A Day In The Life: High School Writer Gigs.

posted in: Day In The Life, Word Nerd, Work 7
Picture of high school audience, Ladies Home Journal, 1945. Image: Wikipedia.
Picture of high school audience, Ladies Home Journal, 1945. Image: Wikipedia.


This morning, I beat the sun by a long shot.

I was up at 4 a.m. (gah!) so that I could have tea, go over my materials one last time, get all foofed-up, and get to my rental car, which I secured yesterday evening. By my careful calculations, I needed to be on the road to the northwestern suburbs of Chicago by 6 a.m. in order to be at the first of several high school gigs today.

Every year, a handful of dedicated high schools in the Chicagoland area hold “Writer’s Week” festivals. These festivals — which the students love but always struggle for funding and booster support, dangit — invite professional writers to share their work with the students and to talk and answer questions about the writing life. I have been a featured performer at a number of these festivals for well over a decade, now, which is great but also super weird, because I remember my first few times doing these gigs and it does not seem so very long ago. I remember being a young slam poet and freaking out the night before these gigs, timing my set until it was absolutely perfect because I had a limited repertoire; I remember rambunctious boys in the back of the auditorium one year who threw me off — and how I learned that day, the hard way, how to effectively stop any heckler. (Ninety-nine percent of the time, ignore them. I called the kids out that day and it wasn’t good. They wanted attention and they got it. I learned a lot that afternoon.)

I did first-and second-period at my favorite place, William Fremd High (they saw quilts one year), and then spent seventh and eighth at Bartlett High, a school with students were so respectful and courteous, one gets nervous. I did four shows today, in other words. In case you’ve never performed for 50 minutes in front of an auditorium of 300 or so high school students four times in one day, I assure you: It’s not for the faint of heart and when you come home, you will want to eat food and then face plant into the couch for awhile.

Twice today I was approached by quilters: a teacher at Bartlett and the mother-in-law of one of the Writer’s Week organizers. Both of them were excited to say hi and I could see that both of them were looking at me as the quilting person they’ve watched on TV while trying to square it with the high school poetry/writing presenter they just watched live onstage. Welcome to my world.

For many years, I have had a hard time telling people what it is that I “do.” I’m a writer. I’m a quilter. I’m a performer. I write about quilts. I write poetry and perform it. I perform, in a way, in the quilt world because of the on-camera work. I teach people how to quilt, but also how to write — it’s all this gorgeous, difficult slurry of words and fabric scraps and microphone cords. In the past couple years, I have been really working, with every project I take on, to combine these loves. How can writing and quilting and performance come together? Where do writing and quilting intersect — not for me, but for you? What can I give? And how can I help? (By helping others, giving my art away, that’s how I better understand myself. This is the win-win.)

These are the questions. Thank you, high schoolers and faculty and staff, for giving me an audience today. I move toward answers every time I go to work.

Merry Christmas Eve! A Silly Poem.

posted in: Family, Poetry 12
Thanks, Wikipedia! Lyndon B. Johnson and his family on Christmas Eve in 1968. Yellow Oval Room, White House.
Thanks, Wikipedia! Lyndon B. Johnson and his family on Christmas Eve in 1968. Yellow Oval Room, White House.


A Merry Christmas Eve to you!
Did you ask for a brand new shoe?
Did you request a cockatoo?
Merry Christmas Eve to you.

It’s Christmas, everyone!
For our presents, how we run!
(Henry shoved aside a nun!!)
It’s Christmas everyone.

Let’s all have some pecan pie!
We can get some from that guy!
If he’s all out, we’ll have to buy
Our Christmas pecan pie.

You scream, I scream, we all scream for vanilla bean ice cream with the pecan pie because really, nothing else will do but vanilla bean on pecan pie, am I right about this?

Santa’s hat, it ‘shore is red!
Think it makes for a real hot head?
And is the white part WonderBread
On Santa’s hat so red?

Tomorrow, all the stores will close:
Better not need a rose,
A garland or a garden hose —
All the stores will close!

Best to go and get some rest,
Tomorrow morning will be the best!
Go brush teeth and use your Crest —
Then lay down to rest.

Merry Christmas, beautiful.




A Brief: Washingtonian

posted in: Poetry 18
The Lincoln Memorial from the back, under construction. Photo: Wikipedia.
The Lincoln Memorial from the back, under construction. Photo: Wikipedia.


So it’s been over a year since I lived in Washington. Remember all that? Go back to November 2014 (you can click on the archives filter and get to it fastest that way) and read all about it. Heartbreak, unrest, rats. Cold.

I was looking for another poem for another reason and remembered that I wrote this one and never shared it. It’s called “A Brief: Washingtonian” and I rather like it. The meter does stay consistent throughout but you have to practice to get the emphasis on the proper word in some of the verses. (Believe me, I know; I worked on this a long time!)

I hope you enjoy this poem. It’s pretty melancholy but it’s also meant to be sort of sweet.

A Brief: Washingtonian
by Mary Fons (c) 2015


From my art deco castle, I surveyed the land
The rivers, the sidewalks, Msr. L’Enfant’s plan;
The rain days were my best days; I felt kingdom come;
Connecticut Avenue an elephant’s trunk;
I signed the thick lease on December the First,
And I lived in that city and I watched from my perch.

When crinoline petticoat clouds would descend
And wring out the water that they’d been washed in,
The valley would deepen right in front of my eyes;
I loved every tree and miss the mist so:
It sifted the raindrops and slicked all the leaves,
And I’d watch from my throne with a hot cup of tea.

“You live in Washington?” the people would say,
“But how did you get there? and why would you stay?”
(I slouched there in sadness, cast out of Chicago
And New York left a rotted taste in my mouth;
When I fell in D.C. I hit the ground gently;
Not something you count on when you fall accidentally.)


Sovereign Washington straddles two states:
The first offers mountains and wrought iron gates
That open to Arlington’s coveted park;
I saw storms roll in during burials there;
Boys keep on dying; girls at graves must remain —
Virginia’s  for lovers and lovers love the rain.

The other half lives where Baltimore stays;
For Maryland’s only the Beltway away;
Colonist gentry ate plenty of land,
But the pushed, angry fringes refuse to go silent;
Molotov cocktails still light the sky,
We’ve two hundred years of the Fourth of July.

Old Gore Vidal said that D.C. was dead;
All of those legends in a rose garden bed;
All the past generals we’re ordered to owe;
Fathers who stand after years in the ground;
All of these corpses, cemented in stone
And we visit them, worship them, celebrate bones.

Young men in bowties walk to work on the Hill;
Scotch-swilling yes-men have secrets to spill;
They quench and they drench blue blazer lapels,
They pinch all the a**es in reach of their booth;
What hath the rules wrought, what shall become
Of a nation divided, of the coming undone.

Still the hovering District has life stuffed inside;
Buses and restaurants serving the tide
Of young men and women with audible smiles;
Lives here are mixed every way that can mean;
Art anchors the landscape from border to line;
Within days of arrival, I claimed all as mine

And furnished my life there and tastefully, too;
My gorgeous appointment near the National Zoo;
I mixed high and low and the ending result
Was a chamber at once both cozy and gilded;
I worked there and cooked there and looked at my hands
I slept there and kept there and made all sorts of plans.


Then confused, I felt moved to leave D.C. behind;
I could tell all the reasons, but oh, nevermind;
I heid back to Chicago, the prodigal daughter;
Welcomed, embraced, she never stopped loving me;
My loyalty lives there — now returned, so do I,
I was never much more than a Washington spy.

In May, cherry blossoms kiss rows of trees;
I missed them that year (typical me);
I’ll visit them, though, sometime in the future
And try to remember what I needed that year;
I’ll touch the perfume and I’ll be okay —
And I’ll walk through the orchard, queen for a day.

