Seeing Shorthand.

posted in: Day In The Life 9
From website gregg.angelfishy.net, " A Web Site [sic] dedicated to the perpetuation of Gregg’s Light-Line Phonography". Translation below.
From “A Web Site [sic] dedicated to the perpetuation of Gregg’s Light-Line Phonography” at gregg.angelfishy.net. Translation below.
Stop everything.

Shorthand.

I’m freaking out.

At a cocktail party-ish gathering last week, I met two extremely accomplished women who shared with me that early in their respective careers they used to take shorthand dictation, also called stenography. I asked lots of questions that I have since had to look up the answers to (#wine) but I did manage to force them to write something for me in shorthand that I could keep. This was not because I didn’t believe they could do it — I suspect both women drive very nice cars — but because I had to see shorthand in action. I had only a vague notion of what the stuff looked like; I mistakenly thought there were English words interspersed with jots and tittles and such. When I saw the strange, magical scribbles on their napkins, my mouth dropped open.

Here are X things you should know about shorthand, most of which I have gleaned from a fascinating essay by one Ms. Leah Price about the history of shorthand in the December 2008 Diary section of The London Times, which you should promptly search for and read after you’re done here:

1) Diarists and court reporters have used versions of shorthand for a really, really long time. Samuel Pepys (b.1633), considered the world’s first diarist/journal-keeper, wrote his thoughts and feelings in a form of shorthand. (I’ve read a lot about Pepys, as when I get back to my MLA, my dissertation is going to explore the diary as literary form.)

2) We all probably know graph = writing, but steno = narrow. How about that?

3) Issac Pitman codified (hey-o) the Pitman shorthand system that was taught for well over 100 years before there was any major competition.

4) In 1922, a guy named Nathan Behrin set the world’s record with the Pitman system, writing 350 words per minute. Three-hundred-fifty words per minute. Per minute!

5) Miss stenography? Blame the typewriter.

Forget my dream to learn French. Forget taking time to learn Russian so I can tell Yuri in his native language to please pick up some milk. I want to learn shorthand bad. Apparently, it takes three years. But I could write in my diary in this cool way! Oh, I rail against you, life, so short and so long.

At the party, I asked both of the women to write, “Dear PaperGirl Reader: This is shorthand. It is a dying language, but it is still beautiful. You’re welcome, [NAME]” I still have both examples and would’ve scanned them in to serve as the image for this post, but my scanner is in a box at the FedEx right now, waiting for me to come pick it up. Instead, the image above is translated for you here; it totals 227 words.

“If agreeable to you I hope you will sign the enclosed agreement for the agricultural lands about which Mr. Teller wrote some time ago.  The land company has been very aggressive, a fact which greatly aggravated Mr. Teller.

We do not anticipate that our antagonists in this controversy will be able to restrain Mr. Hollis in his aggressive views. We decline to take any part in the preparation of the declaration about which Mr. Henderson declaims so forcefully. He was inclined to antagonized rather than to electrify his audience by the out of his oratory.

Owing to the inclement weather I am inclined to agree with you that we shall have to declare
the game off for this week.

The magnitude of the magnificent construction enterprise introduced by Mr. MacIntosh was declared to be extraordinarily interesting.

Electric transportation is paralyzed all over the state, and it will be almost impossible to undertake the shipment of your goods for at least two or three weeks.

The eccentric individual rambled on uninterruptedly for what seemed an interminable time.

His unparalleled unselfishness and self-control were revealed in his disinterested discussion of the event. Miss Carew undertook to alter the paragraph about postage, which turned out the be a paramount issue in the controversy. The postmaster at Sarnia displayed great self-control and self-possession in the circumstances.”

 

I Left My Shoulder in St. Louis.

This is a terrifying photograph.
This is a terrifying photograph.

I’m in St. Louis, attending a hosted event for a group of about 40 bloggers, designers, “sewlebrities,” industry folk, etc. to network, make stuff, and eat lots of snacks. In other words: I am surrounded by talented, hardworking, creative women, all of whom need snacks to keep going. It’s not a bad way to spend two-ish days, even with all that’s going on with work and (cough, cough) moving to Manhattan.

Did I really do that? Did I really move to Manhattan?

Okay!

The event is being hosted by BabyLock, a sewing machine company owned by the attractive, beneficent Tacony family. I like BabyLock a lot because they make really, really great sewing machines, but I also like them because they believed in me. Back in 2010, I had an idea for a show called Quilty and they were the first company to sign up to underwrite. You always remember your first sponsor. (They all real pretty n’ nice, too.)

There are activities and learning stations and all kinds of cool things going on here, but tonight the organizers outdid themselves: 15 minute massages. The two people they hired to come in and administer these complimentary massages were, I have deduced, actually Sent By An Angel Of The Lord. Who knew the best back-and-shoulder massage a gal can get is in a suburb of St. Louis in the back room of a sewing education center? This is why you travel.

My turn came. I heaved my aching body into the room and slumped, weary, weary, into the chair. Once I got my face comfortably smashed into the puffy donut, Dawn began to work me over.

“Oooo, waaaaow,” Dawn said, somewhere down at my lower back. “You are…waaaaaow, you are reeeeeally tight.” I got the impression Dawn doesn’t speak in elongated syllables as a rule, but that the state of my back was just that horrifying.

“Oh, yeah,” I said, muffled. “It’s been a rough couple of weeks.” But I didn’t go into the six work projects due Monday, the move to New York City, or that I’m putting at least two or three Southwest Airlines employees’ kids through college at this point. Because I don’t like to talk during these things. You can’t waste a second.

“Hooo-hoo! Hooo-weeeeee,” Dawn said, and whistled low. “Yap, yap. Yeeeah. That’s tight.” And then she said, “Ya poor thing,” and clucked her tongue.

At that I could’ve cried, partly because she had her thumb jammed into my shoulder blade and partly because whenever someone sincerely says, “poor thing,” I get sad. We’re all poor things, aren’t we. It’s hard work being alive.

The fifteen minutes galloped away and zap! Massage over, next person’s turn.

I have, at various times in my life and for various lengths of time, seen a psychiatrist. Results varied: I’ve been aided, I’ve been nonplussed, I’ve ended up more confused — and I’ve been poorer as a result, for sure. I hate to sound provincial, but I’m starting to think a regular massage is gonna do more for a person than a shrink — this person, anyway. Look: I have never, ever left a massage feeling worse than when I went in; it’s a hey of a lot cheaper, and when Dawn goes, “Hooo-hoo! That’s not good,” you know it’s fixable, whereas a shrink won’t even say that, even if he’s thinking it, and how’s he gonna fix it, anyway?

Thanks, BabyLock. Eurekas abound.

William Morris, Nervous Breakdowns.

You still need to pack the Sharpie.
You still need to pack the Sharpie, though. And the tape. See what I mean?

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.

We do.

I do.

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. 

Why I’m Moving To New York City

 

 

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

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

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

No?

I am moving to New York City.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Splendor On the Grass.

Molly Ringwald, smoking grass in John Hughes' The Breakfast Club.
Molly Ringwald, smoking grass in John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club.

Everyone is smoking pot!

Correction: Many people, not including me, are smoking pot!

I’ve been running errands all over town and I can’t make it two blocks without walking into, out of, or through a cloud of weed smoke.** It’s not because marijuana has been legalized in Illinois; I’m pretty sure we all would’ve heard if that had happened. No, all these people are out in flagrante because it is achingly beautiful outside: the Chicago winter was truly horrific and no social contract, K-9 unit, or stroke of blue lightening is gonna stop a grass smoker on a gorgeous May day in the city from takin’ it outside.

I couldn’t care less, you understand. I kinda like the smell of pot. That funky, piney, skunky smell, it’s kinda great. And around Chicago, where folks make a living trafficking in such things, you smell some pretty dank weed, too, real hydroponic stuff. To me, weed smells like contraband, like kids, like a party, like the woods. Those things are all right.

As for smoking it, no way. Oh, I’ve tried. But I hate it. Just hate it! Isn’t that something?

