I had a fight last night with Nick. Nick and I had a fight last night. We fought.
So I got back from Wisconsin and had 30 hours at home before I had to leave to fly to Nashville for Quiltfolk. I saw my beautiful friend Bets Ramsey down there and a fine time was had by the Quiltfolk crew working on the pattern project. The location shoot was all well and good — but I was about to find out that my otherwise fabulous Saturday would be an Airport Appreciation Day.
That’s what we say in my family when you experience what I experienced trying to get home: a delayed flight; a long while of just sitting on the tarmac; luggage that literally took 45 minutes to appear on the carousel in Chicago. The result? I got back to the far south side of Chicago too late to go to Sophie’s surprise bachelorette party on the far north side. That’s bad. I feel so rotten about it, I am now scared of Sophie. She will not be mad. She will understand; I couldn’t help it. But it was her bachelorette party. And we love each other. And I’m always out of town. And she’s getting married. So it’s like, “Yo, Fons. Where you at?”
Physically, I was in transit. Mentally, I was in anguish. Because of the party — and because of the fight.
I don’t like fighting. I don’t like the person I am in a fight. I wouldn’t say that I “fight dirty.” But I can get downright ferocious. I yell. Loudly. I also say bad words. That’s crazy to me, that I yell and curse like a sailor, but I do. In a fight, I’ll find myself YELLING at the PERSON for doing THE THING that made/makes me SO MAD, [INSERT EPITHET] — and I’ll think to myself, “Since when did you start yelling and cussin’??”
I think it was with Yuri. That was some yellin’, cussin’ love.
Anyway, I was yellin’ and cussin’ and then I hung up on him and then I was stabbing text messages in ALL CAPS, and that’s worse than YELLING but at least it’s quieter. Wow, but I was hurt. Nick hurt me. He didn’t mean to, but he didn’t … Oh, I won’t go into it here. But yes, I lashed out at him because I was hurt, I was tired, I was definitely going to miss Sophie’s party and then, because the fight was distracting me and I was crying, I actually got off on the wrong stop. It was the pits. It was all just the pits.
I don’t like to fight because I don’t like myself as a fighter.
Is that a good reason to not fight or a terrible reason?
On my last day of vacation, I helped Mom and Mark weed the big, circular raised bed at the front of the driveway. It took about an hour with the three of us going on it. We kids can often be found helping out with that chore when we’re at the cottage; it’s the least we can do. Mom and Mark feed us lasagna and take us for ice cream, they encourage book reading and napping, and there’s a moped up there. We weed.
It was hot the other day and there’s no shade out there. My stepdad was working pretty quickly because he hates weeds. “Filth!” Mark bellowed, throwing a particularly gnarly one into the big bucket. “These damn weeds! I went over this entire thing not but six weeks ago, Marianne!”
Mark and Mom are master gardeners, which I think means they have a certificate and field questions when anyone decides to plant a shrub. Being a master gardener does not make a person automatically organized and awesome when they go about their gardening, but Mom and Mark just naturally are. Case in point: Mark had divided the bed into “zones” and we each had our own zone to weed.
“There’s your zone and there’s your zone,” he said. “And Marianne, there’s your kit, and there’s your kit, Maru,” Mark said as we walked over to our worksite. The “kit” he made included a bucket, gardening gloves, a trowel, and a mat or towel to kneel upon. I love my stepdad so much. A weed kit? In a delineated zone? Who does that?? Mark. Mark — otherwise known as The Cap’n — does that. He’s also great because he says things like “Filth!” when pulling pesky weeds.
“Hey, guys,” I said, wiping sweat from my brow, “I have a great idea for a horror movie. It would be called The Gardener or The Weed Killer. I mean, look at these implements. They’re so scary!” I held up a tool Mark had put out in case we needed it, some sort of terrifying small rake-claw.
“This one would work, too,” Mark said, showing me a truly frightening-looking blade. “I call it my scalper. You could do some damage with this.” He stabbed the knife into the dirt and cursed at whatever green bit he vanquished.
Mom brought out some cups of water. A butterfly flew by. I was happy.
If you missed yesterday’s post, you’ll want to click here to get caught up. What follows is the second half of imaginary Rolling Stone’s interview with the legendary, the elusive, the deeply nerdy … Mary Fons. Ann Kotske reports. —Eds.
RS: You almost didn’t come back for the second half of this interview.
PG: That’s true.
I like to switch things up. I wondered if some people wouldn’t be into the Rolling Stone interview format they’d just skip today’s post because it would be the same thing as yesterday.
Very considerate. I’d like to think that sort of editorial concern has kept people reading me all these years.
You decided to go ahead with it, though. Why?
Continuity concerns me, too.
Let’s switch things up, then. We can leave behind heavy issues like —
— like life, sure, and — Death.
Okay. But aren’t life and death connected?
If one is off the table, the other one is, too, don’t you think?
Who are you?
Come on, let’s have some fun. How’s Nick?
Achingly good-looking. Sweet. And going into a year-long master’s program in a few weeks. I’m crazy about him. We’re still taking things slow-ish. I think.
Tell me about your outfit.
Didn’t we said yesterday I’m in my pajamas?
You can have changed.
Now there’s a sentece: “You can have changed.”
I think it’s grammatically correct in this case. Now, the clothes.
I’m becoming a person that wears one thing: a classic-fit, Oxford-style shirt from Brooks Brothers with tailored black or navy trousers. I’m not interested in wearing or shopping for anything else, which feels strange but also feels right. This ensemble is perfect for every occasion, whether I’m in the city, headed to my office, or on location in who-knows-where, executing some photo shoot. I feel polished and practical. Of course, beyond the shirt and trousers I need great shoes and a great coat and handbag. That’s where I have my fun. But the crisp, white or blue-striped Oxford and the black pants … I can’t think how to improve on that.
What’s your fascination with unboxing videos on YouTube? Watching people take foreign objects out of a box feels like Christmas. But there’s also a morbid fascination in it for me. Consumerism is eating the world alive, so watching unboxing videos is like partying on the Titanic.
How’s your mom? Hi, Mom! You’re reading this, of course, so answer in the comments. How are you?
How’s your dad? Haha. I don’t know. Dad, how are? Let me tell you: If my estranged father reads my blog and chooses to comment, any recent lull in blog posts will be more than made up for in the days to come. That will be interesting. So … Dad? Are you there? How are things?
I noticed you’re not blonde anymore. After two years of being blonde — and loving it, I’ll have you know — I had to stop. My salon is great, but blonde is tough on a gal after awhile. I’m only biding my time until my hair is healthy enough to destroy again.
What’s on tap for tomorrow? On tap?
Like, what’s on deck?
On … deck.
What are you going to writeabout tomorrow??
Whatever it is, it’ll be true.
Or maybe totally normal, definitely not-hilarious things happen to me and because I’m a dweeb, I just find them hysterically funny. Does it matter, in the end? My life strikes me as funny when it’s not devastating — and that’s how I like it.
Today, after passing through the metal detector at the airport TSA screening area, I waited at the end of the scanner conveyor belt to retrieve my purse. There, sitting atop the conveyor belt at the end of the line, orphaned and forlorn and wrapped in plastic, for the third time in my life … I found a cookie!
So I took it.
And I ate it!!
I did, I did! I found a cookie at the TSA and took it and ate it! And I’ve done it before!
Listen, listen: I need you to listen!
