Not ready to talk about the doctor just yet, so for now, a funny story.
A few weeks ago, I was at the airport (LaGuardia?), standing in line for coffee. In front of me was a woman holding a baby of about a year, I’d say. The kid wasn’t verbal yet, just very wiggly, very active. Nearby the woman was the rest of the family; they were from somewhere in the Mediterranean. Malta, maybe. There was Dad, Gramma and Grampa, two more small kids, and everyone needed something. The woman with the baby was trying to communicate to the staff behind the counter that she needed coffees and pastries, but things were not going well.
Dad called over to his wife from the center of the melee, apparently overhearing what she had said to the coffee gals. “No, honey, I need one more coffee — black, and no sugar in the other one,” he said, as the little boy tugged on his sleeve.
The wife turned her head over her shoulder and asked her husband, exasperated, “So that’s three coffees, then? Total? Or two?”
As they figured things out, I waited patiently and looked at the baby, who was reaching for the breakfast and candy bars piled in a nearby basket. She was attracted to the shiny, pretty colors and probably the sound of the wrapper when her tiny fingers made contact. She succeeded in grabbing a Special K bar. I was impressed. The mother turned back to tell the coffee girl what she needed, noticed the baby had grabbed a bar. She took it out of her hand, and put it back in the basket.
Once the coffee had been ordered (wrong again, I feared) there was an issue with a breakfast sandwich. The gal asked if the woman wanted egg and cheese or egg and bacon and cheese. The woman turned her head and called to her mother, this time in their native tongue. I’m pretty sure her question was something like, “Do you want egg and cheese or egg and bacon and cheese?”
And as she did this, she was looking away — and the baby grabbed a candy bar again.
The woman turned back to tell the clerk bacon and she saw that the baby had another candy bar. She took it out of her child’s hand and she said, “Stop it,” and replaced it again. It was pretty funny, this pattern, like a comedy routine. I was entertained enough to keep my annoyance at bay. This coffee was taking a long time.
Money finally changed hands and, naturally, wrong change was given. Dad got involved and the kids started fighting and everything was extra chaotic. When the woman and her husband had finished arguing with the staff about the change (not) given, the wife whirled around, annoyed, to walk away from the counter once and for all. And wouldn’t you know it, but that baby grabbed her Special K breakfast bar right at the last second — and the mother didn’t notice a thing. The baby just “swoop!” swiped that bar after all. I covered my mouth with my hand and turned my head to laugh. She did it! She got one!
In fact, I faced a moral dilemma. Should I have gone to the mother and tapped her on the shoulder to say, “Um, excuse me, but your baby just stole something.” That seemed a little much. Should I have told the clerks at the counter? Nah — I’m not into reporting babies. I decided to do nothing, figuring that maybe the mom would notice they had an extra treat, though it’s quite possible she never did; there was a lot going on for that family that morning.
Our New York City days have been so good. When he comes in the door in the evening, I leap up and run to him. I always like to look pretty when he arrives. Dinner will be almost ready or I’ll have been baking cinnamon rolls, his new favorite treat. He calls them “cinni-minis.” I jotted down the recipe and taped it to the cabinet above the stove and it says, “Yuri’s Cinni-Mini’s” and there are hearts and frosting smears all over the paper.
We have a mouse in the apartment. Naturally, we named him Mickey. Neither of us are really okay with Mickey being there but neither one of us wants to buy a trap. Maybe if Mickey started paying rent we could get comfortable with him running past on the parquet floor every once in awhile, at night, when I’m reading and Yuri is finishing up work for the day.
All this rigmarole. The fears. Atlanta. Taping the TV show. New medicine that has freaking nitroglycerine in it. I made an appointment with my surgeon in Chicago because she has operated on me a lot. New York is full of smart doctors but I think it’s wise at this juncture to speak to the lady who has had her hands in my abdomen on three separate occasions.
The worst case scenario is that I was misdiagnosed in 2008 and I actually have Crohn’s disease. (That would mean an already colon-less me would begin small-intestine re-sectionings.) The best case scenario is that I am how I am now, which appears problematic.
Last night, I let my mom’s dog Scrabble sleep with me in the bed. I’m mostly against animals in my bed (unless you take me to dinner first — hey-o!) but Scrabble is squeaky clean and very soft, with short, white curly fur. She looks and feels like a lamb. Scrabble is a miniature Golden Doodle and she can shake, roll over, and fetch three different toys by name, but she still jumps up on people when she sees them because she is so excited to have friends.
When she was a puppy, I would lay her on her back and give her a puppy massage. She was very hyperactive, being a happy puppy, but I would flip her on her back and use my fingers to do a puppy version of a deep tissue massage and she would just totally conk out. She loved it. It got so I would say, “Scrabble? You wan’na puppy massage?” and she would get this look like, “Is this seriously going to happen right now?” And I’d massage her little chicken wings and that’s how I fell in love with her, down on the floor of the living room, smiling at her happy puppy face, burying my face in her fur.
I don’t know how the story came up today, but somehow it did. I’m going to tell it to you now, and you should know two things before I begin:
1. The story involves boobs and I have to call them “boobs” because the word is part of the story;
2. I asked my younger sister for permission to write this up. When you’re telling a story about someone else’s bosom [<— see? no] you ought to ask first. A rule to live by.
Years ago, my younger sister Rebecca and I were on Washington Island, enjoying long, hazy days of summer vacation. We swam at the beach, read book after book in patio chairs on the the deck, ate candy bars and mac n’ cheese, etc. I was in the first half of high school, I think, which would’ve put my sister at the tail end of junior high.
Rebecca and I shared a room in the cabin we occupied that summer. Now, my family — me, my older sister, my younger sister, and my mom — is a loving, open one, emotionally-speaking. If you have a problem, you can talk about it and you will get a decent hug. But my mother is extremely modest and that modesty was passed onto her daughters while we lived under her roof. This is neither good nor bad, it just is. I don’t know about my sisters these days — I should ask them — but at some point I rebelled against this modesty and now wonder at times if I’m not a bit of an exhibitionist; I fling off my yoga clothes with glee and couldn’t give a flip if the shade is up or down. I kind of like it when its up.
Anyway, when Rebecca and I were sharing that room that summer**, we were respectful of each other’s privacy and gave each other a wide berth. If one of us was getting dressed, the other would get dressed in the bathroom. Privacy, space — my family respects these things and anyway, ew?? Naked sister?? Grody to the max.
But one afternoon we were changing out of our swimsuits and we ended up in our room at the same time and didn’t care. Maybe our older sister was hogging the bathroom, maybe we were rushing to get to the drive-in ice cream place before it got dark out. All of a sudden, mid-change, we decided to see who had bigger boobs.
“I think mine are bigger,” I said, my sweatshirt halfway on. We had not yet decided to actually compare chest size.
“I don’t know,” my sister said, holding up her bra, swimsuit still on. “Mine might be bigger.” There was, perhaps surprisingly, no competition between us on the issue as I remember it; we were just genuinely curious.
“Maybe we’re the same,” I said, and then, with wide eyes, “Do you want to actually see if we are? Like, should we look??”
And then, with much giggling, my sister and I got in front of the full-length mirror — careful to put plenty of space between us — and decided on the count of three that we’d yank up our respective shirts and compare boobs. Which is just what we did.
“One, two, THREE!”
We were about the same, as it turned out. And neither of us was expecting to be shocked or scandalized, but I think we were both surprised how not a big deal it was to see each other’s boobs. It was like, “Oh, sure. Boobs.” (I can only imagine how different the boys down the road would’ve reacted to such a display. A slightly different reaction, one imagines.)
But then something horrifying happened — and this is why the story gets told in my family all the time, why it turned into a catchphrase for us. My sister and I figured we had to examine from the sides, not just the front, obviously. We had a perspective issue from the front. But we did not have a plan in place for this profile view. So there we are, looking in the mirror, cocking our heads this way and that to figure out which Fons girl was ampler, and I go, “Okay, turn to the side and let’s see from the side,” and my sister, who is on my left, turns to her right. I turn to my left, and that’s when it happened: Our boobs made contact.
“AAAAAGHHHHHHHHH!” my sister screamed, jumping away from me so fast and far she practically hit the wall on the other side of the room. She made a sound like a dying goose and cried, “BOOB TOUCH!!!”
“AAAAAAGGGHHHHH!” I screamed, recoiling like a cocktail shrimp, grabbing my sweatshirt, gasping, making gagging sounds and generally making a scene. We were laughing so hard we could hardly breathe because “boob touch” was hilarious and we were totally grossed out, too. Aside from the fact that we had just TOUCHED BOOBS, we had touched clammy, post-beach, wet swimsuit boobs, so they kind stuck together for the split second that we made contact.
“BOOB TOUCH!!!! AAAAAGGHHHHHHH!” We continued to gasp and splutter and I’m sure we ran (now fully clothed, of course) to tell the story to Hannah and Mom immediately. To this day, I can make myself laugh just by making a face of teenage horror and yelling “BOOB TOUCH!!! AAAAAGHHHHH!” and I’m pretty sure my sister can do the same. It’s one of my favorite Fons sister stories.
What do you think, sis? Did I get it right?
**I’m sure that annoyed us both, but as I think back on it now, I feel a sweet pain in the general vicinity of my solar plexus; I’d give a lot, actually, to have a snapshot showing how we shared that room at that time. Did she read in her bed longer than I did? Did we laugh after the lights were off, even a little? I hope so.
For many years she talked about writing it, but now she’s actually doing it. She’s workshopping chapters, attending writing groups (one of which she started herself because that’s what you do when you’re Marianne Fons), and she’s a sponge for information on how to go from idea to page, from page to accepted manuscript, from publication to the paperback rack in every airport Hudson News from here to Bejing. If anyone can write a novel (and not many can) my mother can.
I also have an idea for a novel — but I have almost zero desire to write it. Though I applaud my mother’s efforts and support this particular flavor of The American Dream, I have reason to believe writing a novel is not fun. I wrote a one-woman show and it nearly killed me. Hemingway shot himself in the head. One of my favorite essayists, Joseph Epstein wrote in the New York Times in 2002:
“Without attempting to overdo the drama of the difficulty of writing, to be in the middle of composing a book is almost always to feel oneself in a state of confusion, doubt and mental imprisonment, with an accompanying intense wish that one worked instead at bricklaying.”
Still, the dream to write a novel has its pull. There have been three occasions in my life when I shared my storyline with someone (we all have to listen to our friends’ novel ideas, sometimes) and each time that happened, the concept of actually writing the dang thing got goosed.
Here’s the idea:
The book opens at the height of the Chinese Opium War. It’s the 1830s. Chaos. Death. Opium dens. Dirty deals. Murder. Money. It’s quite the moment in human history. The story is set in Brittain, China, points far flung; this is a global adventure. Ship voyages, train voyages. The book is written in the third person and we get POVs for anyone and everyone, but the meat of the story follows Josephine Ella (not settled on that name, yet) as she rises to become the most powerful madam on two continents! Two really big continents!
