Book Church: The Library of Congress

posted in: Paean 1
Not pictured: 29 million books.
Not pictured: 36 million books.

If you could be anywhere in the world right now — if you could zap yourself somewhere this instant — where would you put yourself? The zen answer is: “Why, I’d want to be exactly where I am!” and if this is how you answered the question, congratulations. You are an Enlightened One and may I say, the soft glow emanating from your head gives a lovely light.

For those of us who answered the question differently, I salute both your imagination and your discontent. I can only imagine the wonderful responses:

“I’d be at a racetrack!”
“I’d be at gramma’s house!”
“I’d be scuba diving in shark infested waters!”

Enlightenment sounds lousy, anyhow. What, you just sit around seeing the Nature of Things? Emerging from your nonage? Boooring. Bring a book. Speaking of books, if I could zap myself anyplace in the world, I would choose The Library of Congress.

I’ve never been inside but I have plans to visit soon. The Library of Congress, as many readers know, is located in Washington, D.C., in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. It is the largest library in the world.** Contrary to popular belief, the library does not hold every book ever published ever in the universe, but the truth is so jaw-dropping there’s no need to dress up the stats: 158 million items can be found on the shelves of the LOC, shelves that measure a total of 838 miles. The LOC website tells us that the collections hold “more than 36 million books and other print materials, 3.5 million recordings, 13.7 million photographs, 5.5 million maps, 6.7 million pieces of sheet music and 69 million manuscripts.” Also, the Gutenberg Bible is there. Also, a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. Also, my book!

It’s all contained in a Beaux-Arts building that looks like the enormous lovechild of a wedding cake, a sultan’s summer home, and The Coliseum.

When I find myself in D.C. next, I’ll take my journal and several books to the Main Reading Room in the Jefferson Building and sit myself down in the glory, glory. I’m sure I’ll have to get some special pass or I.D. sticker and I’m happy to do so. I am still a student, which should help.

So that’s where I’d zap myself. The LOC. There, the lights are low but focused. Like the light of Enlightenment, but available to us all.

**In the world!

If You Can, You Must.

posted in: Day In The Life, Paean 3
Feathered Star Quilt. No other information available. Blame Pinterest.
Feathered Star Quilt. No other information available. Blame Pinterest.

Earlier today, I posted a picture on Facebook of the Feathered Star block I’m working on. The Feathered Star is to quilt blocks as the triple salchow is to figure skaters: complicated, with potential for bloodshed. I’m going about the beast using a paper-piecing method. There are triangles that measure an inch finished. There are set-in seams. I worked hours on my block and it’s still not quilte done (or correct.) The first block of any new quilt is the one that takes longest, but in the case of the Feathered Star, I highly doubt I will hit a “stride.”

So why do it? Why do anything that is hard? Why move to New York City? Why consider career changes? Why take a risk on love? Why get highlights? Who cares?

Because if you can, you must.

I maneuver through the world all too aware of the clear and present danger of death. I am arguably obsessed with death, obsessed with human life’s stunted growth; angry, really, that one day the janitor will turn out the lights and lock up. I think of death every day, sometimes several times a day. My thoughts of death are so woven into my consciousness, I’m sure most of the time, I don’t realize I’m thinking of it at all — but I am. Constantly. Death informs most of my decisions.

Let me be perfectly clear: it’s not fear of the other side. That’s not my problem. It’s the end of this. The end of the grand pageant. All the color, the pain, the love and lovemaking, the children, the travel, the failures — all the muck, mire, and glory of a life, however long or short, gets me every time. Every human life is full of suffering; I know about that. I’ve had needles stuck in to my abdomen while I was awake and I still love it here. I miss Chicago every day and I don’t know what the next few months will bring for my health, my heart, or my hair. I mean, I change my hair all the time. Anything could happen.

The love of being alive is concomitant with my fear of death. They are two sides pulling the same rope; we have a sick equilibrium, here. Adoring life leads to rage; rage that the experience I happen to love has to end. I’m like an eight-year old at the best slumber party ever and my mom just called to say she’s coming to get me in 30 minutes. Why? Because she said so, that’s why. I throw wild, hysterical fits but it does nothing. Mom’s on her way. Get your coat on.

So I have to make the Feathered Star. If I can, I must. And I have to come to New York. Because if I can, I must. I must fall in love. I must try. I must say yes, because if I can… You get the picture.

A friend of mine said recently, “I’m out of the advice business.” I never got into it, but I’ll stick my neck out this one time: If you can, you must. There is not another go-round. This is not a warm-up. Grab it. Make the hard quilt block. Kiss the boy. Finish the job.

It’s never too late until it is.

On Hospital Advocacy, Part 2.

posted in: Day In The Life, Family, Paean, Sicky 4
Sally Field and Crystal Lee Sutton, the woman who inspired the 1979 film, "Norma Rae." Field won the Oscar for her role in the movie.
File under “Famous Advocates.”Sally Field and Crystal Lee Sutton, the woman who inspired the 1979 film, “Norma Rae.” Photo: Wikipedia.

If the first trip to the ER in Atlanta was harrowing and depressing, the second trip restored my faith in humanity. Oh, it was still harrowing and there was plenty to be depressed about, but I had a friend with me on the second trip and that made all the difference. (First half of this two-part post here; more on how I got here in the first place, here. )

So there it was, Saturday morning. I’m in my hotel room, and nothing good is going to happen. After agonizing deliberation (because I didn’t want to make a fuss, be dramatic, or admit defeat) I called my friend and colleague, Marlene.

A word about Marlene.

You know the feeling you get at Thanksgiving dinner when all the casserole dishes have been put out and your mom has finally taken off her apron and is sitting down for Pete’s sake; when everyone has wine and rolls, and the turkey’s out and the gravy pitcher is already making the rounds; that moment when everyone raises their glasses to toast and the kids are toasting with juice or milk and you’re just overwhelmed with love and gratitude because people are generally good and the world is spinning at the correct speed for once? That feeling? That is Marlene. She is the embodiment of the Thanksgiving toast. She is everything that is good.

She’s also a successful businesswoman at the helm of a national network of convention center-sized quilt shows — including Quilting LIVE!, the show that had taken me to Atlanta. Tools Marlene carries at any given time might include: a laptop, bluetooth headset, box cutter, first-aid kit, talent contracts, cash box, dinner reservations and a little gift she got you, just because. As you can see, Marlene is a good person to call when you’re slightly dying.

Marlene arrived in lightning speed and helped me down to the car. Her husband was waiting right outside. (Don’t get me started on Stan; if Marlene is the Thanksgiving toast, Stan is like, birthday cake the day before your birthday.)

Here are excerpts from conversations that morning at the hospital. These are pretty much verbatim and all illustrate the need for an advocate at the hospital — preferably Marlene:

Conversation No. 1
NURSE: (to me) What do you do, hon?
ME: (weakly) I’m a…quilter. Writer.
MARLENE: This young lady is a national television star. She’s a magazine editor, an author, and an expert quilter here for the quilt show in town this weekend. She’s a dear part of our team and we care about her very much. We’d like to see the doctor. Now.
NURSE: Uh, yes, right away!

Conversation No. 2
ME: (feebly, to NURSE.) Please… The pain medicine. Please, when you —
MARLENE: (to NURSE.) I’ve asked you three times for lidocaine and pain medicine. If I have to ask again, I will not be very nice. Thank you, we appreciate it.

Conversation No. 3
NURSE: Okay, here’s that pain medicine. This should help.
ME: Oh, thank you. Thank you.
MARLENE: Now we’re getting somewhere. (to ME.) I’ll go down and get the prescriptions, hon, you just sit back and let that take effect. That’s the good stuff.

The help with the nurses, the coordination to help cover my show duties that morning, and of course the ride to the hospital — all that was beautiful. But perhaps the best thing Marlene did for me was when I lay on the bed in the exam room, twitching and gnashing my teeth. She stood above me and smoothed my hair, stroked it softly as we waited for the doctor. That simple, compassionate action did more for me than the Dilaudid, I swear.

“I miss my cat!” she laughed. “You’re my cat right now, Mar.” And she made me laugh, and I felt better. And then, ever thinking, my advocate said, “Does this bother you? Do you want me to stop?”

And I said, “No, no. Please. It’s wonderful.”

 

A Case For “Freedom ’90”

posted in: Art, Paean 1
George Michael, looking off into space that didn't suck as much as the space he was in at the time.
George Michael, looking off into space that didn’t suck as much as the space he was in at the time.

Yuri saw George Lucas on Broadway the other day! He had bushy hair and was wearing a pink shirt. George Lucas! How about that.

This post is about a different George: George Michael.

