Last time we spoke I told you I’d return to finish the tale of my smartphone situation. A long holiday with the family, some mid-level personal drama, and the problem, I suspect, of subconsciously not actually wanting to return to the topic kept me from it; I apologize for dragging my feet. But in the second half of my post, I planned to examine the existential despair that visited me upon activating my new iPhone and when you don’t feel like writing about existential despair, it’s my opinion that you ought to run with that as long as possible. You’ll be brooding soon enough; no need to rush things.
The short of it is this:
When fired up my new iPhone, Apple automatically populated the thing with contact information for dozens of people from the past six of my nine lives. I didn’t want that. I didn’t expect it. So that flood of fossilized information knocked me off my block, hard. There were old, old contacts in my new, new device, some so old as to be unrecognizable unless I concentrated very hard, and this gave me a headache and the existential despair I previously mentioned. Mona? Who the hell was Mo — oh dear God! Without Steve Jobs working his dark arts from beyond the grave, I’d have never thought of that person again as long as I lived, which would have been lovely. But no, Apple plopped her in my life without so much as a how-dee-do (on a Tuesday morning no less) and I was sucked into a downtown nightclub in 2010, going full idiot with Mona and her roided-out boyfriend whose name I blessedly do not remember because I didn’t put his name in my phone,Apple. I have myself to thank for that, I suppose.
There were a couple industry contacts that turned my stomach. If you don’t make a few adversaries over the course of 12 years in your field, you should probably take more risks. I have several adversaries. What I want is water under the bridge; what I don’t want are my adversaries’ phone numbers or every text message between us from the start of our relationship through to the bitter end, which Apple has graciously kept safe and sound in the cloud all these years, unbeknownst to my Android-using self.
But it was all there. And there were others.
Apple: Would you like to contact your ex-husband? Me: What?! No! Apple: Because we have his phone number and email add— Me: Oh my god … Apple: We saved it for you! See? Me: I’d like you to get very far away from me now. Apple: Wait! Where are you going? We also have the number for the cafe you used to work at! It closed three years ago but if you need the number, it’s right here!
All that mess notwithstanding, I gotta say: I love my phone. I’m glad I switched. And as humiliating as it is, I confess to waiting a whole extra week to receive my device because last month Apple announced the iPhone could now come a brand-new color — a very groovy alligator green — and … and … I wanted my phone in that new color, okay?? I did! I wanted the alligator green! And I don’t care who knows that I love my shiny, alligator green iPhone! I love the facial recognition function! I know Android phones have that too but I like the smiley face that pops up on my stupid iPhone when the robot inside of it gazes up at me, alright?? I love the tapback feature on iMessage! I love the way you can shoot lasers out of text messages! It’s amazing!
Me: Mary, you sheep! You worm! You don’t even like green! Apple: But you did though! Like 10 years ago!
When I bought the apartment where Eric and I currently live, I knew it needed work. Everyone knew it needed work — that’s why I was able to buy it. The location, the building, the mise en scene; if I hadn’t gotten a discount, we wouldn’t have an address on our historic, tree-lined street.
But I did get a discount because the paint in the unit is an inch thick and the parquet floors are in terrible shape. The kitchen came with a Magic Chef stove ca. 1955 and a dishwasher from the pleistocene era. And the other day, one of the shelves in the inset bookcases literally collapsed. (There’s a joke in here about slouching toward Bethlehem, or Atlas shrugging, or the fall of the House of Usher, but that would require me to admit that I’ve still got a copy of AtlasShrugged. It’s a first edition and it was a gift and it’s hard for me to let go of books, alright?)
Now that we’re staying put in Chicago for the foreseeable future, we’ve got to serious about home improvement. Eric and I have been discussing needs and wants. We need to replace all the molding; we want to connect the kitchen and the the dining room by opening up the east wall. We need to install ceiling lights; we want a gold toilet.* It’s going to cost a bunch of money because this is a big city and that’s just how it is. Plus, Eric would be cool with standard-issue everything, but I’m fancy. I told him this before we got married. He knows.
To get it done, we’ll have to take out a home loan. This is terrifying to me. Borrowing money with our home as collateral — I think that’s how it works — is just a very grown-up thing to do. I feel like a child most of the time and children don’t take out home loans. Can we manage another monthly bill? It’s freaky to think about. Student loan payments have been suspended for two years now, but that party will be over soon. And the apartment may have been on sale, but property taxes don’t get markdowns. If we want to do the work, we’ll have to get the loan, but I want it to be lean, lean, lean. This means I/we need to save money or make some more of it.
Here are things I can do to save money:
no new clothes (I hate this)
no fripperies (I love fripperies)
no major travel (let a book take you on an adventure, loser)
Here are things I can do to make some extra money:
sell my old clothes (but keep a few or I won’t have ANY clothes because I can’t buy new ones, apparently)
grow my Twitch and YouTube channels (harder than it sounds but I’m working on it)
rob a bank (complicated)
If you have other ideas, feel free to comment below! If you know how to rob a bank in your old, dumb clothes while broadcasting it all live on the internet, definitely comment below.
When Mozart was eight years old, he went on tour. That’s how you roll when you’re eight and you’re Mozart.
Accompanied by his awesome dad, Wolfgang hit 17 cities, all the usual suspects on the European drawing room circuit; Paris, Vienna, Rome, etc.
Their last stop was London. If I walk out my door this morning and hang a right, it will take me 13 minutes to get to 180 Ebury Street where Leopold and Wolfgang ended up living for about a year. Mozart wrote his very first symphony at 180 Ebury Street, aptly titled Symphony No. 1.
Say I decide to extend my hypothetical morning walk. Let’s say I swing by Gail’s Bakery and purchase a warm custard croissant and a hot cappuccino, and I think we can all agree that I should hypothetically do this. If I head south toward the Thames, it will take me 27 minutes to arrive at Cheyne Walk, slightly longer if my body feels weak on account of that demonically good croissant, so … Let’s say it takes me 35 minutes.
Cheyne Walk is just a quarter-mile long the way a lot of streets here are just a quarter-mile long. It runs along the north bank of the Thames between the Albert Bridge and Battersea Bridge, and Cheyne Walk is a lovely, lovely place, indeed. In spring, wisteria grows so high along some of the buildings it seems to pour down from the top; in autumn, well-manicured hedgerows are blanketed with crimson and gold-edged leaves, wide and fat and crispy, that sift down from the oak trees overhead. The apartment buildings would be imposing if they weren’t so charming, but they can’t get away from it. You might see a marmalade cat peeking through one of the tall, leaded-glass windows; all the pediments and pilasters are rounded; all the brick chimneys were clearly built to accommodate Santa Claus. Who wouldn’t want to live, at least for awhile, on Cheyne Walk?
The street has existed for about 300 years, so a lot of people have lived here. They have eaten their breakfasts, played their records, written and received letters, gone to sleep and gotten out of beds in these buildings. And it happens that a few Cheyne Walk residents made quite a name for themselves before, during, or after they lived here. This short street is notable not just for its beauty, but for all the notable people who lived on it. Dig:
George Eliot, author J.M.W. Turner, painter
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter
Thomas Carlyle, philosopher Bertrand Russell, philosopher W. Somerset Maugham, author
J.M. Whistler, painter
Hilaire Belloc, poet andhistorian
Sylvia Pankhurst, superstar suffragist
Henry James, author
T.S. Eliot, poet
Amazing, right? And that is in no way an exhaustive list of all the remarkable people who had/have addresses on Cheyne Walk — google it and you’ll see. But the names up there mean the most to me because those people produced work that resolves tumblers in the combination locks of my brain. Even better, all that work was completed and all those people were dead way before I was even born.
This is infinitely comforting to me.
George Eliot knew all about heartache way before I ever went through a breakup, and what she wrote about love was waiting for me. Rossetti’s paintings of female flawlessness existed long before I looked in the mirror and admitted, as I did the other day, that I’m not so young. Just as the bloom of youth in La Ghirlandata is eternal, so is the vague despair I feel when I discover that my maiden days are over. Countless 40-something women have looked at La Ghirlandata and felt this; to join their club is both a defeat and a relief. I’m not alone; none of us are. Books and paintings that stand the test of time remind me that as special as I am, I’m not so special. There’s pure encouragement in it, if you’re open to it.
London does the same thing for me. Did you know that London is 2,000 years old? Two thousand.
I didn’t know that until recently, but it’s true: In 43 AD, the Celts who were loafing around were sacked by the Romans, who established the outpost they called “Londinium”. From there followed more sacking, and fires, plagues, wars, revolution, political chaos, etc. And now, 2,000 years later, here we are, strolling down Cheyne Walk with croissant crumbs on our jacket.
