A Poopy Crime In Utah!

posted in: Day In The Life, Sicky, Tips, Travel 3
The sketch I made of the whole incident. It's even on my letterhead!
The sketch I made of the whole incident. Hey, that’s my letterhead!

I haven’t told anyone this story from the road trip yet because there is shame involved. It’s a tad longer, but stay with me because it’s got a great payoff.

One night in Utah, I had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. This was not unusual, so before lights out, I had done my preparations. That night was a sleep-in-the-car night, which meant that once the seats in the SUV were released and the make-shift bed was made, I put my flip-flops, Handi-Wipes, and fluffy roll of TP into the cubby in the passenger-side door. On the hook above the window, I hung my hoodie and the car keys.

When you are inside a locked car and then try to leave it, unless you first unlock it, the car alarm will sound when you open the door. You must then stab your fob’s “Alarm Off” function, sixty times to get it to stop. When we camped in the car, of course my friend and I locked up once we were inside. This meant that in the middle of the night, when I would get up and go to the bathroom (read: bush), I would have to locate the keys in the dark, make sure I unlocked the car, then exit. Exiting, by the way, was a Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus clown car routine: I squeezed out the door and essentially did a sommersault onto the grass.

We were in a public park that night, so the spot I found was near the public bathroom facilities. I say “near” because the facilities were locked up at sundown, something I found out when I tried to open the door. Okay, no problem. The lights inside the brick structure appeared to be motion-sensored, so I jumped up and down and got the lights to go on, which threw light onto the grass behind the building. It wasn’t a lot of light, but it was enough to “go” by, heh, heh. So I went. Because it was 3am and there was only a dim light by which to see, I covered up my…visit with leaves and sticks and earth matter with every intention — this is important — with every intention to clean everything up in the morning. I respect my National Parks! Bleary eyed, sleepy, with grass in my hair but much relieved, I tumbled back into the car and went to sleep.

In the morning, I looked for the keys to unlock the door before Claus and I got out and made tea. No keys. Not under the sleeping bags. Not on the floor by the seats. Not in the front. Not in the back. We were trapped in the car. If we opened the door, the alarm would scream and, not having keys, there would be no way to turn it off. It was getting really hot inside that car. We finally determined that we could open the car doors because the dashboard screen said, “No fob detected,” which, considering the situation, is the best example of a “mixed blessing” ever.

We took a deep breath and opened the doors. No alarm sounded. The keys were nowhere. They were really, really nowhere. I combed the park, convinced I had sleepwalked the perimeter in my pajamas and dropped the keys. Claus looked under the car twelve times. We looked for an hour and then I began to cry. Those keys, impossibly, were Gone. Do you know how much it costs to get a replacement key for a rental car? Both cell phones were dying. This was a bad, bad situation. Oh, and one other thing: I looked many times around the makeshift bathroom area I had created at 3am. Not only were the keys not there, but my bathroom, such as it was, was not there. I didn’t have to clean anything because there was nothing there. No paper, no leaf cover. Someone had cleaned.

I called the Park District. Had someone been by? Had they found keys at XYZ Public Park near Zion?? I was going to clean up! Please! Don’t judge me! And okay, judge me, but did someone find keys for heaven’s sake?? Nothing here, they said, but you could talk to the police. I was patched to the station and I blubbed the story to the officer there, that I have a condition that makes me have to poop all the time [sorry] and I have to go in the night, and was it at all possible that a Park District person came through, saw that there was an…incident, and cleaned up and maybe found car keys nearby?? Somehow??

There was a silence. Then:

“Well, I’ve got your keys,” the officer said.

I almost fell off the memorial stone slab I was sitting on. “You do??? You DO???” I flapped my hands at Claus. “You have them?? But…but how? Oh, god… Someone found my… Oh, no, oh no…” And I began blubbing again that I’m not a bad person, that I’m a law-abiding citizen (mostly) and, “I’m so, so sorry that –”

“First of all, you can’t be campin’ in the park,” he said. “And yeah, the guy who does the bathrooms over there found the mess. He waddn’t too happy ’bout it, either. Stepped right into it. He found the keys in the grass there and brought ’em over to us. I can get ’em over to you in about an hour when I’ve taken care of this other thing.”

I wept. I told the officer that I would pay any fine he’d slap me with and would enjoy paying it. He said that wasn’t necessary. When he brought the keys I again begged him to let me give him money. He declined and said it was all no big deal and to get along, now. I think he took pity on a girl who had slept in a car and had to poop in the middle of the night.

Later, Claus said that in the early morning, he had heard what he thought were two men arguing. We figure it was the cleaning guy, shouting and hollering when he discovered the situation. I’ll have you know from then on, I did not wait until the morning to clean up any bathroom area I created. Turns out there are these things called flashlights.

Pick Your Beauty.

posted in: Tips 2
Me, looking at mountain. Photo: Claus; adjustments by me.
Me, looking at mountain, somewhere in the American West. Photo: Claus.


You don’t have to be devastated by the beauty a grand, famous, “so-amazing-you-will-freak-out” landscape. Your heart may not burst out of your chest at Observation Point X, you may not burst into song when you see a big wave. You may hate Grand Canyon. You might think it’s sort of monotonous. I’m not looking to defend a person who looks at the sea lions at Ano Nuevo and says, “Whatever. Can we go to Burger King?” I am looking to defend people who respect the Titans but feel guilty when they’re not devastated by the “raw, eternal power” of them.

There were times on the road trip when we’d be driving, leave a mountain pass and bam! some HD vista would open up before us. We’d stop mid-sentence and just gape. The basin before we got to Grand Canyon was like that for me. The rolling hills, the endless blue of the sky, the ghosts of all those buffalo… That swath of earth touched me so much — felt so familiar to me — I couldn’t stop crying. It was weird.

But Yosemite? I don’t know. It was cool. But the camping, camaraderie, and cookstove, well, that was what was great about Yosemite for me. Yosemite is brushy pine trees and a lot of grey-white rock. Not my thing, really. The tour guides (we had three to choose from, all very useful) are full of words like “breathtaking” and “stunning” and “awe-inspiring,” but this is dangerous. One reads these things and hears about places that are “must-sees” and it creates great pressure to feel something when we get to Yosemite, or when we gaze out into Grand Canyon.

But you don’t have to be awe-inspired. You might be more inspired walking through your neighborhood at dusk on your way to the store for milk. The light might be just right, the nice lady who lives on the corner might wave from her porch. This can be more beautiful to you than a big mountain.

I say it because it took me a long time to learn that. I saw the Mona Lisa once and I just didn’t get it. I felt terrible, thought for sure there was something wrong with me. But I like so many paintings so much more, and it’s okay. I liked Zion way better than Grand Canyon. Anyhow, the unsolicited advice tonight is to not let People tell you what’s Beautiful. You decide. No pressure.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The woman in the image above finds the landscape she’s looking at to be very, very beautiful.]

How To Gain 5-6 Pounds In Three Weeks (And How To Lose It!)

posted in: Food, Tips, Travel 0
Wait a second -- is that a hamburger down right? Still life by Clara Peeters (fl. 1601 - 1621.)
Wait a second — is that a hamburger down right? Still life by Clara Peeters (fl. 1601 – 1621.)

Ever wanted to gain something like 5-6 pounds in a hurry? Sure, we all do! Follow my simple steps below and you’ll be on your way. Be sure to read all the way to the flabby bottom to learn how to lose it, too!!!

Step 1: Sit in a car for 3-7 hours a day for three weeks.

Step 2: Tell yourself that hiking and camping are basically exercise.

Step 3: Eat lots of cashews, dates, small chunks of parmesan cheese (your favorite) and banana leather, telling yourself that none of these foods are processed and are therefore basically calorie-free. Travel with a European so that you get plenty of full-fat yogurt with muesli, even though you never eat, nor spell correctly, muesli. Eat chocolate and tell yourself that because it’s the expensive kind and you’re sharing it with someone, you’re not really eating that much.

Step 4: Consume Pringles because your travel companion has a “thing” for them and though you have not eaten a single Pringle since freshman year in college, this is a crucial step. Do you want to gain 5-6 pounds in three weeks or don’t you?? Motivation, determination. Note while eating Pringles that the slogan on the can, “Once you pop, you can’t stop” is accurate.