She’s this brilliant businesswoman whose whole goal is to help her fellow countrywoman rise out of poverty. Is she going about it all wrong with the whole brothel thing? Yes, except that all her “girls” are healthy and have their own money and she encourages them to leave as soon as they can and make a life for themselves. Anyway, she’s got a heart of gold, naturally, and everyone loves her.
There’s a love triangle! There’s a super high-up executive in the East India Company who falls in love with her and promises her riches beyond her wildest dreams, but he has to compete with the general in the British Army who is also in love with her. And then there’s an opium trader who is also in love with her. But Josephine actually pines for her childhood sweetheart, the boy who saved her from certain death when she was abandoned by her mother and we find out Josephine is adopted! And then she gets addicted to opium!! But then she gets better!
And that’s like, the first book. Then there’s the second book, which is the prequel. The third book is the continuation of the first book, and then you’ve got all the spin-offs.
The movie will be amazing. The costumes? I mean can you imagine? Fughettaboudit.
Have I said, explicitly, what’s happening? Does anyone know what’s going on? Am I just dashing off posts with no regard for my readers, kind, hard-working people who can’t possibly follow where I am in the world at any given time, why I’m there, or when it all might shore up? Would it be wise to debrief you and, in debriefing, might I find much needed answers for myself?
Is it ever good to lead off with a list of questions like that?
I am moving to New York City.
I own a home in Chicago that is dear to me. Thus, I do not see this move to New York City as being permanent or even long-term, if you’re using my entire (hopefully long) life as the measure. But as you can’t be a little bit pregnant, you can’t slightly have three people that are not you move into your home or kinda move operations halfway across America into an apartment on St. Mark’s that you’re a little bit renting. As I write this, in view are boxes of belongings that will go into storage, go to Goodwill, or come with me to New York. There is no halfway, here, no semi-move, even if I see New York as a kind of interstitial thing. I am faced with a choice and I have chosen to relocate, at least for the next year. And why?
“Why not?” is an acceptable answer, as ever, but there’s more. Look:
1) Why not?
2) Yuri and I fell in love. Four months later, he got his dream job and moved to New York. Not being together is not an option. I’m mobile, he’s not. Look at it this way.
3) The safe choice (try long-distance, stay here, risk nothing) is rarely the most interesting one.
4) New York City, though it’s cool to hate it these days, is still New York $&@#! City and I wanna see.
Yuri came to Chicago day before yesterday to help me and he is helping, though he can’t pack up my fabric stash, exactly. Mostly, it’s moral support I’m getting — moral support and bear hugs so good I’m moving to $&@#! New York City.
We were at the big table yesterday, drinking miso soup from styrofoam cups, eating takeout sushi. There is no time to cook, no sense in making more work with pans or bowls or spoons. There’s so much to do here and so little time before work deadlines crush us both. It’s all happening at the same time. It always does.
“It is insane,” I said. “People will think I’m insane. I can hear it. ‘But she just lived through a renovation! She just did her kitchen and bathroom! That’s crazy!'”
Yuri opened his eyes wide. “Do you really think people will think that?”
I shrugged. “Probably some people will. But I’m not going to say no to love because I like my backsplash.”
And then my eyes opened wider because what had popped out of my mouth was the truth, and the truth gave me the ability to keep packing.
If all goes according to plan, three medical students will be renting my home very soon. I met them last night and I like them a lot.
I like the idea of three big brains living here, mainlining coffee, charging their phones, putting their scrubs in a hamper. My home is a good place to be (good vibes, true story) and my fondest wish is that these folks will be better doctors later because they lived here. They’ll be able to say:
“Remember our second year, you guys? That amazing apartment we had? Yeah… That was cool. Got me through Musculoskeletal Systems II.”
Then one of them will say:
“Can you believe that chick renovated her bathroom and kitchen and then freaking moved?”
And somewhere, far, far away, I will weep.
When they came to see the place, one of the gang arrived before the others and we had some time to chat. This pleased me a great deal. I have never known anyone in medical school until now, unless you count the army of interns and residents I have interacted with over the course of my being sick, which I don’t. But I’ve always been so curious about what med school is like, why a person chooses it, and how it all happens, from undergrad to loans to residencies to actual jobs. There in my own living room, I suddenly had the chance to talk to a pre-doctor about all that. I tried not to interrogate.
“Did you always know you wanted to be a doctor?”
“Are you driven by a deep love of practicing medicine?”
“Do you enjoy it?”
“Is there a secret form you have to fill out to eventually get that doctor look and smell?”
“What’s the hardest part?”
The young man was thoughtful in all his replies. (I didn’t actually ask him about the doctor smell, but I so wanted to.) The last question got me a great story, too. Here’s basically what he told me; I may have gotten some of the technicalities funky, but it’s definitely the gist. NOTE: Squeamish readers proceed with caution.
“Honestly, it can be extremely tedious. I was on a brain-bleed case not long ago. We removed a piece of the skull — well, the residents and the surgeon did. As a student, you’re not doing any of this, you’re just watching. From about seven in the morning till almost one o’clock in the afternoon, we stood there and just watched as the resident used a teeny, tiny tool to deliver a zap that cauterized bleeding blood vessels.
He’d see blood, zap it, wipe. Wait. See blood, zap, wipe. Over and over again, but there was less blood coming over those hours, so we were just standing there and watching this process. I finally had to leave, and the other students were like, ‘But they’re about to screw the skull back on!’ and I was like, ‘I’m good,’ and I went and got lunch.”
He also told me that when a piece of the actual brain is taken out and needs to be saved for later, they store it in your abdomen. Your abdomen is like a damn locker for your brain. Oh, the humanity. Oh, my.
I secretly hope they have awesome doctor parties here.
Not even the spring weather, cartoonish in its perfection, could zap the cloud floating just above my head. It’s luxury problems: I feel out of shape because constant travel keeps me from regular exercise. Expense reports need done. I’m leaving Chicago in the morning for two solid weeks; I’ll see D.C., New York, and Pittsburgh before I see my home toothbrush again. But more than any of this, I was low because Yuri and I had an argument last night. Instead of things looking clearer in the morning, “things” looked crummy. I woke up feeling very bad, indeed, and nothing scheduled in the day ahead convinced me this would change.
Part of my ridonkulously long list of tasks to complete included the shipping of twelve — twelve! — rather large boxes to the winners of a recent Quilty giveaway. I do not have a car or an assistant, so shipping these boxes meant that I would need to haul them in batches by hand or small shopping cart — on foot, now — to the UPS Store several blocks away. It’s okay. I got this. No, no, I got this.
Dropping two boxes on the sidewalk by the 7-Eleven (and then getting them back into the stack I carried) was tough. My left arm nearly falling off because it was cramping up crossing State St. was tough. But I didn’t cry. Because when I walked into the UPS, Renaldo was working.
“Renaldo!” I said, immediately dropping the large stack onto the floor. “What’s the haps, my friend.” It was a demand: tell me what is going on, Renaldo, because I require it of you. I want our awesome conversation to carry me through the next thirty minutes of this crappy day.
“Hey, Miss Mary,” Renaldo said. “I’m chillin’, I’m chillin.”
Renaldo has worked at the UPS Store in my neighborhood since I moved here; that means I’ve known him for three years. He’s Puerto Rican, has lots of tattoos, and sometimes he will give me a break on my bill if I’m shipping 90,000 boxes, which happens frequently. Renaldo is severely overweight, and if I hadn’t been so happy to see him I would’ve been bummed that all the weight he lost last year is back. Damnit! You were doing really well, buddy.
Without a single word about how long it’s been since I’ve been in the shop (months), without one word about the weather, Renaldo and I fell into our favorite topic of conversation: relationships. I don’t know how it started, but for three years now, when I go into the UPS Store and Reny is working (and if there’s no one else in there, waiting in line) we rap about love. Given the argument I had last night, seeing Reny was perfect timing.
I asked him about his girl. Renaldo always has girl drama.
“Don’t know,” he said, shaking his head, gearing up to tell me a long story. “My girl’s actin’ the fool. I think it’s over.”
He entered the addresses in the computer and I listened and asked questions about the situation. His girlfriend is depressed. She’s refusing his love, saying she doesn’t deserve him, doesn’t deserve anyone because she had an abortion. She does have one child and lately, she’s been talking to her baby daddy. Renaldo has this girl’s name tattooed on his arm. Aye, papi.
I told him a little about my argument, but just enough to commiserate. There’s a lot that is a lot different about our situations, though all wars in love are the same. When each of the boxes had been labeled and moved onto the big palette to go onto the afternoon truck, I thanked my friend and told him it was good to see him. I gathered my things and was on my way out the door.
“You’ll be aiight,” Renaldo called after me. “Hang in there.”
I sagged and turned around. “I’m in love!” I said, miserable. “I have no choice.”
Renaldo hooted at this. “You’re screwed, Miss Mary. So am I.”
One hot August afternoon in the year 2000, I found myself driving a shiny red convertible on a highway in Iowa. I was barely twenty years old, the top was down (convertible top, not my top) and this was a good day because, hey, convertible, and also because it was summer. On top of that, the car had a CD player and I happened to have all my Beastie Boys records with me. Bam!
The car was my mom’s almost-brand-new new toy, but she was allowing me take it to Iowa City for a few days. I was in college then, and that summer I split my time between my hometown and my college town, working as a waitress in both places. I’ve always been a pretty responsible kid and my mother has always been a pretty generous person, so I got the car for a spell. My plan was to rock out, get to Iowa City in one piece, work a few days, and then jam.
That is not what came to pass.
About an hour into the three-hour drive to Iowa City, somewhere between Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head, I became intimately acquainted with a wild animal.
Out of nowhere — in the middle of the afternoon! — while speeding along Highway 169, my peripheral vision picked up a huge, brownish mass bounding out of the ditch on my right. I was going about sixty-five miles an hour; the huge, brownish mass was matching my speed.
Before I had time to understand what was about to happen, the mass — a 10-point buck, give or take — chose to cross the road. Right that second. Mother’s convertible was in the way, of course, and I was in the convertible. The deer dashed up onto the shoulder and then charged, hard, directly into the road.
In a hideous flash: impact.
Ever been hit by a deer from the side while you’re driving? Ever hit a deer head on? It’s not good. Deer are huge. Even small deer are huge. They’re at least bigger than a Great Dane and Great Danes are enormous. Think about hitting a Great Dane with your car. Now make the Great Dane at least three times bigger with antlers and hooves. Bambi is a lie. Bambi is a cartoon animal with big eyelashes. Actual deer are big, wild, and painfully stupid. And they do not have rabbits as pets. So I’m like:
…as the deer comes up over the side of the car and into the car with me. I felt its bestial heat. Its deer belly was five inches from my face. There came The Great Kicking, and I remember understanding a tremendous amount of weight very near me now, and I remember thinking how much blood a deer probably has and how I was going to know for sure very soon.
