Eric and I were onboard with masks early in the pandemic.
In fact, before face masks became widely available, I constructed a whole pile of janky ones out of vacuum cleaner bags and twist ties. I even made a YouTube video about it but took it down after a few days because I occasionally practice good judgement. Those runty little masks were made in a panic and looked like it. Sure, they were kinda punk rock and would have been better than nothing, but they were not fit to broadcast on the internet. Soon after I unpublished my video, tutorials on how to properly construct fabric facemasks from a pattern — the audacity — flooded the YouTubes, so I was extra relieved that I had yanked my video. In many areas of my life, my enthusiasm greatly outpaces my attention to detail. I’m aware.
Anyway, Eric and I committed to wearing boring, normal, well-constructed masks. We loathed them as much as anyone. But it all changed on that fateful day two summers ago when my veneer popped off my left tooth.
I was munching caramel corn, watching the Avengers avenge and bit down on what I thought was a kernel with lots of carmel on it, just a particularly crunchy piece. But after a moment, I sensed something strange … Was that cool air on my left front tooth? No, that wouldn’t make sense. I ate another piece of popcorn.
When the cool air feeling didn’t go away, I ran my tongue over my front teeth. Huh. My left tooth felt … rougher than the right one. It didn’t hurt or anything, but something was off. I put my finger on it. Oh dear. Oh no, no, no. Definitely rough. Could it be … oh dear God!
Like a bottle rocket had gone off on my side of the couch, I shot over to the mirror in our entryway. I stuck my nose up to the glass. I bared my teeth. The right front tooth looked normal, but the left tooth looked very, very wrong.
Instead of a tooth I could be proud of, I was looking at a shrunken little monkey’s paw tooth. Right there in the front of my face, on the left, yellowish and slightly filed down, was my permanent incisor with the accursed fluoride mark, same as it ever was, exposed after years of concealment. The veneer had broken off my left front tooth — and I had eaten it.
“Eric!” I screamed, “My veneer! My veneer came off! My veneer!!! It’s happening!!!”
Eric dashed over. He took me by the shoulders and turned me so I was facing him. “Hey, hey, it’s okay,” he said. “Are you hurt? Let me see.”
“Hm-mmn!” I shook my head and pressed my lips together. My head was bowed so low my chin was touching my chest. Have you ever wailed with your mouth shut? It’s kind of hard to do, but it is possible.
Eric smiled, but not in a mean way; I was clearly going through something. But once he confirmed that I wasn’t in pain, and heard me mumble through my closed mouth that I had a monkey’s paw tooth and was dying, he could see the humor in the situation.
“Let me see,” he said, chuckling. “It’s probably not as bad as you think. It’s okay. Show me.”
With the doleful look of a dog who has been caught getting into the garbage, I raised my head. I pulled back my upper lip and braced myself to see my husband look at me in horror. But he only hugged me and began to laugh quietly.
Honestly, it wasn’t that bad. It turns out that the teeth I have under my veneers aren’t withered, decaying brown stumps. They’re slightly smaller than they were when they came in, but not by much. They’re yellowish, but not because they’re unhealthy; they’re fine. But the fluoride marks are still prominent, and I stand by this. The veneers are warranted. I made an appointment at the dentist to get them replaced — I was sure the right one was about to go as well — but when I learned they couldn’t get me in right away, my despair returned. Eric still loved me but how could I go outside and talk to people?? How could I face them, disfigured and diminished as I was?
Then I remembered: face masks. No one but the dentist would see my monkey’s paw tooth because no one would be seeing my teeth at all. In fact, no one but Eric had seen my teeth in months.
After years of fear at the prospect of a veneer breaking off, it happened, but it happened during a global pandemic. I hadn’t counted on that one, but there it was. The pandemic is bad, don’t misunderstand me. But last summer, I was able to literally cover my mouth with a face mask to hide my dental shame and that was a gift.
This is the 15th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
There are legions of people I admire — frontline healthcare workers come to mind — but I think we could all use a little more Babs right now, am I right? Much to my delight (though not at all to my surprise), the lady has been awfully popular around here.
However much her personality has chafed certain people over the years, I suspect Babs has been popular her whole life. I say this because of the pictures of her I’ve seen from her young adulthood looking achingly pretty in expensive dressed, and also something that happened at the building Christmas party.
First, you need to know that Babs has a great laugh, partly because she doesn’t laugh very often, not outright. Hers is a dry, acerbic sense of humor, so she’s generally the one making the joke, or the one pointing out the obvious. Babs is droll. She does not chortle; she would die before she’d ever guffaw. She’s more likely to simply acknowledge when something is objectively amusing. When she does laugh, however, out comes this surprising glissando laugh: “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” It’s musical. It goes up and down the scale. It’s the sound of pure mirth.
I discovered this laugh when I was over at her place one evening, obviously drinking wine. Babs was in an elegant pantsuit, freshly manicured, dishing about the condo board. She was trying to remember the name of the person who had most recently annoyed her.
“Oh, oh, wait,” I said, “is it the lady who always looks like this?” I squinted my eyes, furrowed my brow, and wrinkled my nose like I was smelling smelly garbage and said in a nasal voice, “Oh, hi Mary. How arrrre you?”
Babs opened her mouth and out came that laugh. She didn’t throw her head back, she didn’t lean forward. She just pushed play on that “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” music. She was delighted at my impression and I detected she was also impressed at my ability as a mimic. It felt a bit mean, poking fun at our neighbor, but I confess that I basked, just a tiny bit, in Babs’s approval.
Back to the Christmas party:
That night, I was feeling puffy. You know how you just feel puffy, sometimes? I put on a black dress that usually works, but I was just so puffy and my cheeks were blotchy and I had a blemish. I also have agonizing social anxiety, but it’s extra bad when I’m in large groups of people with whom I wish to make a good impression. But there was no getting around it: Making an appearance at this function — especially as the building’s newest resident – was essentially mandatory. I groaned and took my puffy self up to the seventh floor dragging Eric, who is even less enthused about these sorts of things than I am. He could stay 10 minutes and dip, I said; I’ll take one for the team and make the rounds.
In the host’s apartment on the seventh floor (a three-settee living room), people were milling about. There was a shrimp platter and finger sandwiches; there was focaccia; there were pinots blanc and noir and a basket of chocolate-dipped snacks. I took a deep breath and introduced myself to this and that person as I made my way from room to room, checking my teeth a zillion times for kiwi seeds and/or lipstick as I told people that I work in the quilt industry, yes, that’s right, yes, quilting, like quilts, for the bed, but there are other kinds also, and I’m the editor of the bestselling quilt magazine, yes, there is more than one quilt magazine, the quilt industry, yes there’s a quilt industry, is valued around 3.5 billion and you know, online dating is worth just 3 billion … I was getting more exhausted by the minute because being obsessed with the state of one’s teeth and explaining what I do takes effort when I’m meeting a new person, but it takes true endurance to meet so many new people I have to explain it six or seven times in two hours.
Finally, I spied Babs. She was perched on a settee (!) in the living room, holding court. When she saw me, she lit up and waved me over.
“Mary, I have to talk to you,” she said. I sat down, thrilled to be off-duty. It was this conversation that led me to concur that Babs has doubtless always been one of the popular girls and, though I cringe to say so, probably one of the mean girls from time to time. It was how she put a hand on my shoulder and turned us just slightly away from the crowd to basically whisper gossip in my ear. I was instantly uncomfortable with this, party because I have been present at parties where I was the one being whispered about and it’s such an awful experience, but — far more critically — I did not want to be cast as a scuttlebutt at this, my building debut.
Then Babs pulled me in. It was like Babs a tractor beam. She mentioned the neighbor I had done the impression of a few weeks back and again couldn’t remember her name. Before I knew it, I wrinkled my nose and said under my breath, “Oh hi, Mary” and out it came: “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” The laugh of the most popular — and potentially most resented — girl at the party rose above the sounds of the crowd and there I was, in cahoots with Babs.
I do adore her. I do admire her, but I don’t like to be in cahoots with anyone. I’m not a cahooter.
Oh, my dearlings! These blog entries keep getting longer and longer. I’ll finish up with Babs next time. I’m afraid that if I keep writing novels here in PaperGirl 2.0 I’ll lose folks, not because the content is bad (I’m enjoying writing to you more than ever, which I hope comes through) but because we are on the internet and when we’re in the strange, wide saddle of the internet, attention tends to slide off. It happens to us all, even Babs, who I know does a little online shopping from time to time.
The pandemic has brought its gifts, however ruinous and deadly it continues to be: Babs and I have become closer than ever in the past month. There’s no cahooting, either; just aid, affection … and phone conversations about Governor Cuomo:
“Oh, that Cuomo is just divine,” Babs said. “I wouldn’t mind snuggling up to him on a cold night.”
This is the 14th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
Since schools are closed, and I belong to the extremely fortunate demographic who doesn’t have to go “to” or “from” work right now, if I don’t take things in a different direction with this particular prompt, I won’t have much to say and we’ll all just be sitting around looking at each other until one of us starts crying or we start another card game, or we both start crying because we’re starting yet another card game.
I can’t let that happen, so I’m going to tell you about my favorite neighbor, Babs.*
Since Babs is the grandest of all the dames; since Babs is a force of nature; since Babs is the walking embodiment of a Babs in all the ways a Babs could possibly be, I can’t just dropBabs on you. I can’t just launch into Babs. One must be ready for a person like this; one must be prepared. Thus, I shall provide a bit of context, first.
One year ago this month, I collected all my belongings and moved them 2.5 miles to the north. I left Chicago’s scrappy, youthful, grimy-in-a-good-way South Loop for her crusty, gorgeous, fusty-in-a-good-way Gold Coast. It took fortitude; there were sacrifices. I went from having 1500 square feet of space down to 900; in the South Loop, I paid a wince-inducing HOA monthly assessment, but the assessment for this place is almost nauseating, especially with the mortgage on top of that; and if you asked me how much paint was peeling off the walls in my previous apartment, I would have said “none”, but if you ask me how much paint is peeling off the walls in this one, I will say “so much.”
So what. The place is half the size and needs significant work. But when you’ve got crown molding, parquet wood floors, bookshelves built right into the walls, and the original 1920 elevator with Art Deco brass details, you almost feel like keeping those paint chips in a pretty box on the mantle. (There’s a mantle.) And hey, when I scribble my signature on my check to pay the bills each month, I get to see my name on that check with my new address on it, and that helps me stop weeping long enough to tear the check off the pad and get it into the envelope.
In July, Eric moved here from Seattle. One day we decided to go for a walk.
“Most of the people in this building seem like they’re … older,” Eric said.
We stepped aside for Gordon (day doorman extraordinaire) to let in Mr. and Mrs. Ackerman, which took awhile. Outside, a man in a sweater vest with his socks pulled up was poking at a flower bed with his cane. He waved.
We waved back and Eric, who is 42, said, “Are we the youngest people in this building?”
It’s true: Most of the people who live in our vintage building might also be described as “vintage.” I won’t put my foot in my mouth and suggest a median age, but I will say that when there’s a notice on the desk in the lobby about a board meeting or a maintenance issue, the font is very large. This, to me, is an ideal living situation. People of a certain age rarely feel like putting on heavy boots and running back and forth on the floor above me; neither do they tend to listen to music loudly. If they do decide to listen to music loudly, it’s only every five years or so, and in this building you’re going to get Duke Ellington or Connie Francis or Beethoven if the person is brooding. Could be worse, right?