Step 5: Feel exceedingly happy. Feeling happy will cloud your awareness that you are on your way to gaining 5-6 pounds in three weeks.

Step 6: Repeat steps 1-6.

Now that you’ve gained 5-6 pounds in three weeks, aren’t you wondering how to lose it?? Sure, we all do! I’m here to tell you the secret to losing 5-6 pounds not in three weeks, not in two weeks, but in one week with almost zero effort! Probably! Maybe not! But this secret step will unlock your potential to lose 5-6 pounds before you know it! Here it is:

Step 1: Stop doing all those things.

Step 2: Resume your normal life, which includes walking to the store and stuff.

Now get going, and remember: your weight is in your hands! And on your hips.

A House, A Home.

posted in: D.C., Day In The Life, Tips 1
Note 1970s cross-stitch in frame sitting on windowsill, which reads: “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” This piece has traveled with me many years.
Note 1970s cross-stitch in frame sitting on windowsill, which reads: “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” This piece has traveled with me many years.

A major decision was made last week. 

By the way, I’m good on big decisions. I don’t mean that I’m good at them. I mean I’ve had enough of them for awhile, as in, “No, please, Nonna — I’m good on kugel,” or “Wow, okay, I think I’m good on socks.” Small decisions I can handle, e.g., grapefruit or pears, to shower or not to shower, etc. Unfortunately, the universe keeps pitching big ones to me and what can I do but catch?

The major decision was to not go to Chicago to retrieve my furniture. I will rent my apartment furnished. 

Whenever I thought about moving these items halfway across the country, my stomach hurt. I envisioned the getting of the large moving truck. I pictured the getting of the objects. I saw the freight elevator. I saw the drive from Chicago to D.C. And I saw the other freight elevator waiting for me on the other side and I saw the cost and I saw the problem of fitting things that live in a 1500 sq. ft. condo into an 800 sq. ft. apartment. It’s more precise to say that my stomach would hurt first and then my guts would churn and then my head would throb and then my left eye would begin to twitch. 

But I clung to the “need” to do this. Why? Because of my attachment to these things of mine. I ain’t no Buddhist, but I seem to recall that, according to them, suffering is due to attachment. Attachment to expectations, attachment to people, attachment to one’s coffee table even if it is really, really fabulous — nesting glass and just… I can’t talk about it. 

The moment I allowed myself to let go of my furniture, my objects (for another year, anyway) my spirits soared. No semi-trailer. No freight elevators. No worries about how it all would fit here — it all will not, no way, no how. I would surely end up selling my beautiful table, which is not what I want at all. 

This was all excellent, except that the bed, the table, and the sofa I was planning on having in a couple weeks were suddenly not on their way. I’ve been living like a monk, you realize. I have a decent mattress/quilt/blanket pile that is remarkably comfortable for sleeping, but I have been sitting on a little mat with a throw pillow to have my breakfast. I have no chair, no couch. No bed frame. And so, once the decision to leave material things behind, I had to set about getting new ones. What do the Buddhists say about that, hm?

Yesterday, I got the most incredible, amazing deal on a bed from Overstock. And today, I went thrifting. Look at what I found! Wow, was there ever a lot of junk at that place. But I found, for around $200 total: a cool iron floor lamp (needs shade), a green easy chair in fantastic shape, a lucite stool (!), an actual vintage trash can for the bathroom, four darling, mismatched china plates (pink! gold! floral!) and a fruit bowl. I’m on my way.

When I went to put a can of tomatoes in my beans, however, I was stymied, as I realized I do not yet have a can opener. 

Tips For Excellent Speaking + Writing.

posted in: Tips, Work 1
Italian translation of Orwell's "Animal Farm", 1970. Photo: Wikipedia
Italian translation of Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, 1970. Photo: Wikipedia

From time to time, people email me for writing advice. I assure you, I am the wrong person to ask. The best writing advice comes from the giants, the legends, the authors you have to read in high school and should have read in college except you did not, preferring to do jell-o shots. Did you ever ask yourself, “But what would Willa Cather think??” Yeah, me neither.

One of the best writers of the last twenty or thirty years, in my view, was the late Christopher Hitchens. Whatever you think about his life, lifestyle, or politics, the man was so good at writing that when I read him, I am equally depressed and encouraged. I’m depressed because I am so bad at writing, comparatively; I am encouraged because words and sentences can be just that good.

Hitchens was a huge fan of George Orwell; he spoke of him often and wrote a lengthy biographical essay about him, which of course is awesome. You know Orwell: he wrote 1984 and Animal Farm (one or both of which you surely had to read in high school.) It was Hitchens who reminded me of how important and great Orwell is/was, so some years ago, I went after Orwell, myself. I re-read Animal Farm (dude) and did some Internet reading about him, too. Paydirt was hit, however, when I discovered Orwell’s five rules for writing. I actually did a piece on this for the Chicago “Salonathon” show and that can be found here.

Orwell’s writing rules changed my life. I’ll just toss out the first one tonight. Go find the others yourself if you’re interested: they are worth printing out and sticking to your forehead if you have any writerly aspirations. Orwell’s first rule is: Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

You may not, therefore, ever, ever write any sentence like the ones below.

1. “That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” she said, shrugging.
2. I like long walks on the beach. 
3. Though Mayor Brown was reluctant, never say never: he’ll be tossing his hat into the presidential race this year.

I was reminded of the pain of ignoring Orwell’s first rule the other night at Washington Reagan baggage check. It wasn’t a written example (except that it is now.) A man saw a woman struggling to retrieve a heavy piece of luggage from the carousel. He got in there, lifted the bag with one arm, and set it down. The woman thanked him and as she walked away, wheeling her bag, this lady near me chirped, “I guess chivalry isn’t dead!”

Did she hear the tiny wheeze I wheezed when I heard her say that? Her comment was so dead, so flat, so totally banal, it was my involuntary reaction. She’s a nice woman. She knew not what she did. And I’m not the word police. But chivalry is, in fact, dead. The way we use the term in our time is like, the fourth definition listed in the dictionary. Language is fluid and bendy, I know, I know. But wouldn’t it be more dynamic to say/write, “Well, that was a nice thing to do,” or, “Is he single?”

Again, this advice is not coming from me. Even making suggestions based in Orwell’s advice makes me nervous. I’m sure actual writers will chuckle as they read this post, seeing entire paragraphs to cut and sentences that are the dog’s breakfast.

That’s exactly why I go over and over these rules. At least I’m trying, you know?

Reverse The Narrative.

posted in: Chicago, D.C., Tips 0
I can see my house from here! Photo: Wikipedia, 2006.
I can see my house from here! Photo: Wikipedia, 2006.

When I’m facing a challenge that seems impossible, or when I’m standing at a path in the woods that is diverging before my eyes, there’s a tool in my toolbelt I find handy. It doesn’t solve the problem for me, but it helps…with the drywall? Hm. Okay, the tool metaphor does not extend terribly well. I’ll just tell you what I mean. It’s not a complex concept — maybe it’s something people do it all the time — but if it’s new to you, perhaps it will help you with a challenge, also:

I pretend it’s the future and I’m telling someone what happened in the situation I’m currently facing. For example:

“Well, what can I say? It was a tough time in my life. I was heartsick. I left New York. I was in Washington in a kind of limbo, trying to decide if I’d stay or leave. But I trusted myself, I made what I believed was the braver choice and now look at me! I’ve never been happier.”

See what I mean? It sort of calms me down. Because it illustrates what we know will happen: we’ll talk later — casually, even off-handedly — about something that seems impossible to us now. Let’s try another one, perhaps more relevant to you than the above example:

“I never thought I’d buy an entire island. Who does that? But then I thought, ‘I am a billionaire. Why not enjoy it?’ So I shopped around and it was so extremely difficult to choose between the two I fell in love with and the legal stuff was an absolute nightmare — the French Polynesians are a real pain in the neck, trust me — but you know what? It was worth it. All the pain. All the flying back and forth. I almost gave up a dozen times. But I stuck with it. And now look at me! I’ve never been happier.”