When I was in junior high school, I had a poster of George Michael on my closet door. It wasn’t life-sized — I would’ve been weirded out by an actual man-sized photograph, which says something important about a fourteen year-old girl’s sexuality — but it was full-sized, which I was very happy about. I had to cut a small chunk out of the poster on the right side to allow for the doorknob, that’s how big the poster was.

My sisters and I absolutely adored George Michael, like everyone else did at that time. He was one of the biggest stars on the planet back then and we hung on every syllable we heard him speak on the radio in that British accent (insert insane giggling and squealing here.) The five o’clock shadow, the leather jacket. The aviator shades. The song “Faith” was loved so much by me and the other girls I knew, at some point it ceased being a song and became a person — and that person was the most beautiful, perfect, fun, happy, popular person who had ever existed, ever. We conferred this strange relationship with the song onto the actual person who sang it; ergo, George Michael became the golden calf of the Winterset School System’s entire female population, at least for awhile. This phenomenon was not unique to small town Iowa; this was a craze that swept the nation, this George worship.

But all that time, George Michael was not being himself.

As we would later learn, he hated the pop idol stuff not just because it was extremely weird, but also because he was wearing a terrible, goofy mask while he endured it. A gay man, Michael not only had to pretend he was straight, he had to pretend he was the straightest man who ever lived; a real “lock up your daughters” kind of guy. He had to be a straight girl’s sex symbol rock star, for heaven’s sake, and all he really wanted to do was kiss his boyfriend and sing a duet with Elton John. (That happened later, much to George’s delight.)

After Faith sold 20 million copies and the mask hardened into something truly untenable, George Michael decided to do something about it. Enter Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1., released in 1990, when I was about to enter high school. The album is a total 180 from Faith. There are gospel choirs, acoustic guitars, great lyrics, a Stevie Wonder cover, and plenty of downtempo tracks that even I liked at as a jumpy fifteen year-old. Michael refused to use his face on the cover of the record, nor would he allow his face to be in any videos that were released for singles. Crazy, I know. Crazy and awesome.

Freedom ’90 is a track from that album and I believe that it is a perfect song. They do exist, you know, perfect songs, and this is one of them. You can sing to it. You can dance to it. It’s got highs and lows. It’ll give you goosebumps when it hits the bridge, but when you hum it to yourself later, washing the dishes, you might find you’ve got a little frog in your throat because the lyrics are so touching, so real. Look what he says:

“All we have to do now/is take these lies/and make them true, somehow
All we have to see/is that I don’t belong to you/and you don’t belong to me.”

That’s a sincere cry from a man wearing a mask, coming to terms with his life, and that’s a sentiment can get maudlin and lame real quick. But Freedom ’90 is a celebratory wild yawp, sonically. You’ve got a tambourine, cymbal crashes, a dirty “wonka-chika-wonka-chika” funk guitar on it, and “dunk-a-chika-dunk! dunk-a-chika-dunk” beat that from the instant it starts, your booty is moving. It’s the opposite of maudlin, miles and miles away from sog or pity. It’s a great, great song. I watched the video again tonight and was a little bummed that it didn’t hold up quite as well as I thought it would, but the 90s supermodels are lovely in their prime and it’s still awesome to see the guitar, leather jacket, and jukebox from the Faith video blow up a bunch of times.

Interesting note: I have had several boyfriends in my life who had Freedom ’90 in “favorite songs” lists. A boyfriend of mine in college was fond of ska and punk music, bands with names like Choking Victim and Rancid. But I think he knew how good and honest Freedom ’90 really was and he liked it because of that. If punk rock is about saying “I don’t have to be like you, at all” then George Michael was totally punk rock with that song and the whole Listen Without Prejudice album.

You should listen to it. Watch the video later; just listen to Freedom ’90 first, loud as you’re able to. Then listen to Faith. Then sing Freedom to yourself while you wash the dishes and think about what lies you can make true, somehow.

I did that today, and it felt pretty good.

Why I Love Jennifer Paganelli.

posted in: Day In The Life, Paean 8
Paganelli, with George. Promotional photograph.
Paganelli, with George. I sat on that bench!

I have made a new pal this year. Her name is Jennifer.

Jennifer is a rawther famous fabric designer, and I might’ve met her at Quilt Market, or maybe at an industry cocktail party (not that I go to those all the time but it’s possible.) We didn’t meet that way, though. I first met Jennifer Paganelli outside a train station in Connecticut.

One day last spring, a mutual friend and I were invited to her home for the day, because that’s how Jennifer Paganelli is: if you’ve passed a basic-level “this person is not a psychopath” test, she is more than willing to make a seat for you at her (fabulous) dinner table. And so it was that my friend and I took the train from New York out to Connecticut and Jennifer met us at the station in her car. I remember she had this great navy blue, boat-necked sweater on. (Why do we remember these things and not other things? I don’t remember how she had done her hair. And isn’t it funny how we often stress about our hair when it’s the sweater everyone remembers.)

When I first started making quilts, I was as dazzled as anyone else by the amount of gorgeous fabric in the world. It was 2008, and I had a stash to build. My local quilt shop, Quiltology, was run by my friend Colette, and Colette had excellent taste. She stocked Kaffe Fassett, Joel Dewberry, Kona Cottons in as many shades as she could fit, and bolts of other fabrics by great designers who, for this quilter, absolutely provided the inspiration needed to get started on making quilts that didn’t look like my mom’s. If you’ve heard me lecture, you know that a) I love my mom, b) I love my mom’s quilts, and c) I don’t want to make my mom’s quilts. The fabric I found at Quiltology and online was the beginning for me in finding my own path in the art, and, eventually, in the business.

Jennifer Paganelli prints — there were many on offer at Quiltology — are in all my first quilts. Her fabrics are in a lot of my later quilts, too. Heck, I think there’s one in my latest latest quilt, the one in my machine right now. These are fabrics full of color, whimsy, good-humor, and generally full of life. Basically, the woman’s fabrics are like the woman herself. And her extremely large dog, George. He is also full of whimsy.

At the house, we spent time in her archives, looking at just some of the amazing vintage textiles she collects. It was upstairs in a studio room where I spied of the original fabric that I had used years ago in my first quilts. If you’ve ever tried to squelch a fangirl moment, you know how I felt. Jennifer and our friend were checking out something on the other side of the room and then I squawked. It went something like this:

ME: Oh, wow! Sorry. I know this fabric. I had this in a couple quilts and actually, you know, the laminate version… I put that down as the liner in my silverware drawer for several years. That’s like… That’s like my life, that fabric.

JENNIFER PAGANELLI: (looking over, smiling.) How cool is that?! That’s great!

ME: It’s so cool you designed this. That is…cool. Wow.

I’m saying I was real smooth, is what I’m saying.

Throughout the day, Jennifer absolutely showered my friend and I with gifts (I have a Sis Boom skirt and an apron combo I wear when I’m baking that Yuri likes quite a bit) and then her husband made an absolutely delicious dinner for everyone. There was tender, juicy meat involved, fresh vegetables, and also ricotta cheesecake, which, coming out of the oven the way it did in that big beautiful farmhouse in Connecticut, it may have been illegal. Some old vice law on the Connecticut books was surely violated when that pillowy, sweet-but-not-too-sweet ricotta masterpiece was placed on the marble countertop. Oy.

Way more important than all these (oft-literally) material things to a new friendship, though, is the other stuff. Jennifer has become a true friend because she is a good listener and because she has great compassion for humans. She is also really funny and her life, from what I have surmised, has all the trappings of a well-lived-so-far life: joy mixed with suffering mixed with change mixed with survival mixed with joy.

And so this is my blog post about my friend Jennifer Paganelli. Thanks, Jen, for helping me out. I woke up today wanting to do something out-of-the-blue nice, just because. I woke up wanting to do something you would do.

“Epitaph In Bookish Style,” by Benjamin Franklin, Poet.

posted in: Paean, Poetry 1
"When Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris, he was wearing a little fur cap to keep his bald head warm. To the French, the hat was the embodiment of the rugged American frontiersman and proof that Franklin was a true "natural man." In fact, Franklin sent back to America for a large supply of the caps, which he wore everywhere around Paris."
Portrait of Ben Franklin, c. 1776, Paris. I can’t locate the artist’s name. I have read that in this picture, he is supposedly wearing a coonskin cap to communicate his rugged Americanness. 

In observance of Independence Day, I will share a poem written by Benjamin Franklin. Of all the founding fathers, I know the least about him. I did know he wrote poems, though, and so I found and read a few of them today.

Epitaph In Bookish Style
by Benjamin Franklin

The Body of Benjamin Franklin (Printer)
(Like the cover of an old book
Its contents torn out
And stript of its lettering and gilding)
Lies here, food for worms.
But the work shall not be lost
For it will (as he believed) appear once more
In a new and more elegant edition
Revised and corrected
by
The Author. 