When various friends offer me grass or I find myself at a social gathering where people are smoking, I pass every time. This is because marijuana makes me sleepy, desirous of high quantities of food (any food), and swiftly renders any feeble powers of cognition I possess utterly useless. Twenty minutes into the whole thing, and I’m curled up on a chair (any chair), eating Nutella from the jar, going on incessantly (either in my head or aloud, always hard to say) about how I’m embarrassed I am that I can’t remember what I just said, or if I said it, or if how I said it came off right and do you have any almonds? orange juice? marshmallows? leftover broccoli? chips — oooh, chips??

I just get super lame. It’s almost like I have an allergy. Perhaps I’ll try that the next time I’m offered weed:

“Oh, no thanks. I can’t smoke. I’m allergic.”

“Really? Woah. What happens? You get hives or something?”

“No, I get completely lame.”

Smoke away, my smokey friends. Let the Mary Jane muses of spring call out to you, let the long holiday weekend follow a loopy, endless trail of purple haze; let your picnics be filled with really really really good fried chicken and sangria, and let your connection be in town and answering his phone. May you feel soft earth under your bare feet after our hard and punishing winter and may you have a lover to squeeze nearby (and may that lover finally not be wearing five layers and a puffer coat so you can get to more of him/her.)

I beg you all, above all, to be safe: don’t drive cars if you’re stoned or drunk. I like you too much, you and all your dopey, lopsided smiles.

**I like to think Weedsmoke is a little-known, low-rent version of Gunsmoke.

Dear Pittsburgh: Nice!

Florentijn Hofman's Rubber Duck, as seen in Pittsburgh last year.
Florentijn Hofman’s Rubber Duck, as seen in Pittsburgh last year. 

One of the many reasons I enjoy traveling (and I do enjoy it, despite occasional grumbling) is because I am frequently proven wrong. It’s great to be wrong.

Well, not always. You don’t want to be wrong about how much room you’ve got while parallel parking you friend’s Mercedes; you don’t want to be wrong about the date if you’re supposed to get married this afternoon. But when you’ve drawn lukewarm conclusions about a place — say, Pittsburgh — being wrong is awesome.

I thought Pittsburgh was kinda scratchy and grimy and that Pittsburghers were cranky, but the last time I was in Pittsburgh I was in my early twenties on a poetry gig. Turns out it was me who was scratchy and grimy and it was the other poets on the gig who were cranky. Sorry, Pittsburgh.

This time around I’m in high heels, here for Spring Quilt Market (look who’s fancy) and this time, I am seeing Pittsburgh for what it is: a great American city with more character and sass than most. Did you know Pittsburgh has a building called The Cathedral of Learning? It’s the tallest educational building in the Western hemisphere for heaven’s sake! Right here in Pittsburgh! Also, any salad becomes “Pittsburgh-style” when you top it with French fries. True story.

I came in hot yesterday from NYC and went straight to a salon for the manicure I needed to get before I left. I was driven there from the airport by a retired coal worker who, aside from being a really good taxi driver, fought in the Vietnam War, is a native of Pittsburgh, and does all his own plumbing and electric. In his gruff voice, he said, “This is a great city — you’re gonna have fun here, you’re gonna eat great, you’re gonna love it, no doubt about it — but it’s confusing as hell to get around. Accept that now, you’ll be all right. Everything to one side of Liberty Avenue is a street; everything to the other side is an avenue. So, you tell me you need to go to 6th St., we need to confirm.” He pulled his fishing hat down on his head a little further and got me to my manicure (on 6th St.) two minutes early. As we approached the city, I gazed out the window at all the bridges and re-purposed warehouses lining the shores of town. This is when I began to feel I was wrong about Pittsburgh.

At the salon, my manicurist looked so much like Lady Gaga — face, voice, laugh, everything — that I didn’t notice I had picked a horrible nail polish color. We were talking about quilting and she was getting very excited about the prospect of making a quilt herself; I was trying not to stare at her because she looked so much like Lady Gaga it was making me uncomfortable. Now I have a color of polish on my nails that looks positively fungal. But the point is that Lady Gaga is doing nails in Pittsburgh and she is really, really nice.

The research I did about the city surprised me, too: Pittsburgh is consistently ranked, year after year, among the top five most livable cities in the country. This is because there’s a lot of art here (Warhol was born in Pittsburgh and he has his own museum, for example), there are lots of colleges here, the sports teams do pretty well, the municipal government seems to not be fleecing its citizens, and crime is low. Also, the majority of the 300,000-ish people who live here can find work. This was the most revelatory thing I learned: I had the Pittsburgh-as-fallen-steel-capital image in my mind and figured on unemployment and attrition. Not at all. Pittsburgh is vital, thriving, and able to support growth. To wit: Lady Gaga told me the restaurant scene is exploding in Pittsburgh lately. You don’t find a ton of great restaurants in a dying city.

I also discovered that a Dutch artist named Florentijn Hofman created a 40-ft rubber ducky sculpture and Pittsburgh was the first American city to sail it. The artist made the duck to float upon waterways around the globe to bring happiness and joy to the good people of Earth. You can bet your bar of soap Hofman approached Chicago about the duck. He approached New York. Did either city say yes? Nope. But Pittsburgh was like,

“Let me make sure I understand. You want to sail a 40-ft rubber ducky down the Ohio River.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I like it. Let’s take a lunch while Cynthia draws up the paperwork. Do you like salad?”

 

Me and Renaldo, We Figure It Out.

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

Black, black, black was my mood this morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, Renaldo. We are all screwed.

My Love, My Bitcoin: Part I

posted in: Day In The Life, Luv, Tips 7
The bitcoin: gold's 21st century twin.
The bitcoin: gold’s 21st century twin.

My man is in bitcoin.

(This post — in two parts — is actually a love letter, but first we need to go over bitcoin.)

I’m pretty sure I know what you’ve heard about bitcoin, if you’ve heard of it at all: it’s sketchy, it’s complicated, it’s like money but it’s not actual money. Skepticism is a virtue, most attractive reader, and you’re right to have questions about any Next Big Thing, but if you’re working with incomplete or incorrect data, skepticism can quickly turn into cynicism, and that’s no fun for anyone, especially you, five years from now, when you smack yourself in the head for waiting on the whole bitcoin thing. I am not a bitcoin expert, but I have been using and trading the currency for well over a year now, and I think I can break it down for you a little bit so that it’s not so confusing or scary. Because bitcoin isn’t either one.

*     *     *

Do you remember a time when we didn’t use credit/debit cards to pay for absolutely everything we buy? I do. I was in high school.

My favorite thing ever was to drive to this record shop in Des Moines to buy bootlegged Tori Amos concert recordings. They were thirty bucks a pop, which was way too much, but I didn’t care. I’d find the CD I wanted most and, if I had thirty bucks cash in my wallet from waiting tables at Pizza Hut, I bought my record. There were no transaction fees. My purchase was not recorded in the Big Data cloud. The guy working the counter couldn’t steal my credit card number when I left. And, very important: if I didn’t have enough money to buy my CD I didn’t get to buy it. In other words, the whole thing was a cash transaction, great for all kinds of reasons.

I’ll say this a few more times, so you’ll have time to let it sink in: Bitcoin is cash on the Internet.

Right now, to buy anything online, from a cool scarf on eBay to a magazine subscription to a small llama, airplane hangar, franchise, etc., you have to use a credit card. (PayPal is linked to your credit card and/or your bank account, so same thing.) Whatever, whenever, and wherever online you buy, because you have to use a card, you’re traceable, data-mineable, and vulnerable to identity theft. You’re paying fees, the merchant is paying fees, and you are more than welcome to go into hideous debt if you wish, since credit cards let you buy all kinds of things (including small llamas) without actually having the money to pay for any of it.

This is not good.

I don’t particularly like ceding so much financial power/intel to MasterCard, Visa, etc. Think about it: do you want MasterCard all up in your business? Is it okay they’re tracking your llamas? Nevermind the agony of stolen card numbers. It happens so often, now. It happened to me this past holiday season, with the huge Target security leak. I had multiple charges in Lithuania on my credit card statement — and I was not in Lithuania at Christmastime. Not cool, Status Quo, and it wouldn’t have happened if I had simply paid for my milk and my chewing gum with cash.