You see what I mean.

In the next few days, I will announce the decision I’ve made regarding staying in DC or going back to Chicago. Curious? Me, too. It’s time to start telling the story.

The Year Of Terrible Couches Shall Soon Come To An End.

posted in: Chicago, D.C., Paean, Rant, Story, Tips 1
This doesn't look too bad. But you should probably try out that couch before you sign the lease. Photo: Wikipedia
This doesn’t look too bad. But you should probably try out that couch before you sign the lease. Photo: Wikipedia

What can be said about the sofas in our lives?

Not much. A sofa makes the news in your head or your household when you buy a new one. A sofa is exciting when you’re shopping for a new one. It’s exciting when you remove the old one and put in the new one. After a few weeks, though, the sofa recedes into the landscape of your home and that’s good because you have better things to think about. Hopefully.

But for me, for almost a year now, the object that is the couch* has stubbornly refused to leave my portfolio of active thoughts. This is because since leaving Chicago almost a year ago, regardless of the agony and the ecstasy of the entire adventure, it has been The Year of Terrible Couches. It’s like the Chinese “Year of The Goat” thing except no one is ever, ever born in The Year of Terrible Couches and we should all be thankful for that. Let’s celebrate by eating a fortune cookie. Done? Excellent. Let’s examine what I’m talking about.

When I was first in New York with Yuri, we had a furnished place for just a couple months on 10th Street and 2nd Ave. I filmed my book promo video while we were in that place. Then, when we officially moved to New York in June, we got a furnished place on St. Mark’s. Then, when everything became hard and sad, I moved into a furnished apartment in D.C. with rats in the walls. Then, the management company relocated me to the place where I’m sitting currently. That’s not one, not two, not three (I’m weeping, now), but four furnished apartments in a single year.

You do realize this is not my normal life, right? I am not a fan of chaos. Chaos, it appears, is extremely fond of me, at least this year. Thanks, chaos.

Here’s the thing about furnished apartments: they are lousy. If you have no furniture, maybe they are great. Any couch is better than no couch, right? Fine. But I have a couch. I have arguably the best couch ever. It’s in Chicago right now, being used by my adorable med school tenants. Why? Because moving to NYC was always going to be a yearlong experiment and what are you, nuts?! You can’t move a couch into Manhattan! You have to go there with your hobo stick and just figure it out from there, find someone who can take you to the IKEA in Jersey! Please! Anyway, my gorgeous couch in Chicago is wide. It’s leather. It’s sky blue leather with chrome legs. (I bought it at a sample sale at Design Within Reach.) It’s sleek and sexy, but it’s functional. You can take a nap on it. You can sit cross-legged and eat your lunch on it. You can watch a movie on it. And you can… Well, you can do a lot of things on that couch. Trust me.

The four couches that I have been subjected to over the past year… I can hardly talk about it. Do you realize how awful a couch can be? If it’s shallow, your back hurts when you try to sit back. If it’s a sectional that doesn’t have those grippy things on the bottom and your floor is slick, the parts separate and slide all around! Good grief! That’s a Beckett play! If the couch is so old it’s buckling (see: St. Mark’s) you are asking for early-onset arthritis. A bad couch is sad, indeed, and I realize this is as luxury a problem as luxury problems get. But what can I do? It’s been The Year of Terrible Couches and as the hourglass runs out of sand, as I am forced to make a decision to stay in D.C. or go back to Chicago, this much is true: The Year of Terrible Couches is about to end. If I go home, I get my couch. If I stay here, I’m going back for all my stuff, kids. If I stay in D.C., I am staying in D.C. with my couch. 

Sofa. Whatever.

*I’m from Iowa; it’s a couch

On Tripping & Falling.

posted in: Day In The Life, Story, Tips 1
German warning sign. That's what my box looked like! Photo: Wikipedia
German warning sign. That’s what my box looked like! Photo: Wikipedia

Yesterday I tripped and fell flat on my back. Since I’m okay, it’s hilarious.

It’s strange to trip and fall down as an adult. Toddlers fall all the time because they’re figuring out how to walk. Children fall because they’re running and playing. And of course the elderly fall sometimes and that is dangerous and can even lead to death if they can’t get to a phone for help or if the fall is particularly bad, what with all those brittle bones. But to fall all the way down to the ground in one’s thirties is a rare occurrence and disorienting.

Here’s what happened: I had to ship a huge box of wardrobe and quilts to Chicago. I printed out my UPS label and went to take it down to the front desk of my building for pickup. On the way to the elevator, I decided to just push the box with my foot; I had my purse and my computer bag in my hands.

When I got to the elevator and the doors opened, I kept trying to kick the box in but it was getting caught in the space between the hall and the floor of the elevator. I leaned into the box and when I really tried to give it a shove with my whole leg, that’s when I fell, tumbling over the box, right into the elevator. I was “a– over elbows,” as they say; finding myself looking at the ceiling of the elevator. My purse went flying and my computer bag fell with me with a troubling thud.

After I recovered, I burst out laughing. Then I got up to collect my things and myself off. The elevator doors kept trying to shut on that darned box until I finally pulled the thing in. I thanked my lucky stars no one had seen this.

The last time I fell as an adult, I was walking on an icy sidewalk. And in middle school, I was running way too fast and tripped on concrete, flat on my face. I broke my nose or at least cracked it; I never saw a doctor, so I have this strange little bump on the side of my nose that has never gone away. You can’t really see it, but I know it’s there.

Watch your step.

Smartphones: The Rules of Engagement

posted in: Tips 0
Who needs a lecture about the (fascinating) East India Company? Photo: Wikipedia
Who needs a lecture about the (fascinating) East India Company? Photo: Wikipedia

One of the more maddening conversations (or is it proclamations?) that I hear these days are among parents lamenting how their kids are always tied to their phones and video games computers and tablets, how social media sucks up all their attention. Stop buying them these devices, then. They get them because parents buy them for the kids. A parent may protest, saying that life is impossible without these tools, that their kids will be hopelessly lame and isolated from their peers without them. A fair argument; now, parents leave those kids alone.*

As it pertains to my life, however, I abide by one simple rule: I only use my smartphone for entertainment or time-passing if what I’m surrounded by is — without a shadow of a doubt — less interesting that what’s on my phone.

Usually, this means that don’t use it that much when I’m out and about. I do check email, I do respond to texts and things; if I’m getting navigation information, of course I use my phone because it’s made of magic. I’m talking about sitting in a coffee shop and burying my head in the thing, or being in an airport and never once looking up because I’m scrolling through Facebook. In a coffee shop, in an airport, in a hotel lobby and other places like these, I’m confident that what I’ll observe around me is more thought-provoking than playing Candy Crush.* Look at that: the woman eating her breakfast alone. The couple arguing under their breath over by the window. The beautiful chandelier. The bellman who is past retirement age but still working as a bellman. What is the world made of? What is American culture? Someone designed and built this building, someone is about to lose their job today, someone is having sex somewhere, right now, in this hotel! Observing the world leads to wondering how we interact. There’s so much to see absolutely everywhere.

Now, consider an empty doctor’s office with a table of magazines offering Newsweek, Golf Digest, and Men’s Health. I might peruse Newsweek for the 6.1 seconds it takes to go through the entire thing nowadays, but after that, it’s Phone City for me. There’s very little to take in in that situation; anything that might be worth it, I’ve already seen. I feel the same way about standing in a vestibule waiting to be picked up. Looking at Instagram seems appropriate there: pictures of quilts and Madonna’s latest selfie are way, way more interesting than staring at a vase of fake pussy willows.

As always, giving advice feels wrong, but a floating a friendly thought for consideration seems okay: consider the bird, not the tweet.

*I’ve never played Candy Crush, so I could be wrong about this, but I’m gonna roll those dice.

Shine On, Crazy Shoes.

posted in: Day In The Life, Tips 0
Astaire in Royal Wedding. Can you imagine how shiny his shoes are? With the suit and the top hat?? Oh, brother.
Astaire in Royal Wedding. Can you imagine how shiny his shoes are? With the suit and the top hat?? Oh, brother.

