like.
I had arranged to buy a bitcoin and he was the person who was to sell it to me. The first thought I had when I saw him that morning was, “He’s younger than I expected.” He was wearing a ball cap and cute glasses, sucking a strawberry smoothie through a straw, and he was about to go into his job at the Board of Trade. And he was smart enough about bitcoin to explain to me how I would actually buy one. My second thought was, “This guy is cooler than I will ever be, ever.”
We did the surprisingly uncomplicated transaction. I thanked him and walked away, proud owner of a bitcoin or two. About three minutes after we basically told each other — sincerely — to have a nice life, I get a text message. I look at the screen of my phone. It was the guy.
“Are you single?”
As I live and breathe, that is how it all began. “Are you single?” A year later, I’m sitting on a sofa in New York City, night air on my shoulders through the window of our apartment on St. Mark’s Place. There’s a homemade apple pie on the sill, still warm. I made a pot roast today, too, and when Yuri tried the first bite, his eyes rolled back in his head and he said, “God, I love you.” I asked him to tell me what he thought when he first met me, if he had any idea I’d be feeding him homemade pot roast within a year.
“What was I wearing that day we first met?” I asked him. “Do you remember?” I definitely do; I can remember what I was wearing at times in my life far better than I can recall dates, names, or how to spell “bureaucracy.”
“You were wearing a skirt,” he answered. “And high heels.” Correct.
“What did you think about me?”
“I thought you were really hot,” he said, still happy about this. “I was thinking, ‘This chick is into bitcoin. That’s crazy. That’s so cool.’ And I was really hoping you’d be hot.”
I’ll be out of town for our actual anniversary, so we’re going to celebrate Tuesday night. I’ve been feeling much better the past couple days, so we’re going to brave dinner at a farmy-tabley place in Brooklyn and then we’ll see a Rufus Wainwright/Robert Wilson creation at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). These two artistic heroes of mine have joined forces on a selection of Shakespearean sonnets; music by Rufus, staging by Bob. (Google the show and look at the visuals — we’re in for a treat.)
And now, because Shakespeare is so good and I’m feeling tender as a pot roast toward my beau, Sonnet 19, which is all about how Time can and does destroy everything, but if my love exists in my poems, he will live forever. Take that, Time.
SONNET 19 Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws, And make the earth devour her own sweet brood; Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws, And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood; Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st, And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time, To the wide world and all her fading sweets; But I forbid thee one most heinous crime: O, carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow, Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen; Him in thy course untainted do allow For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men. Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong, My love shall in my verse ever live young.
Legendary jazz saxophone player Art Pepper, who loved heroin, music, and women very much and in that order, said something that, when I read it, etched itself into my brain. Every time I turn it over in my head, it feels more true. He said:
“You only need enough technique to say what you have to say.”
He was talking about music. I’m talking about anything. Didn’t go to art school? Who cares, unless your soul tells you you need to blow glass to say what you need to say and you haven’t the foggiest how to blow glass. Can’t sew in a sleeve to save your life? So what, if all you want to do is make skirts all your life. Want to write a novel but have never been to Yaddo? Big deal, unless you want to write a real connected-y story about sad people who go to places like Yaddo and then have kids who are “unknowable” (or whatever.)
See what I mean? You don’t have to kill yourself over technique unless your lack of technique is killing you.
You believe that, you can go anywhere. And you probably will.
While designing and sewing together my latest quilt — a complicated affair — I took in a little Top Chef on Hulu. I watched the entirety of Season 9 and enjoyed it, but I’ve had enough of that show for a while. I’m pushing my plate away. I’m dabbing the corners of my mouth with my cloth napkin. I’m telling the waiter to not serve me any more…metaphors.
Top Chef is a great show. I watched 17 episodes back to back over the course of about ten days as I stitched and snipped through the evenings. It’s good television. But either the show changed or I forgot just how grave it all is, and by the last four episodes, the vacuum of food-centric seriousness began to (cheese) grate on me.
The judges got to me first. Each judge is a talented and successful food industry person who has earned his/her opinion on kumquat, fried caper blossoms, fried caper kumquat blossoms, etc., etc. You’ve got restaurateurs, cookbook authors, chefs, vintners, celebrities in their industry — hard workers all, at the top of their game. Plus, the three main host/judges, Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and Gail Simmons, have been conducting Top Chef for years. They not only know food, wine, and chef-i-ness, they know Top Chef.
