Walking through and around the Chicago Loop and its immediate vicinity makes me feel connected and strong. I want to walk here for a long time.
I see many beautiful things: a group of teenagers cavorting in front of a 7-Eleven, their youth crackling in the air; a seagull, flown in all the way from the lake, perched on a sign for the Washington Blue line station; the sun when it dips behind a Willis Tower. The city flowers in their planters. The cornices of the Harold Washington Library. Women smiling to themselves.
This last one keeps coming up.
Lately, I have seen many women in the Loop who are up to something good. They’re smiling like they’re in love. Or lust. Perhaps it’s their spouse. Maybe a new lover. Maybe it’s just a crush. (“Just”!) Maybe they’re smiling about last night — or this morning. Without question, it’s good.
It happened again this afternoon. I was walking east on Van Buren toward State. At the front of the crowd of people coming from the other direction was a woman, about my age, Korean, I think, smiling to herself. I glanced at her as we passed each other. She did not notice me at all because she was not particularly aware of anyone, or even that she was walking on Van Buren Street in Chicago. She was somewhere else, thinking about someone. It was obvious, even in the 2.2 seconds I had to read her face.
Maybe she was thinking about a text message or a flirt session with the object of her desire/affection. I’d like to think the corner of her mouth went up because she thought about she got the best kiss of her life this weekend.
Whatever it was, it was fresh. Nostalgia is not present in the smiles I’m seeing. These are the quiet, beautiful smiles of women — ranging in age, ethnicity, and physical appearance — in whom spring fever has manifested. I guess. That’s got to be part of it, right? There are countless ways to smile, countless reasons. What I’m seeing is particular.
Part of my happiness in witnessing this phenomenon is understanding how they feel. I’ve been that woman. I’m not right now, and I can say sincerely that it’s okay. I’ll be that woman again. As sure as the El curls to the west at Lake; as sure as the pigeons love the red Calder sculpture outside the post office on Dearborn; as sure as my tea in the morning, I’ll be walking through the Loop someday soon with my head in the clouds and a smile on my lips because of him.
In the newspaper office yesterday morning, Sophie asked me the best question I have ever been asked.
I was at my computer and Sophie was at her computer and she turned to me with her beautifully lipsticked red lips and her gorgeous tortoise shell glasses and she addressed me as “Miss Mary” because that is how Sophie often addresses me and I love that and she said:
“Miss Mary,” she said, “I made paleo chocolate-banana muffins last night. I have them in my knapsack. Would you like one?”
I know what you’re thinking. “That’s the best question you’ve ever been asked?? What about ‘Will you marry me?’ What about ‘What do you want for Christmas, little girl?'”
No, no, no. Sure, the proposal was great, but we know how that turned out. And Santa? Please. He’s creepy and you never really get what you want, anyway. What you want for Christmas is for peace on Earth and to be deeply, purely, supremely happy forever, which is impossible. No, a question can’t be perfect unless the answer is a) easy to give and b) certain not to ruin lives, regardless of what that answer is. Let’s look at Sophie’s question again:
“I made paleo chocolate-banana muffins last night. I have them in my knapsack. Would you like one?”
Saying yes to this is easy because Sophie’s baked goods are made of unicorns and nutrition. But even if I didn’t want to eat one of these (perfect-for-my-ruined-guts) muffins, no lives would be ruined. So, you see? A perfect question.
How I needed that muffin moment! How I needed Sophie’s unicorns and nutrition. I was coming out of my funk and this was the final, gentle push. I know, I know: It was a freakin’ muffin. But the timing. The timing, you guys.
Eating that baked good — it took three bites and then I licked the paper — I felt like a baby trying chocolate for the first time. That’s how great. And I knew about that feeling because of the picture you see above.
That’s me up there, out at the farm in Iowa, in the Yellow House. I’m pretty sure the photo is capturing my first chocolate experience, though Mom could say for sure. When I ate Sophie’s muffin yesterday, I was instantly reminded of this photo of myself — there’s actually a series of them. I emailed Mom for the picture, apologizing for the random request. But I felt the only way for me to express my gratitude to Sophie and her gift was to show her that picture, show her how she gave me more than a baked good. She gave me a memory of joy.
Mom wrote back right away:
“Hi, honey. Mark and I just arrived on Washington Island…but I have that picture on my hard drive. Tell Sophie hi. Love, Mom.”
This weekend was press weekend for F Newsmagazine (also referred to as “F News” or just “F”), the student-run paper at the School of the Art Institute (SAIC) where I am fortunate to serve as associate editor.
By the way, “associate editor” really just means I edit the F+ section (culture, first-person stuff, listicles, etc.) and do a few items of business that other editors don’t have to worry about. My title sounds fancier than it actually is; I don’t have seniority over anyone, for example. But a) I don’t particularly want seniority over anyone and b) I like sounding fancy, even if I’m not. So I’m keepin’ it!
Press weekend means that it’s it’s time to produce the latest print edition of F News, so the editorial staff — there are five of us — along with the designers and the two faculty advisors sit in the newspaper office at 116 S. Michigan Avenue all day Saturday and Sunday and copy edit and do layouts and spend our only free moments in the whole entire week working on the paper.
Yes, we get paid. We do not get paid much, though. The hourly pay is not commensurate to the talent and love (and hours) that everyone brings to the project so there has to be another reason why we work at the newspaper.
I remember the moment I learned that SAIC had a student magazine. I was in Arizona, in a hotel room near the airport. It was late. I had just finished the gig where my quilts had been misplaced by UPS, a gig that must have been not long after the gig in Buffalo where I discovered sponge candy because I remember that I was eating sponge candy in bed and I was really tired. I was so tired but I was staying up to read the SAIC student paper because by then I knew I had been accepted to grad school at the college/museum and I had been on campus earlier that week to do some paperwork. That day, I picked up a copy of F News while I was in a waiting room. When I understood what it was, I thought, “Well, Mary Fons. I think someone needs to send an email.”
I missed making Quilty. I missed deadlines and sign-offs and editorial meetings. I emailed the paper and asked them if they were hiring. It was summer; they were. I met Paul, the faculty advisor, and Sophie, the managing editor, and I interviewed with them and before too long they said I could have a job on staff, even though I was to learn that the skills I developed as the editor of a hobby magazine were not totally transferrable to a college newspaper. Let me tell you, in case you’ve forgotten: You’re never done learning and you are never done feeling really dumb.
But I’ve learned. My writing has gotten better. My copy editing skills are way, way better. I feel like F News is this other school I get to go to.* It feels like this other class I get paid to attend.
Boy, it’s a lot of work. We all have office hours, a two-hour editorial meeting every week, press weekends like this one, and other activities, which is to say nothing about the job itself, which requires much thought and action. There are times I get frustrated because I’m working on F News stuff instead of doing my schoolwork or working on my book, but then I think to myself, “You can only work at this place while you’re in school. Don’t miss this.”
And I also think about the people. It’s the people at F News who make it worth the time and the not-money. Where to begin?
There’s arts editor Irena, the beautiful art history graduate student whose goofball tendencies are perfectly in balance with her naturally brooding temperament (a fabulous, fascinating mix!); there’s the recently-turned-21-year-old undergrad entertainment editor, Rosie, whose love for her fellow man, woman, and punk rock kid would melt the crustiest, grumpiest of hearts; there’s news editor Justin, my colleague in the Writing department, who has read All The Most Interesting Books and Articles That Have Ever Been Written and whose sartorial choices put mine to shame. And then there’s Sophie.
There are others. I could go on. I should go on. I need to. But I also need to do homework because I was at press weekend all weekend and I’m also still sick.
Thank you, F News, for teaching me better copy editing skills. Thank you for having a great color printer that we are not supposed to use for personal things but that everyone totally uses for personal things. (Thank you for being so great that everyone cares about you and therefore doesn’t abuse their printer privileges often.) Thank you for the staff of people who make you.
Thank you for doing my homework.
*Yes, that’s a dangling participle and if you wrote it, I’d make you change it.
Awhile back, I praised one of my film heroes: the outrageously brilliant Goldie Hawn. I wrote about my family’s fierce love for the movie Overboard, Goldie, and Goldie and Kurt Russell’s love. My love was echoed by many people in the comments and on Facebook. Lots of us love Overboard and that’s why the world is gonna be okay. (Maybe.)
Someday, I will talk about my all-time favorite movie ever, on Earth, ever, ever — which would be Tootsie — but not tonight. Tonight, I need to talk about Baby Boom.
If you haven’t seen Baby Boom, allow me to summarize the plot. No spoilers, don’t worry:
A high-powered New York City executive, J.C. Wiatt — played by the incomparable Diane Keaton and more on her in a minute — gets a call in the middle of the night. She has inherited something from a long-lost cousin who has died suddenly. When she goes to pick up her inheritance, it’s a baby. She inherited her cousin’s baby Elizabeth. (More on that baby in a minute, too.)