“AAAAGGGHHHHHHH! GAAHHHHHHH!” screamed the deer, as he kicked and scrambled over me.
While this is all happening, understand, I’m still driving the car — sort of. I hear plastic shattering and my feet are stabbing at the clutch pedal and the gas pedal and who knows what else. I’m downshifting, I’m pulling over, somehow, and as I’m doing this, the deer clears the car. He came up onto the road, came into the car, and left out the other side.
This is a true story.
When the car finally stopped, there was glass all over me. The deer had all but shattered the windshield; it sagged toward me, crackled into lace. The passenger’s side mirror was in my lap in 10,000 pellets. The entire console of the car was kicked in, totally gone. The Beastie Boys were silent. There was deer hair everywhere. I was taking Italian in school at the time and as I looked at the rape of the convertible, the first thought I had was in Italian for some reason; this probably has to do with my brain not functioning properly or functioning at some adrenaline-boosted peak level. The hair was three distinct colors: dark brown, medium brown, and white, so:
“Tricolore,” I said to myself. “Capelli…deer…e tricolore.”
A woman coming down the road on the other side stopped and helped me. She had seen the whole thing. I wasn’t hurt. I thought my face was bashed in because my chin was wet, but it was just spit that had flown out of my mouth when I was whipping my head around and going:
I used the lady’s phone to call Mom. When I told her what had happened, she did what any good mother would do: she thanked her lucky stars her daughter was okay and called a mechanic. It was no one’s fault; car insurance was deployed. I went onto Iowa City not long after the whole thing was resolved — you can’t keep me down for long.
But to this day, whenever I drive in Iowa (and I have been driving a lot while I’m here for TV) I end up with a terrible pain in my right shoulder. This is because I drive with it hunched up into my neck, subconsciously trying to brace myself for impact.
One day on Meadowlark Farm, my sister Nan and decided to get out into the timber for awhile. It was late enough into spring that stuff was thawing. There was a lot of mud out in the field between our farmhouse and the timber, and this was annoying. We were slightly feral, but we were also girls. Getting dirty was never the aim of our adventures; our adventures were the aim.
We put on our lighter snowsuit-overall-things, at Mom’s request. It was still cold and these would keep us warm, keep some mud off our clothes, and protect our little bodies from the burrs and pokey sticks out in the forest. We grudgingly put them on, followed by our galoshes. And we set out.
I’m sure we had fun, but I don’t remember what we did. I only remember that when we came back through the mud field to go home for lunch or dinner, something terrible happened.
Hannah (Nan) fell into a mud pit.
I’m telling you, that girl sank into a mud pit of Neverending Story proportions. She went down and she went deep, at least to her waist. Since we were small, the mud pit couldn’t have been that deep, but for a ten-year-old, a waist-high mud pit is a helluva mud pit.
“MARY!!!!” she screamed. I was 20 paces or so ahead of her when this happened. “MARY!!! HELP ME!!!”
I whirled around to see half my sister, flailing around in the mud. It’s so interesting to me to think what I must’ve said. I know what I’d say today, but at that age, I didn’t know those sorts of words.
“MARY!!!!” my sister kept screaming. “MARY! GET OVER HERE! HELP ME!!” and assessing the situation, I determined she really did need help. Her boots were totally, completely stuck and was she sinking further into the mud? Yeah, she was. Yikes.
I decided that this was definitely an emergency situation, but that I was definitely not going to help her myself. It wasn’t logical! I was smaller than she was! What was I gonna do? Pull my older sister out of a sucking mud pit with the power of my six-year-old will? I knew that if I gave my sister my hand, sloop! down I’d go into the mud, too, and at the time, I only came up to her waist, so I’d be totally drowned in mud. Hell, no. I wasn’t going down like that. I had cookys to eat.
“I gotta go home,” I said, a little scared at how my decision would land with my big sister.
There was a pause in the flailing. “WHAT??!!!”
“I gotta go home!” I yelled, and my eyes got real big as my sister understood that she was totally screwed. The expression on her face, even from 20 paces away, made it clear that if she was able to survive this mud pit problem, I was in serious trouble. As I ran away, I contemplated hiding places.
“MARY!” I heard her screaming, “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU!”
“I gotta go home!” I yelled again, and what I meant was, “I gotta go home for help,” but this wasn’t being communicated properly, so Hannah just sent daggers shooting out of her eyes into my back and I ran as fast as my little feet could carry me, out of the mud field, onto the gravel road, into the yard, and up onto the porch of the house.
When I told her what had happened, my mother looked out the kitchen window and saw her eldest child flapping around in a pink coat, far, far out in the muddy field.
“Oh, Mary!” she cried, and we went out and retrieved Hannah. She was fine. A little muddy. Furious at me, of course, but my point was made. A smaller person cannot retrieve a bigger person from a sucking mud pit. Mom could help, I could not.
On a plane the other night, I read the cover article in the latest Atlantic about the dangers of over-parenting. The concept that parents have been over-protecting, over-scheduling, and over-hanging out with their kids for about a generation and a half has (finally) settled into popular discourse. The idea that you don’t need to — and shouldn’t — watch your kids so closely is not new, but it’s no longer a fringey idea.
The article opened with a report on The Land, a “junk playground” in Wales which is simply a huge expanse of barren acreage where kids can go run around, burn stuff, create fiefdoms, and wage wars with each other if they feel like it. There is no hand-sanitizer, no rubberized asphalt. There are no outlets. There are trees, sticks, non-deadly snakes, and no adults to blow whistles. (The Land is monitored by capable adults, however; the article quotes one of the supervisors describing what she does as “loitering with intent.”) There are water holes, ropes hanging from trees, and there’s a lot of mud when it rains. You can stay out all day, and kids do; they disappear for hours and hours.
I love this.
My childhood was extremely dangerous. My sisters and I lived on Meadowlark Farm, which was seven miles outside of town (eight from the nearest hospital.) Though “Meadowlark Farm” sounds benign/chipper, the reality is that that 80-acre land was hazard’s amusement park. There were rattlesnakes. There were undercurrents in Middle River. There was a forest — or “timber,” which is Iowanese for “forest.” There were actively harvested corn fields. There were crumbly shale banks, ginormous bugs, mud holes, gravel roads, large rusty objects frequently sticking out of the ground, bees, lawnmowers, and — wait for it — an abandoned cemetery across the road. I’m serious. And we had several sets of neighbors that were about two years out from being huge Kid Rock fans, if you get what I’m saying.
We were always two steps away from peril. And it made for some strong children.
Being exposed to risk is important for a kid. How else will you know you can do stuff? I’m not suggesting that any child should be in danger at the hands of adults — that’s called abuse or neglect. I’m talking about consensual risk-taking. I’m talking about, “Hey, kid, take your coat and this apple and this bottle of juice if you’re going out hiking all day.”
Which is just how my mom and dad handled things. As a result, my sisters and I, young as we were, were antifragle: we exposed to stressors that resulted in strength. We were good in an emergency (even if that “emergency” was that the crik was too low to cross in our usual spot.) We were physically healthy, which almost goes without saying. Our imaginations were almost freakishly developed and developing. Essentially, the joy of that sort of kid-rearing is that it yields children who are able to become decision-makers without constant guidance from some adult figure. Hovering adults think they know better and are helping. They might know something, but until there’s blood, actual stranger-danger, or engulfing flames…I tend to think kids don’t need that much help. Remember, before the Industrial Revolution, eight-year-olds were drinking beer, visiting brothels, and workin’ jobs. I’m not suggesting we return to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, but I do think a big field of rural nothingness on a cold autumn morning is about the best thing that ever happened to me (at least till I went to San Francisco on spring break my junior year in college.)
Please read the next post, “There Will Be Mud.” It is a story that illustrates my point and is hopefully as funny and painful to you as it is to me and my older sister Hannah.
I found myself on a Chicago el train tonight, but I wasn’t supposed to be there. If my itinerary had gone as planned, I would be in Iowa.
After my gig in Cleveland, I planned to go straight through Chicago to Des Moines, no pitstop at home. (I’ll be in Des Moines for the next two weeks, filming Love of Quilting for PBS.) But when our flight was delayed (and delayed and delayed) out of Cleveland and most everyone missed their connections, I had an idea. I deplaned, slipping through the crowd of grumpy travelers to seek out a free Southwest ticket agent further down the terminal. I spied a friendly-looking blonde lady at gate A9 and went for it.
ME: (Exceedingly chipper, non-threatening:) Hello! How are you!
SOUTHWEST TICKET LADY: Hi there. How can I help you?
ME: Well! It’s cra-ray-zay! I was on Flight 313 from Cleveland and, you know, all that rain… Well, I have not missed my connection to Des Moines. I can absolutely make it. But the truth is, ma’am, is that I live in Chicago? And my home is here? And is there any way that I could, you know, go home to my condo tonight? Could I fly to Iowa tomorrow, instead? I don’t know if this is possible, but wow, would it ever be great to, you know… Could… My bed, and my…my bed.
SOUTHWEST TICKET LADY: Let’s see what we can do. (Clacks on computer. Pauses.) We can do that. No problem. I can put you on a flight tomorrow. Morning or evening?
I nearly hugged her.
My luggage went onto Des Moines, but I didn’t care. It would be safe in the baggage room overnight, and who needs mascara, anyway?* I got a boarding pass for tomorrow and waltzed out of the airport. I was going home! I wasn’t pulling any heavy luggage! The words “footloose and fancy free” came instantly to mind. I did a little two-step on the moving walkway. I had visions of a glass of red wine, a book, and my glorious, glorious bed, which would be waiting for me with fresh sheets because I had thought to change the linen before I left town.
I made my way to the train platform. Orange Line to the Loop. Right before the train left the station, a couple came in and sat in the two seats directly in front of me. They were early thirty-somethings; white, preppy and well-groomed but not so wildly attractive that I thought I was looking at prom king and queen. There was actually a touch of nerdiness about them, but they were both dressed like they worked in PR or at Deloitte and Touche, whatever that is. It was abundantly clear that the guy had just arrived and the young lady had come to the airport to meet him.
Let me tell you that they were excited to be together. Very excited.
The pair were talking rapidly and kissing each other in between sentences, then in between words. When they first started this canoodling, I was filled with happiness: lovers reunited is a beautiful thing to witness. This feeling was followed hot on the heels by a terrible pain, however; Yuri is in New York and I am not and I wanted nothing more in the universe than to kiss my lover between sentences, too. (And everywhere else while I’m at it — hey-o!)
My self-pity didn’t last long, because the canoodling couple started to annoy me. They were talking a little bit too loud about the guy’s trip, for one thing. And these kisses were sort of anemic; his lips were squished into a droopy grape shape that he kept smushing into her cheek. And she’d be halfway through a syllable and stop to pucker up. It was like this:
GUY: Yeah, he’s doing great.
