A few months ago, an alarmingly attractive and discerning young lady named Lindsay contacted me and asked me if I would like to fly to New York City and be a guest on something called The Good Life Podcast. I immediately said yes and then asked her what that was.
The Good Life Project is comprised of a number of ambitious (and successful) initiatives created by Jonathan Fields, a writer and entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to living a good one. It appears that Jonathan has discovered that living a good life means helping other people live a good one, too. So, Fields has spent his life traveling around the world, launching big projects aimed at inspiring, connecting, pushing, enlightening, and generally helping people figure out how to feel and do better in a world that seems to punish us in all sorts of new and exciting ways on a regular basis.
Lindsay — who I’ve not yet had the pleasure to meet but who is clearly a winsome and nimble and possessing of good genes — is a PaperGirl reader and that’s how all this came about. Actually, she also used to watch me in the Neo ensemble here in Chicago; she said her dad saw my one-woman show and still talks about it. If Lindsay had asked me just to come over and hang out with her and her dad, I would’ve done that, too. Going to NYC tomorrow is pretty fancy, though, so that’s nice.
Some businesspeople in this world do in-and-out trips all the time: they fly into Atlanta from Cleveland for a lunch meeting then fly back in time for dinner. I’ve done a same-day trip maybe once before in my life; tomorrow will make it two. It worked out this way because there is an appointment on Thursday here at home that I can’t move, but the truth is that I am not interested in staying longer in New York City.
It’s too much, still. Because Yuri, who was a big part of my life and always will be. Because it saw most of my 34th year of life. And the air when I left, the rain that day — I’ll never forget it and that’s too bad.
There are 350k subscribers to The Good Life Project podcast, so I admit I’m a little nervous about doing the show. That’s 700k ears. Jonathan wants to ask me about quilting and writing and writing about quilting and if I get to have some tea in the studio with me, it should all be just fine. I’ll be sure to let you know when my episode is posted. I’ll also let you know how it felt to feel the pavement in shoes that haven’t walked on it, yet.
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.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “No, Mary Fons. You live in New York City. What you have is a rat.” But I assure you, we have a mouse. If it were a rat, I would not be writing this from inside the apartment because I would be in Toledo.
About a month ago, I was here, minding my owns and zip! The ol’ peripheral vision registered a tiny off-black dot moving extremely fast across the parquet floor. When you see a mouse for the first time, you don’t think you have. Reason scolds fact into thinking it imagined something. I guess if you walked into a small, windowless room and flipped on a light switch, if there was a mouse in there, you’d see it. But when there are rugs, table legs, and adult-onset exhaustion in the mix — and you aren’t used to seeing mice — you just go back to your book.
“I think I saw a mouse,” I said to Yuri several days later. My peripheral vision had caught the fast-moving off-black blur again. Fool me once, mouse, shame on you. Fool me twice…well, you’re not gonna fool me again.
“Naw,” Yuri said.
A few days later, I came home from a business trip. With wide eyes, Yuri told me about the astonishingly nimble, light-footed mouse that had been keeping him company while I was gone.
“That little sucker moves fast,” he said, he told me how he was up and working into the wee hours several nights in a row and saw the mouse once each night, lasering from one side of the apartment to the other. I said we should get some traps or ask my sister if we could borrow her cat. My sister’s cat was born sometime during the Jurassic Period; we opted for traps.
And we named him Mickey, naturally. We’re tell ourselves we’re battling just Mickey, but sure, that’s naive. Where there is one mouse, there are many; where there is one critter that can steal the cheese from the trap without getting caught, there are legions of them, all in Cheese College, learning the trades while stupid humans ask each other if maybe chocolate will work, or peanut butter.
Earlier today, Yuri said, “Mickey. Just like a woman. Can’t live with ‘im, can’t live without ‘im.”
This made zero sense. In no way did this make sense on any level. Sometimes this man tries out idioms just for fun, just to say them. He’s curious and provocative and I smacked my forehead and shook my head, lamenting this.