Eric wasn’t quite right about us being the youngest people who live here, though; down the hall on our same floor there’s a thirty-something couple and they are the youngest people here. Caitlin is literally a professional brain surgeon, which I think we can all agree is the best kind of brain surgeon. Her slightly younger French husband, Jean Luc, is a professional brain scientist, so these two are a good match. They got married in October. We had a little wine and cheese party up on the room last summer and Caitlin and I had more wine than cheese and it was fun because they are very nice people.
There are four apartments on each floor, and Lorraine and Alan live in the one directly across from us. Alan has been a university professor for absolute ages, and Lorraine bakes when she’s stressed.
“Mary, I’ve been stress-baking.”
We were chatting on the phone the first week of the official shelter-in-place order here in Chicago, which was somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago.
“Tell me about it,” I said, scraping cookie batter off the sides of a mixing bowl.
Lorraine sighed and said the least she could do was leave some goodies at our front door. I told her she didn’t have to do that and she said oh it’s no problem, and I said stay safe and she said you too, Mary, and say hi to Eric. When I opened the door, I was super happy to find two fat banana-walnut muffins, which Lorraine stress-bakes in mini-bundt cake pans. They are so moist you have to eat them right away or they’ll go bad. The muffins were, as always, tucked inside a small gift bag with ribbon handles. It’s safe to say Lorraine has a big box of small gift bags with ribbon handles in the hall closet at all times, because you never know.
Well, I guess that’s it for my neighbors. An interesting group, right? I’m so grateful we landed on such a good floor with —
Sorry, what’s that? Oh, did I say there are four apartments on each floor of our building? Huh, that’s funny … who am I leaving out? Who could be — ohhh. That’s right. How could I forget … Babs.
The first thing to know about Babs is that I adore her. The second thing to know is that she is infamous around here on account of her rather mercurial personality. One doesn’t “meet” Babs as much as experience her, and lots of residents have had the Babs Experience because she has lived in this building for more than 30 years.
Babs is probably in her seventies, but it’s hard to say. For one thing, a lady never tells her age; for another thing, I have heard from several sources that she is heir to a kitty litter fortune and as such, has long been able to afford all manner of expensive creams, salves, and tinctures, so the woman could be a very well-preserved 90 for all I know. She wears French perfume and I’ve never seen her without lipstick.
The woman probably weighs 90 pounds soaking wet, but Babs would hate being soaking wet: It would ruin her hair! Her hair is a shimmery shade of light blonde appropriate for her age but let’s not ignore the fact that she is maintainingblonde and of course it’s always perfectly set, combed, and coiffed. Babs wears big, round dark sunglasses when she goes out and sometimes when she goes in: She waltzed into a condo board meeting once — fashionably late, of course — and kept her sunglasses on the whole time. She did remove her fur stole, however. I don’t know what animal sacrificed itself for Bab’s stole, but whatever it was, it was very soft and shiny. Babs didn’t say a thing the entire meeting and still managed to hold court; I could tell she was glowering at a couple people across the room who had somehow annoyed her. Believe me: It’s a rotating cast.
Babs has lived in Chicago all her life. When she was 16, she had a real-life coming out party. I’ve seen the pictures. She was a vision in silk gloves and the prettiest dress you’ve ever seen. Later, she ran her own boutique on Michigan Avenue. She’s buried two husbands and has lived alone for a lot of years at this point. I can’t recall just how long. A long time.
Babs is a voracious and extremely selective drinker of white wine. Sometimes she has to call our building’s maintenance man to help her get a cork out. This call occasionally comes around two or three in the afternoon.
Babs is a voracious and extremely selective reader, too. Her library is wall to wall books, all neatly lined up on the wide shelves. It perhaps needs not be said that Babs’s apartment — larger than our fixer upper by a factor of two at least — perhaps led to the very creation of the term “tastefully appointed”. At this point I’m betting you can guess with great accuracy what Babs’s place looks like, right? Right: damask drapes with silk tie-back cords; crystal candy dishes; lacquered wood furniture; still life paintings large and small; striped wallpaper; various platters. There is no dust anywhere, on anything because Babs has a maid that comes every week. There’s a sitting room and a dining room and — oh, you get the idea. The difference between the apartment Eric and I are quarantined in and the one just down the hall is the difference between The Little Match Girl and the Queen of England; extra matches, extra pearls.
Since this post is plenty long enough and there are card games we all have to get to, I’ll tell you more about Babs in the next post. But I cannot resist sharing one of many Babs gems before I go:
Five or six months ago, Babs invited me over for a glass of wine. It had become a kind of a regular thing at that point and I knew to drink slowly because every time I had ever said, “Oh, Babs, I think I’ve had enough for tonight,” she’d pooh-pooh me and take my glass into the kitchen for “just a little splash.”
That night, I was doing what I often do when I hang out with Babs, which is ask her a million questions about her life. Wouldn’t you? She’s as fascinating a person as I’ve ever met, and she also happens to be hilarious.
“Babs,” I said, knowing that at this point I can ask her anything, “Tell me about your husbands. Were you happily married?”
Babs gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “Oh, they were lovely men. I loved them, sure. But sweetie, I was terrible at being married.”
“I was always screwing around!”
[Babs and I will be back soon. Stay safe, everyone.]
*All names in this post have been changed, but none are as perfectly suited to the person described as “Babs”.
This is the 13th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
It’s Saturday night. The weather is perfect and you’re getting ready to go out to dinner.
There have been and will be nights in your life when you’d give anything to stay home and eat leftovers, but tonight is not one of those nights. No way. You’ve been looking forward to tonight all week. Maybe you’re meeting friends you haven’t seen in ages. Maybe your favorite cousin is in town. Maybe you’ve got a hot date — but like, a really hot one. Whoever it is you’ll be with at the restaurant about an hour from now, picturing their face(s) make you smile.
You get to choose who you’re meeting; this is as much your time machine as it is mine.
You feel gorgeous. You just do. When you look in the mirror, you like what you see. “Not bad,” you say to yourself, and you make a mental note to continue to drink more water because man, your skin looks good. You lean over the sink and do your eye makeup. Or maybe eye makeup isn’t your jam and you’re just rubbing out crusties. (Remember, these details are totally up to you.)
In the middle of doing whatever it is you’re doing there at the mirror, you remember the funny video someone sent you today, or that really good — omg so bad!! — joke your friend told you, or maybe you’re just caught up in how good you feel, but you laugh enough that you have to stop poking around your eye area for a moment. You eventually recover. All right, all right, you say; enough. No time for dilly-dallying. As you finish your maquillage, you think how for a second there you were like a kid giggling in class and also the teacher who told that kid to get back to work. This observation amuses you, and because it does, subconsciously your heart feels tender toward yourself, and this is how we ought to feel toward ourselves all the time but rarely do.
Before you leave the bathroom, you pause to appreciate your sink. It is sparkling clean. In fact, the whole house is clean. You’re clean, too, because you took a nice long shower. God, you love your soaps right now. The body wash and the shampoo and the conditioner, finally. One last check in the mirror confirms it: You are having a great hair day. Maybe the best hair day. Your hair looks amazing.
It isn’t until after you slip into your clothes that you realize you have just slipped into your clothes. Who does that, you think, but you do not question what has just occurred.
You walk to the closet to get your shoes. They are right where they should be. Let me be clear: You do not have to dig for your shoes. You do not yet know that you will have the best filet mignon/lobster bisque/mushroom risotto/crispy duck/endive salad/chocolate soufflé/raspberry panna cotta/warm bowl of tiny cookies of your entire life tonight, so, between getting to lean back in your chair at the restaurant later to clasp your hand to your breast and groan with pleasure at what is happening in your mouth and not having to dig for your shoes, should nothing else go right tonight, the evening would stand as an unqualified success.
Your phone buzzes: Your Uber will be here in five minutes. Perfect.
Ladies, you have a new purse. It has all the right pockets in all the right places. This perfect purse is about to become your favorite purse. You will fully wear out this purse over the next year or two because it is perfect. When it finally dies, you will spend as long you had the purse lamenting that you cannot find a purse as good as the purse you had that one time. “That one time” is now, and you and your purse have only just begun life together. This purse is not scuffed or marred; there is no open tube of lipstick currently bouncing around in the bottom of it. There are no straw wrappers, either. You grab your jacket/wrap/topcoat/shawl and you go out the door. You get into your Uber and your driver is kindly fellow, so when he says that you look nice, it’s not creepy. It’s great.
The kindly driver drops you off at the restaurant and you go inside.
The place is packed. There’s a throng of people in the vestibule; everyone’s chatting and working their way up to the hostess station to check in or ask if there are tables available. No tables right now, the hostess says, and she apologizes that the wait is over an hour. This is no problem because you have a reservation and wasn’t that smart! You are smart. You notice that the people who don’t have a reservation seem strangely okay with this because they are having a great night, too. The mood is convivial; the mood is good. The lights are low and everyone looks great.
Everyone looks healthy.
Behind the bar, the bartenders are barely keeping up but they are keeping up; later, they’ll high five each other and whistle as they count their tips. They raked it in tonight, boy, so they all do a shot and they say it really is a great gig and everyone gets home safe after the manager finally locks up for the night. One waiter and one bartender finally admit they’re falling in love.
In a few minutes, your friends/cousin/hot date will arrive and the hostess will take you to your table. You’ll maneuver through the dining room as waiters whisk past with trays and busboys pour water from green glass bottles. You’ll see a sommelier presenting a wine list and a maitre’d putting a napkin in a lady’s lap. You and your dinner companion(s) are seated. The conversation, the food, the tone, the spark, the learning, the surprise, the pleasantness, the force, the humanity — you’ll all have it all within minutes.
But right now, you’re one in that throng of healthy people waiting for tables. There are dozens of different conversations and you hear bits of this one and that one. People are smiling and laughing. There are pats on the back; in a corner, a couple steals a kiss. Someone comes in from the bar, sees his friend and when they greet each other, they hug. There are light touches on shoulders as people lean in to hear each other better. No one notices this physical symphony; it’s no more and no less than life itself. It’s life on a Saturday night.
Months later, a plague comes and steals these kinds of nights. They are gone for a long time.
As you sit in your home now, there’s no need to find your shoes. There are no reservations. You are not so far from people, but everyone is separated. You can’t touch anyone and you can’t see anyone. You’d give anything to see them. If you could go anywhere in a time machine, you’d go back and get ready, just like you did, to go to that restaurant and be jostled among the dinner crowd, waiting for your table on a Saturday night.
This is the 11th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
On Thursday, March 12th, I went to the Las Vegas Airport — twice.
The first time, it was early afternoon. After a 10-day trip to Nevada, the time had come for the Quiltfolk girls to head home. One of them would fly to Denver, the other to Chicago.
Me, I wouldn’t leave till morning. Since Eric was in San Francisco at the time, we decided it made more sense for him to meet me in Vegas that evening and we’d fly to Mexico the next day. Though it would’ve been nice to swap out some of my travel clothes and get the mail, to go all the way back to Chicago only to turn around and head back west would only add more travel time. Plus, it was giving me a great deal of pleasure to practice saying the sentence, “Well, last week I was in Reno, then I flew to Vegas, then I flew to Cabo.” It sounded ridiculous and I suppose it still does.
So I’m driving to the airport that afternoon, and to describe the mood as “tense” doesn’t quite cover it. The team had gotten along great, we met extraordinary people, and we did solid work; the team was not the problem. The problem was that things in the world were starting to get very weird. Nevada is a large state, and as we drove across, up, and down it, we listened to the radio. We weren’t glued to it the whole time, but we were tuned in when the stock market lost 2,000 points in a matter of hours. We were tuned in when the NBA cancelled the season. We were listening when Italy went on total lockdown and we were among the first to learn that the WHO had officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
It was interesting to gauge the levels of alarm in the car: One of us was more or less unconcerned and felt everyone was getting too worked up; another of us was disturbed by the news but was taking a “let’s wait and see” approach, though she was becoming quieter by the hour.