GIRL: Did your mom saying anything about the oven mitt?
GUY: She loved it. Oh, Ronnie’s going to be in Chicago next month.
GIRL: Oh (Kiss) that’s (Kiss) awesome.
I pulled out my magazine and slumped down in my seat; I tried to get into an Atlantic article about helicopter parenting and fight the urge to wield, in this perfect of circumstances for it, one of the finest expressions in the English language: Get a room!!
But then came the food. And I was too grossed out to do anything but cover my mouth and look out the window.
The kissing and cooing sounds were joined by the sounds of a food wrapper being opened. Cellophane or paper was being pulled down what I perceived to be a burrito. Now, between syllables and kisses, there was…chewing. Mastication. Food. She would take a little nibble of this burrito and then, mouth full, would peck him on the lips. Then he would talk a little more, bend his head over to take a bite, and then talk more, and then smush his grape lips onto her neck. I was horrified. I could not get the vision of refried beans and saliva and bed sheets out of my head. It was a physical reaction; I felt ill. When you’re on a train, the people sitting in front of you are right there. I was almost directly implicated. It was almost that kind of party.
This went on. We were close enough to my stop that I didn’t get up and move. I also realized immediately that this was PaperGirl material, so I hung on. I stole two glances: the first, to try and catch the guy’s eye to give him a cold, hard, “EW” look; that failed. The second time I looked up from my recoiled pose was to confirm that these two people were actually making out while eating a burrito. I’m glad I took that second look because guess what?
It was a Rice Krispie treat!
I brightened considerably. Well! A Rice Krispie treat! That’s sorta cute! I kinda like these two, I thought, and I no longer felt like I could barf. Rice Krispie treats are sorta like kisses themselves: sweet, kinda sticky, well-intentioned. It was amazing to me how different I felt about the situation I was in when the food changed from a stinky, cheesy burrito to an innocuous rice-and-marshmallow snack.
Yuri says that to make me laugh. He speaks in this funny accent and sounds out every syllable very slow: “Beeee-yoooooo-teeee-foooooool.”
“Do it again!” I’ll say, laughing and clapping my hands.
Then he will pointedly not do it and I will beg, beg him to do it again. I will pout and stare at him.
“Please do it again?”
He’ll wait for a moment, thinking about this, considering things. Then, with a very forceful “b” sound, very plosive:
And I will dissolve into giggles and Yuri will smile and we continue with the day.
Do you ever stare at someone and wonder deeply what it’s like to be them? The first time I remember this happening was when I was in Washington, D.C. I was touring with the Neo-Futurists. We were all out to dinner. My brilliant, talented, achingly pretty friend Chloe was sitting next to me at the restaurant we had chosen, somewhere in Chinatown. My day had been spent in despair, dread, sadness: my marriage was in crisis and I was sick. I spoke very little that day, ate nothing.
And I will never forget looking over at Chloe and just desperately wanting to be her. “Just be Chloe,” I thought, and actually tried to will it to be true as I watched her. It seemed so easy, so possible; we were sitting right next to each other. She was laughing at something Bilal said; she was dipping into her sweet-and-sour sauce. Someone asked her a question. Couldn’t I be Chloe, instead? Couldn’t I just have her calm, happy, crab rangoon-dipping life instead of my ostomy-bagged, confusing, strife-stricken one? Time and space seemed utterly surmountable in that moment, like I could smush myself next to her and pop! be Chloe instead of me. She didn’t notice that I was staring at her, I don’t think. Sorry, Chloe. That was a bad day that you likely remember well. I hope you didn’t think I was going to stab you in the neck with a chopstick or anything. It wasn’t like that.
When Yuri speaks sometimes, I look at his mouth and his teeth. What is is like to have those teeth? To have that mouth? And while we’re at it: what’s it like to be a dude? Though I have wanted to be Yuri with less desperation than that time I wanted to be Chloe, I have wondered about how it is to be Yuri so strongly a few times that it counts. It happened when he got the job in New York. Sometimes it happens right when he wakes up in the morning, sleepyheaded and warm. It happens when he comes home after meeting up with various brothers. It definitely happens when he speaks Russian.
What does it taste like to be Yuri? How would he solve Problem X? What would he say? I want to know from the inside out.
There’s a Nietzsche quote in my book: “What else is love but understanding and rejoicing in the fact that another person lives, acts, and experiences otherwise than we do?”
I have a friend who I haven’t seen in a long time.
I have a collection of those, I’m afraid; my track record for “staying in touch” is appalling. Scoff if you like, but this serial inability to keep in consistent contact with people that aren’t in close proximity to me is based in love: Friend A deserve buckets of attention and time; if I can’t give Friend A all of what Friend A should have, I should excuse myself and Friend A can find a Friend B, who is way better at returning calls and text messages. Like, way better.
There’s also the little matter of what I think is a bonafide phone phobia on my part. That’s a topic for another day.
The friend I’m thinking of this morning, we were close for a number of years; we met in college and he moved to Chicago shortly after I did. I found him an apartment in my building; we lived in units separated by the lot in back, almost close enough to string a tin can telephone betwixt our windows, though we never did, we just skibbled back and forth, sometimes in our pajamas. We were together so much, driving in his car, listening to rock n’ roll, working our crappy jobs.* Rent was forever due, it was cold and then it was hot, the laundry room was scary, and there was no nearby train, only a bus stop 1.5 blocks away that you could only get to by walking up a lonesome industrial corridor.
There were two reasons we didn’t slip into acrimony and defeat: 1) we had each other; and 2) we were creating things.
Billy was creating music and a persona; I was creating writing and a persona. Today, Billy is part of a wildly successful band that tours the world and sells out big concerts; I have been living as a full-time writer-performer for almost a decade. We made good, is what I’m saying. And dammit, we knew we’d make it. We knew. Our ability to withstand the bus stops, Comcast, entropy, etc. was due to youth, okay, sure, but also to a shared and indefatigable confidence that we were good enough to scale up, and soon. Oh, and we worked hard. There was that, too: Billy played his guitar whenever he was awake, which was about 22 hours out of every day; I wrote poems on the back of guest checks at the restaurant, wrote in my journal in the coat check room at 4am, and read nine books at once, on average. We were dedicated.
We were intertwined. We were coffee cups, or maybe cream and sugar. We weren’t lovers, but we slept in the same bed a lot. It was kind of a brother-sister relationship, I suppose, except sometimes we’d make out. We were always pretty hot for each other but there was something both of us kept back in order to preserve what was out front. It was complex, it was simple.
Billy told me something once that I hated him for. He said, “Mary, the truth is that I’ll never love a woman as much as I love rock n’ roll.” He was twenty-five and being platitudinous and dramatic, but he was also being honest. I was furious at the time because dude, but today I understand what he meant. His love for music is singular, untouchable; it exists within his bone marrow, shapes his walk and his spine. His love of making music will die with him — not before him or after him, like a partner has to die. Christians talk about agape love, a love distinct from erotic love or emotional affection; that’s what Billy meant about loving music more, or differently, than he could ever love a person.
I feel that way about writing. And I feel that way about Chicago.
Sitting here on my lily pad, I cannot believe my transgressions. New York bewitched me. Indeed, the city may get me in chunks (I have a return ticket even as I write this) and my favorite thing in the world is to get on an airplane. But I can never love a person or another place on this earth like I love this town.
It’s good, as they say, to be home. Yo, Billy; let’s get that drink.
*And I do mean crappy. I was a brunch waitress in Uptown and a coat check girl in two different/terrible nightclubs; he did the graveyard shift at a desk at mental health facility on Western and North Ave.
I have only a few days left in Manhattan before I return to Chicago for a few weeks. I was getting worried that I hadn’t bumped into Madonna in the park or seen Sam Harris on the subway. I don’t seek out celebrity encounters, but I was a little bummed my elbows hadn’t been bumped by anyone fancy since arriving in the city.
Then I met Tim Gunn.
Yuri and I both had loads of work to do this weekend and decided to set up shop at the Balcony Lounge at the Met. This is a private lounge for members of the museum, and my family has a membership. (Thanks, Ma!) The lounge is quiet, serves excellent tea and cheese, there’s fast wireless, and if you need to take a break and go see Walker Evans photographs or stare at The Harvesters by Bruegel the Elder, you can absolutely do that. We all need Bruegel the Elder breaks from time to time.
I was focused on editing the May/June ’14 issue of Quilty when I heard a one-of-a-kind voice. I looked up to see none other than style icon and Project Runway host Tim Gunn greeting the nice lady at the registration desk. My mouth dropped open. I grabbed Yuri’s leg. I do that a lot for a variety of reasons on a regular basis, so he didn’t look up from his laptop.
“Yuri!” I hissed. “Yuri, it’s Tim Gunn. Tim Gunn just walked in!”
Yuri was programming. “Who?”
“Tim Gunn! Tim Gunn from Project Runway! And, like, fashion!”
My body was contorting into Martha Graham-like shapes. I was excited. Tim Gunn is someone whose career I admire. He taught at (and led) Parsons School of Design for many years. He was Chief Creative Officer at Liz Claiborne for awhile, which, according to my research, put him at the company during its morph into the Kate Spade-Juicy Couture-JC Penny animal it is now? This is unclear to me, but it is clear is that Tim Gunn is the man. And, as most people who are not named Yuri know, Tim Gunn has served as beloved mentor to designers cast in Project Runway since the very first season of the show in 2004. He’s written books, he’s done TV and film cameos; he’s even got his own catchphrase. Though we know people on screens are not magic, it’s plain as can be: Tim Gunn is neat.
I tried to focus on my work but it was impossible. I kept stealing teensy glances over to the sofa where Tim Gunn was sitting. He was perusing a large art book. There are many beautiful books of art on offer in the member lounge, no surprise, and he was engrossed in his selection.
What to do? I desperately wanted to meet him but refused to be weird or annoying. I decided after he had been there for an hour or so to write an extremely short, non-creepy little note to him. (Hear me out.) I would buy his glass of wine and give my note to the waitress to give to him in lieu of his check. My note said something like:
“Hi, Tim Gunn! Thank you for inspiring so many of us who work with textiles. If you ever need a quilt or a quilter for any reason, call me!”
I taped my business card in the center of the note using one of the stickers for my upcoming book. Actually speaking to the man was not part of my plan. I’d take care of the bill and Yuri and I would leave before he did or he’d call for his check and before he left, I’d escape to the bathroom so he wouldn’t feel obligated to come say anything. I wanted to make tiny, meaningfulcontact with a compliment. No awkwardness, no foul.
But then the waitress went on break! She was his waitress and my waitress! She was the lynchpin of my entire scheme! Now what?!
After a few panicky texts with my sisters, I changed my mind: I would deliver my note in person. If I didn’t try to say hello to Tim Gunn at the Met lounge at that moment, I would never have the chance again. I put on some lip gloss and walked over to where he was sitting.
Readers, I am happy to report that Tim Gunn is wonderful.
