What is Literature or: Hello, Horse

posted in: Day In The Life 43
Illustration of horse, ca. 1650. Ink, opaque watercolour, and gold on paper. Image: Wikipedia.

 

 

Hey, horse. Nice saddle. I used to sit up there. Oh, this n’ that. I had to go sleep in a barn for awhile. Could I get back on you? Like, in the saddle? Thanks. Yeah, this feels good.

H’yah!

 

*  *  *

 

What makes a piece of writing a work of literature? Have you ever thought about that? (I’m speaking to you, now, not the horse, but she’s still here.)

What makes an essay, or a novel, or a memoir — even a blog post — more than just words on a page? Even if they’re really good words on a page? I’ve been wanting a solid answer to this question for years. When trying to differentiate between a “literary” work or a non-“literary” work, folks sorta cock their heads and offer something vague and impossible to prove, like, “Um … Well, literature is just generally better than other writing? I guess? It’s got something to do with being good.”

That isn’t enough for me. But to be fair, let’s look at a situation where you’ve got writing that’s obviously “better” than other writing to see if it’s a passable definition.

Consider James Baldwin. Consider basically anything he ever wrote. Here you have a writer of staggering talent, a man who spent his entire life toiling endlessly at his desk to make good sentences, a man whose grocery list would surely make us weep for its clarity of conviction. Baldwin once said a writer should write a sentence “as clean as a bone.” James Baldwin’s writing is “better” than 95 percent of all other writing ever produced, ever, so it’s gotta be literature, right? Now, you might not dig his writing, you might be ambivalent. But regardless of whether or not you like James Baldwin, it’s clear from the first sentence of any of his essays or novels or poems that when you read the man’s work, you’re reading literature. Another way to look at it is to lay a copy of Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time between an airport crime novel and a plucky beach read. Now point to the literary work.

Exactly.

Baldwin is obviously the literary writer but why? It’s not length. The beach read could be 500 pages and the Baldwin text just an excerpt; nothing changes. Does a literary work contain fancy words? Is that what makes it literary? Ugh, let’s hope not. As complex as his ideas are, Baldwin’s language isn’t florid or showy — one of the many reasons he’s so great. Is a work literary because it contains Deep Thoughts? Profound Themes? That’s not fair. A good trade paperback by a popular author can deal with topics like death, aging, or heartbreak, too, but that doesn’t make it literature. The criteria for distinguishing between literature and not-literature has always felt as elitist as it is subjective. Other people may have a crystal clear understanding of the difference, but not this nerd.

Then, just when I was not looking for it, the answer appeared. I found it in an article in Harper’s magazine a couple issues back. The article was entitled Like This or Die: The fate of the book review in the age of the algorithm and was written by Christian Lorentzen. Check this out:

 

“Literary writing is any writing that rewards critical attention. It’s writing that you want to read and to read about. It’s something different from entertainment. It involves aesthetic and political judgments and it’s not easily quantifiable.”

 

I was sitting in my black chair and had to set down my tea to pump my arms in the air and whoop. That was it! Yes! Literary writing is writing you can go to battle with! Literature gives as good as it gets! It’s not about long words or length; it’s about substance and resilience — and craft is kind of de facto at that point. Literature is a steak. Not-literature is a smoothie and hey: Maybe it’s a very good smoothie. There’s nothing wrong with a smoothie! Smoothies are a nice break from steak. But make no mistake: You can’t make literature in a blender and add wheat germ for texture. If you want to read — or write — literature, you’re gonna have to chew.

What does all this have to do with that horse?

Oh, I don’t know. It’s got something to do with how writing is hard. It’s got something to do with expectations I place on myself, probably. The first five months of this year have forced me to form a new relationship with expectations. It’s strange and not entirely comfortable for its newness. I used to either claw my way up to meet expectations or cry over them when they were dashed. I’m not even sure what they are these days.

PaperGirl is not literature. Never has been, never will be. Believe me, it’s a relief. If I had to figure out how cook and eat a steak sitting atop a horse, I’d fall off and never get back on. I’m good with my smoothie. I’ve even got a cup-holder.

I Got a Mouthguard: Clearly I Am Cool.

posted in: Day In The Life, Sicky 21
A mouthguard from a boxing match at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, or so Wikipedia tells me. Image: Wikipedia.
A (grody) mouthguard from a boxing match, apparently. Not my mouthguard, not my boxing match. Image: Wikipedia.

 

Pop Quiz No. 1:

Q: Two weeks ago, I went to the dentist to get a filling repaired. How did I break a filling?

A: Because I chomped ice cubes for like two months straight before my labs showed my anemia was so bad I was .5 ice cubes away from the blinkin’ emergency room. 

You remember, don’t you, how I narrowly-avoided an ER trip — it has been known to happen — but got my iron infusions and avoided that at the eleventh hour? That was great. Less great is that my dentist, Dr. Tahbaz, confirmed that my ice-eating was probably the main culprit for my busted filling.

Pop Quiz No. 2:

Q: My dentist visit cost $250. Guess how much my iron infusions cost?

A: $3,600. After insurance. 

I’m not sure what my face did when I opened that bill from Northwestern. Did it twist? Or was it flat? Did it buzz and fizz or was it numb? I don’t know because I kinda blanked out. I regained consciousness somewhere in the next few minutes, though, because I remember that I started laughing. Not because I was happy, or because anything was funny. No, I started laughing because I somehow kept opening mail and it somehow kept being bills for astronomical amounts: hospital treatments, tuition for grad school, condo payments. And I pay my own taxes, so I have to put money aside for that every quarter, which means that the money in my accounts isn’t really mine. I kept laughing to keep from crying or hitting things.

Life, man. A girl could just gnash her teeth all day over it all.

Except that she can’t. Because guess what else the dentist told her?

“You need to get a mouth guard. You’re grinding your teeth at night. A lot. Get a mouth guard. Today.”

It’s not earth-shattering news that I grind my teeth. I vaguely remember other dentists mentioning this to me. But either they were never really that concerned about it or I wasn’t listening, because no one ever did anything about my bruxism. Did you know that teeth-grinding has a name? It’s a real affliction/condition and it’s called bruxism.

Pop Quiz No. 3: 

Q: If you’re a teeth-grinder (tooth-grinder?) and an annoying person at a cocktail party asks you about your theological, ideological, or political beliefs, how do you answer like a boss?

A: “I’m a Bruxist. Oh, look at the time.” 

What I’m trying to get at is that I had to buy a mouthguard. The good news is that it was $25, not $250 or $3,600; the bad news is that I have a mouthguard I’m supposed to wear at night so I don’t grind my teeth against themselves but against a piece of inert plastic, instead. The news is bad because a) it’s sad I need protection against myself via the nocturnal manifestation of anxiety and existential angst, and because 2) mouthguards do not inspire a feeling of attractiveness, exactly. Mouthguards are practical, but they are not sexy.

But I like my teeth. Healthy teeth are sexy. So fine: I’ll wear my charming! clear! dainty! mouthguard when I’m sleeping alone. But should I have company, well, that thing is getting stuffed into the medicine cabinet before you can say “iron supplement.”

All The Reasons For Tears.

posted in: Day In The Life, Sicky 72
"A má notícia" by Belmiro de Almeida, c. 1896. Image: Wikipedia.
“A má notícia” by Belmiro de Almeida, c. 1896. Image: Wikipedia.

