Gosh, it sure is good to see and read y’all.
I’m doing alright, I promise. That’s especially true this morning because being here again feels like I’ve just come into our favorite coffee shop after a long time away and the klatch — the klatch is you — is like, “Well, bless my soul! The ol’ PG!” I plunk myself down in a captain’s chair at our wide, round table. I take that chair not because I want to be captain; everyone’s in a captain’s chair because it’s just the style of this place. Everyone’s excited to hear what I’ve been up to for Lord’s sake, but I just want to hear about your lives and what you’ve been doing while I’ve been out sailing the high seas. Think of me as a wisened fisherman of few words, all yellow slicker and bucket hat, silently dripping several tablespoons of rainwater onto the floor which I wipe up right away with the napkin that came under my croissant. I might be a wisened fisherman of few words but I have manners. You are all relieved that I do not smell of shellfish or whales. It’s way too early for that. Marianne (friend Marianne, not mom Marianne), being immediately to my right, does detect a slight whiff of algae for the first 30 minutes or so, but she doesn’t say anything because she knows the smell of coffee cake baking in the cafe kitchen will soon overtake it. Plus, I’ve been through a lot.
Before long, everyone talking about the big race.
Spring and Winter are neck and neck. One day, it’s Winter’s race to lose. Freezing slush swirls all around us and everyone spits epithets and yanks their damned stocking caps down around their ears and the ears of their children to protect them from the slush and the epithets. But we’re talking about the race because this race is best race of the year. Spring comes from behind. She pulls ahead by a nose! No one thought it could happen, but suddenly it’s 65 degrees and sunny and it stays that way long enough to get some green buds going in the trees along the street! This is wild! She could actually do this.
Woah, woah, woah, says Marj. Old Man Winter’s no quitter, she says, and eats a piece of my croissant. (She asked.) His age gives him experience and let’s not forget: He’s been working out for months. At that moment, Winter executes a full body slam: actual snow accumulation. The dumb jerk snarls and growls at Spring. He calls her a whippersnapper and blows her down with subzero winds from the north. Winter has always had his fans, but at this point most of the crowd is turning on him on account of him being so mean. Spring gets up, but she’s nervous. It doesn’t look good for her, doesn’t good at all. She’s so young. She’s green! Nothin’ but a colt, really, and going up against that metaphor. We hate to do it, but a few of start to pull on our salt-stained boots and get on home before the snow plows block the damn road. It’s too depressing.
But wait … you guys, you guys.
Spring’s still in this. She just kicked Old Man Winter in the — wow, she’s kicking him but good! Where did that come from?? Spring pulls forward, shaking chartreuse pollen from her mane. It gets in Old Man Winter’s eyes and he starts crying like a little — well, he’s crying, really crying! No one wants to be callous but we’re all secretly praying he’ll start sneezing like crazy and he does, which gives Spring an opening. To our shock, she goes for it, launching one of the riskiest moves in the book, The Triple Easter Bunny. No, we cry out! Spring, it’s too soon! You could die out there! Don’t be a hero! We’ll hold the line! Just a few more weeks — are you crazy?! You’re not ready!
The world stops spinning on its axis. We all hold our breath. She hops once. She hops twice. She hops a third time and … she sticks the landing.
The girl did it. She really did.
We all start whooping and hollering and throwing flower petals in the air. What a race, we cry, and Jim takes a piece of my croissant.
There comes a time in every young woman’s life when she hears the song ‘These Days’, written by Jackson Browne, first recorded by German model and actress Nico in 1967.
Maybe she first hears the track when a boy, trying very hard to impress her with how much he knows about 1960s American pop music, plays it for her at his apartment. The boy calls albums “records” even though he’s playing CDs because it’s 2002, or he’s playing the songs on Spotify because it’s 2022. After ‘These Days’ he plays something from The Velvet Underground (of course), followed by a Rolling Stones deep cut before moving onto motown. At the time, the girl — and the girl is you — doesn’t know much about American pop music except for the Beatles, so it’s all bit intimidating. But when the boy puts on a Sam Cooke record, you and the boy start making out, and after that, you know something about 1960s American pop music too.