“Excuse me, Mr. Gunn?”
He was immediately on his feet.
“Call me Tim! Please!” He placed his book down on the table and stood to shake my hand. “How are you?” he asked, as though we had met. Eep!
“Oh, I’m fine,” I said. I was more timid than I have ever been in my life, I think. “I had this whole plan how not to disturb you. I was going to give you this little note and buy your glass of wine, but then the waitress went on break and, well, I just wanted to say thank you so much. You’re very inspiring. I’m a quilter.”
Tim Gunn was looking at my note. “This is wonderful! How delightful! My goodness! A quilter? That’s marvelous! What is this?” He was pointing to the sticker.
“That’s my book! My first book. It’s coming out in May.”
“That is a tremendous accomplishment,” said Tim Gunn. “I don’t know what I’d do without my co-author. She turns what I write into something actually worth reading! Congratulations to you! When does it come out?”
“May,” I said, beaming. Talking to Tim Gunn was like talking to… Well, Tim Gunn. It was the best. And yes, he looked amazing in tailored everything and he smelled terrific.
We chatted a teensy bit more. He said, “Oh, good. I see your email, here. I’ll send you my last couple of books!” and I said, “I’ll send you mine! We’ll trade!” and Tim Gunn said that sounded like a fine idea.
Start to finish, the encounter was all of two minutes, but it sure was pleasant. Thanks, Tim Gunn, for being kind to a stranger who admires you a great deal. I hope you do receive my book when I send it to you; since it doesn’t come out till May, it’s possible you’ll forget why you’re getting it and your people will move it to the revolving file. But if you do get it, I hope the quilts in the book will inspire you, even a tiny bit.
Speaking of being remarkably stupid, I accidentally bought a sixty-dollar piece of meat that can’t be cooked where I’m currently living. Please let me explain.
About three weeks ago, I was having a heated discussion with someone I love very much at a chi-chi food emporium here in New York. Who I was with and what we were discussing is not important; what is important is that I bought a sixty-dollar piece of meat that I can’t cook where I’m currently living. Please let me keep explaining.
“I gotta get some meat for dinner!” I hollered at my loved one and she (essentially) said, “Fine! Get’cher dumb meat!!” and I stomped off, past the fancy spice aisle, around the fancy sweets display, up to the fancy meat counter. You’d think gazing at gorgeous, dead flesh in a wide glass case would make me forget my heated conversation, but it didn’t. I was distracted. There was only a vague awareness of my dinner plan. I was not registering the high prices of the meat I was scanning. My thought process was doing something like this:
what a lame day —> ooh lamb chops —> I’m a bad person who shouldn’t try to be right all the time —> do I need rosemary? —> that man is wearing a blue suit —> wow, look at that meat —> a roast would be good —> why does she say things like that? —> she loves you, just stop it —> standing rib roast —> Adam’s Rib —> Katherine Hepburn —> Out of Africa —> I want to go on my safari now, not in five years —> it’s getting late, pick something —> I should apologize —> chocolate —> order meat now
Indeed, it was within the stream of this magnificent cognition that I opened my mouth and ordered some meat. My selection? A 28-day dry-aged tomahawk ribeye steak, two-and-a-half inches thick. Oh, I didn’t say, “Please give me a 28-day dry-aged tomahawk ribeye steak, two-and-a-half inches thick.” That might’ve stopped me. No, I just pointed to it and said, “Let’s go with one of these guys.”
The butcher smiled (wouldn’t you?) and hauled the enormous section of cow from the case. He Frenched me a steak and wrapped it with what I can only assume is butcher paper made from unicorn hide. It was when he pushed the massive thing across the steel counter to me that I had my first moment of panic: did that sticker give the price of the entire steak or the price per pound? This was either bad or gasp-inducing bad news. Turned out to be the latter. I had requested a two-and-a-half pound cut of beef that cost $27/lb.
Can you give meat back? Once a butcher butchers, isn’t it like getting a manicure? It’s yours, now. The lacquer is dry; the meat is cut. If I could say, “Oh, wow! That is absolutely not anything I can afford! Please take your steak back!” and the butcher would, then what?* Does anyone want someone else’s meat? Will it just go to waste? I wasn’t thinking clearly, but I’m still not sure about this (feedback is welcome.)
I was thinking about whether or not to try and give it back when the second wave of panic hit: I had nowhere to cook this. Remember, my “kitchen” in the East Village is a tiny stove against a wall. That’s the kitchen. There is no countertop. My “workspace” is a cutting board I put over the sink and I’ve made that work pretty darned well, but this… In no universe was this gonna work. The steak is half the size of the range, and that is barely an exaggeration. And the place is so small, any large cut of cooking meat would deliver a film of fat over everything and impart a eau de seared cow fragrance to every last possession of Yuri’s and mine. What had I done?
My loved one and I left the food emporium worse off than when we came in, for a variety of reasons. The conversation hadn’t covered new ground, both people were hurt, and one person now felt very poor and very foolish. I don’t believe in a magical wizard in the sky who doles out punishments (or rewards) and karma is just one half of a song title by Boy George, but I did feel major cause-effect comeuppance. Being a brat, Fons? Bam! Sixty-dollar steak you can’t cook. You’re welcome.
The story ends okay. Me and my loved one still love each other very much and are fine. And this very night, I’m taking the tomahawk to my sister’s place. I will make this thing (no small feat; I’ve been researching for days how to not ruin it) and we will all enjoy it. It could feed a family of four, easy. I’ve learned the best way to get an even sear on it before you cook it in the oven is to place a foil-covered brick on top of it, after you truss and season it.
I will use the brick I frequently use for smacking my forehead.
*This notion of trying to return a manicure is fascinating. Consider: how awful would it be if you got a manicure and then realized you couldn’t pay for it? No cash, credit card declined. Would you have to sit there while the technician removed the manicure she had just given you?? The shame! The awkwardness! The stained (but nicely filed) nails! To me, this is almost Hitchcockian in its spookiness.
Saturday night, my body refused to be told what to do any longer; I was forced to visit to the emergency room. I ended up at historic Bellevue Hospital’s ER from about 1am till daybreak. This is my tale.
Earlier in the day, I had found it difficult to walk. My guts were churning toxic waste and my tummy hurt a lot. My bathroom trips were numbering in the ridonkulous. I rallied enough to make dinner for Yuri and myself, but I ate very little. When every morsel you put into your body winds up a punishment, you’re don’t get too hungry. I was weak and sad. We went to bed. I woke an hour or so later and, like a wounded/dying animal, I left the bed to try and curl up with my pain alone on the couch. I found no relief there, so I scraped myself up and went to deliver the bad news:
“Yuri,” I said. “I need to go to the hospital.”
Yuri bolted upright and mobilized quickly. I made sure he packed his laptop and brought anything else he’d like to have for the next 6-8 hours. I’ve done middle-of-the-night hospital trips plenty of times; he hasn’t.
I knew from riding the subway that Beth Israel Medical Center was on 1st Ave. and 16th. (There’s a tiled sign in the subway that says, “Beth Israel, 1st Ave. & 16th”.) We’re staying just down the street, so it was okay that when we went outside we couldn’t get a cab. I shuffled along the sidewalk as Yuri tried to hail one, but I knew he’d fail. Saturday night in the East Village means taxis, taxis, everywhere, and not a ride to catch. The cabs are full of nightlife already; nothing is available. And since the East Village in way down on the island and 1st Ave. is a one-way going uptown, you’re pretty much out of luck unless you catch someone coming out of a taxi and you slip in before it leaves again. We reached Beth Israel-Mount Sinai in about 15 minutes on foot.
When we found it, though, it appeared to be closed. Like, closed-closed. We went to two different doors. I know it sounds crazy, and a New Yorker might scoff at me that I didn’t “just go around” or something, but I’m telling you, that hospital was not open. Doors locked. No people. At this point, I was kind of hunching over, too, so if there was an arrow someplace, I missed it. A taxi driver was passing slowly and we caught him.
“Is this hospital open?” I asked at the window.
“Uh…” The driver wasn’t sure what I was asking. Or maybe I just looked that scary.
“Do you know if it’s open?” I asked again, and then, seeing there was no one in the backseat, I opened the door and asked a way better question: “Can you take me to the nearest hospital, please?” Yuri jumped in and we were off, headed to the other nearest hospital, which was at 1st and 27th St.
Bellevue is the oldest public hospital in the country. Since 1736, the sick, maimed, crazy, indigent, burned, frozen, dying, pregnant, drunk, beaten, wounded, frightened, blitzed, and otherwise in-jeopardy humans of New York have made their way to Bellevue for help. The first-ever maternity ward? Bellevue. The first-ever ambulance service? Bellevue. But despite all that, despite the millions (counted and uncounted) who have received care at Bellevue over the centuries, despite being a landmark of American innovation and civilization, Bellevue’s reputation is not so great. This is probably because of the psych ward.
In New York City, everything is extreme. The poor are really poor, the rich are really rich. The food is really, really good; the garbage smells really, really bad. And the crazy people — sorry, the mentally ill people — are really, really nuts. Bellevue is where they go. And throughout the hospital’s history, tales of terror from the halls of Bellevue have kept Americans in thrall; suicidal starlets, frothing lunatics, axe-murderers, giggling perverts — they all end up in Bellevue. Add to that the occasional (and sorrowful) stories of mistreatment and abuse inside the ward and you get a place frequently referred to zero-to-little irony as “the hellhole” or “bedlam.” I was vaguely aware of this history as I entered the ER. I wasn’t going into the psych ward, but the buildings aren’t too far apart.
I was admitted quickly. It seemed quiet in there. I was hunched over in my chair while the triage nurse put the bracelet around my wrist and felt a surge of excitement push past my pain. I was going to get the inside scoop on a New York City emergency room on a Saturday night! This was gonna be great.
It might’ve been great, relatively speaking, except that I was injected with morphine and I am allergic to morphine. It wasn’t Bellevue’s fault; it’s been so long since I’ve even heard that drug suggested to me that I neglected to mention that I have a terrible, terrible reaction to it. When they asked me if I had allergies, I said no; I’m used to being treated frequently in hospitals that know me, and I was feeling so sick I didn’t think to mention, “Oh, yeah. A long time ago, morphine nearly killed me.” So when I was writhing in pain on my sickbed, the very capable and kind internist said, “I’m going to give you an injection; we’ll get an IV going soon,” I spluttered, “Yes, thank you,” and zip! There you go, morphine in my arm.
It’s a sad thing indeed to be injected with something you’re allergic to.
I wouldn’t feel that allergy/reaction immediately. All I felt was drowsy and in less pain, and that was okay for the moment. Yuri got a chair and sat near me. We heard people talking on the other side of the curtain to my left and tried to listen in on what they were saying. Our eyes grew wide as we realized…the guy got stabbed! We had a stab wound victim in the bed next to us! Holy crap! There was blood on the curtain, too! Wow! Then there were cops! Five cops! All grilling the guy about the stab wound! So far, New York City emergency room report = excellent!
