Can You Panhandle It?

NOT COOL, FLORIDA.
In Florida. Photo: Wikipedia

America is big and wide and I’ve seen a fair amount of it.

Before I gigged around as a quilter, I gigged around as a theater performer, and before that, I gigged around as a poet, if you can believe it. I’ve couch surfed in Massachusetts, I’ve lugged a duffel bag through California, I’ve been on stages in Maine and in all the major Texan cities (I think.) When you add in drive-throughs and personal, non-work travel experiences, it appears I’ve gotten on and off airplanes or in and out of cars in all the continental United States except Montana, Delaware, and West Virginnny. Oh, and Rhode Island. Always piping up to be counted, little Rhode Island.

SIDENOTE 1: May I remind readers residing in these last four (attractive, well-governed) states that I am available for booking and can be contacted via the booking form on this website? Wouldn’t it be fun to check these states off the list together? As for the Alaskans and the Hawaiians… Surely there is an over-achiever among you who would like to inaugurate me into the All Fifty States Traveler’s Club. You get me to where you are and you will be richly rewarded, bonus prizes for everyone if we can find a way to book Juno and Honolulu back to back. Think of the PaperGirl posts!

I write to you now from deep in the Florida Panhandle.

For the next couple days I’ll be working here, meeting and greeting and communing with quilters. The location itself is remote to be sure: the Pensacola airport is an hour away from the town where all this is taking place, and I was informed the dirt roads in the area were only recently paved with gravel. The simplicity of the area belies the commerce taking place within it, though; there’s a whole lot of sewin’ going on down here, and I’m looking forward to the action.

SIDENOTE 2: I am compelled to admit that until (very) recently, I never knew that the Florida Panhandle was named for the shape of the region. I knew it was geographical, the term, but I didn’t realize people were being so adorable about it. The stick part of the shape of the state of Florida looks like the handle on a pan! Could you die? No, you’re saying, I don’t want to die in or because of the Florida Panhandle. And you’re also saying, “You didn’t know that? But everyone knows that.” But that’s not true. There’s a lot everyone doesn’t know about the Florida Panhandle and a lot of other things. 

II also hope to see an alligator from far away. I also hope to eat fried chicken. I am 80% confident at least one of these things will happen on this, my current American adventure.

“Facebook English” and Despair In the Morning

posted in: Art, Word Nerd 5
The Paris Review The Paris Review Interviews, III 2008 Copyright © 2008 by The Paris Review. Printed in the United States of America.
The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. III. (Copyright © 2008 by The Paris Review. ) I’m reading Vol. I right now, but I’m sure the third edition is every bit as wonderful and excruciating as the first.

By now, my mom should know better than to leave a good nonfiction book on the kitchen counter when I’m home.

“What’s this?” I asked yesterday, picking up the fat yellow paperback.

“Oh, I thought you’d like that,” Mom said. “I ordered it from Amazon. The Paris Review collected interviews they did with famous writers over the years. It’s really –”

The Wylie Coyote “vvvvvvvzzshoooom!” sound could have been heard, that’s how fast I zipped out of the kitchen with the book under my arm. Plates were spinning in the cupboards, the fruit jumped out of the fruit bowl in my wake.

I sank down into the couch for the next hour, poring over interviews done with Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, Richard Price. It was as though I was in the room with the writers themselves, that’s how good the interviews were. It bordered on spooky. Look here at Dorothy Parker on working at Vogue: 

“I wrote captions. “This little pink dress will win you a beau,” that sort of thing. Funny, they were plain women working at Vogue, not chic. They were decent, nice women — the nicest women I ever met — but they had no business on such a magazine… Now the editors are what they should be: all chic and worldly; most of the models are out of the mind of Bram Stoker, and as for the captions writers — my old job — they’re recommending mink covers at seventy-five dollars apiece for the wooden ends of golf clubs ‘”for the friend who has everything.'”Civilization is coming to an end, you understand.”

I hooted when I read that, and it was just one answer in one interview on one page! The book is a goldmine but it’s also dangerous — like an actual gold mine. This morning, still in my pajamas, I reached for the book and went directly to the Ernest Hemingway interview even before I went to get a cup of coffee. From there (now with coffee) I moved straight into T.S. Eliot, and then began Saul Bellow (with third cup of coffee.) Two pages into Bellow, I stopped because this was way too much genius before breakfast and I was beginning to freak out. Two reasons:

1. I’m a hack
2. Facebook

The first problem needs no explanation. The second problem has to do with a question posed to T.S. Eliot. His Paris Review interview took place in 1959, and the interviewer asked Eliot whether he thought the poet’s job was getting harder and harder because of mass communication. Since everyone was watching ABC, CBS, the BBC, etc., wasn’t a homogenization of language bound to happen? Wouldn’t everyone be speaking the exact same, “BBC English” before long? What good would nuance be? Where would poetry fit? Eliot was like, “Yeah, it won’t. We’re in deep [bleep].”

Another favorite author of mine is Nassim Nicholas Taleb; he wrote a passage on “Facebook English” in one of his books and he’s talking about the same problem the interviewer discussed with Eliot in 1959. Except that now we’re dealing with the Internet on top of all the television, so “Facebook English” is faster-spreading and more deeply homogenizing than TV ever was. We are doubling-down on homogenizing our already-homogenized culture. Running language through these sameness mills is like stripping paint and then stripping the stripped wall. This is alarming, comrades.

And I’m not talking about grammar. I don’t give a jot or a tittle if you say “done gone” or use “U” for “you.” That’s not a problem. In fact, variations and dialects, odd strains and rogue words are what we do want in language. The scary thing is when we all agree on a basic, one-size-fits-all tongue that becomes flat, dead, meaningless.

If it’s unclear, this is a book recommendation. I leave you with this from Hemingway, who never had to hire a social media consultant to help him with SEO and still ended his own life at the breakfast table. What would have happened if he had to keep up on Twitter?

                                                         Interviewer
As a creative writer what do you think is the function of your art? Why a representation of fact, rather than fact itself?

                                                        Hemingway
Why be puzzled by that? From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make somethig through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of. But what about all the reasons that no one knows?

From the PaperGirl Archives: “Mary Fons, Freshman,” January 30, 2012

Dutch magazine illustration. I love those dresses so much!
Dutch magazine illustration circa 1880; artist unknown. Lord, I love those dresses!

Yuri is tending to a bit of business while he’s in town. This means I have an hour to spend with you. You look lovely this morning.

Trying to write anything right now that is not a frothy, gooey paean to the strapping young man in my life/house is useless: he’s all I can think about and our reunion has been most happy, but because I refuse to be gross, I’ve rifled through the big red binder and have a little something for you today from the PaperGirl Archive. I promise you’ll be entertained, and there’s no risk of me TMI’ing about Yuri’s perfect, uh, everything.

The entry, titled “Mary Fons, Freshman,” is dated January 30, 2012, and I chose it because it makes this post a post-within-a-post that also digs into the past for old writing. It’s so meta, I’m practically metallic. Bon-apetit!

PaperGirl, January 30, 2012 — “Mary Fons, Freshman”

And now, a report I found amongst my the boxes of things my mother delivered to me in her quest to rid the house in Iowa of questionably saved childhood artifacts.

This essay (?) was written my freshman year of high school, which means I was writing at the tender age of fourteen. I am more than a little scandalized by my flip, bratty attitude — and more than a little proud, friends. As I type this up for you, I remain indignant over the indelicate circumstances that compelled my math teacher to give the assignment. I’ve copied and formatted exactly, word-for-word, from the document itself.

Let’s do this.

“Under normal circumstances, I couldn’t give a damn about the history of mathematics, but since the students in my math class can’t seem to control their gastrol [sic] intestines, I am forced to write this report. Having encyclopedias from 1962, it makes it difficult to find an abundance of information on anything other than Lincoln, so my one and only source will be my math textbook, Transition Mathematics, (Scott, Foresman, 1992, All rights reserved.)

THE DEVELOPMENT OF OUR NUMBER SYSTEM

Do you recognize these numbers? 

0   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9

You ought to, you’re a math teacher. We use numbers every day. But have you ever wondered how they came about? Well, I haven’t either, but I’ll tell you anyway. 