But all this success and knowledge is diminished after too long in hyper-focus. I don’t know if that hyper-focus is the nature of the show itself or the nature of watching an entire season in about as much time as it takes to roast a turkey. Either way, let’s look at some examples of what started to burn me out.
Gail Simmons, pained, looks at Contestant X, who is also pained. Simmons then looks at Tom Colicchio, then back at Contestant X. “That crouton was…problematic,” Simmons says, and folds her hands. Contestant X deflates, stares hard at ground.
Example 2 Tom Colicchio, pained, looks at agonized, pained Contestants Y and Z. “I just don’t understand,” Colicchio says, earnestly baffled. “Where was the cohesion? I’m eating arugula, I’m eating cod. The cod and the arugula were not having a conversation. That was upsetting.” Contestants Y and Z shuffle feet, mumble something about the oven not being hot enough. Colicchio doesn’t blink.
Look, I get that the stakes are high. There’s a lot riding on the competition and it is a cooking show. But the problematic croutons feel silly at a certain point.
The contestants started getting to me next, but not because I decided I didn’t like them personally. I make a small portion of my living being on television, and I know firsthand how unfair it is to pass judgment on people you have never met simply because they show up on a screen in your home. A few edited minutes on camera hardly illustrates the grand symphony of one human’s experience, so judge not.
In fact, it was precisely this human shrinkage that I couldn’t get over. I’m certain the show’s audience sees 10-15% of what’s filmed in a day of Top Chef activity, and I got more and more frustrated at the style of editing we the audience are made to endure. Let’s say this is an actual sentence said by a contestant on Day 26 of the competition:
“There are no useable cherries in this bag. What the heck am I supposed to do with this? Oh, wait. Phew! Here they are! Gosh, I was really worried for a second. Sorry, that was uncalled for. Hey, does anyone have any lip balm? It’s windy on this mountaintop where we have to cook fresh fish that we caught ourselves with one hand behind our back. I really need some lip balm because I’m concerned that my lip is cracking.”
What you get on the show is this:
“There are no useable cherries in this bag. What the heck am I supposed to do with this?… I was really worried… It’s windy… We have to cook… I’m cracking.”
The fractured image I was getting of the contestants, the characters I was seeing as shaped by the producers and line editors, it all just stopped working for me.
I love to cook and I love to sew and I love to see talented people doing what they love. Therefore, I enjoy shows like Project Runway and Top Chef, because it’s interesting to watch real people do hard things that they (usually) love to do. But it’s only fashion, and it’s only food, and it’s just a bit much after so many hours, even when I’m busy doing my own art. Maybe some people live in a world where they mete out an episode a week for themselves, even while entire seasons are at their fingertips, but I am not those people. I go big when I’m home.
Yuri saw George Lucas on Broadway the other day! He had bushy hair and was wearing a pink shirt. George Lucas! How about that.
This post is about a different George: George Michael.
When I was in junior high school, I had a poster of George Michael on my closet door. It wasn’t life-sized — I would’ve been weirded out by an actual man-sized photograph, which says something important about a fourteen year-old girl’s sexuality — but it was full-sized, which I was very happy about. I had to cut a small chunk out of the poster on the right side to allow for the doorknob, that’s how big the poster was.
My sisters and I absolutely adored George Michael, like everyone else did at that time. He was one of the biggest stars on the planet back then and we hung on every syllable we heard him speak on the radio in that British accent (insert insane giggling and squealing here.) The five o’clock shadow, the leather jacket. The aviator shades. The song “Faith” was loved so much by me and the other girls I knew, at some point it ceased being a song and became a person — and that person was the most beautiful, perfect, fun, happy, popular person who had ever existed, ever. We conferred this strange relationship with the song onto the actual person who sang it; ergo, George Michael became the golden calf of the Winterset School System’s entire female population, at least for awhile. This phenomenon was not unique to small town Iowa; this was a craze that swept the nation, this George worship.
But all that time, George Michael was not being himself.
As we would later learn, he hated the pop idol stuff not just because it was extremely weird, but also because he was wearing a terrible, goofy mask while he endured it. A gay man, Michael not only had to pretend he was straight, he had to pretend he was the straightest man who ever lived; a real “lock up your daughters” kind of guy. He had to be a straight girl’s sex symbol rock star, for heaven’s sake, and all he really wanted to do was kiss his boyfriend and sing a duet with Elton John. (That happened later, much to George’s delight.)