In 2013, the Census Bureau reported 8,405,837 million people living in New York City. If nothing about that number has changed except that me and Yuri moved here, it’s now 8,405,839. If you count my sock monkey in the number, which you should, we can get to a nicer, roundish number of 8,405,840. I’m confident Yuri, Pendennis, and moi are not the only changes to the New York City population since last year, but this is why its funny.
All of these people. There’s one of everything.
I play a little game when I’m out and about. When I see someone totally one-of-a-kind, or outlandish, or remarkable in any way (and everyone is remarkable in some way) I note their characteristics and then try to imagine imagining them. Like:
“Could there be on this earth, at this moment, a person who is a nun, around fifty years old with pink socks, a guitar, and a suitcase with a Grateful Dead sticker on it? Could that person possibly exist in this wide, wide world?”
Then I answer myself that yes, there could plausibly be such a person because in that moment when I’m asking myself, that means I am looking at a person who matches that exact description. The nun was standing in front of Penn Station the other day, waiting for a bus, I assume. Then I play some more.
“Does a person exist who has a spiderweb tattooed on his face and wears corrective shoes?”
Yes, this person lives on my block. Yuri and I call him “Spiderman” and he is frightening to behold. He is acutely homeless.
“Could there be a 4’5 Asian-American girl with a panda backpack and a tattoo of a Pac Man ghost that covers her entire leg, who is screaming at her boyfriend that she wanted peanut butter froyo, not caramel froyo, dammit Reggie????”
Yes, that argument happened about an hour ago out on St. Mark’s Place.
“Is there a male model whose girlfriend is also a model, and are they both wearing large hats and are they both wearing all denim, and are they both Serbian?”
Yep, and yep. Just another piece of the crowd on any given day.
And consider what you’re wearing. Right now, look at your outfit. Someone in New York has that exact thing on, I’m telling you. I can’t say I’ve seen them in it because of course, I can’t see you in it. But someone has it on. They might even share your name.
There’s only one you, but New York gives that concept a run for its money.
I had lunch with a born-and-raised, lifelong New Yorker yesterday. He asked me how I was getting along.
“You seem a little ambivalent in your blog,” he said. “I can’t tell if you’re warming to the city or not.”
We were eating sushi in a restaurant only a local would know about, one of the best sushi bars in Manhattan, as it turns out, tucked away deep in Soho. There might have been a sign on the heavy wooden door, but I didn’t see one when I pushed it open.
“Oh, I’m great! It’s great!” I chirped. “I love it here!” That’s the truth, too. In no way has my New York City life truly begun yet, but the hunk of molded clay has at least been dropped onto the wheel. It will begin to take shape, if you’ll tolerate me extending that lame clay metaphor.
But then my lunch date spooked me a little.
“But how are you doing really?” he asked, eyeing me as I put more edamame into my face. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe me when I said I was doing well, he just knew he was asking a serious question that deserved a thoughtful response.
“The pace of this place,” he said, “is not for everyone.”
Correct. I’ve known New York City to stomp, chomp, and otherwise flatten people. It does happen, absolutely, every day I’m sure, and even though there are plenty of folks who lament the glossification of New York, who say the city is a soulless shell of what it used to be, all Carrie Bradshaw and no Joe Strummer, those people probably didn’t grow up in rural Iowa like I did. Please. New York is still a killer whale. Have some imagination.
I chewed. I considered. Okay, how am I really doing? Because there are a thousand thoughts a day that pass through my brain and right now, directly related to moving here or not, all those thoughts are tagged “New York City.”
“There are moments when I feel overwhelmed,” I said, and a mini-monologue suddenly poured out, because one had been waiting, apparently.