Tonight: The Lemon’s Lament.

posted in: Day In The Life, Poetry 8
Limon, citrus, from Franz Eugen Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, 1896. Image: Wikipedia.


The Lemon’s Lament
by Mary Fons © 2015

A lemon’s a tragic figure,
And we’ve all got juice on our hands;
Without wish to understand it,
We make lemony demands.

We clamor for slices and wedges,
Ne’er valuing his or her whole —
Unless there’s food to squeeze it on,
A lemon rots within th’ bowl.

“Water with lemon,” we oft request;
“Lemon with my fish!”
While lemon must quell its agony
And roundly reject the wish

To feel fingers peel away
Its pockmarked, pithy skin,
Exposing tender fruit meat,
Poised to drip down someone’s chin.

Nay, this has never happened;
(A lemon hardly peels!)
Instead it’s razed into sour wafers
With no regard to how that feels.

Tabbouleh, pound cake, salad dressing
All need a touch of tart;
For the chef to achieve th’ flavor profiles,
It’s tang they must impart.

‘Course they won’t then toss the lemon in
To whatever dish they serve;
The lemon’s tossed into the bin,
(The callousness, the nerve!)

But Lemon knows they cannot do it —
It’s accepted this as fact;
It has no life beyond a garnish,
The squirt its closing act.

For when we choose a fruit to eat
The lemon has no place;
It offers only pain to man —
It’s written on his face.

Lemon plays the outfield, always
Never pitcher, never hitter,
Forever weeping acid tears;
And you wonder why it’s bitter.

*Hello! I thought I’d post a recently revised and updated version of The Lemon’s Lament tonight. Whenever life seems a bit on the bewildering side, writing fruit poetry makes everything better. This is an actual fact of honest truth in my life. Read this one aloud to someone you love who is nearby: husband, girlfriend, cat, plant! All of ’em at once!

“The Field Mouse”

posted in: Poetry 24
Croquet Scene, by Winslow Homer, 1866.
Croquet Scene, by Winslow Homer, 1866. Image: Wikipedia.


Last week, my “Literary Animal” workshop — can you tell that I really love this class? — left the classroom to take a field trip across the street to the museum. Our assignment: Wander through the hallowed halls and be inspired by an animal in a work of art. From there, we were to write something. Sounds easy enough, right? Sure, except that writing something good is hard, even if — especially if? — it includes some cute little monkey on a Chinese vase dated 610 B.C.

The class fanned out once we were inside. Where did I go? Straight downstairs to Decorative Arts, of course. I thought I might find a cool animal carved into an ash sideboard from 1802, or maybe some jade rabbit on a chair.

I found those and more. There are so many animals in the things we make and paint and carve. We live in a world with animals and they show up, let me tell you. It’s really neat when you go looking for something and realize it’s all around you all the time (e.g., love, generosity, cats, etc.) But though I found lots of animals, nothing stopped me in my tracks until I saw Winslow Homer’s “Croquet Scene,” painted in 1866.

And there’s no animal in it.

Why do we respond to art? Why is it that sometimes, something just clicks into place when we see a painting or hear a song or see a quilt at a show and sometimes, we get nothin’. When I turned my head and saw that painting, my heart and brain flooded with understanding, familiarity, and something close to kinship.

It’s the woman. Do you know what I thought when I saw her? I thought — and this is basically verbatim thought process, here — “She hates where she is. She loathes croquet. She wants to go home. She’s newly married and is alienated from the family she married into. She’s looking at a field mouse and she wishes she were him.”

The animal in the picture isn’t in the picture. But that little field mouse is real.

So I decided to write about that. I tried some prose but I hated it. I decided to do a poem. But what kind? My approach was to do research on the time period and see what sort of poems were popular in 1866 when this picture was painted. I’ll spare you details of the legwork, but I will tell you that Helen Hunt Jackson was a poet popular at that time and I found a one-verse poem by Jackson with a fascinating (read: hard) rhyme scheme: ABABBACBADDADAA.

I know, right?? The prose might’ve been easier in the end. But nope: I went for it, and I’m so glad I did. I really love this little poem, even though it will continue to be polished. I do feel that I captured my heroine’s black mood and her longing for a simpler life. Like, real simple. Field mouse simple. Don’t you feel that way, sometimes?


The Field Mouse
Inspired by Winslow Homer’s Croquet Scene, 1866.
(c) 2016 by Mary Fons

I’ve seen him twice, now, run past the ball
Near wicket three on th’ flattened grass
Of this scorching lawn. As we shift and stall
And wait for Ben to make his pass,
That nimble field mouse, cool and fast,
Dips through shade, finds waterfall;
I’d give my life to trade with him.
The petticoats and primers, yet another looking glass,
— Ben’s mother’s high tea protocol! —
Oh, for a tail and four silent feet
To streak as lightning through golden wheat
And leave behind this game and all
The family I must rise to meet.
We kings of beasts are mannered, tall—
But field mouse is free, if small.


William Soutar Explains It All.

posted in: Art, Word Nerd, Work 5
Soutar. Image: Screenshot from BBC4 documentary.
Soutar. Image: Screenshot from BBC4 documentary.


Tonight, some words that give me great joy.

William Soutar is one of my favorite poets. I love him so much I wrote a poem about him once. (It’s not good enough to share, yet; maybe someday.) Soutar, who was born in Scotland in 1898, suffered from ankylosing spondylitis, a crippling form of chronic, inflammatory arthritis, and was bedridden for well over a decade as a result. But by all accounts — even in his sickbed he seemed to know everyone who was anyone in those days so there are many accounts  — he was beguiling, charming, warm, and obviously an insanely gifted writer.

When Soutar was diagnosed, he didn’t freak out. When he realized that he would no longer be able to play football, or garden, or travel much at all, he said to himself, “Now I can be a poet.”

Who does that?

I also love Soutar because he was a dedicated journal keeper. Me too, Billy; me too. And leafing through a journal from 2013 the other day — I was looking for a picture that I still haven’t found — I came across a passage from Soutar’s journal that I had copied into mine. It’s about why a person should keep a journal.

Or a blog.

“If you ask me why I deem it worthwhile to fill up a page such as this, day by day — shall I not reply, ‘Worthwhileness hasn’t very much to do with it’? The most natural reply might be, ‘Because I cannot go out and chop a basket of firewood or take the weeds out of the garden path.’ 

Yet that wouldn’t be a wholly honest answer. We are all sustained at times by the thought that whatever we may be we are certainly a solitary manifestation of creation; not a single other creature in all the history of the world has been just as ourself — not another will be like us. 

Why not put on record something of the world as seen by this lonely ‘ego’: here and there perhaps a sentence may be born whose father is reality.”

Thanks, William. It’s good to know you think about this stuff, too.

“The Bicycle Poem”

posted in: Poetry 0
Stereoptic card, 1900. Image: Wikipedia.
Stereoptic card, 1900. Image: Wikipedia.

I’m going to Iowa in the morning for just a couple of days. I’m not Jewish, but sitting shiva seems the only thing to do right now.

I ought to be in bed already, but I went to see the Moth Storyslam on the south side and instead of getting the ride I thought I was getting, I rode a Divvy bike all the way home. It took about 45 minutes and when I got home, I was wired and hungry. Now I am tired and full of ice cream.

So tonight, a poem about what it’s like to ride a bike on the lakefront path in Chicago. Oh, the hours and hours of my life I have spent doing this. There’s nothing like it. (If you’re in love, it’s even better, but tonight I’m living proof that you don’t have to be in love to enjoy it.)

This poem is very old. I still perform it. But it’s probably circa 2006. I don’t split my lines up like this anymore; I had a thing with slashes at the time.