After Faith sold 20 million copies and the mask hardened into something truly untenable, George Michael decided to do something about it. Enter Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1., released in 1990, when I was about to enter high school. The album is a total 180 from Faith. There are gospel choirs, acoustic guitars, great lyrics, a Stevie Wonder cover, and plenty of downtempo tracks that even I liked at as a jumpy fifteen year-old. Michael refused to use his face on the cover of the record, nor would he allow his face to be in any videos that were released for singles. Crazy, I know. Crazy and awesome.
Freedom ’90 is a track from that album and I believe that it is a perfect song. They do exist, you know, perfect songs, and this is one of them. You can sing to it. You can dance to it. It’s got highs and lows. It’ll give you goosebumps when it hits the bridge, but when you hum it to yourself later, washing the dishes, you might find you’ve got a little frog in your throat because the lyrics are so touching, so real. Look what he says:
“All we have to do now/is take these lies/and make them true, somehow
All we have to see/is that I don’t belong to you/and you don’t belong to me.”
That’s a sincere cry from a man wearing a mask, coming to terms with his life, and that’s a sentiment can get maudlin and lame real quick. But Freedom ’90 is a celebratory wild yawp, sonically. You’ve got a tambourine, cymbal crashes, a dirty “wonka-chika-wonka-chika” funk guitar on it, and “dunk-a-chika-dunk! dunk-a-chika-dunk” beat that from the instant it starts, your booty is moving. It’s the opposite of maudlin, miles and miles away from sog or pity. It’s a great, great song. I watched the video again tonight and was a little bummed that it didn’t hold up quite as well as I thought it would, but the 90s supermodels are lovely in their prime and it’s still awesome to see the guitar, leather jacket, and jukebox from the Faith video blow up a bunch of times.
Interesting note: I have had several boyfriends in my life who had Freedom ’90 in “favorite songs” lists. A boyfriend of mine in college was fond of ska and punk music, bands with names like Choking Victim and Rancid. But I think he knew how good and honest Freedom ’90 really was and he liked it because of that. If punk rock is about saying “I don’t have to be like you, at all” then George Michael was totally punk rock with that song and the whole Listen Without Prejudice album.
You should listen to it. Watch the video later; just listen to Freedom ’90 first, loud as you’re able to. Then listen to Faith. Then sing Freedom to yourself while you wash the dishes and think about what lies you can make true, somehow.
I make art from time to time. I like to put words on things and enjoy using my utter lack of training in computer-aided graphic design to my advantage.
Example: the homepage of my website. I needed new slideshow pictures desperately. I have no web designer on retainer at the moment, nor do I have Photoshop (these things are expensive and I need to pay rent in New York right now.) Necessity is the mother of invention, as anyone with a website and no “web guy” knows, so, faced with a creative challenge, I cobbled together a solution that I feel turned out pretty slick. I used from images from my book, multiplying them and staggering them just so. I like the result. Check it out when you’re done here, if you like.
The humble scanner is a great tool for non art-school people who wish to make art with their computer. The scanner is really a camera, only what you take pictures of takes on this flattened quality because, you know, the scanner is flat and stuff. I started scanning quilt blocks a few years ago (my Twitter banner has been a scanned red quilt block forever) and thought they were just rad-looking; there’s a milky quality to fabric when it’s scanned, and all the threads seem magnified and all the rips are suddenly centerstage. I love it.
This weekend I did some scans, this time with messages and fabric from my stash with some patchwork thrown in for fun. Examples above of what I call “Patchwork Foto.” That’s what these sorts of pictures are called, I’ve decided. It’s like “ramen.” Singular, but it has lots of pieces. It’s art! You gotta name it funny.
I’m breaking the “one image only” rule for PaperGirl but the exception proves the rule and besides, this is a series. Watch for more of these and the development of them. They’re part of a larger project.
Yuri and I went to the Whitney Museum yesterday for the Jeff Koons retrospective. We loved every second of it. If you are in New York now or will be between now and October 29th, I urge you to see the exhibit yourself.
Maybe don’t take your kids if they’re under thirteen or fourteen. There are a few moment of technicolor nudity writ real large in the show and that could be disturbing for a kid, I suppose (probably more so for the adult who has to answer the inevitable questions, e.g., “Why are that man and that woman stuck together like that, Mommy? Is she crying?”, etc.) But there’s so much that a child would absolutely go nuts for, though — the giant pile of clay, the inflatables, etc. — it’s painful to actively dissuade families. Maybe just skip the fourth floor of the show where all the porny stuff is?