Long ago, the Greeks and Romans had a number system. It’s wasn’t like ours — they used the letters of their alphabet to represent numbers. The Greeks used more letters than the Romans, which is a totally pointless bit of info but is has to be a page report and I have absolutely no material at all. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I am one of the only ones in my class who actually completes this assignment! Anyhow, the Romans used L for fifty, C for one-hundred, D for five-hundred, and T for two. Europeans used this system from 100 B.C. to 1400 A.D.

During this time, the Hindus were hard at work on their own number system, which is the system we use today. It was called the DECIMAL SYSTEM! This system is the one that has made my life a living hell ever since preschool. I have never been good at math. If I was, I wouldn’t be having to deal with high schoolers who can’t stop farting. (Excuse the term, it’s so blue-collar.) But I digress.

The Europeans didn’t figure out the decimal system until 1202 A.D. A guy named Leonardo of Pisa, an Italian mathematician also known as Fibonacci, translated the Arabic manuscript into Latin, and that was the only reason the Europeans ever began using this system. Thus ends my report on THE DEVELOPMENT OF OUR NUMBER SYSTEM. Thank you.

Now, because I still have a half a page left, I will express my opinion on this situation. It saddens to me know that my fellow classmates cannot grasp the fact that they are in high school. Maybe farting was funny in second grade, but not anymore; at least not to me, or anyone else with an I.Q. over ten. Frankly, I’m scared. Are these the leaders of tomorrow? If so, for God’s sake, kill me now.”

[end of post]

My teacher put a red X through the words damn and “living hell” and docked me 10 points. It may not surprise you that I was considered fairly nerdy in high school, though socially-speaking, I was a floater: I had nerd friends, chorus friends, partying friends, and my older sister’s supercool friends, so I wasn’t terminally nerdy. But the general consensus was that I was a good at English, nice enough, and in no way serious girlfriend material.

Today, I absolutely think farts are funny and I am one happy girlfriend. Things do change.

 

This Post Is a Joke: “The Mistress”

posted in: Joke, Word Nerd 4
Mary Robinson, b. 1757, Bristol England. Famous for poetry, novels, acting -- and for being the first public mistress of George IV.
Mary Robinson, b. 1757, Bristol England. Famous for poetry, novels, acting — and for being the first public mistress of George IV.

I am fan of jokes. I love jokes!

There’s a small suitcase of jokes in my brain. I frequently find opportunities to pull them out. Some are not appropriate in mixed company, many are highly appropriate in mixed company, and many of them serve to blend everyone: humor is the great equalizer. I have no choice but to have and hold my little jokes; creating and maintaining a solid, if modest, joke repertoire is necessary if I’m ever to be described as a raconteur. I have a long way to go (too excitable) but you have to make a start on these things.

 

Reading a joke is a different experience than hearing someone tell it, but I kinda like reading them. I’ve never tried writing them down, though. Today is the day. Let me be clear: I didn’t write this joke; this is an old joke that I am telling in my own way, here on PaperGirl. I’m not sure I’ve ever written a joke from scratch. I think I’d remember, don’t you? That’s the next step.

For now, know what you’re reading:

joke |jōk|
noun
a thing that someone says to cause amusement or laughter, esp. a story with a funny punchline: she was in a mood to tell jokes.

Let’s begin.

A husband and wife are having dinner at an extremely chi-chi restaurant in the city. Lobster tails, pate, stuff like that.

Right before the dessert course, this gorgeous young woman comes over to the couple’s table. She waltzes up and kisses the husband smack on the lips! She’s like, “I’ll see you later, tiger.” And she sashays away.

The wife freaks out, of course. “Who the hell was that?” she hisses.

“That’s my mistress,” says the husband.

“That’s it,” says the wife. “I’m done. Enough of this sham — I want a divorce!”

The husband chews his steak. A divorce would be very costly and disruptive. He takes a swig of wine.

“I can understand your desire to leave me,” he replies. “But consider: if we get a divorce, say goodbye to the country club. There will be no more skiing trips to the Alps. No more Bentley, no more Rolls. Yacht club, gone. Summers in Tuscany, gone. Your little side trips to Chanel will end. But the decision is yours.”

At that moment, the couple’s mutual friend Larry enters the restaurant with a sexy young thing on his arm.

“Who’s that woman with Larry?” asks the wife.

“That’s his mistress,” says her husband.

The wife take a bite of salad and says, “Well, ours is prettier.”

 

Nellie Bly + PaperGirl #09726

Les Halles, Uptown.
Les Halles, Uptown.

(Nellie Bly and Mary are seated at Les Halles on Park Ave., New York City. Nellie wears a two-piece dress and scotch Ulster coat; Mary is in a fashiony black jumpsuit and McQueen lobster booties. Both women carry large handbags.)

NB: You look good.

PG: Please, Nellie! I look drawn and pale.

NB: (Considers this.) Drawn and pale is good in New York City. People spend a lot of money to look like you. (Pause.) But you’re right. You look a little rough. I’m sorry — I lied.

PG: I don’t feel well. I’ve felt pretty terrible since Thursday.

NB: Gut problems.

PG: Yeah.

NB: Okay, well, let’s… Let’s just briefly go over (Nellie takes out a pen and flips through her notebook) the history of your illness. I think there are new readers who will need context.

PG: God, Nellie, please don’t make me go through all that. They can read the archives.

NB: No, they can’t. The archives are all on the old server. A person might be able to dig and find them, but you’d have to have actual blog post titles to search and that’s impossible.

PG: Unless I have a stalker.

NB: (Nellie looks up from her notes.) Huh?

PG: I might have a stalker out there. He’d have all the old blog posts and titles and stuff.

NB: How is that helping new readers?

PG: (Chews on a fancy carrot stick.) I don’t know.

NB: Wait, wait. I’ve got the run-down. (She pulls an iPad out of her bag, opens document.) Here we are. Okay, “Level 3 ulcerative colitis diagnosis in 2008, Mayo clinic. Total colectomy with ileal pouch-anal anastomosis. Major surgical complications, including multiple internal anastomatic leaks, pelvic sepsis, multiple abcesses; stoma separation. Blood transfusions. Malnutrition. Hair loss. Extreme nausea, depression. PICC line. (Nellie pauses, flips papers.) Actually, two different PICC lines. Month-long initial hospitalization and several after that for various walls hit. Then in 2009, takedown of stoma.”

PG: That’s when the real fun started.

NB: “After takedown, loss of appetite, severe abdominal pain. Diagnosis: leaks still present in ileal pouch, abscesses. New PICC line. TPN for 10 weeks to try and ‘starve out’ the leak; you only made it six. Fistulae. Hospitalization. ‘Bio-glue’ inserted into leak. Bio-glue fix unsuccessful. Re-diversion surgery.”

PG: Yeah, my second stoma. Back to the bag. I had a stoma two different times.

NB: Which is not supposed to happen.

PG: Nellie, none of this is supposed to happen.

NB: (Continues reading.) Okay, we’re almost there. So. You had the stoma again for a couple of years. Then the second takedown in 2011. Things looked okay for awhile, but then you developed a fissure. And that had you in and out of the ER six or seven times over the course of 2012-2013. The good news is that you haven’t been in the hospital since… August. Is that right?

(PG, nervous, nods and sips tea.) 

NB: What?

PG: I don’t feel good.

NB: Okay, well now we’ve caught everyone up so we can talk about that. What’s wrong?

PG: I can’t seem to get on top of feeling terrible. I’m going to the bathroom a lot — more than usual, which is saying something. I’ve been trying to ignore all week that I feel extremely poor. Weak and tired. Dehydrated. Achy. And it hurts to use the bathroom. It’s… It’s so unpleasant to talk about.

NB: You don’t have to go into all the details. It’s bathroom stuff, intestinal stuff. Everyone poops. We get it.

PG: Well, no, most people don’t. And that’s good. I would not want many people to understand my life vis a vis the bathroom. We’d have a very depressed population.

NB: Are you feeling depressed?