See you in Winterset.


bicycles are universal/but they are made for girls/they fill the space

some rock the basket/some ring the bell/some race/some ditch the Schwinn for the 21 speed/gotta get there mama/playing the fuel/the engine and transmission on metal thoroughbreds wrapped ‘round with rubber/we learned this as kids but these days it’s better/coming up on your left side

I think/therefore/I ride.

and there is another dimension/where it is always July/and I am always 25/pedaling fast on the lakefront path/grass stains on my knees/handfuls of skirt at my waist/ribbons laced between my fingers and kissing potential lit up on my lips

this is how I would come to you/so many nights in summer/you would get me/panting/at your door/but you never saw what came before I rang your bell/that was mine darling/the stillness at high speeds/the breeze that blew through me/waves that licked the shores on my left/trees with leaves like so many fans formed a canopy/tanned skin and bleached bone moved my bicycle toward you/two hearts leapt when I arrived/but I fell in love on the journey/one rotation at a time.

girls/ride to lovers and pick your dimension
the night sky/the skyline/lampposts at attention
give of your mind/your heart and the like
but ladies/when you get there:

lock up the bike.


"Secret Correspondence" by Carl von Bergen, Germany, 1891. Image: Wikipedia.
“Secret Correspondence” by Carl von Bergen, Germany, 1891. Image: Wikipedia.

A couple thoughts on the blog. I will employ sub-headings for organizational purposes. I’ve been working all day and don’t feel confident I can weave anything elegant right now. Thanks, sub-heading!

1. I like it when you read it. 
When I’m out teaching and speaking and dragging my suitcase around, folks come up to me and say, “I hope you don’t think I’m a stalker, but I read your blog… I have to ask: how’s your health? How are you dealing with Claus being gone? Congratulations on grad school! When do you start??” and so forth. Sometimes the person asking is sheepish in the extreme; they feel like they’re intruding. Don’t be sheepish! Actually, sheeps are cute, so be sheepish in a cute way, but know that I love that you read my blog. I write PaperGirl for you. I write it for myself, too; this is me practicing scales almost every day, trying to be a better writer like a flutist is trying to be a better flutist. This blog affords me opportunities to use the world flutist and say it in my mind: FLAU-tist. Now that’s entertainment. But yes: I love when I meet people who read the ol’ PG and you can ask me whatever you like. I reserve the right not to tell you, but I probably will tell you even more than you wanted to know.

2. The secret to a successful blog: consistency and variety.
I’m teaching my blog class at the University of Chicago in a couple weeks and have been working on my syllabus. The research is confirming what I knew already: the secret to a good blog is consistency and variety. This is what I say when I’m asked about blogging and this is what I’ll share with my students. You can’t expect to keep readers if you post once a month, then three times in a week, then three months later, then two weeks later, and so on. That’s true for any blog, be it political, mommy, foodie, or otherwise. What is also true is that variety is the spice of blogs. If I tried to be funny-ish 100% of the time or earnest 100% of the time or anxious 100% of the time or weird 100% of the time, I’d get bored, you’d get bored, and, worse even than that, we’d all be missing out on the breadth of the human experience. This is true even in a foodie blog. I want to hear about the bad meals as well as the good meals. Maybe that’s just me.

3. I still won’t advertise.
I should. I could. But I won’t. I hate those ads. I hate them so much. I hate how web ads know that I just looked at underpants on Amazon but didn’t buy them so now they want to get me to buy them someplace else. I can’t do it to you or to me, friends. PaperGirl is an oasis for me and I hope it is for you, too, just for a minute or two in your Internet life. No ads. Ever. I promise.


Art School Girl Friday, On The Case.

One of the two lions in front of the Chicago Art Institute. Go Lions! Photo: Wikipedia.
Go Lions! Out front of the Art Institute. Photo: Wikipedia.

I applied for a job at the school paper. I have a school paper because I have a school!

The student-run paper at the School of the Art Institute is called F Newsmagazine. This would be a frustrating masthead for a newspaper/magazine if wasn’t an art school newspaper/magazine; fortunately, that’s what fNews is and being what it is, it can be — nay, must be — unconventional. It’s a fine publication; I remember picking it up downtown in years prior and admiring it. I would feel the thick, glossy paper it’s printed it on and look through the illustrations and read stories in never-before-seen-fonts-because-students-invented-them and think, “Wow. The people who make this magazine go to school at the Art Institute. That must be really fun.”

When I got my acceptance letter, I went to a reception and picked up the latest issue on the way out. Maybe could get a gig at the paper to help me pay for school, I thought. I saved up some money from my time making Quilty, but it’s not enough. It’s loan time. I applied to the school itself for a merit scholarship and I’ve done the paperwork for another small grant; the hunt continues. But rather than rely on someone/something else to give me money for tuition, I’m more comfortable rolling up my shirtsleeves and getting a job. This approach to things runs in my family and I’m glad, though I remain ever hopeful that some sane, at least marginally attractive wealthy widower reads PaperGirl and has fallen desperately in love with me and will offer to pay for my grad school in an attempt to get my attention and win my favor. I’m waiting, darling, and ready to coo about how you look in your top hat.

I contacted the F newsmagazine offices and met the people in charge. I was given the chance to audition, if you will, by writing a story on the first-ever, free online course offered by the SAIC. I wrote the piece and they accepted it; yesterday I had my official interview with the paper’s advisor-slash-publisher. The conversation was great and I can’t say I was hired-hired because Paul and Sophie need to put their heads together about exactly where I’m best used. A strong handshake and a “You’ll be working with us in some capacity, that’s for sure” makes me feel like I can even tell you all this.

My grandmother (on Mom’s side) started the town paper in Norwalk, IA. My mother co-founded the most popular quilting magazine in history. My sister Hannah is associate editor at a real estate magazine in New York City. My sister Rebecca writes at her job at the Chicago International Film Festival and has been doing some freelance around town these days. We are not an east coast media mogul family. We’re not a midwest one, either. We’re not intrepid reporters, we don’t keep up on the Pulitzers. But the women in my family, we have ink on our hands.

It’s gonna feel really good to work on a magazine again.

Announcement! I’m Going To School For Writing.

PG SAIC Letter
The first half of the acceptance letter; the second half told me how much money I needed to give them to secure my spot for enrollment. (Letter: SAIC, scan: Me)

I’ve written and rewritten this post three times. It’s too special, I’m too excited, and as a result, nothing is coming out right. That’s ironic, because the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) thinks I’m good enough at writing to let me into their Writing MFA program this fall. By then, I’d better have my act together because I’m officially enrolled.

It’s been terrible keeping this secret; I got my acceptance letter in March. Claus was here, and when I opened the envelope and saw the good news, it was like I had a rocket pack on. Claus caught me and spun me around and around.

I waited to tell you because I wanted to share this properly. It’s a big deal, and not just because the SAIC is one of the finest educational institutions in the world, which it is. It’s a big deal because my life is changing with this. I engineered it that way, really; one day last fall when I was in Iowa to film TV, I burst into tears in the middle of my mother’s kitchen and admitted to myself that I wanted to study writing. I couldn’t deny it any longer and I began to research grad programs that very day. It became clear right away that the SAIC was the only school for me. I didn’t apply anywhere else.

So, the Art Institute of Chicago is the big, famous art museum downtown with the cool lions out front. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago actually started first, way back in 1866. The art the founders collected for students to study became the museum.

At the SAIC, a grad student can study textile art, performance, art therapy, art restoration, sculpture, painting, arts journalism, art history, interior architecture, writing — there are other departments I’m not thinking of. What’s extraordinary about the SAIC (one of the many, many extraordinary things) is that they encourage interdisciplinary study. They want performers to take sculpture classes. They want writers to take textile arts classes. They are legendarily good at educating creative people because they understand how creative people learn (i.e., by doing, usually by doing many things that appear unrelated.)