As for me, I was gripping the steering wheel so hard my knuckles were white. I was trying to relax my jaw and trying not to make it worse by saying what was on my mind.
“This is not good,” I said, failing at that. “This is bad, you guys. This is very bad.”
When we spied a Wal-Mart just before getting on the interstate, I suggested we try one last time to find some hand-sanitizer. Without exception, every place we had stopped on our 10-day trip — and I mean every gas station, grocery store, convenience store, big box store like Target and Wal-Mart across the entire state of Nevada in towns big and small — that stuff was gone. Not one place had it in stock. It was unnerving, but now that the girls were headed into McCarran International Airport, into throngs of germy travelers from all corners of the world, going in without any tool of the bacteria-killing agent kind felt straight-up dangerous. But we found no hand-sanitizer at that last Wal-Mart, either. What we did find were entire shelves empty of cleaning supplies, toilet paper, paper towels, pasta, diapers, all of that stuff that by now, we’re all used to not seeing. But that Las Vegas Wal-Mart was the first place the three of us saw it, and I suspect our stomaches all dropped in sync. We headed back to the parking lot and got in the car.
I doubted the girls noticed that I was holding my breath the entire ride to the airport, but we all noticed after awhile that I had being driving the wrong direction for about 10 miles. We turned around — and then I missed my exit. I shook my head and forced myself to focus, but with the bad news streaming out of the radio, it took a great deal of effort. Something that had felt like it was slowly descending over the past week had officially pierced the ozone. Through no fault of their own, much of the information radio and TV news anchors announce is of marginal importance to most people; these last few days of our trip, there was an unmistakable edge to their voices that I hadn’t heard since 9/11. There’s no other way to say it: I was frightened. By the time we finally pulled up to the airport drop-off curb, no one was talking.
Now, at some point on the trip I had picked up a tube of Clorox wipes. “Let’s divvy these up,” I said, and we found a couple plastic bags. I pulled out the wet fabric and tore off portions for each of us. “Wipe down your seat,” I told them, “and your tray table and … Just wipe down everything, okay?” We all hugged goodbye and said “be safe” and “text when you get home” and “good luck”.
In the five or so minutes it took me to get to the rental car garage, three things became absolutely clear:
I had to call Eric, because there was nowhere I’d rather be in the entire universe than with him at that moment.
We were definitely not going to Mexico.
People were going to die.
In the next installment, I’ll tell you about the second trip to the airport. Stay safe, everyone.
This is the 10th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
Let’s get granular here: My first memory of all this, the moment when the coronavirus got real before the world became unrecognizable, was the day Eric and I booked two tickets to Mexico.
We had been reading about the outbreak in China. Week after week, more and more people were on a mandated lockdown and of course that seemed crazy. We saw the videos of quarantined people in Wuhan waving and singing to each other from their balconies, and though these types of videos have since been faked, those first videos were real. The videos, images, the trickle of news stories, and the firsthand reports were all evidence that yeah, it was crazy: There was a disease on the other side of the world that was so contagious and threatening to the way of life in China, the government wouldn’t let people go outside.
But that was still the beginning of it all, and it did seem far away. (And we figured the Chinese government was probably seizing the opportunity to surveil its citizens for other reasons, right?) Besides, our lives hadn’t been particularly affected by the H1N1, SARS, or Mad Cow outbreaks, so there was no need to get too worked up. Our ambivalence was a luxury; a lot of people died in those outbreaks. But who could blame us for more or less shrugging off the occasional, ultimately contained outbreak? There’s a baseline belief that America will always shield us from widespread contagion so we can go about our lives. Everyone has real worry — the mortgage is late, the kid is sick, the job is lost — but contracting deathly diseases from birds or pigs or rats or bats? Not here, and thank God.
The virus kept spreading, though, and quickly. A writer we like a lot who posts well-researched, thoughtful longreads on timely topics posted a piece about an encroaching problem due to the scale of this new virus. He was concerned about a disruption in the supply chain; specifically, the pharmaceutical one. As many of you have read (or knew already), much of the medicine we have in the U.S. is manufactured in China. Eric has chronic asthma and uses an inhaler regularly; I take several medications every morning to help out my guts and my brain. Everyone needs antibiotics at some point, and though its impossible to say the word “painkiller” without immediately being pegged as an opioid abuser, it is incontrovertibly true that there are times in our lives — hopefully very few — when we have blinding pain that Tylenol can’t touch. In other words, if these and other medicines we don’t (yet) need were not available, it would be bad.
Jokingly, Eric said, “Maybe we should go to Mexico and stock up on some of this stuff.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, right.”
But he brought it up again the next day and this time he seemed serious.
I looked at him like he had come into the room dressed as a flamingo. To begin with, it sounded just slightly illegal. It was surprising to me that Eric would suggest breaking the law; the only crime my husband has ever committed was stealing my heart — hey-o! I told him I did not particularly to go to federal prison for international drug trafficking, dear, and furthermore, taking medicine sourced from who-knows-where seemed unwise at best. Yes, if the article we read was right and the coronavirus would soon take down the manufacture and importation of critical pharmaceuticals from China, it would be wise to have a well-stocked medicine cabinet, and if it were legal and safe to go to Mexico and load up on reinforcements for ourselves and others who might need medicine in an emergency, I’d buy the tickets myself.
Several days later, we had Southwest confirmation numbers. In about two weeks, we would be on a flight from Las Vegas* to San Jose del Cabo.
What Eric already knew I learned through hours of research online. It is in fact legal for a person to purchase a three months’ supply of most (not all) prescription medications in Mexico. As long as it’s for “personal use” as legally defined, you are allowed to buy medicine and bring it home. Apparently, a whole lot of non-shady people do this on a regular basis. Certain drugs in the States that are astonishingly expensive can be purchased in other countries at a fraction of the cost and many of them are easier to get, anyway. Well, okay, I thought, but it still sounded like something out of Breaking Bad. How could a person be sure the medicine was safe?
On this topic, there were several things to consider. For one thing, my assumption that prescription drugs in Mexico weren’t safe was full-on prejudiced. Yeah, there are places in Mexico that are essentially lawless and should be avoided at all costs: Juarez, with its murderous gangs and pitch black market, is considered one of the most dangerous places in the entire world and a good deal of other border towns aren’t much nicer. But Mexico just happens to have other things going on, Mary Fons, as the good people of Oaxaca, Mexico City, and Cartagena, for example, will (icily) inform you. There are grocery stores, schools, theaters — and pharmacies — in Mexico, just there are here in good ol’ ‘Merica. Any boob that crosses into Tijuana at the end of a long night of partying and hits up the first farmacia they find to score Xanax (or whatever) is absolutely at risk of being fleeced for meds that are probably nothing more than sugar pills. But the vast majority of Mexicans are like the vast majority of Americans: People who need medicine when they’re sick. Frankly, I was ashamed that I had painted an entire country with such a broad brush; if nothing else came of all this, uncovering that gross bias was important.
So tickets were purchased. We’d be staying in San Jose del Cabo, a mid-sized city where people live and work. We wouldn’t be stepping a toe in Cabo San Lucas, aka Spring Break Cabo, where college kids guzzle buckets of rum from plastic cups and swim in STIs when they’re not swimming in the ocean. We’d be in the city three days and three nights, and I set about looking for a hotel. As I clicked through our options, my anxiety began to give way to excitement. There were really pretty hotels down there and it suddenly dwned on me that for the first time in my entire life, I had the opportunity to get acquainted with wildly exotic words like “lounge” and “poolside” and “deck chair” — in the middle of a Chicago winter. Beyond that, by the time the trip rolled around, I would be done with a three-month work marathon that included writing, editing, and going to press for Quiltfolk’s South Carolina issue (which ships to subscribers this week and is freakin’ gorgeous); debuting two new lectures at QuiltCon; planning Quiltfolk Nevada (!) and traveling for 11 days straight to get the content. No one is entitled to a vacation but … okay, I felt entitled to a damn vacation, even if it involved a mission that still made me feel like I might be called to the principal’s office.
But Eric and I never got to Cabo. A matter of hours before we were to leave, we aborted the trip. In the next installment, I’ll share the rather dramatic story of how that went down; we are all painfully aware of the reasons why it did.
At some point I’m going to describe for you what a Quiltfolk magazine location shoot is like. My first experience on a Quiltfolk location trip was as a writer on Issue 04 : Tennessee, so I didn’t have anything to do with the planning or execution of the shoot. I was just a hired gun, getting my stories, and, as a result, I remember that trip being super fun and very chill.
Once I began planning and producing the shoots, however, first as a contributing editor and now as editor in chief, that changed. The trips are still super fun, but they are the opposite of chill. There’s too much to do! There’s too little time! We must make haste and get all the stories we possibly can and have incredible experiences and record them for the people!
As I said, I’ll write up a detailed look into how the shoots work; for now, just know that things are nonstop, wall-to-wall, bananas. Very organized and buttoned-up bananas, but definitely bananas.
And speaking of bananas, I’d like to talk about food. Specifically, my relationship to food and what this has to do with going on Quiltfolk location shoots. I’ll try to do this relatively quickly, since a) I’m sleepy and b) like most people, I’ve got some heavy baggage around food and I could probably write whole books on the topic and never get very far.
The thing is this: When I’m on the road with Quiltfolk, there is no time to think about food. And that’s been my problem for a long time: I think about food more than is probably healthy.
Now, it’s not that I’m thinking about eating all the time, plotting when my next snack or meal will be, though I’ve been there. It’s more that I’m thinking about what I ate. What I should’ve eaten. What I should be eating in general and what I should not be eating in general. I think about times in my life when I ate X and didn’t eat Y; I think about times in my life when I felt attractive or times when I felt unattractive and did my food have anything to do with that? Should I do no-carb again? Is it finally time to cut out dairy? I’ve been trying to eat more plants and doing well and feeling well with that, but even if I’m finally doing the “right” thing … I’m still often thinking about food. And I know that this is a luxury, even while it traps me in my head and really makes me feel awful, sometimes. There’s so much other stuff to do and think about and other people to think about and care for. I really, really get tired of worrying about whether or not I am a “clean eater” or what magical combo of foods is going to cure my gut problems and … so on.
The good news is that it’s gotten better as I’ve gotten older. I am a little more familiar with myself and my body and I’ve accepted a few things about how I look and how I will not ever look, no matter what foods I eat. So that’s an encouragement to all the gym-centric, yo-yo dieting, juice-cleansing twenty-somethings out there: It can, and often does, get better.
But the best solution I have ever found to releasing myself from all that noise in my head about food is to be so busy, so focused, so happy, so “in the zone,” so needed at every moment that thoughts of food are simply not present. Put it this way: How hungry are you when you’re being chased by a bear? My job is way more fun than being chased by a bear, but in terms of stress and how fast I’m moving? Pretty similar. I don’t have time to dwell at all on whether or not I should eat my burger with or without the bun. I’m being chased! By! A bear!
The other cool thing about being chased by a bear is that, provided you are able to escape with your life, you are veryhungry once you’re able to catch your breath. When it comes time for lunch, after I’ve been running the crew, styling shots, interviewing folks, looking ahead to our next story, driving the car hundreds of miles, calling this or that person about this or that production detail, I could eat … Well, a bear. But it’s more likely a hamburger. Or two hamburgers. Or a granola bar. And an ice cream cone. And my word, do I drink water. Water and coffee, water and coffee.