I’m in downtown Chicago for the next twenty-four and I’m feelin’ fine.

The buildings look just like I remember them (tall, smart) and the weather is a familiar negative ten-thousand degrees. It’s great! I love Chicago so much. As I clippity-clopped through the city today, doing errands, I thought about the expression, “I know _____ like the back of my hand.” I’ll bet I know downtown Chicago better. I’ve seen the back of my hand a lot, but which one? And at what stage of life? My hands keep changing, but Chicago is Chicago is Chicago.

But a city is hell on shoes. The low-slung cowboy boots I’ve been hoofing around in for the past couple months were looking awful: dirty and dull, desperately in need of a shoe facial. So, after I turned in a bunch of work, etc., I went in search of a shoe shine shop. Find one I did, and I sat there trying not to smile like a weirdo through the whole thing because I had forgotten that there is perhaps nothing on Earth — on Earth — that feels better than walking out of a shoe shine shop with shiny shoes. Hey, don’t take my word for it: take Fred Astaire’s word for it. Take Fred Astaire’s word for everything. There’s a song he sings called “Put a Shine On Your Shoes” in the MGM movie The Bandwagon. This song says everything better than I could say on this topic. Consider:

When you feel as low/As the bottom of a well/And can’t get out of the mood/Do something to perk yourself up/And change your attitude/Give a tug to your tie/Put a crease in your pants/But if you really want to feel fine/Give your shoes a shine

When there’s a shine on your shoes/There’s a melody in your heart/With a singable happy feeling/A wonderful way to start/To face the world every day/With a deedle-dum-dee-dah-dah/A little melody that is making/The worrying world go by

Put a shine on your shoes/Put a shine on your shoes… [REPEAT AD INFINITUM.]

The number is marvelous. Astaire twirls up to the guy working the shoe shine stand and wins him over like he always wins everyone over; before long, the guy is killing the rhythm with his brushes and his towel as he works. Of course, all the extras in the background are happy, smiling at the song and dance. There are some charming slapstick moments — there so often were in these sorts of films — but obviously the best thing about it is that it’s a number about feet and it’s Fred Astaire, so what more do you want in life? In life! A number focusing expressly on Fred Astaire’s feet?? Just… Just stick a fork in me. I’m done. You’re done, too! There’s no way you’re going to keep reading this because you’re clicking over to YouTube right now to watch Fred Astaire dance, aren’t you? It’s okay. I left writing to watch it, too.

Have you come back? I hope so. I’m almost done. I only wanted to say that my boots look brand new after my shoe shine. In fact, they look better than when I got them. I’m a new woman. And the coolest thing was when the guy was almost finished, he did one final back n’ forth with the clean towel around each heel and quick whipped it off with a “thwap!” It was like a gun went off, it was so loud! Awesome. If it’s possible to tip too liberally, I did.

Shine those shoes.

For the Quilters: A New Way to Stash

posted in: D.C., Quilting, Tips 2
It's like the olden days!
It’s like the olden days, all colorful and random and cozy. In process: “George Washington’s Cabin,” by Mary Fons, 2015.

If you’re not a quilter, you probably don’t have a stash.

Yeah, yeah. Go ahead and make a “Well, my husband has a mustache” joke. But watch it: if there are quilters in your midst, they may be inching toward you, tightening their grip on their sharp rotary cutters. A quilter’s fabric stash is, in the simplest terms, the fabric that she owns that is not in a quilt, yet. A quilter’s stash is her library, her paint palette, her big lake of color and texture from which she brings great ladles of the stuff to put into her patchwork.

As you can imagine, some stashes are bigger than others. Quilters who have been sewing since the early 1980s have… a lot of fabric. Those who are new might have just the seeds of a stash. Some folks hoard and some folks cull (ahem) but if you make quilts in any serious way — and you ought to — you have fabric somewhere. And that is your stash.

Did I mention I moved around a lot in 2014? I moved around a lot in 2014. A good two-thirds of my fabric stash is in storage in Chicago, but I have a whole lot with me, too, and that means I’ve transported all this fabric many times in the past nine months or so. And something cool happened in the shuffle: I changed my stash organization style and this has made all the difference.

I used to organize my stash by color. All the reds, all the greens, etc., all together. Now, this is a fantastic way to do things and as a quilter who typically starts with color inspiration and goes from there, I fully support this mode of stashing. But because all my fabric has been in and out of boxes all year, keeping it all color-coded has been hard. So what’s happened is that my tiny red prints are getting thrown in with my wide, black stripes, my yellow chambray is all up in my calicoes, my browns and pinks are sleeping with each other — it’s mass hysteria. And it’s fabulous.

I’m seeing new combinations. I’m considering new styles. Fabrics I might never have put together before (e.g., pink, burgundy, navy) become, suddenly, very necessary combos.

So there you go. Mix ‘er up. Don’t be too regimented. A tidy stash and studio are essentials and I’ll keep preaching that gospel till I’m dead, but don’t be too strict with your materials. As I say in my book:

“Quilts are like dogs; the best ones are usually mixed breeds.”

Make It Work: How To Spruce Up A Bad Apartment

posted in: D.C., Day In The Life, Tips 0
My living room. It wasn't finished at this point, but it was getting there.
My living room. It wasn’t finished at this point, but it was getting there.

It’s true that I had a moment of real despair when I moved into my new apartment. When the door shut behind me, I saw, as if for the first time, the unit for which I had just signed a six-month lease.

The flat screen TV was gargantuan. Its tyrannical throne was a clear glass table that was long and rectangular, too short and shallow to use as my sewing table, far too big to stash in a closet. The cords for the TV, the DVD player, the cable box, the router, the other router and several extension cords were in tangled hell on the floor and because the table was glass, the tangle was practically the centerpiece for the room. The cream-colored sectional had at least eight slightly dingy cream-colored pillows and a couple ratty light blue ones; a weak afterthought. There were several fake plants. Ugly, mass-produced “art” adorned the walls and my heart just sank. The drapes were heavy and blue. In every kitchen cupboard I found dozens upon dozens of glasses meant for alcohol: plastic martini glasses, plastic margarita glasses, shot glasses, drinking glasses, juice glasses. There were Dollar Store tzchokes everywhere, and for some inexplicable reason, more tupperware containers in a lower kitchen cupboard than I have ever seen in one place in my life. This apartment was a revolving door. It put the “corporate” and “temporary” in “corporate temporary housing.”

Something had to be done. A lot of somethings. I sat like Rodin’s Thinker and thought and thought. Then I dove in.

Curtains: down and folded and into the utility closet. All but six glasses — for water drinking and juice — were stored in a cupboard with 98% of the tupperware. All tzchokes stowed. All art (except this one really cool framed cloth Guatemalan thing, which I love) replaced with the few pieces I brought on my journey this year. I wrastled with the couch cushion covers until I got them all off and into the washing machine they went. I salvaged exactly three white bowls in the kitchen’s dish cupboard and stowed every other dark blue plate and bowl. Because ew.

I completely dismantled the “entertainment station.” None of it survived. My new home might be on life support, soul-wise, but it didn’t stand a chance with a TV. I unscrewed the cable box, unplugged everything, untangled all the cords, organized everything and into a box in the (pleasingly spacious) bedroom closet they went. The 1,000 plastic hangers I found went into bags and into the utility closet and I unpacked my wooden hangers and lovingly hung my wardrobe. The glass table I swapped for the lean-to desk that was weirdly in the bedroom and the tall, boxy, glass IKEA storage shelves I moved together and set them at an angle for my fabric. Tablecloth on the glass “dining” table which is now my sewing studio. Design wall, up. I ordered dimmer switches for the track lighting in the kitchen and living room. Down came the depressing brown shower curtain and I found a very cool, very bright white one on Amazon and promptly ordered that, too. And a gorgeous, Lucite lamp for my sewing table.

And I was reminded, once again, that if you put enough quilts and enough books in a room, you cannot fail.

Every scrap of linen was washed in practically boiling water and I turned the easy chair at an angle toward the window so that I could look out at the tops of the buildings in the morning as I write and have my tea.