 

On and off all day, I have been crying.

I get worried when I feel physically bad for more than a day or two (I’m on Day 3) and then I have a crying symptom on top of that.

A few years ago, my surgeon looked at me sternly and told me sadness was a serious symptom to which I needed to pay attention. She didn’t mean that I was depressed and that depression was serious (though I was, at the time, mildly, and of course depression is serious); she meant that in her experience, when Mary Fons gets sick, Mary Fons doesn’t always run a fever but she oftentimes gets very sad and bursts into tears multiple times a day.

Today, I burst into tears four times. Okay, five, because I just did it again.

Do the crying jags mean I’m sick not with a cold but with something else? My guts have felt strange lately but it’s so hard to tell. I’ve changed my diet recently; is that why I feel bad? And certainly there are perfectly good, totally reasonable and seemingly unrelated reasons to cry, cry, cry:

— My aunt is very sick and the fate of my cousins is uncertain
— I feel a terrible nostalgia for my sisters and my mom and Iowa
— People in every part of the country learn how to quilt on public television and I have taught people how to quilt on public television and I learned how to read with help from public television and my president wants to kill public television and this makes me so sad I cannot bear it, I cannot
— I must admit that I feel overwhelmed by work and school

May I ask a favor?

Is it okay to come to you and just burst into tears? I strive on the ol’ PG to offer content of substance. I strive to be precise and topical and entertaining and thought-provoking and I desperately want to make you smile. But I almost didn’t write to tonight because I feel so terribly sad and then I thought, “Well, maybe that’s why you ought to write.”

There are vulnerable posts and there are vulnerable posts. This is the latter.

The Farm, The Weariness.

posted in: Family 3
The bus stop my dad made for me and my sisters so we would have shelter waiting for the school bus each day. Photo: Me
The bus stop my dad made for me and my sisters so we would have shelter waiting for the school bus each day. Photo: Me

Claus came over from Chicago for a visit while I’m here. Aside from the interest he has in seeing where I grew up, it’s objectively great for him to see a quaint Midwestern village. It would be the same for me if I were in Germany; I’d probably travel miles to see a “real life” German village. I’ve shown him the theater; we went to see some covered bridges; we’ve eaten several meals at the local Northside Cafe; we checked out the high school football field.

And this afternoon, we took a drive into the countryside. But it wasn’t just any old Sunday drive; we drove seven miles south-ish and west-ish of town to the farm where I grew up.

Lord Almighty, all our old pains. So precious, so deep, so white-knuckled. Our most blinding pains are woven into us and the older we get, the older the pain gets and don’t you dare pull that thread. It’s the first tragedy of my life, leaving that farm, and the story of it — mythic, epic, now — has been squatting on my heart ever since, despite hours of therapy, true love, art. Despite travels to Chicago, New York City, Washington, DC, to the far reaches of the galaxy, to Florida. I’d love to say it was different, that I’m resolved and actualized and enlightened by age if nothing else, but I see that farm and it all comes back. Blah, blah, blah.

I was little. My sisters were little. My mom and dad were getting divorced. My sisters and I got on the school bus one day. We never went back to the farm. We didn’t know we wouldn’t go back, we just never did. We never slept in our beds again. We never saw our toy box again. We didn’t say goodbye to our cats. We were country kids, then we were not. Cry me a river. Amazon.

Why go out there? I don’t know. One may select from a variety of Sunday afternoon activities and ghost-hunting is an activity one may choose to select when you’re me, in Winterset. It’s all out there, just seven miles out, south-ish and west-ish of this particular and particularly quaint Midwestern village. The acreage looks a lot different from when I was eight, but it’s the same. It is exactly, exactly the same and I would know because I know every inch of that place.

There’s a long drive to the property from the road. It’s not possible to get to the house without making a big production of it: you don’t visit my farm by accident. I don’t know the people who live there, so Claus and just parked the car on the road. That was for the best. I wouldn’t be able to handle touching the yard, the doorknobs. I just know I couldn’t. Squinting at things from far away was plenty.

Claus took pictures of the landscape and of me. Of all the pictures he took, there’s one that truly works. It’s a closeup of me. I’m wearing my Iowa Hawkeyes hooded sweatshirt. The wind is blowing my hair around and I’ve got one hand up to hold it back. My nails are lacquered red because I got a manicure for TV taping tomorrow. The sun is glinting off the gold baby ring I never take off. I’m squinting because the sun is behind the camera. I look every day of my thirty-six years. I’m not smiling. But I’m not crying. The farm is behind me, blurry.

*There’s more about all that right here.

 

 

Quilt Your Heart Out, Thank Goodness.

posted in: Family, Quilting, Work 1
Me and a good thing. Photo: Joe Mazza, Bravelux.
Me and a good thing. Photo: Joe Mazza, Bravelux.

Bad Things That Happened Today

Wanged the back of my leg so hard I whined about it for 30 minutes
The to-go coffee I got was lukewarm
Someone stole my cell phone

I can’t talk about that last thing. There was weeping. When anything goes wrong with my mobile phone, I am reminded how much I resent them for having to exist, to be on my person, and to function perfectly at all times. It’s just a cell phone. But still.

Phenomenal Things That Happened Today

Got a kiss
Wore new boots that did not hurt my feet
Saw that the third-ever episode of the Quilt Your Heart Out podcast was posted on the Quilt Your Heart Out website

The last thing zeroes out any woe I might’ve had about modern technology because modern technology is to be thanked for the whole podcast thing. If you don’t know by now, my mom and I have started a call-in advice show for quilters. You don’t have to be a quilter to enjoy it, but if you are a quilter, you will freak out.

Here’s hoping you find some things in your day that are so good (e.g., good falafel, good hair, good heavens, etc.) they cancel out any bad things (e.g., bad apple, bad dog, bad company, etc.) That podcast will make you smile, so there’s that.

A House, A Home.

posted in: D.C., Day In The Life, Tips 1
Note 1970s cross-stitch in frame sitting on windowsill, which reads: “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” This piece has traveled with me many years.
Note 1970s cross-stitch in frame sitting on windowsill, which reads: “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” This piece has traveled with me many years.

A major decision was made last week. 

By the way, I’m good on big decisions. I don’t mean that I’m good at them. I mean I’ve had enough of them for awhile, as in, “No, please, Nonna — I’m good on kugel,” or “Wow, okay, I think I’m good on socks.” Small decisions I can handle, e.g., grapefruit or pears, to shower or not to shower, etc. Unfortunately, the universe keeps pitching big ones to me and what can I do but catch?

The major decision was to not go to Chicago to retrieve my furniture. I will rent my apartment furnished. 

Whenever I thought about moving these items halfway across the country, my stomach hurt. I envisioned the getting of the large moving truck. I pictured the getting of the objects. I saw the freight elevator. I saw the drive from Chicago to D.C. And I saw the other freight elevator waiting for me on the other side and I saw the cost and I saw the problem of fitting things that live in a 1500 sq. ft. condo into an 800 sq. ft. apartment. It’s more precise to say that my stomach would hurt first and then my guts would churn and then my head would throb and then my left eye would begin to twitch. 

But I clung to the “need” to do this. Why? Because of my attachment to these things of mine. I ain’t no Buddhist, but I seem to recall that, according to them, suffering is due to attachment. Attachment to expectations, attachment to people, attachment to one’s coffee table even if it is really, really fabulous — nesting glass and just… I can’t talk about it. 

