Stay: Ben Hecht, Chicago, Me, and You

posted in: Art, Chicago, Paean, Word Nerd | 23
Ben Hecht’s book, opened to the first full-bleed spread, with illos by Herman Rosse. This alone is reason own “1001”, but it gets better from here. Image from the Newberry Library here in town. Don’t be mad, I’m promoting books!

 

Today, a book interfered with all the work I was supposed to do. I’ll have to get up very early in the morning to catch up, but I don’t care. There was nothing I could do. Today, there could be nothing in the world — thank God — but this book, the delicate snowfall, and the pub where I sat, in the window, reading for two hours. The barstool I selected was inside Miller’s Pub, est. 1935, a Chicago institution, shielded and admired by the el at Wabash and Madison.

The book, A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, started as a column in the Chicago Daily News 1920s. The author, Ben Hecht, is a name some of you might recognize, but if you do, I’ll bet it’s because Hecht achieved screenwriting stardom in Hollywood in the 1940s, writing or doctoring scripts a whole bunch of classic films. But before he decamped for Hollywood, Hecht was a dyed-in-the-wool Chicago newspaperman. He started writing for the dailies here when he was just 15, and he was good at what he did. What he did was write well about stuff that happened in the city he dearly loved.

Some years before the column began, Hecht left the News to work in publicity. He wanted to make more money and get away from the grind of reporting round the clock, so he went for it. He hated the publicity business, though, and was quickly miserable. His editor wanted him back and had an idea of how to get Hecht and keep him interested. He asked Hecht if he’d like to write a different sort of column for the News, one that explored the people of the city, but this time with a decidedly narrative tone. Hecht could interview people as he usually would, but then, rather than file a Q&A or a “This happened and this happened” piece of reportage, he’d have license to make the vignettes almost … poetic.

For years. In the preface to the 1922 book containing dozens of these “afternoon” characters — this is the book I couldn’t put down this afternoon — I learned that Hecht loved writing this new column so much, he’d do it when he was sick, tired, traveling, depressed, etc. He called the column “A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago” (a Scherezade riff, obviously) and he filed a column every day.

The humanity in these pieces is almost agonizing. Page after page of poignant, funny, achingly true portraits await you as the author tells Chicago through its people: prostitutes, auctioneers, homeless people, businessmen, shop girls, tattoo artists — this is all in the early 1920s, remember, but every single word is as true today as it ever was. People lose jobs and lose their families, they hope and dream, they forgive — sometimes they die, too. I was crying at the bar, trying to hide my face from the nice couple sitting to my left who were in Chicago for a nice weekend. I’m glad they didn’t ask me what I was reading; I would’ve rhapsodised and scared them away.

The book is funny and beautiful and I want to share an excerpt with you.

If you know me, you know I love Michigan Avenue. I walk up that grand boulevard and walk it all the way back down as much as I can and much more lately, since some days I just don’t know what to do with myself. On those days or any day besides, Michigan Avenue, from 9th Street to Delaware is my spinal column and it keeps me upright. So, imagine my rapture when I turned the page of Afternoons to find Hecht vignette about my street that was so right, so brilliant, so true, big, fat tears plopped onto the page as I read. There is no comfort like the comfort that comes when you see that you are known by someone who knew you before you were born.

Here is an excerpt from the “Michigan Avenue” piece from A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, by Ben Hecht, 1921.

I have squandered an afternoon seduced from labors by this Pied Piper of a street. And not only I but everybody I ever knew or heard of was in this street, strutting up and down as if there were no vital projects demanding their attention, as if life were not a stern and productive routine.

[There] was no sign, no billboard to inspire me with a sense of duty. So we strutted—the long procession of us—a masquerade of leisure and complacency. Here was a street in which a shave and a haircut, a shine and a clean collar exhilarated a man with a feeling of power and virtue. As if there were nothing else to the day than to decorate himself for the amusement of others.

I begin to notice something. An expression in our faces as we drift by the fastidious ballyhoos of the shop windows. We are waiting for something—actors walking up and down in the wings waiting for the their cues to go on. This is intelligible. This magician of a street has created the illusion in our heads that there are adventure and romance around us.

There are two lives that people lead. One is the real life of business, mating, plans, bankruptcies and gas bills. The other is an unreal life—a life of secret grandeurs which compensate for the monotony of the days. Sitting at our desks, hanging on to straps in the street cars, waiting for the dentist, eating in silence in our homes—we give ourselves to these secret grandeurs. Day-dreams in which we figure as heroes and Napoleons and Don Juans, in which we triumph sensationally our the stupidities and arrogances of our enemies—we think them out detail by detail. Sometimes we like to be alone because we have a particularly thrilling incident to tell ourselves, and when our friends say good-by we sigh with relief and wrap ourselves with a shiver of delight in the mantles of imagination. And we live a charming hour through a fascinating fiction in which things are as they should be and we startle the world with our superiorities.

This street, I begin to understand, is consecrated to the unrealities so precious to us. We come here and for a little while allow our dreams to peer timorously at life. In the streets west of here we are what we are—browbeaten, weary-eyed, terribly optimistic units of the boobilariat. Our secret characterizations we hide desperately from the frowns of window and the squeal of “L” trains.

But here in this Circe of streets the sun warms us, the sky and the spaces of shining air lure us and we step furtively out of ourselves. And give us ten minutes. Observe—a street of heroes and heroines …

The high buildings waver like gray and golden ferns in the sun. The sky stretches itself in a holiday awning over our heads. A breeze coming  from the lake brings an odorous spice into our noses. Adventure and romance! Yes—and observe how unnecessary are plots. Here in the Circe of streets are all the plots. All the great triumphs, assassinations, amorous conquests of history unravel themselves within a distance of five blocks. The great moments of the world live themselves over again in a silent make-believe.

The afternoon wanes. Our procession turns toward home. For a few minutes the elation of our make-believe in the Avenue lingers. But the “L” trains crowd up, the street cars crowed up. It is difficult to remain a Caesar or a Don Quixote. So we withdraw and our faces become alike as turtle backs.

Hello, Portland

posted in: Work | 14
Portland trolley on 11th Ave., passing Powell’s Books. Photo: Steve Morgan via Wikipedia.

 

I’m in Portland.

I’m not here for a vacation, not to visit a friend. I’m not here for a wedding or a funeral. I’m not here to attend Spring Quilt Market, though I will be here in May for that very event.** It would be lovely if I were in Oregon to visit a beau, but no, that’s not the reason I’m here. And of course, it would be normal if I were here for a guild or shop gig; after all, a good deal of the work I have done for the better part of eight years has been teaching/lecturing work. But I’m not here for that.

I’m in Portland for Quiltfolk, which has fast become part of my heart. I’ve been here since Thursday because we’re in press for Issue 06: Arizona, which means I’ve been putting in loong days to get the magazine as perfect as possible before we send it to the printer and go onto all the other business before us. Quiltfolk is why I’m here. And now that I’ve told you the reason, can I tell you something else? Something besides how much I love making magazines? (I love making magazines.)

Okay: I like Portland.