And now? I love it here. My surface remodeling worked and, dare I say, it’s darned cozy in here. I could almost feel the space going, “Where have you been all my life?”

Uh, Iowa, Chicago, New York and many points in between. I pick up a few things.

Me And George.

posted in: D.C., Day In The Life, Tips, Travel 0
Portrait of George by Gilbert Stuart Williamstown. Not another town! Gah!
Portrait of George by Gilbert Stuart Williamstown. Not another town! Gah!

Moving to a new city means relinquishing your card to the People Who Know Where They’re Going club. Because you don’t. Know where you’re going. Even with Google Maps, sometimes.

And now, a quick history lesson with creepy details:

Several hundred years ago, America’s forefathers formed a more perfect union. Around the same time, the urban planners of Washington, DC drew a circle around all that hot, democratic action and built a city around it. Washington is organized into four quadrants (NE, NW, SE, SW). To have a city divided like that, you have to have a central locus point. Are you ready to freak out?

The central locus of DC is a crypt.

Did you know that?! Turns out, to properly navigate your way through DC, you gotta pivot on a skeleton. Well, sort of. Here’s the deal: the Capitol Building has a rotunda, which is the inside of the big, beautiful Capitol dome (currently covered in scaffolding because it’s having some work done.) The Capitol crypt is located directly below the rotunda and was made to be the entrance to George Washington’s tomb, two levels down. I know!

George Washington politely declined to be entombed in the Capitol Building, however. Since he was dead when he expressed his wishes, he got whatever he wanted. (Just kidding; his wishes were in his last will.) Washington is actually buried in Mount Vernon, VA, on the family’s estate. But the crypt and tomb are still the smack-dab middle of DC and you can tour the place, which I’m going to do as soon as The Great Holiday Goof-Off officially ends. (I love The Great Holiday Goof-Off but it’s cutting into my DC museum time.)

From the crypt, the streets in DC are numbered going east, from 1st to 2nd, to 3rd, and so on. They are also numbered the same as they go west: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so on, but these numbers are claimed by different quadrants. The same system goes for the north and south, but the city planners used letters instead of numbers or names. To go north of the crypt, you hit A, B, C, etc.; heading south, you do the same thing, but — and I know you’re getting this, students — you’re in a different quadrant. To go to 4th and F Street, you need to know which 4th and which F Street you need. Because there are two of those.

This system makes a lot of sense as long as know which way is north. If you get turned around, you’ll end up on the other side of town pretty quickly. (Ask me how I know.) Then there’s the matter of all the state-named diagonals that cut through the grid. Thinking of those right now gives me a headache. I slightly hate Massachusetts Avenue; it has foiled several of my expeditions. It goes down but it heads west! It’s… I can’t talk about it.

One of my favorite writers died of cancer a few years ago. He made the comment that the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a bromide with essentially zero truth behind it. If you’re in a car accident and walk away without a scratch, you might have a little swagger. If you learn from mistakes that were painful, you may become wiser. But chemotherapy, round after round, doesn’t make anyone stronger: it makes you weaker. If you have surgery after surgery on your abdomen (ahem) your abdomen is not stronger, suddenly; it’s fragile. It’s delicate. It’s at risk.

I’ve been wondering if that thinking might apply to having to frequently figure out the layouts of new cities. It’s something that I’ve had to do a lot in the past eight months. Does it help my sense of direction to be constantly thrown into a new place? Or are my navigational skills compromised because, for example, I just figured out which streets in Manhattan have bike lanes and no longer need that information but I must learn quickly whether the Glenmont Red Line train heads to the NE quadrant of town or the NW quadrant. Am I strengthening my brain or scrambling it?

Have map, will use brain cells. Because I need groceries.


Happy New Year: Gramma Style!

posted in: Family, Tips 1
It's the magical, mythical Rooster of New Year's!
It’s the magical, mythical Rooster of New Year’s!

Earlier this evening, I was having a chat with my friend Luke, a talented quilter/artist/communicator. We were discussing how weird New Year’s Eve can be. What in the world are the good people of Earth supposed to do with a single second? How can any of us squeeze portent and meaning into a single stroke of the clock? We can try, but it’s a heck of a job — and most people try to manage it whilst crammed in between 400 other people and a hotel bar.

I told Luke my plan was to walk to the steps of the Library of Congress tonight around midnight. I want to be around all those books and sculptures. Nerdy for sure, but also sort of portent-y. Luke’s plan was to try and find a silver suit before it was too late. We made a pact, though: we’re not going to make the stroke of midnight anything more than just one of a lot of great moments in any given day. We also agreed to do what my gramma said to do. Grandma Graham, rest her soul, would tell me:

“Whatever you do on the first day of the year sets the tone for the rest of the year. So make it a great day.”

I love that. I have very few traditions, but this is something I make sure to do every year. The day must always include working, playing, reading, thinking, exercise, love, and writing. If something bad happens, okay. Then I deal with it with a level head and optimism.

From my gramma to me, from me to you. Make tomorrow a good day, friends, and set your own tone for 2015, which is a very attractive-looking number, don’t you think?

Hillwood: “Where Fabulous Lives”

posted in: D.C., Tips, Travel 0
I'd like a grilled cheese, please. (Photo Credit: Hillwood Museum & Estate)
The Dining Room at Hillwood. I’d like a grilled cheese, please! [Photo Credit: Hillwood Museum & Estate.]
I stood in line waiting to board my first flight of two today and my heart sank for a moment, thinking of landing in LaGuardia and maneuvering through New York’s soul-sucking taxi lines. Then I remembered that no, Manhattan was not where I was headed, that I would sleep tonight in a fluffy white bed in the District of Columbia. I was so happy, I mouthed Michael Jackson “shamone” and did a tiny version of the Thriller low-snap with the stanky leg. Possibly I did this all this out loud and more visibly than I intended, which would explain why suddenly I had more room in line.

I’ll only be in town a few days — New York for a nasty procedure on Friday, Chicago for Christmas — but I have sworn to avail myself of a Christmas-centric D.C. delight before they’re all over. I have many options. There’s the Russian Winter Festival, but that would make me miss Yuri terribly, so I can’t go to that. There’s a Norwegian Holiday Toy Train exhibit at Union Station that I will totally go to because I live two blocks from Union Station and I come from a long line of Vikings.** I could go to various tree-lighting ceremonies, but I want something D.C. specific. Serious research is rewarded; I found a neat thing to do on Saturday afternoon.

The marketing message for Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Garden is “Where Fabulous Lives.” Nice work, slogan people, because that’s darned good. Hillwood, located inside the city in its northwest quarter, is indeed an extremely fancy place. The person who bought it and made it that way was Marjorie Merriweather Post. You know the Fruity Pebbles you ate for breakfast this morning? Yeah, she was that Post. Her father started the Post cereal empire in 1895 and when he died, it was Marjorie — an only child — who took the reigns and actually made the whole General Mills deal happen. Marjorie was brilliant, clearly, and beautiful, and she had taste like Coco Chanel had taste, though it seems she was far more pleasant at a dinner party.

Marjorie bought Hillwood in 1955 and planned from the start that it would eventually exist as a museum. There are vast gardens, Faberge eggs in lighted, inset, cherrywood shelves, staff quarters — all the stuff you would expect from a billionairess’ fifth home or whatever Hillwood was for Marjorie. And during the holidays, the curators do a lot of neat exhibits, including a showing of Marjorie’s collection of Cartier jewels that “inspire” the decorations all over the house. I think this means that there are either real diamonds or excellent facsimiles hanging from Christmas trees in every room. They also said something about Cartier dinnerware for heaven’s sakes, all set up at the dining room table.

It’s not the crazy wealth I’m interested in seeing. It’s seeing sparkly things. It’s seeing what a woman’s home looks like when she can buy everything in the world but knows better. I’ll go to Hillwood to get into the Christmas spirit, D.C. style, and perhaps I will mark the occasion by purchasing a commemorative Honey Bunches of Oats pin at the gift shop.


**This is actually true. I’m half Scottish, half Norwegian, which should mean I have the soul of a Norse god and an iron constitution. The former is clearly true; the latter must skip generations.