I submitted portfolios to Writing, Textile Art, and Performance. I had all the materials for each program because my entire life is interdisciplinary. But I wanted writing. I decided that if I got into textiles or performance, I wouldn’t go. Even if I could take writing classes while technically studying fiber arts or stage stuff, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to be a Writing MFA candidate. From there, I could study my other loves. And I got my first choice. So now, I can.

The School has a longarm in the Textiles department. What will my quilts become, now that I’m going to be in art school? What might it mean to use quilts in, say, a one-woman play? Will I write a quilter’s memoir? Will I create my own poetry magazine and if I do, will there be patchwork quilts on the cover? I’ll tell you that if I make a poetry magazine, there most certainly will be quilts on the cover. These are the sorts of synergies that are sure to occur when I begin school. I cannot wait. I am counting days.

My job is not one you quit — and I have no intention of doing so. I’ve got teaching and speaking gigs scheduled into 2018. New fabric is coming out in a few months. The Quilt Scout is going strong, I’m making quilts like crazy, I’m working on a pattern project, I’m curating a quilt exhibit at Spring Quilt Festival, I’m on the board of the Study Center. My career in the quilt world isn’t going anywhere — but it is changing (you’ll see me less on TV, for example.) But you watch: these changes will be nothing short of wonderful. You’ll see it all happen, right here. (Psst: it’s all for you, anyway.)

I’m scared. It’s so expensive. I’m taking out loans. It’s two years. It’s gonna be hard. But if I don’t do it now, when?


Chutzpah: If You Can’t Pronounce It …

posted in: Word Nerd 0
Matzoh ball soup. I know how to pronounce it, too! Photo: Wikipedia.
Matzoh ball soup — that’s “MOTT-zuh.” Photo: Wikipedia.


One Sunday afternoon, many years ago in Iowa City, I was trying desperately to charm my then-boyfriend’s parents.

We were all riding in his parents’ car. His dad was driving. His mother sat in front seat. Guy and I were in the back. And I did fine the majority of the trip.

The fellow I was dating at the time was a chef — a good one. When I got the job at the cafe where he cheffed, I knew nothing about food beyond Mom’s spaghetti and my young-adult version of it.* But this person, this chef, taught me how to eat. He showed me the world of fresh food beautifully prepared and it changed my life because I love my family, would die for my family, respect and value my family — but my family is not a food family. That’s okay! But when I learned how to eat (and how to cook) because of the chef, life tasted different. And I like different.

So we’re in the folks’ Beemer and Chef’s lovely, intelligent, handsome mother asks me this or that question about this or that thing. I have the occasion to use a word that I liked — liked, past tense: chutzpah. Great word. Yiddish. Means “shameless audacity, impudence.” Like, “He had the chutzpah to run for class president after pulling that stunt in gym class.” I knew how to use the word. But I didn’t know that chutzpah was pronounced “HOOTZ-pah” and ideally, one should do that Yiddish glottal cough thing with the “H” sound. I didn’t know any of that. Your hapless heroine pronounced it, “CHUTT-spa.” Hard “CHUTT.” Spa.

These people were Jewish. By the way.

Chef’s mother made this sound that was half-gasp, half-snort and turned back to look at me with kindness but great, great mirth. “Honey, you pronounce it ‘HOOTZ-pah.” I cocked my head to the side.

“Ha. Ah. I see. Well, you know, then, ha. Ha, then. It’s… She had HOOTZ-pah. For the thing. Are we close? I think we’re close.”

Over a decade! Over a decade since I said “CHUTT-spa” in a car with three Jewish people all with generous Yiddish vocabularies and I still can’t forget it. I thought about it today because I saw the word in an article and that’s a pain because the chutzpah memory starts a machine in my head that spits out all the other times I’ve mispronounced words in mixed company. I was at a fancy lunch meeting once — one example — and ordered the endive salad. I said, “I’ll have the EN-dive salad, please.” The waitress repeated back, “The ahhn-DEEVE salad?” and I wanted to stick my head under the tablecloth.

Turns out you can say “ahn-DEEVE” or “EN-dive.” Both are okay. But there’s just one chutzpah.

*Note: Both versions = amazing

Chica de Papel!

"Spanish Woman" by Alexej von Jawlensky, 1911.
“Spanish Woman” by Alexej von Jawlensky, 1911.

Guess what?! I’m taking Spanish lessons this summer! Chica de Papel is “Papergirl” in Espanol!

Truth be told, I kinda want to learn French more than Spanish but here’s what I’m good at: making soup. Here’s what I’m not good at: foreign languages. When I think about sitting in a desk in Beginner French: Level 1 my scalp gets itchy. It’s too big of a leap. I figure I can prime my pumps with Spanish, see how I do, and then maybe approach French in a couple years. The bonus is that I’ll learn Spanish along the way! I love words and Spanish has a lot of pretty ones.

Plus, I’ve got training wheels because I took Spanish in high school like everyone else and I had enough Italian in college to order a caprese salad and say it right. (It’s pronounced ca-PRAY-zay, not ca-PREESE and that’s a fact.) When Claus and I were going to go to Peru, I surprised myself with how many palabras en espanol I remembered. I head into my 12-week course feeling like I’ve got enough of a basic idea of masculine/feminine agreements, pronouns, and those verbs’ conjugal visits to achieve success — and I think we can all agree “success” means me annoyingly using Spanish words all over my posts for awhile until I get it out of my system. ¿Qué esperas? La clase es muy caro.

What’s incredible is that this is happening at all. I’m never, ever home for long enough to do stuff like this. Why take a course in something if you’re going to have to miss four of the twelve classes for work? Pottery, hang-gliding, the art of Ethiopian cuisine — the bounty of classes and continuing education offered by Chicago often feels impossible for me to access. Well, this summer, I’m at the mesa. (That’s “table” in Spanish! I’m speaking Spanish!!)

And all of you, my flamencos elegantes y exitosos (my graceful and accomplished flamingos) will be my accountability partners. Don’t let me be squishy on this Spanish class thing. Check up on me. Make sure I’m doing my homework. I’m sure I’ll have lots of good cuentos to tell you and I apologize in advance for the silly poems I’ll write to practice my vocabulary. I can’t wait to write them, though.

Viva la Chica de Papel!



Stolz Wie Bolle: “Proud As Bolle.”

posted in: Word Nerd 0
I love this guy. German people, c. 1916. Photo: Unknown
I love this guy. German people, c. 1916. Photo: Unknown

For all the love I have for words, you’d think I’d have managed to learn another language by now. When I was going to go to Peru back in April, I surprised myself when I focused on remembering Spanish words; turns out I remember a lot from Senora Harold’s clase de espanol, including “Puedo, por favor tener una galleta? No? Okay.” 

And I’ve got a healthy store of foreign words and phrases at my disposal (e.g., in extremis, tikkun, bete noir, lasagna, etc.) but these are but pebbles tossed into vast seas of possibility available to me if I could truly speak another language. Today, Claus had the occasion to share with me a fabulous, brilliant German idiom and I have to share it with you:

Stolz wie Bolle.

The direct translation here is “proud as Bolle,” Bolle being a man’s name. Bolle — you could translate it to “Bob” from the German if you like, or just say “BOL-ee” — is the village guy who wins a ribbon for his prize hog at the fair and then walks around the rest of the year snapping his suspenders and offering all kinds of advice on hog farming, finding ways to mention, offhand, you know, that he won the big show.

Isn’t that great? That there’s an idiom for that thing that humans totally do? It’s so sweet! My sister told me about a guy in an improv class she took once who would totally Bolle-out when he was praised by the teacher after a scene. He would try not to smile so hard his cheek would twitch, he’d get all puffed up and then be impossible the rest of the night.