The moment I allowed myself to let go of my furniture, my objects (for another year, anyway) my spirits soared. No semi-trailer. No freight elevators. No worries about how it all would fit here — it all will not, no way, no how. I would surely end up selling my beautiful table, which is not what I want at all. 

This was all excellent, except that the bed, the table, and the sofa I was planning on having in a couple weeks were suddenly not on their way. I’ve been living like a monk, you realize. I have a decent mattress/quilt/blanket pile that is remarkably comfortable for sleeping, but I have been sitting on a little mat with a throw pillow to have my breakfast. I have no chair, no couch. No bed frame. And so, once the decision to leave material things behind, I had to set about getting new ones. What do the Buddhists say about that, hm?

Yesterday, I got the most incredible, amazing deal on a bed from Overstock. And today, I went thrifting. Look at what I found! Wow, was there ever a lot of junk at that place. But I found, for around $200 total: a cool iron floor lamp (needs shade), a green easy chair in fantastic shape, a lucite stool (!), an actual vintage trash can for the bathroom, four darling, mismatched china plates (pink! gold! floral!) and a fruit bowl. I’m on my way.

When I went to put a can of tomatoes in my beans, however, I was stymied, as I realized I do not yet have a can opener. 

The Little Princess.

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

What’s wrong with me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Peppers.

posted in: Rant 2
Female child. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, 2007.
Female child. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, 2007.

It remains to be seen if I shall be a mother in this life.

In college, I was a vocal member of the “Kids? Me? Never!” Club. There were all kinds of reasons I swore I’d never have kids, none original or hardy, but one’s twenties are for making impassioned proclamations that may or may not stick. My eyes were on work and art and catching the eye of the chef at the restaurant where I waited tables. At that time in my life, it would’ve been far more plausible for me to say, “I’m thinking about switching my major to poli-sci,” than to say, “I think I’d like to have kids someday.”

Once I got kicked in the face by post-college, big-city life, my “Kids? Me? Never!” Club (KMNC) card was further accredited. A big, red, rubber stamp traveled all over it with words like “Broke” and “Aimless” and “Too Much Vodka.” Kids were now even further out in Possibilities Ocean. Back then, you would’ve heard me say, “I’m really happy with my stock portfolio right now,” sooner than you’d have heard me say, “I think I wanna be a mom.”

Then I got married and talked with my then husband about starting a family, of course. Then I was smote by God. Then I got divorced. Somewhere in that melee, a couple doctors said, “A pregnancy? For you? With the eh and the meh? Maybe not such a good idea.” There were others who were like, “You’re fine, you can have kids, no problem.” And as all this transpired, my KMNC card started to show some wear. I would forget to take it out of my jeans and send it through the wash. I would clean out my wallet and forget to put the card back in and then I’d find it a few months later and go, “Oh, yeah. This thing.” Sometimes, I even thought about throwing it in the garbage on purpose. Because when someone tells you (me) that you can’t do something, naturally, this thing you cannot do becomes the thing you must do. I don’t believe I must have a child, but my refusal to consider it is gone. The card is gone.

The other day, I heard a woman on the radio talking about adopting a little baby and raising that baby on her own. The story was beautiful and suddenly I had something in my eye. “I should do that,” I thought. “I could adopt a kid someday.” And I wrote down on a post-it note, “I think I want to adopt a kid someday” and I put the date on it: January 28th, 2015. It’s on the fridge right now. Who knows. I figure I could give a kid a pretty good life.

A video of a man being burned alive in a cage has been playing on small screens around the world since yesterday. I haven’t seen the footage but I heard about it on the radio. Though I keep my media intake extremely low, I have been surprised that in the commentary I have heard, no one has talked about how to ensure that young children do not see videos of men being burned alive in cages. It sounds like everyone is “horrified” and that the act was “unconscionable” and “terrifying” and if it is all those things to someone who can drive and read the paper, what do you suppose it is to someone who is six?

If I were a mother, I would read to my kid. Constantly, all the time. Questions such as, “Mommy, can I get this book?” and “Mommy, can I read while I take a bath?” would be met every time with “Yup.” I would make sure the kid had clean clothes and sandwiches. And if there was a video going around of a man being burned alive in a cage, I would throw my body over as many screens as I could to protect that child from seeing something like that.

A six-year-old is gonna learn about death. Bugs, birds, and hamsters all die and this is nothing to be afraid of when you’re using truth and kindness to discuss it. But cockroaches who burn men alive in cages, record themselves doing this, and then use their footage as a dental drill on the raw nerves of their enemies, this is not the kind of death a child can or ever should stare down.

You don’t need to be a mother, I guess, to feel lioness-level rage.

A Recipe For Lemonade (Because You Know What They Say)

posted in: Food 0
I am hiding in this tree.
I am hiding in this tree.

Delicious Lemonade
Makes 5 cups

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 10 lemons)
1 cup superfine sugar (or use as much simple syrup as you like to reach desired sweetness)
2 cups water

Directions
Strain lemon juice into a pitcher and mix with sugar; stir until sugar dissolves. Add water; stir again until well combined. For pink lemonade, stir in cranberry juice.

Tips
If you’d like pink lemonade, add some cranberry juice! If you like sparkling lemonade, you can use sparkling water. If you put some vodka in there, you’ll have a Vodka Collins. You can put a sprig of lavender in there for some lavender lemonade, or even some basil, if you’re feeling it.

Just play!

“Why’s It Called PaperGirl, Grandma?” (Archive)

posted in: PaperGirl Archive, Poetry 1
WWII propaganda poster by Fougasse; ironic appropriation by me.
WWII propaganda poster by Fougasse; ironic appropriation by me.

“Why’s it called ‘PaperGirl,’ grandma?”

“Sit on my knee, child, and I’ll tell you.”

“Can I have a another cooky first? You tell long stories.”

“Here. Anything else?”

“No.”

“Good. Okay, then, PaperGirl. Well, once upon a time, long ago, I wrote a poem.”

“What was it called?”

“I’m getting to it. It was called ‘The Paper Poem,’ and it was an extended metaphor about the nature of existence being fragile like paper, but beautiful, too, like paper is beautiful.”

“What’s paper?”

“Before your time.”

“Oh. Your poem sounds cool, grandma.”

“I liked it. Other people liked it, too, and I performed it in many places all over the country.”

“Like in Bismark?”

“No, never actually in Bismark, I don’t think. Maybe. It was a long time ago. Anyway, there’s a verse where I say ‘I will be your paper girl,’ and that’s where ‘PaperGirl’ comes from.”

“What’s the verse?”

“You want to hear the whole verse?”

“Is it long?”

“No, it’s not long. It’s the second-to-last verse of the poem and it goes like this:

But if you are a paper doll, too, then I shall know you on sight,
And if you are with me, come with me tonight; I will match up our bodies
by the tears in our arms —
We will form paper barricades against matchstick harm;
I will make paper love to you for as long as I can in this shreddable world;
I will be your paper girl.

“That’s nice, grandma.”

“Thanks.”

“And you named your blog that because of that poem?”

“Yes. And PaperGirl is the name of my LLC, too. And that small island I bought. And the Beaux Arts building you like so much in Paris. And my foundation in Dubai and all the vineyards in Spain. Everything in my empire, it’s all under the PaperGirl umbrella.”

“I wanna go to the zoo and see a rhinoceros.”