Tips: Best Shower Ever

posted in: D.C., Tips 0
After the Bath, Woman Drying her Nape, by Edgar Degas, 1898. Pastel on paper; Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

The best shower you can take is a post-move shower. If you set it up correctly, this can be an almost ecstatic experience. Here’s how to do it.

1. Push yourself to make just one more pile of objects disappear.
2. Repeat No. 1 until you put your hands on your hips, survey your home, and go, “Nice.”
3. Because of No. 1 and 2, your bathroom should be primo at this point, but double check: your shampoo, conditioner, almond oil, back brush, shower pouf, exfoliating scrub, shaving cream, and bone-handled razor should all be in place.
4. Turn on the shower. Start with warm water so that you’ll be able to slowly increase the temperature as your body adjusts. You’re going for lobster, here.
5. For dramatic effect, to absolutely no one at all, shimmy out of your robe and wink over your shoulder as you step into the shower; swish the curtain closed with a flourish.
6. Scrub, soap, lather, clean, cleanse, and otherwise scour thyself into a wholly new creature.
8. Exit shower.
9. Wrap yourself in a fluffy robe and put slippers on your feet; pad downstairs to the living room and sink into overstuffed easy chair.
10. See another pile over by the side table.
11. Repeat No. 1.

How To Wash a Quilt: 6 Easy Steps

posted in: Family, Quilting, Tips 1
The Royal We, by Mary Fons, 2013. It's in my book.
The Royal We, by Mary Fons, 2013. It’s in my book.

Last night, I had the pleasure of speaking at a quilt guild in the Chicago suburbs. Everyone was gracious and awesome. There were many pans of bars. A merry time was had by all and I was honored to be there. Thank you, ladies.

When you do public speaking, there are a few loose rules to follow. You want to start out with thank you’s to the audience and the organizers, calling out specifically (albeit subtly) the person who will be signing your check; you want to keep things clipping along, so watch those tangents; if it’s a slideshow have lots of slides; and always have a closer.

This last thing is something used more by comedians than Toastmasters, but it’s a smart move for anyone who has the attention of a large, seated group of people for more than thirty minutes. A closer is the last bit a comedian does before leaving the stage. This closing piece is typically the comedian’s biggest joke and receives the biggest laugh.

I have a closer. Slays ’em every time. Wanna hear it? This comes straight from Marianne Fons, who, you’ll remember, is hilarious. It’s really better in person, so you’ll have to invite me to your guild, shop, or event so I can bring the house down with it, okay? You might have to be a quilter to really get it, but I assure you, this illicits howls of laughter for those who know.

How To Wash a Quilt In 6 Easy Steps
(The Fons Way)

1. Get your hands on some gentle detergent. Orvus paste is good, even a gentle lingerie detergent would do. 

2. Find a front-loading washer with a gentle cycle. (The front-loader’s agitation is better for a quilt than the spinny, top-loading model.) 

3. Get a large, oldish towel. This could be a beach towel, or something else from the linen closet or garage. 

4. Fold the towel several times long-ways. Place towel at the base of the machine, right there at the front.

5. Load your quilt. Load detergent. Press “start” on the machine. 

6. Get down on your knees on that towel, woman, and pray.

My Book, Signed + On Sale (A Christmas Special, Extended!)

posted in: Luv, Quilting, Tips, Work 1
It would look so nice with a big, fat bow, don't you think?
It would look so nice with a big, fat bow on it, don’t you think?

Happy Holidays!

‘Tis the season for sales and promotions and I’m getting into the game. I’m offering my book on sale for $20 dollars*, signed and personalized by me, from now until December 31st!

“Personalized” means that if your name is Fido, I will write, “Dear Fido: Thank you! Best, Mary Fons” along with my Heart Plus logo and the year. That’s my standard inscription, but if you’d like a little something extra, like “Merry Christmas!” or “You cray-cray!” or “From the team at Acme Co. — let’s have a great 2015,” you let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

This book is my first and it has quite a bit of my writing inside, as well as beautiful photography and twelve (12) original scrap quilt patterns for bed-sized quilts. I have seen photographs of quilts folks have made from my book and they look fantastic. There’s a lot of how-to, tips, and extras in the book and the Amazon reviews are great, so don’t take my word for it!

Here’s all you have to do: Click on the Make + Love Book tab on my website. Scroll down and you’ll find a PayPal button there. You don’t need a PayPal account to use it to buy the book! PayPal will give me your shipping address. Please let me know who to make the book out to! I will get books out as soon as I can; my goal is within two (2) days of ordering, but with my travel schedule, be kind. Books will be sent media mail.

The price of the book ranges from $17.68 (Amazon) to $22.95 (bookstores) so you’re getting a great price and something you can’t get from Amazon or a bookshop: a personalized book with an autograph. I love bookshops and Amazon, but this is Christmas! It’s all about the sparkly extras.

Happy shopping this season. I know it’s overwhelming.

*Plus shipping. One book ships for about $5 bucks; any order of three books or more gets free shipping. Whee!

Relocation Options: Option One, Iowa

posted in: Tips, Travel 4
You can see Robert James Waller’s face in the side of this covered bridge if the light’s just right.

“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for people who care about each other to terminate the living situation which has connected them with another and to assume among the powers of real estate, the separate and hopefully equal apartments to which the Leases and Landlords and/or Management Companies grant them, a decent respect to the considerations of mankind suggests that they should declare the options before them as to where exactly in Sam Hill they plan to go.”

Of course, I can only speak for myself. Here are facts:

1. Yuri and I have agreed that living together is not what we should do right now.
2. My condo in Chicago is unavailable, as I have tenants in the unit through mid-June.
3. I do not wish to stay in New York.

Fact One on its own is manageable enough: find separate apartments. Unfortunately, Fact Three renders this possibility D.O.A. I don’t want to find another apartment in New York, especially one that I would be able to afford on my own. Sharing a one-bedroom is great in this city (or any other) because two can afford something together that one couldn’t possibly swing. I did the research. The furnished apartments I found that were within my budget made me extremely depressed. Did I look in every nook and cranny of the city? Did I look in Queens? No, I didn’t, because I don’t want to live in Queens. No offense to Queens, I just don’t want to live there.

All right, then just go back to Chicago. A fine idea, but for Fact Two. Sure, I could tempt my adorable med students with a free month’s rent and some cash to vacate early — everyone has their price and second-year med students are probably happy to let you know what that number might be — but I don’t like this plan. It’s disruptive to them and it would be painful for me. My relationship has failed and my move to New York has failed. Returning to Chicago before the one-year-gone anniversary would be too painful. I picture myself with a little hobo stick, riding into town on a broken-down palomino.

I could get a little apartment in Chicago and wait out my tenants till June, but that would maybe be more depressing. “I can see my house from here!” I’d cry, holding my hobo stick.

So no New York, no Chicago till June. Six months. Six months to go. Over these painful weeks, I have been weighing options and crunching numbers and going over and back over what my best course of action is, here. And now:

Option No. 1: Mom’s House — Winterset, Iowa
Winterset is my hometown. I was born there. My sisters were born there. I know all the bank tellers and the bank tellers’ kids. Lots of people move back home. A large number of people never leave in the first place.

There are many upsides to Option No. 1., including but not limited to; cost of living (essentially nil), being able to hang out with Mom and Mark a lot, a big kitchen, access to cars, Des Moines is a short 35 minutes away and Des Moines is alright, I would get to be with Scrabble (Mom’s dog who I love), I could say hi to the bank tellers, their kids, etc.

Downsides? Numerous. There is no public transportation system to use, so I have to drive everywhere and I don’t particularly like driving in Iowa on account of all the deer. Add to that that I love my mom and stepdad so much but six months is a heckuva long time. I’m more worried they’d get annoyed with me than the other way around. Besides, all those bank tellers remember watching my car die in the Homecoming parade. Turns out you can go home again, but do you want to?