The image for this post does not come from Wikipedia for once; this is a portion of a photo that Claus sent me from his personal archive. It is a picture from almost exactly 100 years ago. The guy pictured is a villager who came to welcome home a distinguished general who had returned from the war. The look on his face is precisely stolz wie Bolle because he got into the picture. The distinguished man of the hour is in the center of the shot, but Bolle made it into the frame. You can tell he can’t wait to get to the bar and accidentally bring it up.

That man makes me so happy. His smile is a straight line!

By the way: my Small Wonders fabric line (exclusively for independents, you know) has a line extension coming out soon. In addition to the India, China, France, USA, South America/Peru, and Netherlands groups, we’ll be adding Japan, Brazil,  and Germany — just for you, Bolle. Small Wonders is available at your local quilt shop and at fine online retailers like Missouri Star and Fabric Depot. 




Creation: It’s the Strangest Thing

posted in: Art, Day In The Life, Word Nerd 0
Spiderweb in scrappy browns and reds. Photo: Me
Spiderweb in scrappy browns and a consistent red, currently on my design wall. Photo: Me

It’s the strangest thing.

I teach patchwork techniques. I speak about quilts to audiences large and small. I write about quilts at least twice a month in my column; I even wrote a whole book about quilts and edited a magazine about them for several years. And then, at the end of the day, when I drop my suitcase or I turn in this or that, record for the podcast, or take care of this or that piece of quilt-related business, I want to sew. How can it be?

It must be the power of making. Creation can never be boring and is rarely something to which a person has to drag themselves. The temptation of adventure through creativity is hard to resist. That pile of fabric scraps, that template, that cutting mat. What will come from it? What colors will come together? What shapes?

It’s the same with writing for me. Playing with words came before playing with fabric in my life; before I was absorbed into the world of quilts I couldn’t stay away from the word thing and I still can’t. The only reason I miss days posting on PaperGirl is because the night comes and I am too tired (or am otherwise engaged) and I can’t plunk myself down and get it done. I don’t like those days.

There was a poster at the Atlanta show that asked, “What will you create today?” It feels a little poster-ish to repeat here, so I’ll rephrase the question:

What act of making is irresistible today? And what are you going to do about it?


A Writing Prompt for Both of Us.

posted in: Art, Tips, Word Nerd 0
Mary Pickford, 1918. Photo: Wikipedia
Mary Pickford, 1918. Photo: Wikipedia

I’ve been asked, “How do you come up with something to write every day?”

There are two parts to the answer. The first is that I want to be a decent writer and the only way to get decent at something is to practice. It’s true for a violinist. It’s true for a bridge player. I’ll never be a great writer, and I know that. Earnest Hemingway was a great writer. Virginia Woolf was a great writer. Both of those writers committed suicide, though, so maybe I don’t want to be a great writer.

“Now, now, Mary. Plenty of great writers did not commit suicide.” I’ll say yes, that’s true, and why are you speaking to me like a governess? The point is that even though I’ll never be great, I can be better than I was last year, hopefully. That’s the goal.

The second part of the answer is that I’m a naturally observant person and things that I see frequently make me intensely sad, excited, or confused. Frequently I see comedy, or at least what I perceive as comedic. I find those things worth examining more closely, even if they are otherwise insignificant things and they usually are. Writing stuff down is my preferred method of more closely examining things. I’m a terrible oil painter.

I suppose there’s a third reason: I like writing PaperGirl so much that if I miss a day, I’m grumpy. There was a spell this past holiday season when I was really lax and it was uncomfortable, like having a poke-y tag on my shirt. So sometimes I just plain make myself write about something because I don’t sleep as well if I don’t.

This morning was strange. I drew a blank. My aborted or curtailed travel plans were off the table. I didn’t want to write about my body. I couldn’t think of something funny that happened to me. I did see a shooting star the other night but I didn’t feel like being woo-woo. So I did something I’ve never done, which was to google, “non-fiction writing prompts.” It turned out to be a very good idea, because none of the prompts inspired me, but the act of looking up writing prompts was a writing prompt in itself. It also prompted me to create my own prompts. You have my permission to use them.

What is your personal credo?
Closely examine your feelings on olive loaf.
What stops you in your tracks?
How do you feel about adults who take tango lessons? Explain.
What the heck is wrong with you and what are you going to do about it?



Ode For the Ocean: My Shedd Aquarium Adventure

posted in: Art, Chicago, Day In The Life, Poetry 0
Residents of the deep ocean. Photo: Wikipedia
Residents of the deep ocean. Photo: Wikipedia

There were fish, sharks, fish, strange plants, and 1.5 millions of gallons of water at the aquarium. In response to the Shedd, I’d like to post a poem I worked out this summer. It’s longer than most of my poems, but I hope you will read through it today and when someone asks you, “Did you read any poetry this week?” You can say, “Yes, I did.”


Ode for the Ocean

by Mary Fons
© 2015

I’ve never thought it beautiful.

I much prefer a mountain range, which
                         strikes me as more traversable;
The ocean just strikes you with waves.

The “treasures of the sea,” to me,
Are going silver
             (such foolish gold)
Not proof of some grand, courageous adventure,
Just wet and old.

We are to find an endless blue
              (or anything endless) a reflecting pool?
This is madness
           and all madness should frighten you.

For lurking under sunset fire, just beyond the lovers’ sighs
Are beasts with coal black eyes
                          blind with only one own-only mind:

And longer than you, laughs the whale;
Killer, indeed, and with a tail to crush you,
As you clap and wave and save your photo.

All combers,
Mind the suck down —
                                    that human-sized sucking sound;
So much chum and lunchmeat now,
First for the mighty maw that spied you
                           (what’s red and white and red rolled over?)
Blood becomes you
               ‘till you’re dispersed in that vast, mast-hungry pool
                                                                   adrift on the waves that lulled you
Back when Cabo was not the site of your grisly end;
The fishes catch the tissue last
                                          and any flecks of left eye that’s left —
Are you finally out of the office

Further below, in depths we cannot fathom deep —
                           translucents sleep
Why they wake at all
A question we ne’er allow to ask;
Preferring such questions as:
                         “Shall we take the pink umbrella, dear?”
                         “Is Carol bringing Jake?”

The sea does not care
The sea does not love Carol

But for heaven’s sake!” the swimmers scream,
“Death’s not all the ocean! Think of schools and dolphin,
Think of shells and oyster feasts!”


A grinning manatee emerging from misty black is a heart attack —
You’d mess your pants and your electric fan;

And if walls of undulating weeds or tangerine clowns are cool to you
Fix them in your mind for
                         five minutes down the line these lives, too, are over;

Such is the lifespan of sea color
And what a drag!

The cleverest trick the ocean ever played
Was convincing us of her placidity

There’s chaos in the drink —
A jungle reversed,

                           inverted earth
Primeval monster bedlam,
Time and zero memory locked in loggerheaded war;
What in heaven’s name 
                           are you out there for


The sea does not love you

The sea married herself a long, long time ago
                           and she’s kept a tight ship ever since

See how she takes out the garbage

See how she freezes her food
See how she sweeps the floor

See how she claps herself on the back,
                                        see how she races herself at the shore, one more touch,
                                        one more touch, one more touch, one more

She doesn’t love you
She doesn’t even warn you

You: land creature
Get out



The Lemon’s Lament

posted in: Poetry 0
If you ever need a rudimentary illustration made on Google Presentation, I'm an email away. Image: Me
If you ever need a rudimentary illustration made on Google Presentation, I’m an email away. Image: Mine

Longtime readers will know that I enjoy writing poems about fruit. I can’t know how they truly feel about these poems about fruit, but I do think that if “longtime reader” does in fact describe them, they can’t think they’re too awful. I love, love writing them. Each poem has a different poetic structure (the cherry is getting a sonnet, but guess what: sonnets are hard) and each fruit has a different profile.

