“I Love Your Necklace.”

posted in: Art, Family, Fashion 5
Robust, not fragile.
Robust, not fragile.

Most days, I have on a gold necklace. It’s the same one all the time; I hardly ever take it off.

This is necklace, in my view, is gorgeous and conspicuous. A woman is allowed one, maybe two conspicuously gorgeous accessories on any given day. She can switch out the conspicuously gorgeous accessories as she wishes, but more than two at once (e.g., nice earrings and a handbag) and you’re breaking a cardinal rule made by Big Mama Chanel. Chanel — who we can all agree was a real pain in the ass — said that before you leave the house, you should take off the last thing you put on. (I’m pretty sure she was taking about accessories, not shoes or pants.) And she’s right. If you find yourself wearing a necklace, earrings, a couple bracelets, a handbag of consequence, and a selection of rings, you end up looking rather…accessible, if you catch my drift. Can’t have that.

My necklace is my secret wardrobe weapon. It ensures that I am never over-accessorized. This is because my ensemble on any given day starts at the necklace; not the other way around. Because I never take it off, the piece anchors my look. (Verily, it anchors my very soul.)

The medallion is a solid gold coin from Canada. My grandfather on my dad’s side did some business up there many years ago. The company he worked for screwed him over (this is what grampa told the adults in my life, who then vaguely explained it to me and this is how family lore is created) and grampa is dead now, but before all that depressing stuff happened, the man bought a few of these gold coins.

My mom and my now-deceased grandfather had a complex relationship while my parents were married; the relationship remains complex to this day, even though it now only exists in the abstract. It’s like that with most people who knew my grampa; he was not a kind man. I’ve been assured from several well-intentioned sources that he mellowed considerably toward the end of his life, but to me, being mean your whole life and then being nice toward the end is like apologizing immediately after slicing someone’s throat: you feel terrible and you help with the paper towels, but someone is dying and it’s a little late, darling. Carnage wreaked.

But Grampa, feeling expansive one day, decided to have one of his Canadian coins set by a jeweler. And so he did, and he gave this piece to my mother. She did not wear it then; she did not wear it ever. It sat in her jewelry box for decades, sleeping the days away in the box’s velvet lining.

Mom and I were looking in her jewelry box several years ago she came across the coin. I gasped. I had never seen it before. I thought it was beautiful.

“Zounds!” I exclaimed. “What’s that?!”

Mom helped me unclasp the gold chain I was already wearing and we slid off the little seashell I had hanging from it. We replaced it with the medallion. As soon as I felt that coin around my neck, I felt like I had discovered America. The weight of it on my breast was thrilling; actual gold is heavy, it turns out! The shine, the yellowness of the disc communicated a first-prize win, a blue-ribbon. I felt like I had received a gold medal for simply being alive. I think we should all get a medal for that very reason; life is too hard to not get an award just for surviving more than a few birthdays. Mom saw how much I loved it and it is on permanent loan.

It’s only a piece of metal. But my necklace is the closest thing I get to a talismanic object. I wear my necklace around my neck and my heart on my sleeve and that’s all the adornment I need. Well, then there are my diamond earrings, but that’s another jewelry story for another day.

Note: Chanel also said, “A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future.” This declaration was made in 1930, presumably from a chaise lounge inside La Pausa, Chanel’s home on the French Riviera. A person has to admire Chanel the businessperson, but no one has to like the woman herself. I mean, ew.

Me, Dad, and Cheesecake for Breakfast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Subway Light Switch.

It's easy.
It’s so simple now.

There was a tiny shift in my brain a couple weeks ago that changed the way I see New York City. The shift will probably change the way I see a lot of things because it was so simple. The simplest concepts are the stickiest: work hard, take a jacket, crack is wack, etc. It’s slightly embarrassing to admit, but since it might help someone else, here goes:

You don’t have to learn the subway system in New York. You just need to figure out how to get where you need to go.

Let’s have that again:

You don’t have to learn the subway system in New York. You just need to figure out how to get where you need to go.