The main problem with Winterset is that I need to save it. See, if I’m going to be at Mom’s house for six whole months, I want to be suffering from a bonafide nervous breakdown. I want to save the “I’m Going Home For Awhile” card for full-on crazy. I want people to ask my mom, “Did I see Mary at the grocery store the other day?” so Mom can go, “Oh, yes. Mary’s… Mary’s home for a little while.” Then the person will say, “Oh, is she okay?” and Mom will say something like, “I think Mary just needs a little…rest.” And I’ll be at home on the couch watching 19 Kids and Counting in the fetal position, combing my hair with a fork. It sounds amazing. I don’t want to blow that opportunity now, when I feel sad but otherwise totally functional.

So Iowa is out. Tomorrow, the next sensible option explored.

Poets Rejoice: Let’s All Vape

posted in: Poetry, Tips 1
Poets Rejoice: Vape!
E-cigarette by London manufacturer Vaepen.

For most of my life, I have had a relationship with poetry — the good, the bad, and most levels in between. In betwixt. Betwither? Anyway.

When we were little, my sisters and I memorized the Shel Silverstein catalogue. In junior high, I was unpopular; many days were spent alone, writing lyrics to Debbie Gibson songs. You might be thinking, “That’s not poetry!” and you are correct. But I was rhyming about love, so I’m counting it.

By high school I was writing angsty poems in study hall with titles like “ripped” and “truth”, always in lowercase everything because capitalization was “establishment.” I’d shove those poems deep into my jeans pockets with my pain. I read Nikki Giovanni and Dorothy Parker and listened to Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos, so my poetic education, such as it was, continued apace. Plus, my sister and our friends would take Honky, my grandmother’s white station wagon (I named it) into Des Moines and a few of us would read at open mic nights at Java Joe’s, the only coffeehouse in a 200-mile radius. I had guts, I’ll give myself that much. My picture was even in the Des Moines Register once for sharing poems at the local Barnes & Noble open mic; this is probably because I had a full mouth of braces and a shirt that said “Marlboro” on it. Sorry, Mom.

Speed up. College. I made theater for four years, but isn’t theater just one big open mic? Also, my boyfriend Dan moved to New York City and got deep into the poetry slam scene. I saw him perform at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and thought, “I could do that.”

After college, I moved to Chicago and tried to keep being an actress but the bottom had dropped out. I didn’t actually like pretending to be someone else; I wanted to write and perform my own stuff. As it happens, Chicago is the birthplace of the poetry slam and the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge was the premier place for it, the place where it all started. For the next several years, I was there every Sunday night, listening, gagging, applauding, performing, laughing, crying, and above all, learning as much as I could about poetry. I also learned about gin and tonic.

Now that I’ve outlined this history, you’ll have context for what I consider to be the most significant moments in my poetical life thus far. And now, The Most Significant Moments In My Poetical Life Thus Far:

1. Getting a perfect score at the Mill (10-10-10)
2. Seeing my first poem published in a literary magazine that no one reads
3. Discovering Philip Larkin
4. The birth of the word “vape”

Let’s look at this most recent development. Poets — and I’m talking mostly to the slammers out there, but this works for everyone — do you realize what has happened? Do you understand what you’ve been given? The word “vape” has entered the lexicon! Earth’s metering, rhyme-scheming citizens will never be the same! Not only do poets have a new word to rhyme, we have a word that happens to rhyme with some of the most often used words in poetry: escape, agape, rape (and possibly crepe.) Just think of the possibilities:

Black hair like velvet
Her face: a heart shape
Her voice, my song: 
“You wanna vape?”


We stood in the rain
Emotions escaping
Under the awning
Quietly vaping

This is big. Huge. Seismic. I’m just wondering if I’m the last to figure this out. It (almost) makes me want to go to a poetry slam and see what people are doing with the brand new word. It also makes me want to visit that hilariously named vape shop across from my sister and Jack’s condo in Chicago. It’s actually called “Let’s All Vape.” That’s the name of the store. I’d like to start any store and name it like that. “Let’s All Have Tacos” or “Let’s All Buy Shoes” or “Let’s All Get An MRI” — these are all viable shop names. Don’t wait for me, by any means — this is my gift to you. I fully support anyone who wants to name their shop “Let’s All [Insert Thing Here].” I will be your first customer, that’s how much I love that idea.**

New words, a basketful of retail possibilities — all of this, and I still have no desire to vape. Tough customer, I guess.

**I can’t stop: Let’s All Have Our Engines Examined, Let’s All At Least Have a Look at The Buffet, Let’s All Copy Something, Let’s All Get Gas, Let’s All Buy Things We Don’t Need, Let’s All Get Uncomfortable (sex shop), Let’s All Get a Headache (bath and body shop)

Advice To Oneself.

posted in: Day In The Life, Tips 0
Josephine Bonaparte Mixed Media Sculpture by George S. Stuart. Photo: Peter D'Aprix for the Historical Figure Foundation.
Josephine Bonaparte Mixed Media Sculpture by George S. Stuart. Photo: Peter D’Aprix for the Historical Figure Foundation.

At dinner last night with a number of F+W Mediennes et Mediassieurs, I spied one of my favorite people in the group and began to flap my hands and wave my arms at her. I looked like I was having some kind of episode, but I wanted to get Aly’s attention so that she would come sit by me. I was not having lunch at a junior high cafeteria, I realize, but I never get to see this girl for more than five minutes at a time and I wanted to visit with her. This was my chance.

Aly works with the Original Sewing and Quilt Expo (an arm of F+W) and I’m certain her title has the word “coordinator” or “manager” in it, but I think of Aly as a producer. Because producers make things go. Producers solve small problems before they become big problems. Producers are the people you never want to get sideways with because they will save your hienie. (Aly’s saved mine a few times.) Whether they are producing a film, a stage show, or a quilt extravaganza, no good production ever happened without someone like Aly involved. It’s also worth noting that she is a kind of protege of Marlene.

So I asked Aly, “How’s life?” and she had lots of interesting and intelligent things to share, of course. Aly is twenty-five. If you remember anything about being twenty-five, you will recall that it is not an easy age to be. Whether you’re settling down or just gearing up to not, the world is big and choices seem to have either Godzilla-level impact or be so inconsequential to the rest of humanity that you feel like a bat in an echo chamber full of bats. Drunk bats. Drunk bats in an echo chamber with Facebook. Drunk bats in an echo chamber with Facebook and the latest iPhone. It’s hard, is what I’m saying.

“Mary,” Aly said over cheesecake, “If you could give your twenty-five-year-old self advice, what would you tell her?”

This is why Aly is going to be just fine. That’s a great question. I thought it about it for a moment because I took the question very seriously, but I knew the answer right away.

“I would trust myself more,” I said. “I made a lot of decisions at twenty-five that were based on a fundamental belief that pretty much everyone but me knew what was good for me. I thought I had to listen to them. I thought I had to fix myself. But I’m not broken. I’m not a failed human who has to use life as one, long fixer-upper. My instincts are good. I’m smart. There’s no one on the planet just like me, so hang the blueprints. Be original.”

Aly nodded, and I think she was satisfied with that. But I forgot to tell her something really important, a sidenote to the sentiment above:

“The marvelous thing about accepting your own originality is that you get to avoid the pain of living other people’s perceptions of how you should be. This is beautiful. But you still have a lot of work cut out for you, because you have to defend yourself your entire life. You’ll have to defend your path, your way, your schtick, your ‘thing’ the whole time. People like blueprints. A lot. You don’t use one, you get freedom — but it ain’t free.”

Aly, the picture up top is a figurine of Josephine Bonaparte, Napoleon’s first wife. I put “quarter life” (as in “quarter-life crisis”) into WikiCommons and I got all these pictures of historical figurines by one George S. Stuart. You see, the artist makes “quarter life-size” sculptures. Get it? I thought this one was a good one for you. Josephine was a badass.

Beware the Propu!

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The propu, perhaps.
The propu, perhaps.

I have caught a mild cold.

Unless you count the formidable health issues related to my intestines, I am a healthy gal. Yuri gets colds all the time and suffers from allergies, but I haven’t had a cold in years. When everyone else is moaning in bed with an achy body and a ring of dried NyQuil around their mouth, I’m peppy. I attribute this to washing my hands many times a day and being my mother’s daughter. That woman is invincible.