Or maybe you heard ‘These Days’ for the first time in Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums. There’s a memorable scene in which Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, with her kohl-rimmed eyes and stick-straight strawberry blonde hair pinned back in a tiny barrette, steps off a bus and walks toward her adoptive brother. For a full minute, Gwyneth moves in slow motion toward her love (played by Luke Wilson) and there is no dialogue, only soundtrack: it’s pure pathos, set to music, and the music playing is ‘These Days’ by Nico, until she reaches him.
It’s definitely possible you heard ‘These Days’ at a party. (Incidentally, ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ is another well-known track on Chelsea Girl, the album — sorry, record — on which ‘These Days’ appears.) I wasn’t at the party where you first heard ‘These Days’, but I know what kind of party it was. I certainly what kind of party it wasn’t. It wasn’t a party with a beer pong table. Chelsea Girl doesn’t hang out at parties with beer pong tables. The table at the party where you first heard ‘These Days’ had wine bottles on it and someone named Sascha standing nearby expounding on Kant with modest success and, depending on how long ago it was, there were a couple of ashtrays in active rotation. Come to think of it, maybe I was at that party … I remember those ashtrays.
I intensely dislike ‘These Days’ by Nico. If I hear Jackson Browne’s unmistakable fingerpicking come through the stereo/computer and I’m in a position to do so, I’ll pop up and skip it immediately. If I’m in a situation where I can’t do that — if I’m at a party, for example — I’ll excuse myself to use the ladies’ room or make my way to the wine table to check on those ashtrays. I don’t want to hear it.
The reason I don’t want to hear it is because for me, the song reminds me of The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s famous 1963 novel. There comes a time in every young woman’s life when she picks up The Bell Jar; it’s sometime after she reads Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret and before The Story of O. Plath’s novel is brilliant because she was suffocating when she wrote it and when you read it, the novel all but suffocates you too. That’s how right Plath got it. I remember how the Esther, the protagonist — and the protagonist is Plath — would go for days without talking to anyone, sensing she was somehow underwater, being rolled over and over in the current of an all-encompassing sadness. Here’s how the first verse of Nico’s dumb song goes:
I’ve been out walking
I don’t do too much talking
These days, these days
These days I seem to think a lot
About the things that I forgot to do
And all the times I had the chance to.
There are three more similarly suffocating verses and then it ends with this one:
I’ve stopped my dreaming
I won’t do too much scheming
These days, these days
These days I sit on cornerstones
And count the time in quarter tones to ten
Please don’t confront me with my failures
I had not forgotten them
I bear no ill will toward Nico. She was an Andy Warhol ‘Superstar’ by the way, and I’m an Andy fan. But her voice sounds like she’s been eating jam all day. And there’s a brief staccato section in the beyond emo string arrangement that is 1000 percent referencing Eleanor Rigby (it came out one year before) and we all know what a feel-good tune that is.
‘These Days’ is silence and suffocation and I don’t like it one bit. ‘These Days’ makes me feel bad, and I’m not fond of feeling bad. I’m particularly fond of feeling good, as a matter of fact, and I ought to be feeling good these days. In many respects, these are the best days so far.
Which this is why I’m confused that for the past several weeks, ‘These Days’ has been firmly stuck in my head.
Here we are, and here we go:
We’re back in London.
This time, we’re here with UK government-issued I.D. cards and and this time, it’s serious enough that we’ve rented our very own flat. (That our extended-stay Airbnb days are behind us is one of the many reasons Eric has been in a good mood since we arrived.) How long we’ll stay depends on the pandemic, the documentary, Eric’s work, and whether or not London will have us, I suppose. So far, the city seems cool with it, and the rest of the stuff I mentioned has to be taken day by day, and that would be true no matter where we live.
We’ve been here almost a month, but I’ve been timid about sharing the news. The timing of all this is odd, even shocking. If I heard someone was moving to another country during a global pandemic, I’d have an opinion. They’re moving now?? Couldn’t they just wait until the pandemic’s over??