PG: A little, yes. And that’s a bad sign. My surgeon in Chicago, Dr. Boller, she would get frustrated with me because I rarely run a fever when I’m getting sick. She’d be like, “Dammit, Fons! Could you run a fever once in awhile so we can catch this stuff before you need major surgery?” I don’t get fevers but I do get depressed before I get really sick. I’ll be sitting on the couch feeling crappy and then just burst into tears. That’s when I know I need a doctor, not when I run a fever. Crying is my fever.

NB: You should go to a doctor.

PG: I don’t have a GI doctor in NYC, yet.

NB: You should figure something out, Mary. Otherwise you’ll end up in the ER.

PG: (Looks at menu.) What are you having?

NB: Cassoulet.

Nellie Bly + PaperGirl: Impossible Conversations (Part I)

posted in: Word Nerd 0
Bly.
Yo, Nellie Bly. ‘Sup girl.

Beginning around 2006 or 2007, when PaperGirl was hosted by another server, when the layout was way different, when life was baffling and great but in totally different ways, I presented from time to time dialogues between myself and Nellie Bly. Long-long-time readers may recall these; I may dig one up one day for our fun. They’re all in the archives.

Nellie Bly is known to grammar school students across America as “the first woman reporter” and I doubt that that is true, history textbooks being what they are (watered-down and probably SEO-driven at this point.) Bly was certainly among the first women journalists to be recognized for their work in the profession, and that makes Nellie Bly cool. She’s cool enough to be the subject of innumerable 5th grade book reports, cool enough to have an amusement park in Brooklyn named after her**, and cool enough to be the only person I’ve ever wanted to be a foil to my brain in this blog.

When I was at my sickest in 2008-2009, Nellie Bly and I would have what I called “Health Chats,” where she would ask me questions about the state of my scary body and I would answer. I always told her the truth. On the days when I couldn’t possibly figure out how to otherwise narrate what was happening to me — either because I was too high on Dilaudid or because the news was too bad and too overwhelming to comprehend — writing a two-person conversation felt like my only option. But it was an option I loved. I just talked to Nellie; I just answered her questions. We talked about other topics from time to time, but for the most part, and definitely during my illness, it was “Health Chat” with Bly every week or two because it helped me get better. I believe it.

I only realized a few hours ago that it’s International Women’s Day. Re-introducing Nellie, vis a vis PaperGirl, is perfect for the occasion.

Stay tuned for the conversation.

**Recently renamed “Adventurer’s Family Entertainment Center” because no one cares about anything and everything is terrible.

Me, Dad, and Cheesecake for Breakfast.

posted in: Family, Food, Word Nerd 10
Wayne Thiebaud. Pies, Pies, Pies. 1961. Oil on canvas, 20 x 30 in.
Wayne Thiebaud. Pies, Pies, Pies. 1961. Oil on canvas, 20 x 30 in. Incidentally, this piece lives in Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum and I saw it with my own two eyes, which, incidentally, are usually bigger than my stomach but never as large as my mouth.

My trip to California over the weekend wasn’t for business. I went and spent time with Leesa, my favorite aunt. She was my favorite aunt before the weekend; now I feel like we should fill out some kind of embossed certificate to announce it. Thanks, auntie.

It had been a number years since Leesa and I had spent time together. The last time I saw her was when her father died in 2009. That was a sub-optimal visit, as you can imagine. Everyone was sad about grandpa being dead and busy with funeral and burial stuff. “Sad and busy” is a dreadful state, and it inevitably comes upon you when someone you love dies. Me and my aunt wanted to reconnect without trying to work around a wedding or a funeral, so I flew out to California to see her, her adorable dog, Otto Lieberman, and the beautiful rosemary bushes that line the patio of her well-appointed California home.

We talked a lot. We drank a lot of coffee. We went to the Crocker Museum to have lunch and see art. We attended a black-tie dinner party. We talked more. We made another pot of coffee. It rained all weekend, so the main component of the visit was conversation. Lucky for me and my aunt, we’re good at conversation and share many (all?) of the same values and interests. And since 75% of my family members are also her family members, there was plenty to discuss in that area. The Fons side of the family was broken up into chunks early on in my life and it’s been a Humpty Dumpty ride ever since. This is true for me; I suspect it feels the same for other Fonses I know aside from my aunt, but I won’t speak for them.

Over the course of our visit, I got some information about my father. I haven’t seen him since Grandpa’s funeral either, but Leesa (his youngest sister) stays in contact. I am wary when I’m about to get information about him and hardly eager to ask for it; the presence of my father in any sort of reportage rarely bodes well. His issues are many. Despite my numerous attempts to make even a surfacey relationship work over the years, we have long been estranged.

I looked up “estranged” in the dictionary. I thought it meant “not in contact.” It’s a bit sadder than that:

estranged |iˈstrānjd|
adjective
(of a person) no longer close or affectionate to someone; alienated: John felt more estranged from his daughter than ever | her estranged father.

My aunt told me something by accident that made me at once very sad and very happy, which is an emotional combination more common than being sad and busy, but not any more comfortable. We were talking about pies, Leesa and I, our favorites and methods for making them. We were at the kitchen table.

“You know, we Fonses have a real sweet tooth,” she said, coffee mug in hand. It rained so hard that day, leaves and mud fell out of the gutters onto the sidewalks.

“Really? Like, all of us?” I asked, instantly brightening.

My love of sugar causes me much anxiety. I’m usually worried I eat way, way too much of it, but when I try to eliminate it from my diet (or even cut down on it) I see no point in being alive. That I was somehow not responsible for it, that my sweet tooth was a genetic sentence, that my love of pecan pie and pistachio ice cream actually served to count me among my tribe, well, this made me feel fantastic and warm inside. I instantly thought about eating another one of Leesa’s gourmet marshmallows from the pantry.

“We’re definitely sweets people,” Leesa said. “Your dad, he’ll eat dessert for breakfast. Always would, always loved to. Pie, cheesecake. That’s not for me, but that’s what he would eat for breakfast every day if he had the option. Isn’t that funny?”

I swallowed too much hot coffee. It burned the back of my throat but couldn’t melt the insty-lump that had formed there when Leesa said the words, “Your dad” and “dessert for breakfast.”

I love eating dessert for breakfast. It’s my favorite thing in the world. If there’s cheesecake in the house, I will eat a slice for breakfast and genuinely take no interest in it the rest of the day. In my world, apple pie and coffee are perfect 7:00am foods. Just today, a hazelnut Ritter Sport chocolate bar and a pot of Earl Grey tea constituted my breakfast and you betcher bippy I was at my olympic best all day.

I didn’t know I shared this trait with my father. I didn’t pick up my love for coconut creme pie with my morning coffee by seeing him eat coconut creme pie with his morning coffee. I couldn’t have; I’ve been seated at a breakfast table with the man no more than a handful of times since the divorce. To be thirty-something and discover things about your father, (e.g., he likes cheesecake for breakfast just like you) this information would be bittersweet if he were dead. But as my father is alive, these sorts of discoveries are bittersweet as well as bizarre. We could technically have cheesecake for breakfast together in the near future, my dad and I.

Technically, we could. But emotionally, we can’t. Philosophically, we can’t. Historically, we simply can’t.

I made a pie tonight for Yuri. Buttermilk-brown sugar. Seeing as how it’s delicious and wrapped in foil on the little table where we eat, breakfast is served.

 

Mary Kate’s Book Report: Fahrenheit 451

posted in: Art, Rant, Word Nerd 2
The best part of Fahrenheit 451 is learning to spell "fahrenheit." Also, the awesome graphic designs for the book over the decades.
The best part of Fahrenheit 451 is learning to spell “fahrenheit”; also, the awesome graphic designs for the book over the decades.

Plenty of folks tell you what’s good and what you should like:

“This restaurant is so good, you’ll love it.”
“Have you seen that show? It is so good.”
“Oh, it’s a classic. It’s so good.”