“It’s like… So you’re on a street corner here, waiting for the light. And you look over and you see the most beautiful girl you have ever seen in your life. Right there, a supermodel, maybe the supermodel of the moment that you just saw on the cover of a magazine. And then the light changes and you’re crossing the street and you see the craziest person you have ever seen in your life. Like, in a wig, with a parakeet or something, screaming into a transistor radio. Then, an old Chinese man zips past on a bike and you smell his tobacco and it’s this wild smell, totally from another world. Then a black, mirrored car snakes through the street and you wonder, who’s in there? Jay-Z? A congressman? The Shah of Iran? Maybe all of them?
And in those moments, you realize the layers of existence here. It’s like shale. And all these people, they all have their own realities, they all have their own days, their own New York City. And the truth of that can feel like a comfort, because everyone is just like you, or you can lose your mind, because that’s too much input, too much to think about and still remember to blink.”
This answer seemed to satisfy my lunch date. That I could identify the complexity and consider it, that is maybe proof that I’m keeping my head above water. And maybe proof that I have a chance to thrive, too. We’ll see.
Next week, starting Tuesday evening, the little town of Shipshewana, Indiana is descended upon by quilters from near and far. What do they come for? Well, sit a minute and I’ll tell you.
:: pulling you up onto my lap ::
Is this weird?
:: you nod; I take you off my lap and set you down on the floor instead ::
Yeah, that’s better. What was I talking about?
Ah, yes! The Annual Shipshewana Quilt Festival!
Oh, there is so much to see and do, quilter. The whole town gets involved. Heck, surrounding towns get involved. There’s a big quilt show with lots of prizes — the Best In Show purse is $3,500! There are lectures and classes, “schoolhouse” demos all day, there are “sewlebrities” and autographs to get, if you’re into that kind of thing and you should be, because it’s really fun to have your book signed by the author (:: cough cough ::). There are events in the evening and supplementary daytime events, too, like garden tours and special exhibits and even outdoorsy things if you get tired of quilts, which you will not, but go ahead and get in a kayak for a minute, if you must. We’ll wait for you to come to your senses.
:: waiting for you to come to your senses ::
But perhaps the best part is that there is so much fabric at the Shipshewana Quilt Festival. So much. There’s a “Backroads Shop Hop” that takes you to a slew of quilt shops in the area and there’s the big kahuna, Yoder’s Department Store, in Shipshe proper. I have spent large sums of money in that shop, let me tell you, and I’ve never regretted a fat quarter of it.
So come on down to Indiana next week. I’m one of the featured presenters and I guarantee to put on a good show. You’ll make new friends, you’ll spend some of that money that’s burning a hole in your pocket, and you’ll get out of town for a minute. It’s summer. You’re supposed to do that.
This dream involves tiny little kittens drinking milk (see above), ships with wee flags flying, and very small dots and chits and needles and spools printed in blacks, blues, and reds on yards and yards of snow, oyster, and cream-colored cotton fabric. In short: I want to design a line of conversational prints and shirting prints for quilters. Definitions:
Conversational prints: also called “I spy” fabrics; any fabric printed with a small-scale, recognizable picture in it, such as cats, dogs, gondolas, paperclips, etc. — something you might strike up a conversation about, as in “Hey, is that a tiny pegasus on that fabric?”
Shirting prints: cotton printed with small, usually simple figures. Typically grounded in whites (or, with a white or off-white background.)
Brothers and sisters, it’s killin’ me! More than anything in the world, more, even, thanonemeelliondollars, t’would be my heart’s delight to design a Mary Fons line of conversational and shirting prints for quilters. Because I love them. I use them. I seek to find them.
Conversational prints and shirtings with darling design, they delight and inspire. They feel like a surprise. “Oh! Look at that little kitten drinking milk!” converts to, “I love this quilt!!” There’s a quilt in my book called Whisper that is made of conversational prints and shirtings. So far, I have heard more people say Whisper is their very favorite quilt in the book. I’m not surprised at all.
So I’d love to curate my very own line and share my love with all my fellow quilt geeks. But I can’t. and it’s okay, at the end of the day, because it’s for solid reason: I’m a magazine editor.