The point is that it is on these trips that I am the person that I want to be, vis a vis food: I eat when I’m hungry. I don’t when I’m not. Food is delicious fuel, full stop.
I’m a little scared to post this. Does this even make sense? I’m nervous, I guess, because I know so many of us have baggage around food — or we have loved ones who do — and I’m in no way advocating for a thing or suggesting a thing or saying I’ve got it figured out. I’m just telling you that in that picture up there, I am literally eating a slice of pecan pie from Zingerman’s Deli in [LOCATION REDACTED] while I’m driving and it was totally okay with me. I was ravenous. I love pecan pie. I had worked my tushie off from 5 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and eating that pie in that car with those women I was with was beautiful. I didn’t think for a second if it was “good for me,” and I didn’t consider my thighs.
My post from a few days ago was a real cliffhanger — and then I kept you cliff-hanging. I’m sorry about that. There are a lot of spinning plates right now and sometimes I have to set a plate on the shelf for a second and rest my … what, fingertips? My plate-spinning stick? How does plate-spinning really work? Any actual plate-spinners out there, leave your remarks in the comments.
Also, this post has been incredibly hard to write for reasons that will soon be obvious. I’ve been dragging my feet.
Where was I, before time was up? Oh, right: Raw almonds for breakfast. If you haven’t read Part I, do that and then brace yourself for some extremely unpleasant (and personal) anatomic details.
The colon, also known as the large intestine, is a kind of shop vac: It sucks up the fluid from what you eat and drink so that the body can make solid waste. Then it holds onto … all that for a period of time and then, you know, you get rid of it. My shop vac was removed 10 years ago because it was, in the words of the surgeon who really messed up my surgery, “completely gone on the left side.”
What this means is that I don’t produce solid waste and never will again. I can eat things that are better for my condition and things that are way worse for it, but to go through a list of good vs. bad foods is a pointless exercise in many respects; what works only sometimes works and what doesn’t work for awhile suddenly isn’t so bad. But almonds are bad, full-stop. Which brings us to the second dignity-sucking feature of this tale and honestly, part of the reason I delayed in getting back to it. Let’s talk about fissures.
A fissure is a tiny, usually thread-thin crack between one thing and another. A fissure is relatively (very) narrow and not jagged; it’s not a rip or a tear, exactly. You can see fissures in rocks. Hairline fractures in bones would be a good visual. Fissures can happen in body tissue, too, and when they happen, it is bad. I had a fissure at the tail (!) end of my digestive tract and that is as much as I’ll tell you in terms of anatomy because we all know what I’m talking about.
My fissure arrived in late 2013 and was diagnosed as “acute” and “chronic”. Because I no longer have my shop vac, remember, I go to the bathroom a lot during the day and through night. Way more than most people, even with my J-pouch surgeries. If you have a fissure where I had one, the last, last, last thing on the planet you want to do is go to the bathroom. And at that time, because I didn’t know I was allergic (or had a reaction to) almonds, I was typically going 8-9 times a day and as many times through the night.
The pain of my condition bent my mind. It eviscerated my will, my fortitude, my spiritual condition. I squalled like a newborn. I babbled incoherently to no one as I pep-talked myself into going back to the guillotine, aka bathroom, over and over. The cramps were terrible. I had to go. And when I went, only an acidic trickle would come and I clawed my thighs until they were scraped and raw, too. It was a dark, dark time. And I told very few people about it. I didn’t tell you much about it, did I? Why?
It was so embarrassing. And the doctors said the fissure would likely settle down, though it will probably always be there, I understand?) A surgery that can be done as a last resort, but it’s not always successful; besides, the thought of more surgery in my GI tract — anywhere, anywhere in my GI tract — sent me into further paroxysms of despair, so I did not allow myself to see surgery as an option. Also, I am tough, Midwestern, stoic. Also, I tend to isolate. I’m a writer, by nature an introvert. And you bet I was depressed, for obvious reasons. And when you’re depressed, you just … You know. Nothing.
Look, the whole reason I’m telling this story is because I don’t recall anyone ever asking me what I was eating. And I think that would’ve been good. Raw almonds can cause diarrhea. And when you’re going to the bathroom as much as I was, the fibrous skins are really, really hard on a bottom. Why didn’t anyone help me put this together?
Before anyone gets arch please remember what I have written many times over the 12+ years of this blog: My doctors, surgeons, and nurses saved my life on several occasions and, if I can find new ones, medical professionals will help me live a long time. I’m not hating on doctors. I’m just bewildered, as usual, by the chaos of it all.
Good grief, let’s wrap this up, shall we? I rarely give advice, but here’s some I feel good about:
If you know someone with a J-pouch; IBD; Crohn’s; Ulcerative Colitis; diverticulitis, or any serious affliction related to the intestines, ask us about their diet. But — and this is so important — don’t tell us what to eat or suggest we do this or that. It’s so hard to be told, even by well-meaning people, that you’re doing eating wrong. (For example: The German and the Russian both pushed yogurt on me constantly and made me feel like a failure because I didn’t consume quarts of it daily.)
Telling a person, “You should eat this” or “[X] is a magic food for the gut” is different from just asking what’s in our diet. Asking us what we eat from day to day gives us an opportunity to think about it. Maybe there is something we could do differently. I mean, it’s crazy: If I have even a touch of almond milk or eat something like I did the other day that has raw almonds in it, it’s awful. But I didn’t know for a long time.
There you have it, my suffering GI Janes and Joes. Here’s the question:
“Shh … Shh. It’s gonna be okay. Deep breath. Why don’t you tell me what you’re eating, honey. Let’s start there.”
We’re sitting at a legendary cafe in Paris in the coolest arrondissement. I don’t know which one that is, but in this fantasy, you and I hang out there all the time. We’re so cool as Americans in Paris, we like don’t even remember the name of the street we’re on. In a good way.
It’s springtime. Arborial perfection is blooming all around us, hedges are full and lush again — it’s just ecstasy in flowers, in France, everywhere you look. The whole world is an impressionist painting. What I’m trying to say is that in this fantasy, the world is pretty and we are cool. Also, we are drinking the best cafes au lait of our lives.
Also we’re both fabulously wealthy and neither of us have health insurance problems or student loans (or whatever it is you’re stressing about right now.) On top of all that, you, my dear, have never looked better. And I tell you so.
“You’ve never looked better,” I tell you. You demure, but you know it’s true. Our extremely hot waiter is shamelessly hitting on me and he presently brings us our millefeuille. Our other waiter, who is the (equally hot) brother of the first waiter, brings us a more sparkling water.
“Will zere be anyzing else, mademoiselles?” they both say together, which is weird, but also charming.
“Non, non,” we say, and flit them away. Silly boys. We are women with things to talk about.
“Mary,” you say, and you lean in. “Everyone’s all aquiver about these lectures you gave at QuiltCon.”
“Oh?” I say, and stir a sugar lump into my cafe au lait, making sure my pinkie is very straight. “Is that the word on the chapeau?”
You look confused.
“Mary, a chapeau is a hat. Do you mean promenade, perhaps? The word on the promenade?”
I nod vigorously, nearly knocking off my chapeau.
“Indeed, that is the word out there, that you are quite the lecturer, Miss Fons. Of course, I’ve known it all along. You’ve been giving great lectures for years!”
“You are my best friend,” I say, and we cry and hug. I love you so much. What would I do without you?
“But Mary,” you say, as the hot waiter’s hot brother slips you his mobile number when he drops the check. “Mary, where can I see these lectures? I wasn’t at QuiltCon and you’ve decided to not take any more road gigs now that you’re Editorial Director of Quiltfolk and working on other Very Big Projects That Cannot Be Announced At This Time. Whatever shall I and the rest of your adoring public do?”
I pat your hand and point to the hot waiter’s hot brother’s phone number which is burning a hole in the tablecloth, that’s how hot he is; I tell you how the young man is clearly in love with you and this perks you right up.
Then I say, “My darling bosom buddy — and all my adoring fans. You’ll just have to wait a little while. I promise you I’ll be lecturing again soon. But not yet. And I can’t put a taped version of my lectures on the internet because it’s just not the same! I love lecturing almost more than anything, so you have to trust me that I’ll either be back on the road in some kind of incarnation or —”
“Or??” you say, and I can tell your heart’s beating fast. “Or what?!”
I sit back in my pretty chair in my pretty dress and smile a benevolently conspiratorial smile. “Or I’ll find a way to give you all my energy, information, passion, and humor in another form of media. You’ll see.”
“You beast,” you say, and throw your head back and laugh a throaty laugh. (In this fantasy, the two of us are always throwing our heads back and laughing throaty laughs.) “I do hear you’re quite funny,” you continue, and you reach for your sexy lipstick. A pause, and then:
“Mary, all I wanted to know was about your lectures and where I might be able to see or hear them. Why did you set us up as young, single women in Paris with all the flowers and the hot waiters and the crying?”
“Why on Earth not?” I say, and raise a forkful of millefeuille to my lips.
I’m going to show you a homework assignment. For my Literature of the Senses class this week, we’re to write short pieces on the sense of taste. These are just one- to two-page writing exercises and I’ve put this together. I blogged about ramen noodles some years ago, and I did look back at this entry for reference, but it’s entirely retooled, as you’ll see.
It’s hard to write stuff and it’s hard to write about hard stuff. It’s hard to think about hard stuff that happened. Maybe I should go bake cupcakes or something. Mmm … Cupcakes.
Anyway, here you are.
As a young woman, many times had I fervently wished I could zap my appetite into nothingness so that I could slim down for the summer or whatever. It seemed so simple: Just don’t eat. I was never able to not eat, though, and usually not able to eat even slightly less. My appetite was stronger, in the end, than my desire to own smaller jeans.
But when I was dying in 2008 from failed abdominal surgeries related to advanced Ulcerative Colitis, my appetite really did vanish and it stayed gone for a dangerously long time, entirely without me trying. It turns out that having no appetite is a woeful, morbid thing.
My body knew my intestines were failing, so the appetite mechanism was doing me a favor by closing up shop. If nothing came in, nothing could leak out, internally. But my doctors and my family desperately needed me to eat, even a little, so that I could heal. If I couldn’t manage to start getting some nutrition, a feeding tube was in my future.
It was frightening to want nothing to eat, to snap my head away with a grimace when food came close to my mouth. It was alienating in the extreme that spaghetti with marinara sauce, my favorite food, did nothing to stir my appetite. I desired nothing. I craved nothing. There would be days at a time that I consumed only air and the dry skin on my lips as I chewed them whenever the doctors would call with test results, which were usually bad.
“Mary, honey,” my mother would ask, coming into the living room. “What would you like to try today?”
Every day, it was the same. The proposition of selecting and then trying to get food down was as exhausting as flushing my four IR drains, which had to happen twice a day.
“I guess ice cream,” I’d say, my voice barely above a whisper.
But when the Haagen Dazs hit my tongue, even if it were praline pecan or butter brickle, which in former days I would’ve devoured, I never managed more than two bird-sized bites before I had to set down my spoon and sink back into the couch, weary, baffled, and still unfed, the cream turning sour in my mouth. I was down to 118 pounds, 117, 116 …
We tried bacon. We tried mac n’ cheese. We tried bacon mac n’ cheese. We tried pudding, crackers, chips. Lasagna, Cap’n Crunch, sushi, tacos. Everything was revolting, everything was too much. I missed my appetite, which is to say I missed being part of the human race.
Then one day, when my mother asked me what I might like to try to eat, for some reason I blurted out, “How about ramen noodles?”
I meant Top Ramen, of course. The brick of noodles you get six-for-a-dollar with the flavor packet inside each plastic pack. Mom ran to the store and got a bagful. When she brought me a bowl of the piping hot noodles, for the first time in months, I felt hungry.