Now, if you’re a longtime reader of the ol’ PG, if you followed me to New York and Washington and back to Chicago, you may be alarmed. If there were stage directions for you right now, this is what those stage directions would look like:

BLOG READER reads Mary’s “I like Portland” line, yelps as if in pain, throws laptop/phone against the wall. Then:  

BLOG READER: “Mary!! No!! You love Chicago! Chicago!! Don’t leave your home! Don’t move to Portland! What, are you kray?? Snap out of it! Go to sleep!”

I love that you know the whole story. Look, I need you to remember the whole story. You’re my alibi. This whole blog is a public record so that when I’m old and gray I can remember everything that happened, with corroboration. I also want you to know I love that you see what I know: Chicago is the place where I belong.

The way I see it, there’s the place where we are born, and there are places where we live. But there are only a few places — maybe even only one place? in the end? — where we truly belong. In my case, I was born in Iowa, and that’s always going to be special. I have lived in lots of wonderful places, viz. Iowa City, Manhattan, Washington, D.C. and I loved all kinds of things about those places and found parts of myself in all of them. But I belong in Chicago. Specifically, downtown Chicago. The Loop. My soul is home in the Chicago Loop. When I get on a plane to Midway or O’Hare, I smile this dumb smile, simply because I get to see the place again.

All that said, I’m going to be coming to Portland a lot more in the future, and I see these hills and bridges. I see the clouds give way to sun that gives way to clouds. I catch my reflection in the window of a Rite Aid drug store as I go for a coffee and I skip across the trolley rails and I think, “I could have a little place here, a pied a terre, for work … ” And the fantasy makes me feel alive.

Which is all I’ve ever wanted, whatever the place.

 

**At that point, barring disaster, I will have have my master’s degree. But I’m not counting chickens. Or 

The AMC “Dine-In” Movie Theater: Goodbye, Cruel World.

posted in: Chicago, Day In The Life, Tips | 1
The "scene" of the crime! Get it? Scene? Like a scene in a movie? Hahahhhahaha! I kill me! Photo: Me
The “scene” of the crime! Get it? Scene? Like a scene in a movie? Hahahhhahaha! I kill me! Photo: Me.

 

I’m going to tell a story about Claus but I’m not being nostalgic.

Last weekend, I wanted to check out the fancy new theater up on State Street. The theater is new within the year, I think, though sometimes I’m the last to know about these things. It looks new: everything is shiny and the carpet is fresh-smelling. But that’s not all that’s going on at the AMC on State Street, oh, no.

This AMC features “Cinema-Suites.” What’s a Cinema-Suite, you ask? A Cinema-Suites is a place where you go to die happy. The official description is different; AMC decided to not include “die” in their messaging for some reason. Officially, “Cinema-Suites [offer] a grown-up atmosphere featuring in-theater dining, a full bar, and extra-comfy recliners. Enjoy handcrafted burgers, bowls, desserts, and more while you enjoy the show.” Oh, but, AMC! You’re being modest!

Here’s how it works: You get your ticket. You go into your theater. You are shown to your specific seat by an usher. You sink into the comfiest recliner into which you ever sank your tush. A table tray swings in from your right hand side. There’s a cup holder. There’s no bib, but you feel like there could be and that would be fine. There’s a button on the left side of the chair and when you push it, the chair begins molesting you in a friendly way, raising your feet up on the foot rest as it’s reclining you back. It’s not a massage, exactly, but it’s not not a massage. Then, just when you’re laughing with a tall German that this is so much fun and way, way too easy to love, a waiter — a real waiter! — comes and gives you menus.

There are delicious foods on this menu. Your waiter comes and takes your order and he will bring you what you ordered while you watch the movie. Hot food. Like a burger. Or a hot fudge sundae! Or — wait for this, you can’t believe this — popcorn! You can’t get popcorn at a concession stand because they bring you your popcorn on a tray. Is anyone else freaking out about this? Because I am not being sarcastic: this is amazing. I didn’t even want popcorn. I’m not supposed to eat popcorn. But I ordered some anyway because it was Claus and my last date and because they were going to bring it on a tray. A big bucket of popcorn on a tray, brought to me while I’m essentially lying in a bed, watching a Hollywood movie that cost more to make than the GDP of most of the world’s developing countries.

I’m not saying it’s bad. I’m saying it’s a heckuva town.

 

We Don’t Wear Signs.

posted in: Chicago, Luv | 5
German stamp for social welfare, 1982. Image: Wikipedia.
German stamp for social welfare, 1982. (I like the roses.) Image: Wikipedia.

I leave Thursday morning. I’m going to California.* Claus will leave a couple hours after me on a flight to Berlin.

Very glamorous-sounding, isn’t it? California. Berlin. It would be glamorous if we were each on our own private jet. It would be glamorous if we were meeting up in Havana next week at midnight. We’re not. It’s the end of something and it cannot be denied any longer. Oh, you can give me a virtual knock on my chin and tell me that if it’s meant to be it will be — and I do appreciate it — but I’m cynical and jaded tonight. Any chance I had of being glamorous at all is gone with this grumpy look on my face. That’s me: grumpy and sitting in coach with a totebag. Somebody take my picture!

We went to the store tonight to get eggs. Claus’s omelettes are world-class and I wanted one more. We were standing in line for the checkout and I was leaning up against him. He had his arms around me. It wasn’t a yucky PDA; we just looked like a happy couple, or at least a couple that wasn’t actively mad at each other. So I’m hanging on him and thinking how it’s going to be to go to the store alone again, how it’ll be to not have a tall body to lean up against, and I’m pretty sure I saw something. I saw a gal in the line next to us looking right at us and she looked really bummed out. At best, it was a “Gee, that must be nice” look; at worst, it was an “I hate love” look. Whatever it was, when I saw her, she looked away quickly and bought her frozen peas.

I’ve been there. You see a couple all clingy and sweet and if you happen to be in a bad mood for whatever reason (especially for a love-related reason) you think, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Must be nice. Get a room!” And if that’s what was going on with this gal, and I think it was, I wished I could’ve said:

“We look lovey-dovey, it’s true, but you don’t know what’s really going on. He’s leaving for Germany the day after tomorrow and we don’t know how to date across an ocean. We think we’re just going to go on with our own lives and see what happens if he gets a job here in the future. We’re too old to like, profess love in blood on notebook paper and send a bushel of postcards to each other every day. We’re going to try and hold this loosely, if that makes sense. Neither of us have done this before. And I’m turning thirty-seven this summer. It’s relevant, somehow, but that’s a longer discussion. Do you want to go get a drink, maybe? Just hang out? Talk stuff over?” 

Approaching the young woman and sharing this with her seemed like a lot of work, so we just paid for our eggs and green onions and walked home. She walked home. Everyone walks or drives home and you don’t know their lives. Appearances aren’t always what they seem and even if they are what they seem — a happy couple, being sweet on each other in the grocery line — there is always, always more to the story.

*I’m visiting my favorite auntie for a few days, full reports from San Francisco/Sacramento. It’s really good timing.

It’s a Heckuva Town.

Puppies playing in pet shop window. Note photographer reflected in mirror. Photo: Her
Puppies playing in pet shop window. Note photographer reflected in mirror. Photo: Her

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.