You are smart enough to realize that a musician, say, can be very good at his or her craft and that this has nothing to do with the fact that you’d rather listen to two cats in heat for two hours than be subjected to that musician’s greatest hits. You are smart enough to realize that there is quality and there is preference, and these things don’t always meet up. Look at the case of my mother and Frank Sinatra: she hates him. She thinks Frank Sinatra was a creep and his ubiquitous music, now on repeat from beyond the grave, is like, ear-porridge for people in shopping mall food courts. I don’t like his music, either, but I argue (with Mom) that Frank Sinatra was a talented entertainer, and that this fact that cannot be disputed. He could sing, dance, act, and probably sleep with nine women in a single night: this was a person with gifts. You don’t care for the tone of his voice, fine, but he’s still remarkable. My mother will begrudgingly allow this position, but she will always, always announce that she hates Frank Sinatra and damn what everyone else says when the strains of “Strangers In the Night,” are within earshot.

I recently had an experience that confounded me vis a vis the quality/preference nexus, though. I tried reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and dammit, that book sucks.

I sincerely do not believe that my dislike for the book is an issue of taste or preference: this not a good book. The prose is weak. Darlings were spared right and left and the dialogue is not-believable. The characters are one-note. And Bradbury’s social commentary is woven through the tale about as elegantly as a rubber hose might get through a placement. “Books” are ideas, Ray, got it. Okay, they’re symbols for people, too, I see what you did there. I tried three times to pick that book up and make it through, but I couldn’t. It’s a short book!

Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian tale, set in a world where books are burned by the nasty Powers That Be because books inspire people to think for themselves, something that is bad for the PTB. In this sooty world, “firemen” don’t put fires out; they start them (an admittedly badass conceit.) The novel centers around protagonist Guy Montag’s uncivil disobedience and attempts to save a world that is almost entirely obliterated by the time he decides to do something about it.

But it’s just a cudgel of a story. Bradbury writes Montag as 100% savior material while everyone else is suspicious. There are bad guys and good guys and there’s hardly a whiff of “But whose side is that character on?” which is what I crave in a novel and crucial to a meaty story, in my view. Montag’s zombie of a wife is hardly necessary for the story, she’s so early written-off; her arc is non-existent. There’s an old professor who still loves books (oh, really? an old professor still loves books? you don’t say!), and Montag’s fireman co-workers have names like Stoneman and Black, which is way, way too on-the-nose for me. That’s not a wink-wink from an author: that’s being cute. I don’t want cute. I want a good story, bro. [SPOILER ALERT] The book ends tidily enough, with everyone learning at least a little bit about themselves and the dangers of a Leviathan-style society. Wow! I didn’t see that coming. Except that I did, from the first page.

Perhaps the most damning thing I can tell you about Fahrenheit 451 is that Bradbury kills off this young girl early on in the story, but when the film version was made, they changed her fate. Instead of dying, Clarisse goes and lives with the exiles, which is way, way, way better for the story. Bradbury was like, delighted and all-in on that massive change to his book, so much so that when he wrote the stage version of the story, he used that storyline, instead. That’s called a major re-write, dude. That’s supposed to come before your book is required reading in for freshman in high school from Santa Monica to Albany.

And that’s the thing. Fahrenheit 451 is “so good.” It’s “a classic.” It’s won all kinds of awards and everyone has heard of it if they haven’t read it themselves. I bought a copy at the bookstore because I was like, “Dang! Fahrenheit 451! I’ve never read it and that is a shame. Time to set things right.” But I don’t like it and I don’t think I’ll finish it.

It is a good thing for a person to take up arms against a sea of hype. If you don’t think the ocean is beautiful, then don’t go to the beach for spring break. My mom hates Frank Sinatra and I think the case can still be made that he was “good,” but I am open to any arguments that he actually did suck. Staying open to revision and re-consideration, and being a proud skeptic: these are “good” things and I’ll argue that till I’m dead.

“It was a pleasure to burn” is not a good opening line to a novel, Mr. Bradbury. It’s cloying and snotty.

 

“Do You Have Poison On?”

Rather lovely, the poison ivy plant.
Rather lovely, the poison ivy plant.

Weird stuff happens in New York City. For example, yesterday morning I opened the door of the apartment and littered on the two flights of stairs down were dozens of Mini Twix wrappers. Dozens of them, tossed like so much confetti! It was as though all the Mini Twix in the East Village were like, “Yo! Party at [REDACTED] and 1st Ave!” and I was seeing the aftermath. I’m happy to report they were very, very quiet. I didn’t hear a peep. (‘Cause Peeps weren’t invited — hey-o!)

Today, something even stranger happened — stranger, even, than a candy party in the hallway. I was walking near Thompkins Square Park when a young woman came up behind me and asked me one of the more disorienting questions I’ve ever been asked:

“Excuse me, do you have poison on?”

You know that search box feature in the upper righthand corner of your computer screen? When you need a file or a word or an image from your hard drive, you type it into the box and bloop! there you can make your selection. Our brains work similarly. When you’re out a date and your date orders the branzino, you might not instantly know what she’s having for dinner. You do the search box and in .0000003 seconds you come up with some old file with a weird filetype that has something to do with…fish! It’s a fish, right? Yes. Branzino is fish. Thank you, search box.

When that girl asked me if I “had poison on,” I could practically hear my little search box whirring into overdrive. Poison? Poison. Poison ivy. Poison the band. Poison the deadly substance. Hamlet. Poison on. Poison on…what?? What is poison on? Poison drips, poison oozes — poison does not go “on” anything. Are there headphones somewhere? Playing Poison? It would be impossible that “Cherry Pie” would be coming from my iTunes, but perhaps someone’s nearby? Is “poison” a new drug the kids are doing and she’s asking me if I’m either selling or interested in buying? Also: no? There were also data rejections of the “Poison Ivy” character from Batman and poisson.

I looked at the girl harder, my search box wheezing and puffing, shuffling through great stacks of data. “Get context clues!” it shouted, “I’m gettin’ nothin’ in here!” Pipes were bursting, coal was being shoveled into the furnaces within my gray matter. The girl was kempt and pretty. Mid-twenties, black, nicely dressed. This was no help. If she was clearly insane, I could just shake my head and keep walking. The search box could be satisfied with “she crazy.” No dice.

“I’m sorry,” I said, searching her. “Uh, poison?”

“The perfume. Poison. Do you have it on?”

It was almost orgasmic.

“Oh!” I cried, way too happy to give her an answer at this point. “No! No, I don’t! But man, that is such a great perfume! I love that perfume! No, no. Not wearing Poison. No Poison on.”

“Thanks — have a good one,” she mumbled, giving me a slight “Sorry I asked” look. Hey, lady, you’re the one who’s talking to strangers about poison.

My sister Nan used to wear that every day in high school, by the way.

 

 

An Open Thank -You Note to Ms. Camilla Skovgaard

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

Dear Ms. Skovgaard:

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

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

Unless you’re me. In your boots.

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

But that’s not all!

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

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

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

Sincerely,
Mary Fons

 

 

 

Record, Repeat, Dance, Advil.

Nicholas Kirkwood gold-studded chrome heel pump, pre-fall 2013.
How does this gorgeous pump translate to my fear of death? Read on! (Nicholas Kirkwood gold-studded chrome heel pump, pre-fall 2013.)

Every morning, I rise before the sun, make a pot of Earl Grey tea (milk and honey, please) and I write in my journal. I fill page after page with narrative just like this, except in the journal I gleefully put down every last nefarious, disgusting, turgid, and/or bodice-ripping detail. When I die, these books may be worth something, not because I’ll be Very Important but because there will always an interest in the market for steamy non-fiction, especially if that steamy non-fiction comes from a gal who enjoys making quilts.

These journals — there are thousands of pages by now — keep my brain in order and help me quash a deep fear: when I die, I will be dead and my life will be lost to the sands of time. I’m a realist, come on. Unless you’re a giant, a Mark Twain or a Queen Elisabeth, the average human gets maybe a couple generations of people who actually care that much that you’re not around. After they’re gone, you’re just someone in a photograph who “died a long time ago,” no different than all the zillions of people who existed before you showed up and then also died. Bleak? Oh, heavens yes.

I suggest keeping a journal.

Last night, I went out. Big and bold, dahhling. I wore very high heels with a very short dress and I had very big hair and a very small handbag. (These contradictions, they are fascinating — and smokin’ hot!) There was lip gloss, there was a sexy black jacket. There were multiple taxi trips due to epic venue changes throughout the evening. At the house party in Wicker Park, I did a shot. At Studio Paris, I was invited to join a party that had purchased bottle service and when I told one of the fellows inside the velvet ropes that I felt like dancing on the bar, he was enthusiastic about my plan and helped me up right away. At the dance club/bar in Lincoln Park, I just flirted and smooched on my man and that was maybe the best part. Well, that and the second Grey Goose and tonic. Hit the spot!