J.C. Wiatt is like, “Are you crazy?! I’m a high-powered executive! I can’t have a baby!” and she tries to get rid of Elizabeth but guess what? J.C. Wiatt becomes attached to the lil’ peanut and can’t bring herself to give Elizabeth back. J.C. is forced to admit that she kind of hates her hectic life and her lame boyfriend and so she gets out of the game and moves herself and Elizabeth into a dream home in rural Vermont where she meets a hot, hot, hotveterinarian, played by Sam Shepard, and I’m not waiting to talk about him. Sam Shepard (the actor/playwright/mystical creature) is so incredibly handsome and charming in this movie, you will literally stomp your foot and slap your leg and go, “Oh, comeon!!” because he is just ridiculous.
Anyway, J.C. goes stir-crazy out there in rural Vermont (she’s a high-powered executive!) and her house nearly bankrupts her because it’s a lemon. Besides, it turns out she misses the hustle n’ bustle of New York. At some point during the interminable winter, J.C. starts making homemade baby food for Elizabeth. Soon, she’s selling it in farmer’s markets and country stores around New England and before you know it, J.C. Wiatt’s got a tiger by the tail! Country Baby gourmet baby food is a hit! She’s back in the game!
Will she leave Vermont, the house, her new friends, and the hot, hot, hot veterinarian and sell Country Baby for millions? Will she move back to New York City with Elizabeth and raise her daughter in the most exciting place on the planet or stay in the slow lane? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.
So now let me tell you something fabulous that I just discovered, unless you’re already clicking over to rent the movie on Amazon, a decision I fully support. Just come back when you’re done.
Check this out: Baby Boom was made in 1987. It was directed by Charles Shyer. It was written by Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyer. Guess what other brilliant Goldie Hawn movie my family loves as much as Overboard? Why, Private Benjamin, of course. Well, guess who wrote Private Benjamin?? Nancy Meyer and Charles Shyer!! And Shyer directed it,too! And it came out the same year as Baby Boom!
It feels great to be so consistent. It’s like, “Oh, no wonder I like this thing. It’s exactly like this other thing!” I love it when that happens.
So there are many reasons why Baby Boom is so good: comedic timing, pathos communicated without schlock, and swift pacing all come to mind. But most of all, I love that movie because of the character of J.C. Wiatt, the way Diane Keaton plays her, and — wait for it — J.C. Wiatt’s clothes.
The 1980s are not often given credit for being a fashionable decade. It’s generally understood that the 1970s were worse, which is something, I guess, but people think of the 1980s and they think of neon, shoulder pads, big hair, and acid-washed jeans. But this is so not all the 1980s were in terms of clothes!
J.C. Wiatt proves this. Her thick, cable-knit sweaters. Her luscious scarves. Her swingy, belted dresses with yes, shoulderpads. (They make a waist look smaller and shoulders broad and handsome, if you ask me.) Her handbags, her shoes, her broach. Her other broach. Her big glasses! Oh, those great big glasses. I love it all. So does my younger sister. We have been known to just randomly email each other screenshots of Diane Keaton in Baby Boom with the subject line: “FASHION GOALS.”
The clothes look great on Keaton because Keaton is gorgeous (she was 41 when she made that movie, by the way) and because J.C. Wiatt is a great character. She’s a woman who wants it all — and wanting it all is complicated. She’s got a big heart and big ambitions.She’s conflicted, but she’s trying her best. She’s smart. She’s funny. When I watch that movie, I find myself wanting to either be Diane Keaton and/or J.C. Wiatt, be best friends with Diane Keaton/J.C. Wiatt, have Diane Keaton and/or J.C. Wiatt suddenly be my other mother, and also be like Diane Keaton and/or J.C. Wiatt when I grow up. And then there’s Sam Shepard in the mix, so watching Baby Boom is an intense experience.
Tonight, Baby Boom, I salute you. You really have had a huge impact on me and my sisters. We look up to you and we appreciate you. Also, J.C. Wiatt has a quilt hanging in her dining room, so that pretty much seals the deal.
I’ve often remarked on the strangeness of it: I talk about quilts all the time, I write about them. I read books about them, I teach people how to make them. And at the end of the day, after all that, most of the time all I want to do is sew.
After spending a day working at the newspaper and reading through a constant stream of classy, intelligent, thoughtful responses from both sides of the political landscape posted by you all to yesterday’s PaperGirl*, I came home, dropped my stuff, and made a beeline for my BabyLock and just started cutting and sewing patches. I don’t have a quilt in mind. I just cut some 3 1/2” and 2” squares and stitched square-in-a-square units like the one above. (Quilt geeks: Check me out matching up ‘dem directional ducks! Bam!)
I know that some people have to sew for work. Some people don’t know how to sew and will never learn. Some can’t afford it, with their time or money, some have zero desire to begin with. But there are those of us on this planet who sew patchwork for pleasure and we are the luckiest people that have ever lived, I think. The whir of the sewing machine. The satisfaction when you press back a crisp corner. The delight in seeing a finished block. This is bliss tonight, just sewing in my warm home while it Januaries outside in Chicago.
Maybe that’s what undergirds any political view I hold or have ever held: a desire to figure out how to make a world where anyone, everyone, can find the kind of peace I can find when I sit down at my sewing machine on a Monday night, after a full day of work and tough weekend.
It’s how we think we ought to get there that makes us different. The desire for peace and a good quilt, this is the same. We can get there.
On Wednesday, I am going to fly on a plane and land in Berlin! Just over a month ago, I got a cheap, cheap ticket for a quick, quick trip and now the journey is almost upon us.* It’s been over five years since I left the country so as you can imagine, I am very excited to go.
But if I was just going to Berlin for the heck of it, just to see Berlin or take a trip to a foreign land because the price was right, I’d be excited with the kind of excitement you get when you get a cupcake at a cupcake shop (yes, there are shops that only sell cupcakes and this is why I live in a big city.) You take the cupcake out of the box and peel back the paper and open your mouth to take the first bite and to be sure, this is a great level of excitement. But it’s not as good as it gets.
Because I know this wonderful person in Berlin. And I get to see him after saying goodbye to him seven months ago. So the kind of excitement I feel about going to Berlin is like getting a homemade cupcake from someone who made your favorite kind — yellow cake, vanilla fudge frosting with sprinkles — and not because you asked but because they love you. They love to see you smile. My friend Sophie made me a Funfetti birthday cake this summer, so I know these things do actually happen, these people do exist.
Tonight, I was fortunate to share a glass of wine and some french fries with two of my favorite people: the birthday cake-maker, Sophie, and Brian, a hot chocolate fan. Six months ago, I didn’t know either of them; we connected because of grad school at SAIC. If I get nothing but these friendships out of the experience, grad school will have been worth it. Seriously; come have wine and french fries with us and you’ll see what I mean.
We talked about our respective love lives. I asked Sophie about a possible engagement ring in her future; Brian spoke to the situation he finds himself in lately, introducing his newly-relocated-to-Chicago girlfriend to his friends; I spoke about my ongoing, satisfying dalliance with a certain young man. Of course we talked about my upcoming trip. Suddenly, the conversation went to a very deep place. Discussion of jobs lead to passionate feelings about Big Stuff — life and money, goals and reality, art school, the meaning of happiness, success — and several things were touched off in each of us that, over the course of the conversation, created some tears and frustration. (Full disclosure: I cried a lot.)
People will tell you that folks are most guarded and sensitive when talking about sex, but it’s not true: Jobs and income and money and making a living, owning what you have, wanting what you don’t and even not wanting what you do have — this is far more intimate stuff to talk about. We went there tonight and it wasn’t easy, but it was really important. If you don’t get vulnerable to the point of tears with other people at least sometimes, you forget that you can do that and the world doesn’t disintegrate and they don’t run away. And you don’t run away. And this can be the biggest revelation of all.
The reason I’m telling you about this in the same post about going to Berlin is because it’s all related.
I live by myself. I like living by myself. I like my tea in the morning and a hamper filled with only my underwear. But I am the opposite of alone. The people in my life, they push me to think harder, love better; they correct me, they encourage me. Berlin, Chicago, Australia (hi, Yuri), Iowa, or New York City — in these places, I am never alone. And when I’m in between those places? They’re with me in those places, too.
Ocean, schmocean. You know?
And then there’s you. Tomorrow, I’ll tell you what’s been coming in the mail. File my whole life under “Embarrassment Of Riches.”