Happy Birthday, America. Please, please do not blow your — or anyone else’s — face off with a firecracker.

Airportal.

posted in: Day In The Life, Paean, Travel 4
Universal.
Universal.

I like planes. Love them, actually.

I love planes so much, I’d marry them. I’d marry planes and have plane babies. And those babies would play with toy planes on planesAnd they would be very well behaved, my children.

I like airports too, quite a lot. As a rule, I arrive at least two hours early to any flight I take just so that I can walk through the terminal a bit then find my gate and plop down to work. I get more done in airports than anywhere else. I’d wager there’s 15% increase in my overall productivity and a 10% spike in creativity. If I knew how to merge those numbers to yield some kind of work-probability number I could stick into a P&L, well, I wouldn’t be a content creator, I’d be doing something else and probably be flying first-class.*

People move through space in airports with a plan and a purpose and that is a comfort to me. I like the scale of airports, even the small ones. I like that I can buy stamps, newspapers, and hot coffee every fifteen feet; I like how airports are basically vast, continuous newsstands where planes drop down and scoop you up and deposit you someplace else.

It’s lucky I feel this kind of way, since I seem to be traveling by plane every other week right now. Maybe it’s because I fly so much that I’ve come to love planes and airports like I do; maybe it’s just the familiarity. After all, I have my rituals, like anyone else who travels all the time for work; everyone loves their rituals, travel or otherwise. (A few of mine: if I’m on a flight out of Midway before 10am I go see my friend Sam at Potbelly’s, who never charges me for extra cheese; I always bring my journal, a book, and and eyemask; I know where the secret bathroom is at LaGuardia; I visit the USO and donate money wherever there’s a USO and I have enough time. Stuff like that.)

I hear air travel used to be sort of glamorous, but I don’t know anything about that. I book my own flights. I schlep my own stuff. From time to (glorious) time there will be a car service waiting to pick me up and my name will be one of the names on signs when I come down the escalator, but that’s atypical. Usually, it’s a solo walk to a taxi line. Indeed, loving airports is loving them alone most of the time and in spite of the hiccups and the headaches that will forever occur.

But we can fly. And that’s the real reason I’ll always love being there.

Human beings can fly through the air. Airplanes, and the airports that facilitate their operation, are human ingenuity and effort, materialized. There were so many failures. It took so long. The Wright brothers were just one part of a really, really long process of creating viable air transportation — a process that has probably only begun, in the grand scheme of things. And to coordinate the hundreds of thousands of people who fly every day, to get their bodies and their belongings safely from one end of the earth to the other — it can’t possibly ever work. Of course it fails, sometimes, but more often, the system does not fail. And I love humans for that. I love what we make and that we know we need to make it better, now, so that air travel is gentler on the earth. (I don’t have a car, by the way, or a kid, or a TV, so I feel like I kind of offset my footprint in those ways.)

I love planes and airports so much, I would tattoo a plane on my body. Hypothetically.

*I am A-List on Southwest at this point! Glamour for days!!

In Lieu of My Tirade Against Hollywood, Ladies + Gentlemen, Scrabble.

posted in: Family, Paean 3
Scrabble.
Scrabble.

For the past hour I have been working on the post I wanted to post this morning. It’s turning into quite a beast of an essay and it’s simply not ready for prime-time. It’s about Hollywood and how I can’t take it anymore.

Since I can’t post something half-baked but I hate missing a day — and because I’m bone-weary tired and need to introduce my head to a pillow for once in my life for heaven’s sake — I’ve decided to share a picture of Scrabble, my mother’s miniature Golden Doodle.

Scrabble is a dog that looks like a lamb, behaves like four-year-old child (curious, adorable, infuriating), and is named after a board game. She can fetch a quilt, shake hands, and has lots of work to do in the evenings: she has to run around the yard and bark for 20 minutes.

“Scrabble’s doing her barking work,” my mother will say, loading the dishwasher.

Scrabble loves me and I love Scrabble. This photo was taken at about six in the morning last month when I was home in Iowa filming TV. She sleeps downstairs, but when she wakes up in the morning, she’ll bolt all the way upstairs to my childhood bedroom and dive-bomb my head in order to cuddle me. She is not allowed to lick my face; she licks my face anyway.

Scrabble, if you were able to send emails for me or finish my blog post — or fact-check it at the very least, Scrabble! — you’d be even more precious to me than you already are. But I suppose your being a dog confers special qualities that cancel out your human shortcomings. So it’s a wash.

Goodnight, Miss Muddy Paws, wherever you are in the Iowa house tonight.

BONUS: I never do it, but you’ll see why this is worth an outside link. Watch Scrabble fetch her quilt for my Mom.

Annie: A Dream Deferred

A 12'' vinyl record suits a 42'' female child.
A 12” vinyl record suits a 42” female child.

My paternal grandmother Venita wore denim skirts, drank Heineken, and had a black cat name Pru.

But this is where we see the ecstasy and the agony of words because while everything I just wrote about my paternal grandmother is true, it paints a wildly inaccurate picture of the woman. Venita wore long denim skirts; Ralph Lauren, usually, paired with turtlenecks and loafers. She drank Heineken once a year at the most and it was this big deal when she did. And her cat was indeed black and Venita did call her “Pru,” but that was short for “Prudence,” and “prudence” means “cautiousness” which is exactly what Venita was going for. “Cautious” is the perfect word to describe my late grandmother; she used to tie a damned bonnet on my head whenever we went outside so I wouldn’t get an earache. I got earaches anyway and I couldn’t hear anything.

Ach. Now I’m sad about the bonnet. She meant well.

I owe Venita big, too, because when I was six I visited her and Grampa Lloyd in Houston and Gramma bought me a present: the 1977 original Broadway recording of Annie. As in “Little Orphan.”

The movie version came out in ’82 and I had seen it somehow; we didn’t have a VCR, so it must’ve played on network TV. However I knew the story, I knew it all right, and like any little girl who sees Annie, I was obsessed. The story was about me. These little girls were my homies. It wasn’t about being an orphan or having red hair; it was about being a small female with feisty friends full of song; it was about longing for happiness and attractive, capable parents and an indoor swimming pool.

When Gramma V. gave me the record, I probably didn’t know what I was looking at, exactly, since the Broadway art and the movie art look so different. But when Gramma put the needle on the record and that first overture played, a living room star was born. I learnt every groove in that wax, baby, backwards and forwards, from Miss Hannigan to Punjab and back and I sang — oooh! how I sang! — every single song at the top of my lungs. Annie’s a great musical, but if you’re six and female, it’s a religion.

“TOOOOOOOOOOOO-MAAAAAAAA-ROW! TOOO-MAA-ROW! I LOVE YAAA, TOOOO-MAAA-ROW! YER’ O-NLY A DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH”

:: pause to gasp for air ::

“WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Oh, my poor grandfather. Oh, that man must’ve wanted to kill himself. Because I could not stop at five repeats of my Annie record, nor did I stop for six. I could not stop for death, so Grampa kindly stopped the record for me after several hours each day. If I have any singing ability (and I have a teensy-tiny-weensy ability to belt, decent pitch, and nothing more) it’s because of Annie. If I am theatrical at times, it’s because of Annie. And I realized in searching for the image of the record up there, that my favorite color, a red in the carmine-vermillion-cherry family, is clearly Annie red.

All this came up because the other morning, lounging in bed, I suddenly burst into the key change section of “Sandy” from the musical. Yuri was as confused as I was, then I started weeping from nostalgia, and then I had to look up the lyrics, which I had gotten 90% right after all these years.

We are the songs we sang as kids, I think.

Just Give Me Three Robots and a Cute Scientist.

posted in: Paean, Tips 6
Best show ever. Yes, even better than The Beverly Hillbillies.
Best show ever. Yes, better EVEN than The Beverly Hillbillies.

When I was in high school, I made a thrilling discovery. I discovered Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I was up in my room one Saturday night. It was around Christmastime, well after midnight. Mom let us girls stay up as late as we wanted, pretty much. We were in high school, after all, and if we were home, reading or drawing or doing some kind of creative project*, as was our like, there was no harm in letting us stay up; when we were tired, we’d go to sleep.

I had the retired family TV in my room. (Still not sure how I scammed that away from my sisters, but it was awesome.) I was doing my favorite thing ever: painting a picture while watching all the late shows. That night, after SNL, after the show that came on after SNL and the show after that, I saw Mystery Science Theater 3000 for the first time. Someone at the Des Moines area NBC affiliate station was watching over me.