London has endured and that endurance makes me feel good, cuts me down to size in the best possible way, just like La Ghirlandata. London is an old place. It’s seen my type before. It didn’t rejoice when I got here and it won’t weep when I leave, because London doesn’t care about me — or you — that much. Not in the same way that New York City doesn’t care about one person. New York City doesn’t care about you because it’s doesn’t have time for you, and this feels hostile, like the way a mean girl treats you in the cafeteria. London doesn’t particularly care about you but London has nothing but time, so it might decided to watch you as you about your day. And, because it’s seen everything, if you screw up — when you screw up — it’s not inclined to laugh at you. There’s nothing new under the sun and besides, London is tired. London doesn’t want to laugh at you; London wants its slippers and its cuppa. Do this or don’t, London says; try this or don’t. Be a person in London for a brief flicker of time, dear, if that’s what you want. Then London gives you a pat and turns her great, heavy head to the next upstart to eventually them the same thing.
Being in an old city like this — being in London — makes me feel like I’m part of the human race, no more, no less. Now that I’ve felt it, finally, I confess that I don’t particularly want to leave. With the exception of Chicago, the other cities I’ve lived in made me feel like I was auditioning for them. In London, I’m just cast.
I thought this second half of the first post about London would lead off with how I ended up here, but Mozart and Cheyne Walk got in the way. The reason isn’t so crazy: The company Eric is with has a London office, and the opportunity arose for him to work on a project here for a few months. We arrived in August; we leave the first week of December.
If you follow me on social media, you probably know that I’m in London. If you don’t follow me on social media and we don’t communicate IRL, London might come as a surprise. Heck, London is still a surprise to me and I’ve been here for two months.
There’s a lot to cover. But we have to start somewhere, and I’d like to start with social media. Let me put down my fish and chips. (Drops greasy wax paper into bin; wipes mouth with sleeve.)
This summer, after years of resisting all but the barest minimum of engagement on social media, I succumbed to her deadly embrace. For the past couple months I’ve been regularly posting content on Instagram, and it turns out that I like making short videos for the internet and captioning the pictures I post with more than brief, sterile descriptions and arbitrary timestamps, which is all I did with my Instagram photos for years.
I’ve not been completely out of the social media game, it’s true. I like Instagram because I genuinely enjoy taking pictures and it’s fun to throw my adventures into the mix with everyone else’s. It’s a good thing I like Instagram because at this point, you have to commit to at least one platform. My husband is a Twitter person, for example, but I never use it. So Eric, the Twitteriot, reads me breaking news and I, the Instagramarian, show him puppies. Neither of us do complicated dance breaks, as those are best left to TikTokerean youngsters who, judging by the volume of content they create, are very, very ready for the pandemic to be over.
But I never felt like I was doing Instagram — or any social media — correctly. In case you missed it, “doing” effective social media now basically requires a master’s degree. (I think I’m kidding, but it could be true.) Successful social media engagement is a scientific proposition. Or a militaristic one. Because if you want results, it takes a war-room approach: You have to tag things, always, and you’d better be cross-posting to all the platforms or you’re wasting your time. You have to use the right hashtags and follow others so they’ll follow you, but don’t just randomly follow anyone; you must be smart about the followed and the followers — and you need a lot of the second kind. No, like a lot. At all costs, you must not commit a cardinal social media sin in front of God and Mark Zuckerberg and everybody, because they will eviscerate you. What sin? It depends. And who is “they”? No one knows. It’s just them, and you’d better watch out because if they decide you screwed up, they will hate you. But who cares! It’s the internet. Everyone’s attention span has been worn down to a nub by this point. They’ll forget about it by tomorrow. It’s just social media! Have fun with it!
All this is vexing in the extreme, so my post volume has always been extremely low. Until recently, I never posted videos. And I’ve always been religious about writing as little as I could in any given caption or comment box. I mean, if you want to write 500 words on the internet, get a … blog.
Well that’s an interesting point, Mary.
Right, so about a month ago, I caught myself writing a paragraph’s worth of copy for a single Instagram caption. “This is a blog post,” I said to myself, looking up at the clock. I’d been at it for 20 minutes. “What are you doing?”
It appears that I’m still producing content on the internet, just in a different form. I’m not entirely comfortable with this arrangement, but I have to admit it reminds me of something.
From about 2001 to 2005, I was a hardcore performance poet, slamming my early-twenties heart out every Sunday night at Chicago’s legendary Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, the birthplace of slam poetry, the cradle of slam civilization. The form has extreme specifications: A slam poet goes onstage in front of a captive audience and gets a microphone. That’s it. No props, no costumes. She does not have access sound cues or lighting changes. It’s just her and her poem. And the simplicity of that set-up, the restrictions imposed by it, that spareness, it shapes the work in a beautiful way. You, the poet, have nowhere to hide. You have to come out swinging because you are the show and your poems and your performance provide the drama, the humor, the set and the scenery. But a good slam poet shouldn’t need light cues or a soundtrack to evoke emotion: The words and the delivery should be enough — and when performance poetry is done right, it’s more than enough.
By the way, everything I just said I learned in real time. And after years in the solo performance trenches, I had to admit that I desperately wanted to play with some props. Anything, really. Plastic lobster. Paper hat. Peanut butter and jelly. Anything. I had so many ideas! Imagine what I could do with just one tiny sound clip! My kingdom for a sock puppet! I had the word stuff down well enough; I needed to advance to the next level of making work for the stage: blackouts. Stage doors. Sound effects. Maybe someone other than my damn self onstage for once.
So I auditioned for the Neo-Futurists — a prop-friendly ensemble if there ever was one — and for the next almost-six years, I had all the plastic lobsters a girl could want. I got my paper hat, my light cues, all of it. The work I was allowed to do with the Neos was full-color and required tremendous physical effort. There was so much material in every sense of the word. The two eras shared much in common (e.g., wild creativity, breathless excitement, incredible people) but if Neo-Futurism was abundance, slam performance was austerity, and both eras brought tremendous gifts.
I think PaperGirl is slam. And my social media content isn’t Neo-Futurism, exactly, but it’s definitely a space where I get to use props if I want to, or goof around with sound cues, or make as many set changes as I please. You could make the argument that I’d better use all of those things if I want to exist in the dripping, gaping maw of social media. And doesn’t that sound fun.
So, if you want to hang out with me on my Instagram page or on my Facebook page, that would be nice. You’ll get a peek at London, and at Eric, every once in awhile. I styled a photo shoot for Liberty, and I posted about that. I am posting pictures of London, a city I am deeply in love with, which is alarming. And I’m filming a lot of quilt-related video content and that makes me happy.
Most of the content is on Instagram but I try to make sure it’s cross-posted to Facebook. However much I advance in the social media game, I remain deathly allergic Facebook. It’s bad. Facebook makes my throat close up and my body gets all scratchy and puffy and then I basically die of anaphylactic shock and then I’m buried and then I rise from the dead and come back and put a 1,000-year curse on Facebook for its crimes against humanity and then, just to be safe — and since at that point I’m a sentient, powerful ghost — I melt all Facebook’s servers and turn the resulting river of boiling plastic into a sweet, clear, babbling brook, which becomes a home for magic ducklings who grant me three wishes.
Oh, look: I have a chunk of fish left and a few chips.
This is the 13th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
It’s Saturday night. The weather is perfect and you’re getting ready to go out to dinner.
There have been and will be nights in your life when you’d give anything to stay home and eat leftovers, but tonight is not one of those nights. No way. You’ve been looking forward to tonight all week. Maybe you’re meeting friends you haven’t seen in ages. Maybe your favorite cousin is in town. Maybe you’ve got a hot date — but like, a really hot one. Whoever it is you’ll be with at the restaurant about an hour from now, picturing their face(s) make you smile.
You get to choose who you’re meeting; this is as much your time machine as it is mine.
You feel gorgeous. You just do. When you look in the mirror, you like what you see. “Not bad,” you say to yourself, and you make a mental note to continue to drink more water because man, your skin looks good. You lean over the sink and do your eye makeup. Or maybe eye makeup isn’t your jam and you’re just rubbing out crusties. (Remember, these details are totally up to you.)
In the middle of doing whatever it is you’re doing there at the mirror, you remember the funny video someone sent you today, or that really good — omg so bad!! — joke your friend told you, or maybe you’re just caught up in how good you feel, but you laugh enough that you have to stop poking around your eye area for a moment. You eventually recover. All right, all right, you say; enough. No time for dilly-dallying. As you finish your maquillage, you think how for a second there you were like a kid giggling in class and also the teacher who told that kid to get back to work. This observation amuses you, and because it does, subconsciously your heart feels tender toward yourself, and this is how we ought to feel toward ourselves all the time but rarely do.