I did it! Yesterday was Day 30 of my 30-Day Bikram yoga challenge. I did 30 classes in 30 days without skipping a single day. How about that. It took serious dedication, I ain’t gon’ lie. But it also wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done because I was genuinely grateful to be there.
When I walked into the studio a month ago, my body was crying out for help. My knees were junky, my shoulder hurt all the time, and bad habits were catching up to me in all kinds of ways. I was hungry to do some work in that hot room, even if it hurt — and it frequently did. But when you have the right mindset about something, the struggle bus doesn’t seem like the worst way to get from Point A to Point B. At least you’re gonna get out of where you are, right? At least you’re going to have Point A in the rearview mirror before too long and if Point A is just that lousy, you can’t wait to see it getting smaller and smaller as you go forward. The struggle bus feels pretty good when you see that, even if where you are is kinda rough.
I don’t usually prescribe things or give advice — a girl needs to figure out her own life before she starts telling others about theirs — but tonight, I can’t help myself:
My dears, try some yoga.
There are PaperGirl readers out there who are practitioners already and I am mentally high-fiving you all. But for those who haven’t ever tried yoga or have fallen off their practice, I urge you with not a whiff of ecstatic-weirdo-convert or tiresome “Let me tell you how much you’re missing by not doing [insert thing here]”: Give yoga a chance.
It’s about breathing and stretching. That’s all. Yoga is not a religion. It’s not a threat. It’s just you.
“Yoga” means “union,” as in the union of your body and your breath, for example. You don’t have to be fit to start; that’s never been true. You can do yoga with injuries because there are modifications for every pose. People in wheelchairs do yoga;* people who have had spinal surgeries (and all kinds of surgeries) do it. You can move your toe one little inch and if that’s your yoga that day, if that’s you doing something good for your body, that’s terrific! You’re doing yoga!
I’m telling you, my knees don’t hurt right now. Really, after just 30 days of stretching and breathing and stuff, they feel great. My shoulder hasn’t felt better in two years. And I’m a very skeptical person! But the proof is in the mirror. My pelt is shiner. My eyes are sparklier. I don’t feel as sad as I did 30 days ago, either.
Hey, don’t take it from me. My mom — the one-and-only Marianne Fons — does regular yoga. She started years ago when a studio opened in Winterset and she credits yoga with helping her be more flexible. She loves how during “relaxation” at the end of every class — yoga classes end with “savasana” pose, which is basically like taking a mini-nap! — she often gets great ideas, like what her next quilt will be, or how to end a chapter of her novel. Mom also says yoga gives her extra pep. We all want more pep, even Marianne, who was born with a pep surplus.
Yoga is not a contest. You don’t have to go in being “good at yoga”; the big revelation is that no one is ever “good at yoga.” Because that is not the point. Having yoga in your life is about taking a few minutes each day to love your sweet, tired, beautiful, tough, hard, soft, aging, sick, strong, fabulous, confusing, mysterious, gorgeous, true body. Nothing more, nothing less. You are so powerful. Did you forget? Yoga can help you remember. I promise.
Give it a shot this year. Tell them Mary sent you. Do any kind of yoga, whatever feels good. It can be “old lady yoga” or Bikram yoga. Ashtanga is way cool but it’s pretty demanding. Lots of gyms offer it, many cities that do Groupons will offer awesome deals to get started. Shop around. Get a pal to do it with you; that could be fun. Don’t see it as a New Year’s resolution; see it as your birthright to be a friend to yourself, to act on your own behalf.
Okay, advice over.
You know what I did to celebrate the completion 30 day challenge? I went to yoga. So I’m 31/30. Well, I also got a veggie burger from Devil Dawgs around the corner from the studio and mercy that thing was good. It’s the spicy sauce and the grilled onions.
*The image for this post came from Wikipedia as usual, but how neat that when I searched ‘yoga’ I found a quilt about yoga!! This was made by someone called “FiberArtGirl.” Way cool. Thanks, quilter. This is really lovely.
I have a feeling of contentment and I must give credit to my dishwasher. As in, my dishwashing machine. I don’t have like, a personal dishwasher who washes my dishes. That would be extremely weird.
My dishwasher is to thank because though yesterday’s shows were amazing, though we’re at the start of a fresh year, it’s important to stay in the moment and at this moment, my dishwasher is running. For me, the sound of a dishwasher washing dishes is heaven sent. (A washing machine or dryer does it for me, too, but I don’t have one of those in my unit.) When I was growing up, we didn’t have a dishwasher: It was all hand-washing, all the time. When I moved to Chicago, the apartments I could afford were most definitely not dishwasher-level apartments. I’ve lived in a lot of different places and maybe there was one in there at some point but really, not till I was 31 did I have a dishwasher of my very own. My love for these machines, I assure you, is real.
It’s the quiet whish and swish. It’s the click when you shut the door and the “thwonk” as the latch locks. When I was cutting fabric a little bit ago, I decided I needed more water in my water glass. I went into the kitchen to get it and ah, yes, there was the sweet hum of the dishwasher, confirming that the machine was busy with its task: sudsing up and rinsing off and washing daily dishes clean. Maybe it’s the sound of “I don’t have to do that” that makes it so sweet; maybe it’s the sound of technology that moves me. I mean, I have no idea how a dishwasher works. All I know is that icky dishes go in and pretty, shiny, dry dishes come out. It’s pixie dust in there.
The sound of a dishwasher running is the sound of calm, I suppose. Calm and reassurance. It’s like, “Dishes are being cleaned in here. Go do that other stuff you need to do. I’ve got this.” The sound of a dishwasher running is the sound of a peaceful home.
I wonder if some are laughing at me right now, waxing on about the sound of a dishwasher. But the simple things in life, if they can make us happy, this is lucky. The happily-running dishwasher does it for me, what can I say?
You all mean so much to me. I’m not good enough with words to tell you — each one of you — just how much I appreciate you. There is no PaperGirl without you. May 2017 be a year that brings extravagance and passion, art and love; may it bring wild, ecstatic compassion and connection — but may it also bring simple pleasures. If you look around, you might find they’re already with you.
I’m writing to you from inside the grand, achingly beautiful Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago. Have you ever been to the Merchandise Mart? Do you know about it?
“The ‘Mart,” as it’s affectionately known in Chicago, is truly a marvel of architecture and city history. When this art deco masterpiece was built in 1930, it was the largest building in the world. The whole world! Because it comprises 4 million square feet. Four million! (When I lived in New York, Yuri and I had something like 840 in total, fyi.) The Mart had its own zip code until 2008 when some lame thing changed. This building had its own zip code!
Wanna know who built it? Why, Marshall Field & Co.! Yes, the department store guy.
(Hey, did I ever tell you that my grandparents on my father’s side met in Chicago and they would rendezvous under the Marshall Field’s clock when they had a date? They’d set a time and meet under one of the clocks at good ol’ Marshall Field’s. That’s pretty cute.)
And guess who owned the building for like half a century? The Kennedys! Yes, the Kennedys! Isn’t that interesting?? I love learning things.
The Merchandise Mart has been a place for commerce since it was built; it’s mostly wholesale showrooms for interior decorating and design and lots of offices and there’s a bunch of other stuff in here that I would love to know about but what is most exciting — perhaps the most exciting thing that has ever happened to/at the Merchandise Mart ever, in 85 historic years — is that there is now a post office box in this place that will take your PaperGirl mail!
I got a post box in the Merchandise Mart! For you! For us! For mail!
It’s high time this happened. I get requests for my address frequently because someone found a wonderful pencil they need to send me, for example, or because someone wants to donate to the blog (or maybe buy Pendennis lunch) but doesn’t use PayPal. Totally understandable. Also, this holiday has brought several gifts via my mother or the Iowa Quilt Museum (hi, Tammy!) and while it’s interesting to think about the journey of such things, let’s make this easier on everyone!
There is a post office much closer to my home than the one here inside the Mart and this branch has limited hours. But there is no other place worthy to receive your correspondence. I mean it. I wish you could see this place. It’s magnificent. Even the sign for the post office on the first floor is beautiful, set in an art deco frame with sconces around it, throwing this golden light upon it, saying, “Welcome, Mail!” The wide, marble floors in the gilded halls (currently draped with holiday garlands and bunting) are polished to a shine. The squeaky clean picture windows look out onto the city that I love so much, that I shall never take for granted.
So please, send me mail! Of course, yes, you may send donations if you like. The box cost $166 for the whole year if I paid it all at once, so I did. If everyone sent in a penny — wait, wait. That’s not funny. Please do not send me pennies. You don’t have to send money. Send me letters or drawings or stories or chocolate or other items of interest. I would like to start sharing your mail on the blog. (If you don’t want me to, of course I won’t — just let me know.)