I tell you all this because this description, this chronicling of a night is proof that it happened. It happened to me. I did that. I may have a little baby someday and when I do, I will not be dancing on bars — not till the kid is eight or nine, anyway. Chronicling is important for nights in, too, and plane trips, and mornings in Chicago. A record of it all is proof of life and I am a person who demands proof, needs proof. Life is slippery; it’s easy to forget not just details but whole swaths of time, whole people, whole versions of oneself.

Though I frequently read through the journal in which I’m currently writing, the time isn’t right to pull out the entire catalog and start reading from, say, Oct 12-Dec 23rd, 2009. No, that will be saved for my old and wizened days, when my knees are shot from wearing high heels every day and my rheumy eyes drip tears onto the pages before I can even really cry about it all. I look forward to that, actually. (Not the rheumy eyes; the journal reading.) Really, I’m just following the advice given by Gwendolyn in Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest:

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” 

Cheers, comrades.

Meet The Chastushka

posted in: Art, Poetry, Word Nerd 5
And pretty maids all in a row.
And pretty maids all in a row.

We’re going to talk about a Russian quatrain, but first we have to go to France. Stéphane Mallarmé was a French poet and critic who lived from 1842-1898. You know how poems sometimes do this on the page?

poems     sometimes
do
this                                    on the
page?

Yeah, it’s super annoying unless it’s gorgeous and it usually isn’t — sorry, aspiring poets but hey: I can’t make it gorgeous, either. Mallarmé was among the first to do that sort of thing and his influence on 20th century art was huge. I read a quote from Mallarmé a couple months ago that I loved so much, that rang so true, I melted into weepiness. I set about memorizing it and now when I’m falling asleep at night, I turn it over and over in my head because, well:

“Poetry is the expression, in human language restored to its essential rhythm, of the mysterious meaning of the aspects of existence: in this way it confers authenticity on our time on earth and constitutes the only spiritual task there is.”

I know, right? It’s not just a definition but a reason for poetry. Gah! Flutter, sputter, perish by art. And so it was with Mallarmé’s wisdom on repeat in my head that I set about researching a poem discovery: the chastushka.

The chastushka is a Russian form of poetry whose closest cousin in English is the limerick. “Chastushka” means “to speak fast.” Like the limerick, the chastushka rhymes, though with just four lines to the limerick’s five, it’s a straight ABAB or AABB rhyme scheme. The poem’s subject matter covers the breadth of human experience, but you won’t find a ton of chastushki about the beauty of the sunset; these poems usually focus on sex, politics, or your mother. Also, Chastushki are written in something called trochaic tetrameter, which sounds horrible but is simply the rhythm, or meter, of the form. It’s set. And here’s what it sounds like:

Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her

…or look at these two lines from William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger”:

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,
In the forest of the night;

See? You totally know what trochaic tetrameter is! And that’s a chastushka’s meter. Fun, right? Totally, and I wanted to try writing a few. And now, I present some chastushki for you on this wintry night. You should write a few. You’re not going anywhere. I will not post any chastushki about politics or your mother. That’s for the other blog. Just kidding — there is no other blog. Yet.

Fluffy goose-down pillow fight,
In the morning or at night,
I whup you upside your head,
We laugh and then go back to bed.

When Swanky Squirrel goes into town,
He dresses up and never down,
His suits are crafted by the best,
You should see his bespoke vest!

 

 

Mary Fons, Chips

Google Analytics reveals much. But lo, like the Oracle at Delphi, the Great Google Analyst In The Sky conjures more questions than answers. Oh, Great Google Analyst In The Sky, what secrets do you hide? (Cue synthesizer music, fog machine.)

According to Google Analytics, the top-rated searches that lead to this site are:

Wow, okay.
Let’s discuss.

What can we learn?

Well, people like to get the dirt. Am I divorced? how long ago? pregnant? how recently? diseased? in general or in a specific place? But we know already that people are like that. Heck, I’m like that. Scuttlebuttery is to the Internet as puddin’ is to a long-john donut: inevitable. And bad for you — and delicious.

That “mary fons divorce” comes up before the actual URL to my website is a little weird, but all right. And I look at the words “divorce” and “cancer” attached to the googling of my name and feel a little defensive. But who knows? Maybe those searches are born of concern. I have been very sick in the past and I am divorced. There you go: your search has ended.

The “is mary fons pregnant” search throws me into a mini-funk, though. It really is true that television makes a person look wider than they are in real life. I went through a phase when I enjoyed wearing geometric tunic tops with black tights and kitten heels. A good look walking down big city streets, for sure; on television, not so much. I look like I’m wearing a different mu-mu on every show that series. Why would I be wearing such strange, diaphanous clothing on TV?

Well, many people thought I was pregnant. A woman actually came up to me in Sacramento and whispered, “Mary, I hope you don’t mind if I ask, but… Were you pregnant?” I opened and closed my mouth like a fish for a few seconds and then the woman realized she did that thing that you’re never, ever, ever supposed to do. I said, reflexively, “You’re not supposed to ask people that.” She blushed nine ways from Sunday and that was the end of the conversation. But seriously: what if I had been pregnant? I don’t have a baby. If I was pregnant in the recent past but don’t presently have a baby, we could conclude one of a number of sorrowful outcomes had occurred in my life. Best not to ask a person that. Just google it when you get home.

Enough of that. We need to consider that other google result. You know, the other one up there. Third from the bottom we see:

Chips.

Chips!?

Just “chips.” Not even “Mary Fons, chips.” But it has to be. People have to be typing in something that connects my name with chips. I’m picturing potato chips, but is it paint chips?? Chocolate chips? Chip-off-the-old-block chips? Cow chips? How can we know? Separated by a comma like that in a search engine field, it sounds like a command to eat potato chips: “Chips, Mary Fons.” Typed the other way, it’s like I’m being introduced by a friend to chips:

“Mary Fons, chips.”

“How d’you do, chips?”

:: crunch, crunch, crunch ::

“The pleasure is all mine. That’s a lovely blouse.”

I can’t explain these search results. I do not understand “chips.” But I am happy with the wisdom and insight you have brought to me, Google Analytics. Please let me know if you would like me to make a burnt offering, or perhaps tithe to you a small goat served with chips and a pop.

On Tori Amos.

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

I need to talk about Tori Amos.

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

If that sounds a little creepy, buckle up.

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

A board game. With pieces and question cards.

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

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

Good music should grow with you.

 

“Nightingales (Chicago)”

posted in: Chicago, Poetry 2
Nightingale & Rose I, etching, 20 cm x 22 cm, [8 cm x 8 cm], Edition of 50.
Nightingale & Rose I, etching, 20 cm x 22 cm, [8 cm x 8 cm], Edition of 50.
It’s been some time since I had a new poem to share. It’s a lucky thing, starting a new year with a poem I’m happy with. I hope you enjoy it.

Nightingales (Chicago)
by Mary Fons
(c) 2014

Say “cоловей поют в городе именно для тебя.”
Say it again/say “cоловей поют в городе именно для тебя.”
Say “городе”
Say “именно”
Say “nightingale”

This is not god’s country/it is ours/code summons and watermarks/pills and the bus/the hustle and run till two crashes under a nightlight light/our city is this country/and the books could all burn/and the rock stars claim that they were here first/but the nightingales are singing in the city just for you/and I know those birds/and I sing, too/this is not god’s country/there is no jungle in the Bible.

We shall remain nameless.

And I swear by my palms my сердце is dear for I did sweat and loot to be here/for this era to the swamp I stole to steal my brain back/filthy as it was/so that I could rest in the cloud with you and our palms might kiss as holy palmers do/if time is money and money is you/you are time, too/go slowly if you have to hie/stay in bed awhile; thou need’st not be gone.

You’re my trade/perfect спальное место/and you have gotten in.

Trilling, trilling/the birds go up/killing, killing/the boys blow up
Fix my wing/Nolandia king
There’s treasure in this city.