Before you leave the bathroom, you pause to appreciate your sink. It is sparkling clean. In fact, the whole house is clean. You’re clean, too, because you took a nice long shower. God, you love your soaps right now. The body wash and the shampoo and the conditioner, finally. One last check in the mirror confirms it: You are having a great hair day. Maybe the best hair day. Your hair looks amazing.
It isn’t until after you slip into your clothes that you realize you have just slipped into your clothes. Who does that, you think, but you do not question what has just occurred.
You walk to the closet to get your shoes. They are right where they should be. Let me be clear: You do not have to dig for your shoes. You do not yet know that you will have the best filet mignon/lobster bisque/mushroom risotto/crispy duck/endive salad/chocolate soufflé/raspberry panna cotta/warm bowl of tiny cookies of your entire life tonight, so, between getting to lean back in your chair at the restaurant later to clasp your hand to your breast and groan with pleasure at what is happening in your mouth and not having to dig for your shoes, should nothing else go right tonight, the evening would stand as an unqualified success.
Your phone buzzes: Your Uber will be here in five minutes. Perfect.
Ladies, you have a new purse. It has all the right pockets in all the right places. This perfect purse is about to become your favorite purse. You will fully wear out this purse over the next year or two because it is perfect. When it finally dies, you will spend as long you had the purse lamenting that you cannot find a purse as good as the purse you had that one time. “That one time” is now, and you and your purse have only just begun life together. This purse is not scuffed or marred; there is no open tube of lipstick currently bouncing around in the bottom of it. There are no straw wrappers, either. You grab your jacket/wrap/topcoat/shawl and you go out the door. You get into your Uber and your driver is kindly fellow, so when he says that you look nice, it’s not creepy. It’s great.
The kindly driver drops you off at the restaurant and you go inside.
The place is packed. There’s a throng of people in the vestibule; everyone’s chatting and working their way up to the hostess station to check in or ask if there are tables available. No tables right now, the hostess says, and she apologizes that the wait is over an hour. This is no problem because you have a reservation and wasn’t that smart! You are smart. You notice that the people who don’t have a reservation seem strangely okay with this because they are having a great night, too. The mood is convivial; the mood is good. The lights are low and everyone looks great.
Everyone looks healthy.
Behind the bar, the bartenders are barely keeping up but they are keeping up; later, they’ll high five each other and whistle as they count their tips. They raked it in tonight, boy, so they all do a shot and they say it really is a great gig and everyone gets home safe after the manager finally locks up for the night. One waiter and one bartender finally admit they’re falling in love.
In a few minutes, your friends/cousin/hot date will arrive and the hostess will take you to your table. You’ll maneuver through the dining room as waiters whisk past with trays and busboys pour water from green glass bottles. You’ll see a sommelier presenting a wine list and a maitre’d putting a napkin in a lady’s lap. You and your dinner companion(s) are seated. The conversation, the food, the tone, the spark, the learning, the surprise, the pleasantness, the force, the humanity — you’ll all have it all within minutes.
But right now, you’re one in that throng of healthy people waiting for tables. There are dozens of different conversations and you hear bits of this one and that one. People are smiling and laughing. There are pats on the back; in a corner, a couple steals a kiss. Someone comes in from the bar, sees his friend and when they greet each other, they hug. There are light touches on shoulders as people lean in to hear each other better. No one notices this physical symphony; it’s no more and no less than life itself. It’s life on a Saturday night.
Months later, a plague comes and steals these kinds of nights. They are gone for a long time.
As you sit in your home now, there’s no need to find your shoes. There are no reservations. You are not so far from people, but everyone is separated. You can’t touch anyone and you can’t see anyone. You’d give anything to see them. If you could go anywhere in a time machine, you’d go back and get ready, just like you did, to go to that restaurant and be jostled among the dinner crowd, waiting for your table on a Saturday night.
This is the 2nd installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
Just show up to class.
After many years of being a student in university settings, workshops, various training courses, etc., I really do think that getting your butt in the seat, week after week, is a fail-safe way to successfully get through any kind of schooling. Strive for straight A’s if you like; aim high and still just get B’s; do the bare minimum and land C’s, even D’s — it’s all the same in the end, at least in terms of passing the course. Just remember: “If you come to class, you will pass.” (I’m pretty sure I just made that up.)
Can you get F’s on all your papers and tests and still pass if you show up to class? Maybe. But the added benefit of attending every single class session is that you’ll probably learn enough to not get F’s in the first place.
I think the good attendance of a student is critical for teachers for a few reasons. Keep in mind that I have done my fair share of teaching, but I’ve been a student way, way more, so my thoughts here are speculative.
For one thing, coming to class is a show of respect. A student enrolls in a class. The student takes up a seat in that class, which means someone else cannot have that seat. And the underlying assumption is that the student will attend the class, sit in the seat, listen to the instructor, and participate, whatever that might look like for that particular course.
When a student blows off class (for a reason other than being sick or having an emergency) it sends a message that you, the teacher, aren’t that important, and that the class isn’t worth going to. This isn’t explicit, it’s implied. If it happens a fair amount, the teacher understandably has less patience with the absentee student when she is struggling with a lesson or asks for an extension on a paper, for example.
The other reason being absent from class is the fastest way to lose favor with your teacher is a purely practical one, from your teacher’s standpoint: When you’re gone, she has to work more.
She has to answer an email from you going over what you missed. She has to reply to your email back to her with a question about what you missed — and of course lots of people had questions about the same thing, but she went over it … in class. You might ask for more time to finish a take-home test, say, which means she has to grade all the tests for the people who were in class and then, a week later, she has to return to the task she thought she could be done with (grading the take-home tests) but there you are, handing over your peanut-butter smeared take-home test — come on, you know it’s got peanut butter on it — and now she has to find the answer key and lord knows where that thing went.
If you want to make your teachers happy, go to class. You can come to class in your pajamas. Don’t you dare be on your phone — I can’t deal with people who do that in an educational setting — but texting with your sister in class is better than texting with your sister not in class. And, though I know this sounds crazy, you can even come to class without your homework. You just have to show up.
I’d be utterly miserable if I were in the circus. I’d mope, I’d whine, I’d rail against the injustice of it all — because there are few circuses I would join willingly — and I’d end up taking it out on the other surely miserable creatures in my strange new circus family. This wouldn’t be helpful for me or fair to them, so then I’d feel guilty and feel more miserable but at that point, with all of us having to perform four shows a day, it might not matter.
Nevertheless, everyone would hear about it. That includes the new-in-town, understandably wary poodle trainer; the entire clown corps; the husband and wife acrobat team who works overtime every week knowing full well they absolutely should not do that given their line of work; the bendy girl; the other bendy girl who you pay extra to see (after dark, adults only); and Hugo, the old, old, old, old, old man who does all the costumes, including the tiny hats for the monkeys and my previously worn petticoat and velvet vest.
I’d fling myself into the shabby trailer Hugo uses for his workshop. “Hugo!” I’d cry. “It’s happening!”
Hugo has those wire spectacles with the thick, convex magnifying lenses that make his eyes so big he looks like a cartoon. He doesn’t look up from his sequins because it takes him a long time to move any part of his body. Besides, he’s heard this before.
“What’s the trouble, dear?”
I lie down on the floor for maximum effect. “Hugo, I’m not meant for this life. This classic vaudevillian, 1930s, Follies Bergère-style traveling circus life, I’m just not meant for it.”
“Sounds like you need a biscuit,” Hugo says.
I perk up but don’t show it and then moan again. “No, even a biscuit won’t help … I’m dying.”
“All right,” Hugo says, pulling out a spool of pink thread from a drawer. “I don’t think I have any left, anyway.”
Wait, what?! Hugo’s refreshments are legendary. No one knows where he gets the shiny blue tins of shortbread cookies, but he always seems to have them on hand when you really need one. And the tea he gives you on bad days is made with the same rationed teabags and powdered milk we all get from the circus commissary, but Hugo makes it taste creamier and gets his water hotter, somehow. No one can figure it out.
“Well, maybe it would help to have a bite of a biscuit. If you still have some.” I cough a couple times. “And … I think the sawdust is sticking in my throat. Do you have any, um, tea or anything?
Hugo smiles and gets up. He makes his creaky way over to the hot plate to boil water in a kettle as old as he is. “Yes, you ought to have tea right away. We can’t have you suffocating on sawdust; you go on at 6:30. And I think I do have a few biscuits left somewhere.”
I try to peek at which shelf he reaches into for the cookies but he looks back at me faster than I thought he was physically able to, so I squeeze my eyes shut and roll around like I’ve got a stomach ache even though I don’t. I hear the tin open and the rustle of crinkled cookie papers.