Can we agree that there are cookies. Yes. Some cookies get wrapped in cellophane and packed into purses and bags when people go on airplane trips. Yes, well, sometimes these airplane trip cookies — I guess one time it was a brownie — get knocked out of those bags while inside the TSA conveyer belt scanner! The bag gets bumped! The cellophane-wrapped cookie falls out!
And the person who packed the cookie doesn’t realize it!
Who gets their purse off a conveyor belt and goes, “Wait, wait; let me make sure my cookie made it through.” No one does it! Only later, halfway across the country, will the person become dimly aware that a cellophane-wrapped baked good may have been lost on the journey … But when? How? Was there a cookie in her purse, the person wonders … No, it couldn’t have been …
Yes! Yes, you had a cookie! It was wrapped in cellophane and it was in your purse! It fell out in the conveyor belt! After it got bumped around in the dark for awhile, it came out! A TSA person put it on the top of the conveyor belt! It sat there for a long time, probably an hour!
And then I came through and found it! And I took it!
And then I ate it!
The thrill of this TSA cellophane-wrapped cookie is extreme. And because it keeps happening it’s a serious game for me, now, spotting and liberating a TSA treat. The liberation moment is intense because we all know there is not to be any kind of funny business in the airport. I get that; I respect that. But let’s use our heads, people. The treats I keep finding at the TSA screening area are fine. These cookies are not involved in a scheme. No one is “planting cookies” at the “airport,” and if they were, they wouldn’t be using the TSA “screening checkpoint” as their “base of operations.” The TSA cookie — or brownie, that one time — is innocent. And abandoned.
I think the cookie I got today was homemade. Seriously, I’m eating it right now. Somebody makes a good oatmeal raisin, let me tell you. Delicious! Wish I had a glass of mil —
“Mary!” you say in a sharp voice. You purse your lips and look disapprovingly at the crumbs on my blouse. “That cookie might belong to someone! You shouldn’t take something that doesn’t belong to you. You should let a TSA agent know. What if the person comes back for their cookie and it’s gone?”
I look down at the cookie in my paw and look back up at you. You see that I am confused. “But … Who would want a cookie that has been bumped around a TSA checkpoint for an hour and then placed on the top of the conveyor belt?”
You shake your head, but secretly, you want a bite.
I’m headed home from the long trip and I have a couple days before I go out again, but that’s okay, because I like it. If you stay at home, you have good days and bad days and stressful days and non-stressful days and birthdays and days that are not your birthday, right? Right. I have all those days but more planes in mine than other folks might. (And fewer than some others do!)
Today has been two parts fabulous and one part challenging. The two fabulous parts were that I woke up feeling vital — that’s fabulous! — and I saw my sister Hannah in New York City for lunch. Fabulous again! (Flight arrangements needed changing a few days ago and in the changing, a layover in NYC was created, thus, lunch with Hannah.)
The challenging part is that I’m not perfect and I’m in charge of people, now. I have only been in charge of myself, really, in this life. I’ve worked in ensembles a lot; I’ve been part of many teams. But like, I manage people. I ask people to do things. Worse yet, I tell them things that we willbe doing. Like, “We are traveling this date and this date, so … pack, baby!”
My brilliant friend Heather — who you know from this glorious scene two years ago and from my post about my deep love of her here — is a production goddess at Quiltfolk and she books a lot of travel for the location shoots. I answered a question for her incorrectly about dates. I gave her wildly wrong dates. She was like, “Ooookay … so … that’s … new ” and did what she was supposed to do, which was talk to the photographer and the writer going on the trip about their flights.
So I feel dumb, because wow, was I wrong. And people scrambled and freaked out like they had gotten something wrong but they hadn’t at all. It looked like I don’t have my schmoo together, even though I think I mostly do, considering just exactly what is happening in all of our lives right now. Certainly, I am getting good at surrounding myself with remarkable people who can help me manage it all.
Anyway, I had spaghetti at the airport! It was remarkably good for being airport spaghetti. And there’s still one more birthday gift to go: When I get home, Nick will be there. I told him all I wanted for my birthday was a clean kitchen.
On Tuesday night, I was down Louisiana way, drivin’ and talkin’ with three incredible women in a rented Nissan.
Just for fun, we thought we’d scan through the stations and check out the local radio scene. We didn’t get far, because the third station we hit on was broadcasting a call-in talk show about … bugs. All bugs. Just bugs. It was an hourlong call-in talk show for people who have pressing questions about bugs.
One of the incredible women in the car said, “Ha! This is great! They should call the show, What’s Buggin’ You?”
Almost as the words came out of her mouth, the host — who was great — said, “Well, time for our next caller. I’ve got Steve, here. Welcome to What’s Buggin’ You? What’s buggin’ you today, Steve in Lake Charles?”
All the incredible women and I clapped with glee and gladness. It was so cool that there was this show about bugs and people were so into it. Questions came in about ticks, beetles, ants … It turns out, people have all kinds of questions about bugs! The guest entomologist who answered these burning questions on the air was a woman with a very nice voice. Wow, did she ever know about bugs.
Because the questions were so varied — even though they were all about bugs — I thought about this woman’s schooling. I do this a lot: I think about the kinds of classes a professional person must have taken to get their degree. In this case, the lady would surely have classes like:
Grub Seminar II (Prerequisite: Sophomore Larvae Survey) Advanced Thorax Analysis Grasshoppers, Crickets, and Katydid: A New View
Right? Don’t you think about these things? What about a dentist?? I always wonder about their classes. I know they have to have classes just about the tongue, how to understand it and work around it and all that. And I think about people in beauty school who have units devoted to the chemical formula of bleach and how this or that molecule of color sticks to a hair folicile (or not.)
If anyone from What’s Buggin’ You? should come across this on a google alert or a search, I would like to thank you for your delightful program. If I hadn’t been driving while we were listening, I absolutely would have called in. I am terribly afraid of bugs — bugs and ferns — and I would have liked to call in and ask how to deal with that fear. Of course, that is really more a question for a shrink, I suppose. Good thing psychiatrists have classes like:
Phobias III 21st Century Exposure Therapies Workshop What’s Buggin’ You
I’m at the airport because I cannot stay put. Also, people are expecting me. Also, I love it.
Also, there is something wonderful happening here.
There is a child in this airport. This child is wearing squeaky shoes.
The child wearing squeaky shoes appears to be around 18 months old and his shoes are very, very squeaky. They’re not just squeaky because they’re made of rubber and he’s running up and down the terminal, wearing himself out, squeaking by association. Rather, both of this child’s shoes were specifically manufactured to contain a squeaking apparatus, one buried deep inside each shoe, a miniature plastic bladder designed — nay, engineered — to produce a remarkably loud, extremely adorable “squink” sound with every single footfall.
And you should know: This child is a born runner. Stand back XXX. Hang it up, XXX. This child with squeaky shoes is smoking you all right now, running for his life, up and down, up and down, up and down Chicago Midway Airport, his beleagured mother, having surrendered long ago, deaf to the squinkysquinkysquinkysquinkysquinkysquinkysquinky sounds produced by the fruit of her loins. You cannot believe how loud the squinking is and you cannot believe how much this kid loves the squinking. He is so happy.
As a result, everyone in this airport is happy on account of this child. Here at gate B23, we can hear the child coming all the way from B19, the squinking getting louder and louder as he approaches. We’re all grinning, waiting for him to show. And then we keep smiling and laughing into our hands and when he keeps on trucking past us, headed for B26, the squinking fading away as he goes.