I’ve been coming to Manhattan with fair frequency since I was sixteen. Until three weeks ago, on every trip here, I operated under two subtle, negative assumptions: 1) to get around New York City properly (?) you need to know the subways and 2) figuring that out would mean seriously studying the system at length and doing the MTA equivalent of times tables or vocabulary drills. That was how I thought, and you can marvel at the weirdness of it, but I ask you to marvel with attendant compassion. I look at those assumptions and I think, “My goodness, who was in charge of this girl? Why on earth did she think she had to take graduate-level course work in the New York subway system? Poor thing, someone wrap her in a quilt and get her a piece of chocolate. No, the whole bar. The Ritter Sport. She likes the dark chocolate with hazelnu — yes, that’s it. Here you are, dear.”

(MARY eats chocolate, nods pathetically.)

All that business about being perpetually in the dark about the subway system ended the other day in a flash, don’t ask me why. You don’t have to know the trains. You don’t have to know where the A, C, E trains terminate. You don’t have to memorize the stops on the 6 from Fulton to 110th St. Not only do you not have to do that as a new New York person, you don’t ever have to do that. By osmosis and routine, you will naturally learn subway route details and shortcuts. But the vast majority of veteran New Yorkers don’t know when the 7 runs express to Queens and when it runs local and if you asked them about it, they’d say, “I don’t know, ask the ticket agent,” or “There’s a map over there, I don’t know, sorry.”

If you want to go somewhere, find your somewhere on the map, and then figure out which train will take you close to it. Thought I’ve done just that for years, I always came at it cock-eyed, as though the train system was my destination, not the Natural History Museum. There was this little, niggling voice that said, “You should know this by now,” and that voice distracted me from noticing what I was doing: getting around New York just fine.

Did any of that make a lick of sense?

It’s just a subway system, it’s just a map. It’s just a city, it’s just a person. But the shift in my head from “you’ll never get this” to “you already have this” has given me that singular feeling of “Oh, right. I’m not broken, I’m not wrong, I never was wrong, I was making it too hard, everything I need, I already have.”

Pretty good at $2.25/fare.

 

 

 

 

“Dear New York: Love, Chicago.”

The Wabash St. bridge, going up to make way for a ship.
The Wabash St. bridge, going up to make way for a ship. No big deal.

“Dear New York:

I’m writing because I’m concerned about Mary.

When she left me to come see you she was guarded, uneasy about being away from me for so long. Six weeks is a long time, no doubt about it. She and I have been together well over twelve years, and though Mary travels extensively, even her longest trips are usually no more than two weeks; there loomed over us significant separation anxiety. Plus, who would get the mail?

She was also concerned because — though she had a serious crush on you for most of her life — Mary suffers from a mild case of New York City-induced low-level panic. The scale of you (huge) and your population density (dense) causes her to chew her lip and drink too much coffee when she’s with you for even short periods of time. It’s a mild case, but even so.

But that anxiety has disappeared. Her lip-chewing incident was last week and was an isolated event. Rather than feeling skittish, she’s relaxed. In place of the subtle “outsider” or “impostor” syndrome she has felt with you in years past, there is a wholesomeness to her experience so far and a peculiar calm — this is even with the pools of filthy slush she has to wade through, the constant honking on 1st Ave. and the really, really badly cut finger she has right now due to the cheap-a** drinking glasses in this furnished apartment that continue to break in her hands.

Mary is falling in love with you, New York, and this is not okay with me.

I am Chicago. I am her Nelson Algren and Saul Bellow. I am where Mary wrote poems for microphones. We became Neo-Futurists together. She is my lake beyond the slaughter yards. I reflect her in the windows downtown; I am her osso bucco; we have our own booth at Spiaggia. I’m leather, she’s lace. We read all the books, all the time, we have tea in the morning. We’ve gotten kicked out of bars and invited into libraries. Mary and I are involved, is what I’m saying, New York.

We have also recently renovated the bathroom and the kitchen.