If you’re dying to read more, you can find my banana poem here, the lime poem here, and the cantaloupe poem here. If you click the “Poetry” tab in the blog, I’m sure you’ll find the rest of the ones I’ve posted so far.

And now, the latest. I wrote this on the plane ride from Des Moines to DC on Sunday. It just happened! I love it when it just happens. There’s some punctuation I need to iron out and there are always a few tweaks that come after a couple weeks, but for the most part, it’s ready. Fly, little poem!

The Lemon’s Lament
by Mary Fons
(c) 2015

The lemon’s a tragic figure,
And we’ve all got juice on our hands;
We make no effort to understand it —
Just lemony demands.
We grab dignity-sucking slices and wedges,
Ne’er value it as a whole;
Unless there’s a food to squeeze it on,
The lemon rots within the bowl.
“Water with lemon” we might request,
“Lemon with my fish”;
Lemon’s must divide or stoop to conquer,
And roundly reject their wish
To feel nimble fingers peel away
Bright, pock-marked, pithy skin,
Exposing tender fruitmeat,
Poised to drip down someone’s chin.
Nay, this has never happened,
(A lemon hardly peels!)
Instead it’s sliced into a dozen slices,
With no regard to how that feels.
Tabbouleh, pound cake, salad dressing
All need a touch of tart;
For the chef to achieve these flavor profiles,
Why, it’s tang they must impart —
‘Course they won’t then toss the lemon in
To whatever dish they serve;
The lemon’s tossed into the bin,
(The callousness, the nerve)
But Lemon knows they cannot do so —
Lemon accepts this as a fact;
It has no life beyond a garnish,
The squirt its closing act.
For when we all select a fruit to eat
The lemon has no place;
It offers only pain to man —
It’s written on his face.
Lemon plays the outfield, always
Never pitcher, never hitter,
Forever weeping acid tears;
And you wonder why it’s bitter.

“She Money”: A Trifle

posted in: Poetry 0
Diamond ring. Photo: Wikipedia.
Diamond ring. Photo: Wikipedia.

Some time ago I found an image of a children’s book from the 1930’s that began, “A is for Anchor, B is for Boat.” It was so cool the way it went through the whole alphabet, telling a story in rhyme about a child’s ocean voyage. It was a deceptively simple structure; when I messed around with it a little I found it challenging to find an appropriate word to come out to the right number of syllables and rhyme with the next line and keep it all relating to one theme.

So I really wanted to seriously try my hand at something like it but had to put the project aside for awhile. I’ve also been wanting to write on the subject of money. Now that I have a chair to sit in, I picked it up again in my morning writing time. It’s been so fun and as tough as I thought it would be. But I’m finally happy with it after a week of work and I think you’ll like it, too. Read it out loud to a friend — it’s great fun.

A few quick notes:

1. “Regan” is pronounced “REE-gan,” referring to rich King Lear’s daughter.
2. For the letter “P,” you need to use your prurient imagination. I’ve censored the word here but the truth is, the word I chose is the perfect word for that letter and it has to stand. I apologize if you’re scandalized, but in a poem, every word is important.
3. For those uninitiated, “yayo” is cocaine.

Now you really wanna read it, right?? Have fun. I sure did.

She Money
© Mary Fons

A’s for Acquire
B is for Bentley
C is for Champagne corks that pop gently
D is for Driver
E is for Ever
F’s for a Futures trading endeavor

G is for Gucci
H is for Heirs
I is for Interviewing au pairs
J is for Joneses
K is for Keeps
L is for Laurels for Triple Crown leaps

M is for Money
N is for Now
O’s the Odd Reference on the ship’s lacquered prow
P is for P—y
Q is for Quarrels
R is for Regan in this season’s florals

S is for Scotch
T is for Tsar
U is for Uncle’s Cuban cigar
V is for Victor
W for Win
(X is for nothing and never has been)

Y is for Yayo lines on the yacht
Z is for Zelda Fitzgerald you’re not

Word Campaign: “Thisclose”

posted in: Day In The Life, Word Nerd 2
That'll do it. Bullfight, Plaza de Toros, Madrid, Spain, 2007. Photo: Wikipedia
Oof. Bullfight, Plaza de Toros, Madrid, Spain, 2007. Photo: Wikipedia

Language is a living, breathing thing. It morphs, it adapts, it sheds its skin. Being that this is true, I would like to propose that “thisclose” to enter the English lexicon. One sees this word being used in certain cases and I feel thisclose is legitimate, needed, and rather elegant. Allow me to make the case.

I am beside myself that in the past few years the word “literally” has lost its original meaning. “Literally” used to mean “actually,” so if you said, “The hotel room was so gross, I was literally barfing,” it meant that you were actually barfing because you found your hotel room unacceptable. You were saying that vomit was coming out of your head because the definition of “literally” meant “taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory.” But some point, “literally” came to mean something like, “I was totally barfing over that hotel room,” or “I felt like barfing.” The way I see it, this is a bad morph. Whenever someone says, “I was literally over the moon,” I just stare at them and envision him or her actually flying over the actual moon.

But I have to get over it. Because that’s what language does. This is the nature of the thing. Language adds to itself, e.g, “That dude’s jacket is on fleek” and it subtracts, e.g., “That dude’s jacket is aces.”

Now that I’ve buried the lede, let’s go back to thisclose.

When there’s a close call, or when someone is on the verge of doing something but chooses not to do it, “thisclose” is precisely what they mean. Examples:

“I was thisclose to throwing my computer out the window.”
“I was thisclose to asking her out but I just didn’t have the nerve.”
“The bull was thisclose to skewering that dude and it was a shame because his jacket was on fleek, dawg.”

Right? (The pronunciation would be “THIS-close,” by the way.) Golly, I think it’s tops. You see it out there, but it needs to be official. It might be the word-of-the-year at some point (the Times chooses one of these each year, along with the American Dialect Society and the Oxford Dictionary and when they do that, it goes into the dictionary.) Maybe I’ll start a campaign, except I’d be crushed if this great word would lose out to “fleek.” As in:

“My favorite new word was thisclose to being selected but it lost out. I feel like throwing my computer out the window.”

Come See Me: Uptown Poetry Slam @ The Green Mill, 7pm, May 3rd

posted in: Art, Chicago, Poetry 0
Me at the Mill, but years ago. I gotta get a new picture next Sunday.
Me at the Mill, but years ago. I gotta get a new picture next Sunday.

Hi, Chicago peeps and anyone who wants to make a pilgrimage for poems and possibly Scotch.

I’m honored to be the feature poet at the legendary Green Mill Cocktail Lounge for the perhaps more legendary Uptown Poetry Slam on May 3rd. That’s a Sunday night. The open mic starts at 7pm, then I do a half-hour of my classics (!), plus new poems and a couple covers, too. If I had more time, I’d absolutely love to do Prufrock, but that would be downright indulgent. After my set it’s time for the slam.

If you’ve never been to the Green Mill for the slam, you have not lived. Oh, I mean it. That’s not hyperbole. There is nothing like the show at the Mill, a blend of poetry, bloodsport, make-you-cry beauty, and possibly Scotch. It’s hilarious. It’s not too long (7pm-10pm, tops), and the Green Mill itself is gorgeous and historical. If it was good enough for Al Capone, it’s good enough for us, right? You could make a night of it and stay for the jazz trio that comes in after the show. And hey, I know many people have dreamed of reading a poem at a microphone. This is your chance.

So come over. Get there early for a seat. I’d like to see lots of friends, of course, old and new. It’s a powerful, humbling thing to have a half-hour at the Mill microphone and I intend to kill it.