It’s been a rough night, flight-wise. I tried to fly out earlier, couldn’t. My flight now is delayed 30 minutes. But the squink, man. The squink will save us all.
After being on the road for almost six days making Quiltfolk’s eighth issue, I was so tired I left my hat in the rental car.
The Monte Cristo hat I purchased a year or so ago at Optimo, Chicago’s legendary hat shop. The hat which has come to mean a great deal to me for recently discovered emotional reasons related to my father, who has long had an affinity for a Stetson hat of similar style. My elegant, almost aerodynamic, white Panama hat with the black ribbon which has become an essential tool for me on Quiltfolk location shoots, as keeping the sun off my face and out of my eyes when styling photos outside is critical. That’s the hat I left under the driver’s seat of a Nissan Rogue in the Hertz parking garage on State and Kinzie yesterday afternoon.
And I realized it this morning.
I was writing in my journal about the trip and began to compose a sentence about my hat — and then I froze. My pen hovered over the page. I gasped. My head whipped to the left to look down the hall to my coat rack. No. No, it couldn’t … There was no hat hanging there. My mind raced, thinking back to yesterday and I realized the truth: I didn’t get it out from under my driver’s seat. I got everything out. All the bags, cords, papers, notes, all important objects — except my hat. And I knew it in that terrible moment.
I bolted out of my chair and ran to the computer. I googled the number for the Hertz office. I called and called; no answer, even though the location was supposed to be open. Finally, a harried voice came on the line and I tried to stay calm and explain that I left my heart in one of their vehicles.
“I got a line of customers right now,” she barked. “I’ll ask Jason when I can, but if we rented the car since you returned it, there’s nothing we can do. Try calling back in an hour.”
At that point, I was quietly whimpering. I tried to sit down. I looked at the clock. I’d call in an hour. It was there. It’s a hat, I told myself. Who would want someone else’s hat? Whoever cleaned the car surely found it and put it in the lost and found. It had to be there — and I had to go there.
The last time I got dressed and out the door so fast, I was late for the airport. When I burst out onto the street, I discovered that it was raining. There wouldn’t be cabs on 9th Street, no way. My best bet was to run over to the Hilton and get a cab there; that’s what I did. As we sped north, I hunched in the seat, brow furrowed, every muscle in my body tense and sad. I was so low. I felt so stupid. I loved that hat and I hate how bad I felt about losing it. It’s just a hat, I tried to tell myself, and then a tear would stream down my face like so many raindrops down the taxicab window.
When the girl at the front desk saw me, I blurted out, “Called … about the hat!?” After some discussion, her colleague agreed to take me to the garage to see if anything was still there. The car, it appeared, had not been rented since I returned it — but I didn’t dare hope. It had been 18 hours since my hat and I were parted; who knows how much traffic there had been in and out of that garage. Was there a “lost and found” at all?
We walked up to the man cleaning cars that day. Again, I blurted out words. “Oh, yeah,” the man said, and I noticed the huge gap between his two front teeth. “There was a — ”
“There it is!” the Hertz gal said, pointing to a dingy white ball cap on the top of a rolling cart which I now know is the rental facility’s lost and found department. The girl grabbed it and held it toward me, but I did not take it. I did not take it because it was not my hat. And I did not take it because my hat was on the cart, too.
If the absence of my hat on my coat rack was hideous, its presence on that dirty cleaning cart was magnificent. A light seemed to shine on the thing, that’s how bright and crisp it looked in that garage. I sort of scream-yelped and said, “That’s it! That’s my hat! That’s it! Oh, oh! Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!”
I threw myself on both of them, hugged them both so hard. I nearly kissed their cheeks but with my hat back on my head, it made it difficult and that was probably for the best. I gave the gap-toothed guy all the cash in my wallet, which was $8, and I hugged him again and told him that my hat was a very special hat, that it meant so much to me that he found it and kept it safe. And then I ran out of that garage. I didn’t need to run; I didn’t have anywhere to go but back home. I ran away, away, away from the fresh memory of pain, I guess.
I hopped on a bike-share bike and rode home in steady rain. I was not happy, exactly — I was too drained for that — but my senses were heightened. The smell of caramel corn at the Garrett’s on Dearborn was stronger. The sound of the el sounded bigger.
The rain felt wetter, too, but not on my face. My hat keeps the rain off my face.
Tragic things happen to me all the time. But I sally forth.
Take, for example, the time I dumped an entire pot of piping hot, black tea on my new-ish cream-colored carpet. Oh, yes, it really happened. My tea tray was set out nicely — or so I thought — on my sofa table, but in fact it was only halfway upon that table. When I went to prepare my first cup of tea, I took the honeypot off the tray and, floop! The entire operation went off the edge and the pot of hot, hot tea flipped through the air with the greatest of ease and sploosh! Tea everywhere.
But did I cry over spilt tea? Yes! Of course I did! This was a disaster.
But remember: I sally forth.
As I ran into the kitchen, howling in anguish, wailing “Why?? Why???!” I knew that I needed to do one very, very important thing: Right before I ran back out with the 3 rolls of paper towels I snatched from below the sink … I put the kettle back on. I had to! I need tea in the morning! Yes, there was a ruinous tea stain spreading ever-wider by the second into my new-ish carpet, but let’s not panic, here, Mary. Let’s not lose our very minds. In my pain, I still knew enough to think, “If you put the kettle on now, by the time you clean this up, you can have that cup of tea you tried to have 30 seconds ago.”
I’ll give you another example. This one happened this very morning.
There I am in the bathroom, tending to my morning ablutions* and I’m still a bit winky (i.e., tired.) I reach into my dopp kit for my moisturizer, which comes in a tube thing with a snap top. I squirt out a glob of it onto my hands and I’m really rubbing into the old mug when I think, “Hm … That smells different, almost like — aggghh!”
I had put hair styling creme on my face. All over my face!
This was a true disaster, one on the level of the tea on the carpet. I will be 39 years old a month from tomorrow, yet I deal with breakouts as much as I ever did in high school, it seems. Slathering my face with a hair product? Bad. Very bad. I might as well just taken a stick of butter out of the fridge and used that all over my face, except butter has fewer additives and weird polymers than hair goop.
But remember: I sally forth.
When I realized I had a thick layer of hair creme all over my face, I grabbed my face wash and a towel and was just about to remove the stuff when I thought: “Well, now hang on. That’s good hair product!” So I smeared some off my face and rubbed it into the ends of my hair, my eyes squinched shut tight so none of what was on my face would sting my eyeballs. After I felt like I had gotten some where it was supposed to go (hair), then I washed my face.
Bon courage, mon amis! Bon courage!
*a favorite word among PaperGirl readers, which is why I love PaperGirl readers
ATLANTA, Ga. — Choosing flowers is tough. There are many options for photography. But if you’re getting married in Atlanta in almost-July, the wedding party favor is easy: Give ’em paper fans.
At half-past four in the afternoon, with the temperature in the high 80s, around 100 stylish guests on wooden chairs fanned themselves, waiting for the backyard ceremony to begin. Then, as family and close friends snapped a few more pictures of the lavish chuppah constructed entirely from twigs woven together with ribbon and fresh flowers, the three-piece band quietly closed out their rendition of “Love Me Tender” and switched gears.
All eyes turned toward the upper patio. And the bride descended the stairs.