The address is shown up there in the photo, but just in case you can’t see it, ahem: Mary Fons — PaperGirl, P.O. Box 3957, Chicago, IL 60654-8777.
The photo also shows the third page of the application. I actually listed Pendennis as someone authorized to pick up the mail. Pendennis does not have fingers, nor can he take the train. But just in case, he’s official.
I’m so excited. I love mail so much. Let’s have fun with this. Let’s put the “paper” in PaperGirl.
Okay, you back? Good. Did you change your hair? You look great. Here’s a tray of light refreshments and a beverage. Where was I? Ah, yes. Hand me the pecans. Okay.
In 2011, the Neo-Futurists suspended Greg from the company. Put more simply: We kicked him out. Remember, this person’s behavior over the decades — decades! — had been destructive and poisonous, but it hit a crisis point that year (and if you want details, just google “neo-futurist greg allen tml closing” and you’ll get all the news stories and at least some of the awful details.) Calmly, firmly, the ensemble informed Greg that he was not allowed to be in Too Much Light for awhile and that if he wanted to play again, he would need to petition the ensemble to come back and then be a better person. He never petitioned.
The show went on. I went “inactive” in 2012 because of Quilty and Love of Quilting, a divorce, more health problems, a move downtown, etc. And while the show was going on and I was doing my thing, it appears that Greg was plotting revenge. This is my theory. This is only speculation. You come to your own conclusions when I tell you what happened next.
One month ago, the Neo-Futurists got a surprise. After being in negotiations with the company about how much they would pay him for the rights to perform Too Much Light, Greg went quiet — and then came a press release.
In the press release, Greg said that he was pulling the rights for the Neos to perform Too Much Light after 28 years running because of Donald Trump. If you’re scratching your head, here are a couple highlights from the press release:
Faced with the pending inauguration of Donald J. Trump, Allen has decided to let the existing Chicago Neo-Futurists’ license come to an end so that he can rebrand the show with a new diverse ensemble that embraces a specifically socially activist mission.”
“[The new Too Much Light ensemble] will be comprised entirely of people of color, LBTQ+, artist/activist women, and other disenfranchised voices in order to combat the tyranny of censorship and oppression.”
“I could no longer stand by and let my most effective artistic vehicle be anything but a machine to fight Fascism.” [Greg quote.]
Oh, the trouble with this. There are almost too many problems to list. But let’s try!
The current Neo-Futurist ensemble is made up of all kinds of folks, many of whom fit the description of the “new diverse” company he wants to build. So this can’t be his main goal.
By doing this with no warning, Greg instantly put around 12 hard-working, low-paid-but-paid artists out of work. How is this being visionary?
There is a New York City company and a San Francisco company, both of which also pay Greg to perform Too Much Light. He did not yank the show from them, only from Chicago. Interesting.
The Neos have always done interesting, highly-political work — and there were a variety of political opinions expressed on the stage, at least when I was around. And all kinds of people who fell on different places on the political spectrum came to the show. To make an ensemble that exclusively makes theater about one perspective on Trump/his cohort, this is not going to create conversation. This isn’t even going to sell tickets. I hope Greg is shopping for choir robes for his new, uber-progressive ensemble, because whatever show they make is going to be a lot of preaching to the choir.
So that’s all the bad stuff. Guess what? There’s good stuff.
The good stuff is that the Neos have been working so, so hard to get a new show up in the next few weeks. They’ve been raising money and have almost reached their goal of $50k. (I wouldn’t be a good Neo if I didn’t ask you to consider putting a buck or two in the hat; it’s easy and you’ll feel good knowing you’re…fighting fascism?)
And the other amazing thing is that when the news came out, all the alumni from 28 years of Too Much Light and the Neos, we circled the wagons, we lit the flares, we came together in support of the current ensemble and we’re doing a big benefit show for them on New Year’s Day. It’s the most extraordinary thing. You can’t get tickets because they sold out in five hours; I posted a note on Facebook and within minutes, it was too late. There are dozens of Neos, some coming from far away, to be in the show and be together, to remember, to play, to laugh, to cry. All that stuff.
We had a rehearsal on Tuesday and will rehearse all day Sunday leading up to the double-feature that begins at 7 p.m. The oversold house and the enormous cast, we will be proof that you can’t stop art — you can’t even contain it, can’t make it hold still.
By the way: New York and San Francisco? They quit. After hearing about all this, they didn’t opt to renew their rights to do Too Much Light. They’re standing with Chicago. Greg’s plan backfired.
As I said yesterday, being part of that company and being lucky enough to get to do TML for those years was like finishing school for my soul. I worked with people so talented it was almost embarrassing. We were rock stars. We were friends. The best art I’ve ever seen or made for the stage was the art I saw or made for Too Much Light and the Neos.
Too Much Light is dead. Long live the Neo-Futurists.
That’s a picture of the beloved Christkindlemarket in Chicago, just ten minutes from my door if I hop a cab. I could walk there in twenty. Last year, I asked Claus if he wanted to go, it being Christmas, him being German, and the Christkindlemarket being pretty. I told him it’s the largest Christmas market in the country and is full of delicious smells and good people-watching. We went ice-skating instead, but we might’ve gone. It’s so close.
Today, a man drove a truck into the Christkindlemarket in Berlin. He did this to pledge allegiance to a cause and to a political leader. He wanted to make a statement, you see.
Twelve people are dead. Forty-eight people are injured. When I hear “injured” I think about how “injured” means “broken arm” and “concussion.” It also means “in the ICU, on a ventilator, with a swelling brain, paralyzed.” That sort of injury is what happens when a truck drives into a crowd of people.
Claus lives in Berlin. Claus didn’t go over to the Christkindlemarket today, but he might have. He’ll go see his mother outside of Hamburg on Sunday; surely he’ll take her a gift. He could’ve gone to the Christkindlemarket in Berlin, not far from his home. He didn’t, though, so Claus is not dead or injured.
But someone’s Claus is.
Last night, Sophie texted me. In a awful coincidence, the very day we were talking about my desire to get a cat and her deep, abiding love for her own two cats, one of them, John, experienced heart failure. He’s at the emergency vet even now, in a glass cage, on oxygen. He’s not aged. He was not ever visibly infirm. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Soph and Luke do not have the thousands of dollars it is costing to care for John in this way. It’s just… It’s so hard.
To the man who drove the truck today:
Did you ever have a cat who got sick? Did he die? Did you feel so, so sad? Don’t you think that life is so hard, so hard anyway, without purposefully causing more pain? We don’t have to make more suffering. You don’t have to do that. Your brother doesn’t have to do it. I don’t. None of us.
Things we love get sick. We are disappointed and crushed a hundred times a day. It’s all so hard already. Please, please, please.
Come on, John. Come on, injured ones. Pull through.
It’s been awhile since I was a college student — ahem 15 years ahem — I forgot just how stressed out people get at the end of the semester. It’s pretty tense around here.
At the School of the Art Institute (SAIC), “Critique Week” is, I’m realizing, only the half of it. There are still papers due, presentations to make, big projects to turn in, and if you’re studying painting, I suspect you’ve got some painting to do, too. Blech: painting under deadline. Sounds lousy — kinda like quilting under a deadline. I’ve been there, Picasso. You’ve got this. Just take it daub by daub.
The Student Programming Board at SAIC knows that everyone’s freaking out a little bit — Irena who works on the school paper with me has three papers due tomorrow! — so a few years ago they made the final week of school “De-Stress Week.” The Board provides “pop-up” activities around school to help students relax for a moment or two in this busy, anxious time. There was a hot tea bar yesterday, for example, and they’ve served “Breakfast for Dinner!” at the Neiman Center, our student union-y place.
And today? Today, they offered three hours of “animal therapy!” There were pups to pet! I got to pet pups! At school!
I should’ve done undergrad here, too. This is the life!
There were three therapy dogs at the Neiman Center today and I got quality time with two of them: a Golden Retriever named Sedona and Butter, the Irish Wolfhound in the photo. All the dogs were trained as canine companions. As I stroked Sedona’s soft, rust-colored hair, I felt the knots in the shoulders of my very soul melt away. Petting a dog is sogood. As I watched Sedona’s belly rise and fall (she was laying on the floor, the epitome of chill, while four of us students ooh-ed and ahh-ed and stroked her) I asked her handler about what it means for a dog to be trained for therapy.
“It’s a lot of work,” she said. “They have to learn the usual commands: sit, stay, and so on. But they also have to learn not to grab for things like medical equipment, for example. Tubes, machines — sometimes those things look like toys or interesting objects to them, you know? We don’t want them to lick too much. And they have to be okay with strangers.”
I was a stranger to Sedona and Butter for less than two seconds. That’s how they both made me feel, anyway.
Wanna know a secret?