But then I went and did something stupid. I let the in the propu.

My ex-husband came from a Croatian family. In Croatia, there’s something everyone knows about called the propu. The propu is a draft, essentially, but a draft with a malevolent personality. If you leave a window cracked, the propu comes in and makes you sick. Croatians believe that if you’re sick, it’s probably because of the propu. The worst thing ever is to sleep with a window open in a room where you might be directly hit with the propu. From sore throats to back pain, if you’re feeling unwell, the propu is likely the culprit. And of course it sounds silly; clearly this is an old wives’ tale. It just smacks of superstition. But I’m telling you: there is truth to this propu business.

I’ve seen it. When someone has a cold, I will ask them if they had a window open in their bedroom. The answer is usually “yeah, so?” And I will tell them of the propu. Why, just this morning, I was on the phone with my publisher. She was out sick two days this week. I told her of the propu.

“Holy cow,” she said. “Mary, I wish you could see my face right now. That is so crazy. It was super stuffy in the house the other night, so I opened a window in the bedroom… And I woke up with a horrible cold!”

I nodded, solemnly. “Well, there you go, Kristi,” I said. “Propu.”

And yes, yesterday afternoon, I tangled with the propu, myself. I lay down for a disco nap around five o’clock. It was cold and drizzly in New York; an autumn day straight out of central casting. I wanted to hear the sounds of the rain. I wanted to snuggle under a quilt and smell that autumn air and dream about having a pumpkin latte, which I can never have because of the milk and sugar. I fell asleep. The propu came in. This morning, I woke up with a scratchy throat, an itchy nose, and a mild fever. Damn you, propu!!

What’s also fascinating about this propu business is that the prevailing wisdom of the Croatians is that if you open another window in the house or the room, you are safe from the propu, the idea being that the wind/draft has a way to escape and therefore ignores you, I guess. Again, crazy but with some validity. You can open a window in your house as long as you crack open another.

I tell you these things because I care about you. It’s like baking soda in your armpits. All I’m suggesting is that if you read PaperGirl, you will probably live a long and happy life, that’s all.

On Writing, And A Thanksgiving Speech

posted in: Tips, Work 0
Writing is the difference between "succulent" and "suck." Photo: Wiki Commons.
Writing is the difference between “succulent” and “suck.” Photo: Wiki Commons.

I would never call myself a “serious writer,” because you just can’t call yourself that. Besides, what does it mean? That you’re grimly committed to turning out words? That you have no sense of humor about being grimly committed to turning out words?

Though I distance myself from that “serious writer” business, it’s true that I take writing seriously. I read constantly and I keep this blog; both acts propel me forward in my writing, I hope. Reading and writing are to a writer as practicing scales is to a musician. If I’m not getting better, I’m staying at the same level (bad) or disintegrating (worse.) No one likes a disintegrating flutist.

I’ve been reading and re-reading William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and it’s just what the New York Times blurb on the back says it is: “[A] bible for a generation of writers looking for clues to clean, compelling prose.” The book has been in print for decades and every chapter is packed with useful information and provocative questions that any serious writer should consider.

This morning, I looked at a wonderful excerpt he provides in the chapter called “The Sound of Your Voice.” It’s a Thanksgiving proclamation given by Connecticut governor Wilbur Cross in 1936. Zinsser praises it for its lasting eloquence, especially since most proclamations are sorta lame and definitely dated. It’s so beautiful, I’m going to ask the family if I could read it before the Thanksgiving meal this year. Maybe after you read it, you’ll want to do the same.

“Time out of mind at this turn of the seasons when the hardy oak leaves rustle in the wind and the frost gives a tang to the air and the dusk falls early and the friendly evenings lengthen under the heel of Orion, it has seemed good to our people to join together in praising the Creator and Preserver, who has brought us by a way that we did not know to the end of another year. In observance of this custom, I appoint Thursday, the 26th of November, as a day of Public Thanksgiving for the blessings that have been our common lot and have placed our beloved state with the favored regions of earth — for all the creature comforts: the yield of the soil that has fed us and the richer yield from labor of every kind that has sustained our lives — and for all those things, as dear as breath to the body, that quicken man’s faith in his manhood, that nourish and strengthen his word and act; for honor held above price; for steadfast courage and zeal in the long, long search after truth; for liberty and for justice freely granted by each of his fellow and so as freely enjoyed; and for the crowning glory and mercy of peace upon our land — that we may humbly take heart of these blessings as we gather once again with solemn and festive rites to keep our Harvest Home.”

I know Halloween is first in the holiday lineup, but you don’t get this kind of stuff for Halloween. Thanksgiving — and good writing — for the win.

What Is It With You?

posted in: Day In The Life, Tips, Travel, Work 0
I'm the one up front near the bathroom.
I’m the one up front near the bathroom.

It sound a bit cute, but it’s true: I’ve got Restless Life Syndrome.

As a youth, I was not particularly wiggly. I seem to remember sitting quietly and being good. I was definitely not bad. My mom says I was a happy baby, an easy one. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point I stopped being satisfied. I have been on the move ever since. Dammit!

From time to time, I read articles in magazines about some sad, harried woman’s magical transformation into a content, happy woman who stops working 24/7 and starts appreciating the beauty of the hummingbirds in her garden — the garden she now tends lovingly instead of stabbing at spreadsheets all day. One wonders if her perfect azaleas are stand-ins for her then-perfect quarterly reports, but to hear her talk she’s truly mellowed, is truly at peace because she stopped worrying about absolutely everything she used to worry about. She just “woke up.”

These articles do not inspire me. They make me nervous. Because I am not looking at hummingbirds. I am on a plane. I am trying to do something, here.

I don’t know what it feels like to check out. I can’t do it. I’ve tried. The people who do the hummingbird thing are mysterious to me. I do try hard to notice the world, but there can be no doubt I’m missing tracts of it right and left because I’m getting into another taxi in another city or making wheat-free bread that will supposedly save my health and so far is absolutely not doing that. My days are spent working; many nights too, because I feel workiness is next to worthiness (also because I’m lame in social situations involving more than two people.) To be fair, “working” to me means “making money to live on” but also “quilting” and “writing,” so no need to feel sorry for me. Besides, I make money doing (mostly) what I love to do. I’m grateful every day for that and will work hard to keep it that way.

Which brings me to the hummingbirds. I don’t think I’m “set.” I don’t take all this for granted. You want something big, you gotta do big things. You gotta hustle. There may not be as many diaphanous gowns in your life — or as many gardens — but there is beauty in the airplane. Beauty in the leather jacket you’ve got on.

Beauty in the sky.

Viewer Tip: Quilts As Soundproofing.

posted in: Quilting, Tips, Work 0
"Hitchens," made by me, 2013. 70 x 70.
“Hitchens,” by Mary Fons, 2013. 70 x 70. It could fit the ceiling. 

If you watch Love of Quilting on PBS, you surely know (and love) The Tip Table.

Mom and I sit at the Tip Table at the end of every show and share tips sent in from viewers across the country. The tips are clever, resourceful, and useful to quilters. We get way more tips than we can share, but we get to as many as we can each series.

Today, Mom and I had a fantastic day in Seattle doing the first of a two-day BabyLock dealer event. I woke up with lots of pep and the day was a rousing success for all (thank you, BabyLock, and the fine folks at Quality Sewing & Vacuum.) Before our second lecture of the afternoon, a lady named Lynn gave me a tip that I have to share.

“I live in an apartment,” Lynn said. “If you’ve got noisy neighbors, hang your quilts on the wall. They look beautiful and they muffle the sound!”

Isn’t that smart? I grew up with a few quilts (big ones) hung on walls in our home. There was a Tree Everlasting quilt on the dining room wall for over a decade. But I never thought about hanging quilts in any apartment I’ve ever had in order to soundproof noisy neighbors. And boy, have I had some. A brilliant tip!

Then Lynn added, with a wink, “You could put ’em on the ceiling, too, you know, if you had…well, that sort of a noise problem,” she said, and though all the ladies that were gathered in our little tip-sharing group howled with laughter…I can’t share that one on TV.

Thanks, Lynn!

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