Here’s what the Whitney says about Koons:
Jeff Koons is widely regarded as one of the most important, influential, popular, and controversial artists of the postwar era. Throughout his career, he has pioneered new approaches to the readymade, tested the boundaries between advanced art and mass culture, challenged the limits of industrial fabrication, and transformed the relationship of artists to the cult of celebrity and the global market.
That means he’s really cool, he’s super smart, and his art is very, very expensive. A lot of people cannot stand Jeff Koons (or his art) for those very reasons. Koons haters have long hauled out the tired, meaningless, “That’s not art,” defense, or — worse because it’s incorrect — they’ll sniff, “I could do that.” You couldn’t. Neither could I. You could make your art. And I could make my art. But Jeff Koons’s yacht-sized balloon dog (or the glorious, exuberant, first version of “Puppy,” made of 20,000 live flowers, which wasn’t at the show because it was an installation in a castle in Germany in 1992) is his art and I, for one, think it’s marvelous.
The “readymade” that they reference in the Whitney bit is the Warhol thing of taking a box of Brillo pads, for example, and putting it literally on a pedestal and saying, “This is art.” Now, Warhol got that from Marcel Duchamp, who did it first: Duchamp was a koo-koo-krazy Dadaist who put a ceramic urinal on a pedestal, signed it “R. Mutt,” and sat back to see what the art world would do. That was in 1917 and art has not been the same since. Plenty of folks (then and now) wished art would go back to nice, simple paintings, but that is silly because there has always been transgressive art. Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa, Manet’s Olympia — today, these paintings are downright tame (albeit beautiful and kinda creepy in their respective ways) but when they were unveiled, they were not. People lost their minds and said the world was going to hell in a handbasket. Under the sun, there is nothing new for us. You do get that, right? I am reminded all the time.
If you want nice simple paintings, you can get them. Boy, can you get them. But for those who want their art to reflect back the world as it truly feels — fractured, splintered, beautiful, hilarious, ridiculous, frightening, etc. — we need our Koonses, our Duchamps, and our Warhols for sure. The Koons exhibit reminded me that the world is all of the things I think it is, but more, so much more than that as well: more frightening, more beautiful, more unknowable. It did precisely what art is supposed to do.
And you know, boobs and plastic and stuff.
**Editor’s Note: The title of this post is a line from a Lady Gaga song. Gaga’s latest album, “ARTPOP”, features cover art by Jeff Koons. I have listened to that album so many times, my iTunes is like, “Oh for heaven’s sake… REALLY?? AGAIN with the Gaga???”
That photograph is of First Lady Grace Coolidge with Rebecca, her pet raccoon. My younger sister’s name is Rebecca. Though there are zero Rebeccas in Fons or Graham family history, I am confident my little sister was not named after a White House raccoon. There was no Internet when she was born, for one thing. Did my parents even know about the Coolidge raccoon? Without the Internet, how did they know anything? How did they even know the name Rebecca? The mind reels.*
I don’t know if it shows, but I spend an inordinate amount of my day
1) panicking about the certain-if-not-imminent collapse of America (it’ll be because of the banks)
2) thinking about PaperGirl and its continuity, quality, etc.
3) in search of lost time
That second thing is the most surmountable here, so let’s mount. The goal for me with the ol’ PG is to never let it be about one thing. Life is not about one thing, after all. There’s a lure of making a blog about one thing. A “Mommy” blog can be marketed as such, same as “Foodie” blogs. You can’t blame a person for wanting to have a niche and stick to it. A blog that is about one thing has an easy elevator speech. Let’s listen in on a conversation between a food blogger (“FOOD BLOGGER”) and an advertising executive (“AD EXEC”) in an elevator at a busy blogging convention:
FOOD BLOGGER: (Noticing AD EXEC’s badge.) Oh, hi. You’re an ad exec.
AD EXEC: Yes, I am.
FOOD BLOGGER: (Extends hand.) I’m a blogger. I have over 15,000 page views a month and a bounce rate of 7%. Most people stay on my page for eight minutes at a time.
AD EXEC: Those are great numbers. What’s your blog about?
FOOD BLOGGER: Food.
AD EXEC: Here’s my card.
Let’s listen in on another conversation. We’re at that same blogging convention and two ladies meet each other in a line for coffee:
LADY 1: Boy, am I ready for a latte!
LADY 2: Tell me about it. (Glances at LADY 1’s badge; it says “Blogger.”) What’s your blog called?
LADY 1: (With dreamy look) TheKidsAreAlright-dot-Mom-dot-Blogspot-dot-Com.