I’ve been thinking seriously about getting a pet. More later.
Yes, it was yesterday. I come to you with no small amount of shame that I didn’t get this posted before now, but I had company yesterday that I had to get ready for and I was still wiped out from a trip to Kansas City to visit the radiant and multi-talented 180 members of the Kansas City Modern Quilt Guild. Ladies (and gent), it was a pleasure. It was more than that, but I need to take care of important business:
Thank you for protecting our freedom to vote. Thank you for protecting our shores and and our skies from those who want to harm us. By “us” I mean, like, my mom. And my sisters. And my friends. And all the wonderful people I met in Kansas City this week. That’s what “us” is to me, and of course it means you and your friends and loved ones, too. My ex-husband was in the Army. I know a small amount of the hard work and training and sacrifices you make, every day, for this republic.
Confession: Everything that has been going on with this tumultuous election has been distracting me and that’s partly why I was zonked yesterday and didn’t get this thank-you posted. But your service is the reason we can have free and safe elections at all, so I’m doubly embarrassed.
To all the women and men who have served, are serving, or plan to serve and potentially die for the freedoms I enjoy as an American: Thank you for your service. We love you.
I’ve been around quilters all day and I’m full of love and a strange sadness. My sadness comes from wanting to be everywhere at once.
When you gather enough momentum as a quilt teacher, you can practically live on the road. PaperGirl readers have seen me come close to that at times; the last time I was in Portland, gigging at Fabric Depot and the Portland Modern Quilt Guild about a year ago, the trip was sandwiched between two other trips, which were themselves part of a travel schedule that I think involved Phoenix, Denver, and Houston — in a single month.
And while it is not an easy life — running for a taxi in the rain in a dress dragging two huge suitcases of quilts is bad no matter who you are or how much you love quilts — it is a life that puts a quilt teacher where she thrives: in rooms with quilters. The more gigs you do, the more rooms you’re in. The more jobs you take, the better you get at making these things. The more contracts you accept, the more gorgeous fabric you get to pet.
And then there are the quilters.
Today, I talked to a person who makes quilts for a battered women’s shelter. She does this because she escaped a violent husband after 30 years of suffering and, as she put it:
“There’s nothing like a quilt when you don’t have much. I make them and I take them over there. It feels good, you know?”
I talked to a grandmother whose pride for her sewing-obsessed granddaughter was so great, she tripped over her words trying to tell me about all the wonderful things Ilyana was making these days, how she’s begun to design.
There was the pair of women who came all the way from California just to hear my talk because, as one of them said:
“You and your mother are my friends. You’re in my sewing room every week! I had to come give you a hug, sweetie.”
My decision to pursue my master’s is the right one. I feel it in my bones, in my sewing machine pedal foot. Synthesizing my writing, quiltmaking, skills as a presenter — this and so much more is what I can do at the Art Institute. But out there with all the quilters today, from 8 a.m. till 7 p.m., I thought, “What if I’m wrong, if I’m being ridiculous? What if I should’ve stayed put? What if people think I’m abandoning them? If I’m not hugging hundreds of quilters every month, does anything I do toward this real-but-nebulous larger vision really matter?”
It’s not about me. I know it. Just one foot in front of the other.
My friend Susan asked me to go to The Moth with her on Tuesday night. It was an easy sell.
For one thing, I enjoy the popular storytelling event. (If you aren’t familiar with The Moth, you absolutely should be; make a note to google it when you go.) In addition to taking in some quality entertainment, by seeing The Moth I’d be doing research for the storytelling class I’m teaching in a couple weeks at the University of Chicago. But the best reason to say yes to hanging out with Susan is Susan and her wonderful laugh. So I said yes.
Susan is kind, smart, pretty. She’s brave and great at storytelling (she has won The Moth many times as a result.) She’s generous, she’s loyal — all that Good Person stuff. But it’s her laugh that wins. Suze’s laugh is one of the best things about her.
Do you know someone with an incredible laugh? A laugh that makes you laugh with pleasure? Susan’s got one of those. Her laugh is life-affirming. It is round, generous. Susan’s laughter bubbles up from her core then launches into space, fully-formed, in a sonic celebration of everything that is good in the world. Susan’s laugh calls to mind rose bushes and robins’ breasts: full, lusty things.
This is not normal. Most people just laugh. I decided, sitting next to Susan at The Moth the other night, clapping my hands with glee every time she found something to be funny, which is often, that I would have to further investigate. What follows is an email interview I did with the one and only Ms. Susan Cramm, who I am now dubbing, “The Queen of Mirth.”
PaperGirl: When did you become aware of the uniqueness of your laugh, Suze?
Susan Cramm: I think I’ve always been a full-out laugher. I think it was finally commented upon in college. I would go see friends and classmates in shows and they would say that they knew I was in the audience. The first time I was called out by a performer was in 2003 while watching a Punch and Judy show at the Whiteside County fair. The puppeteer had Mr. Punch say, “Hey lady in the back, will you come to all my shows?”
PG: What makes you laugh?
SC: Oh, most anything. I’m easy. Regular funny stuff, bad jokes, good jokes, puns, pet videos, everything. The absurdity of life.
PG: I have had the pleasure of sitting next to you at a number of performances. Sometimes I see you cover your mouth with both your hands to stifle your laugh. Have you been in situations where your laugh was not welcome?
SC: I do get looks every once in a while. I’m loud and sometimes people don’t like that.
PG: You and I have a friend in common: Bilal Dardai. He is someone I would pay to be an audience member if I put on a show because he has the best laugh. Well, the two of you tie, anyhow. Would you be interested in hiring yourself out for audience stunt work? Have you ever been paid to laugh?
SC: I love Bilal! I will gladly take a comp ticket. I believe it would be considered a conflict of interest with my job if I were to be a paid audience member for a play. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Do you not love Suze for taking this question 100% seriously??]
PG: A mellifluous laugh like yours makes me wonder about your singing ability. Do you sing?
SC: I do not sing for other people to listen to me. I sing at church with the congregation, along with the radio if it’s extra loud, and, like my mother, I sometimes sing what I’m doing — but I’m hopefully alone when that happens. I’ve been told I do hum a lot without realizing it.
PG: Do people want to talk to you all the time about your laugh? Are you giving any other interviews?
SC: I do have people come up to me after shows — talent and audience members — to say thanks and that it “opened up the room” to laugh with me. I’m not giving any other interviews about my laugh; PaperGirl has the exclusive on this story.
PG: Tell me anything else I need to know about your laugh and what it means to be you, Suze.
SC: I could not have as big a laugh as I do without also having had the experience of the body crumpling, snot inducing, wailing sob of an ugly cry. Not everything is funny. Also, you are the only person allowed to call me Suze.
You can get a little taste of Suze’s (!) laugh because… She guested on a 2012 episode of Quilty! Dig that short hair on me and the really, really cool polyester quilt we celebrate together. Times like this, I really miss that lil’ show.
To my surprise, two of my best friends in the whole world have grown the slightest touch of gray hair. When I realized it, the strangest thing happened: these girls got like, nine zillion times more beautiful than they were already. Straight up.
The first friend is almost exactly my age; we’re three days apart. Her gray caught my eye when we were sitting in the sun. She was telling me about the breakup that began that day and that has been so ruinous in her life for some months, now. We were at the Art Institute’s coffee cafe, out on the patio. I was listening and holding her hand. I saw the gray when she blew her nose. I thought, “Holy crap. That is life. That is what life looks like. It’s gorgeous because…it’s real.”
My other friend is several years younger than me but in my same decade. Her gray is lighter – so light I wasn’t 100% sure it was actually there at first, but now I’m 99% sure it is. I was at my sewing machine and looked over at her across the table. I saw the gray and I thought, “If that’s what gray hair looks like, I’m looking forward to it.”
Because sometimes I get sad about aging. It’s because my birthday is on Saturday,* probably, and I’m weird about birthdays. They’re my favorite day because I love being alive and they are my least-favorite day because I love being alive and now I’m closer to not being alive. Happy Birthday to me!!
My grandmother Dorothy went prematurely gray in her thirties and she looked so great. My mom has never dyed her hair and that’s pretty cool, especially when you consider she’s a person in the public eye. People do not like the people on their TV to change. Mom’s hair is silver and gorgeous.
But I vaguely thought I’d dye my hair when the gray started to grow in. Hair is fashion for me. It’s an accessory. I love to change my hair, as folks who have watched me on TV/online have seen over the years. I’ve figured – though I haven’t spent hours thinking about it because I haven’t found any gray yet – that when the time came, yeah, I’d probably dye it. No big whoop.