The cheap ramen was salty and easy to swallow. It was fun to eat, too, those long, curly noodles and the bullion broth free of bits, chunks, or vegetal matter of any kind. It is a benign food substance, Top Ramen. There is nothing to avoid, nothing to pick out. One can surrender to simplicity, to plainness. It is the anti-foodie food. The nutritional value may normally be in question, but for an invalid like me, the 400 calories of starch and salt were 400 more than what I was getting before and for some reason, my body accepted Top Ramen. I wanted to eat it and eating it did not make me sicker.
Every day, I ate the Chicken or Beef flavored ramen for breakfast (never Shrimp, gross.) The life-force noodle soup was my sole meal of the day. I even looked forward to the moment when my mother would bring it to me after I had had another interminable night on the couch, vomiting into my bowl, leaking sh-t from my ostomy bag onto the covers. Not every night was that bad; some were worse.
It makes me cry to think of my mother, there in her red bathrobe, coming in with a chipper smile and the wooden tray with the big bowl of Top Ramen for me, a cloth napkin, a fork, and a wide spoon. She’d place the tray on the big trunk we used for a coffee table and say, “Bon appetite, sweetie.”
“Thanks, Mama,” I’d say, and I’d start to eat, slowly, bringing a forkful of noodles all the way up, high above my head. I’d tip back and open my mouth, lowering the ramen slowly down onto my tongue and the day would begin that way, looking up at the ceiling, tasting the rich, savory broth clinging to the noodles. I would let it all slip down my gullet, hardly needing to chew.
I heard this totally true tale some years ago. Heaven knows why it came back to me today; sometimes you just remember things and isn’t that lucky?
Out on a gig in Florida, I met a woman I’ll call Joyce. She was in her late fifties, I’d say. We had a few hours in a car together, driving out to Pensacola past the blooming cotton fields, just 30 miles or so in from the coast. We liked each other right away. In these kinds of situations (okay, in most situations) I’d rather learn about someone else’s life than talk about my own, so I unofficially interviewed Joyce as we drove along. Of course, one of the first questions I asked her was how she learned to sew. Joyce was very good at sewing, you see.
She chuckled. “Well, I’ll tell you the real story, Mary, because I like you. I don’t always go into it because it’s really very sad.”
I leaned forward in my car seat. (Not like, a baby car seat. I was in a normal car seat.)
“Neither my mother or grandmother did much sewing, so I sewed my first stitch in high school,” she said. “I took a home economics class* my freshman year. The cooking lessons and so forth, that was okay, I guess, but I just loved the sewing. Took to it right away. Before long, I was making all my clothes and clothes for my friends.”
“The woman who taught all the home economics classes was a nice woman and a good teacher in her way, but — and this is the terrible part — she was… Well, she was a drinker. A terrible alcoholic, you know, and she would come into the classroom in the morning, even in the middle of the day, smelling like liquor. She lived alone, I seem to remember. It was terrible, really sad.”
“Oh, Joyce!” I said.
“So, by the time I got to the end of sophomore year — it might’ve even been earlier than that — I had gotten so good at sewing and making clothes and home things, you know, like curtains and ironing board covers and all that, I was helping the other girls quite a bit. Well, one afternoon, she asked me if I would teach the class for her.”
“She was drunk?” I asked, my eyes big.
“She didn’t come out and say that, of course, but oh, she was in terrible shape. And that was how it started: I ended up teaching all the sewing lessons in the home economics classes my entire junior and senior year…while she slept in the coat closet.”
My mouth hung open.
“Joyce,” I said, “You’re telling me you taught two years of high school economics classes as a high school student while your teacher slept it off in the coat room??”
“Didn’t anyone say anything??”
Joyce shook her head. “No one said anything. We were having fun and turning her in just didn’t seem kind, I guess. She was a nice woman.”
“No wonder you’re so good sewing,” I said, trying not to stare.
“Oh, I’ve still got plenty to learn. But it’s true that if I was good at sewing before all that, I got better fast, having to have my lesson plans ready,” Joyce laughed. “Anyway, that’s how I learned to sew.” She paused. “But I usually just say I learned in high school.”
Wherever you are, Joyce, thanks for the story. And wherever you are, Home Economics Teacher, I hope you’re in a better place.
*This field of study is formally called Family and Consumer Science, but Joyce used the term “home economics classes” when she told me the story, so I’m going with that.
Greetings from Lincoln, Nebraska, where it feels like Christmas Eve.
This is because the annual two-day board meeting for the International Quilt Study Center & Museum (IQSCM) begins tomorrow morning. Since I’m a board member, I get to go. That’s how board meetings work, I have learned and yes I do feel fancy but mostly I just feel geeky and happy. Jonathan Holstein is here. The only person I’d be more excited about meeting and working with would be Barbara Brackman. After that, probably Madonna.
The only drawback to being here is that I couldn’t stay in St. Louis, which is where I was yesterday. I had to leave Common Threads, a very cool, annual BabyLock event, which — of course! — landed the same weekend as my board meeting. Common Threads is an invitational meetup/think tank kind of a thing for quilters and sewists who work with BabyLock out there in the industry. There were around 55 people at the weekend retreat, some of whom I had never met, some of whom I consider good friends, e.g., Jenny Doan, Vanessa Vargas Wilson, Amy Ellis, and many other terrific, talented women.
Like Kelly Bowser.
Before I tell you why Kelly deserves special distinction, know that Kelly did not ask me to write this, nor am I benefitting in any way from singing her praises and talking about how much I love the thing she designed and how I have used it every single day for four years.
So, Kelly and I met at the first-ever Common Threads four years ago. I liked her immediately: She was funny and smart and warm. Kelly’s atalented designer, a so-good-it’s-annoying sewist, quiltmaker, blogger, and pattern writer, and she’s a mom, wife, and she has a law degree. We got to know each other and became industry pals.
That night, when I dug into the swag bag in my hotel room, I discovered the coolest little handmade cloth pouch! It was kinda puffy and had a zipper and everything. The tag said: “Kelby Sews”, which is Kelly’s brand. I learned that Kelly had designed and made everyone in the group that year (40 people??) their very own pouch, which she calls the “30-Minute Pouch”. (I understand you can download the pattern for free on Craftsy, so check that out.)
I just loved my little pouch. I began using it immediately. It is the perfect size for my lipstick, compact, eyedrops, tiny mascara, and aspirin thingy. That pouch has been in my possesion for four years. It has traveled tens of thousands of miles with me. It’s been in fabulous purses, let me tell you. It went to New York. It went to Washington. It came back to Chicago. It went to Berlin. It’s gone on so many dates. It’s been with me on family vacation. It was at my sister’s wedding.
I’m telling you: Kelly’s 30-Minute Pouch is seriously part of my life. In material objects, anyway.
There’s a lot to love about Common Threads. But my favorite part? Finding Kelly Bowser and rummaging around in my purse to get my lil’ pouch so that I can hold it up and go, “Kelly! Kelly, look!” Last night, a bunch of us girls had a great conversation about the power of the handmade object. You never know where the things you make will end up. It’s wonderful. Not everything that comes in a gift bag stays so long, you know?
And it pays to take care of something: Kelly was delighted to see I’m still devoted to my pouch, but she made me write down my address so she could send me a new one. I’ll allow it. But I’m not tossing the original. She made it for me!
I had an experience yesterday that made me happy in my heart, though even as it was happening I thought, “Mary, you are so weird.” But I’m okay with being weird if it means moments like these.
On the way back from my infusion appointment yesterday, I felt all right. Actually, I felt pretty good. I decided to get a coffee for the bus ride home. It just so happened that the nearest place to go for a coffee was Nordstrom’s. I was right outside the doors! Nordstrom’s has a good cafe! Don’t look at me like that.
I went inside and noticed big red signs plastered everywhere announcing a one-of-a-kind, do-not-miss-this-or-you’ll-never-forgive-yourself sale (this happens a lot at Nordstrom’s.) Though I was in no mood to shop — really — I decided that after I got my coffee, I’d look at the handbags. There was a sale, after all, and I was iron-enriched. My evening would be simply be reading and writing and hanging out with my couch; some innocent designer handbag perusing before I headed home couldn’t hurt. Knowing me, it would help.
I made a beeline for the designer side of the handbag section. There was a wide table with a shallow lip full of bags of various sizes, all of them gorgeous. There were Alexander McQueen clutches embellished with Swarovski crystals and silk flowers. There were a couple structured leather Proenza Schouler satchels. There were Fendi totes. My heart went pitter pat as I looked through them all. I love a great bag.
But it wasn’t going to happen for me yesterday.
The bags, even at 40% off, were expensive. Like, slap-yo-mama expensive. What’s 40% off $2700? I don’t know, either, but that’s how much one of the satchels cost and I just don’t have that kind of scratch to drop on a purse right now. Oh, I’ve purchased some expensive handbags in my day. But I could count on one finger the number of times I’ve dropped [INSERT FIGURE HERE] on something that will soon contain exploding pens and smashed cashews and get kicked under my seat on my next Southwest flight.*
There was a Nordstrom’s clerk standing near the table. She was super pretty, a little older than me with white-blonde hair. Her job was to keep an eye on the merchandise, of course; those handbags were usually under glass or hooked to security cords. I greeted her and smiled; she smiled back.
Right before I decided to head out, I took a second look at a killer denim shoulder bag. It was Stella McCartney. A heavy, shiny chain ran up the sides and ran along the top. It was padded, but only slightly. It might not sound like much (puffy denim??) but trust me, this was one hot purse. Then I looked at the price: on sale at $830 dollars. Eight-hundred-thirty dollars! On sale! In that instant, I heard in my mind one of my all-time favorite lines from a movie:
“$830 dollars?! It’s not even leatha!”
It comes from Joan Cusack in Working Girl. Since so many readers love the exact same movies I do (Overboard, Baby Boom, etc.), I’ll bet many of you know this line, too. It happens when Melanie Griffith (Tess) is at her boss’s house, trying on her boss’s clothes. Tess’s friend Cynthia, played by Cusack, is with her. When Tess takes something off a hanger that still has the tag on it, Cynthia looks at the price, splutters, and says, in her thick Bronx accent, “Six-thousand dollas?? It’s not even leatha!” It’s so great.
Standing there with the Stella McCartney puffy denim handbag, I really had to laugh. And then I thought, “I’ll bet the clerk would laugh at this, too. Should I tell her?” I decided to roll the dice, a la my Uber tour of Savannah.
“You know,” I said, coming around to her side of the table. “I think you’ll appreciate this. One of my favorite lines in a movie comes from Working Girl. Have you seen it? Do you know what I’m talking about? Melanie Griffith? It’s an eighties movie.”
The clerk sized me up right away, like, “What is she saying? Why is she talking to me like she knows me? Is this woman safe to talk to? ”
There was no time to waste. I told, very quickly, about the line in the movie, how Joan Cusack looks at the price tag and goes, “It’s not even leatha!” and how I thought about it when I looked at the denim puff bag.
The clerk loved it. She legit laughed, as in threw-her-head-back and laughed at the line. “Oh, wow,” she said. “That is so good. It’s great. You have no idea how much merchandise we have in here that that line applies to. Thank you. Seriously, thank you for that.”
So there you go. I’m weird. I sidle up to store clerks and launch into lines from Melanie Griffiths movies from 25 years ago. I have no intention of stopping this kind of behavior as long as it makes sense. Making people laugh while they’re at work makes sense to me.