LADY 2: I’m a mommy blogger, too! (The women embrace.)
And what’s my blog about? Everything. Nothing at all. I’ve auditioned several replies to the question, but none seem to be winners. (This does not inspire confidence in the concept of the thing.) Attempts to answer “What’s your blog about?” have included:
“It’s a blog about… My… Life?”
“It’s… Well, it’s about all kinds of things.”
Folks suddenly need to check for text messages.
“You know, it’s just sort of a clearinghouse for thoughts. But it’s not just me rambling on about this or that, no way. I try to keep things tight. I have a point of view and I try to…keep things…tight.”
No, no, no. I’ve totally lost them.
Putting a picture up there of Grace with her raccoon, that was me being my own trainer, trying lead my brain away from the trap of consistency. If I write about my diet too much, I’m a “health and wellness” blogger or — far more undesirable to me — a blogger who writes mainly about her chronic health problems. (I recognize the value of such blogs and have no criticism for people who write them, I just don’t want to write a blog like that.) If I write about living in NYC too much, I might alienate all the non-NYC (or non-NYC-loving) readers out there and be labeled an “urban” blogger, which sounds trendy and gross.
I must stay on my toes. While updating readers on the progress of my radical, intestine-rescue diet is appropriate from time to time in the name of consistency, I mustn’t offer daily reports of how it feels to eat hamburger patties for breakfast. (It’s weird but I’m getting used to it.) Though I had doctor’s appointments yesterday and today that I do want to share about at some point, I must vary my dispatches so that PaperGirl is not a long slog through the life and times of a gimpy gal with flagging chutzpah in the face of significant health issues. I have to do the slog; why should you?
So the raccoon. Does that make sense? And if someone wants to take a stab at the question, “What is PaperGirl about?” by all means do so. I need a good answer.
*An Internet search tells me Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and the Bible were both around before the Internet, so maybe my folks got the name from one of those places. I should ask my mom.
For many years she talked about writing it, but now she’s actually doing it. She’s workshopping chapters, attending writing groups (one of which she started herself because that’s what you do when you’re Marianne Fons), and she’s a sponge for information on how to go from idea to page, from page to accepted manuscript, from publication to the paperback rack in every airport Hudson News from here to Bejing. If anyone can write a novel (and not many can) my mother can.
I also have an idea for a novel — but I have almost zero desire to write it. Though I applaud my mother’s efforts and support this particular flavor of The American Dream, I have reason to believe writing a novel is not fun. I wrote a one-woman show and it nearly killed me. Hemingway shot himself in the head. One of my favorite essayists, Joseph Epstein wrote in the New York Times in 2002:
“Without attempting to overdo the drama of the difficulty of writing, to be in the middle of composing a book is almost always to feel oneself in a state of confusion, doubt and mental imprisonment, with an accompanying intense wish that one worked instead at bricklaying.”
Still, the dream to write a novel has its pull. There have been three occasions in my life when I shared my storyline with someone (we all have to listen to our friends’ novel ideas, sometimes) and each time that happened, the concept of actually writing the dang thing got goosed.
Here’s the idea:
The book opens at the height of the Chinese Opium War. It’s the 1830s. Chaos. Death. Opium dens. Dirty deals. Murder. Money. It’s quite the moment in human history. The story is set in Brittain, China, points far flung; this is a global adventure. Ship voyages, train voyages. The book is written in the third person and we get POVs for anyone and everyone, but the meat of the story follows Josephine Ella (not settled on that name, yet) as she rises to become the most powerful madam on two continents! Two really big continents!
She’s this brilliant businesswoman whose whole goal is to help her fellow countrywoman rise out of poverty. Is she going about it all wrong with the whole brothel thing? Yes, except that all her “girls” are healthy and have their own money and she encourages them to leave as soon as they can and make a life for themselves. Anyway, she’s got a heart of gold, naturally, and everyone loves her.
There’s a love triangle! There’s a super high-up executive in the East India Company who falls in love with her and promises her riches beyond her wildest dreams, but he has to compete with the general in the British Army who is also in love with her. And then there’s an opium trader who is also in love with her. But Josephine actually pines for her childhood sweetheart, the boy who saved her from certain death when she was abandoned by her mother and we find out Josephine is adopted! And then she gets addicted to opium!! But then she gets better!
And that’s like, the first book. Then there’s the second book, which is the prequel. The third book is the continuation of the first book, and then you’ve got all the spin-offs.
The movie will be amazing. The costumes? I mean can you imagine? Fughettaboudit.