 

Just To Be Here.

posted in: Chicago, Paean | 1
This is the interior of a palace in Poland. But my heart feels like this!
This is the interior of a palace in Poland. But my heart feels like this! Photo: Wikipedia

My heart feels like it’s in a jacuzzi. Being back in Chicago is a gift. I turn a corner and look at something so banal as the American Apparel store or the conveniently-placed mailbox on the corner of Polk and Dearborn and I beam. Thankfully, it’s scarf weather, so I can beam into my scarf and not scare anyone.

As I walked up State St. the other day — State St. in all its bunting and festooned glory — I thought how remarkable it was that no one around me knew how happy I was just to be there. No way could anyone walking behind me or crossing the street with me know that I was so happy to be back in this city that my heart was singing, even as I dodged a weird/large puddle by the library? But we don’t know about anyone who walks near us, do we? (I wrote up a similar thought in regards to bathrooms and disabilities, but this is different.) We all have stories and circumstances, but we can never know all the people so we can’t know all the stories. Good or bad, when significant things happen to us, we still have to like, walk to the bank. We still have to go to work. We gotta eat something. But where did the person next to you come from? And where are they going?

That man’s mother died last night. That other man, he’s on his way to court to give a deposition — and he’s debating whether or not to lie. That woman on your left is headed to her first job as a dominatrix. The woman on your right just got elected to the board. That guy, he was diagnosed yesterday. The woman up ahead was going to break up with her boyfriend at lunch but couldn’t do it. The man across the street, crossing to your side, lost his wallet twenty minutes ago. The woman nearby him is worrying herself to death over her prodigal son.

I wanted to grab someone and say: “Hi! I was walking next to you but there was no way for you to know how happy I am to be in Chicago and I want to tell you because you should know. You should know that just walking near you, just being under the Chicago sky — it’s wonderful! It’s a wonderful life! Don’t take it for granted, don’t forget: Chicago is the best city in the world. We have a lot of issues. But we can make it. We’re gonna make it. We’re gonna work together and we’re gonna make it. Okay?”

I suspect the person would run away from me as fast as possible. And if they did, no big deal. I’d just grab the next guy or the next guy, until I found someone who was ready to rap with me for the rest of the afternoon about how there is no place like home and there is no home like Chicago. Not for me and not for the person rapping with me. Maybe we would sit on the bench in front of the old school barbershop-and-cigar shop on Dearborn. I love to walk past that place but I’ve never been in. It’s not that cold, yet; we could share my scarf.

Opening The Door, Part II: Me Of Little Faith.

posted in: Chicago, Day In The Life | 1
My tenants didn't look like these chuckleheads, but they were apparently as squeaky-clean. Three's Company publicity photo courtesy Wikipedia.
My tenants didn’t look like these chuckleheads, but they were apparently as squeaky-clean. Three’s Company publicity photo courtesy Wikipedia.

I’m ashamed of myself.

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.

Heart Party!

posted in: Chicago | 0
That's a good-lookin' dame.
Now that’s a good-lookin’ dame.

My body feels like it got run over by a truck. A moving truck. I also feel like I slept in feathers and I dreamed of swimming in vanilla frosting. (That’s good!)

This was the right choice. If I’ve ever felt so strongly that I made the right choice, I can’t remember. The sun is shining through the south-facing windows in my beautiful home and not far away, the sun is bouncing off the lake. It can do both, because it’s Lake Michigan. The tea kettle I have carried with me for 1.5 years is about to whistle. Get ready, pot of honey and pitcher of milk. It’s on.

If Chicago’s wrong, I don’t want to be right and also I am never, ever moving again unless there are rats. Actually, at this point, I would be down with rats. Rats are cool. Rats just do rats, man. Besides, Chicago rats don’t work on Capitol Hill and they eat too much Lou Malnati’s to move very fast.

Soon, I will be selling furniture, so watch Facebook and PaperGirl. Because I have double everything, basically. And double happiness, but I’m keeping that.

Praise the lord and pass the hot dogs!

Quilt Market Is Coming! (Plus: 1 of 2 Announcements.)

This picture was taken at Market a couple years ago in one of the hundreds of gorgeous booths at the show. The pom-poms were edible! Just kidding.
This picture of me was taken at Market a couple years ago in one of the hundreds of gorgeous booths at the show. Those pom-poms were edible! Just kidding.

International Fall Quilt Market is next week!

Fall Quilt Market is the biggest trade show of the year for the 4 billion-dollar-a-year quilt industry I accidentally started working in five-and-a-half years ago. It’s a Quilts, Inc. production and it is intense. Here’s what people do at Quilt Market:

– Wear their Sunday best
– Write business
– Take meetings
– Schmooze
– Booze (Not at the level of a pharmaceutical sales rep convention, but there’s a little drankin’ and aren’t you surprised? Mm? Quilters drink liquor? Scandal?)
– Go to dinner
– Make deals
– Take names
– Chew bubblegum
– Break hearts

So really it’s just another day in the life of a quilter who took her/his hobby to the Next Level. Hey, speaking of Next Level, this Quilt Market is a big one for me. Maybe the biggest one yet. For years — years! — I’ve been circling a dream project and for months — months! — I’ve known that the dream project would launch next week but I’ve been sworn to secrecy. At this point, the pain of withholding the thing is almost physical.

Do you want to know what the big project is? Do you? Are you ready to freak out? Are you ready for totally amazing, fully incredible, head-slappingly gorgeous images to flood your cerebral cortex? It will all happen so soon! I’m the world’s worst secret-keeper; if I wasn’t in fear of mucking up the whole thing for me and the brilliant company I’m working with, I’d just out with it.

But maybe I could tell you something else. Maybe I could let a different cat out of the bag. Maybe I could finally tell you the other secret I’ve got. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. Here goes: I’m pregnant. No, no, no. That’s not it. I’m not pregnant. Let’s see, what was it… Oh, right:

I’m moving back to Chicago next month.

Full story tomorrow.

The Wabash Lights Want to Come to Chicago!!!

posted in: Art, Chicago, Family | 1
The Wabash Lights, imagined.
The Wabash Lights, imagined.

My brand new brother-in-law is making something wonderful.

Jack Newell (that’s the brother-in-law) and his partner in this project, designer Seth Unger have been working for four years on a public art project. They are very close to making this big, big, BIG idea happen and I’m shaking my head in wonder. Jack is cooler than Paul Newman speaking French while riding a motorcycle up to a valet guy at the backdoor entrance to a Rolling Stone (circa 1972) concert. Something like that. I recently spoke to Jack about The Wabash Lights.

Let’s talk about Wabash Avenue. What’s it like?

It embodies Chicago. It’s gritty, hardworking, overlooked, sometimes avoided, but crucial. It’s not touristy Michigan Ave or State St. It’s a place in a very segregated city where you find people from all over converging. Students from one of the seven colleges that touch Wabash, restaurants, bars, hot dog stands, jewelers, hotels and residences. If you were to walk down Wabash, you would find it dark, dreary and loud. We want to make it less dark.

I love Wabash Avenue because the el tracks run over the top. You get to walk around underneath — but I love the idea of transforming it. So give it to me: what’s The Wabash Lights?

The Wabash Lights is an interactive light installation on the underside of the elevated train tracks on Wabash Avenue in the heart of Chicago’s Loop. Designed by the public, this first of its kind piece of public art will give visitors to The Wabash Lights’ website and future app the ability to log in and design the lights, making it entirely interactive.