*I fully intend to be the sort of person who sees a handbag on a table like this and says to no one in particular, “Would [SISTER/FRIEND/MOM] like this?” and then promptly buys it without blinking. Be patient, sister/friend/Mom. I’m working on it.
It was such a great day at the quilt show, I almost forgot I was flying solo. I sold out of my books and met too many terrific humans to count, including Laurie, who brought me a present! She brought me a darling zipper pouch lined with Small Wonders fabric, that dear, dear woman. Until now, when I’ve signed/sold books, I’ve made change from an icky ol’ vinyl bank bag from OfficeMax. Because of Laurie, now I can make change like a champ. I love my little zipper pouch. Thank you, Laurie.
So I’m going to talk about limousines in a minute. First though, I have to tell you that I discovered a new love: I love giving quilt tours.
When the fine folks at Quilts, Inc. asked me if I wanted to lead a tour through the scrap quilt exhibit I co-curated at the show this year, I said yes because it sounded fun and also I would do anything for them because I love Quilts, Inc. very much. But I had now idea how much I would love giving that tour.* Diving into what was working in each quilt, how it was probably constructed, the history of the pattern, what the quilter was after, it meant this quilt nerd was flipping her flippers, splashing in a sea of quilts and quilt history and design insight. Henceforth, I would like to offer my services as a quilt tour guide. I have no idea what this means, but let’s book it, Carmen.
Okay, the limo thing.
I took the train out to the convention center today because the train was $2.25, whereas a cab would have been $50 and taxes and grad school and life are currently very much happening. What is also true is that I also just wanted the train time. I wanted to write in my journal, read for class, and gaze out the window for awhile. Happily, I did all three.
While gazing, I saw something that caused me to literally wince. Pulled onto the shoulder of the Kennedy Expressway, aka, I-90, was a stretch limousine with a flat tire. A white stretch limousine. Seeing it pulled over like that, inert, well… It drove home how I feel about the white stretch limo.
Hark: If you’re gettin’ hitched or you’ve got some insane bachelorette party and you’re just throwing everything at the wall, a white stretch limo might be a great choice for transport. I don’t know your life, your tastes, your reasons. I’m completely open to being convinced that a white stretch limousine is the Best Thing Ever. But you will need to work to convince me of this because in my personal experience, a white stretch limo is a little too conspicuous to be suave.
Several years ago, a fellow I was seeing offered to pick me up at the airport. He surprised me by picking me up in a white stretch limousine. Though I was touched by his generosity and the time he took to arrange it, I must admit I felt silly climbing into that thing. I think it was because it felt dated, somehow, like in order to get in and look good doing it, I needed to be smoking a Virginia Slims cigarette and rocking shoulder pads and a perm. And I’m a woman whose fashion icons are Jessica Lange in Tootsie and Diane Keaton in Baby Boom, so I would actually really love getting into a white stretch limo in the 1980s! But we’re not even in that century anymore, so it felt wrong. The prosecco was nice, though, and I was sure crazy about the fella.
Anyhow, seeing a white limo with a flat tire on the side of the freeway today brought back that memory and made me think about how a flat tire is bad, but a flat tire on a limo is way worse, so thank your lucky stars.
*Mom loved doing it, too. I think there is potential here for a new thing that we do. I’m totally serious and I also have no idea what this would look like.
I’m feeling weird about telling that harrowing tale straight out of the gate vis a vis my report on Savannah. Let me tell you something good.
After I had seen the strange thing, a wave of exhaustion passed over me; I needed to head back to my room. This would mean that I would need to find the ferry boat again and wait around for it with all those no-see-em bugs flying into my eyeballs. This did not seem like something I could physically manage, so looked to see how much it would cost for an Uber to take me from where I stood near Bay Street to my hotel at the convention center. When I found it would be a measly 11 bucks, I punched “Confirm Pickup” on my screen.
I have never had an Uber driver collect me in actual pickup, but within a few minutes, a young man named J.M. waved to me from inside a shiny black Silverado truck across the street.
“Mary Katherine?” he called in the best southern accent you’ve ever heard, making me glad my Uber profile uses my full name. I waved back, delighted to get to ride home in the cab of a pickup. You can take the girl out of Iowa but you can’t take the love of a good pickup truck out of the Iowa girl, trust me.
I was so happy to be off my feet and J.M. was a sweetheart, affably fielding the many questions I was asking him about Savannah. As he drove down Bay Street and we chatted, I looked out the window at the vibrant nightlife, the couples and families and packs of friends walking along the elevated strip. J.M. was so knowledgeable about everything and I loved getting the facts and figures in that accent:
“Yes, ma’am. Savannah’s the fourth lah-gist export city in the You-nahted Staits.” J.M. was really getting into the good stuff, stories about 19th century trade customs, population numbers, fascinating history. As we approached the street’s terminus, I felt seriously bummed that my Savannah escapade was going to end soon. Then, I had an idea.
What if I paid J.M. to drive me back up Bay Street and cruise the loop just once, just so I could see the whole stretch of it? I had 20 bucks in my wallet — was that enough? Would it be super, super weird to ask him to do that? I didn’t have much time. Up ahead, just one red light away, I could see the entrance to the bridge that would take me over the river and home to my hotel (and out of Savannah for who knows how long?)
A thought popped into my head and forced my decision: Frankly, I want to be the kind of person who offers her Uber driver 20 bucks to drive her around town for a minute. I just want to be that girl, you know? So, apologizing in advance for any weirdness and assuring him I was not a creeper, I asked J.M. if he’d take my money.
“Well, sure,” J.M. said, seemingly not that taken aback. “I’m happy to do that, ma’am. It’s funny you ask; my other job is working a tour boat down on Riverside.”
Yep. I got the nickel tour of Savannah from an actual, off-dutry tour guide in a pickup truck for the low-low price of 20 bucks. Not bad; and all I had to do was ask. (Well, and fork over a twenty.)
The drive was great. Between my own exploration on foot and hanging out with J.M., I definitely feel like I got a taste of Savannah. J.M., I told you I would blog about our trip when I got the chance and I gave you my card so that you could find PaperGirl and read it. I hope you’re seeing this so that I can say thank you once more.
Your car smelled great, by the way. As a regular Uber user, this is something I do not take for granted, sir.
Heaven knows why I remembered this the other day but there it was. Gather ’round, and I shall tell you about the time a man named Python made me calf’s head soup.
It was 2003. I was living with my friend Will on Winona and Broadway, working as a brunch waitress on the weekends and trying to get my freelance writing career off the ground. I was at the Green Mill poetry slam every week, doing high school poetry gigs here and there, and basically hustling, as 24-year-olds do, to make ends meet while trying my best to have some fun. I managed the first thing okay and boy did I nail the second part. I was a wild child that year, for better and (mostly) worse.
At the restaurant, I worked with Norma. One part Rizzo from Grease, two parts Anita from West Side Story, twice my age and fond of Misty ultra-slim cigarettes when she took her break, Norma was the best part of my job. I adored her. (I wrote a poem some years later about her and the mischief we would make when we went out on the town.) One Sunday, Norma and I finished our shift and met back up at a bar around the corner from my place. The Lakeview Lounge closed years ago, but it was a tiny, crummy, hole-in-the-wall staple in Uptown for many decades. There was a minuscule stage behind the bar where — and I say this with love — crusty burn-outs — would play Lynard Skynard while they sipped warm Michelob and chain-smoked Camel hard pack cigarettes. Because of course in 2003 in Chicago, you could still smoke in bars. Heck, maybe the Lakeview closed down after the smoking ban went into effect. That place was 10% furniture and people, 15% alcohol and 75% pure cigarette smoke, both fresh and stale. Without any smoke, maybe it just ceased to exist.
Anyway, that night, the bartender brought over a round of drinks. “From the gentleman over there,” he said. The bartender’s beard was scruffy but not in a sexy, scruffy-bearded bartender way; it was just scary. He jerked his thumb over to a man sitting at the far end of the bar nursing what Norma and I would learn was a generous shot of Jameson’s and a Budweiser back. The man was forty-something, we guessed and wearing a fisherman’s jacket that may or may not have contained fishing lures and/or bait.
Norma and I raised our glasses to thank the man; he raised his glass back. And because that was how things at the Lakeview Lounge worked (and that’s how these things work everywhere, I suppose, if certain conditions are right) over the course of the night, Norma and I got to know Python. His name really was Python. He was from Transylvania — as in Transylvania, Romania — and he was a world-famous pinball designer. Only in Chicago, baby, and maybe only if you hang out with me. Unusual things do tend to happen in my life; hanging out with a celebrity pinball designer from the place where Dracula was supposed to be from could be considered unusual, right?
I liked Python. He was funny, strange, and a real b.s’er, kinda like me back then. He was also the most talented illustrator I had ever met and he really was famous in the pinball/early video game world; if you remember the arcade game Joust — the one with the knights on ostriches — then you know Python. He was one of the lead artists on that game and many other famous ones that gamer geeks admire a great deal. He hung out at the Lakeview and Norma and I (sort of) hung out at the Lakeview and so over the course of the next few months, I got to know him and he would draw little drawings for me. We became friends and talked about art and politics. He told me about the horrors of living under communism; I recited poems for him, which he loved. He never tried to take advantage of me and even though he was much older than I was, I was never creeped out by him. In the spring, he asked me if I wanted to spend the weekend at his ranch in Michigan and I said I’d love to go.
This is the sort of thing, by the way, that makes me feel okay about not having children. I mean, how did my mother survive me literally saying following sentence: “Hi, Mom! I’m going to spend the weekend in Michigan with a guy twice my age from Transylvania. His name is Python. His accent is really terrific. He designs pinball games. See ya!”
But the weekend was great. Python was a real outdoorsman, so I got to shoot a bunch of guns. I ate bacon straight from the smokehouse he built on the property. There may have been live chickens, but it was a long time ago, now. And on Saturday morning, Python asked me if I had ever had calf’s head soup. I said that no, I had not had the pleasure. He got very excited and said that he happened to have a calf’s head handy, so dinner was settled. I felt very scared for the first time that weekend but I helped chop carrots and celery, anyway.
I would learn later that calf’s head soup is also called mock turtle soup and that it’s not so crazy to eat if you live in certain parts of the world (e.g., Romania) or if you were fancy and lived at any point during the Victorian-era in England or the U.S. when it was all the rage among the upper crust. All I knew at the time is that there were chunks of a dang cow head boiling in broth all afternoon and that the clock was ticking: I was going to have to eat the stuff at some point and eat it, I did — and more than just the head meat, too. You see, Python insisted I eat one of the eyes.
“Oh, that’s okay, haha,” I said, feigning an eyeball allergy. But he wouldn’t let me off the hook.
“It’s the best part of the animal,” he said, holding the thing up on a spoon. “Just eat it, Mary. It’s so good for you! You will feel like Supergirl! More Supergirl than you already are.”
I can be brave when I want to be. So I did it. I ate the eyeball. And wouldn’t you know it: I felt like Supergirl. It was all the phosphorous. And yes, it was really, really gross. It was like a hard-boiled egg except that IT WAS AN EYEBALL.
I’m sorry to say that Python died a few years ago. I can’t remember how I learned of his death; we hadn’t been in touch in a long time. He had cancer. An article I read told about how all his friends and fans from the pinball and illustration world rallied around him to raise money for his medical bills. I hope he felt all that love when he was sick.
Remember me, Python? That poet girl? I’ve come a long way. Thanks for the snack.
On Sunday evening, down in Houston for Quilt Market, I supped with several people from the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, which means that I got to be at a big, round table with some of my favorite people on the planet. I’m a member of the board and was invited to be there, but if I had had to pose as a waiter, I wouldn’t have missed that meal. However, because I also can’t miss office hours or class on Monday… I had to leave before dessert. It’s true: My flight out of Houston was 10 p.m. Sunday night. After risotto and Malbec. Gaaah.