Here’s what Mystery Science Theater 3000 — or “MST3K” — is, from The Wikipedia:

“[MST3K] features a man and his robot sidekicks who are imprisoned on a space station by an evil scientist and forced to watch a selection of bad movies, as part of a psychological experiment… To stay sane, the man and his robots provide a running commentary on each film, making fun of its flaws, and wisecracking their way through each reel in the style of a movie-theater peanut gallery. Each film is presented with a superimposition of the man and robots’ silhouettes along the bottom of the screen. The film is interspersed with skits tied into the theme of the film being watched or the episode as a whole.”

The episode that came on that night was Santa Claus Conquers The Martians and it remains my favorite episode of all time. I had never laughed harder in my life or been more instantly in love — I loved this show more than I loved my realest high-school crush, Cary Hollingsworth. It was for real. My eyes were glued to the screen, my mouth hung open. This was magic. What was this?? I had to know. Mind you, it was 1995; we didn’t have internet in the house, yet. I didn’t know the name of this incredible program and I couldn’t find out everything about it in 4 seconds flat with a google search.

But it wasn’t getting away from me. No, no, no. The very first commercial break, I ran out of my room and bounded down the stairs to the TV in the living room. I didn’t care if I woke anyone up. I dug through a drawer of VHS videotape and found something blank enough. I crammed it into the VCR, turned on the TV and clicked through the channels to find my show. I jammed my finger on the big red button and was able to record three-quarters of the Santa Claus episode. I watched the whole thing again when it was over. I collapsed into bed around 4:30, deliriously happy.

I had found my people. My VHS tape was my evidence.

The show tapped a vein for me, tone- and humor-wise. These people were smart, hella smart, and totally irreverent — but they weren’t gross. If there was a fart joke, it was because it was the best joke that could be made at that moment in the film, not the easiest. This appealed to me. The sheer number of cultural references made in a single episode expanded my knowledge of the world: who was Johnny Mathis? What is a “wrathful Buddha”? I learned a ton while I wiped tears from my eyes, silently shaking with laughter till I had to gasp for air. I taped every episode while the show ran on that station, which was well over a year.

As it turned out, MST3K was beloved by a lot of people. It’s a cult thing, which means that the weirdness of it was so specific, it appeals to a huge number of people. (Fascinating how that works.) The show ran from ’88-’99 on various networks and there was actually a feature film in ’96, which I went to on opening night, naturally. Members of the cast perform a live version of the show from time to time even today and I travelled far into the suburbs a few years ago with a friend to check it out. It was a scene, that’s for sure. But it wasn’t mine.

I’m not a follower. I don’t get dressed up in costumes for movie screenings. I participated in a pub crawl exactly once in my life (never again.) The cult of MST3K ain’t for me: there will be no Tom Servo** tattoos. But you don’t have to be a part of the extended scene of something to love it. Last night while I was sewing, I watched one of my favorite episodes — Mitchell — on a well-worn DVD and I was so happy. I was sewing and chuckling and marveling that anyone ever believed enough in that bizarre and wonderful show to give it a budget and produce it.

I’m so glad they did. What a bunch of freaks.

**I once got a hold of a hot glue gun and attacked an old typewriter. Gluing plastic gemstones and fake flowers to an old typewriter is the kind of project one must do in the wee hours.

**One of the robots.

Southern Belles (and Other Voodoo.)

Attractive Florida woman pulling parrots. Postcard, circa 1950.
Attractive Florida woman pulling parrots. Postcard, circa 1950.

Florida lures and catches people. It’s got a little voodoo going.

Forget the tourists that flock here; the Disneyland pilgrims, the week-long vacationers lounging in the Keys. I’m looking at the people who spend months down here at a time or more, people who have Florida in their veins, who don’t just drink the Kool-Aid but bathe and shower in it, too.

First, you got your snowbirds. These are people who live in northern parts of the country while it’s sane to do so (roughly May-October, though lately its anyone’s guess) then fly south to escape winter. Snowbirds are usually older folk, but I don’t think this is necessarily because they’re finicky or because they sincerely enjoy canasta: they just have the money to come here. I know plenty of thirtysomethings who would love nothing more than to split their year in half and escape to balmy climes when it’s -30. Alas, jobs.

Then there’s the Miami Factor, another lure. Miami is to the rest of Florida as New York City is to the rest of the state of New York. There are dairy farms and motor homes in New York State, but you’d never know it, deep in a throbbing, sweaty underground nightclub on any given night in lower Manhattan. Same goes for Miami: Jay-Z and Justin Bieber are surely doing disgusting/fabulous things with or to various body parts in Miami — possibly at this very moment! — while I’m preparing to demo quilt block construction to the fine people of Baker. Same state, different worlds. I’m still trying to figure out if Miami has gotten more fancy/cool in my lifetime or if I was simply clueless about Miami’s hotness and then someone told me. Either way, the Miami Factor brings legions to Florida because there are crazy parties there and there is apparently very good art there. So you have those party/art people here in Florida, too.

You’ve got immigrants, legal and otherwise, seeking refuge. Most of them come far across the terrifying ocean to touch Florida sand. The fingertip of the state is the first — and sometimes the last — U.S. point they touch. After that, we don’t know for sure if they stay, but I’m writing this from a popular/dangerous entry point.

You’ve a large number of indigent here, indigent for the reasons why people get that way: mental illness, addiction, poverty, abuse, etc. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development does a “Homeless Assessment Report” and in 2013, Florida claimed about 50,000 people without a home, third only to California and New York. The weather’s good here. It’s easier to be without a home in Pensacola than it is to be without one in Green Bay.

The rest of Florida, seems to me, is split into two groups: transplants, who fell in love with Florida and moved all operations so they would never have to leave (Ernest Hemingway comes to mind) — and the natives. 

I think I like natives best. You would, too, if you had been meeting the people I met this week.

“Honey, you get yourself some’uh that strawberry wiggle?”

Strawberry wiggle is a dessert and yes, ma’am, I did.

I also got me som’uh that homemade fried chicken, fried turkey, gravy, green beans, candied sweet potato casserole, pecan pie, mousse cake, and sweet tea. I ate it sitting at big, long picnic table on the front porch of the shop where I’m teaching. Me and the quilters, we ate together, and I didn’t talk too much so that I could listen.

There’s a way down here, a way I love. The natives — and transplants who’ve been here for so long they count — are defiantly generous. You wouldn’t think defiance and generosity could live in harmony, but they can and do down here. And this defiance isn’t toward you: it’s toward life itself, toward the weight of it. These people simply will not be beaten by anything, man, nature, or otherwise, and their resolve is palpable. Perhaps the generosity rises from that, though it might be the other way around: the giving, loving nature came first and endures suffering against all odds. War, blight, hurricane, poverty, etc. — it’s all in His hands, honey, so get you some’uh that strawberry wiggle and git in these arms.

That’s what my new friend Margaret says when she sees someone she hasn’t seen in awhile. She opens her long arms wiiiide, like she’s praisin’ Jesus, and she smaaahles this huge smaaahle and she says:

“Honey, git in these arms!”

And you don’t want to her to let go.

Billy/Chicago.

posted in: Chicago, Paean, Story 1
Writer Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir, Chicago. Sun Times Photo, 1950-ish.
Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir, Chicago. Sun Times Photo, 1950-ish.

I have a friend who I haven’t seen in a long time.

I have a collection of those, I’m afraid; my track record for “staying in touch” is appalling. Scoff if you like, but this serial inability to keep in consistent contact with people that aren’t in close proximity to me is based in love: Friend A deserve buckets of attention and time; if I can’t give Friend A all of what Friend A should have, I should excuse myself and Friend A can find a Friend B, who is way better at returning calls and text messages. Like, way better.

There’s also the little matter of what I think is a bonafide phone phobia on my part. That’s a topic for another day.

The friend I’m thinking of this morning, we were close for a number of years; we met in college and he moved to Chicago shortly after I did. I found him an apartment in my building; we lived in units separated by the lot in back, almost close enough to string a tin can telephone betwixt our windows, though we never did, we just skibbled back and forth, sometimes in our pajamas. We were together so much, driving in his car, listening to rock n’ roll, working our crappy jobs.* Rent was forever due, it was cold and then it was hot, the laundry room was scary, and there was no nearby train, only a bus stop 1.5 blocks away that you could only get to by walking up a lonesome industrial corridor.

There were two reasons we didn’t slip into acrimony and defeat: 1) we had each other; and 2) we were creating things.