But then I see Friend #1 and Friend #2 talking, laughing, crying, creating art, being brilliant, being funny, telling me stories, making me laugh, teaching me, learning stuff themselves, and being really, really good friends with these first gray hairs on their heads and I think: “Oh, man… I wanna look like that.”
*It’s true: My birthday is Saturday, August 6th. I am going to shamelessly ask for a birthday present, too. From everyone. I gotta lotta nerve, don’t I? Don’t worry: It won’t cost you a dime. Actually, I think it will be fun. Stay tuned.
Yesterday, around one o’clock in the afternoon, after a standard-issue (more on that in a moment) labor and delivery, dear, healthy Julia Diane was born to Heather and Sam and to all of us, really; as members of the human race, we can all be happy today that Julia is here.
When Heather asked me to be her second-in-command on the big day, I squeaked. I had no idea what it really meant, though. I had no idea that she was giving me such a gift. In fact, I feel a little embarrassed I didn’t freak out and burst into tears and fawn and do a backflip when she asked me; if I knew then what I know now, I would’ve.
I could fill a book with my impressions from yesterday, there’s so much. This post will be in at least three parts; I like to be sensitive to your time and I also need a shower.
I want to begin by telling you that when I was summoned to the hospital, I brought a book, a snack, and an almost neurotic sense of propriety. I was there to do Heather wanted/needed, but I figured I’d leave the room when things were gettin’ real-real. I had zero intention of being awkwardly there as two people welcome their child into the world; if there ever was a moment not about me, that would be it. Heather did want me there, though, to be present for both of them for the duration — and I think I hit the right note. I sat at the side, helped with ice chips, helped with some washcloths, did some light back patting and arm squeezing. None of the doctors ever glared at me and I’m 100% sure the glasses of water I got Sam and Heather after the whole thing was over were the best glasses of water they have ever had in their life. All I’m saying is that I could possibly do this professionally.
Heather is a strong, brave, beautiful woman. But I had never seen her look like a lion until yesterday. It happened when the baby’s head crowned and pushing had to get really, really intense. With her carnal, ancient task before her, my friend was so powerful and gorgeous, she looked like the strongest animal in the kingdom, doing the bravest thing that can be — must be — done. She was ferocious, focused, and utterly natural. It helped that her loose ponytail was all messed up and her hair was all over the place; Heather’s got awesome red curly hair and it’s generally mane-like, anyway.
But then, just after she’d been a lion, my friend would sink back into the bed in between those major contractions and whimper. She wasn’t crying; these were plaintive sounds of pain and exhaustion. All the strength she had for each round of pushing seemed to entirely vanish when she stopped; then, impossibly, she would find new strength and go again. I thought of the Rudyard Kipling poem, “The Female of the Species Is More Deadly Than The Male.” The poem examines why women will always be more lethal than men because we are the ones who give birth. Look at this:
But the Woman that God gave him, every fibre of her frame Proves her launched for one sole issue, armed and engined for the same; And to serve that single issue, lest the generations fail, The female of the species must be deadlier than the male.
She who faces Death by torture for each life beneath her breast May not deal in doubt or pity—must not swerve for fact or jest. These be purely male diversions—not in these her honour dwells— She the Other Law we live by, is that Law and nothing else.
Heather did her duty to the generations, if you will, and in witnessing it, I understood Kipling’s poem far better — and I’ve known the whole thing by heart for a long time. As I saw a woman endure childbirth, as I watched “She who faces Death by torture for each life beneath her breast” groan and whimper and gasp, I was deeply moved. I’m just not around this stuff very much. The last time I saw a brand new creature was when one of our cats had kittens. I was six.
If you want to find me this summer, check the public library. I’m in the stacks!
My friend Sophie has a new rule for books. Let’s call it the Sophie Book Rule. “If there’s a book I’m dying to read,” she says, “I make myself get it at the library first. Once I read it, if I feel that I must own that book, then I go buy it.”
This is a good rule I am now trying to follow. I’m “trying” because I am faced with the desire to buy a book 1.2692 times a day and this is and likely forever will be a thing. But it’s already getting better! Why, just this very afternoon I discovered an intriguing author and what did I do? I clicked over to the Chicago Public Library website and put it on hold instead of clicking over to purchase it at any number of quality online booksellers who also have brick-and-mortar shops. (Checking for local booksellers is Mary’s Book Rule.)
Look, I’ll never stop buying books. Not possible. But this return to the library is deeply satisfying. Being there regularly —and I’ve been every couple days for about a month, now, returning something or checking something out — connects me with a part of myself I forgot about.
I haven’t had this close a relationship with the library in a lot of years. I guess I’ve just sort of drifted from the public library. Was it the internet? Adult distractions? I’ve been reading this whole time, but it’s been text on screens and books purchased at the bookstore or online.
My sisters and I went to the public library in Winterset practically every day growing up. We would wait there for Mom to collect us after school or we were instructed to hang out there until our friends’ parents got home, stuff like that. The Winterset public library moved across town a few years ago; the old library building is the city building, now, but I bet you anything it smells the same and I still know all the rooms.
The summer was the best time to be a kid in love with the library because of Summer Reading. Summer Reading (this may not be a proper noun but I’m going with it) was a program to encourage reading in summer. The details of the program varied from year to year. Some years there were lists, games, stickers, buttons, prizes for numbers of books read; sometimes you just read stuff you found. The incentives I have forgotten completely. All I remember is the joy of a new stack of books with the check-out cards in the front envelopes. I remember the way the new books’ plastic covers were taut and the older books’ covers were loose and curled at the edges. I remember lazing on the couch in July, reading and reading and reading and reading and reading and then going to the pool and then coming home and reading and reading. This was a good way to spend a summer. It still is.
Sophie told me she used to feel possessive about books. I knew what she meant; sometimes you feel like a book was written for you and you alone and it can be hard to realize other people were also written to.
“But the library fixes that,” Sophie said. “Because when you check out a book from the library, you feel in the pages as you turn them all the people who read the book just like you’re reading it now, and it’s such a wonderful feeling. You’re together with them, you’re all in the book together at the same time. I love that.”
The most hilarious thing happened about an hour ago.
The radio people said there would be severe thunderstorms tonight, even flash floods. I only half-listen to weather reports, though; I’m close to the lake and weather around the lake differs slightly from the rest of the city. But why risk it? I decided to go absolutely nowhere and work on projects.
I was stitching at my machine, watching Project Runway on my laptop when I heard the storm start. I went to the window and gaped. Sheets of rain were coming down. I could make out a few people running around on the street far below me, the poor things soaked to the bone. Ooh, I just love summer storms. I felt happy that it’s summertime, that it was storming, and that I was not outside. I went back to my work.
A few minutes later there was a bolt of lightning so big and close it lit up my house for several seconds like there was a fireworks display in my living room. We all know what follows lightning, right? The crack of thunder that came after that lightning strike was about as loud as I’ve ever heard. It crept along, hissed for a moment, then whammed. It was like, “Khhhhhssshhhh….krrrrrrrr…kak-kak-kak..KERRRRRRRAAAAAACK!!!!!”
I jumped about six feet. Then I laughed and shook my head. Thunder is incredible. That sound can make a grown woman clutch her pearls and gasp. Thunder: Mother Nature’s tympani drum. My marveling was short-lived, though: that thunder was so loud, it set off car alarms for blocks. I ran to the window again and saw cars on the street and a whole parking lot full of them with hazards blinking to this hellish chorus of car alarms. It was hilarious because it didn’t last too long; people blipped them off pretty soon, surely because they didn’t want to hear all that, either.
When I was a kid, I watched thunderstorms roll in on the plains of Iowa. I would sit with my sisters on the porch swing and watch the sky get dark, the wind pick up. We probably had cats on our knees. We probably had a quilt. We had never heard a car alarm or heard of such a thing at all.
I’ll be thirty-seven on August 6th. I wish I knew how many summer thunderstorms I’ve seen so far.
I’ve written and rewritten this post three times. It’s too special, I’m too excited, and as a result, nothing is coming out right. That’s ironic, because the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) thinks I’m good enough at writing to let me into their Writing MFA program this fall. By then, I’d better have my act together because I’m officially enrolled.
It’s been terrible keeping this secret; I got my acceptance letter in March. Claus was here, and when I opened the envelope and saw the good news, it was like I had a rocket pack on. Claus caught me and spun me around and around.
I waited to tell you because I wanted to share this properly. It’s a big deal, and not just because the SAIC is one of the finest educational institutions in the world, which it is. It’s a big deal because my life is changing with this. I engineered it that way, really; one day last fall when I was in Iowa to film TV, I burst into tears in the middle of my mother’s kitchen and admitted to myself that I wanted to study writing. I couldn’t deny it any longer and I began to research grad programs that very day. It became clear right away that the SAIC was the only school for me. I didn’t apply anywhere else.