“Get your coat.”

[NOTE: I’ve been asked lately why the blog is called what it is, so it seemed fair to offer this again, an entry originally posted on this date.]

My Life In Definitions.

posted in: Day In The Life, Word Nerd 1
The only thing harder than defining "existential crisis" is doing it in Pictionary.
The only thing harder than defining “existential crisis” is doing it in Pictionary.

Define “reality.” Define “said.” Define “jump.” So hard, right?

Defining object nouns is easier. “Mozzarella” isn’t too bad; “Denmark” is doable. But the verbs and the gerunds and past participles are crazy-making. By the way, one of the five definitions of “jump” is “to push oneself off a surface and into the air by using the muscles in one’s legs and feet.” The definition of “said” as an adjective is “used in legal language or humorously to refer to someone or something already mentioned or named.”

Definitions are so hard to do (for me, anyway) that looking them up for even common words is one of my favorite activities. And now, I present to you definitions that are shaping my life these days, each edited for length. All definitions from the New Oxford American Dictionary, except where noted.

peripatetic (adj.): traveling from place to place, esp. working or based in various places for relatively short periods

breakup (n): an end to a relationship, typically a marriage

moving (adj.): relating to the process of changing one’s residence

existential (adj): of or relating to existence

crisis (n): a time when a difficult or important decision must be made

work (n): activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result; mental or physical activity as a means of earning income; employment

yo (exclam.): a slang way of saying hello, usually friendly and casual [Urban Dictionary]

hustler (n.): an aggressively enterprising person; a go-getter

The Best of Write Club (Anthology)

posted in: Art, Chicago, Paean 0
This is so good.
It’s just so good.

Three of my proudest achievements in life so far:

1. Learning to spell my middle name in kindergarten (“Katherine” is long)
2. Opening a Roth IRA in my mid-twenties (I was a waitress and it wasn’t much of an investment but I did it, anyway)
3. Being included in the first-ever Best of Write Club anthology (out this month.)

Write Club is a live lit show started in Chicago a few years ago by writer-performer-genius Ian Belknap. The show goes in three bouts, with two writers per bout. A week in advance of the show, Ian pairs up the writers and assigns each pair two opposing ideas, e.g., Rain vs. Shine, Hello vs. Goodbye, Fire vs. Water, etc. One writer takes “Hello” and the other takes “Goodbye” and they go off and write a piece extolling the virtues of the side they drew. You get seven minutes up onstage to deliver the piece you’ve written, onstage, at the mic. No props, no costumes. There’s a clock that ticks down from seven minutes. There’s a packed house every week. The bouts get ferocious and amazing and heated. The audience goes crazy with love and loyalties. The winner of each bout is picked by the audience; whoever gets the loudest, frothingest cheering wins and the winner’s fist is hauled up into the air by Ian, just like you’re a boxer and the crowd goes wild. If you win your bout, you get to name any charity you want to give your prize money to and that’s what happens with your prize money.

I can’t describe how incredible Write Club is because it’s late, my contacts are crunchy, and I have to be on a plane at 7am tomorrow morning. The best I can do tonight is to tell you that Write Club will leave you breathless. There is astounding writing talent in Chicago. We have so many brilliant people writing here, it approaches embarrassing. We’re stinking, filthy rich with good writers who are alive, which is to say nothing about all the ones who are dead (e.g., Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Lorraine Hanesberry, etc., etc.) I’m honored to call many of these (alive) people my friends and I’m goofy, nerdy, tripping-over-my-feet happy to be able to write alongside them every once in awhile. Write Club has expanded to San Francisco, Atlanta, L.A., and Toronto; more cities are sure to come, and I hope they do. But the show was born here in Chicago and it will always have the imprint of Chicago’s meaty fist in its forehead. Chea.

Anyway, The Best of Write Club anthology has come out and I’m in it. I haven’t stopped pinching myself. There are 24 writers in there and my friend Chloe and I start the whole book off with the essays we did for our bout, “Foreign” vs. “Native.” I drew “Foreign”. I won the bout that night, but a) Chloe’s essay is amazing and b) my first time at Write Club, I lost my bout. It’s a hard game.

I have a book sale going on right now and you should take advantage of that. But if you’re like me and you buy .8 books a day, get The Best of Write Club at a bookshop called The Book Cellar, or Amazon, or lots of places online. You’ll pay under $20 and get some of the best, freshest, most exhilarating writing you’re going to read this year. I saw a lot of it happen live and I’m telling you: these words are electric.

Note: I was at the Chicago Book Expo today to read my essay. That’s why I keep saying “here.”

Statistical Interlude, With Tea.

posted in: Story 0
I have learned this evening that the Jean Luc Picard character from Star Trek drank Earl Grey Tea a lot, too.
I have learned this evening that the Jean Luc Picard character from Star Trek enjoyed Earl Grey Tea, also.

Today, my sister Nan and I moved boxes of my belongings to her place about four blocks away. It was cold and it was not what either of us would call fun, but we love each other and we got to feel that special closeness two people feel when the dolly full of boxes you’re pushing dumps over on Avenue A. Twice.

We took our last load over this evening, stopping the Trail of Tears long enough for me to stop into my go-to coffee shop for an Earl Grey tea. Nan waited outside with the dolly and my suitcase and I went in with my carpetbag.** I briefly waited in line. The gal in front of me paid and stepped to the side for her drink.

“Earl Grey tea, please,” I said to the bearded coffee guy working the counter. “Large.”

“Sure,” he said, then he half-turned to the other guy working with him (also bearded) and said, “That’s always kinda weird, when two people, like, totally independent of each other, order the same, somewhat less-usual thing.”

“Oh,” I said, turning to the girl who had gone before me. “Did you get a large Earl Grey tea, too?” She said that she had. “Yeah, that’s cool,” I said to the bearded men.

“Yeah, but what’s really weird is that this exact thing happened earlier today, too,” said Bearded Guy No. 1. “We had two girls order large Earl Grey teas, both in line by each other, but not together.” His eyes got big and so did mine.

“That’s like, statistically crazy,” I said. Everyone nodded. “I mean, it’s not magic. It’s not woo-woo. It’s just statistically nuts! If it happens again tonight, you guys should get a Lotto ticket.”

“If it happens again,” Bearded Guy No. 2 says, “I’ll just shut down the shop. That would be too weird.”

Girls Who Chase Boys.

posted in: School, Story 0
Terrifying, isn't it?
Terrifying, isn’t it?

Today in the kitchen, out of the clear blue, I thought about chasing Bobby Benshoff. Which sounds like a made-for-TV movie.

“A friendship changes suddenly… Love finds a way to last forever… Chasing Bobby Benshoff, tonight at nine on Lifetime Television for Women.”

When I was in elementary school, all the girls in my fourth grade class decided that we “liked” Bobby Benshoff. To “like” a boy meant that you were in love with him. To be in love with Bobby Benshoff meant that you would join a horde of girls who also were in love with Bobby. And if you liked Bobby, you were gonna have to work for it. You were gonna have to chase him at recess.

Someone started a game where the girls who liked Bobby would chase him around the Winterset Elementary School playground. You could practically measure that playground in square miles, so this was no kitten chase. We had an enormous hill. We had the “Tornado Slide” with its attendant jungle gym, monkey bars, and sand pit. We had a basketball court, hopscotch zone, swings, a track — even, weirdly, pull up bars (because second-graders are so into chin ups) and a crazy-dangerous slalom bar thing that no one knew how to properly use. This was our battlefield. For the long weeks that Bobby Fever gripped us, we’d all head out to recess, a girl would yell, “Go!” and poor Bobby would take off running for his life.