Remember: Bitcoin is cash on the Internet.

My darling Yuri is a visionary. He believes, as many people believe, that Bitcoin is the future of money, not just in this country but in the whole world. Because something must change.

The government bailouts of the banks, the financial industry scandals, the weird economy, the projected $9.1 trillion dollars Mister Obama is setting us up to owe in the next few years — this stuff concerns Yuri and it concerns me, too. The U.S. dollar isn’t pinned to gold anymore, you realize: ours is a fiat currency, a monetary system that derives its value from government regulation or law. Pardon, but the words “value” and “government regulation” give me the willies when they’re in the same sentence. I’m a full-blooded American, what can I say? I’m into apple pie, eagles, and the government leaving me alone. All signs point to disaster with money being run like its being run these days, and as it gets worse, bitcoin will rise.

Bitcoin is a global, Internet-based currency available to everyone. Bitcoin with a capital “B” refers to the overall payment system; bitcoin with a lowercase “b” refers to the monetary unit. Bitcoin is considered “cryptocurrency” because it uses computer encryption to secure transactions. That’s all the technical stuff I’m going to throw at you right now. Tomorrow, we’ll get into how it actually works, okay? Okay. You’re doing great! It’s all really new, I understand, but you’re very smart and you’ll be helping to explain bitcoin to your friends at bridge club before you know it.

And I haven’t forgotten the love story, don’t worry. You see, I met Yuri because I bought bitcoin from him.

*Dangerously close to discussing politics on PaperGirl. Exeunt! Exeunt!

PAM’ing the Pan or “My Family Is Hilarious!”

posted in: Family, Food, Joke 12
PAM, ladies and gentlemen.
From the PAM can. (I love it when ingredients lists use 50-cent words like ‘trivial.”)

A few months ago, up at the lake house, an inside joke was born — and it’s one for the ages, too. I wasn’t there the moment “PAM the pan” came into existence, but by now the whole thing has a mind of its own and it doesn’t matter; family jokes are good like that.

Here’s what happened.

My sister’s fiancee, Jack, was making dinner. Jack is gifted in the kitchen and had made something delicious in a pan that unfortunately was giving him a little trouble. Stuff was sticking. My stepdad, Mark, not trying to be funny or ironic in any way, asked,

“Did you PAM the pan?”

PAM is a non-stick cooking spray, as most of us recognize. I am feeling very annoyed that I have to capitalize it like that, but it turns out “PAM” is an acronym: Product of Arthur Meyerhoff. Isn’t that something? Some dude figured out that you could spray canola oil on a pan and keep stuff from sticking to it and he actually named it after himself. Astonishing. Anyway, that’s what PAM stands for and none of that has to do with the story, though it is relevant that a) PAM is an inherently funny, plosive sound and b) non-stick cooking spray isn’t really Jack’s style in the first place.

So Mark’s question, “Did you PAM the pan?” was just too aurally/verbally fantastic to let go. Everyone in the room tried it out, and all were gleeful with the results — but they were not satisfied, no. I’m pretty sure my mom was responsible for the initial escalation because my mother is hilarious. Note: if you’re in a place where you can actually read these lines aloud, you should.

“Are you gonna make ham? Better PAM that pan.”

Then, my sister: “Damn! That ham pan need PAM!”

Then, Mark, chuckling: “Ask Sam. He’s got PAM. He’s got PAM for every pan.”

Mom again: “Look at that man, Sam. He can sure PAM a pan — why yes, he can!”

Then Jack: “Please stop.”

Jack is frequently the straight man to Fons women hijinks. He loves it, though — enough to marry my sister, which is solid evidence. All this PAM talk went on and on and finally made its way to me when Mom told me the story. My sister Nan in New York learned about it, too, and since then, we’ve had entire family email threads playing this game. Some of my favorites have included:

“Gram never PAM’ed the pan, no ma’am. Ham or lamb, she used a no-PAM pan.”

and

“Hotdamn, Stan, you better scram if you ain’t gon’ PAM that pan. Makin’ flan calls for a PAM’ed pan, man!”

The best things in life aren’t always free. I mean, I love a great handbag and those ain’t free, let me tell you. But there isn’t an admission charge to my family’s weird sense of humor and this stuff is priceless. You maybe had to be there, and that’s okay. But if you were there, you’d be laughing.

Just Give Me Three Robots and a Cute Scientist.

posted in: Paean, Tips 6
Best show ever. Yes, even better than The Beverly Hillbillies.
Best show ever. Yes, better EVEN than The Beverly Hillbillies.

When I was in high school, I made a thrilling discovery. I discovered Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I was up in my room one Saturday night. It was around Christmastime, well after midnight. Mom let us girls stay up as late as we wanted, pretty much. We were in high school, after all, and if we were home, reading or drawing or doing some kind of creative project*, as was our like, there was no harm in letting us stay up; when we were tired, we’d go to sleep.

I had the retired family TV in my room. (Still not sure how I scammed that away from my sisters, but it was awesome.) I was doing my favorite thing ever: painting a picture while watching all the late shows. That night, after SNL, after the show that came on after SNL and the show after that, I saw Mystery Science Theater 3000 for the first time. Someone at the Des Moines area NBC affiliate station was watching over me.

Here’s what Mystery Science Theater 3000 — or “MST3K” — is, from The Wikipedia:

“[MST3K] features a man and his robot sidekicks who are imprisoned on a space station by an evil scientist and forced to watch a selection of bad movies, as part of a psychological experiment… To stay sane, the man and his robots provide a running commentary on each film, making fun of its flaws, and wisecracking their way through each reel in the style of a movie-theater peanut gallery. Each film is presented with a superimposition of the man and robots’ silhouettes along the bottom of the screen. The film is interspersed with skits tied into the theme of the film being watched or the episode as a whole.”

The episode that came on that night was Santa Claus Conquers The Martians and it remains my favorite episode of all time. I had never laughed harder in my life or been more instantly in love — I loved this show more than I loved my realest high-school crush, Cary Hollingsworth. It was for real. My eyes were glued to the screen, my mouth hung open. This was magic. What was this?? I had to know. Mind you, it was 1995; we didn’t have internet in the house, yet. I didn’t know the name of this incredible program and I couldn’t find out everything about it in 4 seconds flat with a google search.

But it wasn’t getting away from me. No, no, no. The very first commercial break, I ran out of my room and bounded down the stairs to the TV in the living room. I didn’t care if I woke anyone up. I dug through a drawer of VHS videotape and found something blank enough. I crammed it into the VCR, turned on the TV and clicked through the channels to find my show. I jammed my finger on the big red button and was able to record three-quarters of the Santa Claus episode. I watched the whole thing again when it was over. I collapsed into bed around 4:30, deliriously happy.

I had found my people. My VHS tape was my evidence.

The show tapped a vein for me, tone- and humor-wise. These people were smart, hella smart, and totally irreverent — but they weren’t gross. If there was a fart joke, it was because it was the best joke that could be made at that moment in the film, not the easiest. This appealed to me. The sheer number of cultural references made in a single episode expanded my knowledge of the world: who was Johnny Mathis? What is a “wrathful Buddha”? I learned a ton while I wiped tears from my eyes, silently shaking with laughter till I had to gasp for air. I taped every episode while the show ran on that station, which was well over a year.

As it turned out, MST3K was beloved by a lot of people. It’s a cult thing, which means that the weirdness of it was so specific, it appeals to a huge number of people. (Fascinating how that works.) The show ran from ’88-’99 on various networks and there was actually a feature film in ’96, which I went to on opening night, naturally. Members of the cast perform a live version of the show from time to time even today and I travelled far into the suburbs a few years ago with a friend to check it out. It was a scene, that’s for sure. But it wasn’t mine.