So, the Art Institute of Chicago is the big, famous art museum downtown with the cool lions out front. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago actually started first, way back in 1866. The art the founders collected for students to study became the museum.
At the SAIC, a grad student can study textile art, performance, art therapy, art restoration, sculpture, painting, arts journalism, art history, interior architecture, writing — there are other departments I’m not thinking of. What’s extraordinary about the SAIC (one of the many, many extraordinary things) is that they encourage interdisciplinary study. They want performers to take sculpture classes. They want writers to take textile arts classes. They are legendarily good at educating creative people because they understand how creative people learn (i.e., by doing, usually by doing many things that appear unrelated.)
I submitted portfolios to Writing, Textile Art, and Performance. I had all the materials for each program because my entire life is interdisciplinary. But I wanted writing. I decided that if I got into textiles or performance, I wouldn’t go. Even if I could take writing classes while technically studying fiber arts or stage stuff, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to be a Writing MFA candidate. From there, I could study my other loves. And I got my first choice. So now, I can.
The School has a longarm in the Textiles department. What will my quilts become, now that I’m going to be in art school? What might it mean to use quilts in, say, a one-woman play? Will I write a quilter’s memoir? Will I create my own poetry magazine and if I do, will there be patchwork quilts on the cover? I’ll tell you that if I make a poetry magazine, there most certainly will be quilts on the cover. These are the sorts of synergies that are sure to occur when I begin school. I cannot wait. I am counting days.
My job is not one you quit — and I have no intention of doing so. I’ve got teaching and speaking gigs scheduled into 2018. New fabric is coming out in a few months. The Quilt Scout is going strong, I’m making quilts like crazy, I’m working on a pattern project, I’m curating a quilt exhibit at Spring Quilt Festival, I’m on the board of the Study Center. My career in the quilt world isn’t going anywhere — but it is changing (you’ll see me less on TV, for example.) But you watch: these changes will be nothing short of wonderful. You’ll see it all happen, right here. (Psst: it’s all for you, anyway.)
I’m scared. It’s so expensive. I’m taking out loans. It’s two years. It’s gonna be hard. But if I don’t do it now, when?
Hollywood film legend John Wayne was born in Madison County, in my hometown of Winterset, IA in 1907. Wintersetians take this seriously. If we had to choose between being known for the covered bridges or being known as the spot on the globe where The Duke took his first breath, we’d suck on our collective teeth and shake our collective heads and have to take the latter. Then we’d ask you for your delicious cookie bar recipe and hold the nation’s first presidential caucus.
This weekend was John Wayne birthday celebration weekend and I was here for a particularly exciting part of it: an outdoor screening of John Ford’s classic The Searchers, starring John Wayne in one of the most important roles of his career. The screening took place on the town square, right on the lawn of the courthouse. This was the first time a movie had ever screened there, birthday weekend or no. Who do you suppose orchestrated the event? My sister and my mother.
My mother, as many of you know, purchased the movie theater in Winterset when it went up for sale some months ago. The restoration project is well underway; seven trips to the dump emptied it of garbage, rusted stuff, rotten boards, etc., and every day that passes more wonder is discovered in that old movie house. One of the treasures is the screen itself. It’s in great shape. And it was the Iowa Theater’s very own screen that was put up by our beloved contractor, Steve, for the movie last night.
Families came. A few teenagers came. Old folks came. There’s a film crew making a movie of the restoration project and they were there. My might-as-well-be-my-cousin cousin Will played his guitar and sang folk songs to the audience as we waited for it to get dark enough to start the movie. The air was sweet. With the music and the sun slowly sinking down the sky — the rain that was predicted never even threatened to fall — an eventide spell was cast. The Chamber of Commerce sold candy, soda, and popcorn from a popcorn cart. I can’t confirm or deny that I had a bottle of Stella Artois in my hoodie pocket, nor can I confirm or deny that anyone else had a go-cup of anything similar, but doesn’t that sound nice? We’ll never know.
My sister Rebecca is the head of the entire Iowa Theater restoration project; she’s writing the grants, touching every logistic from projector to neon marquee rebuild, doing strategic planning — everything. She was the engine behind the outdoor screening, too, and my brother-in-law ran the projector. Before the show began, Mom and Rebecca gave a speech about the future of the theater, how 95% of the work being done is being done by locals, how the goal is to make a space the town loves and uses and grows for a long, long time.
About thirty minutes into watching The Duke search for Debbie, I gave into the desire for popcorn. I went over to the Chamber kiosk.
“Hi! I think I’ll get some popcorn,” I said.
The person who scooped some up for me was a bubbly, attractive woman named Heather. She handed me a modest sack of popcorn and I was surprised at how happy I was it was not a tub as big as my head. Heather shook her head. “This is just amazing. Just amazing. You’re Rebecca’s sister, right?”
I said I was and we talked for a minute, geeking out with happiness at the scene before us: people outside, together, enjoying their town, their town’s history, tasty snacks, and a movie, all on a long Memorial Day weekend. We agreed this needs to happen every year, if not more often.
“It just makes me happy,” Heather said, looking out at the one hundred or so people in lawn chairs. “I guess it’s America, right? It’s good. It’s good that kids can come here and it’s safe. You know?”
When I was in junior high school, I experienced home economics class twice: the first section was for one half of one term my seventh grade year, the second for one half of one term in my eighth. That is not a lot of home ec, or “family and consumer science.” When you consider where I’m from — a rural farming community with a population of 5,000, a town with a county fair and a noon whistle — this may surprise you. Because when you look at the definition of home economics, what you find seems to square with the basic values of small town America:
“[Home economics is] the profession and field of study that deals with the economics and management of the home and community. The field deals with the relationship between individuals, families, and communities, and the environment in which they live.”
Or maybe that’s not “small town America” stuff; maybe that’s everyone-on-the-planet stuff. What could be more important than studying how to make and manage a good home? That seems foundational to me. And ’tis a noble pursuit to examine “relationships between individuals, families, and communities, and the environment in which they live.” Am I missing something? This all sounds like good stuff to teach a kid.
But in the 1990s — at least in my town — home economics curriculum was usurped by keyboarding and computer classes and scarcely any home ec programming survived. The kids didn’t choose to swap out home ec; the parents and the school board did. In order to compete in an increasingly tech-driven world, the adults felt kids needed to learn computers and they weren’t wrong. So unless you were in 4-H or FHA (Future Homemakers of America) you learned precious little in school about managing a household and a whole heck of a lot about the proper storage of floppy discs. I remember three projects we did in home ec: we made drawstring bag, we learned how to sign a check, and we made chocolate chip cookies.
I think deleting 90% of home ec curriculum was a mistake.* “Family and consumer science” is an umbrella under which so many crucial life skills could be taught. My mom did a great job raising us, but if I’d had more instruction in financial management I might’ve avoided being suckered into that college freshman credit card. I would’ve loved to learn how to bake bread, how to organize a community meeting, how to get a marriage license.
With more home ec, my classmates and I might’ve learned how to avoid the schemes of the grocery store designers (junk food at eye-level, dairy stocked at the furthest point from the door so you have to walk through the junk food to get to what you actually need); we might’ve gone on a field trip to a working farm, to an office building, to the community playhouse in Des Moines. We could’ve learned how not to yell at the customer service agent when we’re frustrated on the phone. I would’ve rolled my eyes like any dutiful junior- or high-schooler while all this was being taught, but I would’ve appreciated it later like I appreciate the rest of my public school education.
Ours is a service-oriented culture. We are no longer the manufacturing nation we once were. Rather than this being a reason to jettison home ec under the assumption that the world has changed so drastically “household” knowledge is at best old-fashioned and at worst obsolete, I see the shift as a reason to fiercely support home economics in schools: it’s a brave new world and we need to learn how to live in it. Besides: when you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, the hot answers these days include chef, fashion designer, and business owner. Looks like cooking, sewing, and economics to me. Does it look like that to you?
If you sat with your mom and dad and absorbed their excellent time management skills, great. If you worked at a job from an early age and learned cash registers and bank drops, awesome. If your nanna baked cinnamon rolls and you became a mean baker by osmosis, wonderful. But many, many kids out there do not get this kind of teaching at home. It makes all the sense in the world that home economics classes in schools can close the gap on essential life skills like these. Even those who do come from a “civic duty” kind of family can always expand their knowledge of life skills. As a woman with no children I’m not sure how to affect change regarding this issue, but I feel passionately about it. Perhaps I’ll put a colander on my head and march through the streets banging a pot with a ruler, shouting:
“Viva la spatula! Viva la spreadsheet! Viva la home economics!”
*There are school systems out there with current, even robust, home ec curriculum. In my experience talking to many thousands of people across the US about this topic, however, it appears that home ec has dried up or completely disappeared in most regions.