Bobby was the fastest runner in our grade behind Joel Loomis, so the challenge of keeping up with him was part of the game. But the giddiness of “liking” him with the possibility of catching him was the main event because Bobby was also the cutest boy in the school. We all thought he looked like a movie star. Dark brown eyes, great smile.** If you looked out onto the playground during Bobby Fever, you’d see a terrified, lone boy just paces ahead of a long line of running girls, squealing and shouting.

The game ended one day, not for lack of interest. Someone had grabbed for Bobby, made contact, and ripped a button off his shirt. It was a red shirt with a black pattern on it, as I remember. Bobby was shocked.

“My mom’s gonna kill me,” he said, dazed. He made part of his shirt into a little wick and tried to poke it through the buttonhole to keep his shirt closed. Not only had he lost a button, his chest was slightly exposed to the hounds of love, all of us trying to get a closer look while inching away to escape implication in Buttongate.

I wasn’t the one who ripped the button off. As I remember it, I didn’t think I was cute enough for Bobby to “like” back. I was popular for two seconds in fourth grade, but it was only because my parents were getting divorced and I was the first one in class that happened to. I was like an exotic zoo animal for awhile until everyone’s parents started getting divorced and wasn’t fascinating anymore, just depressing.

Bobby Benshoff, I hope you’re out there, contented and thriving. If you know anything about Google Alerts, you’ll probably get a notice that I’ve blogged about you — hope you don’t mind. Did your mom get mad about the button? It wasn’t your fault, exactly, though I have to wonder: Didn’t you kind of want to be caught?

**He kinda looked like Yuri, come to think about it.

Interlude: The Zarf

posted in: Food, Word Nerd 0
Wait for it...
Wait for it…

The day has ended too late to write the second half of my cri de coeur on hospital buddies. I’d be up till midnight with it and that would be foolish of me. Big day today, bigger one tomorrow, filming the 2500 series of Love of Quilting.

And so, a brief interlude. A brief interlude on the zarf.

You know the sleeve that goes on your go-cup of coffee? The paper sleeve? It has a name. It’s called a “zarf.” Amazing.

When people started drinking coffee and tea (which is to say “when people started”) they put little holder-sleeve thingies on their handle-free cups to keep their paws from getting burned on the vessels of hot liquid. Tea- and coffee-drinking humans have kept this item in heavy rotation ever since, though modern day zarfs are made of cardboard, not porcelain or wood or ivory.

I learned this because my mother and stepfather play Scrabble so much. Also, crossword puzzles.

Also, it’s good to be home.

Grace Coolidge, Raccoon Whisperer (or: On Not Being One Kind of Blog)

posted in: Art, Work 16
Grace, with raccoon, 1927.
Grace with raccoon, Easter Day, 1927.

 

That photograph is of First Lady Grace Coolidge with Rebecca, her pet raccoon. My younger sister’s name is Rebecca. Though there are zero Rebeccas in Fons or Graham family history, I am confident my little sister was not named after a White House raccoon. There was no Internet when she was born, for one thing. Did my parents even know about the Coolidge raccoon? Without the Internet, how did they know anything? How did they even know the name Rebecca? The mind reels.*

I don’t know if it shows, but I spend an inordinate amount of my day

1) panicking about the certain-if-not-imminent collapse of America (it’ll be because of the banks)
2) thinking about PaperGirl and its continuity, quality, etc.
3) in search of lost time

That second thing is the most surmountable here, so let’s mount. The goal for me with the ol’ PG is to never let it be about one thing. Life is not about one thing, after all. There’s a lure of making a blog about one thing. A “Mommy” blog can be marketed as such, same as “Foodie” blogs. You can’t blame a person for wanting to have a niche and stick to it. A blog that is about one thing has an easy elevator speech. Let’s listen in on a conversation between a food blogger (“FOOD BLOGGER”) and an advertising executive (“AD EXEC”) in an elevator at a busy blogging convention:

FOOD BLOGGER: (Noticing AD EXEC’s badge.) Oh, hi. You’re an ad exec.
AD EXEC: Yes, I am.
FOOD BLOGGER: (Extends hand.) I’m a blogger. I have over 15,000 page views a month and a bounce rate of 7%. Most people stay on my page for eight minutes at a time.
AD EXEC: Those are great numbers. What’s your blog about?
FOOD BLOGGER: Food.
AD EXEC: Here’s my card.

Let’s listen in on another conversation. We’re at that same blogging convention and two ladies meet each other in a line for coffee:

LADY 1: Boy, am I ready for a latte!
LADY 2: Tell me about it. (Glances at LADY 1’s badge; it says “Blogger.”) What’s your blog called?
LADY 1: (With dreamy look) TheKidsAreAlright-dot-Mom-dot-Blogspot-dot-Com.
LADY 2: I’m a mommy blogger, too! (The women embrace.)

And what’s my blog about? Everything. Nothing at all. I’ve auditioned several replies to the question, but none seem to be winners. (This does not inspire confidence in the concept of the thing.) Attempts to answer “What’s your blog about?” have included:

“It’s a blog about… My… Life?”
Eyes glaze.

“It’s… Well, it’s about all kinds of things.”
Folks suddenly need to check for text messages.

“You know, it’s just sort of a clearinghouse for thoughts. But it’s not just me rambling on about this or that, no way. I try to keep things tight. I have a point of view and I try to…keep things…tight.”
No, no, no. I’ve totally lost them.

Putting a picture up there of Grace with her raccoon, that was me being my own trainer, trying lead my brain away from the trap of consistency. If I write about my diet too much, I’m a “health and wellness” blogger or — far more undesirable to me — a blogger who writes mainly about her chronic health problems. (I recognize the value of such blogs and have no criticism for people who write them, I just don’t want to write a blog like that.) If I write about living in NYC too much, I might alienate all the non-NYC (or non-NYC-loving) readers out there and be labeled an “urban” blogger, which sounds trendy and gross.

I must stay on my toes. While updating readers on the progress of my radical, intestine-rescue diet is appropriate from time to time in the name of consistency, I mustn’t offer daily reports of how it feels to eat hamburger patties for breakfast. (It’s weird but I’m getting used to it.) Though I had doctor’s appointments yesterday and today that I do want to share about at some point, I must vary my dispatches so that PaperGirl is not a long slog through the life and times of a gimpy gal with flagging chutzpah in the face of significant health issues. I have to do the slog; why should you?

So the raccoon. Does that make sense? And if someone wants to take a stab at the question, “What is PaperGirl about?” by all means do so. I need a good answer.

*An Internet search tells me Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and the Bible were both around before the Internet, so maybe my folks got the name from one of those places. I should ask my mom. 

Timeline, Part 2.

posted in: Sicky 28
Sweet n' lowdown.
Sweet n’ lowdown.

As the well-wishes and words of kindness came in last night/today regarding yesterday’s post, I felt subdued and grateful. I also became concerned that the sharing of my UC story thus far was potentially taking up too much air time in people’s heads, thoughts, prayers, etc. I shared the first half of the timeline with a desire to inform, possibly assist, and maybe even entertain (seriously, you can’t write this stuff.) But when the compassion came at me from all sides I suddenly felt guilty that I had directed all of this energy at myself when really, we’ve all got botched j-pouch surgeries. We’ve all got a health crisis.