Hugo is bent over pretty far already so it’s easy for him to hand me a biscuit. “Sit up, darling. You don’t want to choke.”
“This circus is going to kill me,” I say, half the cookie in my mouth already. “Maybe today’s the day.”
The tea kettle boils and I get my mug of tea. It’s hot and creamy and tastes like my former life. Hugo, who dresses like Geppetto and smokes exactly two cigarillos every day, sits in his chair and I sit cross-legged on the trailer floor. I’ll have to have the Bearded Lady beat the dust from my skirts before my act. By the way, I’m with the lions on Thursdays and Fridays; Sunday through Tuesday I sell candy and peanuts and tell jokes, and on Wednesdays — my favorite day — I get to ride Trinket. (Trinket is our elephant.)
“Have you ever seen a performance of Cirque du Soliel?” Hugo asks me.
I shake my head. “No, actually. Are they any good?”
“No,” Hugo says. “They’re not real circus people, anyway. Oh, they’ll do some tricks. A few of them are double-jointed like Ricky. But their hearts just aren’t in it. There’s too much money in the thing, no doubt about it. You get too much money in a touring group like that, people don’t need each other. They go off after work and spend their money doing all kinds of who knows what. Here, it’s different. We don’t have much, but we get by. We help each other. And we have a good show.”
Puffs of smoke curl up into the costumes Hugo stores on hangers above his head. My vest and skirts came from that old stock. The cigarillo smell will never come out. I look over at Hugo, who has always been so kind to me. I hear Trinket bellow from across the grounds; it’s bath time.
This isn’t that bad, I think to myself. If I were in the circus, I guess I’d want it to be like this.
“Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion.” — John Berger, 1972
I have nothing to wear.
Last winter, when my life fell into a blast furnace, there were eight items of clothing I could put on my body from day to day that didn’t make me want to crawl out of my skin. Those items were:
Levi’s jeans L.L. Bean wool sweater (red) L.L. Bean wool sweater (black w/pattern) Brown leather hiking boots with red laces Nike Cortez tennis shoes Double-breasted wool topcoat (camel) Wool scarf (gray) Knit cap (navy)
Anything else, and I was wearing a costume. This was a dissociative experience, and I was grappling with enough of those, thank you very much. Why couldn’t I wear any of my other sweaters? Or my white Oxford shirts? An Oxford shirt is about as neutral as an item of clothing can get, but when I put one on and buttoned it up, I felt like an idiot.
Strangest of all was that I couldn’t wear what has been my winter uniform for years: black pants and a black turtleneck. You’d think when a woman is experiencing major depression, black is the only thing that will do. Jeez, aren’t the depressed issued a black turtleneck and black pants at the door? But to me, black clothing does not communicate sorrow or a lack of vitality. To me, black clothes, aside from being chic (and slimming!) communicate a person in command of herself, someone who wants to be taken seriously.
What was happening to me was serious but I felt in command of nothing, and chic? Chic was a planet other people lived on. Whose clothes are these, I wondered, as I moved hangers back and forth in my closet. At some point I stopped opening my closet at all, ceased to wonder or worry about it and I simply put on the same thing day after day. I laundered my clothes often because I wore them daily. Processing laundry took great effort but it was a simple enough task and the smell of Woolite never lost its charm. I’m still grateful for that.
How I dreaded the coming warm weather. I’d be screwed. Dressing for spring and summer is awful for me every year, regardless of mental state; precious few of us on Team Black Turtleneck cross the line over to Team Tank Top, even if the Tank Toppers seem more comfortable than we are come Memorial Day. This year, I feared would be way worse.
The season changed. And by the time my hiking boots were inappropriate — early May, I think — my disposition had improved considerably. But I had not been wrong to worry about the clothes and in fact the situation was worse than I had anticipated. Not only had I not caught a ride on a rocket ship back to Planet Chic, I did not want to go. It was time to bring out my low-heeled suede pumps and my Marni blouse and my side-zip, slim-fit black Vince trousers, but when I went to get dressed in all that, you would’ve thought there was a tin of rotting tuna fish in my closet. I’d wince and shut the door and then just stand there with my head on the closet door, trying to envision any assemblage of apparel that would not make me feel like I was wearing a dead woman’s clothes. It was that bad.
Not everyone cares as much about clothes as I do, and there are those who care far more. My reasons for caring about what I wear (if you’ll allow me to psychoanalyze myself for a moment) are not hard to figure out. I want to control the narrative. Well-designed things make life easier and less ugly. Beautiful clothes make me feel beautiful. And I think it’s important to evolve as a person. Clothes, because there are so many directions one can take with them, are tools we can use to reflect — even spur or solidify — who we are right now.
And that, my peeps, is the heart of the matter: I don’t know what to wear because my current evolution is still in progress. It’s the same reason I can’t whip out a PaperGirl post like I used to: That person moved out, and it appears the other problem with losing your voice is losing your shoes. On a purely material level, it’s a drag to lose all those shoes — I have really great shoes — but on a psychic level, it super sucks. I can’t walk around barefoot. I can’t wear hiking boots every day. Crocs are never an option. But I’d pick any of those options before I’d wear the shoes of the woman who left all her stuff in my closet before she died. That’s creepy.
What’s my new look? As my friend Irena would say, “What’s the mood?”
Ten months later, and I still don’t know. It’s doubtful the mood will ever be what it was before. Perhaps that’s a start; that’s useful data. As the weather cools, I am eyeing my boots and my red sweater, but this may not be the solution. The new fear is that I’ll put those clothes on and they’ll feel dead, too.
But I’m alive. And I will live to shop another day.
I’m here tonight to share the final stage of the nervous breakdown I experienced early this year. The month-long illness was diagnosed by two medical doctors as a textbook “major depressive episode” and this major depressive episode was the worst thing that has ever happened to me, not the least because it adversely affected other people, too. But, as I can (and should) only speak for myself, I can only share my side of the story. That’s what this is.
This entry is so awfully long but I had to go the distance. We have to reach the bluer skies. I’m ready for those, aren’t you? Yeah.
So tonight, let’s close down the how and the why of the breakdown as best we can on a blog on a Sunday night. It’s as good a place and time as any: Who can totally explain why a black hole opens up in the psyche? How can we say for sure when these mental wounds begin and how long they’ll suppurate before they burst and run and require serious medical attention? It’ll take me a long time to understand all of this, but these installments of the PaperGirl Sunday Evening Post are an attempt. The 300+ pages of diary entries I’ve written in the past four months are attempt. Talking to my shrink is an attempt. Talking to my friends is an attempt.
That’s where I want to start tonight — I want to start with my friends.
In the depression, the days were short and dark. Nights were endless. Hope and vitality trickled out of me by the minute and it was so frightening to feel this and to see it, I was finally scared into asking for help. That’s how hard it is for me to ask for help: I have to be disintegrating before I’ll ask. (Yes, I have learned this is not okay and has to change.) Once I realized I was in fact disintegrating, I texted friends or called friends to come over. I wasn’t going to hurt myself, but I was afraid to be alone. In the deepest valleys of the depression, being alone was the most terrifying thing imaginable because to be alone was to disintegrate for sure; having another human in the room meant I might not go away completely, or as fast. When I asked my friends to come over, even though I was crying over the phone, I tried to make light of things, offering to get pizza and wine or suggesting we go see a movie. Here are a few of the things my friends said to me:
“I’ll be there in an hour.” “Absolutely.” “Laura and I are comin’ over, Mar!”
“I love you.”
“Want to join me and Julia at the Field Museum?”
“I’ll head over right after work! I love you! Luke is coming over right now!!”
There was pizza and wine a couple times, but the moment any of these angels arrived in my living room, it was obvious these would not be social calls. The situation was not normal. My friends could see right away this wasn’t hanging out with Mary; this was sitting shiva.
Because no one had ever seen me like this. I had never seen me like this. My friends are otherworldly creatures made of dopeness and love, so when they observed me, they were kind and brilliant in their approach to care for me. These women and men did everything right. They brought me flowers, sewed with me, sent me jokes, talked to me on the phone, watched my favorite movie (Tootsie, duh), brought over — for example — a bag of white cheddar Pirate’s Booty and a six-pack, read to me, stroked my hair as I lay my head on their respective laps. They were brilliant, full of compassion and love for me; they were creative in their tending to me and relentless in their desire to help. But it was very hard to know what to do. Would I know what to do if a close friend literally could not stop crying for weeks? Two of my friends spent the night, sleepover style, during the final, awful week. They were with me when the worst of the panic attacks (I lost count how many), sank its needle teeth into my head and began to eat and pin-pricked every nerve in my body until I shorted out. That afternoon … that afternoon was terrifying for all three of us.