From there, though, the Bellevue ER took off and I went down. It was nuts. I passed out and woke up, hella nauseated, to two Jersey girls screeching next to me; one had twisted her ankle and the other was furiously yelling into her cell phone. They were both roaring drunk. On my way to the bathroom, I passed four indigent men passed out on beds in the hallway; each of their pants were 90% off. When I got to the bathroom, I couldn’t use it. It was filthy. Fecal matter was sprayed around the back of the toilet. There was blood, dried and fresh, kinda everywhere. I turned on my morphine-woozy heels and Yuri helped me back to bed. I stepped around other gurneys and sick people and caught the nurse.
“The bathroom… It’s… I can’t use it,” I said, reeling.
“Oh, yeah. That’s why I hold my urine for twelve hours,” he said. “There’s another bathroom, though,” and he told us where to go. I don’t remember if I used it or not. By that point, I was quickly succumbing to my morphine problem. I don’t remember being released. I don’t remember getting home. I slept the entire day on Sunday and today was mostly lost.
Bellevue, you didn’t do me wrong. But I still ain’t right.
I incurred a serious injury last week, and not one of the metaphorical or interpersonal sense.
A drinking glass exploded in my hand while I was washing dishes at the sink. I had my right paw and a sponge inside the glass when it burst and my pinky finger was, uh, compromised. The story is coming now because I wasn’t sure if it was over or not.
Looking at my right pinky at press time, I think we’re gonna be okay. By “okay” I mean we’ll have a gnarly scar but no sepsis. Today was the cut-off (too soon!) date for the “I need to see a doctor” discussion with myself. If the disgusting-weird part on the top of the cut had not closed significantly, we’d go for a consult and probably stitches; this was the deal I made with myself in the bathroom, gritting my teeth (yet again) to pull back the gauze and the tape and the Band-Aid (yet again) to see what was doing under there. When I opened the bandage however, lots of white blood cell fairies had apparently come in the night. My pinky looked like a finger with a nasty-but-healing cut, not something from a “before” picture in a Red Cross how-to field guide.
Good people of Earth, I beg you: spend a little more. Invest in good glassware.
The glass I was washing was an IKEA special. I like IKEA. I like Target. I am down with K-Mart when I’m here in NYC because there’s a huge one at Astor Place and I can get coconut water and a spatula there, for example. Discount retailers like the aforementioned are awfully handy, especially if you’re a real-estate firm in New York who rents out furnished apartments. Setting up a furnished apartment to put on the market means stocking it with items that you’re absolutely willing to never see again. When faced with procuring drinking glasses for Unit A7 on the 5th floor of the building on the corner of 3st Ave and Yo Boulevard, a trip to IKEA is de rigeur. Any other option would be a waste of money, though I hardly need to state that I want nothing to do with any of it longer than necessary.
And here we have the perfect example of why I believe in spending even a little more for better quality objects.
Cheap glass breaks. It doesn’t last. It’s like cheap shoes. Yeah, they’re really inexpensive, but you will wear a hole in the sole in two months, which will then make you believe that a) people don’t make shoes like they used to and/or b) it’s time to buy a new pair of shoes. Your second assumption is correct, but not your first: people do make shoes like they used to, but you ain’t gonna get ’em at the PayLess. And you don’t have to drink your tap water from Waterford crystal stemware (note to self: do that) but when you buy cheap glasses, they’re gonna shatter sooner than even slightly better ones that cost more.
When the glass broke, it make a disturbing “pop” and I gasped as the bubbles in my hands turned dark red and pink. I turned around and saw Yuri and my face sort of broke and I said, “I just cut myself very badly,” and I dropped to the floor to put my hand above my heart.
Yuri jolted from his position on the bed and was at my side in an instant. When a vital, intelligent, athletic man looks at a wound and goes, “Oh my god, oh no, no, oh, baby, no…” you know you’ve got a lil’ issue. I’ll spare you the medical attention I got (it involved peroxide, a lot of blood, and several shots of whiskey) and I’ll also preempt your inevitable cry of, “Why didn’t you go to the hospital?!” by telling you that I was too afraid to go to the hospital because I saw Adventures In Babysitting ten million times as a seventh-grader and I didn’t want to camp out all night in a busy NYC emergency room for “one stitch.”*
The finger will make it. Love of Quilting viewers, if they look closely, may catch glimpse of a scar on my right pinky in a future show, though. My pinkies don’t show too much on TV but it’ll happen sometime. I suppose I should’ve gone in for medical attention for that reason, too: my hands are more seen than most people’s hands and I need to keep them nice-looking.
Weird stuff happens in New York City. For example, yesterday morning I opened the door of the apartment and littered on the two flights of stairs down were dozens of Mini Twix wrappers. Dozens of them, tossed like so much confetti! It was as though all the Mini Twix in the East Village were like, “Yo! Party at [REDACTED] and 1st Ave!” and I was seeing the aftermath. I’m happy to report they were very, very quiet. I didn’t hear a peep. (‘Cause Peeps weren’t invited — hey-o!)
Today, something even stranger happened — stranger, even, than a candy party in the hallway. I was walking near Thompkins Square Park when a young woman came up behind me and asked me one of the more disorienting questions I’ve ever been asked:
“Excuse me, do you have poison on?”
You know that search box feature in the upper righthand corner of your computer screen? When you need a file or a word or an image from your hard drive, you type it into the box and bloop! there you can make your selection. Our brains work similarly. When you’re out a date and your date orders the branzino, you might not instantly know what she’s having for dinner. You do the search box and in .0000003 seconds you come up with some old file with a weird filetype that has something to do with…fish! It’s a fish, right? Yes. Branzino is fish. Thank you, search box.
When that girl asked me if I “had poison on,” I could practically hear my little search box whirring into overdrive. Poison? Poison. Poison ivy. Poison the band. Poison the deadly substance. Hamlet. Poison on. Poison on…what?? What is poison on? Poison drips, poison oozes — poison does not go “on” anything. Are there headphones somewhere? Playing Poison? It would be impossible that “Cherry Pie” would be coming from my iTunes, but perhaps someone’s nearby? Is “poison” a new drug the kids are doing and she’s asking me if I’m either selling or interested in buying? Also: no? There were also data rejections of the “Poison Ivy” character from Batman and poisson.
I looked at the girl harder, my search box wheezing and puffing, shuffling through great stacks of data. “Get context clues!” it shouted, “I’m gettin’ nothin’ in here!” Pipes were bursting, coal was being shoveled into the furnaces within my gray matter. The girl was kempt and pretty. Mid-twenties, black, nicely dressed. This was no help. If she was clearly insane, I could just shake my head and keep walking. The search box could be satisfied with “she crazy.” No dice.
“I’m sorry,” I said, searching her. “Uh, poison?”
“The perfume. Poison. Do you have it on?”
It was almost orgasmic.
“Oh!” I cried, way too happy to give her an answer at this point. “No! No, I don’t! But man, that is such a great perfume! I love that perfume! No, no. Not wearing Poison. No Poison on.”
“Thanks — have a good one,” she mumbled, giving me a slight “Sorry I asked” look. Hey, lady, you’re the one who’s talking to strangers about poison.
My sister Nan used to wear that every day in high school, by the way.
If you want to work in the quilt industry — and with a $3.5B+ annual market valuation, a lot of people do — you’re going to need to go to Quilt Market. Anyone doing serious business in the quilt world is there and though there are many shows throughout the year that serve the industry, when people ask you, “Will I see you at Market?” they mean either International Spring or International Fall Market, whichever comes next on the calendar. The answer to the question should be, “Absolutely.”
At Market, you see what’s new. You get the V.I.P. scoop. You make predictions. You discover new designers, new talent. You see who’s hot, who’s tepid, and who isn’t there at all. You make deals. You make friends and faux pas. If you want to be in the business, you have to be at Market because please. Everyone who’s anyone, darling.
Really, going to Quilt Market is a little like being in New York City. Everything happens here first. If you’re not here, you’re just gonna have to find out when everyone else does: later.
I’m staying in an East Village hotel while my NYC living situation sorts itself out. At 4:00am this morning, I woke with a stomachache and couldn’t get back to sleep. (When you don’t eat much during the day and then you eat steak, these things happen.) My hard and fast rule about insomnia? Get up. Tossing and turning is unacceptable. Just get up. Read something or clean something. If you’re in my situation, pad down to the lobby with your computer and talk about vogueing with Zachary, the night porter.
I was scamming some tea from the not-technically-open tea and coffee station when Zachary appeared. He startled me and I instantly regretting not combing my hair or at least putting on flip-flops. I looked like a barefoot, homeless crazy person.
“Please don’t throw me out,” I said, sleep-deprived and thieving. “I just knew where the honey was. I-I’m a good person,” I spluttered.
“You’re fine,” said Zachary, dressed in black skinny jeans and a cap, laconic and cool in that way that early twenty-something New York kids are laconic and cool.
“Thanks,” I said. “I couldn’t sleep, so I’m awake.” Even in the middle of the night, I am excellent at stating the obvious. It’s a talent.
We started chatting. I told him about being a writer and a quilter; he told me about a nearby gallery that is currently exhibiting quilts. I asked him what he did when he wasn’t working at a small hotel at 4am. He told me he graduated last year with degrees in art history and publishing, that he was also a writer, and that he is holding a panel discussion on ballroom culture on Thursday.
“Ooh,” I said, “Tell me more.” Because Zachary wasn’t referring to tango clubs or waltzing, and I knew it. Ballroom culture refers to the dance-centric, underground LGBT subculture that brought us such touchstones as vogueing and the “house” system, a way of forming alliances/collectives within the underground drag and dance community. Mainstream references to all this include the seminal Paris Is Burning film (1990), Madonna’s “Vogue,” and RuPaul’s “House of Love” and Lady Gaga’s “House of Gaga,” though one must note the mass-appeal versions of these things look different from the ground-floor ballroom world Zachary knows.
What he shared with me about the evolution and current state of ballroom culture was fascinating. I was getting the story, that Market-style scoop.
Vogueing has its roots in 1960s Harlem, it became vogueing in the 1980s and 1990s. But it’s been twenty-five-ish years since Paris is Burning and a whole lot has happened in the scene in that time, no surprise. There’s femme voguing (extravagant, feminine, beat-centric) and “dramatics” (jerky, hard, battle-centric) and those styles are already waning to make room for what’s next. The music has changed a lot, too; less wailing diva house, more crunchy, techy beats so fast and frenetic the standard measure of “beats per minute” ceases to be applicable. The Internet happened in there, too, so now the good DJs are instantly hot across the country, as opposed to how it happened in the old days: slowly, while mixtapes were transported from NYC to Chicago to San Francisco and back. Dance styles are instantly mimicked and adapted. We watched YouTube videos together for some time and Zachary showed me the vibrant and vital community of people who are keeping ballroom alive, well, and just as competitive and snatchy as ever. That’s a compliment, by the way.