I can’t have a line of fabric with a fabulous, incredible, amazing fabric company because then the other fabulous, incredible, amazing fabric companies that advertise in the magazine I edit will rightfully be annoyed. In publishing, “annoyed” quickly leads to “see ya later” vis a vis advertising and sponsor support and this is bad for everyone (me, fabric company, consumer, etc.) So for now, no fabric for me and, painful as it is, I understand and respect the problem. I’m not whining. For me to do fabric, I’ll either have to stop being an editor, or we’ll all have to start living in a world where media and advertising are not interrelated and interdependent. Neither of these options seem terribly likely. And that is okay.
Until something changes, my quilting friends, do this for me:
1) please send me any hot tips on great conversationals to me — I’d love to do some shopping
2) post your favorite conversational prints (and shirtings) on my FB page — that would be so fun!
3) keep quilting, no matter what fabrics make your “favorite” list
I’m doing a little meet n’ greet n’ shop talk talk at The Yarn Company, that lovely haven of color and fiber where I was able to sew this spring. From 4-5, I’ll be showing some quilts, talking patchwork, and generally hanging out to meet whomever feels like dropping by. Let’s do it!
I need a break from unpacking, so I will be in an EXCELLENT mood.
The Yarn Company is located at 2274 N. Broadway, upstairs. (That’s the corner of 82nd and Broadway.) Look for the totes adorbs sheep mascot, Keffi, on the sign above the door.
Because I’m renting my condo furnished this summer, I falsely assumed the task of moving would be less arduous and there would be no need to hire professional movers. I was wrong, and thus have spent the last two days in hell.
Fundamental truth: I am ruthless when it comes to disposing of excess stuff. I claim no bric-a-brac. I keep no old shoe. Being a purger (??) is made easier because I live and die by the words of Arts and Crafts giant William Morris, who proclaimed in 1880:
“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
Yes, Willy, Yes!
I am the anti-hoarder. I keep nothing, buy nothing that is not useful/beautiful. If I need a can opener, for example, but can only find lame ones made of plastic, I will wait until I can find a basic metal one and go without canned things. A plastic can opener might be useful but it is not beautiful, so it’s out. A classic, metal can opener is timeless! an objet d’art! I’m 100% serious and I’d like to think my home is harmonious as a result.**
But for heaven’s sake, I’m a person with a home that doubles as an office and a sewing studio. I have so many objects. Harmonious or discordant, this move is gargantuan. Do it all myself? Or even just with Yuri? What planet was I living on? (No! Don’t answer that!)
The Russian and I got boxes, a storage unit, a cargo van. Horrible, all of it. Soul-crushing. I’ve been doing my Midwest-work-ethic best, packing, eliminating, Goodwill-ing, all while still answering emails and attending to work-related tasks! I also remembered to brush my teeth! What race am I running, here?? (No! Shush!!)
As one might imagine, my productivity and emotional fitness ebbed and flowed throughout yesterday and today. This morning, I was actually in a fetal position for a spell, curled up near my desk in a sea of paper, wailing at Yuri, who was in the other room:
“Help me! HELP! ME! I’m doing the work of ten men! TEN MEN, DO YOU HEAR ME! I hate you! I can’t do this! I HATE YOU AND I NEED HELP!”
One of the reasons I love Yuri is because in situations like these he does two things:
1) he lightens the mood by coming into the room with a grin, saying something like, “Aw, who’s on the struggle bus? Who’s lookin’ so fine, ridin’ that struggle bus?” and of course this makes me bust out laughing, still on the floor
2) he helps
But the hard part about moving is never the logistics.
The logistics suck all right. But the core of it, the real trouble in River City is that you’re kicking up deadly serious dust. The longer you live in a place, the deeper and more emotional that dust becomes; if you have a strong emotional connection to a place (like I have to this place) it’s a double whammy. In the past 48 hours, I’ve hit upon a lot of life — more than I really cared to hit right now, honestly. Books, pictures, fabric, dresses, quilts — what we own owns us. And when we move we’re at the mercy of it all, we’re possessed by those possessions, even when we think we don’t hang onto much.