But there were several reasons why we couldn’t wait, and besides, no one knows when the pandemic will be over or what “over” even looks like. If not now, safely, when? I assure you that Eric and I have been model pandemic-ans from the start: tests, masks, distancing, sacrificing holiday get-togethers, tuning in to various science-y podcasts when want to get good and scared (because the paranoid shall inherit the earth.) I also turned up the dial on my baseline introversion, which honestly — speaking as a true introvert — has been kind of awesome. Making two trips to England in less than a year’s time has been A Very Big Deal to us both psychologically and physically, and we’ve been as concerned about everyone else’s safety as we’ve been about our own. Nobody wants to make any of this worse, so we did all the stuff.
The stuff was no small feat, because you really cannot get into the UK right now without showing some serious paperwork. At O’Hare, we couldn’t even approach the ticket counter before showing the nice lady our documents. We each had to have proof of a negative COVID test (specifically the PCR kind, I think) within the past 48 hours and it had to be signed by a doctor; we each had to fill out a form on the UK government website (I brought a paper copy just in case); there was another form about having tests ordered for when we actually arrived in England; they needed proof of where we were staying; and then we had paperwork regarding the work visa stuff and obviously current passports and all that. We dutifully quarantined for 10 days and answered the phone when NHS called to check in on us — and they did, several times.
By the way, none of this felt invasive. None of it felt spooky or infringe-y. It was a relief. The very idea that we would be responsible for spreading the virus is unbearable. I was glad the authorities made it virtually impossible to do so.
But why did we engage that process? Why have we come here again? There are so many different ways to answer that question and because it feels really good to write again, let’s try on a few different styles. I now present to you a modest buffet of answers to the question: “Why have you moved, however temporarily, to London, Mary Fons?”
Cryptic: “Life unfolds in mysterious ways.”
Shakespearean: “Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale / Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man [so … do something exciting, like go to London during a pandemic.]” — King John (1598). Act III, scene 4, line 108.
Snippy: “None of your business.”
Busy: “Could we go over it tomorrow? I’m sorry, I’ve just got so much — yeah, yeah. Okay. Yeah. Thank you. I mean, I want to — exactly. Yeah, exactly. Right?? Yeah. Okay. Okay, bye. You too. Bye.”
Fatalist: “Chicago, London. Doesn’t matter. We’re all going to die. You wanna die in London, be my guest.”
Romantic: “London, oh bewitching mistress! How our tender hearts longed to return to her verdant* bosom!”
Simple: The company Eric is with has offices here, we love it here, and we’re both in our early 40s.
If not now, safely, when?
There have been plenty more changes since I last checked in with all of you, the second-biggest being that I’ve made a significant work change that will grant me a good deal more breathing room in which to write (!), read, and scheme. The specifics of the change aren’t public, yet, but they will be soon.
It’s so, so good to see you! Scone me!!
*This does actually make sense because London is technically a forest. That is a fact — I’ll tell you more about it soon.
I thought I’d mention that I’ve begun making goofy videos for the internet. I mean, they’re all chock full of fascinating facts and figures (well, at least a figure here and there for good measure) and they’re full of me, which, depending on how you feel about me, could be a terrific thing or a reason not to watch the content. Personally, it is hard for me to watch the content, but that’s because after all these years of creating on-camera vignettes for this or that purpose, I am still amazed that that is my face and that is my voice. But it is, and it is, and we now have more proof that I’m a moth to the silicon flame.
I’ve only just begun my own YouTube channel. Here is the link to the official Mary Fons YouTube channel. What follows is the “how it works” part — and the reasoning behind this project. I had to do some!
If you’re not familiar with YouTube channels — Eric was introduced only this year after I showed him — it’s pretty simple and can be a nice thing when you have interest in a person or a show on YouTube. You click on the channel (a little icon under the video screen, above the rest of the video thumbnails the channel has produced) and you click “Subscribe”. This means that when you open YouTube on your computer or device, you’ll probably see your subscription videos first in the lineup of suggested videos. If the person or show you’ve subscribed to has posted a new video, you’ll see that. (This is how my YouTube works, anyway; I hope I haven’t led you astray, though however you click it, the learning curve is tiny.)
There’s also a little bell that you can click, which means you’ll get a notification every time I upload a new video. If you like my content enough to want to get a notification the moment I post new videos, that means you really, really like me. Full disclosure: I do not have notifications set for any of my YouTube descriptions. I am allergic to alerts. They are distracting and there are just so many of them. Still, some people have told me that the Quilty videos I made for many years and the PBS show are often nice background audio for them as they work or fall asleep (I take this as a compliment) so if you’re under a deadline or you’re needing a nap, maybe you do want to know right away that I’ve posted something for you. That bell is the way.