Anything I’ve gotten wrong or weird in my report is to be blamed entirely on me and my lack of sleep, not Zachary. He knows his subject, he dances, he is more than qualified to host his panel on Thursday.
This is why you get up when you can’t sleep. There’s so much to learn. There’s so much to see, even at 4am. And in the center of the world (that would be New York City), it’s ever-so-slightly more true.
At brunch on Sunday, my (affianced!) sister Rebecca told tales of her recent trip to Tokyo. A transcription of that exciting conversation is forthcoming, but last night I was reminded of the specific tale she shared of the elegant efficiency of Tokyo noodle shops. I was reminded because I was sad.
Here’s how a Tokyo noodle shop works: you step up to an automated kiosk and put in your money. You press a button for the kind of ramen you want (select by picture) and bloop! out comes a ticket. You take the ticket to the noodle man and zing! he makes your ramen. Double happiness, arigato! No cashier, no waiter, no wait. The only possible mess in this process might be soup on your blouse.
Friends, let us leave the Tokyo ramen shop and pay a visit to its berserker anti-matter evil twin: Vapiano in the good ol’ U.S. of A.
[Pardon me, darling: before I begin, I’ll need my blood pressure medication, yes, thank you, and my smelling salts. Is there Xanax? There is? Yes, dear. I’ll have two, please, one for now and one for five minutes from now. I’ll take them with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Thank you, darling, and a napkin. That’s good. Yes, that’s very nice. Now, gather ‘round, children.]
Vapiano is a German-owned restaurant chain. The first Vapiano opened in 2002 and today there are 120 locations worldwide. Chicago got a roomy one in the old Carson Pirie Scott building about a year ago. During the construction phase, I passed it and felt happy because a quick, freshly prepared salad option downtown is always welcome news. Indeed, Vapiano proclaims “fresh” Italian-style pizza, pasta, soup, salad, and dessert. And each Vapiano restaurant has a full bar and a large dish of gratis gummy bears at the host stand when you walk in. Why, I don’t know, but when we went there, Yuri ate two handfuls of them immediately. This ended up being a smart move because at Vapiano, it’s gon’ be awhile.
The first thing that happens is that you’re greeted by a hostess so scared to tell you what’s about to happen, she races through the spiel fast enough you may wonder if she’s speaking English. Something about cards? Something about stations? Tapping? Paying…sometime in the future? She thrusts menu cards into your hands and you are then absorbed by the Vapiano food pen. We learn from the Vapiano website that the name is a word inspired by an Italian proverb that goes, “Chi va piano va sano e va lontano,” which translates to: “People with a relaxed attitude live a long and healthy life.” Clearly, Vapiano stakeholders are being ironic. There is nothing relaxed or healthy about their “high-concept” restaurant. “Long” works. Keep “long.”
So you get a credit card thing. There are stations in the food pen for the different offerings, pizza, pasta, etc. You stand at the counters and order what you want from the long-suffering line cooks whose smiles are so obviously required for employment there, you want to lean forward conspiratorially and tell them they can give it a rest. But you don’t. Because you’re hungry. You tell them what you want and then they say something you can’t hear and they make a swiping motion and gesture to your card. You look around for a credit card machine, but there isn’t one. There’s a screen, though, embedded in the counter, so you smoosh your card down there and it goes beep! and the line cook looks with a pitying look of congratulations and begins to make your carbonara.
Which takes a long time. So long. And you’re not seated at a table waiting, remember. You’re just standing around. And what do you do with the card? Well, the Vapiano people tell you that this is the beauty of the whole thing, that you can take the card all around and just keep ordering all kinds of stuff for hours and hours and your card keeps everything straight for you. (A waiter is surprisingly efficient for this, too, but don’t mind me; my Xanax just kicked in.) But… But where do you put it? Your wallet seems a little…final. Your pocket seems risky, though, because you’re blithely eating all this German-Italian (?) relaxation and health and what happens if you lose that card or forget what it is and give it to your kid’s teacher for Christmas? And it still wasn’t totally clear whether or not we should pay and then eat or hang onto the card even longer and let its confusing presence further flavor our caprese salad.
I spent most of the “experience” running all over the damned place, picking up the food we had ordered 20 minutes earlier. Got the soup! Okay! What else? Oh! Salad! Be right back! Ooh! Our pager went off! (Oh, there are pagers involved, too.) Pizza! Okay, do we have everything? Okay, I totally wanted a piece of pizza, but that’s okay! No, I wasn’t here. It’s fine. How was it? Awesome. Ooh! Dessert! Be right back.
Surely there are people who love this. Surely there are people who understand it better. I am entirely aware that I’ve probably done Vapiano incorrectly, that there’s something wrong with me. If anyone, German, Italian, American, or otherwise can help me, help me, because I really really like the tomato soup.
Today, Yuri and I leave California. Our flight departs mid-morning and because we stop in Denver and because the rotation of the Earth, we will reach Chicago at 5:00 this evening. It will be dark and it will be cold.
Southern California hoards the sun. It’s just always sunnyhere; that is not a myth. Southern California is also the land of fake boobs. Not a myth, either. My first night here, Yuri and I went for a late dinner to a schmancy restaurant that had real citrus trees growing inside of it. They served a lobster bisque that tasted just like a fisherman’s hat (any respectable lobster bisque does.) The tea-lights were glowing in the atrium were we sat; the outdoor fireplaces popped sparks; the wine goblets were fishbowl-size. It was all achingly Californian and I did a little people-watching before my branzino arrived. I looked at the women, specifically.
Every era has its prevailing female silhouette. This doesn’t change in a single generation but over the course of several. I’m not talking about fashion: hemlines rise and fall on an almost diurnal cycle. I’m speaking of body shape, the figure cut by a woman in the time in which she lives — or, more accurately, the figure any woman wants to cut to be seen as beautiful in her culture. Let’s list a few iconic examples:
The Peter Paul Rubens woman: voluptuous to the point of meaty; the term “Rubenesque” remains very much in English language rotation The Gibson Girl: a full bust and hips with a painfully tiny, corseted waist; hair piled on the head in a breadbox-sized up-do The 1940s gal: plastics manufacturing and WWII exerted influence on the brassieres of the time, giving us the “Torpedo” or “Bullet” style boob so pointy it could poke an eye out (and a few surely did, ow) The Waif: the 1920s begat Twiggy, Twiggy begat Kate Moss, and the heroin-chic look that launched countless anorexic girls arrived in the 1990s.
It may not be news to others, as Kim Kardashian’s anatomy-defying shape (a Venus of Willendorf but with bronzer) has been appreciated for a number of years and her body is the best example of the new silhouette. Looking at the women of SoCal the other night, I saw that this new shape has truly taken root in the minds of men and women as being the beauty ideal of the day.
Here’s what you’ll need:
A full — and I mean full — bottom, but don’t you be droopy. The bottom must be lifted and perfectly shaped with the assistance of Spanx or some sort of “shaper panty” (formerly referred to as a girdle, let’s not forget.) And even if your bottom is really nice already, there’s a certain buoyancy and firmness that you want, so the shaper panty is needed, regardless. Seems a little unfair to strap a perky 20-year-old into one of those horrid things, but I don’t make the rules.
From there, you’ll need to do crunches to maintain a flat belly. The waist size is actually not so important, but a sloppy belly will never do. You can be thick but not flabby. In fact, thick is good, but there must be no jiggle when you cross the room, only a rub: your thighs should rub together, your buttcheeks should rub together (yep, under the Spanx) and your boobs should shift and rub together, too, and all of this should take place tightly bound with tight-fitting clothing. The hair is long and salon-fresh. The nails are manicured. The jewelry is precious stones. There is eyeshadow and false eyelashes.
Though skin tone has nothing to do with silhouette, it’s worth noting that if you have any sort of Mediterranean blood coursing through your veins, you are ahead. Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Albania, Spain — any country that produces tawny or olive-skinned people, these are the most attractive people these days when mixed with white people. Again, this is what I perceive and what I perceived in Newport Beach, CA the other night. I’m not advocating or not-advocating, just reporting.
Of this criteria, I have… Well, it’s not for me to say. I can say I’m about as pasty a white girl as there ever was. And I do not wear Spanx as a matter of principle and mental well-being.
Many of the kids I grew up with in Winterset, IA, grew up on actual farm-farms, with birthin’ fillies and steamin’ cow pies and fresh eggs. Our farm had an orchard, an oak grove, a pasture, two houses (a white one and a yellow one), a timber* to the north, Middle River to the east, and cornfields around allll of that as far as the eye could see, but the land was farmed by people other than my pop and Uncle Randy. I don’t even have an Uncle Randy. It just sounds like someone who would farm the land with my dad.
But we called it a farm and it even had a name, “Meadowlark Farm,” because when my parents were doing the whole back-to-the-land thing in the 1970s, they moved out there, declared it Meadowlark and proceeded to live for an incredibly romantic year without plumbing. They were very young. They did have chickens! And a pig for two seconds, but all that went away quickly; selling organic eggs for three times the price of a normal egg had not yet become okay.
Yes, it was a different time. The only tweets were those of the birds, none more lovely than the meadowlark’s, and the charming “toodle-toodle-DOOT-doo, toodle-toodle-DOOT-doo” was the melody of the place. The cicadas in summer, the wind in the rushes, the chimes Dad hung in Possum Hollow (more on that in a moment) and the bark of our dog provided the rest of the soundtrack. Oh, and for awhile there were the shouts and yips of three little girls, too.
It was a perfect place to be a child. Many adults view childhood through an Instagram filter, but because the farm was honestly so lush and because we kids were ripped from it so abruptly, the place has taken on near-Narnian qualities with Neverland-level magic. The truth is as good as all that, though: we caught bunnies and patted them. We ran through fields of cattails. We swung on swings. Dad built a seriously awesome tree house and he built Possum Hollow, too. Possum Hollow was a house for possums. A big tree in the oak grove had died and Dad cut it down with his chainsaw. The base of the trunk was probably four feet across and hollowed out, which appealed greatly to a family of possums, who moved in at once. Dad put a peaked, wood-shingled roof on the thing and named it Possum Hollow. My family is always naming things.
And we were in love with it all. Nan made bows and arrows from sticks, and Rebecca and I played school in the room off the bedroom we all shared. Everyone was in shorts. Hair was long. Thunderstorms would roll in and we girls would sit on the porch swing, our mouths absolutely hanging open, watching the thunderheads mobilize and get darker and darker until CAA-RACK! the skies opened up and the world got wet. We held kittens during all this, protecting them.