I hang onto absolutely everything. I just store it differently.
I store it here.
**All this editing may be due in part to my peripatetic lifestyle. If I’m not harmonious, I’m sunk. I heard once that “every item or object in your home is a thought in your head,” which is to say that belongings take up valuable real estate in one’s brain. A cleaner home equals a clearer head; I need every advantage I can get.
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?
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.
For the past hour I have been working on the post I wanted to post this morning. It’s turning into quite a beast of an essay and it’s simply not ready for prime-time. It’s about Hollywood and how I can’t take it anymore.
Since I can’t post something half-baked but I hate missing a day — and because I’m bone-weary tired and need to introduce my head to a pillow for once in my life for heaven’s sake — I’ve decided to share a picture of Scrabble, my mother’s miniature Golden Doodle.
Scrabble is a dog that looks like a lamb, behaves like four-year-old child (curious, adorable, infuriating), and is named after a board game. She can fetch a quilt, shake hands, and has lots of work to do in the evenings: she has to run around the yard and bark for 20 minutes.
“Scrabble’s doing her barking work,” my mother will say, loading the dishwasher.
Scrabble loves me and I love Scrabble. This photo was taken at about six in the morning last month when I was home in Iowa filming TV. She sleeps downstairs, but when she wakes up in the morning, she’ll bolt all the way upstairs to my childhood bedroom and dive-bomb my head in order to cuddle me. She is not allowed to lick my face; she licks my face anyway.
Scrabble, if you were able to send emails for me or finish my blog post — or fact-check it at the very least, Scrabble! — you’d be even more precious to me than you already are. But I suppose your being a dog confers special qualities that cancel out your human shortcomings. So it’s a wash.
Goodnight, Miss Muddy Paws, wherever you are in the Iowa house tonight.
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!
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.
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.
I have only a few days left in Manhattan before I return to Chicago for a few weeks. I was getting worried that I hadn’t bumped into Madonna in the park or seen Sam Harris on the subway. I don’t seek out celebrity encounters, but I was a little bummed my elbows hadn’t been bumped by anyone fancy since arriving in the city.
Then I met Tim Gunn.
Yuri and I both had loads of work to do this weekend and decided to set up shop at the Balcony Lounge at the Met. This is a private lounge for members of the museum, and my family has a membership. (Thanks, Ma!) The lounge is quiet, serves excellent tea and cheese, there’s fast wireless, and if you need to take a break and go see Walker Evans photographs or stare at The Harvesters by Bruegel the Elder, you can absolutely do that. We all need Bruegel the Elder breaks from time to time.
I was focused on editing the May/June ’14 issue of Quilty when I heard a one-of-a-kind voice. I looked up to see none other than style icon and Project Runway host Tim Gunn greeting the nice lady at the registration desk. My mouth dropped open. I grabbed Yuri’s leg. I do that a lot for a variety of reasons on a regular basis, so he didn’t look up from his laptop.
“Yuri!” I hissed. “Yuri, it’s Tim Gunn. Tim Gunn just walked in!”
Yuri was programming. “Who?”
“Tim Gunn! Tim Gunn from Project Runway! And, like, fashion!”
My body was contorting into Martha Graham-like shapes. I was excited. Tim Gunn is someone whose career I admire. He taught at (and led) Parsons School of Design for many years. He was Chief Creative Officer at Liz Claiborne for awhile, which, according to my research, put him at the company during its morph into the Kate Spade-Juicy Couture-JC Penny animal it is now? This is unclear to me, but it is clear is that Tim Gunn is the man. And, as most people who are not named Yuri know, Tim Gunn has served as beloved mentor to designers cast in Project Runway since the very first season of the show in 2004. He’s written books, he’s done TV and film cameos; he’s even got his own catchphrase. Though we know people on screens are not magic, it’s plain as can be: Tim Gunn is neat.