I have come to learn that subscribers and bells — and “engagement”, which means comments and watching through to the end of a video, no pressure — are important for growing a YouTube channel, so I’m hoping to have some of all that. Perhaps you will tell your friends, neighbors, and countrymen and women that the best thing going on the internet is this scrappy 41-year-old quilt person’s YouTube channel. I have to try to get the word out somehow: It’s hard to accept that so many D-list celebrity gossip channels and channels featuring people playing blurry vintage video games, and people vlogging about absolutely nothing as they drive their car (this is all actual content) have subscriber numbers in the six digits when my channel is so tiny.
But all those folks started somewhere, right? For every popular YouTube channel, there was a first video game; a first “well, here I am in my car again,” vlog episode; a first makeup tutorial; a first mukbang … Mukbangs, by the way, are videos where people eat on camera. Like, they eat dinner, or lunch, or breakfast, and talk to you.
The internet — YouTube in particular — is a strange world, indeed. I have entered the YouTube because it’s a pandemic and it won’t be over for a very long time, I’m afraid, and I am having fun doing something new. I’ve entered it because I’m making a documentary and I need to prove to the suits that people want to watch me talk about quilts (and sometimes myself) on camera, but without doing tutorials, because I’ve done a lot of that and there’s so, so much of that already on YouTube. I’ve decided to make a channel because it’s still 2020 and all bets are off.
I hope you head over there and do the subscribe, like, watch, share thing. I’d appreciate it, and may the gods of YouTube be with us all. They can’t be all bad: Have you seen the puppy videos??
I’m composing a blog post about the legendary London fog — if you’re like me, it’s not what you think it is — but until then, I’d like to direct your attention to a little thing I put up on YouTube a couple days ago.
For the past couple years, I’ve been working a second job. My dream is to make a 10-part documentary series that tells the history — the whole history, in all its glory and complexity — of quilts in America. The story of quilts in America is the story of America itself, so I guess what I’m trying to do is tell the history of our country. It’s daunting, but I won’t give up until I do it.
From the start, the goal has been to pitch the show to a major streaming network, like Netflix, Amazon, etc. It’s essential that the beauty and cultural juggernaut that is the American quilt reach an audience that doesn’t already know about it. In increasingly digital lives, the tactile power of quilts is more important than ever: Quilts have been and will always be there for us — as long as we keep making them and valuing the people who do. (It’s in everyone’s best interest: Most quiltmakers give their quilts away, so if you’re hoping to have your own homemade, patchwork quilt at some point, hug a quilter today.)
Perhaps more pressing is the fact that our country is more divided than its been in a long time, and I sincerely believe that the story of American quilts can bring us together. It’s not a stretch. All kinds of Americans have made quilts for generations: rich and poor; Black, White, Brown, and Indigenous; in every corner of the nation, with fine or rough materials, with expert skill or with no sewing experience whatsoever, we have quilts in common. The quilt is a symbol of American ingenuity and the idea at the heart of our nation: each sovereign piece works with others to create a diverse, beautiful united whole that is far more powerful, together.
Under the direction of filmmaker Jack Newell (aka my brilliant brother-in-law), and with the financial support of Bee-Hive Productions, I’ve turned a few of my lectures on quilt history into what I hope are entertaining “shows” for YouTube. I’m calling it The Quilts Must Go On! because they have to; the title is a declaration as much as it is a kind of prayer. This little project is not the documentary; it’s just videos on the internet. But it’s been lots of fun to make.
I like to learn stuff and then share what I learned. Stuff is so crazy right now and has been so crazy. Maybe The Quilts Must Go On! will provide a distraction. Each episode is about an hour.
Here’s the link to the first episode, which apprehends the rather controversial topic of myths in the American quilt story. I hope you like what you see and I hope you’ll do the whole YouTube thing where you hit the “Like” button, subscribe to my channel, and share the link with your friends on social media or whatnot. If a quilt history nerd shares quilt history on the internet and no one hears it, did it really happen?
(It did, but it will be very depressing!)