Resplendent in an elegantly tailored, bone-colored peplum gown, it was confirmed by several official science sources that the bride was actually “glowing from within.” Ruddy-cheeked and radiant, her mane of thick, dark hair was worn pinned back on one side and topped with a feathered fascinator. Several official fashion sources said that her look was “pitch perfect,” and “timeless, but with sass for days.”
The bride’s mother (ageless!) and father (peerless!) greeted their daughter there in the family backyard and helped move her toward the aisle. Tears were shed by all members of the family and every single person in the tent, including the author, was blubbing and sniffing and sticking to our chairs in that heat and it was magical and perfect.
The groom — an adorably rumpled, Swedish artist — wore a powder blue linen suit and looked in wonder as his flawless bride approached the altar. Several official relationship sources confirmed that he looked like he was definitely taking this seriously and that he was “a good one.” The rabbi leading the nuptials hit just the right note in those remarks he gave in English. (As the author does not speak Hebrew, all remarks given by the rabbi in Hebrew cannot be confirmed as hitting the right note, but an official religious source was overheard to be saying that everything went just fine.)
Once the vows were spoken and the ceremonial wineglass was stomped, the band played a jazzy rendition of Guns n’ Roses’s classic, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” as the newlyweds made their exit. As the wedding party sat for portraits off-site, guests were treated to glasses of champagne and small, nibbly things like chocolate-covered strawberries and fancy cheese on fancy toothpicks. It was confirmed by several gastronomically-inclined sources that “the canapé situation [was] excellent, just excellent.”
Then it was off to the country club for dinner and dancing. And the author had an allergy attack (or something??) and had to leave early. But everything was so perfect. And you got married, Bari. And you got married, Magnus. And I got to see that, and see all the people who love you.
I like to have extraordinary days. Yes, extraordinary is the goal. Extraordinary in big ways, extraordinary in small ways — whatever the way, when it comes to how I spend my days, I want that “extra” in front of that “ordinary.” I would also like extra sprinkles.
The last seven days have been so extraordinary, though, we’re getting into a weird area. If stuff with work keeps being this cool, I’m going to pop. I was on two location shoots with Quiltfolk in a week, working in the marvelous mode of making editorial decisions minute by minute, running to catch planes, etc. I’ve been in two states, six locations, and … Look, it’s a pet peeve of mine when a blogger spends time apologizing for not writing sooner, or when she explains all the reasons why she couldn’t post a post before this one, etc., but I’m going to do it: I’m sorry I haven’t posted more in the past week but I’ve been reallyfar away from a computer, both physically and psychically.
Here’s a list of what’s happened since last week. All these things are true. In the past seven days, I:
flew in a tiny by-plane to a fairly remote island
met a legendary artist
saw a raw manuscript for a recently-published book
hung out with quilt world royalty
drank two tasty cocktails too fast because I was nervous
drove 20+ hours
was interviewed for a podcast
hung a quilt off a bridge
rode in the back of a pickup truck
ate bag of jalepeno potato chips (*over the course of 3 days)
saw an alpaca
took four ferry boats
ate coq au vain at a brasserie
yelled at someone (*not bad)
carted my dry cleaning across state lines
… the last one made sense at the time. I’ll tell you all more about all these things soon. For now, it’s time for bed. I got home tonight; I wake before dawn to head to Atlanta for a wedding. So I’ll see you in Georgia. That’s the one with the peaches, right?
Forgive me for being absent a few days, but there simply is no time to do anything whatsoever but repack my suitcase, answer emails, make rawther important phone calls, and smell Nick.
Yes, Nick, my PIO — that’s “Person of Interest” — smells so good, I need to smell him whenever possible. I’m glad most of my work requires me to go out of town, because if I had to work around Nick, smelling as good as he does, I would get nothing done. Have you ever tried to write a letter from the editor while sniffing the collar of someone’s t-shirt? Pointless!
Nick has always smelled great. He’s got that wonderful smell of a guy who cares about his laundry. He smells like a person who really scrubs the back of his neck when he takes a shower and he definitely reads the care labels on his clothes. Do you know what I mean? That sort of “this is just who I am” smell is enough to make me kind of woozy, but it’s worse, now, because Nick has become smitten with a certain cologne. This cologne smells great in the bottle but let me tell you: It’s downright criminal on Nick.
The fragrance: Neroli Portofino Acqua by Tom Ford.
It’s hard to describe the scent — scents are tough — but I’ll try. It’s got bergamot going on; it’s got a hint of lemon. It’s musky and dusky. It’s young but not frivolous. It’s smart but not stuffy. When I smell it, I think of a person who takes cool trips and does cool things and is kind to animals. Also, that person knows how to bake scones with currants and when you visit them in their country home for a week in the summer, they know you love them. It goes without saying that this mythical cologne person is rich. Because some colognes just smell expensive, you know? Neroli Portofino Acqua one smells like it has to cost a fortune, but it turns out that a small bottle isn’t terribly expensive at about $100 plus tax. The price surprised me and Nick, too, considering the fancy Tom Ford label and the way it smells like it has gold flecks in it or something.*
Nick and I have been talking a lot about fears and “what comes next” and we had a text message fight yesterday. I never have text message fights but it was a weak moment. We’re sort of at a point — and relationships have all kinds of different points all the time, it’s not just one — where we are either going to kick it up a notch … or not, I guess. The fear of failure, the fear of wasting time, the fear of “what if this” and “what if that” is terrible on thoughtful people. Text message fights may occur from time to time.
We patched it up. Yesterday, he brought me flowers. Today, I smelled his wrist. And you do the next thing.
*For another perfume-inspired reverie, you should definitely read this.
Honestly, don’t you think that’s a fun idea? An “advice column” where the columnist is the one asking for the advice? Hilarious!
Thanks to all of you, my summer reading list is set. I didn’t tabulate exact votes, but it was pretty clear how things shook out. I am going to read my five novels in this order, as per your advice:
1984 byGeorge Orwell
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James The Pale King by David Foster Wallace Tender is the Night by Ernest Hemingway
It was pretty close between Orwell and Tartt, but I think it’s okay for me to start with the shorter work before I dive into the really long one. Henry James was definitely in third place, and David Foster Wallace and Hemingway were neck and neck bringing up the caboose, but I decided to let Hemingway come in last. He so often comes in first, doesn’t he? He’ll be okay.
Once I’m finished with Orwell, I’ll bring you my book report. It’s interesting timing: I’ve been thinking about deleting my Facebook account. I was going to bring you the case and — wait for it — ask you for your advice. Reading 1984 with that in mind, that idea about deleting Facebook, will be most interesting.
*I’m not on a tuffet. I just needed to create a visual of some haughty Advice Columnist who thinks she knows everything and putting her on a tuffet seemed right.
A few weeks back, I put on my librarian hat — a fetching chapeau! — and did some organization and pruning of my living room library. (I have a library full of quilt history books, but that is in the office.)
As I worked through the shelves, I found lots of titles I was ready to give away, and it felt good to watch that pile grow. Most of the books I didn’t want I put up in my building’s laundry room on the cute “take a book, leave a book” shelves by the elevator. Right now, someone is enjoying a gluten-free baking cookbook and my extra copy of the Lapham’s Quarterly on “Time.” (Interesting how I bought that particular issue twice!)