While Mary’s with you and you hear her say things like, “I love it here,” or “I wanna move here,” please let me know. I will make sure to note the time and date of the sentiment and also be able to mobilize forces here to convince her to a) stop saying things like that entirely; or b) adapt the statements to something more like, “I love it here BUT I could never live here forever,” or “I wanna move here…but I’ll never give up my place in Chicago, the city of my dreams and where my heart is forever and ever, amen.”

I’m sure you understand. I simply can’t lose her.

With Regards,
Chicago”

 

Home Is Where the Bobbin Is.

"Northbound." From my forthcoming book, "Make + Love Quilts: Scrap Quilts for the 21st Century." Pre-order now at ctpub.com.
“Northbound.” From my first book, “Make + Love Quilts: Scrap Quilts for the 21st Century.” Available nationwide May 15th.

Most people assume I have been making quilts since I was small. My mother, Marianne Fons, is a famous quilter, so it makes sense that she would’ve taught me how to sew from an early age. If I had shown more interest, she most certainly would have. We made a few doll quilts and a few quilts for friends of mine, but my creative pursuits took me to writing stories, putting on plays, singing…and creating and editing a magazine for my junior high school called TRUTH, the name of which I got from a film strip we watched about Russian communist propaganda newspaper, PRAVDA (translation: “truth”). I hired my best friends as columnists and we put out six issues with zero ad support. True story. Have I mentioned I didn’t have a boyfriend till my senior year of high school?

I started making quilts about six years ago. In my lectures to quilters, I talk about the reasons why:

  • I realized I didn’t have to make quilts that looked like what I saw in contemporary magazines or books; my quilts could look like ME, with solid black fabric, and teeny-tiny prints, and washed out shirting prints, and zero rick-rack
  • it was no longer uncool to be like my mom — in fact, it struck me as the coolest thing ever to be a part of my family’s place in the world
  • I got really, really sick and I needed non-medicinal healing (hello, patchwork)
  • the timing was right, age-wise. I was in my late twenties and ready to sit down for five seconds

And so I became a quilter and making quilts has brought me untold joy ever since. I’m not sure how many quilts I’ve made; it’s dozens, and they’re all kinda huge. Mom has always told me to make quilts that cover people, since that’s what quilts are for. The Fons women don’t do table toppers, though we support anyone who does. We support quilters, period.

A sewing machine with my name on it arrived in New York City yesterday. The fine folks at BabyLock are loaning me an Ellisimo while I’m here, and I carried that huge, glorious box 2.5 blocks and up 2.5 flights of Manhattan walk-up stairs with huge smile on my face. Anywhere I hang my hat for more than about four minutes simply ain’t a home unless I’ve got a sewing machine nearby. Making patchwork and making quilts isn’t just something I do: it’s something I am. The craft, the gesture, the sense-memory of the process is in my DNA, now. I quilt, therefore I am a whole person.

I have absolutely no idea where I’m going to put this thing. Seriously.

 

The Cashmere Snuggie

"Oh please, please, please let me be a Balenciaga pre-season resort collection sweater one day! Please, god!"
“Oh please, please, please let me be a Balenciaga pre-season resort collection sweater one day! For the love of BAAAA. BAAAA.”  — A Cashmere Goat.

Who among us (other than the vegans among us) can resist cashmere? The cold is punishing; the wool is combed. The chill is evil; the fibers are thick. My white cashmere turtleneck is in heavy rotation this winter and it’s starting to look ever-so-slightly dingy, like fresh urban snow. But as I only have a couple pieces of cashmere in my wardrobe, I have no choice: even dingy cashmere is better than boring old wool and infinitely more fabulous than some kind of sporty, wicking PolarTec. Oh, the humanity!

My pocketbook contains a dash o’ cash, a personal debit card, a business debit card, and only one credit card. That card is for a department store whose name rhymes with Schmacks Smith Flavenue. I have a very low limit on the card to keep me from getting into debt. I hate being in debt and simply won’t accept it as an option if at all possible. Though fashion often feels like an emergency, it usually isn’t and not worth going into debt for. Not for long, anyway.