We are all temporarily abled. That’s not just a politically correct catchphrase: it is one of the truest things I know. Our bodies are systems; systems fail. We are organic matter; organic matter gets infected, infested, and eventually rots away. There’s nothing to be done about it and to preface it all by saying, “Sorry to be morbid, but the funny thing about bodies is…” is to keep the yardstick in place that distances us from the reality of our rather absurd situation. It is my fondest wish that every person reading this is full of vim and vigor from their first day to their last, but it’s more likely that most of us will deal with significant health issues somewhere along the trek. Sooner, later, or now.

So hang my tale: we all need compassion. By virtue of being human, we all need loving kindness. It’s hard down here. And that’s when we’re healthy and well! Beyond that, many of us have diseases and afflictions that do not call for surgery and never will. There are those among us who are quite sick indeed but look perfectly fine. Those people need emails of encouragement, too. They need blog comments. And so it was that I felt I had gotten too much of the universe’s healing energy yesterday and today. I will send some along to the next fellow with your regards; maybe it will come back to you, as you also need it. Sooner, later, now.

With that, let’s dive down into the second half of what happened so far in my life, vis a vis being sick. When I returned to Chicago in ’09, things took a turn from awful to downright horrid.

Summer ’09 – My then-husband leaves for a year to train for the Army Reserves. A decision we made together proves disastrous. He was away, my entire world/existence was changing daily. A gulf formed that would never again be brooked.

August ’09 – I am declared well enough for the “takedown” surgery at Northwestern. The ileostomy (stoma) I had is poked back inside my belly and reconnected to the internal j-pouch. In theory, I should be able to continue my life now, albeit with a “new normal.”

September ’09 – My health rapidly deteriorates following the takedown. Turns out the leak has not healed. Waste is leaking into my abdomen from the pouch. I am hospitalized — can’t remember how many times —  over the next few months. (Silver lining: I begin to make quilts for sanity preservation.)

October ’09 – “Bio-glue” is squirted into my j-pouch in attempts to “plug up” the leak. Bio-glue is what they use to glue heart muscles back together after surgery, apparently? While the glue does its thing, I am told “No food allowed.” A PICC line (my third; a mega-IV that is inserted via ultrasound into your arm and travels through a major artery to dump medicine/food directly into your vena cava) is placed and I am put on total parenteral nutrition (a.k.a., TPN, a.k.a., “feeding tube”.) Twice a day, I hook up a gallon bag of white fluid into a port in my arm and sit still while it is pumped in. I have several IR drains, as well. I am a ghost among men.

November ’09 – TPN and bio glue deemed a failure. Pouch needs more time to heal after all. I will be re-diverted. (Translation: I will get another stoma.) Surgery at Northwestern. This time, I get an epidural. A psychiatrist visits me in the hospital post-surgery and recommends I go on an antidepressant. I take her up on that.

December ’09-’11 – Life continues apace. My marriage falls apart. I continue to work as a freelancer, building Quilty and doing work in the theater in Chicago to take my mind off my health issues and my broken relationship. Bag leaks in bed, painful rashes, etc., are par for the course with the second stoma as with the first but it’s a known quantity, at least. I begin to practice yoga with obsessive drive: I make deals with the universe that if I get healthy enough before the second takedown a year from now, I will make it.

June ’11 – Second takedown. Northwestern. Epidural. Things go well.

Fall ’12 – After a shaky but decent year, things begin to crack. I have a fissure. I also have a fistula. (I leave those things to you to look up. Do not image search.) Various methods are deployed to deal with these issues. I work harder than I should, afraid at any moment of hospitalization. There are several, usually related to the fistula or flora issues in my ruined guts. I make a series of self-destructive choices. I am wildly productive.

Fall ’13 – The fissure has come home to roost. I am crippled with pain. An ambulance comes to my condo to get me on the worst of the nights; they break my front door. I get into a pattern where I know when the fissure is about to do its worst; I frequently take the bus up Michigan Ave. to the ER. Hospitalizations. Pain medicine. Lying to everyone about how bad it is. Describing the pain to someone, I say it’s “like having a gunshot wound that you sh-t battery acid out of approximately twenty times a day.” (I stand by this description.)

Then, up to now – Good days, bad days. I got a pain doctor who recommended an internal pain pump. This is a morphine drip, essentially, placed into my abdomen, which I then pump when I feel the agony coming on. I decline, not yet ready for another apparatus. Probiotics. Lost days. Days packed so full, no one will notice the ones when I’m useless.

Remember, this is the timeline of the health crisis. One only needs to look back at PaperGirl, or the issues of Quilty magazine or the shows, or the other shows, to see that life has been much more than just this list of woe and setbacks. Joy and wonder, and gifts abound in my life. Success and learning and all kinds of wonderful life has been lived since 2008. And there have been all sorts of failures and good, old-fashioned crappy (hey!) days that had nothing to do with any of the body stuff, too — that’s the real kicker. Good, bad, or otherwise, though, this timeline is a specter. My experience and condition don’t define me, except that both kind of do.

I am going to make cookies for Yuri now. Good grief! [Correction: Cookys! I meant cookys!!]

“The Picture of Health”

posted in: Sicky 7
"The picture of health."
“The picture of health.”

It’s not often one does a google image search and comes up totally empty-handed, but if you’re searching for something truly obscure, it’s possible that there will be a “No results found for [blank]” message. To give you an example of how rare an occurance this is, I tried to think of something that for sure could not turn up any image results whatsoever. I typed in “Beckett peanut butter sandwich.”

Tons of results. Thousands.

It came as a great surprise, therefore, when I entered in (in quotes) the common phrase, “the picture of health” to find an image for this blog post and got the “No results found for ‘the picture of health'” message. Really? That surprised me. Though there were images for the picture of health without quotes, they were not what I expected, really. I suppose I thought I’d get beaming cherubic children, or expensive stock photographs of doctor/patient interactions, etc.

The best of the lot was the above picture from the Department of Health Sciences and Technology in Zurich. It’s unclear what’s going on, here, but there’s at least one object visible there in the office that one is not allowed to touch; judging from the intricacy of the robot-lobster the older fellow is strapped into, I suspect there are a few more.

I wanted to find a picture of the picture of health to be ironic. I’m not exactly the picture of health but I’m better than I was on Monday. This whole week was a bit of a wash, I’m afraid. When I was actively feeling very poorly, I was flat on my back. That was a couple days. Then there was a Doctor Day, when I got some disturbing news that I’ll share tomorrow (too tired, psychically and physically, at the moment, to go there), and then there were a couple days of Getting Back on My Feet. Today, I was hale and hearty enough to finish a quilt top and eat some chorizo scrambled eggs, so I’d say ground has been gained.

Thank you to all the well-wishers — you shall be justly rewarded. I’m not sure how or when or if I’ll have a lick to do with it, but surely something positive must come when we send funny texts and things to those who need a laff.

I’ll Be Darned: Baking Soda Wins!

posted in: Tips 8
That's some hot sodium bicarbonate.
That’s some hot sodium bicarbonate.

A poet friend of mine in Chicago used to do a piece about his heritage. Rather than examine his family tree, he focused on behaviors he had picked up over the years and memes that had stuck. His “heritage” was more about the people he knew or had known, rather than dead people he had never met. A certain expression he used came from his dad, for example, and years back he had consciously adopted specific laugh from a kid in school he thought was really cool.