That is so great. It’ll be great for the street, obviously, but also civic pride and local business. And tourism! This wouldn’t be that far from The Bean. Wow. You’ve traveled all over the world with my sister Rebecca. Thanks for keeping her safe, by the way. You’ve seen a lot of public art in all these places. Talk to me about public art for a second.

There’s two types of public art, broadly speaking; temporary and permanent. Each of these can evoke a different experience. Sometimes the beauty of a piece of public art is the ephemeral nature of it.* The permanent pieces of public art need to do something different — they never change, but you do. Each time you interact with them your experience might be different. It can be an interesting experience in reflection.

Jack, I’m sorry. I have to ask. You say in the video that you’ve been getting permits and city clearance for four years. Did you have to engage the mob to get this kind of thing done in Chicago?

Funny question and we get questions in this vein quite a bit. We’ve found city government and the agencies we’ve been working with to be full of passionate, hard working people who have very difficult jobs. These organizations are most of the time underfunded and overworked. People usually only know of the CTA or CDOT when there’s something broken; they’re perceived one way, but our experience has been the opposite. They get what we’re trying to do and have been incredibly supportive and honest throughout the whole process. 

Do you ever wake up in the morning and go, “When did I become an adult who does huge, ambitious, city-changing projects?”

You either do stuff or you don’t. You are defined by the stuff you do and by the stuff you don’t do. I want to be defined by having done this.

You’re so close to funding the huge, ginormous first step for the Lights. The videos about it are amazing. There are four days left in the Kickstarter campaign. What’s the website?

The main website is right here; the Kickstarter campaign is here.

Will you engrave my name on one of the lights? Don’t tell me you can’t do it just because the thing is made of thin glass with gas inside it! If you can dream it, you can do it, right, Jack? 

No! 

The point of this, and one of the reasons we wanted to get the public on board before corporations (and in our corporate partners we will be looking for folks who agree with this) is that we want to maintain the artistic integrity of The Wabash Lights. The Wabash Lights is an art installation. It’s not a way finding installation or a commercial digital billboard. It’s a piece of art that is created by the public. 

Fine. Thanks, Jack. I’m so glad you’re my brother-in-law.

*Google “Pink Balls in Montreal” or anything by Christo.

Deer In the City.

posted in: D.C., Day In The Life | 0
Put a paved road underneath his feet and you're close.
Put a paved road underneath his feet and you’re close.

If power animals exist, my power animal is a deer. I’m not sure about the existence of power animals but what do I know? I do know that over and over again in my life, I have close encounters with cervidae of various kinds.

Today, back home in Washington, I set out to fetch groceries. There was not much in my fridge beyond a hunk of Parmesan cheese (good) and watermelon I should’ve thrown out before I left town (bad.) There’s a fabulous little organic grocery store in my new neighborhood, but “fabulous” and “organic,” when applied to “grocery” and “store” means yams are $5.00/ea. Close to that, anyway. I consulted the oracle and found a Giant supermarket close to my building.

Apparently, I had my Google Maps set to Hermes; what I thought would be a twenty-two-minute trip was at least double that. The Giant really can’t be the closest supermarket to me but these are the misadventures you have when you live in a new place. You have to go to the wrong places to find the right ones.

I’m walking along (and along) the sidewalk in a pretty neighborhood. I’m sweating from the humidity and sun. And coming from the other side of the street — casual as anything — steps a deer. Large deer. Deer with antlers. This deer walked into the street and was therefore about ten or twelve feet away from me. Seeing each other, we stopped in our tracks. The deer looked at me and I looked at the deer and for a moment I wondered, “Do deer charge humans?” and I felt fear. We looked at each other for a good 2.5 seconds; I’ve replayed the encounter many times and believe that’s correct.

“You have got to be kidding me,” I thought. It was right there. Wildlife in the city and we were crossing paths. The deer — surely feeling fear, wondering if humans charge deer — took a running leap over a high fence into someone’s yard where I presume he began munching begonias.

There was a FedEx truck way down the hill who might’ve seen the deer up ahead. I tried to make eye contact with him as he passed. I opened my eyes wide to communicate, “What the —-?!” but I didn’t get an appropriate response, so I don’t think he saw it. This was a me-deer thing.

I’m not so sure power animals are real, but that was mighty powerful.

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

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

What can be said about the sofas in our lives?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sofa. Whatever.

*I’m from Iowa; it’s a couch

At The Chicago Botanical Garden, Early April

Me and a little dude with a tail.
Me and a little dude with a tail, Chicago Botanical Garden, 2015. Photo: Yuri

Yuri was in Chicago over the weekend, also.

We spent time together on Monday. After work tasks were complete, he took me to the Chicago Botanical Garden to walk, to talk, and remember each other for awhile.

The Chicago Botanical Garden is a world-class joint. Hordes descend upon the place in warmer months but somehow milling among thousands of people doesn’t feel bad at the Botanical Gardens; it feels communal. English gardens, Japanese gardens, fields of field flowers, a glassy pond, sculptures big and small — if it’s green and cultivated you want, green and cultivated you shall have and there’s a great cafe for when you’re exhausted from walking and have pollen all over your shirt. It’s also free to get in.

Yuri and I walked through the grounds arm in arm. We did this because we care about each other a great deal but we were also freezing cold. Nothing has bloomed, yet; there were a few brave shoots poking up here and there, but not many. All the plants are waiting, checking final items off the pre-production list before the big launch.The greenhouses were thriving — greenhouses do that — so when we were almost too cold to be having fun, we found a greenhouse and slipped in to warm up. Tip: if you’re feeling disconnected from nature, pop yourself into a balmy, breathing greenhouse. You’ll get fixed right up.

We had fun together. We got soup and a glass of wine at the cafe. We argued. I cried. We laughed. Walking on the main promenade under the cold, grey sky, Yuri picked me up and spun me around and I hollered, “No! Don’t! Yuri, stop!” but it was okay. New York, we have both decided, seems like a dream. It’s a trite thing to say, but damned if I know how else to describe it. The East Village? Really? Manhattan? But when? I know why — passion, risk, love, adventure — but as to the how, I couldn’t tell you if you put a Rhododendron ferrugineum to my neck.

Yuri and I aren’t together, but we’ll always be together because of New York, because of Chicago, because of that day in the garden, I guess. When do you stop being connected to a soul?

That picture up top is one of a series Yuri took of me being a mom to a hunk of bronze.

The Little Princess.

posted in: Day In The Life | 0
"The Little Lame Prince and His Traveling Cloak," by Dinah Maria Mulock, 1909; illustration by Hope Dunlap.
“The Little Lame Prince and His Traveling Cloak,” by Dinah Maria Mulock, 1909; illustration by Hope Dunlap.

What’s wrong with me?

I go out on the open road, I long for my bed. I long for the crisp sheets that I washed in the morning and put lovingly on the bed for the moment when I’d sink down into the white. Out there is the lush green of Georgia, the thunderstorms over St. Louis, but once there I long for the sewing machine that is always right where I left it. I love my luggage, but I miss my sink. Even the dumb kitchen sponge.