But as cash flow is a little weird right now with the move to NYC, I thought I’d use my slightly-dusty credit card today for a purchase I actually needed. Charging something has its benefits and today’s errand was a good example. But o, sweet, mysterious Fate: whilst looking for that other item, I found a full-length cashmere robe/nightgown/caftan thing so head-slappingly on sale I bought it faster than you can say “snorgle.” The garment is 100% cashmere. It’s pale-pink. It zips up the front. The only way it could be more adorable is if it had feet and a hood. I would’ve paid double if it had, but I’ve got it on as I type this and it’s working out just fine.

So that I don’t go to sleep — wait, wait. No. So I don’t drift to the Land of Nod on pale-pink cashmere gossamer wings thinking I allowed PaperGirl to be only about buying a nightgown, here are three fascinating facts about cashmere you should know. You really should, because check it out:

1. Cashmere comes from the soft undercoat of goats bred to produce the wool. Something like two-and-a-half goats are needed to produce a single sweater! That’s one reason it’s expensive. The other reason it’s expensive is because this undercoat has to be combed by hand, in the spring, by men in newsie caps who smoke pipes and say, “Aye” a lot and drink dark beers at lunch.

2. Everything in No. 1 was true except the very last part about the men.

3. I would like some hot chocolate right now. Do we have any hot chocolate?

 

 

Cookshop

A lil' sompin' like dat.
A lil’ sompin’ like dat.

I’m mad decent in the kitchen.

My junior year of college, I went into a newly opened cafe in Iowa City with my boyfriend Wes. The Motley Cow was the sort of place I did not feel cool enough for: it was tiny, there were interesting objects everywhere (e.g., glass seltzer bottles), and there were words like broccoli rabe on the menu. I spied a pasta dish on the paper menu that contained…truffles? In my world, truffles were chocolate. We went in because Wes wanted to ask for a job. They didn’t hire Wes, but they did hire me. I’m still not sure how it happened; I truly do not remember asking for work. Besides, I was horribly intimidated by the whole operation. In conversation with Wes and the owner that day, I must’ve mentioned that I had waited tables all through high school. Within a week I was on the schedule as a waitress at the cafe. From there, out of curiosity and a deep desire to help that beautiful place succeed, I got into the kitchen. The Cow became my contemporaneous college. It changed me as much as normal-college did, probably more.

We ate five things in my house growing up: pizza, chicken tetrazzini, mostaccioli, lasagna, and chili. In a single-parent household where that parent is on the road much of the time — trying to make enough money for any sort of food — there is no food worship. There’s no interest, money, or time for it. And this was twenty years ago in small-town Iowa, mind you; that I even knew what a chocolate truffle was is saying something. I don’t mean that we were a bunch of rubes; I mean that it was a different time and that time did not include sauteed shallots or aged balsamic.

When I started inching into the kitchen at the Cow, I started from nothing. I didn’t know about the soup-starter triumvirate (carrot, celery, onion); I didn’t know hummus was made of chickpeas, nor did I know what a chickpea was; pan-searing and braising were revelations; I remember the day I learned what a roux was and I made one; I remember the day David needed me to make a soup and he said, “I need you to make a soup,” and I did: I made a delicious French onion and we served it. I made the soup! I fell in love with making simple, gorgeous, nourishing food and I owe it to the Cow and the people who were patient with a willing kitchen student who didn’t know anything at all.

In New York City, you walk out your door and before your very eyes is some of the best food in the world. (I actually think Chicago beats NYC for Best Restaurant City in America, but that’s another post.) But would you know that I’ve been cooking since we got here? I haven’t had a working kitchen in so long, it feels like the sweet breath of life to be standing at a stove again. The setup here is laughable: there is no countertop. No counter at all, just a sink and a tiny, tiny stove. But it’s a gas range, the oven works, I’ve fashioned a counter by putting a board across the sink, and I can use the small dining table if I really need more room. I’ve made lasagna, chicken-quinoa-vegetable chowder, penne caprese, maple cookies, chocolate chip cookies, Irish soda bread, rolled oatmeal with cream and almonds, and beautiful asparagus and salads.

Feeding myself and Yuri in this way feels like watering a plant and that plant is love and that love is five-star.