The Proust Questionnaire: Your Year In Review

posted in: Art, Tips, Word Nerd 0
Marcel Proust, presumably watching the ball drop in Times Square.
Marcel Proust, presumably watching the ball drop in Times Square.

A couple weeks ago, I felt like doing a year-end questionnaire. It seemed like a practical way to assess the close of 2013 and I have a thing for questionnaires; I get to tick little boxes or fill in blanks regarding my preferences and this is endlessly fascinating to me.

I knew my online search for a quality questionnaire would yield plenty of corporate team-building versions and “life-coach” exercises, and I was right. But I figured there had to be at least one questionnaire out there comprising twenty-odd intelligent, non-saccharine questions to asses one’s year. I was incorrect.

And so I went for the classics. Marcel Proust’s questionnaire is something you may have come across if you’ve ever read Vanity Fair magazine. The back page of the magazine offers readers the answers to Proust’s edited questionnaire given by (often annoying) famous people. But Vanity Fair annexed the questionnaire; it was the world’s long before it was Conde Nast’s. Here now is the questionnaire. It’s not a “year-end” anything, just a very good list of questions for a human being. I encourage you to fill it out for yourself. If you have no favorite heroine, if you can’t come up with your favorite poet, perhaps 2014 is the year to find these people for yourself. We all need heroines, we all need a favorite poet or two.

Happy New Year to all; may 2013 be a fond memory, even so.

1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
2. What is your greatest fear?
3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
4. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
5. Which living person do you most admire?
6. What is your greatest extravagance?
7. What is your current state of mind?
8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
9. On what occasion do you lie?
10. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
11. Which living person do you most despise?
12. What is the quality you most like in a man?
13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
16. When and where were you happiest?
17. Which talent would you most like to have?
18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
21. Where would you most like to live?
22. What is your most treasured possession?
23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
24. What is your favorite occupation?
25. What is your most marked characteristic?
26. What do you most value in your friends?
27. Who are your favorite writers?
28. Who is your hero of fiction?
29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
30. Who are your heroes in real life?
31. What are your favorite names?
32. What is it that you most dislike?
33. What is your greatest regret?
34. How would you like to die?
35. What is your motto?

I Sing The Earmuff Electric (A Poem)

posted in: Fashion, Poetry 0
Yes, please.
I do, I do!

I sing of the furry earmuff,
Each side of my head a cream puff;
When it comes to headgear
For winter each year,
A smartly picked headband’s enough.

For who really wants a dumb hat?
They serve only to make your hair flat;
You step in the door,
And your friends, as before,
Say, “You can’t go ’round looking like that.”

But the earmuff, on the contrary,
Will spare every Tom, Dick, and Mary
From coming un-coiffed
And their loves will say, soft,
“Darling, you’re looking so very.”

Now, earmuffs feels slightly rodential —
Yes, there’s more than a little potential
To feel like a mouse
When you leave the house,
(In the city or somewhere provincial.)

But the point is protection from ice —
In winter, you must not play dice —
The need of the day
Is to keep cold at bay,
And muffs on the ears are quite nice.

Swinger.

Notice happy chap, downstage left.
The Swing,”  by John-Honore Fragonard, 1767. Notice happy fellow downstage left. He’s there for the view, I’m guessing.

Yesterday I swung on a swing. I swang. I love to swang almost as much as I love to ice skate. “Swang” is not a word according to my spellcheck, which is going nuts. But I think it should be a word, so take that, spellcheck.

In the afternoon, I went with my friend Sonja and her little boy to see Redmoon Theater’s Winter Pageant, an annual show heavy on glowy tableaus, light on coherence. No matter; the kids love it. As is customary for Redmoon, when the show is over, the audience is invited to hang out, touch the actors (!) and explore the set. It’s cool. They had rigged up several swings on loooong chains in the huge warehouse that serves as their performance space. My 5-year-old comrade took to them at once. The middle swing was a two-seater so at his request, Aunt May-May hopped on with him. He calls me “Aunt May-May.” I call him lots of loving things, e.g., “Squirt,” “Captain Bunker,” etc.

Sonja gave us a push. We kicked our legs. We sailed over the theater seats, whooshing back, then plunging headlong into space. I looked over at his tow-head and said, “Hold on tight, Babycakes.”

The last time I was on a swing I was home in Iowa. My mother and I had had words and this happens so rarely, I was quite upset. When our conversation had reached a fevered pitch, I tersely excused myself, put on my sneakers, and literally took off running. I ran to the city park, trying to calm down and expend (destroy) my unpleasant energy. Halfway through the park loop I spied the swings up on the hill. I turned on my heel and jogged up to them. Man, did I ever swing. I went so high on the swingset that the chains went slack at the top; this harshed my mellow a bit — I like my skull and would like to keep it from splashing onto park district gravel. I pulled back and settled into a blissful rhythm. I probably swang for a half hour, letting the wind rush past my ears on the back push, feeling my heart in my chest when I cut through the air to go forward.

An object in motion tends to stay in motion. A kid on a swing tends to want to stay there all night. A fight with a parent is usually over something important. Dusk in Iowa in June is heartbreakingly beautiful. Theater is relevant, but only to some people.

These are things we know.

 

Soup So Good, I Laughed.

Try me.
Try me.

 

I once ate something so delicious, I burst out laughing.

It happened in Paris; so many glorious moments do. Was I twenty? Was I blonde? I think I was twenty and blonde and I was in Paris on the back-end of a trip to Provence to visit fabric manufacturers with a murder of quilters.*

I entered a cafe on that end-of-June day. It was any cafe, every cafe. The sun was setting over Paris; Paris, that jewel-encrusted dot on Planet Earth. I was full of Paris but my stomach was rumbling and I remembered what Hemingway said in A Moveable Feast: “…the pictures do look better when you are hungry.” Sure they did, and I was ravenous. I ordered a large chicken (prepared) and ate with gusto, the only person in the cafe actually having dinner. Parisians seem to eat nothing — and they eat late. But I didn’t care; I had sacrificed real shoe leather exploring the city that day. I had earned my supper.

I also earned my dessert.

The snooty waiter — straight out of central casting — handed me the dessert menu. Rhubarb soup. That was on the menu, rhubarb soup! I had not had rhubarb soup. Growing up in a town of 5,000 people in rural Iowa, you don’t get many opportunities for these sorts of things.

The soup came chilled in a shallow, wide-lipped ceramic bowl. There was maybe three-quarters of a cup of this impossibly delicate, translucent pink wash. Floating on top were slivered strawberries and a few green springs, which I determined to be mint.

“Et voila,” said the waiter, and he sashayed away. I took my spoon and dipped it into that cold little lake, swiped a touch of the cream on the top, and delivered the spoonful into my mouth.

Float. Moment.

It was like drinking water that had made love to a strawberry bush. It was like sucking a peach. It was like having a crush on a boy.

I burst out laughing. “This is so good! Oh, it’s so good! Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.”

And I just sat back and laughed. I was like Sarah in the Old Testament, except that she was a really long way from Paris. It was absurd, this bowl of chilled rhubarb soup. I had never eaten anything like that in my life and to be honest, I haven’t since. I’ve had some fine food in my day: ’tis no small praise to say it was the most marvelous thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.

Turns out this is a Norwegian dish? My internet research tells me so. It’s called rabarbrasuppe and the recipe is as simple as can be. My people are Norwegian on my father’s side. We’re fierce Vikings to be sure, but I like to think of my Thors and Vals sitting around slurping rabarbrasuppe between battles, holding onto their horned helmets as they laugh out loud at impossible things: death, losing a battle, and chilled rhubarb soup.

*The most compelling choice for a group of quilters is not a gaggle or a flock (what are we, peahens?) but a murder, as in a murder of crows. We’d get a little more street cred.

“Why’s It Called ‘PaperGirl,’ Grandma?”

WWII propaganda poster by Fougasse; ironic appropriation by me.
WWII propaganda poster by Fougasse; ironic appropriation by me.

“Why’s it called ‘PaperGirl,’ grandma?”

“Sit on my knee, child, and I’ll tell you.”

“Can I have a another cooky first? You tell long stories.”

“Here. Anything else?”