I always liked that piece because it hit on something so true: we are the people we know. We know the things we know and care about the things we care about because of what we pick up from others that we feel looks good on us or works well. It can be a laugh or a political view. A gait. A preference. An entire life path.

There is perhaps no faster meme generator than The New Relationship. Yuri and I are swapping behaviors and ideas and memes right and left. I see it, I feel it; he sees it, he feels it. It’s great fun. (Think of the inside jokes you have with a loved one. That’s meme-swapping.)

Here’s a great example of what I mean by all this:

Yuri has shown me that I never need to buy deodorant ever again.

Wait.

Yuri smells good. And so do I. Neither he nor I are advocating going au natural, here. What he has shown me is that baking soda — pure, straight up sodium bicarbonate — is the best deodorant money can buy. After your shower, you put a little in your paw, maybe with a little water so’s that it’ll stick, and you apply it in those cute armpits of yours and you will not smell. You will stay dry and fresh and you will not have purchased a cake of deodorant at the store that a) smells weird and b) costs a lot and c) has plastic all over it and maybe aluminum or weird stuff inside of it. I’m telling you: baking soda works. It works better than any deodorant I’ve ever tried. I’ve been using it for months, now, and it has not failed me.

The natural deodorants you buy at the store that use baking soda? Pffft! Skip ’em. Not only do those very expensive “all-natural” deodorants not work, they’re just puttin’ lipstick on a pig! (I don’t know if that’s exactly what they’re doing but I have been wanting to use that expression for several days.) Listen to me: you do not need to buy any of these products ever again.

Put. Baking soda. In. Your armpits. Put it in your armpits!!

I’m all worked up. But it’s just that wonderful. Think about the money a person could save over the course of a lifetime because of this tip! If you switch to baking soda, why, together we could save millions! At least a few thousand. That could go to a lot better things, that dough. I don’t know what.

And so it happened that I became a woman who has baking soda in her medicine cabinet. If anyone ever asks me about it, I will say, “Oh, yeah. It’s the best deodorant you can use. Just plain baking soda. I learned that from Yuri.”

And (maybe) you learned it from me.

On Being Naked and Sweaty In Public.

This photo was filed in WikiCommons under "Sweaty" for the sweaty nose of the cow. I think the picture works in every way for this post.
This photo was filed in WikiCommons under “Sweaty” for the sweaty nose of the cow. Perfect!

 

I’m all up in my Bikram yoga now that I’m mostly settled, practicing with regularity at the small-but-mighty Bikram studio on the Lower East Side. What this means is that numerous times a week — every day if I have my way — I am packed like a sardine in a can of sardines, if sardines were naked and sweaty and practicing yoga on the Lower East Side. You know, sardines could aptly be described as both naked and sweaty; alas, being dead fish, they do not practice yoga, so my little simile must only go some of the distance for us.

When I say I’m naked and sweaty and Sardinian (?), I’m talking about my state post yoga class. During the yoga, we students wear clothes* in the hot room. (For the uninitiated: Bikram yoga is a 90-minute yoga series of 26 postures and two breathing exercises practiced in a room heated to 105-degrees. And yes, you pay for this on purpose.) After class, when the very will to live has been nearly wrung out of us and we drag our taut, glowy, and utterly eviscerated carcasses out of there, that’s when it gets real.

There is no space in Manhattan. None to spare. The women’s locker/shower/changing room in the yoga studio is maybe…500 feet square? It’s small. You’ve got a bank of lockers, two shower stalls, one bathroom, and a lot of sweaty, naked women attempting to change out of sopping wet yoga togs into normal street clothes, which is tough because a) there is nowhere to bend over to get your wet leg into your jeans and b) getting a wet leg into jeans in any room is like trying to give a sick cat ear infection medicine: extremely, extremely difficult and exasperating. You want someone else to do it for you really, really bad. But no one ever will. It’s your cat. It’s your leg.

I have bumped a bare bottom with my own bare bottom. Oh, it’s true! I’ve turned my head just as a gal was exiting the shower stall and whammo! the lass’s entire self, just hey-how-are-ya, right there in my letterbox. I’m pretty cool with bodies, so none of this exactly bothers me unless I think about the fact that we are all animals, because then I think about chicken coops and pig pens and cattle shoots and that’s bad. All those animals are naked, too, so I’ll be trying to pull denim up over a wet booty (mine) and suddenly I’m having the sixth existential crisis of the day — and I usually take the noon class!

The worst, though, is when there’s zydeco music playing.

The studio is great in the way they just hit “play” on some endless music mix in the sky/on the web and you never know what you’ll get. Sometimes, you’re headed into the hot room to the dulcet tones of jock rock; sometimes you get wailing house divas. Sometimes it’s all spa music in the changing room; other times you get hip-hop. I love the variety. But once, when the class that had just been tortured was changing to leave and the next class was arriving to go into the heat, when everyone was hopping around on one foot, boobies out, sweat flinging this way and that, effing zydeco music came through the speakers and I thought I might die of shame. Surely, someone, somewhere (God?) was laughing hysterically at all this. It would be impossible to come up with a soundtrack less becoming to a roomful of naked, hopping women.

That day, I ran.

*”Clothes” is mostly right. You wears small slingshots of fabric to cover the bits and that goes for the men and the women alike. This state of underdress makes for excellent scenery or not-so-excellent scenery, depending on where you’re standing and what you’re into.

 

 

True Story Update: New York So Far

posted in: New York City 3
Impossible, beautiful, dangerous to walk in -- just like New York! Keith Haring shoe, Nicholas Kirkwood, 2012.
Impossible, beautiful, dangerous to walk in — just like New York! Keith Haring shoe, Nicholas Kirkwood, 2012.

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.

I rode a Citibike back home after lunch. They’re the Divvy bikes of New York!

 

Fashion Is Fun Again! Thanks, New York City.

posted in: Fashion, New York City 0
This was Anna Wintour's first Vogue cover. It is credited with helping to launch the "high-low mix."
This was Anna Wintour’s first Vogue cover. It is credited with helping to launch the “high-low mix.”

It was only upon finding it again that I realized I had lost a sense of fun in regard to fashion.

I love clothes. Rather than expound on why fashion is not frivolous or how different clothes make me feel like completely different people (this can be great or a nightmare) I’ll give you three of my favorite quotes on the subject from people who say it all far better than I ever will:

“Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.”
— Bill Cunningham, New York Times fashion photographer since 1978, best known for his “street style” candid photos

“Why are people scandalized by spending money on clothes? I think there is something against fashion in the world. Everybody is so passionate about this, there’s a resistance to fashion, an idea that to love fashion is to be stupid. I think this is for two reasons. One is because clothes are very intimate. When you get dressed, you are making public your idea about yourself, and I think that embarrasses people. And two, I think that fashion is seen as women’s work. My conclusion is that because fashion touches your intimate life, it embarrasses people.”
— Miuccia Prada, from an interview in New York Magazine last year that I cut out and taped inside my closet.

“Style is a simple way of saying complicated things.”
— Jean Cocteau, 1936 and he probably wasn’t talking exactly about fashion but clearly.