While it felt good to shed extra stuff and hopefully make someone happy, it felt bad to see all the books I own but haven’t read. There aren’t that many, but it cannot be denied that I have a good deal of fabulous reading material that I’ve never cracked. I think this is true for most people who love to buy books. You can’t wait to read the books you just bought, but then you get busy or you get interested in something else and then it’s five years later and you never read that biography of Eleanor Roosevelt or the complete history of polka dots or The Brothers Karamazov.
For me, it’s always the novels I don’t get around to reading. I go for the essay, the article, the interview, the criticism. Non-fiction, in other words. But I do want to read a novel or two this summer for heaven’s sake, so I thought I’d ask for your help.
Here are five novels I own but have not yet read, and I want YOU to tell me what to read first.
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt 1984 by George Orwell The Pale King by David Foster Wallace Tender is the Night by Ernest Hemingway
I thought about giving you descriptions, but, since so many of you are book-nerdy like me, I thought you might enjoy looking into the books on your own. Of course, most folks won’t need to look up Orwell’s 1984; that canonical work is pretty well known and I am horrified to admit that I’ve never read it! Me! An Orwell fangirl! But this is what I mean about books you own: Sometimes, you just never get around to them, even if they’re classic works of literature that most people read their sophomore year of high school.
I can’t wait to see what you think, gang. Some of the books are (much) longer than others, but I’m ready for what you all decide. Oh, and if anyone wants to read along with me, please do: I’ll write up a book report when I get done with each title.
The caption under this photo in Wikipedia reads: “A sign indicating where jurors are to conjugate inside Hillsborough County Superior Courthouse in Nashua, New Hampshire.”
Wait a second.
I looked up the word “conjugate” because that’s … wrong. It’s adorable, but it’s wrong. It should be “jurors congregate.” Right?
Then I thought, well, maybe jurors do conjugate. The “j” and the “u” are the same in both words, right? I did some poking around and I didn’t find anything in a definition for “conjugate” that really made sense in the context of the caption. But I could be wrong. After all, I’ve not studied law; I don’t know what jurors do. I’ve not served on a jury. I took an advanced vocab class one summer during undergrad and learned a lot of Latin roots and suffixes and things, but there’s a lot I don’t know about words. Jurors conjugate. Why not?
It seems like a small thing, getting words mixed up. The person who did the captioning got it wrong, I’m pretty sure, but I’m not sure beyond a reasonable doubt. I’m glad I don’t have to stake my life on being right or the caption writer being wrong.
I’m thinking in this way because I’ve been watching some damnable series on Netflix called “The Staircase.” Do you know what I’m talking about? It’s a documentary in 13 episodes. The filmmakers tracked — exhaustively, relentlessly, remarkably — a murder case which took place over several years in the early 2000s. I have no recollection of this case, but it was a big story in mainstream media, as the series shows. I won’t tell you everything that happens because I haven’t seen the last four episodes and I can’t bear to go through it all. Just know that the story is painful, sad, tedious, shocking, depressing, and discomfiting in the extreme.
Man, I ain’t got time to binge watch anything but my email box, and here this show goes and hooks me! I was going to take a walk tonight, but no way. I had to watch, and now I’m scared of being sucked into a murder case. A real one. I haven’t killed anyone. I don’t plan to. I would hope no one is out to kill me. But “The Staircase” shows these things can happen to anyone! We’re all just one Kafkaesque scenario away from a different, bad world.
The trouble with watching TV like this is twofold: You can’t look. And you can’t look away.
It has come to the attention of The Management that some folks are having trouble accessing this blog. Unacceptable! I’m sure it’s got something to do with the mischievous internet goblins who know that I’m thinking of deleting my Facebook account. More on that later. Anyway, I’ve got a call out to my brilliant web wizard, Julie Feirer. I’m sure there’s something she can do. She must not fail!
A N N O U N C E M E N T N O . 2
I am writing thank-you notes to the folks who donated during the First-Ever PaperGirl Pledge Drive, but I’ve got a problem. You see, if you donated via PayPal, I could simply email you a thank-you, but this is not my style. Your PaperGirl is, perhaps not surprisingly, super into paper. The problem is that I don’t get a person’s mailing address with a PayPal donation, so I am going to have to ask for it. It will be a slight nightmare keeping everything straight, but I can try:
If you donated will you please email me your mailing address? (If you haven’t donated, why, there’s still time!)
I’d like you to use my school email, since it’s separate and it’s funny how after you graduate from a school, you don’t have to really send emails about school anymore. Here’s that address:
m f o n s @ s a i c . e d u
Use no spaces, of course, when you enter that address into your “To” field; I’m just trying to keep the spambots away. (Robots crawl the internet looking for email addresses to spam. You know that, right? If you have a website or a newsletter or anything, don’t put your email address on the screen without funky spacing. I think it’s supposed to help.)
The thank-you notes are being written. I have a huge bag already. It’s going to take time, but it’s important to me that I send you a proper thank-you note. My mama raised me good.
Google Maps tells me I live .7 miles from Lake Michigan.
That doesn’t seem very far, but it’s not a straight shot. I can’t lean out my window and see the lake. I can lean out the window and see over to Grant Park (when the Cubs won the World Series, I leaned out a lot) but I’m not rich enough yet for a close-up lake view.
But every once in awhile — it doesn’t happen often — a seagull from over at the lake will wing its way over to my block and sail through the sky past my 16th floor windows. The bird is bright white against the gray and brown and glassy blue of the mid-rises and the high-rises here in the South Loop. If a seagull comes through up here, I notice, even if I’m not looking at the window at all. The contrast is remarkable enough to catch the eye.
Just because you finish a degree; just because you decide to mention you’re seeing someone; just because you’re working a job you love — nothing is set. Ground shifts; it shifts again. In your case, maybe I should say that the air current changes and changes again or the rain stops, then it starts again. My point is that no matter where you fly, there you are, and just because you wanted the city to be different than the lake, that doesn’t mean it will be. I hope you find what you’re looking for, but like …
When a person in magazine publishing says she’s “in press” or the magazine she works for is “going to press” it doesn’t mean she’s physically squished between two large ink rollers, nor does it mean she’s about to push a big red button that starts a Gotham-style newspaper printing press spewing out special edition headline news in a Batman movie montage. (You know what I mean, right?)
Being in press means you are under deadline to get all the content, the photos, the captions, graphics — every jot and tittle you see in a piece of printed matter — corralled onto the pages of the given publication before you must sign off on the thing and send it out into the world. (Then you get your big red button moment, sort of.) Making a printed anything that is good at all is an impossible task, so press is pretty scary. The more text, the more photos, the more captions, the more facts you have to check, etc., the scarier it is.
In press, all the things you didn’t know you were missing are revealed. For a 180-page quarterly journal like Quiltfolk, we have about five days of press. That’s five days of anguish as you go through page after page, caption after caption, looking for ways to make it better, make it prettier, make it make sense, and above all make it not wrong. It’s terrifying. Quiltfolk is way more like a book than a magazine (no ads, all those pages, all those photos) so I have a job where we make a big, fat book, four times a year. And by the way: We’ve been workin on the issue since April. It’s just that this is the crunch time. This is press.
Yes, we’re in press right now. And I was going to put up a post that said I couldn’t say hi at all because we’re in press. But I can’t help myself: I’m a publishin’ fool. Press is exhausting and frightening, but it’s also a blast. I love it. I love to make type move and I love to select a photo and I love to communicate this way. I’m not good at so many things and I’m not even that good at this, but I have ink in my veins, I really do.