I’m not a follower. I don’t get dressed up in costumes for movie screenings. I participated in a pub crawl exactly once in my life (never again.) The cult of MST3K ain’t for me: there will be no Tom Servo** tattoos. But you don’t have to be a part of the extended scene of something to love it. Last night while I was sewing, I watched one of my favorite episodes — Mitchell — on a well-worn DVD and I was so happy. I was sewing and chuckling and marveling that anyone ever believed enough in that bizarre and wonderful show to give it a budget and produce it.

I’m so glad they did. What a bunch of freaks.

**I once got a hold of a hot glue gun and attacked an old typewriter. Gluing plastic gemstones and fake flowers to an old typewriter is the kind of project one must do in the wee hours.

**One of the robots.

That Chi-Town Character.

posted in: Day In The Life, Sicky 6
The Air Jordan 1 Chicago, courtesy a blog post from Cleanup Clothing. Gentlemen, I do not have permission to run this photo but it is so fresh.
The Air Jordan 1 Chicago, courtesy a blog post from Cleanup Clothing. Gentlemen, I do not have permission to run this photo but it is so fresh.

I’m home. I’m home and I’m incorrigible.

I leave with my suitcases, I cry that I gotta go. I come home, I get crazy, wanting there to be something here there just ain’t. I miss Yuri. I probably just need to eat a square meal that I made on my own stovetop and kiss my boyfriend. Both, probably, but I can’t have both.

Let me tell you something I learned when I was very sick. A serious warning: if you are squeamish, you should go.

*       *      *

When I was very sick after my first surgery, there were a lot of things going wrong. The surgeons at Mayo Clinic removed the whole of my colon and gave me an ileostomy. (I’ll let you go ahead and google image search that one on your own, dear.) The surgery didn’t go well. When surgery doesn’t go well, entropy sets in. Your organs cannot possibly imagine why they’ve just lost one of their own, and this leads to riots. The magnificent — albeit deeply distressed — body then reacts to both the loss and the incoming foreign invaders, fighting back with inflammation, abscess, and government shutdown. You are in another land when you are that sick. Nothing you knew makes sense; you carry nothing into the New World.

There was leak in the revised plumbing the doctors crafted in me. Trust me on this one if you trust me at all: avoid the experience of leaking internally.

I won more in the lottery: my fancy new ileostomy was suppurating on the inside and the outside within a day of my surgery. Among other problems, I had a separation, which meant the skin around the stoma (look it up) was pulling away from the stoma itself. This extraordinary maneuver created a nightmare moat around my stoma where bile, blood, pus, and sh-t did collect. It occurred to me on several occasions that if I were born just a handful of decades earlier — and definitely a century earlier — I would be extremely dead from my predicament. But I would’ve been dead before that. It was cold comfort.

All that bile and blood and sh-t, all that humor had to be cleaned out, darling.

And so it was that a nurse would come to change my ostomy bag and clean out the moat. This would involve taking a long, long Q-Tip and gettin’ up in there. The moat needed excavating. Frequently. Nurse had to insert that long swab into the crevasse between my intestine and my tummy and wick out all the muck.

I left my body during this procedure. This Westerner, this white girl from Iowa had a mantra, a monotone “da-da-da-da-da-da-dummm-da-da-da” that she chanted as she lolled her head from side to side, almost autistic in her zoned-outness, while the cleaning happened. We joke about “going to [our] happy place” but you do, when you have a 8” cotton swab in your abdomen, you do go someplace. And anyplace will do, any place is happier than where you are. It hurt a lot and it was terrifying to experience.

One day, the nurse on duty came into clean my separation. She was but one of the extraordinary GI nurses at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Upon seeing me retreat, emotionally, mentally, spiritually into an almost catatonic state before she began, she stopped.

“You should do it.”

Like someone flipped a switch.

“What?”

“You should do it, you should clean it out yourself,” she said. “It’s not as bad in there as you think.” She took the swab and put her fingers about an inch up from the cotton wick. “This is as far as it goes down. It’s healing. It’s way better than it was last week. I think if you clean it yourself, you’ll feel better. You won’t be so scared.”

No way did I have the courage. But within a week, that nurse convinced me to clean my own wound. And she was right. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It was beyond disgusting. It was laughably hard. But I did it. And in that beautiful, rare tone that comes from experiencing something truly humorous in the true gallows, I put a sticky swab (4 of 5) on the tray next to my bed and my thin voice creaked out with a chuckle,

“Hey, this stuff builds character, right?”

The nurse, who was not the friendliest nurse in the ward, actually, said, “No, honey. It reveals character you already had.”

I’ve never forgotten that. Don’t you forget it, either.

 

Southern Belles (and Other Voodoo.)

Attractive Florida woman pulling parrots. Postcard, circa 1950.
Attractive Florida woman pulling parrots. Postcard, circa 1950.

Florida lures and catches people. It’s got a little voodoo going.

Forget the tourists that flock here; the Disneyland pilgrims, the week-long vacationers lounging in the Keys. I’m looking at the people who spend months down here at a time or more, people who have Florida in their veins, who don’t just drink the Kool-Aid but bathe and shower in it, too.

First, you got your snowbirds. These are people who live in northern parts of the country while it’s sane to do so (roughly May-October, though lately its anyone’s guess) then fly south to escape winter. Snowbirds are usually older folk, but I don’t think this is necessarily because they’re finicky or because they sincerely enjoy canasta: they just have the money to come here. I know plenty of thirtysomethings who would love nothing more than to split their year in half and escape to balmy climes when it’s -30. Alas, jobs.

Then there’s the Miami Factor, another lure. Miami is to the rest of Florida as New York City is to the rest of the state of New York. There are dairy farms and motor homes in New York State, but you’d never know it, deep in a throbbing, sweaty underground nightclub on any given night in lower Manhattan. Same goes for Miami: Jay-Z and Justin Bieber are surely doing disgusting/fabulous things with or to various body parts in Miami — possibly at this very moment! — while I’m preparing to demo quilt block construction to the fine people of Baker. Same state, different worlds. I’m still trying to figure out if Miami has gotten more fancy/cool in my lifetime or if I was simply clueless about Miami’s hotness and then someone told me. Either way, the Miami Factor brings legions to Florida because there are crazy parties there and there is apparently very good art there. So you have those party/art people here in Florida, too.

You’ve got immigrants, legal and otherwise, seeking refuge. Most of them come far across the terrifying ocean to touch Florida sand. The fingertip of the state is the first — and sometimes the last — U.S. point they touch. After that, we don’t know for sure if they stay, but I’m writing this from a popular/dangerous entry point.

You’ve a large number of indigent here, indigent for the reasons why people get that way: mental illness, addiction, poverty, abuse, etc. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development does a “Homeless Assessment Report” and in 2013, Florida claimed about 50,000 people without a home, third only to California and New York. The weather’s good here. It’s easier to be without a home in Pensacola than it is to be without one in Green Bay.

The rest of Florida, seems to me, is split into two groups: transplants, who fell in love with Florida and moved all operations so they would never have to leave (Ernest Hemingway comes to mind) — and the natives. 

I think I like natives best. You would, too, if you had been meeting the people I met this week.

“Honey, you get yourself some’uh that strawberry wiggle?”

Strawberry wiggle is a dessert and yes, ma’am, I did.

I also got me som’uh that homemade fried chicken, fried turkey, gravy, green beans, candied sweet potato casserole, pecan pie, mousse cake, and sweet tea. I ate it sitting at big, long picnic table on the front porch of the shop where I’m teaching. Me and the quilters, we ate together, and I didn’t talk too much so that I could listen.

There’s a way down here, a way I love. The natives — and transplants who’ve been here for so long they count — are defiantly generous. You wouldn’t think defiance and generosity could live in harmony, but they can and do down here. And this defiance isn’t toward you: it’s toward life itself, toward the weight of it. These people simply will not be beaten by anything, man, nature, or otherwise, and their resolve is palpable. Perhaps the generosity rises from that, though it might be the other way around: the giving, loving nature came first and endures suffering against all odds. War, blight, hurricane, poverty, etc. — it’s all in His hands, honey, so get you some’uh that strawberry wiggle and git in these arms.