One day, I got a note in class to go to the library after school, rather than take the bus home. I got to the library and my mom was there, followed by my sisters. My kid sister Rebecca had a red backpack, I remember that. She was no more than six. Mom told us that we would’t be going home that night, that we’d be staying with friends. Dad had lost his mind; it wasn’t safe to be so far away from town. He wasn’t violent, but he might’ve been. He wasn’t ever an alcohol or drug user, but there’s a first time for everything. He was the opposite of stable, that much was certain, and the game-time decision my mom made had to be made.
And we never went back.
Mom and Gramma and Grampa and friends packed up our stuff and we moved into Aunt Katherine’s old house in town because she was dead and it was available. It would be years before I would go back out to the farm. It lived like a cemetary out there, just seven miles from Winterset but a universe and a century away.
One time in high school I drove my Honda CR-X out there. I walked around. I swung on the swing. No one was living there that year, so I could explore Meadowlark Farm as long as I could take it, which was not very long. It was that afternoon I came the closest I have ever come to seeing a ghost. I cupped my hand and peered into the picture window, and my body froze. I swear I could see three little girls playing on the stairs, whooping and yipping calls up and down the steps, beloved animal figurines strewn about. If I couldn’t see them, I could feel them, and the feeling was strong, muchachos.
Years later, we got word the yellow house had burned down. I wept, and my mom hugged me. And we went back to whatever it was we were doing.
Given as I am to hyperbole and dramatics, one could read the above sentence and figure I’m in love with a dress, or an author, or a particular kind of squash. But no, I’m in love with a man. It’s happened, and it’s time to say something.
Admitting that you’ve fallen in love is a bit (I hear) like sharing that you’re pregnant: you don’t want to say anything until you’re absolutely sure and everything looks rosy because, you know, things happen. And people are so excited when someone falls in love or gets pregnant because except in a very few sad cases this is a happy occasion. (Sad cases for falling in love include it occuring when you are married to someone else; sad cases for getting pregnant include when you have a gaggle of children already and someone just lost a job. These sorts of things.)
It’s going on five months, now, spending time with this fellow. I reckon that’s about how long it takes to go gaga and see a relationship of consequence grow and inspire. Think about it: one month is just enough time to understand the other person’s job. Two months is great fun but come on. Three months and you’re like, “Hm, now wait a second,” four months is like, “Holy crap, I like you so much and we’re sort of dating,” and entering the fifth month is the bare minimum in terms of acceptability for announcing the world that you’ve gone round the bend and there has been embarrassing levels of eyeball-gazing between the two of you.
Is this all too sterile an analysis? It might even sound defensive. Okay, then forget all that. Let me just tell you about this person.
He’s devastatingly good-looking. (I will spare you details of his perfect smile, his sparkly eyes, his abdominal muscles.) He’s gainfully employed. He’s an excellent writer — perhaps the only “dealbreaker” I have, much as I hate that concept — he’s witty, he’s responsible, he’s way too much fun, he’s trilingual, and ladies? Brace yourself: he’s an accomplished piano player. HE PLAYS THE DAMNED PIANO. Very well, I might add. Oh for heaven’s sake! The moment I witnessed that, I was toast. Toast!
I out with it now because at this point, I’m skipping huge swaths of juicy PaperGirl content for the sake of modesty. But the adventures I’m having with this person are too good not to write about. So here we are.
He’s marvelous. I’m over the moon.
And in a mad change of plans, I’ll be leaving the icy slick of Iowa tomorrow morning on a plane to sun-drenched California. He’s visiting his family there and we’ve been apart almost three weeks. We can’t stand it another minute, so I booked a ticket. When I arrive in Santa Ana at 2:30 tomorrow afternoon, it’ll be the smooch heard ’round the world.
I wish my interaction with Simon Doonan had taken place today. If it had, I might still be able to pick up a whiff of whatever orchid-root-stem-cell-shea-butter lotion he had on his hands the day I did meet him. But this story is not from my trip to Arizona this week, sadly. When I met Simon Doonan in Scottsdale it was this past June. My story is day-old — but it’s half-price!
Simon Doonan is creative director of Barneys New York. Barneys is a luxury department store with flagship locations in the usual places: Chicago, Dallas, Boston, Omaha, etc. (Okay, not Omaha.) Barneys was founded in 1923 and naturally the high-end retailer has been through all the ups, downs, and way-downs any store would experience over the course of nearly 100 years in business. Through it all, Barneys has remained fabulous.
You know how everyone freaks out about the Macy’s Christmas window displays? Child’s play! Amateurs! As part of his job, Simon Doonan directs the window displays year-round at Barneys (take that, Santa) and they are resplendent n’ transcendent. They shimmer, they shock, they make you look. The scale is enormous or the scale is tiny. The displays poke fun and provoke and they are frequently quite funny. Beyond the windows — literally — Mr. Doonan is in charge of making Barneys Barneys, with its chrome and leather, its glass cases and $3,000 hat racks. When you see a Jimmy Choo delicately perched on a buttery-soft, buff-colored shoe tuffet, think Simon Doonan. He is responsible for the tuffet.
Mr. Doonan an excellent writer on top of all that; look up his work and you won’t be disappointed. He’s also married to designer Jonathan Adler, so if he needs advice when sketching something out, he can just holler from the den.
Okay, okay. So I’m in Arizona last June. I’m in Fashion Square Mall, walking toward Barneys. I’m killing time in the mall, schlepping around, marveling at how a fancy-pants shopping center like Fashion Square in Scottsdale for crying out loud could have such a dismal food court when there, straight ahead, was a man walking toward me who I recognized to be Simon Doonan.
He is a very handsome fellow. Diminutive. Impeccably dressed, naturally, in a velvet jacket — purple, I seem to remember. His hair was coiffed and jaunty. I made a little squeak — I don’t think he heard me — and I smiled a friendly smile. I was genuinely happy to see him. Simon Doonan of all things! He saw me smile and smiled back at me like, “Hm. I know you. Do I know you?”
“Hello,” I said, surprising myself that I was approaching a celebrity. But I had put the ball into play and so I instantly committed to making the interaction not lame. “Gosh, you’re Simon Doonan.”
“Yes, hi,” Simon Doonan said. “Do I know you?”
He really asked me, like he honestly thought he had met me before. Can you imagine how many people this person must meet in a week? Good heavens. I also felt exceptionally happy that I like fashion and tend to dress up “for no reason.” I think there’s always a good reason for fashion. Case in point: you might meet Simon Doonan in the mall. This is one of the many reasons sweatpants will never do. I looked chic and I was glad.
“No, you don’t know me,” I said, “But I know who you are. And I just want to say thank you. Thank you for all that you do to make the world a more beautiful place.”
We both raised our eyebrows. He was surprised to hear that. I was surprised to hear it, too — it was like I had rehearsed my whole life for my 20 seconds with Simon Doonan. It just came out like that, perfectly — and perfectly sincere.
“Well… Well thank you,” he stammered. “That’s… Well, lovely. Are you..?”
He asked what I was doing there, if I was with Barneys, etc., etc., and we chatted briefly. I told him that I was a quilter, a magazine editor, and that I host a show on PBS. He approved of all of this. And I even got a business card into his hand, though I have no doubt he tossed it into a dish of other business cards along with his South African dominoes, solid gold bricks, etc. The junk drawers and catch-all dishes of the fabulously wealthy and stylish contain items we do not posses. I’m resting at the bottom of one of those dishes, I’m afraid: Simon Doonan has not yet asked me to lunch. Still, I consider my moment with him to be a total win. I was not a nerd. I was not weird. I was chill. He invited me to a trunk show or some sort of reception at the store, but I was leaving the next morning.
Mr. Doonan, there’s still time. I’ll be in New York City for six weeks starting at the end of the month. I can tell you all about quilts, we can discuss the food court at Fashion Square Mall, or we could sort business cards and stack your gold bricks while we watch what’s happening on the Paris runways. I’m dying to see, aren’t you?
I’m also very good at drinking Champagne. I also would like to gauge your interest in me doing a capsule collection of quilts for Barneys. That is all.
I may be done with Arizona, but Arizona might not be done with me.
This morning, they cancelled my flight. When I checked in for the replacement, the Phoenix Airport ticket lady gave me a warning. “There’s weather in Chicago,” she said. “We can’t guarantee your flight will take off. The airline assumes responsibility to get you into Chicago, um, eventually, but assumes no outside costs for necessary accommodations or meals.” One might put it another way: “You’re on your own, kid. The days of ‘Here’s a burrito punch card and a straw mat at the Holiday Inn Express’ are extremely over. Take care. Next customer please step up?”
To pass the time, I’ve been working. I’ve also been looking out the panes of huge floor-to-ceiling glass here in Terminal 3 because the desert’s out there and there’s no better place to look than that.
It’s odd, but there’s something in me that doesn’t want to love the desert. Whither this ridiculous feeling? I intensely dislike “Southwestern-style” artwork, with the howling dog silhouettes and the tutti-frutti sunsets and all those terra cotta jars, but can that really be my problem? It doesn’t seem fair to dismiss an entire landmass because of a few cheesy art galleries. Is my resistance to falling head over heels for the desert born out of my love of oak trees and the lushness of land near the Mississippi? There is no oak, no mighty river out here. As I look out across the sand, I feel perhaps that it’s not the desert itself that I love: it’s the West. From Cali to just before Kansas, baby. I am in love with it.
And could you blame me.
In 2004, my friend Sarah and I hiked Grand Canyon for six days. We hiked down, down, down into the rocks, we camped in a tent, we cooked beans in a tin. We talked. Nietzsche said that “The best thoughts are conceived while walking” and hiking through a field of daisies with Sarah, yes. We skinny-dipped in an ice-cold stream at the bottom of the canyon. That day, the light was silver and we were gold.
A rodeo. I watched the riders with the wide-eyed fascination and glee of a six-year-old at Disney. This was when I was married. My former husband and I had a ball. We ate a whole bucket of buttery popcorn, he had a couple beers. The smell of horse manure mixed with the smell of Tuscon cowboys and those horses! Bucking and throwing and running, running in the ring. The only thing more exhilarating was the endless, dusky sky above us. We saw the stars come out.
Las Vegas, Nevada Last year, I understood how to love Las Vegas: you gotta open your hands and turn your wrists up, so that Vegas can bind you with its rope. If you let it do that, Vegas will lead you around and you won’t trip, but you must submit. Don’t fight the lights. Bring your bathing suit. The moment you moralize, you are at odds. Be one with the hammer. You’ll dig the hit.
Somewhere Outside Sacramento College, 1998. I went with my new college BFFs to Sacramento to visit my aunt and uncle for spring break. We drank fresh orange juice on the terrace and smoked cigars at night. Madonna’s Ray of Light album had been released. We listened to that single on blast, over and over and over in our rented pick-up truck, flying down Interstate 5. I still remember Nellie’s blonde hair whipping and I remember Scott just laughing.
Denver and Boulder, CO I flew in to visit my high school girlfriend. I remember coming up out of the bowl of Denver and how the whole place seemed dove gray, steely. Then on into Boulder and the rolling green of it all. The air was better than anyplace I had ever been.