I come home and I embrace my sponge and my french press with an almost uncomfortable enthusiasm; these are inanimate objects, Fons. I realize that, but god how I missed you, little kitchen sponge, little frenchy-french. Then, watch a week go by and what happens? I wake before sunrise, as always, and pad to the kitchen and lo, the faintest sigh of longing comes as I go about my ritual: fill kettle, turn on burner, rinse french press, put in tea, close tea container, pour cream into pichet, get spoon for honey. Put all on tray. Scratch. Yawn. Think about life. Look at counter. Feel desire to scour it later. Wait for water to boil. Wait for the quotidian to kill me, eventually.

When the tea is ready, I’m so happy to have that morning hit of sweet, creamy Earl Grey, I forget that moments ago, I wished I was out on the road. Out of the house. Out of me, I guess.

I can’t be pleased and it drives me to drink (tea.) Forget the grass being greener; I don’t care about green. I just want the grass to be interesting. And what I can’t figure out is if there’s more to be found by chopping wood and carrying water day in, day out at the homestead or more to be found seeking whatever’s new around every single corner that I meet.

George Harrison said, “The farther one travels/the less one knows.” And there was a Swedish painter I read about years ago who never, ever left his hometown and painted the most wonderful paintings. His thing was, basically, “What on earth is there more beautiful than this? Why would I go anywhere else? I mean… Look.” But come on. Where would we be without the peripatetic, the restless, the road dog? We’d be at home. Booooring.

On Thursday, I go to St. Louis for four days. I’ll be lecturing with Mom, which tonight makes me so happy I could cry. Most of the time I travel alone. With Mother, you see, I get the best of both grassy worlds: I have the familiarity and comfort of my very own mom mixed with the plane and the pavement, the hotel room and the view of The Gateway To the West from whatever hotel room I’m assigned.

Somebody please tell me what the Sam Hill I’m supposed to be and just what I’m supposed to do. I assure you I have no clue. None.

“Missy! Missy! Coffee!”

posted in: Day In The Life | 0
Waitress taking a breakfast order at Kahala Hilton Hotel, Hawaii, USA, 1989. Photo: Wikipedia.
Waitress taking a breakfast order at Kahala Hilton Hotel, Hawaii, USA, 1989. Photo: Wikipedia.

After I had been in Chicago a few years and worked a few (very) odd jobs, I returned to my roots as a waitress. I knew how to wait tables. The first job I ever had in life was waiting tables at the Northside Cafe in Winterset, IA, right up on the town square. As soon as I was fourteen I marched through the cafe’s front door and asked for a job. The concept that I could do things and be paid for them was exciting. Far as I figured, I’d be doing things anyway; why not get paid for it?

Two women, Vicki and Betty, trained me at Northside. “Training me” meant they showed me how to make coffee and how to write out a ticket for the kitchen. That was basically the extent of their guidance. Vicki would’ve shown me how to smoke cigarettes if I asked, but I didn’t. I learned the front of the cafe first; a few months later I was allowed to take a section in the back room where the Lion’s Club had meetings. You could still smoke back then and I emptied a lot of ashtrays when I wasn’t making pot after pot of Folger’s.

I would work myself to death at that place. The Northside was packed on the weekends: farmer’s needed biscuits and gravy at 6am, the pre-church crowd was there from 7-9am, the late-risers came in from 9-noon, and then it was after-church folks and the typical lunch crowd. When the cafe closed at 3pm, we had to sweep, mop, scour, marry (ketchup), and lock it all down. It’s easy to mythologize about the past; the fish we catch get bigger and bigger every time we remember catching them. But my mom and sisters could attest to my exhaustion after a busy weekend at Northside. I’d drag myself through the back door of our house, throw my apron on the dining room table, kick off my sneakers and sink into the couch. I’d pull out my wad of tips and recount them while my feet went “whomp-whomp-whomp” with achiness.

Because good, god-fearin’ waitressin’ was programmed into me early, I never lost the knack. In Chicago, I took a job at a new brunch restaurant called Tweet. (This was pre-Twitter, by at least five years, I’ll have you know.) A friend of a friend recommended me for one of three waiter positions and I got hired. The owner, a brassy (brilliant) businesswoman asked me several questions in the interview but the two I remember were: “What’s your sign?” and “Are you on drugs?” I replied with “Leo” and “No.” My first day would be that weekend.

Chicagoans love their brunch. We love it. I’m sure there will be a brunch tax at some point. For two years of the three I worked there, Tweet was one of the hottest brunch tickets in town. The restaurant was only open on the weekend, which made it exclusive, in a way. The neighborhood around it was fairly crappy at the time (Uptown East), and the food was really, really good. There was also a bar next door where you could drink if you had to wait for a table and everyone had to wait for a table. On our busiest days, a three-hour wait was not that weird. And people did wait that long. (I’m telling you: brunch tax.)

If I had been tired after a day at Northside, I was a dead woman walking after a shift at Tweet. I made a lot more money, though. A lot more. Upwardly mobile white people from Lincoln Park tip better than sixty-year-old men who ride combines most of the day. Who knew?

I was thinking about my life in aprons the past few days as I encountered hotel staff and waiters working through the holiday. I feel you. I don’t work those shifts now, but I did for years. Working on Christmas, say, ain’t that bad — but it’s not that great. Having fun with the people you work with is the best thing for it, so try to do that.

And cheer up. All around you are members of the Secret Order of Former Service Industry Providers. I carry the card, myself, and we’re fantastic tippers.

Paris In Chicago.

posted in: Chicago | 0
Chicago's Old Water Tower - don't call it a comeback.
Chicago’s Old Water Tower – don’t call it a comeback.

I’ve arrived in Chicago in order to see my doctor tomorrow. Will the hospital admit me? Quite possibly. I’m ready for anything.

Yuri has come to be with me for the anything. We met at Midway late last night and took flying leaps into each others’ arms. I’m betting there were bluebirds of happiness flying around our heads, but I was too busy smiling like a dweeb at him to confirm it. The man looks good. He needs some home cookin’, but he looks real, real good to me.

And though we’re at a beautiful hotel in the fancy-schmance Gold Coast for the next two days, I do feel like a guest in my own house. Yuri and I will return to Chicago after the New York adventure, pending a few key transitional things in the hopper; until then, Chicago is looking at me with sad dog eyes and I’m defensive and short with it, saying things like, “I know! I’m just… Just don’t… Stop looking at me like that, would you?”

That uncomfortable conversation was playing in my head this afternoon when I walked to Walgreen’s for toothpaste. I was at Michigan Avenue and Chicago, right by the Chicago Avenue Water Tower and Pumping Station, a.k.a., “Old Water Tower.” This castle-like structure, with its finials and its flourishes is one of the few bits of construction in the entire city that survived the Great Chicago Fire 1871. Not bad for a big ol’ pipe.

There was a family walking behind me and suddenly I hear a girl of about six cry with unhinged delight,

“It’s the Eiffel Tower!!! Mommy! Mommy, look, it’s the Eiffel Tower!!!”

The mother, father, and only slightly older sister tried to tell the child that no, no, that was the Water Tower, but the girl was having none of it.

“But Mommy! It’s the Eiffel Tower!”