That’s what my new friend Margaret says when she sees someone she hasn’t seen in awhile. She opens her long arms wiiiide, like she’s praisin’ Jesus, and she smaaahles this huge smaaahle and she says:

“Honey, git in these arms!”

And you don’t want to her to let go.

The Handbag Effect.

That's her.
That’s her.

In Nebraska, you get an extra scoop of ice cream at the ice cream shop just because you’re nice. That actually happened.

You can’t get a good piece of fish anywhere, but what’s wrong with you? You’re as landlocked as a person can get in the United States. Eat steak.

In Nebraska, you can visit the International Quilt Study Center — a.k.a. Valhalla for quilt geeks. You’ll receive a near-stately welcome and be rendered speechless when you enter the galleries. Perhaps for the first time in your life you will see quilts given the honor and solemn respect they deserve. This is way, way better than eating substandard fish or even well-ordered steak. Please go there.

And if you’re carrying a Celine handbag within state lines, you will be mobbed in Nebraska.

Look, these are things I know and I tell you because I care about you.

My mother and I stopped by an outlet mall on our way into town. Mom needed pantyhose. We figured at the outlet mall we could get out and stretch our legs, find a cup of coffee, get those hose. And so we exited for Nebraska Crossing, a sprawling, newly-constructed discount compound. I’m not a huge fan of outlet malls; the shopping experience always feels a bit like a mouthful of styrofoam. But it was a warm day and there was a Brooks Brothers store on the grounds, so I was game. I like Brooks Brothers shirts.

So Mom and I are going along and twice in two different shops, I was complimented on my handbag. I am currently toting around a rawther nice handbag, it’s true: it’s a Celine Phantom bag from last year. It’s oxblood-colored (strangely tempting to use the UK spelling there — “oxblood-coloured” — but I wouldn’t dare) and is not the mini-version of the Phantom that has been showing up lately. This beast is the full monty, the real deal, and it’s head-slappingly gorgeous, if you’re into that sort of thing, which I am. The bag was a gift, and that’s a story for another day, when you and I have a quality Zinfandel and about an hour to kill at an airport bar.

My mother found her pantyhose and that was all we bought the whole time we were at Nebraska Crossing, but we looked around the place for well over an hour, enjoying being together and not working. The last store we popped into was the Michael Kors store. We walked in and were just about to walk out when a twinky young sales assistant approached me.

“Oooh, I love your bag,” he said, eyes fixed on the smooth leather. “It almost looks like Celine.”

“It is Celine,” I said with a smile.

My answer appeared to throw the young man into physical pain.

“NO!” he gasped. “Braden!!!”

A second twinky sales associate levitated over. Both of them were 90lbs soaking wet, both barely in their twenties. They flapped their hands and were jumping up and down, touching my handbag and clutching their chests.

“That is seriously Celine,” said the first young man, fingering the tiny logo at the top of the bag. “Seriously, seriously, seriously Celine.” He was almost in tears. He looked at his friend. “Phoebe Philo is life.”*

“Can I hold it??” the second one asked me.

Of course he could, I said, and I let the boys try out the bag. One of them joked that he was going to take off with it and made a little motion of turning and running, which was slightly less funny to me than it was to his friend.

Two other sales associates came over, both girls this time, both every bit as hysterical as their colleagues. I now had a veritable gallery of youth cooing and fluffernutting over my handbag. It was fun for a moment, but then a terrible wave of depression came over me. These kids cared too much about this. I darkened right there before them, though they didn’t know it. To be complimented is one thing; to be conspicuously gagged over for an object you happen to possess is another. It was intensely uncomfortable, being the carrier of such wanton material love.

But I took a breath and allowed it to run its course. Because I know what it’s like to grow up in the sticks and see an artifact From Beyond. When you have your sights on leaving cornfields for skyscrapers, it’s a big deal when a high-rise shimmers into view. You gotta inspect it, you gotta fuel your next year of high school with that image or experience. For some kids on the prairie, it’s music From Beyond that keeps them going. For others, it’s pictures of Istanbul or Belize. For others, it’s fashion. It’s Celine. And it’s not fair to judge a kid for the obsession, not fair to make his love small or light; to him, it’s entirely serious, possibly life-or-death serious.

We left, and my mom, who hadn’t seen the full freakout, said, “What was that all about?”

“Fashion,” I said, and we went to find the car.

*Phoebe Philo is the British designer at the helm of the house of Celine.

The Pendennis Observer, Observing Pendennis.

posted in: Pendennis 2
The author and the monkey.
The author and the monkey, 2012.

When life springs eternally from a suitcase, I turn to the monkey.

I’m not quite eccentric enough to pack him along with me on the road, but I do have a folder of pictures of him on my computer and sometimes, we flip. 

Travel means nothing to this monkey. I leave Des Moines for Lincoln, Nebraska tomorrow, and Pendennis, he don’t care where we go or that we’re not going home. Or that we’ll be home just two days before going to Florida for four. 

Pendennis pays no taxi fare, cares not for TSA pre-check. Pendennis doesn’t need to take a jacket. Pendennis can’t miss his favorite teacup or wish he packed his softest nightgown.

Pendennis only has that face, that face that remains unchanged by death, taxes, and airport security. Indeed, the stuffed monkey remains unchanged also by happiness; in my most ecstatic moments, Pendennis is Pendennis is Pendennis. 

And he’s so funny.

Everything is going to be fine.

 

Lobster? You Brought ‘Er!

posted in: Food, Tips 1
Me, too! Image: Wikipedia.
Me, too! Image: Wikipedia.

 

I have just made a lobster bisque.

Here’s what’s happening: Yuri and I have been apart since…too long. He’s in New York. I’ve been crisscrossing the Midwest, flinging fabric around, leaving thread and gum wrappers everywhere. Unable to stand being separated a moment longer, we’ve hatched a logistically-challenged plan to spend about 36 hours with each other in Chicago before Monday comes around and spoils everything. I left Iowa this morning before the sunrise and arrived in Chicago just after it; he’ll begin his trek from the east coast within a few hours. I cannot wait till he gets here. I’m slightly freaking out.

“Yuri,” I texted him, “I’d like to make you something marvelous to eat. It’ll be all ready when you get here. What would you like, darling? Pick anything your heart desires — absolutely anything!”

I watched the little talk-bubble ellipsis shimmer on my iPhone. Then the text popped up:

“Can you make lobster bisque?”

Yikes!

“Absolutely,” I texted back, because though I’ve never made lobster bisque, it’s just soup, right?

Cooking is fun because it’s the closest I get to doing — and enjoying — science experiments. You take a beaker of this, a cup of that, you boil this, you mix that, and blam! stuff changes color, there’s oxidation, titration, solids, and who knows what else, but you can eat everything and people go, “Wow!” and there are no grades.

Here’s what I have very recently learned about making lobster bisque:

  • It’s expensive. I purchased four lobster tails (roughly 4oz. each) from the fishmonger at Whole Foods, and that came to a little over $35. Then I had to fetch the cream and the stock and so forth. Not cheap — and those little lobster butts don’t yield much. This some fancy soup. 
  • It’s time-consuming. I recommend catching up on emails between steps. You’ll get a lot done. 
  • It’s sorta gross. Have you made lobster bisque? If not, let me tell you a little secret: you puree the shells. The shells are cooked with the soup, y’all, at least in the recipe I used. Lobster bisque is basically a way to drink essence o’ lobster and that means you need to puree, pummel, extract, soak, simmer, reduce, and otherwise distill every morsel of that thing to git all you can git. When I was reading through the process I had to read twice that you use a food processor to puree the dang shells and then return them to the pot. You don’t eat the shells — that orangey muck is pushed through a sieve later — but you’re kind of eating the shells because, well…Cuisinart. 

As I was going briskly about my bisque business, I thought about Maine, where “lobstahs” are to Maine folk as deep dish pizza is to Chicagoans: plentiful and fiercely protected.

In the summer of 2007 and 2009, I stayed a month on Maine’s picturesque Little Cranberry Island (known to the locals as “Little Cran”.) My artistic mentor and friend Sonja, along with her husband Bill, founded The Islesford Theater Project (ITP) on Little Cran and they asked me to be involved. Making theater with those people in the summer was a true gift and we made a lot of people happy, I think; whenever the ITP has a show, people from all over the Cranberry Isles get in their boats and skim across the water to come see.