I felt guilty for those panic attacks, for shorting out. I felt guilty I could not entertain my friends, or be there for them. Their lives didn’t stop because mine was falling apart. But at that time there was nothing I could give them. I could only cling to them and beg them to stay just a little longer, which they always did, and without reservation. This neediness added to my sorrow, too, because depression is a sonofabitch. Nothing is safe. It eats everything it can, including good intentions and one’s ability to communicate love.
Remember how I told you there were five things that took me down? I was so busy getting on with the bitter end, I forgot to finish that list. Let’s do that now.
The other two blows to my life were money related.
My business is PaperGirl, LLC. In order to keep my expenses and tax stuff at least a little organized, I have a credit card for PaperGirl, LLC. I have a high credit limit on this card. I pay it off faithfully every month. (I think I’ve missed one payment in four years.) It’s got kind of a high balance right now — but not more than four digits — and it’s this is because I’m waiting on several reimbursement checks. I hate having a big balance on the thing, so I pay it off in big chunks if I can.
This credit card is my only credit card. It has my name on it and my business name on it. Outside of that, I have two debit cards. I have one store credit card. That’s it. Pretty tight, right? Pretty buttoned up?
Fun fact: If you have a credit card for your business, it does not count toward your personal credit score. Did you know that?
I didn’t know that. But I learned it when I applied for a mortgage to get a loan to buy a condo that would let me have my dog. The credit people were like, “Uh … so, you don’t have credit.” And I was like, “Uh … yeah, I do.” When I looked at my credit score, though, my credit card was not factored in. Because it’s a business card, it doesn’t count toward my credit. Even though my name is on the card. Even though my business is me and I am my business.
Without a personal credit card, one that just says “Mary K Fons” on it, not “Mary K Fons PaperGirl LLC, guess who got denied for a mortgage? Upon getting this news, I knew I was trapped for probably an entire year. A whole year more before I could have a puppy, a whole year more in the same space, in the building that broke my heart. It would be a year because I’d have to get a dumb (and “high-risk”??) credit card and “build up good credit for a year” like I’m a freakin’ 20-year-old undergraduate. I felt sick. I felt like a fool. I felt like total and complete idiot. And I wasn’t goin’ nowhere.
Dog. Breakup. Doctor. Money. Mom.
Details about that last thing, that fifth thing, that Mom thing, are absolutely nothing I’ll be going into. All I can tell you is that Mom and I had a fight. We never fight. Ever. We have never, ever had a fight. And then we did. And that was the last thing that happened that sent me down.
For two weeks — whether or not my friends were with me — I could not stop crying. I’m telling you: I was physically unable to stop crying. The tears would recede for a little while but then I’d shake my head and put my hand to my forehead and cry, and cry, and cry. Sometimes I could talk. A lot of times I couldn’t. There were periods during the breakdown when I just stared into space with tears rolling down my cheeks. One of the scariest things is that after a while, none of the circumstances that had brought me so low were front of mind. After awhile, I wasn’t crying about Philip Larkin, or the doctor, or the money. I was crying because … oh, my god. Oh, god, it was all just so sad. All of it.
The bottomless sadness of being alive. The death that waits for each of us. The despair in despair itself wasted me. Joy was something that existed on a distant planet. Sadness made me sad. Being sad about the sadness made me sad. And so I went down, and down, and down, and then, when I did not think I could go down more, I would remember that I was trapped, because of the money thing, and I would go further down. Or I would think of the fight and I would go further down. And I would think, “If Philip was here and I could pet him, I would be okay.”
The sadness monster was eating me alive. I have never felt anything more painful than that.
Next week: How I’m doing now — so good!! — and what medication I’m taking.
My last class for the fall term was today. I am officially one semester away from completing my Master of Fine Arts in Writing (MFAW) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC.) I feel really good. I know the ol’ PG takes a hit sometimes, with the coursework, but you know and I know: I’m never far. I won’t ever be far away.
When I left the newspaper office this afternoon and I realized the term really was actually complete, I thought, “Hey, I should celebrate.” I considered going for some Netflix, maybe picking up a fancy bottle of wine (by which I mean a $20-bottle of wine.) And if Netflix n’ drinkin alone strikes you as being kind of a sad way to celebrate something, you must understand that I am very, very tired.
But I didn’t get the bottle of wine (too many calories) and I won’t poke around on Netflix, either (too many choices.) The good news is that I found a better way to celebrate on the way home: I bought a Christmas present for a kid!
My friends S. and Z. have the most incredible daughter. Let’s call her Squirt. Squirt is around five, though I’m terrible at gauging/remembering the ages of anyone over about one week. What I do know about the child is that she is almost too smart and adorable to be believed. The kid bats her eyes and twirls around and you’re toast, just totally in love with her and her Squirt Way. But then she opens her mouth to say something genius and you think, “Please, please Lord, let this person use her powers for good.” Because she’s scary advanced, human-wise.
For example, about a year-and-a-half ago, I was hanging out at the pool with Squirt and her mom and Squirt fell and got a bad scrape on her knee. Of course, Squirt was really, really upset and crying; it hurt! We were all doing the boo-boo kiss thing and trying to make her feel better, but it was a tough one. At one point, between sobs, Squirt wailed to us, “I’m n-not d-doing very well … !”
I‘m not doing very well??
The kid was three. This is what I’m talking about.
Anyway, Squirt loves to make art. The last time I saw her and her, we made art together, and that was a blast. Drawing and coloring with this kid made me remember just how very, very much I loved “doing art” when I was wee. Oh, man. It’s really in the blood, you know, the art stuff. Some kids are just art kids. As Squirt and I scribbled together that day, I made a mental note that when Christmastime came, I was gonna blow that kid’s mind with a big haul of art supplies from Chicago.
So there I am, headed away from the office, trying to figure out how to mark this not-insubstantial milestone in my grad school existence, when it hit me: Go to Dick Blick! Of course! I could go into Dick Blick and buy Squirt her art supplies!
And indeed, I went into the art superstore there on State Street and knew it was just right. I looked over papers, markers, glitters. I picked up pens, cardstock, poster paper. My eyes loved the colors everywhere; I let the smell of canvas and glue and paint carry me away.
That kid is gonna freak out. I got her some good stuff, and I’m not even sure I’m done, yet. At the heart, I suppose I did retail therapy tonight, except I got the therapy and Squirt’s gettin’ the retail.
Mom and I had the best conversation yesterday while I cleaned the house. We hadn’t talked in so long, it felt like, and we both had much to share. It worked out great to take turns: I’d mute my microphone while Mom told me something that required exposition so that I could vacuum and she wouldn’t have to hear it, then I’d unmute and do some dusting while I told her something. We talked for over 90 minutes before the cleaning jag and the conversation ended with a discussion of my health status and general disposition. And it was this last matter that led us to a discussion of Philip Larkin.
If anyone out there is tired of me talking about dream dog Philip Larkin, I’m afraid there’s simply nothing I can do about it and — wait a minute, hang on. If you are tired of hearing about a girl’s true love of The Tiny Puppy Of Her Dreams, I am sincerely worried about your general disposition and if you do choose to click away, I hope that you will click to a better place. I’m completely serious! This is serious stuff!
Okay, back to Philip.
“Mom, I think I’m going to do it,” I said.
“Well,” Mom said, “I do think —”
I cut her off, noticing that I did that and feeling bad but not willing to clam up just yet. “But I am not going to do anything rash,” I said. “It’s not like I’ve run off done it already. There are many steps to take to make it happen, most of which involve paperwork. I’d need to get all kinds of things filed — and approved — before I’d get permission. And after that, I have to find a breeder, which could take awhile. Ask me how I know.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve been emailing breeders, actually, which proves how serious I am, I guess. And I did look in Iowa first.”
My mother and Mark got Scrabble, a miniature Golden Doodle puppy, from a reputable breeder in Iowa about eight years ago. Mom has strongly advised me to “get an Iowa dog!” She’s not wrong about the quality of Iowa stock, not that I’m biased. But, as I went on to tell Mom, none of the Iowa-based Maltipoo breeders raise teacup Maltipoos, which is what Philip must be. (A miniature Maltipoo is a normal-small dog; a teacup Maltipoo is the size of a well-fed hamster.) I’ve looked in Illinois, naturally, but it’s the same thing here. The only places that have teacups are pet stores and I just don’t think this is the best way to acquire my furry best friend. I’ve read terrible things about pet stores being mills and the pups being sick — oh, it’s just awful. If anyone can make the case for the pet store, please make it. I am trying to get this right and hey, if a pet store like the one I visited a few weeks ago is a legit place to pick’a Philip Larkin, that saves me a great deal of footwork and many miles of travel. Yes, at this point, it looks as though I may have to travel a great distance for my dream dog. And I wince to share that, as this opens me up to a great deal of criticism, I realize, from people horrified that I don’t just go over to the animal shelter and get a worthy, needy pet that way. Again, I have my reasons for approaching this big change in my life in the manner in which I’m approaching it and if my life circumstances were different, I suspect my approach would be different, as well. Be gentle with me.