I’ll tell you more about Issue 07 of Quiltfolk soon. Maybe even tomorrow, if those captions don’t take me out first.
Everyone’s just nutty about all those subscription box things.
Well, okay: If you haven’t heard about the subscription box thing, you are proof that not everyone is nutty about them, but once I tell you what they are, you might go nuts. Everyone else is, already! Here’s the definition from Wikipedia, which one should not really use to define things, but I am in press for Issue 07 of Quiltfolk and have to get up before dawn to edit:
A subscription box is a recurring delivery of niche products. Subscription boxes are a marketing strategy and a method of product distribution. Subscription boxes are used by subscription-based e-commerce businesses, referred to as “subcom” for short, which follow a subscription business model.”
What do you buy that you probably don’t actually need? Clothes? Jewelry? Makeup? Toys? Snacks? Home decor items? Kitchen gadgets? All of these things can now be purchased via subscription box. Whatever company you sign up with — and once you pay them, of course — they put things in a box and send them to you. From what I understand, some subscription boxes allow you to send things back; other “subcoms” just give you your stuff and if you don’t like it, well, better luck next month.
I do not subscribe to any of these boxes. I’m not saying I never would, but I don’t want strangers sending me things I did not shop for myself. I can appreciate that it’s fun, that it’s like Christmas when you open a new subscription box, except … Well, you’re paying for it. So it’s sort of like Christmas for adults. Yay.
I thought of a few subscription boxes I would love to get. None of them are real but they obviously should be.
Ice Cream Box — Weekly
A new flavor every time, as long as the new flavors are always praline pecan, butter brickle, or salty caramel.
Massage Box — Every 4 hours A small masseuse pops out of the box and makes it all better.
Box of Money — Constantly Signature required.
Housekeeper Box — 3 x Week Just think: When you open the box, the person is already inside, ready to start tidying while you pack your suitcase to go back to the airport!
Jewelry Box — Whenever Lots of fance jewelry, all gold and sparkly things. Because you’re worth it and you’re nice to the UPS delivery person.
Chicago Woman Files Paperwork, Deposit for Mini Maltipoo Puppy from Reputable Breeder by P. N. Dennis
CHICAGO, IL — Quilter and editor Mary Fons may have a puppy on the way.
After years of longing for a small, well-trained, hypoallergenic dog to help her stave off depression and anxiety, her application materials have been processed with a reputable breeder in Arkansas. A deposit has also been placed, making the dog — who Fons intends to name Philip Larkin after her favorite poet — one step closer to becoming a reality.
“It’s been a journey, getting to this point,” Fons said. “I’m excited. I’ve thought and thought about how it would all work; all the reasons why I shouldn’t do it; when it would be the ‘right’ time … I’ve thought rationally about all this for years. Then a couple months ago, I just totally broke down. I need him. I need Philip.”
Fons’s name is now listed on the “High Priority Waiting List” on the breeder’s website. The breeder (whose name Fons said she would wait to disclose until she had permission) was suggested some months ago by a reader of Fons’s blog, PaperGirl.
“For me to find Philip as a direct result of a PaperGirl reader is just … It’s perfect. They’ve been with me this whole time, you know? They’ve watched this develop.” The 38-year-old woman blinked back tears.
The breeder with whom Fons is now in close contact with is USDA Class-A licensed and sells registered puppies with full guarantee and microchip. The application process was apparently intense. “I wrote way more than she needed on every question, but [she] told me later she loved it, that she had full faith that I was absolutely ready for a dog. I filled out another form after that, sent my deposit, and that’s when I got on the list.”
Fons’s paperwork isn’t over yet. She has drafted a petition to her condo board to allow her to have her dog on special dispensation, as the building allows residents to have cats but not dogs.
“I’ve struggled with whether I deserve to ask for special treatment,” Fons said. “Anyone who knows me knows that’s been true for a long time. I’m not a rule breaker — and I’m not so special. But I am human, and my heart hurts. I will be responsible for — and with — my non-shedding, five-pound pet. I intend to train him and make him a source of joy for everyone he comes into contact with.”
And if the condo board denies her petition? “Well, it’s going to come with a strong letter of recommendation from my psychiatrist, so that would be some stone cold stuff,” Fons said, “but I would respect their decision. I’m not going to sneak a dog into my home. But my amazing Arkansas breeder isn’t going anywhere, so I’d just double down on my search for a new apartment and take it from there. But I would be sad.”
On the side of Fons’s fridge is a sheet of paper printed with information on neighborhood boarding services, pet stores, and groomers. “I’m going to be ready when [REDACTED] calls,” she said. Fons is listed on the waiting list as desiring a “small, male, apricot” mini Maltipoo; the next litter that would produce a puppy fitting the description could be 3-5 months from now. Possibly more. Fons says she’s waited this long, so it’s okay.
“It’s all so real now,” she said. Then she grinned. “Can you imagine what it’ll be like when I finally meet him? How am I going to blog with a tiny puppy on my lap?? I think I might have to skip writing words and post YouTube videos of me and Philip on the ol’ PG for awhile. They’re gonna have to see him in action.”
… vacuum out the pen cup
That’s right: the pen cup. That coffee mug or other ceramic vessel which holds things like pens, paperclips, erasers c. 1987, bent thumbtacks, pieces of three different eyeglass repair kits, etc. Ever taken all the stuff out of that cup and looked at the inside of it? It’s gross! Lo, I am a woman with many pen cups. One by one, they are being vacuumed to squeaky.
… wipe down the rocking part of the rocking chair
You think rocking back and forth in a chair keeps the dust off? Well, it doesn’t! Get that rag out!
… inspect and organize the tool box
Notice I did not say the “toolbox.” A “toolbox” sounds more consequential than the big, lidded, blue plastic tub where I toss any janky, tool-like object I encounter here at home. Today’s cleaning jag showed me I possess not one, not two, but three hammers! I’m not sure this happened, but meanwhile I have zero nails. I’m sure everything will be fine.
… vanquish Cord Hell All these cords for things that need to be charged or electrified … I am not a luddite! I enjoy many modern-day technological conveniences! But Cord Hell is a place. And that place is real. One day you’re connecting your phone cord to an extension cord and the next day, you’re in Cord Hell! Vanquish it and find peace. I recommend a) getting rid of everything you literally do not need; b) twisty-ties.
… forget to eat lunch I don’t like people who chirp, “Why, I just got so busy I forgot to eat lunch!” It’s annoying, right? Yes, but it happened to me today. I was so focused on — and so soulfully enjoying — organizing and deep-cleaning my house, I stopped for nary a snack.
I wanted an opening, I wanted a “new view.” Item by item, book by book, shelf by shelf, I’m making one right where I am. Next up: that red wall.
Speaking of updates, I owe you a few! I have breaking news regarding Philip Larkin; this Nick person I’ve mentioned a few times; extremely cool things happening with the magazine, and more.
Don’t miss a post! Who knows? Maybe I’ll get another hammer.
Now that school’s really over, I feel like I’m taking sips from a balloon full of helium. Just sipping helium from a balloon, on and off, all day. It’s sort of pleasant and buzzy, but also I do not like it atall. Does that make sense?
Mind you, I don’t want to be back in school. I’m good on school for awhile. It’s too soon for me to miss it, you might say. And it’s not like I’m out of school and unsure what’s going to happen next. I think we all know there’s plenty happening that has been happening for awhile. Uncertainty is not my problem.