 

 

“Do You Have Poison On?”

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

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

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

“Excuse me, do you have poison on?”

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

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

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

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

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

It was almost orgasmic.

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

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

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

 

 

My Soup, My Salad, My Nemesis: Vapiano

I'm sure these people had a better time.
I’m sure these people had a better time. Especially the dude in the hat. He always has a good time.

At brunch on Sunday, my (affianced!) sister Rebecca told tales of her recent trip to Tokyo. A transcription of that exciting conversation is forthcoming, but last night I was reminded of the specific tale she shared of the elegant efficiency of Tokyo noodle shops. I was reminded because I was sad.

Here’s how a Tokyo noodle shop works: you step up to an automated kiosk and put in your money. You press a button for the kind of ramen you want (select by picture) and bloop! out comes a ticket. You take the ticket to the noodle man and zing! he makes your ramen. Double happiness, arigato! No cashier, no waiter, no wait. The only possible mess in this process might be soup on your blouse.

Friends, let us leave the Tokyo ramen shop and pay a visit to its berserker anti-matter evil twin: Vapiano in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

[Pardon me, darling: before I begin, I’ll need my blood pressure medication, yes, thank you, and my smelling salts. Is there Xanax? There is? Yes, dear. I’ll have two, please, one for now and one for five minutes from now. I’ll take them with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Thank you, darling, and a napkin. That’s good. Yes, that’s very nice. Now, gather ‘round, children.]

Vapiano is a German-owned restaurant chain. The first Vapiano opened in 2002 and today there are 120 locations worldwide. Chicago got a roomy one in the old Carson Pirie Scott building about a year ago. During the construction phase, I passed it and felt happy because a quick, freshly prepared salad option downtown is always welcome news. Indeed, Vapiano proclaims “fresh” Italian-style pizza, pasta, soup, salad, and dessert. And each Vapiano restaurant has a full bar and a large dish of gratis gummy bears at the host stand when you walk in. Why, I don’t know, but when we went there, Yuri ate two handfuls of them immediately. This ended up being a smart move because at Vapiano, it’s gon’ be awhile.

The first thing that happens is that you’re greeted by a hostess so scared to tell you what’s about to happen, she races through the spiel fast enough you may wonder if she’s speaking English. Something about cards? Something about stations? Tapping? Paying…sometime in the future? She thrusts menu cards into your hands and you are then absorbed by the Vapiano food pen. We learn from the Vapiano website that the name is a word inspired by an Italian proverb that goes, “Chi va piano va sano e va lontano,” which translates to: “People with a relaxed attitude live a long and healthy life.” Clearly, Vapiano stakeholders are being ironic. There is nothing relaxed or healthy about their “high-concept” restaurant. “Long” works. Keep “long.”

So you get a credit card thing. There are stations in the food pen for the different offerings, pizza, pasta, etc. You stand at the counters and order what you want from the long-suffering line cooks whose smiles are so obviously required for employment there, you want to lean forward conspiratorially and tell them they can give it a rest. But you don’t. Because you’re hungry. You tell them what you want and then they say something you can’t hear and they make a swiping motion and gesture to your card. You look around for a credit card machine, but there isn’t one. There’s a screen, though, embedded in the counter, so you smoosh your card down there and it goes beep! and the line cook looks with a pitying look of congratulations and begins to make your carbonara.

Which takes a long time. So long. And you’re not seated at a table waiting, remember. You’re just standing around. And what do you do with the card? Well, the Vapiano people tell you that this is the beauty of the whole thing, that you can take the card all around and just keep ordering all kinds of stuff for hours and hours and your card keeps everything straight for you. (A waiter is surprisingly efficient for this, too, but don’t mind me; my Xanax just kicked in.) But… But where do you put it? Your wallet seems a little…final. Your pocket seems risky, though, because you’re blithely eating all this German-Italian (?) relaxation and health and what happens if you lose that card or forget what it is and give it to your kid’s teacher for Christmas? And it still wasn’t totally clear whether or not we should pay and then eat or hang onto the card even longer and let its confusing presence further flavor our caprese salad.