See you in the crowd.

“Tis Better To Have Loved” — Quickfire Poetry Analysis

posted in: Poetry 1
This is a silk brocade from France, made just after the start of the 19th century, when Tennyson was born. He wasn't French but I love this thing. Photo: Wikipedia
This is a silk brocade from France, made just after the start of the 19th century, when Tennyson was born. He wasn’t French but it seems appropriate here. Photo: Wikipedia

Today, a poetry lesson. I promise you will like it and when you are done reading this, you will be smarter and as you roll the poem around in your head, you might even cry the tears you cry when great art pokes you in the eye. I get misty every time I recite this poem at hand; I can’t be the only one.

Here is our text, which is a stand-alone part of a much larger poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. I hesitate to give you the title because it’s terrifying, but here you go:

In Memoriam A. H. H. OBIIT MDCCCXXXIII: 27

I envy not in any moods
       The captive void of noble rage,
       The linnet born within the cage
That never knew the summer woods:

I envy not the beast that takes
       His license in the field of time;
       Unfetter’d by the sense of crime,
To whom a conscience never wakes;

Nor, what may count itself as blest,
       The heart that never plighted troth
       But stagnates in the weeds of sloth;
Nor any want-begotten rest.

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
       I feel it, when I sorrow most;
       ‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

By the end there, you surely smiled and thought, “Ah, yes!” or “That’s where that comes from, then!”

Okay, now let’s take a look at this thing. This is my personal analysis, born of reading and re-reading this for the past month as I worked on memorizing it.

In the first stanza, Ten-Ten ask us to consider the prisoner who doesn’t care he’s in prison, or the bird (linnet = bird) who is in a birdcage but doesn’t really mind because she’s never been outside. The man and the bird are like, “Whatever, this is fine.” Tennyson says he’d rather be a captive psychotically enraged that he’s in jail because he misses his wife or his family; he’d rather be a bird devastated that she’s been trapped, aching for the beauty she knew outside.

In the next stanza, the poet tells us he’d rather be a psycho axe-murderer who has a conscience. To be a psychopath axe-murderer who has no sense of his crimes would be somehow more horrible. As a criminal, it would be far more painful to understand all the horrible things you’ve done, but at least you’d be more human.

And in the third stanza, Ol’ Tenny says that the people who say, “Love! Who needs it! I’d rather be alone and not cry than put myself out there and get stomped. No, no love for me. I’ll just stay inside and have my cheese and crumpets, son.” Well, the poet doesn’t think much of these people. He doesn’t want to be like them because they suck.

No, in the fourth stanza, our narrator tells us just what he wants — and he second line is the one that makes my chest ache every time because it’s this aside. He’s making his point and he pauses to say, “And look, I feel this way even when I’m in it, even when the breakup is happening, even when she says she doesn’t love me anymore, even when I miss her, even when I sorrow most — even then…”

You don’t need me to analyze the last two lines. You understand him, don’t you.


posted in: Poetry 0
"Don't talk to me. I just spilled an entire bottle of India ink on the letter I just wrote and now I have to start over. Please go away."  (Illustration: Charles Dana Gibson, 1905.)
“Don’t talk to me. I just spilled an entire bottle of India ink on the letter I just wrote and now I have to start over. Please go away.” (Illustration: Charles Dana Gibson, 1905.)

My intention is to post on the ol’ PG at least six times a week and usually do. The past couple weeks have been a little thin, though I think I’m back in the saddle. The trouble is not that I haven’t had anything to say: I have too much.

I’m soaked with words lately. Work is going along, I’ve been traveling, etc., but my nose has been poked into a book at every opportunity. The 250-page journal I began two months ago is nearly out of pages. Poetry has been coursing through my veins. I’ve re-memorized Eliot’s Prufrock and have been reciting it as I tidy up the house or wheel my luggage to the train. I brushed up all my Parker. I’m planning to pull out my favorite Philip Larkin pieces and make sure I’ve got them down pat and I’m 90% on my favorite James Dickey poem, The Sheep Child. (Read that instead of the paper tomorrow morning. You’ll weep into your Cheerios and it will be totally worth it.)

I could be satisfied by the presence of these gems in my head. But those words have company, however shabby; I’m turning out new poems at a clip I haven’t seen for years. I don’t believe in writer’s block, and the concept of some hot muse coming to see you (or not) is for entertainment purposes only. But I’m the first to admit that sometimes the poetry is with thee, sometimeseth iteth noteth. Trying to force poetry is like trying to force yourself to paint a beautiful portrait. You can only do the best you can do: it’s either there that day or it isn’t, and even a lifetime of technique may not save you. So you wait and hope you have a few more portraits in you.

If I were a full-time writer, I think I’d go absolutely nuts. If the full-time living in my head didn’t kill me, the poverty would. But I think about Scottish poet William Soutar a lot. He was going about his life, doing his thing, making big plans. He loved poetry so much and wrote it when he could. Well, when he was around thirty, he was diagnosed with spondylitis, a disease that would paralyze him and render him bedridden for the rest of his life.

When he got the diagnosis, Soutar stood a moment and then said, “Now I can be a poet.” He didn’t have any excuses anymore. He was free to do what he needed to do.

The Motorcycle Ride: San Francisco, 2004.

posted in: Poetry, Story 0
I can see my twenties from here! View of San Francisco overloooking Noe Valley. Photo: Jack French, 2007.
I can see my twenties from here! View of San Francisco overloooking Noe Valley. Photo: Jack French, 2007.

A song on the radio mentioned a motorcycle and it reminded me of something in a galaxy far away.

In 2004, I went on a slam poetry tour of the west coast. My friend Ezekiel went, too; he went to protect me (Ezekiel Brown is an imposing fellow with a heart of gold) and he filmed the whole thing, too, all the way from Portland down to L.A. That there is footage of this adventure makes me wistful, curious, and horrified all at the same time, which is an interesting emotional experience. I’ve been out of the slam scene for so long, I’m not sure if folks are still doing tours like these, but in the early aughts, it was a hot thing to do. They weren’t lucrative; you ended up spending money, not making it, because travel cost a lot and you’d only make a couple hundred bucks at the gigs, if that. But what fun, what fun.

Ezekiel and I were in San Francisco. I had done my set at a slam and it must’ve gone well because we were in a celebratory mood. We went to a bar on the Haight. I was a tender twenty-four. Can you believe it? I’m sure I was wearing ripped jeans and an army jacket, talking about originality, spirituality, and all the other alities twenty-somethings talk about with zero authority and fiery conviction.

Then he walked in.

You could put a book of Alan Ginsburg poems to my neck and I wouldn’t be able to tell you his name but I remember exactly what he was wearing: leather motorcycle gear, top to bottom. Not Harley Davidson motorcycle, but like, drag racing motorcycle stuff. Motocross, is it? I don’t know, but he was the sexiest thing I had ever seen in my entire life. Tousled sandy hair. Two-day beard scruff. He looked like freakin’ ad for Gucci cologne, all sleepy grin and swagger. Sex, okay? He looked like sex.

“Ezekiel!” I hissed. “Good jumping Jehoshaphat…! That man is beautiful.” (Pretty sure “jumpin’ Jehoshaphat” were not the words I used at that moment.) Ezekiel looked at me. I was not a strumpet; there was something different happened, something crazed in my eye. “I dare you to go talk to him,” Ezekiel said. “Double dog dare.” I watched the man sit at the bar and melted into a pool of butter. After the rest of my pilsner and Ezekiel’s goading, I did go talk to him.