Billy was creating music and a persona; I was creating writing and a persona. Today, Billy is part of a wildly successful band that tours the world and sells out big concerts; I have been living as a full-time writer-performer for almost a decade. We made good, is what I’m saying. And dammit, we knew we’d make it. We knew. Our ability to withstand the bus stops, Comcast, entropy, etc. was due to youth, okay, sure, but also to a shared and indefatigable confidence that we were good enough to scale up, and soon. Oh, and we worked hard. There was that, too: Billy played his guitar whenever he was awake, which was about 22 hours out of every day; I wrote poems on the back of guest checks at the restaurant, wrote in my journal in the coat check room at 4am, and read nine books at once, on average. We were dedicated.

We were intertwined. We were coffee cups, or maybe cream and sugar. We weren’t lovers, but we slept in the same bed a lot. It was kind of a brother-sister relationship, I suppose, except sometimes we’d make out. We were always pretty hot for each other but there was something both of us kept back in order to preserve what was out front. It was complex, it was simple.

Billy told me something once that I hated him for. He said, “Mary, the truth is that I’ll never love a woman as much as I love rock n’ roll.” He was twenty-five and being platitudinous and dramatic, but he was also being honest. I was furious at the time because dude, but today I understand what he meant. His love for music is singular, untouchable; it exists within his bone marrow, shapes his walk and his spine. His love of making music will die with him — not before him or after him, like a partner has to die. Christians talk about agape love, a love distinct from erotic love or emotional affection; that’s what Billy meant about loving music more, or differently, than he could ever love a person.

I feel that way about writing. And I feel that way about Chicago.

Sitting here on my lily pad, I cannot believe my transgressions. New York bewitched me. Indeed, the city may get me in chunks (I have a return ticket even as I write this) and my favorite thing in the world is to get on an airplane. But I can never love a person or another place on this earth like I love this town.

It’s good, as they say, to be home. Yo, Billy; let’s get that drink.

*And I do mean crappy. I was a brunch waitress in Uptown and a coat check girl in two different/terrible nightclubs; he did the graveyard shift at a desk at mental health facility on Western and North Ave.

 

On Patchwork.

String quilt blocks for "Majesty."
String quilt blocks for “Majesty.”

I have so enjoyed sewing at The Yarn Company over the past few weeks. I’ve nearly completed my latest quilt for Quilty, a string quilt I’m calling “Majesty,” due to all the royal purple fabrics. A string quilt, if you don’t know, is a quilt made by sewing long strips (“strings”) of fabric to paper foundations. You sew, trim, and then tear the paper off the back of the units you’ve sewn. You sew the units together to make blocks, and from the blocks, you make the quilt top, and so on. 

There is a myth that quilters are patient. It’s the opposite. We are extremely impatient. We must forever be doing something with our hands. We finish a quilt and immediately start the next one (many of us, including me, begin our next project before we finish what we’ve got going.) We look for efficiencies everywhere. We strategize. There is no meandering, no lackadaisical approach. We make patchwork and quilt quilts to calm ourselves down, not because we are some breed of serene creature with nothing better to do than sit around and (slowly) make “blankets.”*

I’ve calmed myself down in the middle of Manhattan by working on “Majesty” at my sewing machine. If I could’ve spent hours and hours more doing so, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten sick. (A more optimistic way to frame it: I might’ve been sicker had I not enjoyed many hours of sewing.) The whirr of my Babylock, the snic! of my scissors cutting thread; these are the sounds of patchwork science that have soothed my cerebrum when it’s been burnt crispy by the sirens and the subway. There are dishes to do, always, and dinner and cookies to make for myself and Yuri. There are phone calls and emails and fires — all of it important, none of it more important than anyone else’s phone calls, emails, and fires. All of this is laid down when you sew. You really can’t do much else when your foot is on that pedal.

My mom likes to say this:

“When I was a young mother, working on my first book, it seemed crazy to make quilts in my ‘spare time.’ But I loved making patchwork and quilts because they stayed done. The dishes didn’t stay done, the laundry didn’t stay done. There was always more homework, there were more bills… But a quilt block stayed done. You could say, ‘I made this’ and enjoy it forever.”

Chicago will see very little of me; the remainder of March is all we have together. I go to Cleveland, Iowa, Florida, Lincoln, and somewhere else before coming back to NYC in early May. Nothing stays done. Plane tickets don’t get framed. Suitcases don’t stay packed or unpacked. Kisses are like matches. Sandwiches are consumed. But “Majesty,” when it’s done, will stay done. And someone will cover up under it one day and see the Quilt Charm on the back. It will read, “Made by Mary Fons, NYC, 2014. Done.”

*Don’t call them “blankets.” Your CB2 knit throw is a blanket. We make quilts.

On An Uptown 1 Train.

This be the line.
This be the line.

After making buttermilk pancakes for Yuri this morning (I had some buttermilk leftover from the pie and not everyone likes pie for breakfast, astonishingly) I hopped out the door and into New York. I was headed to the Yarn Co. for a good chunk of sewing time and I felt like I was wearing wings, that’s how excited I was to be sewing-machine bound.

I took the L line to 6th Avenue and then got on the 1 going uptown. On one single train ride I saw three quintessential, only-in-NYC, New York City moments. Let’s revisit.

Moment No. 1
At 34th St., the train pulled in and opened its doors. I saw a drawn, junkie-looking white dude in a stocking cap jump the turnstile right in front of me. He jumped it, gave a fast look around and then bam! he punched the Emergency Exit door to the left of the turnstiles. Through the door came his junkie girlfriend, every bit as strung-out as he was, maybe more. The alarm went off the instant he hit the bar to open the door, but they were gone just as fast. Junkie love in the city.

Moment No. 2
A kid of about eight, I’d guess, was sucking on a pacifier with fake teeth molded into it. It was a joke pacifier, I guess? I didn’t know they made joke pacifiers. If you had told me they existed, I would’ve been hard-pressed to guess at the audience for such things, but now I know. Eight-year-old New York City kids on the subway to school. And she was like, “What?” when I looked at her and in a very good-natured, friendly way, laughed a little. It was funny! Whatever, kid. You got a driver’s license? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Moment No. 3
Almost to my stop, I noticed a woman repeatedly digging into her purse. She was with a friend, clearly frustrated that she couldn’t find something important in her overstuffed, large handbag. There were two MTA employees across from her. Both older gentlemen, they were just getting off work or headed there to start the day. Kinda scruffy, both of them; one Indian, one of indeterminate (to me) ethnicity. The one guy took his flashlight off his tool belt and held it out to the woman with the nicest smile. She was so grateful and took the flashlight, shining it into her purse. It probably totally helped her. I had to exit the train before I found out what happened, but that was awesome.

All on one trip to the Upper West. This be the city.

“Dear New York: Love, Chicago.”

The Wabash St. bridge, going up to make way for a ship.
The Wabash St. bridge, going up to make way for a ship. No big deal.

“Dear New York:

I’m writing because I’m concerned about Mary.

When she left me to come see you she was guarded, uneasy about being away from me for so long. Six weeks is a long time, no doubt about it. She and I have been together well over twelve years, and though Mary travels extensively, even her longest trips are usually no more than two weeks; there loomed over us significant separation anxiety. Plus, who would get the mail?

She was also concerned because — though she had a serious crush on you for most of her life — Mary suffers from a mild case of New York City-induced low-level panic. The scale of you (huge) and your population density (dense) causes her to chew her lip and drink too much coffee when she’s with you for even short periods of time. It’s a mild case, but even so.

But that anxiety has disappeared. Her lip-chewing incident was last week and was an isolated event. Rather than feeling skittish, she’s relaxed. In place of the subtle “outsider” or “impostor” syndrome she has felt with you in years past, there is a wholesomeness to her experience so far and a peculiar calm — this is even with the pools of filthy slush she has to wade through, the constant honking on 1st Ave. and the really, really badly cut finger she has right now due to the cheap-a** drinking glasses in this furnished apartment that continue to break in her hands.

Mary is falling in love with you, New York, and this is not okay with me.

I am Chicago. I am her Nelson Algren and Saul Bellow. I am where Mary wrote poems for microphones. We became Neo-Futurists together. She is my lake beyond the slaughter yards. I reflect her in the windows downtown; I am her osso bucco; we have our own booth at Spiaggia. I’m leather, she’s lace. We read all the books, all the time, we have tea in the morning. We’ve gotten kicked out of bars and invited into libraries. Mary and I are involved, is what I’m saying, New York.

We have also recently renovated the bathroom and the kitchen.

While Mary’s with you and you hear her say things like, “I love it here,” or “I wanna move here,” please let me know. I will make sure to note the time and date of the sentiment and also be able to mobilize forces here to convince her to a) stop saying things like that entirely; or b) adapt the statements to something more like, “I love it here BUT I could never live here forever,” or “I wanna move here…but I’ll never give up my place in Chicago, the city of my dreams and where my heart is forever and ever, amen.”