In New York City, the very same sentiment that can make a person feel isolated and lonesome (“Nobody cares what I do!”) can also set her free (“Nobody cares what I do!”) That second take on it, when applied to fashion by a fashion lover, creates potential for extreme joy.

In my former downtown Chicago bachelorette life, I got pretty fancy. I knew just where to find fabulous, high-end designer clothes on the cheap. And find them I did. The tailored jacket, the well-turned high-heel, the lined, custom-fit trouser; I rocked that classy-sassy look because I wanted to, I could afford it, and I think in some small-but-probably-huge way, I needed to prove to the world that I was making good, that I had transcended my awkward, pasty Iowa self, that I was cultured and polished and that I gave a damn about art.

But in New York City, unless you live on the Upper East Side or in TriBeCa and have a record deal and/or a plastic surgery practice and/or a driver, etc., being fancy isn’t that big of a deal. It’s actually a bit outre, honestly. Here, and especially where I live in Lower Manhattan, it’s all about the high-low mix, or blending fancy pieces with vintage, super-cheap, or borrowed/begged/stolen items to create a kind of “yeah, whatever,” layered look that is exactly right. I mean, I can’t wear my Celine suit on the subway! Are you nuts?? I could sit in gum! Better to wear a pair of ripped jeans with just the Celine jacket! Ah, yes! And some bangles. And the real diamond earrings I have. And sneakers.

Discovering — remembering, perhaps — that I don’t have to search so hard for head-to-toe designer apparel has made fashion fun again. I’ve come back ’round to the truth that that a shirt from Target with pineapples on it (my new favorite shirt!) is totally acceptable and actually preferable to a discounted-but-still-pricey Alexander Wang tank top. I love pineapples! To eschew the pineapple shirt because Marni had nothing to do with it is madness.

New York, thanks. I’ll wear real Keds and fake pearls for you any day. Why, I’m wearing them now!

 

Booster? You Brought’er.

posted in: Day In The Life 7
The Carlisle 71100 Red Dual Seat Booster Seat. Too much to ask for?
The Carlisle 71100 Red Dual Seat Booster Seat. Too much to ask?

I have a chair-to-table distance problem.

Have I mentioned the NYC apartment is furnished?** It’s tastefully appointed, thank goodness, but there are quirks. For example: the dining room table stands about 2.5 ft. tall. This is Yuri’s calculation, and he used his actual foot as a measuring stick, but it seems about right. The chairs at the table, the seats of them, they come up about 1.5 Yuri feet from the floor. This means that when I sit at the table, I have a Munchkin thing happening. It’s one thing to eat a meal eye-level with your food, but this set up is terrible for typing.

Presently, I am sitting atop a large stack of cushions. The large stack of cushions has replaced the small box of books I had been using all week; the box is breaking open and all squished, which let me tell you does wonders for my self-esteem. A delicate flower I am not.

I require a tuffet!

Or a booster seat.

Seriously, I need a booster seat. Because buying a taller chair is not an option. I live in Manhattan and I am not rich, therefore there is no room for extra chairs lying about. That’s precious square footage, comrade. If I could replace a shortie chair with a taller chair, well, then we’d be in the business, but these chairs do not belong to me. They stay.

As it turns out, there is a market for adult booster seats, though none of them I’ve found are for people who need a good, old-fashioned boost at the dinner table. There are adult booster seats for diminutive folks to put in the driver’s seat of their respective automobiles (good idea) and there are booster seats for the infirm or aged. Some of these boosters come spring-loaded, making it easier to get up out of one’s chair. That sounds like great fun. I’d love to spring! out of my chair whenever I felt like getting up, but these chairs don’t seem to add much height — their “boost” is a boost out, not up.

I worked at Pizza Hut for two years in high school. One of our “sidework” jobs was to “wipe down the boosters.” Oh, the accumulated hours spent sani-wiping sauce- and parmesan cheese-encrusted red plastic seats. I’ll never get that time back. Of course, I was a junior in high school and failing Algebra II, so I don’t think I’d take it back if I could.

Yuri says he’ll buy me a booster seat. It’s turning into a kind of “If I can’t buy my baby a booster chair, what kind of man can I be?” thing, but I actually don’t know if we’ll have luck. The car seat things are ugly and might not work in a wooden chair. The geriatric versions are not exactly right so far. And as much as the man appreciates my, um… As much as Yuri enjoys watching me leave a room, he has to admit that my bum is not going to fit into a child’s booster seat. Which would be weird of us, anyhow, and probably intensely uncomfortable for me.

Should I make something? From scratch? Should I make a tuffet from scratch??

These are the questions.

** It has recently come to my attention that I repeat myself. My sister made it clear last night at dinner, exasperated that I had told her a certain something at least twice before. It has recently come to my attention that I repeat myself. My sister and I were having dinner. 

My Life As Alabaster.

John Hoppner, "Mary Robinson 1758-1810 as Perdita." Oil on canvas, WikiGallery imprint on screen. Pale skin recognized by author.
John Hoppner, “Mary Robinson 1758-1810 as Perdita.” Oil on canvas, WikiGallery imprint on screen. Pale skin recognized by author.

I do not tan.

Oh, how I’ve tried. In my twenties, like so many undergraduates, I donned those weird winkie things and lay back in tanning beds — not enough, I hope, to wreak significant UV damage. (I knew better and it never worked for long, anyhow.) But I didn’t stop chasing a tan, no way. I’ve bronzed. I’ve lotioned. I’ve spray-tanned a few times. But the fact of the matter is, my half-Viking, half-Scots-Irish self ain’t gettin’ nut brown for long. I am a pale thing.

When I’m in yoga, my near-albino-ness is more evident than usual. There’s more of my skin to see in the yoga room; in Bikram, you’re one sweaty strap away from nude. Even in winter, when most yogis are not actively tan, I stand out in the room as though there were a beam of moonlight shining on me. This observation is not clouded (milky?) by the fact that I’m commenting on my own body and it’s hard to be objective about oneself. No, it’s really true that I’m vampiric compared with everyone else in the room.

All through school and into my adult life, my palest pale skin was a source of shame for me. I was enraged that I couldn’t manage to turn more than barely-toasted marshmallow for more than a couple days. All these honey-colored girls seemed to prance about without a care in the world from May to September, their bare, sun-kissed shoulders tossed insouciantly at recess. Then the girls became women and were effortlessly tan at parties, at bars, at charity events.

But growing up is highly recommended. As years go by, you (hopefully) start to care slightly less about such surface things, or maybe you start to love yourself more. Sometimes it’s as simple as meeting more people — because the more people you meet, the more likely you are to meet people who are totally into what you’ve got going on. That’s the best discovery of all. Being told that my pale skin is pretty, even beautiful, is a great way to get over it. Someone told me my near-translucent skin was “gorgeous” once and that very day I stopped feeling like a cocktail shrimp.

Whatever physical difference you’re annoyed about, don’t forget for a second that there’s someone out there who thinks you are seriously hot precisely because of the thing you’re freaking out about. There’s someone out there who will howl at the moon for you and try very hard to take you out/kiss you/marry you/etc. because you’re so unique. Trust me on this. I don’t know a lot but I know this is true.

And so today, in beautiful New York City, as all the Soho fillies passed me by in their short shorts, enjoying their Coppertone souls, I donned a cute, lacy white dress I got at Neiman Marcus that perfectly matched my pale skin. I turned a few heads, too. Probably because the sun actually glinted off me. That’s what sunglasses are for, people.

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