I tried to focus on my work but it was impossible. I kept stealing teensy glances over to the sofa where Tim Gunn was sitting. He was perusing a large art book. There are many beautiful books of art on offer in the member lounge, no surprise, and he was engrossed in his selection.
What to do? I desperately wanted to meet him but refused to be weird or annoying. I decided after he had been there for an hour or so to write an extremely short, non-creepy little note to him. (Hear me out.) I would buy his glass of wine and give my note to the waitress to give to him in lieu of his check. My note said something like:
“Hi, Tim Gunn! Thank you for inspiring so many of us who work with textiles. If you ever need a quilt or a quilter for any reason, call me!”
I taped my business card in the center of the note using one of the stickers for my upcoming book. Actually speaking to the man was not part of my plan. I’d take care of the bill and Yuri and I would leave before he did or he’d call for his check and before he left, I’d escape to the bathroom so he wouldn’t feel obligated to come say anything. I wanted to make tiny, meaningfulcontact with a compliment. No awkwardness, no foul.
But then the waitress went on break! She was his waitress and my waitress! She was the lynchpin of my entire scheme! Now what?!
After a few panicky texts with my sisters, I changed my mind: I would deliver my note in person. If I didn’t try to say hello to Tim Gunn at the Met lounge at that moment, I would never have the chance again. I put on some lip gloss and walked over to where he was sitting.
Readers, I am happy to report that Tim Gunn is wonderful.
“Excuse me, Mr. Gunn?”
He was immediately on his feet.
“Call me Tim! Please!” He placed his book down on the table and stood to shake my hand. “How are you?” he asked, as though we had met. Eep!
“Oh, I’m fine,” I said. I was more timid than I have ever been in my life, I think. “I had this whole plan how not to disturb you. I was going to give you this little note and buy your glass of wine, but then the waitress went on break and, well, I just wanted to say thank you so much. You’re very inspiring. I’m a quilter.”
Tim Gunn was looking at my note. “This is wonderful! How delightful! My goodness! A quilter? That’s marvelous! What is this?” He was pointing to the sticker.
“That’s my book! My first book. It’s coming out in May.”
“That is a tremendous accomplishment,” said Tim Gunn. “I don’t know what I’d do without my co-author. She turns what I write into something actually worth reading! Congratulations to you! When does it come out?”
“May,” I said, beaming. Talking to Tim Gunn was like talking to… Well, Tim Gunn. It was the best. And yes, he looked amazing in tailored everything and he smelled terrific.
We chatted a teensy bit more. He said, “Oh, good. I see your email, here. I’ll send you my last couple of books!” and I said, “I’ll send you mine! We’ll trade!” and Tim Gunn said that sounded like a fine idea.
Start to finish, the encounter was all of two minutes, but it sure was pleasant. Thanks, Tim Gunn, for being kind to a stranger who admires you a great deal. I hope you do receive my book when I send it to you; since it doesn’t come out till May, it’s possible you’ll forget why you’re getting it and your people will move it to the revolving file. But if you do get it, I hope the quilts in the book will inspire you, even a tiny bit.
Every year for (oh my) nine years? ten? something ridiculous like that, I have served as a presenter at Fremd High School’s Writer’s Week. Writer’s Week XIX kicks off on Monday, and I just happen to be headed to Chicago on Tuesday, so on Wednesday morning, bright and early, I’m taking a Metra train to Palatine and to try and kick up a little writer-y magic for my Fremd homies.
Here’s an abbreviated description of what Writer’s Week is, taken from the Fremd website:
“Writers Week began in 1995 when we featured students, faculty, and professional writers during lunch hours for a week in April. Since then, about a thousand Fremd students have taken the stage to share their writing. Faculty members from every department have related their stories through writing. More than two hundred professional writers from around the world have visited the Fremd campus during Writers Week to help us better understand writing and authors.”