“No.”

“Good. Okay, then, PaperGirl. Well, once upon a time, long ago, I wrote a poem.”

“What was it called?”

“I’m getting to it. It was called ‘The Paper Poem,’ and it was an extended metaphor about the nature of existence being fragile like paper, but beautiful, too, like paper is beautiful.”

“What’s paper?”

“Before your time.”

“Oh. Your poem sounds cool, grandma.”

“I liked it. Other people liked it, too, and I performed it in many places all over the country.”

“Like in Bismark?”

“No, never actually in Bismark, I don’t think. Maybe. It was a long time ago. Anyway, there’s a verse where I say ‘I will be your paper girl,’ and that’s where ‘PaperGirl’ comes from.”

“What’s the verse?”

“You want to hear the whole verse?”

“Is it long?”

“No, it’s not long. It’s the second-to-last verse of the poem and it goes like this:

But if you are a paper doll, too, then I shall know you on sight,
And if you are with me, come with me tonight; I will match up our bodies
by the tears in our arms —
We will form paper barricades against matchstick harm;
I will make paper love to you for as long as I can in this shreddable world;
I will be your paper girl.

“That’s nice, grandma.”

“Thanks.”

“And you named your blog that because of that poem?”

“Yes. And PaperGirl is the name of my LLC, too. And that small island I bought. And the Beaux Arts building you like so much in Paris. And my foundation in Dubai and all the vineyards in Spain. Everything in my empire, it’s all under the PaperGirl umbrella.”

“I wanna go to the zoo and see a rhinoceros.”

“Get your coat.”

Word Nerd: Quotation Expose!!! (SFW)

posted in: Art, Word Nerd 4
Watershed House is a 100-square-foot writer’s retreat located in Wren, Oregon designed by architect, Erin Moore of FLOAT Architectural Research and Design. Erin built this small studio for her mother who is a noted nature writer.
Watershed House is a 100-square-foot writer’s retreat located in Wren, Oregon designed by architect, Erin Moore of FLOAT Architectural Research and Design. Erin built this small studio for her mother who is a noted nature writer.

I read Virginia Woolf for the first time a few months ago. Can you believe I never read any Virginia Woolf until a few months ago? If you’ve never read any, it’s time. She’s pretty good.

I selected two pieces: a short essay entitled On Being Sick and the surprisingly slender A Room of One’s Own. Did you know that A Room of One’s Own is a speech? Well, it’s an essay she wrote with material from lectures she gave at Cambridge back in the 1920s, but to me, that makes it kind of a speech and therefore awesomely immediate. Both texts were packed with stunning, thought-provoking, clever, frequently charming prose. Virginia had the gift, man. In On Being Ill, she describes people who fall sick for long stretches thusly:

“We raise our feet even an inch above the ground on another, we cease to be soldiers in the army of  the upright; we become deserters. They march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn…”

“The armies of the upright”?! Just head-slappingly good. But when I read Room, I learned something that truly blew my mind.

The phrase “a room of one’s own” is deployed with enough regularity that few native-born English speakers would go, “Whuh?” if someone dropped it into conversation. Your friend Stu might say, for example, “You know, I just need a couple weeks to chill. Do some journaling, cook, rest. Like, in a little cabin in the woods or something. A room of one’s own, you know?” And you would know what Stu is saying. He craves privacy and meditation time. He needs space and time, to turn off the cell phone and the email. A room of Stu’s own.

Some of us will know that Woolf’s concept of “a room of one’s own” was shared within the context of speaking about women — specifically, women writers. Her point is that women who want to write need space, few distractions; they need their independence.

Well.

That’s not the whole quote, folks. Virginia Woolf didn’t say that a woman who wants to write needs “a room of one’s own,” no she did not. This is what she said:

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Money and a room! Money and a room of her own. Do you realize how freaking important that is to what she’s saying? It changes everything! Having a dumb room is going to work for about two seconds unless you’ve got some scratch. Where is this room? Floating in space? No! It’s in a building! With heat and water to pay for, I’d wager! And how ‘ya gonna eat, child?? You need bread! Butter! Chocolate eclairs! How can you write anything of consequence if you’re starving and how can you write anything of consequence with pizzaz if you can’t buy yourself a damned eclair every once in awhile? Good grief! Virginia got it — she knew where the bakery was.

So re-learn the Woolf quote. It’s not just that a woman writer must have space. She has to have means, as well, and that idea raises curtains in the brain to let in magnificent, dazzling light. Money and a room of one’s own. Zowie.

Bonus quote expose: I recently came across this famous piece from Thomas Jefferson, which you will surely recognize: “What country before ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? …The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” 

You know that one. But there’s another line. That’s not the whole quote. Check it:

“What country before ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? …The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

Word Nerd, over and out. You’re welcome!

Found Text: QVC + Dooney & Bourke

posted in: Word Nerd 4
Spank it!
Spank it!

I watch TV when I’m traveling.

Last night, I was a living, breathing road-dog cliche: I came home from a long/awesome day of work, closed the door to my hotel room, washed my hair, put on a moisturizing face mask, wrapped myself up in a towel, and got into bed with a chocolate bar and the mighty remote control. I’m glad the Tulsa Hampton Inn provides notepaper and a pen on the nightstand; as it turned out, I would need them, too.

I landed on QVC. A few years ago, this company hired genius marketing people who elevated the concept of shopping on TV from one of total lameness to one of at least partial coolness. Could it be? I remember article after article (read: press release after press release) about how HSN and QVC were attracting A-list celebrities and everyone from Fancy McPants to ChiChi McGee were doing product on television. Liza Minnelli did a line of clothes for one of the networks; I know because I bought two pieces. Off the TV! Good lord! It was an isolated event, though; my items were costume pieces for my Liza-centric one-woman show in 2011. I hadn’t looked in on the world of television shopping since then, so I thought I’d check the scene.

QVC, I salute you. I was thoroughly entertained for the duration of my face mask. I’m not being sarcastic! It was great.

I watched host Lisa Robertson present/sell a collection of Dooney & Bourke handbags. As I watched, my jaw dropped open. (Well, my lips parted; the mask was getting really hard.) I grabbed the pen and paper and wrote down some of the sentences that came out of Lisa Robertson’s mouth. She was mesmerizing; she could talk for ten minutes about absolutely nothing. Words were coming. Zero new information was being dispensed. Everything you needed to know about each handbag was learned in the first fifteen seconds of seeing it — but not if Lisa had anything to do with it. And she kept repeating the word “crossbody” over and over again, inserting it into every possible place it would fit. I’ll bet you a million bucks that the hosts/producers zero in on a single word in any presentation to use again and again, like a mantra or a password because it’s soothing, hypnotizing. The word could be “phytonutrient” or “sleek” or “soothing.” Last night, it was “crossbody.”

“Love this crossbody bag. The strap, crossbody, is amazing, this amazing crossbody bag is one you will love forever. You will have this for years. Leather, Florentine. Strap, crossbody. This beautiful leather crossbody bag — wow.”

It got better, though. She actually said these things. These are verbatim sentences.

“Are you shorter? You want a bag that won’t overwhelm you. You don’t want to be overwhelmed by your handbag. This is your bag.”

“You’re saying, ‘I don’t want to fight with my bag. I want a bag and I don’t want to fight with it.’ This is that bag.”

“Crossbody.”

“These pockets in the front, they go all the way down. Absolutely.”

“We make these zippers very easy. These zippers are not going to bite you.”

“This is Florentine leather. Very European leather.”

Glorious. And she kept spanking the bags! She’d do a little rub-n-spank, rub-n-spank and finger the front, finger the findings and the hardware. Very sexual, really, almost erotic. So it was all a lot of fun and I fell asleep watching it. When I woke up twenty minutes later, my face was a cement slab and this morning it looks AMAZING.

“Trashy Is The Lime”: An Anatomy of Poetic Inspiration

posted in: Art, Food, Poetry, Word Nerd 6
Do I have to?
Riveting!

I wrote a poem yesterday morning and I’d like to share how that happened. The generation of “Trashy Is The Lime” is proof that as a writer, I must read writers who are better than I am every day. (The good news is that there are many, many writers better than I am, so I shall never be done reading. A good problem to have.)