We discussed all this and then Mom had a great idea, which is not an uncommon occurrence.
“You should ask your PaperGirl readers if they know anyone who owns a Philip or breeds teacup Maltipoos. I’m sure you’ll get someone who either has one of their own or could get you in touch with someone, don’t you think?”
And so I ask you, pals: Would you be willing to draw upon your vast resources, your extensive network of professional associations, your thousands and thousands of social media friends and admirers, your high school sweethearts, your very children — yes! your kin! — to help me find my puppy? I just know a pure-hearted teacup Maltipoo breeder is out there and the coolest thing in the whole world would be to find Wee Philip because of a PaperGirl connection! I mean, seriously. Seriously, for real, I keel over with joy and then Philip Larkin would lick me back into consciousness.
In closing, I would like to give a major shout out to Suzanne, who commented on yesterday’s anguished post with something that made my day and is germane to this post in a big way. Get a load of this:
When you first brought up Philip Larkin, I had no idea who this was and went off to Wikipedia. And then some other sites, and then some more and thoroughly enjoyed my voyage. Months later, my book group decided to read Devices and Desires by P. D. James. In the introductory chapters, we learn the main character (Adam Dalgleish) is a renowned poet and appears to hold Philip Larkin in high esteem. I just sat and smiled this little glowy smile — I KNEW who Philip Larkin was. Thank you, Mary. And I’m reading a real, touch-the-pages book.
Thanks, Suzanne, and thank you, everyone, for any help you might be able to provide re: my quest. I think if I do eventually get that pup, I’ll have to start a video blog version of PaperGirl. It would be called PaperGirl: Extreme Philip Larkin Edition and it would feature hours and hours of video of that dog as he canters, cavorts, hops, yips, wriggles, rolls over, fetches, shakes, snorgles, twirls, chases his tail, licks my nose, plays with various items, drinks water, eats small food, and curls up in my arms.
Not quite a month ago, I announced that I got a post office box for PaperGirl. I’ve visited the box just once so far, a little before I left for Berlin. I got two letters! That felt so, so, so good. To dear Phyllis and the giver of the lace sample from Marshall Field’s (!!) you will be honored here soon as my first correspondents.
Now that I feel officially back from my trip — there’s more to say about Berlin but I just can’t right now — I’m excited to do errands. That’s how I know that everything is gonna be okay: when I get excited about errands again. (Note: It usually only takes me a few days and I get this fabulous, dust-yourself-off trait from Mom.) Probably my most looked-forward-to errand is to go check the PaperGirl mailbox tomorrow. I can’t wait. My innocent excitement, the big-eyed joy I get whenever I get a letter — in any letterbox to which I have a key — is immense, so go on! Send that postcard or box of gold bricks to Mary Fons/PaperGirl, P.O. Box 3957, Chicago, IL 60654-8777 today. Your mail will be cherished and kept. That’s a promise.
What’s neat about the letter I’m going to share with you now, though, is that it came to me before I had the box. I got this message via my mom (and maybe to Mom via the Fons & Porter office?) a few months ago. I put it into a stand-in briefcase I wasn’t used to using and misplaced it until a few weeks ago. Susan, I apologize: This piece of mail you sent is extraordinary and you haven’t heard from me, yet. Let’s do this.
Thank you so much for the fabric and the fabulous letter, Susan. You’re an excellent letter-writer, by the way, and of course I love your taste in fabric.
PaperGirl readers are incredible. Maybe there should be an annual PG convention. Or at least a retreat. We could all meet, swap fabric, stories, and read books and sew. I would seriously be into that. Anyone else? Okay, here’s Susan’s communique:
In the 1950’s my great aunt Vivian went shopping for fabric to make kitchen curtains and this is what she came home with. Now, in that era, many women in their 50’s and 60’s were proper and matronly. Aunty Vivian chose the fabric because she liked the colors, thought they would be perfect! Then, after she got home… She saw the design and was aghast; how could she ever let her friends see these ladies in her kitchen!
I was a teenager (good grief, where has the time gone?) and thought the Springmaids, from the ads for Springmaid sheets, were as clever as could be. Had no idea what I would do with the fabric, but I wanted it!
Eventually, I covered a lampshade and stretched one repeat on a frame to hang next to the lamp. Yet I still had the enclosed piece and never could figure out what to do with it. Didn’t want to cut it up for a blouse, didn’t need a curtain, already had a lampshade… and so it sat in a drawer.
And, now it’s yours to pet and find a clever use for. I hope you enjoy it.
One of the magazines I subscribe to is The Sun. It’s primarily non-fiction writing, photography, and fascinating (long, yay) interviews with anthropologists, artists, authors, and other interesting human beings.
And then there’s this feature toward the back called “Readers Write.” The editors give a one- or two-word prompt and readers send in their brief story (100-400 words or so) or anecdote relating to the prompt. (Upcoming prompts include “Losing,” “That Night,” “Mischief,” and “Bad Habits.”)
The contributions are always incredible: real, sad, hilarious, true. The Readers Write prompt for this month’s issue was “First Impressions.” On the plane to Kansas last night, I read one of the best submissions ever.
If I get in trouble with the magazine for posting this, I’ll take it down. But for now, please read this piece by one Ms. Rebecca Levenberg from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was a pleasure to type up your story, Ms. Levenberg; thank you for writing it and congrats for being published.
“Six years ago I was hit by a truck while riding my bicycle to work, and I had to have my leg amputated. At the rehabilitation hospital I was assigned a peer mentor. Rob was the first amputee I’d ever met. When he offered to answer my questions, I had none. I was riddled with pain from a limb that wasn’t there and overwhelmed by the change to my body. Though I felt obligated to listen to Rob, really I just wanted him to leave.
The one thing I remember about that meeting is that Rob had oe by on his way home from the gym, where he went in the evenings after work. Rob went to the gym. Rob went to work. Rob was an amputee. This information gave me hope.
Over the next year I learned to walk with a prosthetic leg. The second year brought more independence, and I went back to work and to the gym.
That summer a man waved me down on a city sidewalk. “Can I ask you a question?” he said, eyes fixed on my prosthesis. Sure, I replied. His voice got quiet. “Were you born that way?” Were you born without your leg?”
I told him no, that I’d had my leg amputated after an accident. I wondered why he was asking: he had all four limbs.
The man pointed to a nearby hospital and explained that his wife had just had a baby boy born without part of his arm. “The doctor said he’ll never know the difference,” he told me. “Do you think that’s true? Do you think he’ll never know?”
What could I say? I had no idea. We talked a bit more, and I asked if the baby was healthy. The man said yes.
“Congratulations,” I said. “What’s his name?”
He told me, and for the first time since we’d begun talking, I saw a proud dad.
After we’d parted, I realized that I was probably the first amputee he’d ever met. Walking away, I stood tall and confident, just in case he was watching.”
Today was a “Guess what happened to me on the train today” day. Citydwellers know what I’m talking about.
I got on the Red Line train around noon and took it north. I had an errand to run: Daniela, a preternaturally talented esthetician finally cleared up my skin last winter and I had to pick up a bottle of her witches’ brew. (If I found out that stuff is made from the tears of baby seals I’m not entirely sure I would stop using it, that’s how effective it is and how grateful I am to this woman.)*
After transferring to the Brown Line, I got off at Montrose. When I was at the stairs to go down to the street, a man stopped me. He was with his family: wife, toddler, and baby, this last in a ginormous stroller. No one in the group spoke English. Zero. I think “Okay” was the one word he got out and “Okay” is a word that exists in 90% of languages on Earth. They might also have been on the mute side because all of them were clearly spooked and sad. They were lost.
The father offered me, astonishment of astonishments: a printout from Google Maps. I smiled and nodded and took a look. They were nowhere near where they needed to be. They’d have to go back south on the Brown, transfer to the Red, then head back north. The mistake had taken them at least 30 minutes and would cost them another 40, depending on train times. As I looked at the sheet of directions, I shook my head in wonder. The numbers, the stops, the directions, the names of the El train lines — I know them backwards and forwards because I speak English and I’ve lived here, more or less, for fifteen years. But to these people? Gibberish. And they’re trying to get someplace. With kids!