I marched right up to that fellow and lord knows what I said, but I did something right, because before too long, we were having a pleasant conversation. I would steal glances back at Ezekiel with huge eyeballs and point to the guy and be like, “Can you?? Are you??? Holy Haight Ashbury!!!” Motocross Guy was nice. He wasn’t terribly smart, but at twenty-four, neither was I; really, we were perfectly matched.

The night passed into the hour where decisions are made. Motocross Guy asked me did I want to come to his place for a drink. Yep. Let’s do it. I checked in with Ezekiel, who was summarily impressed that I had just successfully picked up someone at a bar. (I’ll have you know this was the one and only time in my life I have done this, not only because I can say I’m battin’ 1000, but also because I doubt I top this experience, ever.)

We walked outside. “Here,” he said, handing me his motorcycle helmet. “Put this on.” It had not occurred to me that a man in full motorcycle gear was dressed that way because he had arrived on a motorcycle. But there his bike was, beautiful, parked right there in front. The machine was pure testosterone. Slick, fast, hot — kinda like him. He got on the bike and told me to get on and hold onto him. Before I could take a breath, we peeled out of the parking spot and sped into the San Francisco night.

Not all cities are beautiful, but San Francisco is a jewel. If you’ve ever been to there, you know it is a city of hills. Those hills mean village lights shine from shelves below and above you; the Bay is endless and the Golden Gate watches over all the good citizens. We flew. We climbed up and up, then fast down, zipping around corners and zagging the switchbacks. It was a good thing I was behind the fellow and wearing a helmet because my mouth was hanging open the whole time.

“More! More!!” I shouted. “Can we ride a little longer? Show me more!”

I had never been on a motorcycle in my life, not because I hadn’t had the opportunity. One of my and my family’s dearest friends, Jeremiah, had died in a motorcycle accident at twenty-four. I was twenty at the time, in college, when that had happened. Taking this ride wasn’t just fun and risky, it was a terrifying leap into the life I missed so terribly. It didn’t make sense. It was a stupid, dangerous idea — and one I couldn’t have resisted for anything and still cannot explain.

We got to his place. The evening ran its course. In the morning, I rubbed my eyes and I saw the ketchup packets and the stale Chinese takeout on his kitchen table. These sorts of interactions are not what they’re cracked up to be, you realize, due to the eternal fact that morning follows evening. He offered to take me down to where Ezekiel and I were staying, which was gentlemanly of him. I was so happy I could ride on the back of the bike again, I don’t think I drank the orange juice he gave me.

On the way back, he was showing off and got stopped by a cop for speeding. It was one of the most awkward moments in my life and it might still make his list, too: I hopped off the bike as the policeman came up. Getting a ticket takes time. It was getting late in the day. I didn’t even know this person’s last name; he didn’t know mine. We had no connection to each other, really. I said, “Um, well… Hm. I think… I think the train is over there?” Motocross Guy was like, “Oh… Yeah. Yeah, you don’t have to stick around for this… Um… Well, that was great. I’ll… I’ll see you around.”

He got his license out for the cop and I bought a train ticket and there you go.

I Give You “Grompy.” (You’re Welcome.)

posted in: Day In The Life, Story, Word Nerd 0
This child is so cute and posed so strangely under this planter, she looks like a wax figurine in a glass case. Still cute as a button. Photo: Angela Sevin, 2005.
This child is so cute and posed so oddly under this planter, she looks like a wax figurine in a glass case. Still cute as a button. Photo: Angela Sevin, 2005.

I had the pleasure of visiting my southern belle girlfriends recently, including the lovely Lady of The Livermush. Ol’ Livermush did something remarkable again and I have to talk about it. (Understand that I can call this girl “Ol’ Livermush” because she looks she stepped out of a Vermeer painting or the pages of Valentino’s latest ad campaign. She’s gorgeous.)

We were finishing up dinner and the table’s attention landed on my friend as she was explaining a writing exercise she had done when she was five years old.

“Ah was just fahve,” she said with the accent I’d kill for. “And ah wrote this on mah paper, ah swear:

I like to eat ice cream.
I like to eat cheese.
I like to be tan.
I like to lay on the beach.

“Then,” she said, “On the next page, do you know what ah wrote? Ah wrote:

Sometimes I’m grompy.

“And ah spelled it just like that, too: grompy.” She shook her head. “Do you know nothin’s changed? Ah still like ice cream. Ah still like cheese. Ah like to be tan and laah on the beach. And I do get grompy, sometimes. Don’t we all?”

When I learned she spelled “grumpy” “grompy,” I laughed so hard I made a honking sound into my napkin. Not since the appearance of “hangry” — what you get when you’re so hungry you become angry — has there been a new word so perfectly onomonopoeic. Now, Ol’ Livermush simply spelled “grumpy” the way it sounded to her. But to me, “grompy” can — and should — now define a very specific sort of bad mood: the bad mood that happens to you when you’re disgruntled (probably about something work-related) and you’re having gastrointestinal issues. Right? Have I got it? Let’s take it for a spin:

Person A: What’s wrong with you?
Person B: Look, I’m just a little… I’m a little grompy today, sorry. 


Person A: Stay away from Chuck today… Good lord is he grompy.

or perhaps:

Mother: Pick up your crayons!
Child: No!
Mother: I’m giving you to the count of five, Mr. Grompypants. ONE…TWO…

We’ve been given a gift, comrades, and you have Livermush to thank for it. Livermush, the great educational reformer Horace Mann once said, “Until you have won some victory for humanity, you should be ashamed to die.”

Livermush, please do not die. But if you should, know that your job here was done.

“But Miss Tully, This Is Cashmere.”

posted in: Art, Chicago, Poetry 0
I have to use public domain pictures because I can't afford to buy images. So I have to use things like this. Terrifying. Photo: Siu Ooyuen, 2013
I have to use public domain pictures in PaperGirl because I can’t afford to buy images. So I have to use things like this. Terrifying. Photo: Siu Ooyuen, 2013.

I feel so grateful to have a blog. Because I can share stories like this one with more than three people.

If you’ve been reading the past few days, you know I was in Chicago several days over the past week to perform poetry and teach writing workshops in a number of schools. I’m home in DC now, where it is about six degrees warmer. I have named each of those six degrees because I cherish them like I might my very own children.

One of the schools I visited is an affluent one. Real affluent.The parents who send their kids to the school are affluent, the neighborhoods these families live in are affluent neighborhoods, and the school, which is private, is therefore well-heeled by default. It’s breathtaking to see. The student body — remarkably diverse, I’ll note — has in-school yoga classes, an organic lunch program, and all kinds of autonomy in their day, as far as I could tell. On the walls of one hallway, I checked out the art on the walls: there was a sign that said, “All these pictures were made by code!” Meaning that the kids are coding, for one thing, and through their coding are creating fractals on paper. When I was their age, I think we melted crayons between wax paper. And I thought that was great.

There were cups of grapes on trays for the kids in case they needed a snack en route from like, Spanish XVI and microbiology. Did I mention this is a middle school? I have to make sure I say that the students are delightful. They’re engaged, polite, and 100-watt bright, every last one. I’ve been the school many times and it’s a joy, but it’s also disorienting.

For example:

At the beginning of my workshops, the teacher in the room will pass out sticky-back name tags so that I can call on the kids by name. Miss Tully (not her real name) was handing them out when a concerned-looking young man raised his hand.

“Miss Tully?” he said.

“Yes, Nick?”

“I can’t put this name tag on my sweater. This is cashmere.”

I had been looking down at my lesson plan, but upon hearing this my head snapped up. “This is cashmere”? Did that ten-year-old boy just say that he couldn’t put a name tag on his sweater because it’s cashmere? My eyes were big as dinner plates. And the kid was not being a jerk. He’s ten. He was worried his cashmere sweater would get jacked up if he put on his name tag. He’s just doing him.

One planet, many worlds.

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