I spent most of the “experience” running all over the damned place, picking up the food we had ordered 20 minutes earlier. Got the soup! Okay! What else? Oh! Salad! Be right back! Ooh! Our pager went off! (Oh, there are pagers involved, too.) Pizza! Okay, do we have everything? Okay, I totally wanted a piece of pizza, but that’s okay! No, I wasn’t here. It’s fine. How was it? Awesome. Ooh! Dessert! Be right back.

Surely there are people who love this. Surely there are people who understand it better. I am entirely aware that I’ve probably done Vapiano incorrectly, that there’s something wrong with me. If anyone, German, Italian, American, or otherwise can help me, help me, because I really really like the tomato soup.

Seriously, it’s great.

Record, Repeat, Dance, Advil.

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

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

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

I suggest keeping a journal.

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

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

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

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

Cheers, comrades.

Gravel Roads

posted in: Family, Paean, Story 4
Nan is the composed, chill child. I am the crazed dancing child. #stilltrue
Me and my older sister, Nan, carrying on the living room of the Yellow House. Circa1982.

I grew up on a farm. Sort of.

Many of the kids I grew up with in Winterset, IA, grew up on actual farm-farms, with birthin’ fillies and steamin’ cow pies and fresh eggs. Our farm had an orchard, an oak grove, a pasture, two houses (a white one and a yellow one), a timber* to the north, Middle River to the east, and cornfields around allll of that as far as the eye could see, but the land was farmed by people other than my pop and Uncle Randy. I don’t even have an Uncle Randy. It just sounds like someone who would farm the land with my dad.

But we called it a farm and it even had a name, “Meadowlark Farm,” because when my parents were doing the whole back-to-the-land thing in the 1970s, they moved out there, declared it Meadowlark and proceeded to live for an incredibly romantic year without plumbing. They were very young. They did have chickens! And a pig for two seconds, but all that went away quickly; selling organic eggs for three times the price of a normal egg had not yet become okay.

Yes, it was a different time. The only tweets were those of the birds, none more lovely than the meadowlark’s, and the charming “toodle-toodle-DOOT-doo, toodle-toodle-DOOT-doo” was the melody of the place. The cicadas in summer, the wind in the rushes, the chimes Dad hung in Possum Hollow (more on that in a moment) and the bark of our dog provided the rest of the soundtrack. Oh, and for awhile there were the shouts and yips of three little girls, too.

It was a perfect place to be a child. Many adults view childhood through an Instagram filter, but because the farm was honestly so lush and because we kids were ripped from it so abruptly, the place has taken on near-Narnian qualities with Neverland-level magic. The truth is as good as all that, though: we caught bunnies and patted them. We ran through fields of cattails. We swung on swings. Dad built a seriously awesome tree house and he built Possum Hollow, too. Possum Hollow was a house for possums. A big tree in the oak grove had died and Dad cut it down with his chainsaw. The base of the trunk was probably four feet across and hollowed out, which appealed greatly to a family of possums, who moved in at once. Dad put a peaked, wood-shingled roof on the thing and named it Possum Hollow. My family is always naming things.

And we were in love with it all. Nan made bows and arrows from sticks, and Rebecca and I played school in the room off the bedroom we all shared. Everyone was in shorts. Hair was long. Thunderstorms would roll in and we girls would sit on the porch swing, our mouths absolutely hanging open, watching the thunderheads mobilize and get darker and darker until CAA-RACK! the skies opened up and the world got wet. We held kittens during all this, protecting them.

One day, I got a note in class to go to the library after school, rather than take the bus home. I got to the library and my mom was there, followed by my sisters. My kid sister Rebecca had a red backpack, I remember that. She was no more than six. Mom told us that we would’t be going home that night, that we’d be staying with friends. Dad had lost his mind; it wasn’t safe to be so far away from town. He wasn’t violent, but he might’ve been. He wasn’t ever an alcohol or drug user, but there’s a first time for everything. He was the opposite of stable, that much was certain, and the game-time decision my mom made had to be made.