And when you’re in the cast, you get to stay in Sonja and Bill’s house and eat Sonja’s home cooking every night. This is a very, very good thing. Blueberry crisps, tacos, Indian food — that woman can and does cook everything. Well, Sonja can get fresh lobstahs straight from the lobstahmen working about 500 yards from her back porch. She made lobstah mac n’ cheese once, which was transcendental. Once, everyone at the table got a fresh lobstah on a plate. Bam, lobstah on a plate. Dinner was served. There was a dish of melted butter for each of us, shell-crackin’ implements, and a whole lotta napkins. The flavor was incredible, but if I’m honest, I must confess: Whole lobsters kind of gross me out. The whole “sea bug” thing does not inspire hunger in me. And after making this soup, I’m not that excited to eat it. I’m excited for other things.

Just hurry, Yuri.

That Child!!

posted in: Family, Story 3
Me, at seven.
Me, age seven.

On a plane the other night, I read the cover article in the latest Atlantic about the dangers of over-parenting. The concept that parents have been over-protecting, over-scheduling, and over-hanging out with their kids for about a generation and a half has (finally) settled into popular discourse. The idea that you don’t need to — and shouldn’t — watch your kids so closely is not new, but it’s no longer a fringey idea.

The article opened with a report on The Land, a “junk playground” in Wales which is simply a huge expanse of barren acreage where kids can go run around, burn stuff, create fiefdoms, and wage wars with each other if they feel like it. There is no hand-sanitizer, no rubberized asphalt. There are no outlets. There are trees, sticks, non-deadly snakes, and no adults to blow whistles. (The Land is monitored by capable adults, however; the article quotes one of the supervisors describing what she does as “loitering with intent.”) There are water holes, ropes hanging from trees, and there’s a lot of mud when it rains. You can stay out all day, and kids do; they disappear for hours and hours.

I love this.

My childhood was extremely dangerous. My sisters and I lived on Meadowlark Farm, which was seven miles outside of town (eight from the nearest hospital.) Though “Meadowlark Farm” sounds benign/chipper, the reality is that that 80-acre land was hazard’s amusement park. There were rattlesnakes. There were undercurrents in Middle River. There was a forest — or “timber,” which is Iowanese for “forest.” There were actively harvested corn fields. There were crumbly shale banks, ginormous bugs, mud holes, gravel roads, large rusty objects frequently sticking out of the ground, bees, lawnmowers, and — wait for it — an abandoned cemetery across the road. I’m serious. And we had several sets of neighbors that were about two years out from being huge Kid Rock fans, if you get what I’m saying.

We were always two steps away from peril. And it made for some strong children.

Being exposed to risk is important for a kid. How else will you know you can do stuff? I’m not suggesting that any child should be in danger at the hands of adults — that’s called abuse or neglect. I’m talking about consensual risk-taking. I’m talking about, “Hey, kid, take your coat and this apple and this bottle of juice if you’re going out hiking all day.”

Which is just how my mom and dad handled things. As a result, my sisters and I, young as we were, were antifragle: we exposed to stressors that resulted in strength. We were good in an emergency (even if that “emergency” was that the crik was too low to cross in our usual spot.) We were physically healthy, which almost goes without saying. Our imaginations were almost freakishly developed and developing. Essentially, the joy of that sort of kid-rearing is that it yields children who are able to become decision-makers without constant guidance from some adult figure. Hovering adults think they know better and are helping. They might know something, but until there’s blood, actual stranger-danger, or engulfing flames…I tend to think kids don’t need that much help. Remember, before the Industrial Revolution, eight-year-olds were drinking beer, visiting brothels, and workin’ jobs. I’m not suggesting we return to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, but I do think a big field of rural nothingness on a cold autumn morning is about the best thing that ever happened to me (at least till I went to San Francisco on spring break my junior year in college.)

Please read the next post, “There Will Be Mud.” It is a story that illustrates my point and is hopefully as funny and painful to you as it is to me and my older sister Hannah. 

 

When Wine Goes Bad.

posted in: Art, Food, Rant 7
Very nice, as beverages go.
Very nice, as beverages go.

We all have fanboy moments, geek-outs, obsessions. I sure do.

We identify ourselves vis a vis our preferences and interests. This strikes me as normal and healthy. It starts early, when as kids we swear allegiance to either chocolate or vanilla, and it goes on from there: consider Trekkies, (who get picked on more than is probably necessary) or model train collectors (who wish they’d get picked on more.) There are cupcake fanatics and Twilight fans and many millions of quilt geeks out there, with whom I proudly stand. Even choosing not to be a fan of anything is an identity choice; the antifan, the independent — this is a (paradoxically) popular option. It’s human to seek our bliss, whatever it is, and as long as no one is doing harm, I support bliss-finding of all kinds.

But let us linger on that “doing harm” part.

While I was sewing the other night, I watched a documentary about sommeliers. Somm, made in 2012 by director Jason Wise, followed four American males over the course of a year as they studied and then sat for the Master Sommelier exam.

The Master Sommelier exam is “an almost impossible to pass” test administered once a year by the Court of Master Sommeliers. There are three parts to the test, all more torturous than the next: there’s the theory part, where the subject must be able to do something outrageous, like correctly predict the temperature on a typical day in May in some ancient Mediterranean terroir; there’s the blind tasting, where the quaking, shaking young man or woman must suck down multiple mystery wines and accurately answer what they are and where they’ve come from, down to the vintner and the year; and then there’s the service portion of the test, where these pour (sorry) souls must execute pitch-perfect wine service to people who aren’t real customers, but the members of “the Court” who are actively trying to make them fail.

The exam is an exercise in absurdity. Only 135 people in 36 years have passed this course.

The four guys followed in the film were open and honest about how studying for the test had all but ruined their respective relationships — and their girlfriends concurred. The test created tension between the friends, took its toll on their bodies (no sleep, lots of wine, mega-anxiety) and though it wasn’t a major focus of the film, I can only imagine the economic impact of the experience on a Masters-bound somm. Most take off work to study full-time, and to try all these fancy wines one must eventually purchase them, I assume? And the Knights of the Court of the Round Table of Master Sommeliers of Camelot’s Men don’t administer the test for free, naturally: it’s $325 to register, and you have to get to the city where it’s held, find someplace to stay, and you’d better be rocking a killer suit when you show up all shaved, haircutted, two-bitted, etc.

I was more than a little grossed out by all this.

Though it cannot be denied that fine winemaking — “vinification” if you’re nasty — requires skill, craftsmanship, innovation, and a hell of a lot of work, at the end of the day, you’re gonna pee this stuff out. I apologize for being crass, but this is the reality of any beverage. Does good wine taste delicious? Oh, yes. Does it make you want to sing and make art? Totally. If you choose the right bottle on a date, are you going to impress the waiter and up your chances of getting lucky? You just might, Johnny. And these are all good things that you can’t get from ordering a Coke.

I also want to give props to people who know wine. Full disclosure: I dated a sommelier last summer. He has risen through the ranks of the Chicago restaurant scene, he’s extremely skilled in his job and he’s passionate. That’s cool; he’s not the problem.

It was the level of obsession and elitism on display in Somm that made me want to order a Mr. Pibb in pure defiance of a world that creates such monsters. I would’ve ordered a damned Diet Rite if I could’ve, and popped the lid with a flourish reserved for a pricey sauterne. When I watched one of the guys say, in a kind of trance, speaking-in-tongues state over a glass of white, “This wine is bright, this wine is clear, this wine is from the Loire Valley; this wine is medium body, this wine has vanilla notes, this wine…this wine is freshly-cut garden hose,” I stopped stitching at my sewing machine, hollered, “Oh for GOD’S SAKE!” and threw my half-square triangle in the general direction of the screen.