I tried to imagine what I would do if I was lost on the train system in Beijing, for example. The mere thought made me shudder.
We figured it out. I did something just short of an interpretive dance for the father, communicating they had to go down the stairs (I literally did a “I’m going down stairs” pantomime) and over to the other platform (I flapped my arms to say, “OVER THERE, WAY OVER THERE”) and then I said, “Red train. Red.” I pointed to my fingernail polish and said, “Red?” The man understood, nodding vigorously.
The coolest thing ever is that picking up my unicorn serum took less than five minutes. By the time I was back at the Montrose station, the family was there on the platform, waiting to go the same way! I was able to go all the way to the transfer point with them and I made sure they got on the right side, on the right train. It felt great, and I think the woman just about cried she was so glad I was there.
World travelers often say, “Getting lost is half the fun!” I have never understood this. You get lost. I’ll help you. Deal?
Technically, her birthday was yesterday. Don’t worry: I didn’t forget. I sent her a card that arrived on time and she got an absolutely enormous box of notions as a gift. (Even quilt royalty need fresh rotary cutters, you know.)
But when I saw that my sister Rebecca had a copy of this photo of Mom back in the 60’s and posted it to Facebook, I had to pass it along and carry the birthday over a day.
The death of Prince sidelined the follow-up to my trip to NYC. I’m happy to report that I had the most wonderful day.
Well, it was wonderful once I was not in the act of waking up at 3:30am. That was uncomfortable. But once I was vertical, the day glided along like it was on rails. Since I was going to New York City and coming home within a matter of hours, I needed no luggage. I took my Jim Shore patchwork shopper (autographed, because he’s a good pal of mine and you betch’yer buttons I’m name-dropping) which easily held my laptop and all my personal effects; I also carried a modest totebag with a quilt, a book, and some Small Wonders swag for the people at the recording studio. Do you know the glory of walking into an airport and going straight to security with no stop at the ticket counter, no luggage check? It’s intoxicating. And I’m TSA Pre-Check, too, so it was me, an electronic boarding pass and a prayer, baby. Que bella.
When I landed at LaGuardia, I had time before I was to meet my sister for lunch, so I took public transportation into Manhattan. Why not? I had time and I had no luggage. Had that not been the case, I’m sure I’d have taken a taxi. But I was footloose! Fancy! Free! The sun was shining, the temperature was perfect: 69-degrees and all sunshine. I was a woman with time on her hands.
The bus took me to a train; after that train there was to be another to get to my sister’s office. But I bailed on the train transfer and got out at 63rd and Lexington in order to walk the remaining thirty blocks to Hannah. Thirty?! Yeah, sure. City blocks in Manhattan are short and pure entertainment.
I saw puppies playing in the window of a pet shop (see above.) I saw a tiny cemetery, restful and serene, stuck between two buildings; I saw a two different girls wearing tiny hats, so that must be the new thing; there was a man in a suit that I know cost more than most people make in a month or more; bodegas, murals, homeless, worker bees, dogs, babies. Muppets. Ballerinas. Unicorns.
The time I spent with my sister was like, soul good. We needed a good cup of coffee and that’s precisely what we had. If that was the only thing I was in New York to do, that would have been worth every penny. And the guest spot on the Good Life Project podcast went great, I think. I got choked up at the end, so it was certainly something. (The episode I’ll be on won’t air for several months; I’ll let you know when it goes up.) After the show, I headed back to the train and bus combo; I got to the airport with no issue. Walked onto the plane. Back in time for dinner.
New York, you’re all right. Your spring flowers up against all that graffiti looked so good to me yesterday, I came quite close to missing you. Chicago says hi.
To celebrate Easter, Claus and I took a bike ride to the lakefront.
We rode for some time, then needed a snack. Since Claus had not seen Navy Pier yet, we steered our bikes that way. I was happy to see that Navy Pier has gotten at least a partial facelift since I was last there. There are many more food options and there was a mini-Tiffany glass exhibit courtesy of Chicago’s Driehaus family, a family that has an entire museum in the Gold Coast dedicated solely to exhibiting their Tiffany glass pieces. The Driehaus family probably owns Navy Pier, so maybe the exhibit today is there because they needed extra storage. Either way, it was great.
On the way home, we got caught in the cold wind and rain that hit around 5pm. That was hard, riding home in that. We arrived in soaked jeans. My hair was plastered to my head and my glasses were pointless. Now hungry for actual dinner, Claus and I decided to take time only to get dry and then go back out for a hamburger; we also decided to take umbrellas.
Claus put his jeans over a chair and dried them with my hairdryer. I came over and sat by him while he did it. It was funny: to get the legs dry he put the nose of the hairdryer into the cuff and the air blew up the leg like there was a real leg in there.
The German looked over at me and said, “Mary, your hair is still very wet.” And he turned the blowdryer on my hair. He used his fingers to ruffle it the way you do when you dry someone’s hair, tousling it this way and that. The warm air blew all over my head and it was bliss to feel it on my neck, blowing just under my collar.
Then something strange happened. Suddenly, my eyes teared up. And my chest hurt.
I realized it that what he was doing was what my mother — even my father, if we go back further — did when I was a little kid. The sense memory hit me like a truck. The warm air on my neck, the large hand on my head, and the feeling of being helped in getting warm after being cold from playing outside. Though people touch our heads and blow-dry our hair in a salon, there is none of this connection there. Night and day.
I turned to Claus and I swear my lip trembled as I said, “That feels really good. Can you keep doing it?” He was a little surprised and said of course he could and was I okay?
Last night, when I laid out the itinerary for Lilly’s Big Day Out, I said something funny. I said we would do our last scheduled activity, “if Lilly [wasn’t] too tired out.” The thing about seven-year-olds is that they are rarely tired out; the thing about thirty-six-year-olds is that we often are. Tired out by work, family, or the crushing weight of our own existence, whatever it is, it’s enough to lie back on the fainting couch for awhile and promise to write all about Lilly’s Big Day Out tomorrow.
That’s the last picture I took today: Lilly headed down into the subway for her first-ever ride on a city train. In a sparkly St. Patrick’s Day ballcap, of course.
It’s been a tough few days. Battling anacondas. Liquidating a Fortune 500 company. Quashing a pandemic seconds before it’s unleashed on the Earth by a villain. Seriously, though: it’s been a tough few days.
Canada has been cancelled. Peru has been cancelled. Let’s call it health reasons and leave it at that. Bon soir, Montreal. Adios, Cuzco. (Balls, I say, and that’s plain English.) But life is consistently weird and often lousy and what can you do? Well, fun things. You can do fun things and try to not be as lame as you were yesterday. That’s all you can do — and that’s advanced stuff.
I walked up to a doctor’s appointment this afternoon and got done early. Feelin’ blue, I did what any red-blooded American would do in my situation: I went into the AT&T store to see if I could get a new phone. It turned out that I could, provided that I promised my firstborn child to the ghost of Alexander Graham Bell. Sure, dude. Do I sign with my finger or the stylus? Doesn’t matter? Right on.
The upside of getting a new phone at the phone store is that you don’t do any of the data transferring. You punch in your password and the tiny magic doo-dads are synched by someone who won’t ruin everything. The downside is that it takes a very long time. If you amble into the phone store and think you’re going to amble on out with a new phone in twenty minutes, you are incorrect. I learned today that “getting a new phone” may be something I procrastinate about when time comes to do it again. It’s not a “Let’s play hooky and go get a new phone!” proposition; it’s an errand.
That is, unless someone groovy helps you. Then it’s a blast. Bekie, an extremely pretty Hispanic girl with hair that I will never, ever have and could never even fake, greeted me at the door. I told her what I was after and she walked me through my options. I could have a dinner plate-sized phone or a turkey platter-sized phone. I went with the dinner plate, but it was tough choice.
While we waited for Samsung to transfer all the information it has on me from one X-ray spy machine — sorry, phone — to another, me n’ Bekie got to talking. We talked about men. Boys, really. We moved through relationship drama, jobs, other jobs, past lives, patterns, dreams, annoyances. We covered territory like we hadn’t seen each other since college, but I was just a customer, she was on her shift..
The tables at the AT&T store on Michigan Avenue are high-tops, so when you’re sitting down you have the feeling you’re in a bar. Several times over the course of my two-hour relationship with Bekie, I had to get over the uncomfortable feeling that our waiter was really slow bringing our drinks. It was just that friendly there in the AT&T store. Bekie told me her eight-year-old daughter recently turned eight.
“Oh, that’s great. I’ll bet she had a princess party. Is Frozen still cool?”