You bet it is, squirt. It’s our Eiffel Tower. When you’re older, I could share with you that the Ferris Wheel — I’m sure your folks have taken you to the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier, non? — debuted in Chicago at the World’s Fair in 1893. Well, Mr. Ferris designed his Wheel to rival the grandeur and splendor of the Eiffel Tower that you’re talking about. I think he did pretty well, especially since you can go up to the top of the Eiffel Tower, but you can’t swing your legs.

How To Watch Yourself On Camera: 5 Easy Steps

posted in: Tips, Work | 6
Screenshot, Quilty. Season Three, maybe? My head is 10lbs more pointy in this picture than it is in real life. Also, I have 10lbs better posture in real life.
Screenshot, Quilty. Season Three, maybe? My head is 10lbs more pointy in this picture than it is in real life. Also, I have 10lbs better posture in real life.

Sometimes, I think I must be out of my mind to do what I do for work these days. I’m on camera a lot and I find it painful to be on camera. Why? Because:

– Whatever you’re wearing, however you style your hair, that version of you is out of date by the time the show airs and forever afterward. You’re like the new car that’s just been driven off the lot — and no one likes a depreciating car.

– I’m not sure the camera adds the proverbial 10lbs or not, but there is most certainly a widening that takes place; an unfortunate spread of oneself onscreen. Is it the worst thing to look a bit more zaftig than you are in person? No. Does it feel unfair when you’ve been working hard to keep fit precisely because you know you’ll be on camera in the near future? Yeah, it does. [Note to self: First time using ‘zaftig’ in blog, possibly first time using it anywhere. Mark in planner.]

– You think you sound one way, but you don’t. You sound that way.

– Editing can delete a multitude of sins, but you can’t edit down to nothing. Thus, the horsey laugh, the bad habit of interrupting, the weird thing you said weirdly — it’s all on tape. Forever.

If you find yourself having to be on camera anytime soon, don’t despair. I have come up with five ways to help you cope with the trauma. Here now:

Mary’s Top 5 Survival Tips For Watching Yourself On Camera

1. Enjoy several alcoholic beverages before you begin. Everyone looks better after a couple drinks, right? This applies to you watching you. If you can get to the point where you start hitting on yourself through the screen, you’re in a great place.

2. Have a friend watch with you. This needs to be a friend who loves you so much she/he can withstand two of you for the duration of the video. Put them in your will if they agree to this.

3. Worried about your hair or clothing choice? Those potential blunders fade quickly when you realize you were younger then than you are now. Instantly wistful and desirous of that outfit, now, aren’t you? Mm-hmmm.

4. Oh, come on. You must’ve said something humorous or intelligent. Find that instance and play it multiple times. Then let the video continue while you go to the bathroom or get more snacks/vodka.

5. Go watch a bunch of Beyonce videos. Isn’t Beyonce amazing? There you go, much better.

Karen, Nicole, Popcorn + Me.

posted in: Day In The Life | 4
Adobo and Peanut Roasted Popcorn, from Nicole at PopCorn.org's discomfittingly up-to-date blog.
Adobo and Peanut Roasted Popcorn, from Nicole at PopCorn.org’s almost discomfittingly up-to-date blog.

I made popcorn on the stovetop tonight. To me, this is the only way to have popcorn at home.

Many years ago, my friend Karen Kowalski showed me how to make stovetop popcorn just right. I had (very) recently moved to Chicago and into the strange-but-cheap building where I paid just $420/month. Karen chose the same building for the same reason, and we met one night because she heard me crying in my apartment all the way from inside own her apartment. In the fuzzy, despair-soaked fury of my tears, I heard a little “knock-knock” on my door. I opened it to find radiant, twenty-something Karen looking at a scrubby, wet, twenty-something me with deep concern and compassion.

“Do you want a beer or a cigarette or something?” she asked. We were pretty much best friends after that and we lived in that building for two years, more or less together, sharing our units like one space.

We were broke. Karen was an AmeriCorps teacher, I was a poet and a waitress. Pride kept us from asking our parents for anything — my mom bailed me out exactly once on rent and Karen never even asked her folks. We did fine, though, and we had good snacks on Friday night to go along with our bourbon + Cokes. Karen showed me one of those Friday nights that the best popcorn is made on the cheap, on a gas stovetop with a pot and some muscle. Here’s how it goes in ten easy steps:

Karen’s Stovetop Popcorn (serve with bourbon + Coke for everyone)

1. Set out a big bowl for your popcorn. Have it nearby your little work station. Then, get a big metal pot with a lid. An actual stockpot is a bit large; go with a large soup pot.
2. Put in some olive oil. Generous tablespoons, roundabout. Heat the oil a minute or so. Get it hot. Keep your flame on high and be careful: you’ve got a flame on high.
3. Put in popcorn kernels. You’ll make a lot of batches before you figure out how much popcorn to put in, but note that the kernels always seem to make more popcorn than you figured. So err on fewer kernels than you feel like eating. It’ll come out about right and if you don’t put in enough, hey, just make more when you’re done with the first batch.
4. Put the lid on the pot. Get some potholders or some oven mitts; grab hold of the lidded pot on either side.
5. Swoosh it all around.
6. Lift the pot up a bit and rotate it side to side and around a bit so that your flame hits the bottommost edges of the pot. You’re going for a pressure cooker, here, and this helps get the pot heated high, heated evenly. It also means the kernels inside the pot are getting coated with the oil.
6. Set it back down on the flame. The do the rotate pick-up again. Just work with it. Feel it.
7. When the popcorn begins to pop, smile. It’s happening!
8. Listen carefully and continue to manipulate your pot. Watch that flame. It’s gonna be going gangbusters. You also need to make sure your lid doesn’t pop right off with all that beautiful white, fluffy, oily corn coming up the sides. Yum! When the popping winds down and you hear just one…one more…pop…p-p-paaaaap, then you quick as a wink, throw the lid into the sink and you DUMP that corn into your big bowl. We do not want singeing corn.
9. While the corn is still hot and the oil hasn’t all seeped in, yet, salt generously.
10. Enjoy hot, with a bourbon + Coke, while Karen tells you about her crazy family. You are so lucky right now.

In my search for an image for this post, I discovered Popcorn.org, which is exactly what you might imagine: an association for makers and distributors of popcorn and popcorn-related products. Everyone needs a voice; the popcorn industry’s no different. I had some fun there, especially when I spied the association’s “Encyclopedia Popcornica.” “Popcornica” is a delicious, ridonkulous word that someone has to use somehow on a large scale so we can all go ’round saying it. (Any aspiring sci-fi novelists out there? Popcornica might be a character name or a distant galaxy. It’s yours! Go!)

On the Popcorn.org site there are FAQ’s and projects, and there’s a blog that is maintained with sincere dedication by a person named Nicole. Week after week, though there are few comments to encourage her in her task, there are posts about one thing: popcorn. Usually, Nicole posts recipes, and they all sound fantastic, including the pictured Adobo and Peanut Roasted popcorn, the Coconut Ginger Popcorn Truffle, etc.) But there are glimpses into Nichole’s life, too (e.g., she fell off her diet, she watched the Times Square ball drop with friends Susan and Todd, etc.) and then you also get her perplexing/fascinating take on things like winter:

“Could it be that winter is the new summer? Once defined as a time of quiet hibernation, winter has come into its own, in a social sense.”