The Master Sommelier Exam prides itself on being exclusive, but they’ve landed backward: these folks have shut mere mortals out so completely, they’ve made us the enviable ones: we can still enjoy glasses of wine; they can’t. We can still get excited about a $30 bottle that we won’t describe much better than “really good” and we can move on after it’s poured to talk about other things that interest us, like…not wine. The tower they’ve built is all ivory, no stone. They can’t love the thing they love anymore because when you love something, you set it free.

(I don’t know how that works, either, but it was a perfect way to end that paragraph.)

Anything that can ripen can blight; everything, if conditions are right/wrong, can go septic. Find your bliss. But prune it.

The Canoodling Burrito: A Love Story

No.
No.

I found myself on a Chicago el train tonight, but I wasn’t supposed to be there. If my itinerary had gone as planned, I would be in Iowa.

After my gig in Cleveland, I planned to go straight through Chicago to Des Moines, no pitstop at home. (I’ll be in Des Moines for the next two weeks, filming Love of Quilting for PBS.) But when our flight was delayed (and delayed and delayed) out of Cleveland and most everyone missed their connections, I had an idea. I deplaned, slipping through the crowd of grumpy travelers to seek out a free Southwest ticket agent further down the terminal. I spied a friendly-looking blonde lady at gate A9 and went for it.

ME: (Exceedingly chipper, non-threatening:) Hello! How are you!

SOUTHWEST TICKET LADY: Hi there. How can I help you?

ME: Well! It’s cra-ray-zay! I was on Flight 313 from Cleveland and, you know, all that rain… Well, I have not missed my connection to Des Moines. I can absolutely make it. But the truth is, ma’am, is that I live in Chicago? And my home is here? And is there any way that I could, you know, go home to my condo tonight? Could I fly to Iowa tomorrow, instead? I don’t know if this is possible, but wow, would it ever be great to, you know… Could… My bed, and my…my bed.

SOUTHWEST TICKET LADY: Let’s see what we can do. (Clacks on computer. Pauses.) We can do that. No problem. I can put you on a flight tomorrow. Morning or evening?

I nearly hugged her.

My luggage went onto Des Moines, but I didn’t care. It would be safe in the baggage room overnight, and who needs mascara, anyway?* I got a boarding pass for tomorrow and waltzed out of the airport. I was going home! I wasn’t pulling any heavy luggage! The words “footloose and fancy free” came instantly to mind. I did a little two-step on the moving walkway. I had visions of a glass of red wine, a book, and my glorious, glorious bed, which would be waiting for me with fresh sheets because I had thought to change the linen before I left town.

I made my way to the train platform. Orange Line to the Loop. Right before the train left the station, a couple came in and sat in the two seats directly in front of me. They were early thirty-somethings; white, preppy and well-groomed but not so wildly attractive that I thought I was looking at prom king and queen. There was actually a touch of nerdiness about them, but they were both dressed like they worked in PR or at Deloitte and Touche, whatever that is. It was abundantly clear that the guy had just arrived and the young lady had come to the airport to meet him.

Let me tell you that they were excited to be together. Very excited.

The pair were talking rapidly and kissing each other in between sentences, then in between words. When they first started this canoodling, I was filled with happiness: lovers reunited is a beautiful thing to witness. This feeling was followed hot on the heels by a terrible pain, however; Yuri is in New York and I am not and I wanted nothing more in the universe than to kiss my lover between sentences, too. (And everywhere else while I’m at it — hey-o!)

My self-pity didn’t last long, because the canoodling couple started to annoy me. They were talking a little bit too loud about the guy’s trip, for one thing. And these kisses were sort of anemic; his lips were squished into a droopy grape shape that he kept smushing into her cheek. And she’d be halfway through a syllable and stop to pucker up. It was like this:

GUY: Yeah, he’s doing great.

(Kiss.)

GIRL: Did your mom saying anything about the oven mitt?

(Long smooch.)

GUY: She loved it. Oh, Ronnie’s going to be in Chicago next month.

(Kiss.)

GIRL: Oh (Kiss) that’s (Kiss) awesome.

(Kiss.)

I pulled out my magazine and slumped down in my seat; I tried to get into an Atlantic article about helicopter parenting and fight the urge to wield, in this perfect of circumstances for it, one of the finest expressions in the English language: Get a room!! 

But then came the food. And I was too grossed out to do anything but cover my mouth and look out the window.

The kissing and cooing sounds were joined by the sounds of a food wrapper being opened. Cellophane or paper was being pulled down what I perceived to be a burrito. Now, between syllables and kisses, there was…chewing. Mastication. Food. She would take a little nibble of this burrito and then, mouth full, would peck him on the lips. Then he would talk a little more, bend his head over to take a bite, and then talk more, and then smush his grape lips onto her neck. I was horrified. I could not get the vision of refried beans and saliva and bed sheets out of my head. It was a physical reaction; I felt ill. When you’re on a train, the people sitting in front of you are right there. I was almost directly implicated. It was almost that kind of party.

This went on. We were close enough to my stop that I didn’t get up and move. I also realized immediately that this was PaperGirl material, so I hung on. I stole two glances: the first, to try and catch the guy’s eye to give him a cold, hard, “EW” look; that failed. The second time I looked up from my recoiled pose was to confirm that these two people were actually making out while eating a burrito. I’m glad I took that second look because guess what?

It was a Rice Krispie treat!

I brightened considerably. Well! A Rice Krispie treat! That’s sorta cute! I kinda like these two, I thought, and I no longer felt like I could barf. Rice Krispie treats are sorta like kisses themselves: sweet, kinda sticky, well-intentioned. It was amazing to me how different I felt about the situation I was in when the food changed from a stinky, cheesy burrito to an innocuous rice-and-marshmallow snack.

They probably went home and had a lot of sex.

*Me, a lot.

Tips For The Beginner Quilter In All of Us (A Diagram-Chart-Schematic-Graphic)

posted in: Quilting, Work 6
Everyone likes shapes. That's Grandma Moses, by the way.
Everyone likes shapes. That’s Grandma Moses, by the way.

I’m in Cleveland at the Original Sewing and Quilt Expo show. I’ll be teaching today; tomorrow, I’ll teach again and then give a lecture. If you’re in the state of Ohio, you should do the following immediately:

1. Eat a buckeye
The candy, I mean! Not the sports fan, tree, chicken, or passenger train that also use the term “buckeye.” Eating a passenger train… What’s wrong with you??

2. Drive to the OSQE show.
It’s at the I-X Center. I don’t know what I-X is for, but is there any better place for us all to find out than in the actual I-X Center? Clearly, there is not.

3. Come find me!
I’m wearing pants, shoes, and a top. And earrings. And a necklace. And bra and underwear, naturally, and I’m deodorized and flossed. Can’t miss me. Shouldn’t miss me, really. We can rap about the tip sheet up there. It’s full of good information for beginner quilters of all ages and stages.

4. Gimme one of those buckeyes.
I smell peanut butter on you. You’re holding out. C’mon, man, hurry up… No, just do it quick! Just be cool! Aright, aright. Now we’re talkin’… Mmmm…

:: munch munch ::

The End.

Taste-Makin’, Makin’-Taste! Photos Post-Renovation.

From the most recent Neiman Marcus catalog.
In the most recent Neiman Marcus catalog, a Scalamandre bonanza.

See that Scalamandre red wallpaper with the zebras?? Yeah, I see it too! Every day! In my bathroom!

Looks like I was a touch ahead of the crowd on the Scalamandre zebra wallpaper, friends. Neiman Marcus has licensed the print. Now, a person can get pillows and dishes with the motif and be black, white, and red all over. Just like me! The wallpaper was the highest-ticket item I purchased in my renovation, relatively speaking, and I love every crimson inch of it. Those zebras move, sistuh.

I’ve taken lots of pictures of both my bathroom and my kitchen with the intention of sharing them, but when I get to the “insert photo” moment here on the PG, I balk. I get letters from guys in prison, you know. That gives a girl pause when she’s about to post photos of her bathroom mirror, especially because she’s fully aware 99% of all nutcases and stalkers are not currently behind bars.