(When people ask me how I get everything done, do you know what I say? I say, “It’s easy: I have no husband, children, pets, or plants. No one cares where I am.” That sounds awful, but it’s really okay.)
When I got to my gate at the airport, the World Series game was on, obviously. And because I was on a flight to Chicago, there were many people waiting to go home, just like me, which meant there were people whooping and hollering and drinking, watching the monitors. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to live in a town that could win — could actually win — the World Series for the first time in 108 years. Telling you what happened on the plane gets at it, maybe.
There was a bald man in his early sixties (it was hard to tell) sitting kitty-corner from my aisle seat. He was wiry, pretty short, and wore a Hawaiian shirt. His voice was so gravelly I think he must’ve been a pack-a-day guy. He had a cell phone that he was having a lot of trouble with as people finished boarding the plane and we waited for the crew to close the doors. Southwest has free on-board TV and the guy was trying to get on to see the score.
While we were at the gate, during the fourth inning, the score had been 2- 3, Cubs. Now, who knew?
“Miss! Miss, can you??” The guy waved at the stewardess several times while he stabbed away at his phone. The screen was so big I could see repeated error messages of various kinds. He wasn’t being rude about asking for help, but he was insistent and didn’t seem to have a single clue about how his phone (or the internet?) worked. I’ll admit it: Those of us around him, after 10 minutes of this, were getting a little exasperated.
“Are you online?” he asked his seat mates. They shook their heads. “How about you, did you get online? Did you get the score?” He was shifting in his seat, frustrated, then would be back at his phone. He started talking about the game to people and I picked up that they weren’t Chicagoans but Houstonians, possibly wary about going into Chicago for business this week.
The truth was, I was freaking out a little, myself. I don’t follow baseball. I’ve never been to a Cubs game, never even been inside Wrigley Field. Part of the reason for this is that Cubs fans can be very loud and there are a lot of them. Remember Lollapalooza? It’s the same problem. But when this World Series thing became real, it ceased to be a Cubs thing. It’s a Chicago thing, now. We all want this.
I pulled out my phone and took it off airplane mode for a second to see if I could get the score for him. I tapped him on the shoulder and showed him. “It’s still 2 – 3. Cubbies,” I said, and gave him a polite smile. “I have to turn this off now, though —”
Too late. He was already launching into this stat and that one, the odds of this, the odds of that. He had excuses ready for the Cubs if they lost that night (something about how no No. 1 team has won Game 5 after losing Game 2, etc.) and factoids about this or that player. I listened and nodded then politely said, “Well, I hope you can get online to see the score…” and smiled as I opened my laptop to communicate, “I am working, now.”
But I felt a pang of love for that guy.
He loves the Cubs. The Cubs are part of his life. They’re something he connects with his family. Or they represent or symbolize stuff. Maybe he used to play ball; maybe he never could. Maybe he actually lives in Wrigleyville. Maybe his parents took him to games, maybe his kids like the Cubs and he couldn’t care less about baseball but he loves his kids and loving the Cubs is a way he can feel close to them. Maybe it’s something else or all of the above. All sports fans have their reasons for loving their teams, but almost all sports fans count “Sometimes they win the big game” as one of their reasons for loyalty. Not Cubs fans. Their main resource is loyalty. You have to give them credit for that.
I secretly couldn’t keep my eyes off the guy’s stupid screen the whole time he was trying. He was at it a good 20 minutes more after we were airborne. In my mind (and under my breath) I was saying, “Come on, Cubbies. Come on, baby,” willing them to win, pleading with them. You can do this. When we get to Chicago, I thought to myself, we’ll learn the Cubs have won Game 5. (Honestly, I feel like if the Cubs win this whole thing, everything is gonna be okay. Like, everything. You know?)
Finally, the man got online. I could tell because the screen said, “You are now online. Enjoy live streaming TV courtesy of Southwest.” I looked away. I couldn’t take it. Please, Cubs.
He whirled around. Every muscle in his body was vibrating as he spoke to me and to everyone in the immediate vicinity. “They did it. The Cubs. They held ’em 3 to 2. They did it!”
I yelped. “They did?! They did!!!” I grabbed the man’s shoulder across the aisle. He leaned toward me with his arm out and we did this weird cross-aisle-male-female-stranger-hug and it was glorious, celebrating the Cubs win at 35,000 ft.
As I write, the boys are in the lead. The game is not over. The Series is not over. But I’m proud of my guys no matter what. Everything is gonna be okay! Fly the W!
I was walking with my pal Stephen a few weeks ago. We were both sweating because it was 87 degrees outside. We fantasized about the day when we could once again describe the air as “fresh” and “crisp” instead of “sorta like a wet gym sock.”
“Speaking of gym socks,” Stephen said, “I’ve got tickets to the first Bears home game on the 20th. You wanna go??”
Football is another reason Stephen likes when summer gives way to fall. He was never a sports fan growing up but fell in love with football a few years ago and now he’s really hooked.
Having never set a toe inside Soldier Field (I know — ridiculous!) and also being fond of spending time with Stephen, who is just a cool person, I said yes! I don’t have much time for diversions these days, but how could I say no to a Bears game? My first ever!
It was an incredible experience that I’d like to write about but not in this post. This post is about how I lost my wallet on the way home from the Bears game…and someone found it and returned it to me.
Here’s the thing about going to a big sporting event at Soldier Field: no purses or bags allowed. Well, that’s not entirely true: You are allowed to carry a purse/bag if it is a NFL-sanctioned, clear plastic bag that I’m sure costs $100. The only thing I’m less interested in doing than purchasing a $100 plastic bag is carrying the thing. With these cute shoes?? Are you crazy?? I decided I would leave everything at home and I put my license, debit card, and a $20 bill in this slim little black wallet and put it in my back pocket.
It was so weird to be out in the world with no purse. It almost ruined everything for me. A woman’s purse is her brain and I have lots of things in my purse. Eventually, I relaxed into the experience and watched big, beefy dudes kick a little ball around fake grass and I really enjoyed it. Until I got home last night and realized: no wallet.
Oh, I wept. I wept and gnashed my teeth. How could I have been so dumb? Did it fall out in the stadium? Or in the pedicab on the way back to drop off Stephen? Did it fall out on the street before I went into my building? I was really sunk because in less than 24 hours, I was set to rent a car to drive to Oshkosh to teach and lecture! I would have to go to the DOT and get a new license. Needless to say, I did not sleep well.
This morning, I opened my laptop with a heavy heart to check the hours of the DOT and of course clicked open my email to see if anyone had given me some sort of Lifetime Achievement Award overnight. And there, better than any Lifetime Achievement Award, was an email from Ryan B:
“Hello, Mary: I believe I have your wallet. I found it last night on the sidewalk outside of Shedd Aquarium. Please contact me at 123-456-7890. Thank you, Ryan.”
Ryan and his wife were riding bikes out at the Museum Campus where Soldier Field, the Shedd, the Field, the Planetarium, etc., are located. They spotted a little black square on the sidewalk — amidst a sea of people! — and they picked it up.
I made strange sounds of joy and gratitude. I wept. I called Ryan. I babbled thank you, thank you at him and praised his True Goodness and possibly weirded him out when I said, “Mister, you’d better tuck those angel wings into your jacket before you go to work!” and then he told me he’d give my wallet to his receptionist and I could come by anytime today and get it. His office is downtown; it was a 10 minute bike ride from my Literary Animal class at school. I had my wallet back — debit card, $20 bucks, and license intact — before 1:00 p.m.
When I spoke to Ryan, I asked him if he had any food allergies because I’d really like to give him a treat, a reward for returning my wallet. He protested:
“No, no. No reward needed. What goes around comes around, you know?”
He’s right — but no way was I not gonna do something nice for this guy. Rather than treats, I decided on a Starbucks card. If I had buckets o’ money, I would’ve gone in for $100 and really wowed him; instead, I put $20 on the card, the exact amount I thought I’d lost forever.
Thank you, Ryan. You did a Very Good Thing and I thank you. We all do!
After a spectacular day at the Pine Needle Quilt Shop today — wow, wow, wow — I got to the airport with time to get something to eat.
Oh, Geri, Jim, and the amazing folks at the Pine Needle tried to feed me. The event was catered, even, with tasty boxes for the attendees that contained mini-quiches, scones with lemon curd, fruit, and a sugar cookie in the shape of my logo. But when you’re signing books, smiling for photos, chatting with quilters, and telling stories about stuff, even if you can get food into your mouth, you’re not gonna have time to chew it. It’s best to wait.
Once I found my gate, I decided to get some pizza at the make-a-pizza place. It’s great. You can put whatever you want on your pie, no extra charge, load it up, go for it, baby, we’re Portland! As my margherita pizza was baking in the wood-fired oven, the gentle hipster asked me if there would be anything else — wine or beer, perhaps?
Now there was an idea. At 3 p.m. it was a little early in the day, but I had more than delivered at two different jobs, I was no longer on the clock, I love red wine with pizza, and I’m a grown woman with an electric bill and student loans.
“I’d love a red wine,” I said to the kid. He actually said: “Right on!”
He hands me my wine — which, true to that groovy Portland vibe came in a plastic cup with the pizza place logo on it — and I pay. I turn to walk to the counter to get napkins and red pepper. I take two steps…and slip and fall.
The floor was slick. My sandals are slick on the bottom. Gravity is weird. Portland has invisible moss all over it. I could try and figure out why I slipped, but it matters not: I went down. Everything happened in .03 seconds but I remember much of it: the spluttering in shock, the way the wine in my glass shot up in a column of red, the gasp of the crowd — oh, there was a huge crowd of people around, naturally — as they saw me turf out.
Later, the girl nearest to me would say with admiration, “You really stuck the landing.”
She was right! I only went down as far as one knee and I kept my wine cup in hand the whole time. Nothing spilled out of my purse or totebag. But the wine had gone everywhere: the counter, the floor, all over my right arm. My first thought was not, “Have I broken a bone?” but “Great — I am going to spend the rest of the day smelling like the janitor’s closet at a Napa Valley winery.”
The gentle hipster was at my side right away. When it was established that I was okay and I had turned to the crowd — the crowd! — to announce this, my guy offered to pour me another cup of wine. This time, I did not deliberate. He gave it to me along with my pizza, which was now done, and I turned, gravely, to return to the task of getting my napkins.
The other kid working the place was cleaning up the wine spill on the counter. He turned to me and asked, “Do you want the rest of this?” gesturing to my nearly empty original cup. I laughed and said “Sure,” trying to be sort of insouciant about all this, casual, giving off a “Hey, I fall all the time, this is what I do for fun!” kind of easy-going attitude. I put my napkins in my purse and when the kid gave me my original cup, he had filled it back up.
“Oh!” I said. “You’re so sweet. But your buddy already refilled me.” I did not need two cups of wine.
The kid looked at me and back at the wine and over at the other cup of wine near my pizza box. He shrugged. “You can have this, too, it’s okay.”
Walking carefully, now with a small pizza box, a purse, a totebag, and two plastic cups of wine, I made my way to a table in the foot court area in Terminal C. I sat down. I enjoyed my pizza. And I had just a couple sips of wine, but I didn’t linger. Because all I could think of was some family that had seen me fall looking at me from across the expanse of tables, the mother shaking her head and saying:
“You see that woman? That pathetic, pathetic woman who fell? She’s drinking two cups of wine, kids. Two cups of wine all by herself in the middle of the day. I’ll bet that’s not the first time she’s embarrassed herself in public. I’ll bet she goes back for more when she’s done. Okay, Braden, let’s text Grandma and let her know our flight’s on time.”