I’m sure you understand. I simply can’t lose her.

With Regards,
Chicago”

 

Home Is Where the Bobbin Is.

"Northbound." From my forthcoming book, "Make + Love Quilts: Scrap Quilts for the 21st Century." Pre-order now at ctpub.com.
“Northbound.” From my first book, “Make + Love Quilts: Scrap Quilts for the 21st Century.” Available nationwide May 15th.

Most people assume I have been making quilts since I was small. My mother, Marianne Fons, is a famous quilter, so it makes sense that she would’ve taught me how to sew from an early age. If I had shown more interest, she most certainly would have. We made a few doll quilts and a few quilts for friends of mine, but my creative pursuits took me to writing stories, putting on plays, singing…and creating and editing a magazine for my junior high school called TRUTH, the name of which I got from a film strip we watched about Russian communist propaganda newspaper, PRAVDA (translation: “truth”). I hired my best friends as columnists and we put out six issues with zero ad support. True story. Have I mentioned I didn’t have a boyfriend till my senior year of high school?

I started making quilts about six years ago. In my lectures to quilters, I talk about the reasons why:

  • I realized I didn’t have to make quilts that looked like what I saw in contemporary magazines or books; my quilts could look like ME, with solid black fabric, and teeny-tiny prints, and washed out shirting prints, and zero rick-rack
  • it was no longer uncool to be like my mom — in fact, it struck me as the coolest thing ever to be a part of my family’s place in the world
  • I got really, really sick and I needed non-medicinal healing (hello, patchwork)
  • the timing was right, age-wise. I was in my late twenties and ready to sit down for five seconds

And so I became a quilter and making quilts has brought me untold joy ever since. I’m not sure how many quilts I’ve made; it’s dozens, and they’re all kinda huge. Mom has always told me to make quilts that cover people, since that’s what quilts are for. The Fons women don’t do table toppers, though we support anyone who does. We support quilters, period.

A sewing machine with my name on it arrived in New York City yesterday. The fine folks at BabyLock are loaning me an Ellisimo while I’m here, and I carried that huge, glorious box 2.5 blocks and up 2.5 flights of Manhattan walk-up stairs with huge smile on my face. Anywhere I hang my hat for more than about four minutes simply ain’t a home unless I’ve got a sewing machine nearby. Making patchwork and making quilts isn’t just something I do: it’s something I am. The craft, the gesture, the sense-memory of the process is in my DNA, now. I quilt, therefore I am a whole person.

I have absolutely no idea where I’m going to put this thing. Seriously.

 

Zion = Drop-Off Laundry Service, NYC

Photograph man working at Chinese laundry. Artist and date unknown.
Photograph man working at Chinese laundry. Artist and date unknown.

I can’t believe it exists. Drop-off laundry service. Pick-up and drop-off laundry service. I can’t believe my eyes.

I’m from small-town Iowa, from the plains. Where I’m from, we do our own laundry. The idea of someone else even seeing the family’s (used!) skivvies is insane, but actually handling them? on purpose? You can go to jail for that, son. And aside from the total (voluntary) intimacy breach in paying for a laundry service, there’s the “Well, now don’t you just think yer fancy!” part, which might be worse. The day you’re too good to do your own laundry is the day you’re sent to de-tassel some corn. That’ll bring you back real quick from any illusions about where you’re growing up. Hint: it ain’t New York City, sweetie, so put down your hairbrush.

But it’s amazing, the drop-off laundry service! It’s so great! And in New York, it’s not glamorous at all. It’s quotidian. But I’m new here, so for me, the magic has not yet been shat on by pigeons. Here’s how the wond’rous process of drop-off laundry service works:

You wear clothes. You get soup/grit/blood on them in various quantities, in various places. You put these clothes in some kind of vessel; an IKEA bag is a good choice. Got dirty sheets? Great. Musty pillows? Stuff ’em in. Take ’em to the laundry place. There’s one a half-block away, most likely. Smile to the nice lady behind the counter and get a ticket. You will see no washing machines: remember, this is is not a laundromat. Prepare to be weirded out because it’s weird. The cheery lady will tell you in a thick Korean accent that your order will be ready for pickup this afternoon. This afternoon? You nod, slowly, and say, “Thank? You?” and carefully, carefully back out the door. When you come back hours later, your laundry will be waiting for you. Clean.

But wait.

It’s not just there and clean. Your laundry is the cleanest it’s ever been, ever. And it’s vacuum-sealed in plastic bags, all tidy. It’s as though your dirty, vaguely-smelly self lifted from your terrestrial body while you went out and did other errands and was sucked up into a big cleaning vortex in the sky where you were agitated, bleached, color-boosted, and dried with fluffing agents and then folded and vacuum-sealed…and you didn’t even notice. That’s what you’re paying for when you take laundry to the laundry. You’re paying for the cleaning vortex. And don’t you think that’s worth ten bucks a load or whatever it is?

What price, Zion?

An Open Thank -You Note to Ms. Camilla Skovgaard

Bi-Sepia Ankle Wedge Boot w/Saw Sole by Camilla Skovgaard, now onsale. Visit camillaskovgaard.com, baby.
Bi-Sepia Ankle Wedge Boot w/Saw Sole by Camilla Skovgaard, now onsale. Visit camillaskovgaard.com, baby.

Dear Ms. Skovgaard:

I purchased your Bi-Sepia Ankle Wedge Boot w/Saw Sole last season from a designer discount retailer. You’ll be happy to know your boots were still hella expensive! I knew when I saw them that I was in trouble: they were singular and ferocious. I also needed a boot desperately, as I had actually worn through the leather of my old pair. They went into my digital shopping cart at once. Little did I know what a phenomenal purchase I had just made.

Yesterday, slushy, wet, fat snow came down in New York. It stuck to everyone’s hair and made all the wool in the city smell like wet dog, which was super. Though you are based in London, I have a hunch you’ve been in NYC a few times and have seen the state of the streets here. The state of the streets is not good, especially at the curb of any intersection in lower Manhattan. When the big snow grater in the sky opens up, Olympic-sized pools of evil slush form in these canyons and you find yourself quite literally at an impasse.

Unless you’re me. In your boots.

When my sister first saw them she rolled her eyes and said, “Okay, so you’re going to break your neck.” True, your boots do not look practical for snow and ice. But we know better, don’t we, Ms. Skovgaard. We know you have created the perfect city winter boot precisely because of the height. It’s like walking on wooden blocks 5” above the slush and snow! These things are freaking stilts! My socks never get wet! I can practically wade through the slurry! And I look hot doing it!  

But that’s not all!

The saw sole is genius. I have never found a lady’s boot with this kind of traction, and that includes ladyboots found in the Circle B farm equipment store in my midwest hometown. The rubber teeth on these boots are for serious urban-winter walking. I do not slip. I do not stumble. I do not slide. I crunch. I stomp. I skump. (I don’t know what skumping is, but I don’t know what’s in that NYC slush, either; all I know is that I don’t get any on me when I’m skumping around in my sick, sick boots.) Your brilliant design of the heel must also be noted: as you know, it is very, very narrow. I was alarmed at first, thinking the extremely narrow heel would cause balance trouble. Quite the contrary. It acts as a damn ice pick if I have to scale a small (dirty) snow drift either here or in Chicago! Sometimes I hit a skump of ice with my heel first to get purchase and then I vault over it with a push from the other leg. Can you hear me right now? Slow-clapping and whistling my approval?

This is my second winter with my boots, Ms. Skovgaard, and I am as pleased this year as I was last. I feel like a character in a video game because a) I look like a character in a video game and b) I feel like I have special powers that not everyone has. Not that they shouldn’t have them, too. Everyone should. I hope this thank-you note leads to even one more pair of your boots sold.

Hats off to you and your team. Hats off, boots on and on.

Sincerely,
Mary Fons

 

 

 

Ghost Light: Philip Seymour Hoffman

posted in: Art, New York City, Paean, Tips 1
Playbill, 2000.
Playbill, 2000.

This very morning, I passed a poster for a George Bernard Shaw play and thought, “Don’t wait, Fons; see a show.” When you’re in NYC for longer than a few days, it’s easy to allow art opportunities to slip away because the sense of urgency isn’t there. You have time, you can get to that show before it closes, you can see that exhibit before it’s gone, etc.

The actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died this morning, or maybe he died last night or Friday night; only the coroner knows for sure. Hoffman was found, maybe at the moment I was looking at that poster for the Shaw play, in the West Village where he lived. The New York Times reports he had a needle in his arm and that there was an envelope of heroin nearby. An addict’s nightmare would be one without the other, I guess.