But this huge … opening has arrived. Not just in my schedule, but in my mind, too, I suppose. What do you do with an opening?
Does an opening in life make changes possible? Big ones? For instance: Is it time to devote some of my recently-acquired free time to volunteer somewhere? Start that quilt-related non-profit I’ve dreamed of for years? Perhaps I should go vegan or take up jai alai. Or squash. Maybe I should eat and play squash. Perhaps I should dye my hair a different color or sign up for tap classes. I’m feeling like any of those things are possible, in theory. That’s how open it all feels right now.
Many wise people would tell me — might tell me now — that I should just put one foot in front of the other and relax for a minute or two. But when you’re sucking helium out of a balloon, it’s hard to relax. You get a little hot. You feel funny.
Years ago, I got a tattoo of an airplane on my wrist. It wasn’t an impulsive decision; I had wanted this tattoo for years. One day I did it.
Explaining a tattoo is tricky. If your explanation goes no deeper than “I was drunk in the Bahamas!” or “Somebody dared me,” it’s perhaps best not to explain.
But if the opposite is true, if your tattoo holds deep literal or symbolic meaning in your life/psyche, you’re also in a tough position. How do you explain in passing the varied, layered, complicated feelings that go into the desire to permanently mark something on your body? And why try? For people who don’t have tattoos — certainly those who are actively anti-tattoo — no explanation will be enough, however compelling.
Here’s what I’ll say about my airplane.
Something happens to me when I’m in an airplane. Something good. I sit still, for one thing. I’m stuck, so it’s easy to focus. Whatever I’m writing, at 35,000 feet, it tends to go well. But my love for airplanes isn’t just because I’m extra productive in my sky office; I’m romanced by the very existence of an airplane. Call me country, but the fact of flying amazes and delights me, every time, still. We’re flying? Like … like birds? No, no, it’s not possible.
But of course it is possible and I do it a lot.
I’m on a plane right now, in fact. I’m headed to Portland, headed to Quiltfolk.There’s a lot to do: Spring Quilt Market starts tomorrow, but being at the big show is just the beginning of the next five days. Mike and I are making serious moves at Quiltfolk; now that I’m done with school, prepare to watch more things move even faster.
So why am I on about the tattoo? That tattoo, by the way, that I regretted almost immediately and am now getting removed?
Well, I’m flying for this work trip and I’m on this plane, and I’m writing, and it’s the same. I feel happy, focused, right with the world, somehow. Except that this plane ride is totally different. I’m not flying to a gig. I don’t have quilts with me, I don’t have syllabi to hand out or patchwork to demonstrate once I get to where I’m going. I’ve gone to Market for years, but this is my first time with Quiltfolk, and that means I’m not pitching companies to buy ads for a web series or a magazine, like I did with Quilty, because Quiltfolk, like PaperGirl, doesn’t do ads. And I’m not in grad school anymore. I’m not a student anymore. I’m a … person?
The airplanes don’t really change. The tattoos don’t change. We change.
After the time away and the big announcements about graduation and Ken Burns (!), I’m feeling a desire for a good, old-fashioned PaperGirl post about something small but remarkable.
Do you feel me on this? I don’t want to do the pledge drive yet, I don’t want to make any grand proclamations, even though I have several to make. No, I just want to type up a standard-issue PaperGirl-Out-In-The-World observation, fold it into a digital paper airplane and sail it your way. Does that sound all right?
Let’s see, what have I got — ah, yes!
A couple weeks ago, flying home from Nebraska, I rubbed my eyes and pulled out my laptop. I was tired, but I had to read about Navajo blanket weaving for class. No sooner had I read the introduction did the most heavenly smell on the planet come wafting by my nose.
Fresh chocolate cake.
The sugary, buttery, cocoa-rich smell of a moist chocolate cake, thick with creamy frosting, was suddenly filling the air. The smell was definitely fresh chocolate cake and it was pungent, I’m telling you: This wasn’t some passenger’s cup of airplane hot chocolate I was smelling. The wholeplane suddenly smelled like a magic chocolate cake bakery. But where? Why??
I sat up in my chair and craned my neck around to find the source. It was dim in the cabin, so I couldn’t see very well. I continued to followed my nose until I saw her.
There, in the seat kitty-corner from me, a lady was happily — okay, blissfully — eating forkfuls of chocolate cake from the plastic to-go container plunked on her tray table.
I loved her for eating this cake. The wedge was huge. The frosting was so thick I could see it pulling on the cake as she lifted big bites to her mouth. She was talking to someone next to her but I don’t know they were tag-teaming this cake. I think this was her deal. I think she and her friend (brother? husband? complete stranger?) were at a restaurant in Omaha and they looked at the time and it was like, “Nope, we don’t have time for dessert; gotta get to the airport.” And she was like, “Well, in that case, I’d like your biggest slice of chocolate cake to go.”
I watched the woman for a minute or too and it was great. But better than watching her was watching everyone else watch her. Let me tell you what brings people together: the smell of chocolate cake. All the people in our immediate vicinity had the same reaction that I had when they smelled that lady’s fabulous plane snack. They sat up. They inhaled deeply. They looked around like prarie dogs. They identified the cake person. And they watched her with a little envy but mostly happiness.
A person going to town on a gorgeous piece of chocolate cake?
It feels like I need to say “Hi!” again after being away. You look so good to me!! Hi!
First off, I want to say that I see the comments about the font needing to be a bigger and a darker, and I shall make it so. With the server migration, things got a little funky and I agree there are tweaks needed. Julie and I will work on it, I promise. Until then, you can always go up to “View” and click “Zoom” and you can make your screen bigger. Thank you for your patience.
As promised yesterday, I’m going to paste in the painstakingly crafted foreword to the thesis I worked on for so long. Before you read it, you should know what I’m foreword-ing, no?
My 1,512-page thesis was a compendium. It was everything I have published or otherwise officially submitted in two years of in graduate school.
I included all my essays, F Newsmagazine articles, Quiltfolk articles, Quilt Scout columns, other freelance writing, research projects, three lectures, one poem, the materials for the exhibit at the Chicago Design Museum next year, and … every blog post. That’s right: The past two years of PaperGirl is in my thesis. The whole way, May. And what’s really cool is that if you get a master’s at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, your thesis is bound and kept in the library of the Art Institute. We’re in there, guys. You and me. We’re in one of the best museums in the entire world.
It literally took three 18-hour days to make the two copies of my thesis, partly because each section had its own introduction and title page and also because I hand-stamped every page (of both copies) with a page number using one of those cool auto-advance number-stamper things I think they use in law offices? It was fun, but I still have a bruise on my hand. (Seriously.)
If you’re new to the blog, I promise, promise, promise: Entires are never this long. But most days I’m not writing to you in the week I finish my master’s degree. And to make sure you know I care about the eyes of my readers, I’m going to boldface the whole thing.
F O R E W O R D
Christmas Day, Chicago, 2015. Half-past two in the afternoon.
I was standing at the kitchen counter at my sister’s house, wearing a sweater, jeans, and busted-up fuzzy slippers. Like everyone else in the room, I was drinking prosecco. My younger sister and her husband were both absorbed in something online. My mom and stepdad were playing Scrabble at the big table, picking at pie. Hannah, my older sister, was scrolling through Instagram on her phone.