Hm. I’m open to this idea. I need more. But I’m open, Nicole. You bring popcorn, I bring the beverages. See above.

Live Performance: July 5th + 6th: QUEER, ILL and OKAY in Chicago

posted in: Chicago, Work | 9
Promo image from the upcoming show.
Promo image from the upcoming show. Visit jrvmajesty.com for more info about tickets and such.

I’ll be back in Chicago next month for a one-weekend-only event that is not to be missed. Well, I’d better not miss it, I’m in it. But you shouldn’t miss it, either.

JRV MAJESTY Productions, a powerhouse of a production unit, honestly, has put together a program of solo performers, monologuists, presenters, etc. to deliver an evening of pieces on the topic of being different. Some of the performers will perform pieces on being queer, some will discuss further rarified qualities of being “other,” and some — like me — will perform a brief (15 minutes or so) piece on what it’s like to live with a lousy chronic illness. I feel pretty “other” sometimes, but I’m honored to be a part of this evening of extremely talented, fellow “others,” whatever kind of “otherness” they cop to.

I posed for the portrait above a few weeks ago. My piece involves my journals. I’ve spoken about them before. I brought all my journals from the past three years to the shoot; we spread them out on the floor and then I lay on top of them. My current journal (and a pen) are in my hands. The photographer, Kiam, who was wearing a sari and made me feel instantly comfortable under his lens, got just above me on a footstool and dangled dangerously over me, contorting and cooing as he aimed for the perfect shot. I think we got one, though I keep peering at the words in the journals to see if anything scandalous can be deciphered. I think I’m good.

Chicago friends, hope to see you. And everyone: hug an “other” today.

Why I’m Moving To New York City

posted in: Luv, New York City, Story, Travel | 27

 

 

My new street, St. Mark's Place. East Village, NYC.
My new street, St. Mark’s Place. East Village, NYC.

Have I said, explicitly, what’s happening? Does anyone know what’s going on? Am I just dashing off posts with no regard for my readers, kind, hard-working people who can’t possibly follow where I am in the world at any given time, why I’m there, or when it all might shore up? Would it be wise to debrief you and, in debriefing, might I find much needed answers for myself? 

Is it ever good to lead off with a list of questions like that?

No?

I am moving to New York City.

I own a home in Chicago that is dear to me. Thus, I do not see this move to New York City as being permanent or even long-term, if you’re using my entire (hopefully long) life as the measure. But as you can’t be a little bit pregnant, you can’t slightly have three people that are not you move into your home or kinda move operations halfway across America into an apartment on St. Mark’s that you’re a little bit renting. As I write this, in view are boxes of belongings that will go into storage, go to Goodwill, or come with me to New York. There is no halfway, here, no semi-move, even if I see New York as a kind of interstitial thing. I am faced with a choice and I have chosen to relocate, at least for the next year. And why?

“Why not?” is an acceptable answer, as ever, but there’s more. Look:

1) Why not?
2) Yuri and I fell in love. Four months later, he got his dream job and moved to New York. Not being together is not an option. I’m mobile, he’s not. Look at it this way.
3) The safe choice (try long-distance, stay here, risk nothing) is rarely the most interesting one.
4) New York City, though it’s cool to hate it these days, is still New York $&@#! City and I wanna see.

Yuri came to Chicago day before yesterday to help me and he is helping, though he can’t pack up my fabric stash, exactly. Mostly, it’s moral support I’m getting — moral support and bear hugs so good I’m moving to $&@#! New York City.

We were at the big table yesterday, drinking miso soup from styrofoam cups, eating takeout sushi. There is no time to cook, no sense in making more work with pans or bowls or spoons. There’s so much to do here and so little time before work deadlines crush us both. It’s all happening at the same time. It always does.

“It is insane,” I said. “People will think I’m insane. I can hear it. ‘But she just lived through a renovation! She just did her kitchen and bathroom! That’s crazy!'”

Yuri opened his eyes wide. “Do you really think people will think that?”

I shrugged. “Probably some people will. But I’m not going to say no to love because I like my backsplash.”

And then my eyes opened wider because what had popped out of my mouth was the truth, and the truth gave me the ability to keep packing.

 

Me and Renaldo, We Figure It Out.

Surely a kitten in a bucket will improve my outlook.
Surely a kitten in a bucket will improve my outlook.

Black, black, black was my mood this morning.

Not even the spring weather, cartoonish in its perfection, could zap the cloud floating just above my head. It’s luxury problems: I feel out of shape because constant travel keeps me from regular exercise. Expense reports need done. I’m leaving Chicago in the morning for two solid weeks; I’ll see D.C., New York, and Pittsburgh before I see my home toothbrush again. But more than any of this, I was low because Yuri and I had an argument last night. Instead of things looking clearer in the morning, “things” looked crummy. I woke up feeling very bad, indeed, and nothing scheduled in the day ahead convinced me this would change.

Part of my ridonkulously long list of tasks to complete included the shipping of twelve — twelve! — rather large boxes to the winners of a recent Quilty giveaway. I do not have a car or an assistant, so shipping these boxes meant that I would need to haul them in batches by hand or small shopping cart — on foot, now — to the UPS Store several blocks away. It’s okay. I got this. No, no, I got this.

Dropping two boxes on the sidewalk by the 7-Eleven (and then getting them back into the stack I carried) was tough. My left arm nearly falling off because it was cramping up crossing State St. was tough. But I didn’t cry. Because when I walked into the UPS, Renaldo was working.

“Renaldo!” I said, immediately dropping the large stack onto the floor. “What’s the haps, my friend.” It was a demand: tell me what is going on, Renaldo, because I require it of you. I want our awesome conversation to carry me through the next thirty minutes of this crappy day.

“Hey, Miss Mary,” Renaldo said. “I’m chillin’, I’m chillin.”

Renaldo has worked at the UPS Store in my neighborhood since I moved here; that means I’ve known him for three years. He’s Puerto Rican, has lots of tattoos, and sometimes he will give me a break on my bill if I’m shipping 90,000 boxes, which happens frequently. Renaldo is severely overweight, and if I hadn’t been so happy to see him I would’ve been bummed that all the weight he lost last year is back. Damnit! You were doing really well, buddy.

Without a single word about how long it’s been since I’ve been in the shop (months), without one word about the weather, Renaldo and I fell into our favorite topic of conversation: relationships. I don’t know how it started, but for three years now, when I go into the UPS Store and Reny is working (and if there’s no one else in there, waiting in line) we rap about love. Given the argument I had last night, seeing Reny was perfect timing.

I asked him about his girl. Renaldo always has girl drama.

“Don’t know,” he said, shaking his head, gearing up to tell me a long story. “My girl’s actin’ the fool. I think it’s over.”

He entered the addresses in the computer and I listened and asked questions about the situation. His girlfriend is depressed. She’s refusing his love, saying she doesn’t deserve him, doesn’t deserve anyone because she had an abortion. She does have one child and lately, she’s been talking to her baby daddy. Renaldo has this girl’s name tattooed on his arm. Aye, papi.