When I was in the city in 2000, I went to see True West by Sam Shepard at Circle in The Square Theater on Broadway. Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly careened through that delicious brother-against-brother play, hitting the highs and the lows with this painful tenderness that made the crashes even worse (or better, depending on how you see your emotional manipulation as an audience member.) They made that theater ache, man. I didn’t come up for air the whole time. How could I? They weren’t breathing. That script was bare-knuckled before those guys got to it; in the hands of a director who had the foresight to a) cast Hoffman and Reilly and b) get out of their way, it was a life-changer.

I mean it. I was at a place in my life where I had to decide if I was going to get married to the theater. After seeing True West, I knew I would. I completed my theater degree from the University of Iowa and promptly moved to Chicago, still the best place in the country to make stuff to put onstage. I helped found the (now) wildly successful Gift Theatre Co., and found an artistic home with the Neo-Futurists. Someday, we’ll talk more about all that, but not now.

This is about the actor I saw in True West fourteen years ago who showed me that good theatre is so hard to make, you’ll see it about as often as you see a shooting star — and when you see it, your DNA changes. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one role, in one production, wiped every crappy college show from my eyes and removed the illusions I had about what I thought I knew about making theatre. His ferocious performance was in fact an act of kindness to me, and he had no idea I existed. But I did, in that dark theater, and I was watching him. He helped crystalize for me a vision of the kind of work and the kind of art American theatre is capable of and when I heard he died, my hand shot up to my heart and I could feel it beating.

I’m sorry you were addicted to heroin, Philip Seymour Hoffman. That is a terrible drug and I know you were afraid when you died. But it’s over, now, and in all the good ways — only the good ways — you’re still making great art. You made it in front of a lot of people who were watching, hard, and plenty of us are still alive, still trying to reach your standard.

* “A ghost light is an electric light that is left energized on the stage of a theater when the theater is unoccupied and would otherwise be completely dark.”

 

 

Gravel Roads

posted in: Family, Paean, Story 4
Nan is the composed, chill child. I am the crazed dancing child. #stilltrue
Me and my older sister, Nan, carrying on the living room of the Yellow House. Circa1982.

I grew up on a farm. Sort of.

Many of the kids I grew up with in Winterset, IA, grew up on actual farm-farms, with birthin’ fillies and steamin’ cow pies and fresh eggs. Our farm had an orchard, an oak grove, a pasture, two houses (a white one and a yellow one), a timber* to the north, Middle River to the east, and cornfields around allll of that as far as the eye could see, but the land was farmed by people other than my pop and Uncle Randy. I don’t even have an Uncle Randy. It just sounds like someone who would farm the land with my dad.

But we called it a farm and it even had a name, “Meadowlark Farm,” because when my parents were doing the whole back-to-the-land thing in the 1970s, they moved out there, declared it Meadowlark and proceeded to live for an incredibly romantic year without plumbing. They were very young. They did have chickens! And a pig for two seconds, but all that went away quickly; selling organic eggs for three times the price of a normal egg had not yet become okay.

Yes, it was a different time. The only tweets were those of the birds, none more lovely than the meadowlark’s, and the charming “toodle-toodle-DOOT-doo, toodle-toodle-DOOT-doo” was the melody of the place. The cicadas in summer, the wind in the rushes, the chimes Dad hung in Possum Hollow (more on that in a moment) and the bark of our dog provided the rest of the soundtrack. Oh, and for awhile there were the shouts and yips of three little girls, too.

It was a perfect place to be a child. Many adults view childhood through an Instagram filter, but because the farm was honestly so lush and because we kids were ripped from it so abruptly, the place has taken on near-Narnian qualities with Neverland-level magic. The truth is as good as all that, though: we caught bunnies and patted them. We ran through fields of cattails. We swung on swings. Dad built a seriously awesome tree house and he built Possum Hollow, too. Possum Hollow was a house for possums. A big tree in the oak grove had died and Dad cut it down with his chainsaw. The base of the trunk was probably four feet across and hollowed out, which appealed greatly to a family of possums, who moved in at once. Dad put a peaked, wood-shingled roof on the thing and named it Possum Hollow. My family is always naming things.

And we were in love with it all. Nan made bows and arrows from sticks, and Rebecca and I played school in the room off the bedroom we all shared. Everyone was in shorts. Hair was long. Thunderstorms would roll in and we girls would sit on the porch swing, our mouths absolutely hanging open, watching the thunderheads mobilize and get darker and darker until CAA-RACK! the skies opened up and the world got wet. We held kittens during all this, protecting them.

One day, I got a note in class to go to the library after school, rather than take the bus home. I got to the library and my mom was there, followed by my sisters. My kid sister Rebecca had a red backpack, I remember that. She was no more than six. Mom told us that we would’t be going home that night, that we’d be staying with friends. Dad had lost his mind; it wasn’t safe to be so far away from town. He wasn’t violent, but he might’ve been. He wasn’t ever an alcohol or drug user, but there’s a first time for everything. He was the opposite of stable, that much was certain, and the game-time decision my mom made had to be made.

And we never went back.

Mom and Gramma and Grampa and friends packed up our stuff and we moved into Aunt Katherine’s old house in town because she was dead and it was available. It would be years before I would go back out to the farm. It lived like a cemetary out there, just seven miles from Winterset but a universe and a century away.

One time in high school I drove my Honda CR-X out there. I walked around. I swung on the swing. No one was living there that year, so I could explore Meadowlark Farm as long as I could take it, which was not very long. It was that afternoon I came the closest I have ever come to seeing a ghost. I cupped my hand and peered into the picture window, and my body froze. I swear I could see three little girls playing on the stairs, whooping and yipping calls up and down the steps, beloved animal figurines strewn about. If I couldn’t see them, I could feel them, and the feeling was strong, muchachos.

Years later, we got word the yellow house had burned down. I wept, and my mom hugged me. And we went back to whatever it was we were doing.

Fons In Love

Love means absolutely saying you're sorry. A lot. Who writes this stuff?
Love means absolutely saying you’re sorry. A lot. Who writes this stuff?

Well, I’ve gone and done it. I’m in love.

Given as I am to hyperbole and dramatics, one could read the above sentence and figure I’m in love with a dress, or an author, or a particular kind of squash. But no, I’m in love with a man. It’s happened, and it’s time to say something.

Admitting that you’ve fallen in love is a bit (I hear) like sharing that you’re pregnant: you don’t want to say anything until you’re absolutely sure and everything looks rosy because, you know, things happen. And people are so excited when someone falls in love or gets pregnant because except in a very few sad cases this is a happy occasion. (Sad cases for falling in love include it occuring when you are married to someone else; sad cases for getting pregnant include when you have a gaggle of children already and someone just lost a job. These sorts of things.)

It’s going on five months, now, spending time with this fellow. I reckon that’s about how long it takes to go gaga and see a relationship of consequence grow and inspire. Think about it: one month is just enough time to understand the other person’s job. Two months is great fun but come on. Three months and you’re like, “Hm, now wait a second,” four months is like, “Holy crap, I like you so much and we’re sort of dating,” and entering the fifth month is the bare minimum in terms of acceptability for announcing the world that you’ve gone round the bend and there has been embarrassing levels of eyeball-gazing between the two of you.

Is this all too sterile an analysis? It might even sound defensive. Okay, then forget all that. Let me just tell you about this person.

He’s devastatingly good-looking. (I will spare you details of his perfect smile, his sparkly eyes, his abdominal muscles.) He’s gainfully employed. He’s an excellent writer — perhaps the only “dealbreaker” I have, much as I hate that concept — he’s witty, he’s responsible, he’s way too much fun, he’s trilingual, and ladies? Brace yourself: he’s an accomplished piano player. HE PLAYS THE DAMNED PIANO. Very well, I might add. Oh for heaven’s sake! The moment I witnessed that, I was toast. Toast!

I out with it now because at this point, I’m skipping huge swaths of juicy PaperGirl content for the sake of modesty. But the adventures I’m having with this person are too good not to write about. So here we are.

He’s marvelous. I’m over the moon.

And in a mad change of plans, I’ll be leaving the icy slick of Iowa tomorrow morning on a plane to sun-drenched California. He’s visiting his family there and we’ve been apart almost three weeks. We can’t stand it another minute, so I booked a ticket. When I arrive in Santa Ana at 2:30 tomorrow afternoon, it’ll be the smooch heard ’round the world.

Darling, I’m on my way.

5 Ways To See The West

"Desert Girl 3," by Gastounette.
“Desert Girl 3,” by Gastounette.

I may be done with Arizona, but Arizona might not be done with me.