It’s like wrestling. You wanna be a better wrestler, you gotta wrestle bigger dogs. You gotta hustle your way into the next weight class and get mopped up by Brutus a few times until you get strong enough to give him hell. You might not win, but look at your triceps! Writing is the same. Read the classics, read the best of the best. Your brain has to run pell mell to catch up and you will trip, son, but in the running you get faster and in the running you are running, which is far better than sitting.

Yesterday morning I closed the latest big dog (Dr. Faustus, for class) and took from my coffee table one of my favorite books ever: the latest (18th) edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I flipped to a random page and discovered a stunning entry about my favorite place on earth, Chicago, USA. Check it:

“Gigantic, willful, young.
Chicago sitteth at the northwest gates.”

The quote was ascribed to writer William Vaughn Moody from a poem he wrote in 1901 called “An Ode In Time of Hesitation.” I snatched my iPad off the couch and tippity-tapped my way into the life of Mr. Moody (no relation to Dwight L. Moody, the famous Chicago preacher, FYI.) Moody’s poem is crazy good, inspired by the statue of a black soldier who served at the head of the first enlisted negro regiment in Massachusetts in 1863. It’s long, it’s intricate, and that line on Chicago is dope. As I read the full piece, I tried to figure out the rhyme scheme; before long, I had to get out paper and pencil to suss it out. It’s wild:

A-B-A-A-C-D-D-B-E-C-C-B-E **

“That’s bananas!” I cried, to no one at all because I was sitting in my living room alone. Saying “bananas” made me think of my collection of fruit poems. It’s an ongoing project; I’ve shared The Cantaloupe Poem here and the first half of The Preposterously True Tale of Pru Huntington’s Pineapple. Well, Mr. Moody’s crazy rhyme scheme was too tempting to ignore, so I set about writing a new fruit poem in the style of “Ode to Hesitation.” First, we must take a look at Moody’s opening verse, so you can see how the man did it.

                                I.
Before the solemn bronze Saint Gaudens made
To thrill the heedless passer’s heart with awe,
And set here in the city’s talk and trade
To the good memory of Robert Shaw,
This bright March morn I stand,
And hear the distant spring come up the land;
Knowing that what I hear is not unheard
Of this boy soldier and his negro band,
For all their gaze is fixed so stern ahead,
For all the fatal rhythm of their tread.
The land they died to save from death and shame
Trembles and waits, hearing the spring’s great name,
And by her pangs these resolute ghosts are stirred.

Awesome, right? Yeah. So, rather than do the 9,000 other things that I desperately need to do, I wrote a fruit poem. The poem is entitled “Trashy Is The Lime” and it’s about how limes are kinda gross, definitely ubiquitous, and, yes, trashy. It’s a rude thing to go from Moody’s gorgeous verse about the noble soldier to my attack on defenseless limes, but this is what I consider fun. This is my entertainment, what I do in my time off. And I would like to thank W.V. Moody, Bartlett’s, the Academy, and the editor of Love of Quilting, who is about to kill me because I’m late on an assignment. This is partly why. Enjoy!

Trashy Is The Lime
by Mary Fons

Limes! limes! It must always be. The drinks we pour
Are sticky, and our garnishes are green
And sour, and this is what they’re for:
Lick, drink, suck; the lime be the cocktail’s whore.
The manner-est born in the family dwell
In Florida, armpit of our nation;
“Key” limes prized from this location,
But the compliment is mean.
Acrid, useless without supporting cast,
A wince on the tongue, a straight-up hard sell —
The lime behind the bar at the Hilton hotel,
Crushed with the coconut and everywhere seen,
Like roaches, limes shall humans outlast.

** If anyone knows what this poetical form is called, please, please tell me. I do not have a degree in English and I’ll be 70 before I will have the time/talent to get into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop MFA program in poetry where you might actually learn stuff like this. 

Step Into My Office.

My office today.
My office today.

There are fires to put out.

There are fires to put out and people to give things to. There are tasks need done and a clock that’s ticking in the halls of my brain. There’s a hard stop for it all on Wednesday morning, when I leave for Oklahoma for a several day-long lecture series — but that’s a hard stop no harder than a day all-too-soon when we sign off on the latest issue of the magazine.

My kingdom for a kingdom. Then I’d have help.

And all of this while the sawing and the buzzing and tour de force takes place in my home and the men shout, “‘Ey, Ryan! Bring me that pipe?” from the other side of the house and I can’t write. So I leave and find the best place to be homeless today. The coffee shop on Tuesday was good, but a weirdo was staring at me so I couldn’t edit. The common room in my building yesterday was okay, but there was a chill and I felt sad.

Today, I’m here at the Hilton. It’s just around the corner from the cavity they’re drilling in my bathroom. There’s fresh coffee to scam off the buffet and there’s a convention going on with free wi-fi to be had. And I found this hall-slash-ballroom upstairs from the lobby where the sun is streaming in and the chandeliers have been dusted recently. It’s vast and paneled and there’s not a soul in sight.

When you work from home and you can’t be home, you can work in a ballroom. And that makes all the difference.

Word Nerd: Boo

posted in: Word Nerd 1
Sparkly!
Sparkly!

Blame it on Halloween last week: I got “boo” on the brain. Not the go-to ghost word “Boo!” but the slang term for a quasi-girlfriend/boyfriend, as in “I love my boo” or “It’s just me and my boo. I think boo is the best thing to happen to the English language since chortle.**

Doing research on the Internet is great and all, but from time to time it reveals its limitations. To truly get to the bottom of the etymology of boo, I would need to speak to a linguistics professor or a cultural anthropologist — the web didn’t help much. I found the following possibilities for the existence of boo:

– it’s from the French beau (pronounced “bo”) meaning “boyfriend or male admirer,” which found its way into Afro-Caribbean language through French colonization
– it’s a Southern-bred, derivative term of endearment, lineage going something like this:
poppet –> poopsie –> boopsie –> boo
– it’s just short for “booty”

Who can say? Well, Yahoo question boards can try (boy do they) but I’m not sure about any of these answers and that last one is straight up dubious. I feel confident that boo is a word born in black culture, though. The first time I ever heard it used was in that song “Dilemma,” by Nelly and former Destiny’s Child singer Kelly Rowland. The chorus went: No matter what I do/All I think about is you/Even when I’m with my boo/You know I’m crazy over you. Tsk-tsk, children. But until I meet a cultural anthropologist at a cocktail party whose studies include American Ebonics, it could be a long time before I know the true origins. I can still love the word, though, and I sure do.

I love boo because it names a real thing and it’s phonetically perfect for what that thing is. Let’s say, hypothetically, that I have a boo. You and I are having lunch and you ask me what I did over the weekend. I say, “It was me and my boo, just hanging out.” You could infer that my boo was male, because I am straight. You would know that this fellow is involved with me romantically, but you also know I don’t have a boyfriend. So is this person just a random, um, date? (We’re speaking hypothetically, remember.) No, boo implies a tenderness and a familiarity that elevates the subject into something more special than a frivolous fling. I mean, I wanted to hang out with him all weekend, so he must be worth hanging out with.

So I like the word because there do exist these kinds of relationships in the world: something not official, but not pointless. Something important, but not call-your-mother about it. My boo, my boo, my boo.

And then there’s the darlingness of it, the baby-like sound that the word is. It’s close to “goo,” as in “goo-goo, ga-ga” and close to “baby” and it’s also slang, which means you feel pretty street when you say it. I don’t know many people who wouldn’t respond positively if their partner, spouse, lover, etc., affectionately put their arm around them, pulled them close, and said, “Hey, boo.”

Try it. Don’t try it on someone you don’t have genuinely tender, romantic feelings toward, though, because it would be way too familiar. Kinda like calling your 60-year-old Spanish teacher in high school “senorita,” it just makes everyone a little antsy. And to all the boos who had good weekends together, hats off to you.

(But put your pants back on.)

** The word “chortle” did not exist in the English language before Lewis Carroll wrote Jabberwocky in 1871. A hybrid of “chuckle” and “snort,” it is but one of almost two dozen entirely new words introduced in that legendary poem. Now that’s a writer who can write. Check it out. 

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