“Yeah,” Bekie said. “It’s still cool, but she didn’t want a party like that. She wanted to go to this adventure place, like an activity place. I took her. It was really fun.”
When my phone was done, I gathered up all my things and gave Bekie a big hug.
Sorry about yesterday. I was found not guilty of being a witch, but I can’t say the same about my friend Goody. She’s… Well, she really is a witch, so I guess justice was done.
Back to the fun. See those totebags up there? They exist only in my memory and in the hands of the few who grabbed one at Fall Quilt Market a few months ago. What you see above is a limited edition item, like a 45” of an early Beatles record only released in Kuala Lumpur. I’m telling you, I had to scrounge to find one to offer as this week’s prize.
The Heart Plus. Cute World Piece icons. Feminine, but masculine with the canvas and all. Sexy stuff, even though my name is on it. You could cross that out and write your name. It’s your bag, baby. For a price.
If you’re familiar with my quilts, you know I love quilt blocks. Scroll down 4-5 pictures on my Facebook page and you’ll see a quilt top I recently finished that proves it. (I’m planning to do 9,000 more kaleidoscope quilts in the future because good heavens, so gorgeous. The next one will be with — wait for it — the Small Wonders line, India specifically.)
You don’t have to make a kaleidoscope quilt to win the tote, don’t worry. You don’t even have to make a kaleidoscope block, which would be four quadrants or more, by the way. But make a quilt block using Small Wonders — France, China, South America, USA, Netherlands, or India — and email me a picture. I’ll pick a winner, and you’ll be the envy of your guild when you walk in all fancy with your tote. “Oh, this totebag?” you’ll say, nonchalant. “I almost forgot which one I grabbed. Where are the cookie bars?”
**Important! I never use a single group when I make quilts. I mix. That’s why I have all this pre-washed fabric! So you don’t have to use only Small Wonders. Butat least one of the fabrics needs to be SM, okay? It’s gotta highlight the fabric or you might be shooting yourself in the pincushion. Ouch!
Email me a picture of your block at smallwonderswednesday @ gmail.com. Winner picked in two weeks, and I’ll post your block on my Facebook page and your totebag will be delivered via Pajamagram. The cool thing about this contest is that you might really, really love that block and you’re already one block down.
*Actual prize may or may not be delivered via Pajamagram.
I’m in Door County and will stay for about a week. There are many fun things to see and do up here. The last time I was at our family’s lake house there was a wedding taking place. There are no weddings going on right now because a) no one is engaged and b) hypothermia is real.
Washington Island is cold this time of year. Right now it’s five degrees outside. The Island has a year-round population of 660, which means 660 people don’t think a winter this cold and snowy is that big of a deal, though I think the number is misleading: there have to be some folks who take off for Daytona Beach for, say, the months of January and February. They’d still count as year-round, probably.
But cold and the ice make beautiful air and beautiful pictures, and that I’m here at all proves I like that air and those pictures a lot. When a bright sun shines off a subzero Lake Michigan and you’re on the puffy couch, with tea, counting swans, you don’t mind that you have to wear two coats later and pull on actual long underwear if you want to go on a walk.
Today, I fell through the ice on the lake and that was not great. When I say I “fell through the ice,” I mean that I fell through the ice. And when I say I fell through the ice, I meant that I took one step, then another step, then fell through the ice. I was not submerged. But I went down and I felt water. I was walking on the table rocks at the shore and, like an idiot, pranced over to look at a plant completely encased in ice that looked like glass and did not picture in my mind what the ground is like when it is not covered in ice, itself: big rocks with lots of spaces between them. In the summer, water is flowing around these rocks. Ergo, in winter, ice around the rocks. Ice that will surely be varying levels of thickness.
I’m okay. No blood, just sputtering. And don’t worry, I wasn’t alone. Claus was with me. When he heard the crash-splash, he ran to make sure I was okay but he didn’t come too far out on the ice. He could see I was going to make it. And I did; I made it back into the house and then I made minestrone and everything was fine.
We have the Babylonians to thank for many things. They’re the ones who put 60 seconds in the minute and 60 minutes in an hour, a system called “sexagesimal” which is a word I think we can all agree is best left out of our vocabularies. We can thank the Babylonians (5500 to 3500 B.C.) for page numbers in a book. Very helpful, guys. Thank you.
And we can thank them for New Year’s resolutions. At the turn of the new year, the Babs had an eleven-day festival to celebrate the occasion, during which they made promises to the gods so the gods would show them favor. (Now that’s what I call accountability.) According to sources that I’m too lazy to cite, most Babylonians pledged to get out of debt.
I gave up resolutions years ago, mostly because I hate going with the flow. There’s one I flirt with each year, but as I know I cannot achieve it, I quit while I’m ahead. I resolve not to try and fix what I need to change. Want to know what I want to change?
I want to answer the phone every time I can see/hear it ring. I have a terrible phobia of talking on the phone, even to people I love. And I loathe voicemail. A week can go by before I finally enter the numbers to access my voicemail and when I do, my fingers feel like they have those little finger weights on them. “You seriously have to listen to voicemail,” I’ll say to myself, and it feels the same as when I say, “You seriously have to make a dentist appointment.” If I discover I only have three messages, I feel like I found twenty bucks on the sidewalk.
What is the root of this crippling phobia? Is it a control issue? Why am I this way? I just can’t do it. I can’t answer the phone. Text messages are the greatest invention since the telephone.
I cannot resolve to get better at this unless someone unlocks the problem. If you can do that, I’ll help you in your resolve to eat Marshmallow Fluff straight from the jar. I’ve got that down.
1. What am I doing New Year’s Eve?
a) going to bed
b) going to a wedding
c) going to a party where I don’t know anyone
d) going to get wasted
e) b, then later a
2. What were my goals for 2015?
a) make at least $100,000 and put it all into an attractive mutual fund
b) stay in one geographical location for more than five months
c) not buy more clothes until I have holes in the clothes I have now, seriously, like holes in them because I wear them that much that they have to be replaced
d) finish Middlemarch e) avoid writing an end-of-year pop quiz that gives me the uncomfortable feeling I’m pulling some Bridget Jones’s Diary thing by accident
If Bridget Jones’s Diary had been written just a few years later than it was, would it have been Bridget Jones’s Blog and if so, would it have been as popular and if so, would that have just been Sex In The City?
4. If Pendennis could eat one thing for every meal for the rest of his life, he would eat:
a) candy corn pumpkins
b) linguine with clam sauce
c) just sheets and sheets and sheets of nori
d) cotton balls
e) a and d but not b
5. What are you doing New Year’s Eve?
a) “Oh, right. I forgot. What night is New Year’s?”
b) having some friends over for games (e.g., Catchphrase, Twister “After-Dark” Version, etc.)
c) coming to that wedding with me (it’s going to be super fun)
d) taking a pop quiz
Answers: b, d, too tired to write it out but no and yes, e, c.
There were nights when I actually lost sleep obsessing about people living in my house while I was not in it.. These people were good people. Students. Film professionals. A professor. But still. Dishes break. Folks have (hopefully good) parties. Bad emails come in and you punch a wall. Would my cream-colored carpet be wrecked? Would my couch be all jacked up? Would the baseboards be really, really gross? I didn’t think anyone would damage anything on purpose or be wantonly reckless; I just had a lot of anxiety about it.
Well, guess what I found when I opened the door? Stewardship! Care! Consideration! I’m ashamed of myself that I had so little faith in people. I’m a jerk. Really, I am a jerk.
Every person who had a key to this place treated it with respect. Or, if one of them didn’t, the rest of the gang made it right. There were no bloodstains. There weren’t even wine stains. My planed wood dining table has nary a scratch. Are you kidding me?? I will absolutely scratch this table at some point in the next year — but none of my tenants did.
Okay: the mirrored dresser in my bedroom is cracked across the top. But that’s what a table runner is for! Anyone could’ve cracked that thing, including me. I did have a professional carpet and mattress cleaning company come in before I got home, which I think was smart. And yeah, the baseboards are really gross. And I was faced with confusing feelings in the kitchen: the entire top shelf of my open cupboards went totally untouched. No one used the vases, the china, or the unusual dishes up there (e.g., ramekins, fancy mise en place bowls, etc.). On one hand, it was like I never left. On the other hand, everything has a stubborn film of dusty grease because that shelf is high up over the stove. Ew.
I’m still deep-cleaning the whole place because I like deep-cleaning and mentally, I must do this. But tenants, if you’re reading this, thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my wicked, faithless heart for being the civilized, thoughtful people that you always were but who I lamed-out on in my head. You’re welcome back anytime. I’ll open a bottle of wine and you can watch me trip on my shoelace and spill an entire glass on the floor.