This morning, they cancelled my flight. When I checked in for the replacement, the Phoenix Airport ticket lady gave me a warning. “There’s weather in Chicago,” she said. “We can’t guarantee your flight will take off. The airline assumes responsibility to get you into Chicago, um, eventually, but assumes no outside costs for necessary accommodations or meals.” One might put it another way: “You’re on your own, kid. The days of ‘Here’s a burrito punch card and a straw mat at the Holiday Inn Express’ are extremely over. Take care. Next customer please step up?”

To pass the time, I’ve been working. I’ve also been looking out the panes of huge floor-to-ceiling glass here in Terminal 3 because the desert’s out there and there’s no better place to look than that.

It’s odd, but there’s something in me that doesn’t want to love the desert. Whither this ridiculous feeling? I intensely dislike “Southwestern-style” artwork, with the howling dog silhouettes and the tutti-frutti sunsets and all those terra cotta jars, but can that really be my problem? It doesn’t seem fair to dismiss an entire landmass because of a few cheesy art galleries. Is my resistance to falling head over heels for the desert born out of my love of oak trees and the lushness of land near the Mississippi? There is no oak, no mighty river out here. As I look out across the sand, I feel perhaps that it’s not the desert itself that I love: it’s the West. From Cali to just before Kansas, baby. I am in love with it.

And could you blame me.

Grand Canyon
In 2004, my friend Sarah and I hiked Grand Canyon for six days. We hiked down, down, down into the rocks, we camped in a tent, we cooked beans in a tin. We talked. Nietzsche said that “The best thoughts are conceived while walking” and hiking through a field of daisies with Sarah, yes. We skinny-dipped in an ice-cold stream at the bottom of the canyon. That day, the light was silver and we were gold.

Tuscon, Arizona
A rodeo. I watched the riders with the wide-eyed fascination and glee of a six-year-old at Disney. This was when I was married. My former husband and I had a ball. We ate a whole bucket of buttery popcorn, he had a couple beers. The smell of horse manure mixed with the smell of Tuscon cowboys and those horses! Bucking and throwing and running, running in the ring. The only thing more exhilarating was the endless, dusky sky above us. We saw the stars come out.

Las Vegas, Nevada
Last year, I understood how to love Las Vegas: you gotta open your hands and turn your wrists up, so that Vegas can bind you with its rope. If you let it do that, Vegas will lead you around and you won’t trip, but you must submit. Don’t fight the lights. Bring your bathing suit. The moment you moralize, you are at odds. Be one with the hammer. You’ll dig the hit.

Somewhere Outside Sacramento
College, 1998. I went with my new college BFFs to Sacramento to visit my aunt and uncle for spring break. We drank fresh orange juice on the terrace and smoked cigars at night. Madonna’s Ray of Light album had been released. We listened to that single on blast, over and over and over in our rented pick-up truck, flying down Interstate 5. I still remember Nellie’s blonde hair whipping and I remember Scott just laughing.

Denver and Boulder, CO
I flew in to visit my high school girlfriend. I remember coming up out of the bowl of Denver and how the whole place seemed dove gray, steely. Then on into Boulder and the rolling green of it all. The air was better than anyplace I had ever been.

See ya later, cactus-gator.

:: plane takes off ::

On Tori Amos.

posted in: Art, Paean, Poetry 8
Tori, from a series of photographs taken for the 1998 album "From the Choirgirl Hotel." The art was created by artist Katarina Webb, who puts her subjects on huge photocopiers.
From a series of photographs taken for Tori’s 1998 album, “From the Choirgirl Hotel.” The art was created by artist Katarina Webb; she places her subjects on photocopiers.

I need to talk about Tori Amos.

Those who were listening to music coined as “alternative” in the 1990s are likely familiar with Tori Amos. I was in high school when her first album, Little Earthquakes, was released. With the first notes of “Silent All These Years,” I fell deeply in love with her piano-based music: a blend of superb melodies and straight-up rock n’ roll. Her cryptic lyrics allowed for endless interpretation, which meant I could insert my angsty high-school self into every song and claim them all as unique expressions of my complex and yearning soul. (Oh, how complex and yearning I was!) Most Tori Amos fans do this, which is a testament to Tori’s music: good writers make you feel like they’re speaking directly to you and no one else. Perhaps this is why Tori fans call her by her first name. We really do feel close enough to be on a first-name basis.

If that sounds a little creepy, buckle up.

My Tori fandom wasn’t a mild case. I amassed mountains of Tori memorabilia in high school, spending the majority of the money I made as a waitress at the local Pizza Hut (help) on such merchandise as 7” UK vinyl pressings of singles not released in the states. Note: I did not own a record player. Terrible bootleg CDs of her concerts fetched $30 bucks at the record store in Des Moines but I happily forked it over to hear the same songs I had already; but as Tori is a master improvisor, you never knew what she’d do within the songs, so you had to have it all. It was a treasure hunt and a pastime I lived for. I clipped articles. I bought t-shirts, and in what was perhaps the geekiest, most cringe-inducing moment of my adolescence, I created a Tori Amos board game for me and my friends, who were as nuts about her as I was.

A board game. With pieces and question cards.

For years, my pie-in-the-sky dream was to open for Tori as a poet. I thought a 20-minute set of killer spoken word would be a perfect compliment to her show, and I’d be happy just being the opener to the opener. I never sent my materials to her management company, which is lame but understandable. I was broke. The prospect of creating a dazzling media/audition kit that would get past the garbage can of her management company was beyond my abilities. I was 22, barely making ends meet, and too busy drinking vodka cranberries with my poet friends. But maybe I’ll do it now becauseI still think it’s a good idea. Tori, if this post should come over the transom, do think about it. You will like my poems. Your audience will, too. It could be perfect. And fear not: the board game is long, long gone.

I made an extensive playlist for a friend who was going on a long drive in California. Halfway through putting it together, I got caught on my collection of Tori. For several hours, while sewing patchwork, I sank into each track, remembering my old interpretation and forging a new one.

Good music should grow with you.

 

Veteran’s Day.

posted in: Paean 2
Jasper Johns, Three Flags, 1958. Encaustic on canvas, 30 7/8 × 45 1/2 × 5 in. (78.4 × 115.6 × 12.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; 50th Anniversary Gift of the Gilman Foundation Inc., The Lauder Foundation, A. Alfred Taubman, Laura-Lee Whittier Woods, and purchase  80.32 Art © Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Jasper Johns, Three Flags, 1958. Encaustic on canvas, 30 7/8 × 45 1/2 × 5 in. (78.4 × 115.6 × 12.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; 50th Anniversary Gift of the Gilman Foundation Inc., The Lauder Foundation, A. Alfred Taubman, Laura-Lee Whittier Woods, and purchase 80.32 Art © Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

The question, “Who am I?” is laughably vague. Are you supposed to answer that in specifics? Example: “I am male. I am 60-years-old. I am 6’2.” Or is it meant to be answered abstractly, even dramatically? Example: “I’m searching. I’m broke. I’m only flesh and bone.” Sometimes that question is just plain cruel, given to high-school freshmen to determine too early a career path.

If I were asked to take a stab at it, though, I know what my first answer would be. I’ve known it for a long time.

I’m an American.

Being an American is the characteristic that comes first in my “Who I am” book. My family does not identify strongly with ancestry. I’m a little Norwegian (Dad’s side) and a little Scottish (Mom.) I’m a Fons for sure (it’s the nose.) So I feel American before I feel much else. It’s in my core. It is my core. The spirit of my country pulses in my veins. I work hard to make sure I’m good enough for this blood.

How do I try? I work hard. Even when I’m afraid, I try to be brave. I am a total idiot, but I try to learn from the head-over-heels tumbles I take and when I crash into someone else in the process, it feels right to help them back up and fix it, and I try to do that. American is a wild horse and I feel like a wild horse: out of control, ambitious, messy, able to use my powers for good if I focus. And I like to have fun.

All the sailors, all the flowers. All the wagon trains, the butter churns. All the novels, the rivers of money, the mistakes, the disgraces, the candy stripers clicking heels down the hallways. The mud spatters on the boots. The unregulated masses, all the glittering city blocks. Kansas. Every outdoor concert venue, every blackberry bush, all the kids in the high rises. The medication. The journalists, the crates of fish, the lawns. All the pig troughs, the seashells, the test tubes and the sewing machines. The elderly. The algae. The ox.

America, I love it all. And people just like me and you and my neighbor in the next unit over died for it all and are dying for it all right now. They do it so we can glimpse the fawn and buy the car and smile at the baby in the ICU; so we can listen to Madonna records and open a bakery. Start a bridge club. Film a movie. Get a job. Keep it. Get a raise.

Thank you. I will probably not sacrifice my life for my country, but I promise to live for it.

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