“So I have news,” I announced to the room, then paused for effect. “I have applied to graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.”
My sister Rebecca looked up at me. “Why?”
Hannah stayed glued to her phone but shifted in her seat and from where I stood I could see the rise of one penciled-in eyebrow. Mark tapped out the score on the calculator he and Mom keep in the Travel Scrabble box. Jack bumped the power cord on his laptop then clicked it back into place.
“I want to study writing,” I said.
It was as if I had announced I was going to the store for a gallon of milk. Except there was hostility in the air, too, like I had announced I was going to the store for a gallon of milk and I had a history of stealing groceries. There goes Mary with her same old dairy-aisle kleptomaniac crap — and on Christmas!
“Well, I think it’s fantastic,” my mom said, and took a sip from her champagne flute. “You’ll be so happy you did it, honey.” My stepfather raised his glass but didn’t actually cheers anything.
“Thank you, Mother,” I said. Then, curtly, to the room: “Am I missing something? Is there something wrong with me pursuing a master’s degree in writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago?”
I was the only one in my family without a postgraduate education, so the bad vibes were not based in any anti-school sentiment. Something else was going on that made me sad and I felt the ruthless sensation of being alone among my own people.
My throat closed up, but I pressed the issue: Why was me going to grad school not a happy occasion?
It came out that no one had faith in an MFA program for writers. They were a waste of time, Hannah said, and besides, I had been making a good deal of my living as a freelancer for some time. My blog had thousands of subscribers. Why spend all that time and money for a piece of paper?
Rebecca agreed. She pointed out that SAIC is one of the most expensive schools in the country and when she worked in the Loop, she’d have to dodge throngs of SAIC kids every day at lunch. “It’s obviously a good school, but there are a lot of stocking hats and sad paintings over there,” she said. “I don’t think you’d like it.”
For the few brief minutes we discussed it, it was clear that no one was impressed with my announcement because they weren’t impressed with the plan and also because my family was used to this particular family member (me) making splashy life changes every few years. My decision to go to grad school wasn’t earth-shattering; it was simply the latest solution to the problem of Mary getting bored. The tears that stung my eyes were the result of knowing they were half-right, but there was anger, too: The half they were wrong about they were really wrong about. To study writing for real was something I had wanted pretty much my whole life.
Christmas Day three years ago was the first time I would have to defend why I wanted a master’s degree; why I wanted to get that degree in writing; why I wanted to go to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; and why I wanted to do all of this now.
Katherine Hepburn said, “Never complain, never explain,” but Katherine Hepburn never went to grad school. Explaining the reasons why I chose all this was something I would have a good deal of practice with over the next two years.
You could say I’m explaining right now.
* * *
I went to high school in the mid-90s in a small Midwestern town. College prep courses may have been a thing on the East Coast by then, but in Winterset, Iowa, “advanced placement” classes were a novelty. The first one they ever offered, AP English, was offered my senior year. For the first time in high school, I was not dogged by my homework but exhilarated by it.
The teacher taught from one book: the fifth edition of a college-level composition textbook called The Bedford Reader. I loved its tissue-thin pages, how they felt like pages of a Bible or the Shakespeare anthology Mom had on the bookshelf at home. I devoured the readings Mrs. Chase assigned and as I did, I put myself in a kind of conversation with the book, scribbling notes in the margins, drawing goofy doodles and inside jokes for my friends on the front and back covers.
After 20 years of moves, boyfriends, a marriage and divorce, and countless cleaning purges that dispensed with plenty of other books, I’ve still got that Bedford Reader. Flipping through its pages now, seeing all those proclamations and exclamations, is an exercise in facial expressions: I see myself and my brow furrows; my eyes get wide; I wince. The sheer spunkiness of me at sixteen is excruciating. “I love Matthew McConaughey!!!” I write, and when I like something, I draw a happy face saying “YES!!!” When I don’t, there in green ink is, “What does the author MEAN??? Don’t KNOW don’t CARE!!!”
Two years ago, just before grad school began, I purchased a thick, black Leuchtturm notebook. A German-designed notebook of consequence, it was big enough to last through two years of note-taking in writing department classes, workshops, seminars, and advising sessions. I thumbed through it the other day, not long after I had pulled out my Bedford Reader, to reference the bibliography.
Then came the shock: The content of my notes and doodles in my grad school notebook are virtually the same today as they were 20 years ago. It was all right there. The exclamations and proclamations with the same liberal use of exclamation points, the same rhetorical questions to myself, the same conversations with an audience of one … The only difference, really, is a subtle weariness creeping in; as a 38-year-old, I write, now in black ink: “What does the author mean? Don’t know. Don’t care.”
Shocking as it was to see myself so plainly after all this time, there exists a sense of satisfaction in the continuity from one book to the other. I might be an enthusiastic idiot, but I’ve always had a strong sense of self.
But the apparently indelible blueprint brings with it a terrible weight, too. Can a person change? Can she learn? Can she become a better writer or is it predetermined how good she’ll get? We know that women are born with a set number of eggs; is a woman’s portion of writing ability also set at birth? Does studying it allow only for cosmetic changes and nothing deeper? Why, indeed, sisters, did I pursue a master’s degree in writing if, from notebook to notebook, year to year, I’m still holding my pen the same way?
* * *
Oh, please. Two years in a MFAW program has made me way better at writing.
You can’t really chart it. You can’t quantify it. You, the reader, or I may or may not be able to read from one end of this manuscript to the other and see that from August 2016 to May 2018 my sentences get tighter, my references more nuanced, my verbs more precise. You may or may not perceive how I got better at editing my own writing and the writing of others. You’ll see a lot of published work that didn’t exist before, but there’s no way to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that in grad school, the Mary Fons motherboard was rewired and has become vastly more complex (and definitely more expensive.)
Then again, I’m also two years older. That counts for something. This 1,500-page thesis may not be a lot of things, but it’s undeniable proof a girl’s been practicing.
Most of my cohort came seeking an MFAW because they want to teach. Many hoped to assemble an agent-ready manuscript. Some succeeded, and those novels and poetry collections will serve as their thesis, pages polished to gleaming (or gleaming enough) in advising meeting after advising meeting, over two years of workshops and critiques. I, too, took work through that laundering process. When I arrived, I thought that writing and polishing the essays included here was the point of all this. My colleague’s goals were the same as mine.
But as I rode my bike up the street to MacClean in the heat of September; as icy water mixed with street salt seeped through my shoes through two long winters, what I was getting from graduate school and what I’d been seeking changed. I started out making a quilt with someone else’s fabric, you could say, and then I remembered I had this huge basket of my own gorgeous scraps.
More than mastering a single essay — or a dozen of them — I discovered that my task was to understand the kind of writer I am, not the kind of writer I wish I was. My sisters were correct: Grad school can’t teach you how to write. But I learned that grad school can offer the chance to discover how you write. And if you care enough, work ceaselessly, and accept the way you hold your pen, then you can improve. Maybe you can improve a lot. That’s the real — and somewhat hidden — lesson. It was certainly the knowledge I came for, and after I learned it, it was the reason I stayed.
* * *
My family has heartily congratulated me on my accomplishment. Getting a master’s degree — even in writing — is way harder than stealing a gallon of milk. They’re proud of me.
My thesis doesn’t just double as a doorstop: It’s proof of concept. I am this person. I am this writer. If you’re interested in getting to know her, I suggest you get comfortable. You’re gonna be here awhile.