I told him a little about my argument, but just enough to commiserate. There’s a lot that is a lot different about our situations, though all wars in love are the same. When each of the boxes had been labeled and moved onto the big palette to go onto the afternoon truck, I thanked my friend and told him it was good to see him. I gathered my things and was on my way out the door.

“You’ll be aiight,” Renaldo called after me. “Hang in there.”

I sagged and turned around. “I’m in love!” I said, miserable. “I have no choice.”

Renaldo hooted at this. “You’re screwed, Miss Mary. So am I.”

Yes, Renaldo. We are all screwed.

I Am A Cheetah

posted in: Family, Luv | 6
Lee Meriwether, everyone. Image: Wikipedia.

 

 

Let’s out with it: Yuri is younger than I am. Notably younger.

Notably, but maybe not noticeably. I moisturize, I don’t smoke, I hardly drink. I do my best to keep trim. But there’s nothing like dating a younger man to make you moisturize more, continue to not smoke, and pass up the pork belly appetizer and the second glass of wine you would definitely have ordered if you were dating a man who was, say, fifty-six. As opposed to a man (ahem) thirty years that man’s junior.

Do you see what I’m saying? Yuri’s in his twenties. Yes he is.

In the grand tradition of comparing women to cats, I have learned that there is a feline name for me. As a woman in my 30’s dating a man in his 20’s, apparently I am a “cheetah.”

I can’t be a cougar, you see, because cougars are women in their 40’s who date men in their 20’s, and cheetahs are younger than cougars? Anyhow, I’m not a Courtney Cox-starring sitcom pitch yet, but I am dating down, age-wise, so I must be given a moniker. How else could I be effectively marketed to? I’m sorry, my cynicism’s showing. I should stop. Wouldn’t want any fine lines forming when I furrow my brow in that cynical way I do when I think about Proctor & Gamble/Lancome/Big Pharma.

In the years since my divorce, I have done some dating. I have met wonderful, kind, interesting, intelligent men. They are out there. I met a few I didn’t click with, sure, but that doesn’t mean they’re frogs*; we just lived our lives differently and it wasn’t practical to pursue a relationship. Every one of these gentlemen were older than me, sometimes by a notable (there’s that word again) margin. I thought that’s what worked for me and what a gal generally wants: a fellow older than herself. I’m not sure why, but I think for many of us it has to do with security. It’s deep-seated. It’s not easy to explain, but the converse proves the rule: I would never have considered dating a person younger than myself if you had asked. Are you crazy? Younger men are immature! They’re still figuring out everything! They drink non-micro-brewed domestic beer. Ew!

But then…

Enter Yuri, The Younger Man. Exit Hamlet’s Ghost.

There is so much that’s wonderful about dating someone in their twenties, someone who is currently climbing various ladders. Older men have climbed. They’re in the business now of maintaining their perch. But I’m a hustler, so I love the guy scaling the cliff wall. The ambition, the drive of Yuri, this excites me because I recognize it. Every day of my life — and this was true before my illness but has been much stronger since — I am aware that I have a woefully limited time on the planet. I must work hard, must play hard, must go hard as I possibly can because this is a war with death. I can’t wait, can’t stop. And Yuri’s right there. His energy to go matches my energy to go. So we go, then check back at the end of a bone-wearying day, knowing we did wring every last drop of marrow. And we sure do have fun doing it.

There are other benefits. I will spare you any crowing about his physique, though you must pardon me while I fan myself with this here fancy fan on this here fainting couch.

:: fans self, faints ::

Do I fear the semi-significant age gap? From time to time. There have already been a handful of moments when a twenty-something chick plopped down on a barstool near us and I thought, “Ah, she graduated when he did,” or something equally self-defeating. I’ll take a deep breath and have to consciously remember that I have earned every single day of my life and am rather proud of the sum, thank you. In a way, these moments are good. I’m reminded that, as cute as that girl may be, I do not want to trade places with her. At all. I’m stoked that I’m a) still alive and b) wearing cuter shoes. The second isn’t so petty: when you work really hard for many years and can buy the shoes that make your heart sing, this transcends catty Girl Zone stuff and becomes more about loving oneself and setting an example. When I was in my mid-twenties, I totally wanted to be able to afford better shoes. Now I can, and that came from working hard. No shame in this, no competition. Just achievement, and all girls can claim it if they like.

I miss you, Yuri. I hope it’s okay I told everyone you’re younger than me.

 

*Men get amphibians, women get cats. I don’t make the rules, but I am happy with the arrangement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s do this.

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

THE DEVELOPMENT OF OUR NUMBER SYSTEM

Do you recognize these numbers? 

0   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9

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

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

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

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

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

[end of post]

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

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

 

On Patchwork.

String quilt blocks for "Majesty."
String quilt blocks for “Majesty.”

I have so enjoyed sewing at The Yarn Company over the past few weeks. I’ve nearly completed my latest quilt for Quilty, a string quilt I’m calling “Majesty,” due to all the royal purple fabrics. A string quilt, if you don’t know, is a quilt made by sewing long strips (“strings”) of fabric to paper foundations. You sew, trim, and then tear the paper off the back of the units you’ve sewn. You sew the units together to make blocks, and from the blocks, you make the quilt top, and so on. 

There is a myth that quilters are patient. It’s the opposite. We are extremely impatient. We must forever be doing something with our hands. We finish a quilt and immediately start the next one (many of us, including me, begin our next project before we finish what we’ve got going.) We look for efficiencies everywhere. We strategize. There is no meandering, no lackadaisical approach. We make patchwork and quilt quilts to calm ourselves down, not because we are some breed of serene creature with nothing better to do than sit around and (slowly) make “blankets.”*

I’ve calmed myself down in the middle of Manhattan by working on “Majesty” at my sewing machine. If I could’ve spent hours and hours more doing so, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten sick. (A more optimistic way to frame it: I might’ve been sicker had I not enjoyed many hours of sewing.) The whirr of my Babylock, the snic! of my scissors cutting thread; these are the sounds of patchwork science that have soothed my cerebrum when it’s been burnt crispy by the sirens and the subway. There are dishes to do, always, and dinner and cookies to make for myself and Yuri. There are phone calls and emails and fires — all of it important, none of it more important than anyone else’s phone calls, emails, and fires. All of this is laid down when you sew. You really can’t do much else when your foot is on that pedal.

My mom likes to say this:

“When I was a young mother, working on my first book, it seemed crazy to make quilts in my ‘spare time.’ But I loved making patchwork and quilts because they stayed done. The dishes didn’t stay done, the laundry didn’t stay done. There was always more homework, there were more bills… But a quilt block stayed done. You could say, ‘I made this’ and enjoy it forever.”

Chicago will see very little of me; the remainder of March is all we have together. I go to Cleveland, Iowa, Florida, Lincoln, and somewhere else before coming back to NYC in early May. Nothing stays done. Plane tickets don’t get framed. Suitcases don’t stay packed or unpacked. Kisses are like matches. Sandwiches are consumed. But “Majesty,” when it’s done, will stay done. And someone will cover up under it one day and see the Quilt Charm on the back. It will read, “Made by Mary Fons, NYC, 2014. Done.”

*Don’t call them “blankets.” Your CB2 knit throw is a blanket. We make quilts.

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