Atención: If you’re squeamish, this post will be tough. Also, I intend to uncharacteristically employ a curse word today as it’s the appropriate word to use in the context.
There were three words that kept going through my mind on Saturday morning during the birth of Julia: “It’s just bodies.” I found myself entirely unshaken by the display of skin and a variety of fluids that came and went during Heather’s delivery. In order to explore why that was, I have to take you back a few years.
When I had my colon and a few other choice organs removed in in 2008, I was given an ileostomy, which means a piece of my small intestine was pulled out through a hole in my abdomen and that’s how I pooped. They tucked it back in after about a year, but then I crashed and burned again and had a second ostomy. All in, I was an ostomate for about three years.**
An ileostomy looks like a red cherry tomato a couple inches to the right or left of your belly button, depending on where they pulled out that piece of entrail. It’s got the texture of a canned red pepper: slick, shiny, and bright red. Now, because it’s your large intestine that sucks the liquid from your food and drink, if you don’t have one, your stool is loose. Always. It’s loose when you have an ileostomy and it will remain that way for the rest of your life. (You’re welcome.) This means your little cherry tomato ileostomy spits shit and liquid into a bag. You have no control over your cherry tomato; there is no sphincter, only the mouth of the thing, so you are incontinent. The really wild part is because of the peristaltic waves, when your cherry tomato is active, it undulates ever so slightly and surges forward when it — well, it looks like it’s vomiting. But wait, some of you are wondering, how could did I see it do that if it was doing that into a bag? When I took a shower, of course, or when I was changing my bag and it decided to go for it. Or when I had an accident. Which happened many times.
Still with me? You’re doing great.
On Saturday morning, witnessing my friend on the bed, every humour she had arriving in full color and her most intimate body parts on display, I became aware of my nonplussed-ness. It was mostly that way because it was childbirth and modesty is on no one’s mind in that situation, most of all Mama’s. But I realized it was also my past experiences with muck, blood, and surgery that made it only interesting, not gross or immodest in the slightest. (The really great thing is that there was no pus involved in the list of Heather’s goo and that’s great. I know from pus — and that is possibly the strangest group of words I’ve ever put together.)
My eyes did get a little wider when I saw them attach to the table the conical plastic bag to catch the placenta and the rest of the afterbirth. As they were stitching up Heather and weighing Julia in the bun warmer, as Sam was wearing one of the most beautiful faces I’ve ever seen, I tiptoed over to the bucket with the placenta in it. I didn’t look too close, though; I have my limits.
It’s just bodies. We all have a body. We fart and pee. We eat and grow hair. We have hard calcium coming out of our fingers and toes, weird, hard pegs of tooth in a moving jaw. We have a brain stem and genitals. We have a heart. The sum total of these parts — some of us have more parts than others, some less, all in different stages of ability and function and size — make us human.
It’s just bodies. Just mortal, just cosmic, just incredible. Tomorrow: Julia herself.
**The same warning above most definitely applies to this post and this one that give you the full, bleak story of all that if you’re interested. I recommend setting aside your snack.)
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.
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.
At the hotel in St. Cloud on Friday, I saw two high schoolers in prom attire headed toward the restaurant. The girl had chosen a red sequined dress and there was a corsage pinned on it; her date was in a tux with a matching corsage.
As I passed them, I smiled a friendly smile and said to the girl, “You look sopretty. Have fun, you guys!” She beamed and her date stood up a little straighter. I know how pretty she felt and also how awkward they both were. A compliment couldn’t hurt.
When tell you I went to prom all four years of high school, that should not in any way lead you to think I was so exceedingly popular or pretty the boys in high school were counting the days until I entered Winterset Senior High School so they could bum rush me and fight for the opportunity to take me to the dance. That was hilariously not the case. It’s just that my freshman year, one of my closest friends was a junior, and he was gay, and he needed a date that year. (Our prom was open to juniors and seniors.) I accepted his cordial invitation that year and the next year, too; he was still gay and he needed a date again. We goofed off and had fun with the rest of the choir kids only he had a cummerbund and I curled my hair weird.
My junior year was the only year I nabbed a hot date: Jed. I have no idea how that happened. Did I ask him? I think I did, actually. Jed was more popular than me. Tall. Funny. Cute. He could’ve gotten another date; I must have caught him at a weak moment in choir practice. (Clearly, high school choir is the place to get a prom date.) I got lucky twice that year (not like that!!!) because someone at the town paper, The Madisonian, decided to do a story on a couple going to the prom that year. Who do you suppose they picked? Me and Jed. I couldn’t tell you why on Earth they did, but in the 1996 Madisonian archives is a picture of us in full prom attire on my mother’s staircase, me smiling so hard my teeth are about to break. Jed didn’t kiss me, by the way. I know!
But my real senior prom was the best. I went with my girlfriends Annie, Leia, and Jennifer. I got my dress at the Goodwill. It was mint green polyester with embroidered flowers at the neckline. I wore a hot Uma-Thurman-In-Pulp-Fiction wig, except it was red, so it went great with the dress. We danced like crazy to Abba. We monkeyed around for the photographer. We defied the entire “Who are you going to the prom with?” protocol by refusing everyone and going with our dang selves.
Now that I’m thinking of it: when did prom start happening this late in the year? Maybe those kids on Friday were on a real date. If kids that young are going to charity balls or black-tie political fundraisers in St. Cloud, MN, I need to reexamine what I thought I knew about St. Cloud, MN. Whatever they were doing that night, I hope they behave themselves.
When I was at home in Iowa last week, my mother called up the stairs: “Mary? I have something funny to give you!” I am always interested in getting funny things, so I immediately put down my book and went downstairs.
“Katy gave these to me,” Mom said, handing me two certificates on heavy cardstock. “She found them going through some boxes. I guess Mrs. Esser asked Katy to give them to you but she forgot. Isn’t that funny? They’re from 1996!”
Katy is my second mom in Winterset; she taught in the school system there for many years. Mrs. Esser was my high school speech and drama coach. Both are extremely responsible women, fully invested in the well-being of every last one of their students, so it’s funny that the certificates never got to me. I don’t remember being frantic about not getting them, so Katy coming across them was indeed amusing and gave me a chance to reflect on my footloose n’ fancy-free days competing in high school speech contests.
Little known fact: I was on the cheerleading squad heading into my freshman year. I knew I was lying to myself and everyone else about this cheerleading business, but I was barely fourteen; how could I know my life? How did I even know how to read at that point? But on the second day of school I saw a flyer: “FALL PLAY AUDITIONS.” My heart raced. The very next day, I left cheerleading practice early, tried out, got a part, and put up my pom-poms forever. I was in love. Leaving cheerleading for The Stage (!) is possibly the only decision in my life I can point to and say “That was unequivocally the right decision.” Everything after that is debatable.
I was hooked, but outside the fall play and the spring musical, the only other outlet for saying stuff to an audience was debate (check) and speech contest; there was no drama club, no community theater in town. So along with some beautiful, geeky, awkward, brilliant friends, I competed in the statewide speech/drama competitions in categories like acting, group ensemble, poetry recitation, extemporaneous speaking, improv, radio announcing, etc.
Our group would travel with Mrs. Esser around the state to Creston or Valley or Roosevelt High along with hundreds of other students and their coaches. The schools would camp out on the gym floor and eat Twizzlers and drink Mt. Dew while each student went to do her or his bouts throughout the day. We’d all wait in physical pain until the clerks came and posted the scores. If you got three 1’s, you went to All-State. I went to All-State a bunch of times and I’m pretty sure I got awards there, too, but obviously the certificates or distinctions were not of lasting importance. What those competitions did was give me a sense of self, a feeling that I had something worth cultivating, a reason to keep reading books, to keep writing poems, to keep learning lines by heart. To keep trying my best, I think, is something I learned doing that for four years.
I threw both of these long-lost certificates away once I scanned the one here into my computer. I’ve lived this long without them and I’ve been all right. Besides, with all these pictures of me on the 1993 J.V. Winterset Huskies cheerleading squad, there’s just no room on the wall…
POST SCRIPT FROM THE EDITORS: The elegant and shrewd Ms. Joan Millman Schnadig pointed out to me that this certificate is exactly twenty years old to the day. June 3rd, 1996 is the date on the certificate — and it’s June 3rd, 2016. I actually wrote this last night, but if you account for the orbit of the Earth and entropy and all, this award was signed exactly twenty years ago today. Fabulous!
Something disturbing happened today. The nature of what happened made me extremely uncomfortable and on top of that, I’m disturbed by the larger implications of what happened.
On my flight home from Iowa today, I cracked open my laptop to work on the next Quilt Scout column. I’ve been thinking I should write about the time I flamed out teaching a class at the 2013 QuiltCon, how much I learned from that experience, and how without that disastrous class, I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today. At the top of the open document on my computer I titled the piece, “On Failing As a Teacher.” I drafted three or four paragraphs and it seemed to be shaping up with no major problems, so I closed my eyes to catch a quick snooze. I woke to the flight attendant tapping me on the shoulder to put my laptop away because we were in our final descent. Perfect.
When we came to a stop, before they opened the pod bay doors, the man to my left leaned toward me like he was going to say something to me. It was almost imperceptible, but I am a perceptive person, so I noticed it. But he said nothing and I thought, “That was weird.” But right when our row was free to leave, he did say something:
“You know, I think you’d be a wonderful teacher. I can tell you’re a very insightful, sensitive person. I don’t think you’d fail at teaching, even if you did in the past.” He didn’t really look me in the eye. He didn’t introduce himself. He didn’t say, “Listen, I’m sorry, but I saw something on your computer and…” No, he got right to the point.
I can’t remember the last time I mumbled. I avoid mumbling. But I was so flummoxed, so caught off guard and utterly uncomfortable, I mumbled: “I… Well, I am a teacher, I… I’ve been teaching a long time… This was –” and then I stopped because I could not compute this. He had read my computer screen. While I was asleep. He read my screen and read it so completely, so thoroughly, he could comment on the story I was drafting. I didn’t need to explain what it was he had read.
Look, I’m going to tell you straight: I was disgusted by this. I didn’t think it was nice. I didn’t feel it was a point of entry for conversation. It was a violation of my privacy. Even when you’re squished together with people on an airplane a person still has her personal space. A furtive glance at someone’s screen or a peek at what book they’re reading; that’s normal. But he read three paragraphs of what I was writing. While I was sleeping. I felt like I needed a shower. He was a few paces ahead of me as everyone walked toward baggage claim; I could’ve caught him to tell him what a creeper he was, but I did not want to engage this person further.
But here’s the lingering problem: if I had found him attractive, would I be upset? This man was not my type. At all. He was unattractive to me in a myriad of ways. But if Andy Garcia in TheGodfather III had said, “I think you’d be a wonderful teacher” and “I can tell you’re a very insightful, sensitive person” would I be using words like “violate” and “disgusted”?
When I ask these Big Questions I get scared that I have wandered into some hoary, post-modern dialectic and that my multiple blind sides are going to out me as a pathetic, politically incorrect waste of space who is so clueless she can’t be salvaged. But I can’t be scared to ask: if that man had looked like Andy Garcia, would I feel the same way? What does that say about me? Is it wrong? How come this stuff matters? And I don’t want to undercut these legitimately confusing-for-me questions by being flip, but also: have we confirmed that Andy Garcia in The Godfather III is an actual human and not a hologram of physical perfection and smoldering sexiness created to make me swoon and die with hormone overload?
It’s good to be home, but it’s so weird that Claus isn’t here.