Good idea, right? Lots of folks agree, including the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks, who presented at Fremd years ago. Billy Collins. Marc Smith. These are writers of consequence, authors whose work has shaped (still shapes) the American literary conversation. And because people on that little patch of land in Illinois believe in the power of and the need for good writers writing, high school students get to walk into an auditorium in their very own high school and receive the lessons, the joy, the discomfiting feelings — the blessed thought — good writing can bring. The amount of work involved in putting on Writer’s Week is head-spinning. Scheduling, booking, fundraising, booster-ing, coordinating — it’s nothing any of the teachers get paid extra to do and they do it all anyway, year after dedicated year.
I’m slightly famous at Fremd because I usually end up kissing people. There’s a piece in my lil’ repertoire that involves kissing an audience member. You want to make an impression on an auditorium full of 500+ high school students? Try kissing one of them. I’m not making out with anyone; it’s just a kiss on the cheek. But it’s a kiss on the cheek with commitment, and I’m nothing if not committed. That usually causes a stir, but I might be famous at Fremd because I write a poem on the spot for a student every year, or because I had a breakdancer kick it onstage (he was up there anyway getting a poem!), or because I presented a Lady Gaga song as verse once time — anything can happen and I think we all like it that way. Whatever the material might be, I give 100% of myself (my attention, my focus, my passion for words, my passion for having fun with them for heaven’s sake) to the Fremdians.
I seriously love that entire high school. It’s like we’re dating long-distance. I don’t see you very often, darling, but when I do, when I do.
I’ll dress up for you, darling. And I’ll bring you a gift from New York. Wait for me.
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.”
I was there today, right there to the left of the red chair. You can still see my imprint! I have a yoga mat on my back and I’m wearing really insane winter boots with saw soles.
My NYC yoga studio is in the Lower East Side at the corner of Stanton and Allen, the very same Allen Street George B. Luks captured so brilliantly in his painting. His version of the scene in oil and the handful of versions I snapped of it in Instagram aren’t dissimilar. These days, there are fewer bonnets — or are those burkas on Luks’s women? — on Allen Street, but there’s just as much stuff for sale and there are dress shops and people stacked on top of one another.
Luks was an artist of the Ashcan School. If “The Ashcan School” sounds fancy, that’s just what the Ashcan painters want you to think, but the name comes from the actual object: the ash can.
These guys were a belligerent bunch. It was around the turn of the 20th century they were doing their thing. The grand poo-bah of the (loosely affiliated) group was a newspaper illustrator named Robert Henri. He said he wanted art to be more like journalism: hard, honest, unflinching. The John Singer-Sargent stuff was starting to rot everyone’s teeth out, and Henri and his band of super grumpy painters wanted to portray the real people they saw in the cities where they all hailed from, New York City and Philly. Down-and-out beggars, rag-pickers, elderly indigent women, the unwashed masses — these were the subjects for the Ashcan guys. They painted on wood panels they found, on boards, on window shades. They got into bar fights. Luks was such a bad boy, he actually died in a bar fight in 1933.
In New York, on Allen and Stanton, I can feel the past bear down so hard on me, I actually tend to walk a little faster. I love it down there on the Lower East Side, but the air has an edge and it ain’t the rock clubs. It’s the tenement houses, long burned down. It’s the rag-pickers. It’s that Allen Street was Asylum Street for a good while — why? Because it was where the New York Orphan Asylum was, of course. There’s something in the grime that produces slides in my brain: hungry faces and brawling drunks; the smell of boiling meat, boiling clothing, boiling hot days in August.
Yoga was good. I’ve returned to my Bikram practice. It wasn’t so rough today, but I’ve been in class when there were forty or fifty people packed into that room. It’s no more than 450 sq. ft. and it’s heated to 105 degrees. I’ve been in classes so packed that when I did my forward standing bend, I’ve hit the butt of the girl in front of me with my forehead.