When I sat down to write this Mother’s Day post, I started it: “I’ve got a good mom.” But what you’re reading now is a second draft.
Around the third paragraph, somewhere between detailing my Mom’s incredible bring-home-the-bacon-fry-it-in-the-pan-single-mom sacrifices and all 627 of her current projects, I decided that though I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that I have a “good mom,” saying that I have a “good mom” implies that there are not-so-good ones, as well as downright dastardly moms and worse than that.
Before I head into the terrifying wilderness of moral relativism, I want to say that there are bad people who are bad, full stop. If you hurt someone who can’t defend himself or herself, and if you do that on purpose, more than once, that’s bad, and we can stand in judgement of the perpetrator and say, “You cannot do this. This — and you, by extension, sir/madam — are bad.” Since there’s nothing keeping anyone from having children, if a kid’s got a for-real bad female for a parent, it follows that a person can definitely have “a bad mom.”
But apart from these depressing exceptions, I’d like to suggest there are no “bad moms” in the delivery room. Rare is the woman who holds her 30-second-year-old on her breast and feels anything but wonder, pride, good intentions, love. Things kick off that way and then they go on from there. Sometimes they go pretty good. Sometimes, not so much. Sometimes, not so much at all.
Now, I’ve never made a mistake in my life, of course. All the decisions I’ve ever made have been perfectly-timed and dead-on. I’m constantly delighted by my 100% rightness in every situation; I regret nothing. The plans I lay, they are carried out precisely as I intended from a place of clarity and wisdom. Nothing bothers me. I don’t lose my temper. I love everyone for who they are because I realize holding people to my high expectations is absurd. I laugh at life’s troubles and I have unwavering grace and tact in all my personal and professional relationships.
But I’ve heard there are people who make mistakes — and I have heard that people who are mothers were people first. Contrary to fabric softener commercials and stories about “the good old days,” a woman does necessarily not become a flawless caregiver the instant she gives birth. It’s more likely that she is essentially the same person she was before she had a baby, except now the whole world has changed, which would shake anyone up.
My point is: Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms: good, less-good, and otherwise. It’s a heckuva job, from what I can tell. I’m not a mom, but I could be someday* and I know I will need plenty of grace; this is a Mother’s Day card to the moms out there who need some today.
*Big Mother’s Day ups to Gramma Graham, my mother’s mother; she had my mom and Mom’s twin brother David at age forty, and that was back in the early ’50s. Dorothy was a cougar! That’s hot, Gramma. I’m thirty-six.
I’m sitting here at the hospital getting another iron infusion and trying not to kink the line while I type. The girls tried several times to get the IV in and that always makes me upset because I’ve been a human pincushion many times in my life. One night in this very hospital a couple floors up, nurses tried on and off for six hours to get an IV into me; they even tried my legs and ankles. The search was fruitless and the doctor eventually ordered a PICC line. (I’ll let you look that up.)
I hadn’t cried about Prince’s death till they stuck me the third time. I’ve been dazed about it since Claus called over to my desk this morning, “Mary? Prince has died.” This time, his German accent didn’t make anything better. My brow has been furrowed all day, but I hadn’t actually cried till about 30 minutes ago. The man had at least twenty more years of music-making ahead of him. This shouldn’t have happened.
When grieving, it’s good to be with folks; in this regard, I am grateful for my appointment. As I walked up to the reception desk, the lady was talking to a woman in the waiting area.
“Honey, I can’t believe it. I just can’t.” She shook her head then looked up at me. “What’s your name, sweetie?”
“Mary Fons. I’m not a candlelight vigil sort of person, but right now, I swear…” The receptionist gave me my number and said she felt exactly the same way. The conversation already in progress picked up again, now with me in it. Though its circumstances are by definition lousy, grief-induced familiarity amongst strangers is a beautiful thing.
The woman waiting with her mother (asleep) turned to me and said, “I’m as sad about this as I was about Michael.”
“Me, too,” I said. “Was it really a flu?”
“Oh,” the woman said and put up her hand like, ‘wait till you hear this.’ She said, “You gotta ask her about that,” and nodded to the receptionist.
I went back over to the desk and asked Rhonda what she had heard. She told me Prince was a Scientologist and that he was HIV positive. Scientologists, she said, don’t believe in medicine. She heard me he stopped taking his medication because the church told him not to.
My brain broke. My heart further broke. I covered my mouth with my hand and then almost bit through it. If this was true, if a “religious” organization told a sick man not to take his medicine, there’s a guru in Hollywood tonight who will breathe his last charlatan breath. (To be nice, when I take my hands off his neck, I’ll tell the rest of the group I’m sure he’ll be back soon.) The good news is that I don’t think I have to fly to L.A. tonight; there’s basically nothing online about Prince being connected to the Church of Scientology and certainly no information about them being blamed for his death. You know those people believe there are aliens living inside of us, right? (I’ll let you look it up.)
I remember seeing video of Prince playing an outdoor concert; maybe Wembley Stadium, sometime in the 1990s. He was playing “Purple Rain” and I realized I was watching a person do precisely what he was supposed to be doing with his life. It’s rare to see someone fulfilling their purpose so exactly, so absolutely dead-on their destiny, I felt like I was watching a wild animal. He was so natural there with his guitar, in the breeze, alone under lights, I recalled a fox in a wood or a mountain lion on a rock. He was that free, that easy, if you will. I’ve thought of it many times since then as I’ve thought about my own purpose, and what my own natural habitat is on Earth.
Prince, you were great. Thanks for the hologram on Diamonds & Pearls and all those notes.
I realized late in college that running regularly on a treadmill made me slim and chipper. It was because I had these jeans. They were tight. And white. They were tight, white jeans. I wanted to wear them so bad. After a month of working out, I tried them on and they didn’t just fit: they looked killer. I’ve been keen on exercise ever since.
But the gym is smelly. Shortly after moving to Chicago, I abandoned the gym and became a Serious Yoga Person and enjoyed my Serious Yoga for many years. But yoga is expensive. So not long ago, I found myself a rudderless ship. I needed a captain. Who would stretch my hammies? What mode of exercise would I find that would make it possible for me to still eat the frosting off of donuts and have bacon?
Well, a few months ago, a new day dawned for my hammies because I found love. I found a woman named Anna Renderer and I love her in my living room, all alone.
Anna Renderer is the lead fitness instructor-slash-host of PopSugar Fitness, a division of the PopSugar lifestyle brand. (Like you, I barely know what that term means.) There are hundreds of exercise videos on PopSugar Fitness’s YouTube channel, all around 10-60 minutes. Bikini body workouts, circuit training, ballet, weight-training, pilates, yoga, cardio “blast”, dance — any workout you want to do, it’s likely PopSugar has one for you and Anna is going to be there when you click over. Sometimes she’s the lead trainer, sometimes she’s one of the students taking the class from a guest instructor. Either way, Anna is there, smiling with those endearing dimples, calling out, “Yeah, guys! You’re rockin’ it! Wow, this is really gettin’ at those abs, right? I’m feelin’ that! Oh, my goodness! Come on, just one more, guys, I know you can do it! Awesome!”
My favorite thing is when Anna’s leading the workout and she turns to the other two girls in the room and uses her conspiratorial voice. During a tricep kickback she’ll say, voice a little quieter than usual, “Do you guys feel that? In the tricep? Isn’t that awesome?”
Never in my life have I enjoyed death by squat jumps so completely. Anna is tireless. She is cracking with energy the entire time and you don’t hate her. It’s not fake. She is actually cheerful and she actually wants you to succeed in your exercise today. How do I know? Oh, I know. I’ve hosted hundreds of video tutorials. Hundreds. I know what level of energy it takes to do that sort of work and I never taught jumping jacks in my how-to videos. The girl is legit — and when you’re doing knees-and-toes, you need legit. You don’t want to know what knees-and-toes are because they are very hard.
PopSugar isn’t paying me to write this. (The videos are free and I don’t advertise on PaperGirl so I don’t know how they’d pay me if they offered.*) I just want Anna Renderer to know that she’s doing a good job because her job involves a black hole and that can really feel lousy. The black hole is the unblinking eye of the camera and I know it well. There’s no way for Anna to know what/how people are really doing at home when she tapes an episode. There’s no real-time audience feedback. When you tape a class for the Internet, it’s just you, the red “Record” button, and what you hope is happening in the void. Anna, it’s happening. You torched my quads, girl. You’re doing a great job and you make me want to work out. Use that conspiratorial voice more. It’s the best.
*If there is PopSugar promo merch, I would absolutely love a hoodie. Just in case you have some of those things in boxes someplace, I would wear that thing everywhere.