And we never went back.

Mom and Gramma and Grampa and friends packed up our stuff and we moved into Aunt Katherine’s old house in town because she was dead and it was available. It would be years before I would go back out to the farm. It lived like a cemetary out there, just seven miles from Winterset but a universe and a century away.

One time in high school I drove my Honda CR-X out there. I walked around. I swung on the swing. No one was living there that year, so I could explore Meadowlark Farm as long as I could take it, which was not very long. It was that afternoon I came the closest I have ever come to seeing a ghost. I cupped my hand and peered into the picture window, and my body froze. I swear I could see three little girls playing on the stairs, whooping and yipping calls up and down the steps, beloved animal figurines strewn about. If I couldn’t see them, I could feel them, and the feeling was strong, muchachos.

Years later, we got word the yellow house had burned down. I wept, and my mom hugged me. And we went back to whatever it was we were doing.

Mary Fons, Chips

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

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

Wow, okay.
Let’s discuss.

What can we learn?

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

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

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

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

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

Chips.

Chips!?

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

“Mary Fons, chips.”

“How d’you do, chips?”

:: crunch, crunch, crunch ::

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

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

If The West Was Won, It Was Won Because Of This.

From L-R: Hero, Kid.
From L-R: Hero, Kid.

When I was in fourth grade, my parents got divorced.

It was 1989. Movies like When Harry Met Sally and Working Girl were out and they were funny but sad, too, because love was clearly hard. Erica Jong was writing divorced chick-lit with titles like Parachutes and Kisses; it was all Reagan and minivans in America back then and a failed marriage was kinda en vogue. Smart, devastated women had made foolish choices, okay sure, but maybe there was life after divorce and maybe that life included a wine cooler and a sexy, Mr. Right #2, if you listened to enough Carly Simon.

But divorce wasn’t a funny movie for Mom. And I was eight. For me, 1989 was Mrs. Brown’s homeroom and something disintegrating in my solar plexus. My sisters and I practiced our stiff upper lips. Mad verbal as we were, the word “adulterer,” was way too present in our vocabularies. We learned to use it because it was what Dad was; he was also “depressed.” He was also leaving again.

When it all came to an end in 1989, Mom bit the proverbial bullet and the marriage bit the proverbial dust. It was like a Western with a custody battle. One afternoon I got a note not to board the school bus home but walk to the library, instead. My mother and sisters met me there and we never went home. We never spent another night in the house where we grew up. It was over, and it was happening now. Mom had us; that was secure. But we couldn’t live where we had been living.

Minor glitch: we didn’t have anywhere to go. Which meant we were homeless.

There were family friends whose kindness and grace patched up some bullet holes. Each of us girls were farmed out to friends whose parents would take on a foster Fons for as long as they could while Mom wrestled with lawyers, the papers, and the wolves at the door. And outside of the weekends here and there in different spots, there were two different couples who took us in for several weeks on end, all of us, together. They interrupted their lives, their flow, their schtick, and they let three kids and a soon-to-be single mother into their house until the pack figured out the next step. There are acts of kindness and there are acts of kindness.

I was in North Dakota on Sunday when a ninety-three-year-old woman I’ll call J. was suddenly there, smiling at me. J. and her husband were one of the couples who sheltered my family. Her husband is gone; she lives in North Dakota now near her daughter. The ebullient, joyous, remarkably spry woman (a quilter, no surprise) laughed this glorious laugh and said, “Oh, my! Well, would you…! Kid! You’re looking awfully pretty for a kid — will you look…!” and her eyes were wet and she patted my hand and my hair and kept looking at me and laughing and patting and laughing.

I don’t cry as much as I used to. But I cried to see J. again. That woman helped us. She and her husband helped us when we needed it real, real bad. I left her in North Dakota after our happy, achingly awesome reunion and on the plane home I kept looping back to the conversation that must’ve taken place when she and her husband P. decided to help us. I picture them in bed, lights out, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling.

“Marianne and the girls, Paul. What we talked about.”

“Of course. You call Marianne in the morning.”

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