Plus, as stunning as my Scalamandre bathroom is and as drop-dead gorgeous as the navy blue subway tile and floating shelves are in my kitchen (it all turned out perfectly, almost gross in its awesomeness to me) isn’t it better to imagine these things than be even slightly let down when you see (for example) a bag of Stay-Puft Jumbo Marshmallows on my counter instead of leftover osso buco? What if you think I have a huge, ginormous house? I like that! Keep thinking that! When you see my galley kitchen, you may have to go find another fantasy and no one has time for these things.

You see, I cannot possibly post the pictures of my home on this blog.

Instagram is completely different, however.

Cooky Life.

posted in: Day In The Life, Food 4
It's mesmerizing, looking through stock photos of chocolate chip cookys. Hundreds and hundreds of cookys and still, their power remains undiluted.
It’s mesmerizing, looking through stock photos of chocolate chip cookys. Hundreds and hundreds of cookys and still, their power remains undiluted.

There’s been a lot of cooky baking in the past few months. New York, Chicago, busy or less so, I am a woman with a wooden spoon.

I prefer the “cooky” spelling, yes. There’s something L’il Abner about spelling cooky with a “y,” which is to say spelling cooky with a “y” evokes newsprint, the 1950s, and little kids with southern accents.* I’m not so sure that even with the “y” I shouldn’t change the plural to “cookies.” I probably should, but if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for language rules you didn’t make and don’t like. Also, Cooky Monster eschews the “ie” and that’s good enough for me.

Yuri likes cookys. Chocolate chip wins by a wide, wide margin. It’s funny how you can not listen to someone, even when they’re telling you exactly what they want, to your face. When I learned that Yuri was a cooky fan, I set about making him the best cookys of his entire life thus far. I listened only partly when he said that chocolate chip cookys were his very very very favorite. I made a batch of chocolate chip first, of course, maybe even two batches. But then it was time for my cooky experience to grow. It was suddenly more about me, this cooky.

I did some maple glazed. That was in New York. Lemon buttermilk, because I had to use up some buttermilk. I did some pecan sandies.** But one day, after I saw a cooky unfinished on Yuri’s snack plate, I inquired.

“Hey, did you like the cookys I made?” I asked.

“Yeah, they were really good.”

“Lemon buttermilk, right? So good. You really did like them?”

“Yeah, they were awesome.”

I gave him a pout. “You didn’t eat all your cooky, though.”

There was a pause, then Yuri, with great diplomacy and tact, said, “You know what, baby? I love everything you make, but I really just love a chocolate chip cooky. Like, straight up chocolate chip.”

Oh, men!

It’s a fantastic thing to listen, and it’s also fantastic to focus one’s cooky-making adventure on a single cooky. There’s a zen calm in thinking that for the rest of the foreseeable future (we can’t see much of it, but I’m forever trying to peek) I will be exploring but one cooky. Without deviating from the goal — a great chocolate chipper — I can experiment with infinite variations until I achieve what this man believes is The Best Yet. A little baking powder? a lot? no nuts? hazelnuts? hazelnuts pounded within an inch of their life so you have a fine meal of hazelnut going on in the bite? It’s exciting.

*L’il Abner ran for 43 years. Forty-three years! 
**Alt. spelling, “sandys”

 

Excuses From Squeak.

posted in: Art, Day In The Life, Work 7
Squeak, a sock puppet that I do not have to get permission to feature, as it came from WikiCommons.
Squeaks, the Excuse Puppet.

“Hello,

My name is Squeak, and I am make out of what appears to be a dingy sock. In reality, I am made out of a used-but-laundered sock, and this photograph of me is terrible. I have two buttons for eyes and I am generally in a good mood. Mary wanted an image of a puppet in this post but didn’t want to use a photo for which she’d need permission. She found me on Wiki Commons, so there you go.

I’ve been employed by Mary — she’s paying me in compliments — for what she says is, “a terrible, terrible situation, Squeaks.” She was shaking her head and looking at her taxes when she said that.

What are taxes?

Anyway, Mary wants me to tell you to “hang in there, comrades.” Mary told me to make sure to tell you she is not a communist, but she likes calling a group of people she loves “comrades” because it’s ironic.

What’s irony?

Anyway, I was sent to tell you that she’s not neglecting PaperGirl, she just totally in the weeds and can’t get on top of the fires. Fires, weeds. I don’t know. She’s sorry she’s been a little sporadic, she’s sorry she ate jumbo marshmallows for breakfast again…what else. Hang on, I have notes. (Rifles through notes using head.) Oh, here: she’s still in love, her kitchen is amazing, all she wants is to curl up with a good book and some tea, and she’s got lots of funny stories to tell but first she has to file her taxes, shoot 26 episodes of Quilty this weekend, finish one issue of the magazine and get the next one caught up, pitch a new show, possibly write new manuscript by mid-April and send wardrobe to Iowa for PBS taping in a week. And she’s teaching in Cleveland before Iowa. And she has to finish a quilt. And she’s going to miss Yuri terribly when he goes back home to NYC tomorrow.

There’s one note down here. She says, “My heart and soul come together on paper and on PaperGirl. I’m never far away.” (He shrugs.) 

See Ya,
SQUEAKS

 

Billy/Chicago.

posted in: Chicago, Paean, Story 1
Writer Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir, Chicago. Sun Times Photo, 1950-ish.
Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir, Chicago. Sun Times Photo, 1950-ish.

I have a friend who I haven’t seen in a long time.

I have a collection of those, I’m afraid; my track record for “staying in touch” is appalling. Scoff if you like, but this serial inability to keep in consistent contact with people that aren’t in close proximity to me is based in love: Friend A deserve buckets of attention and time; if I can’t give Friend A all of what Friend A should have, I should excuse myself and Friend A can find a Friend B, who is way better at returning calls and text messages. Like, way better.

There’s also the little matter of what I think is a bonafide phone phobia on my part. That’s a topic for another day.

The friend I’m thinking of this morning, we were close for a number of years; we met in college and he moved to Chicago shortly after I did. I found him an apartment in my building; we lived in units separated by the lot in back, almost close enough to string a tin can telephone betwixt our windows, though we never did, we just skibbled back and forth, sometimes in our pajamas. We were together so much, driving in his car, listening to rock n’ roll, working our crappy jobs.* Rent was forever due, it was cold and then it was hot, the laundry room was scary, and there was no nearby train, only a bus stop 1.5 blocks away that you could only get to by walking up a lonesome industrial corridor.

There were two reasons we didn’t slip into acrimony and defeat: 1) we had each other; and 2) we were creating things.

Billy was creating music and a persona; I was creating writing and a persona. Today, Billy is part of a wildly successful band that tours the world and sells out big concerts; I have been living as a full-time writer-performer for almost a decade. We made good, is what I’m saying. And dammit, we knew we’d make it. We knew. Our ability to withstand the bus stops, Comcast, entropy, etc. was due to youth, okay, sure, but also to a shared and indefatigable confidence that we were good enough to scale up, and soon. Oh, and we worked hard. There was that, too: Billy played his guitar whenever he was awake, which was about 22 hours out of every day; I wrote poems on the back of guest checks at the restaurant, wrote in my journal in the coat check room at 4am, and read nine books at once, on average. We were dedicated.

We were intertwined. We were coffee cups, or maybe cream and sugar. We weren’t lovers, but we slept in the same bed a lot. It was kind of a brother-sister relationship, I suppose, except sometimes we’d make out. We were always pretty hot for each other but there was something both of us kept back in order to preserve what was out front. It was complex, it was simple.

Billy told me something once that I hated him for. He said, “Mary, the truth is that I’ll never love a woman as much as I love rock n’ roll.” He was twenty-five and being platitudinous and dramatic, but he was also being honest. I was furious at the time because dude, but today I understand what he meant. His love for music is singular, untouchable; it exists within his bone marrow, shapes his walk and his spine. His love of making music will die with him — not before him or after him, like a partner has to die. Christians talk about agape love, a love distinct from erotic love or emotional affection; that’s what Billy meant about loving music more, or differently, than he could ever love a person.

I feel that way about writing. And I feel that way about Chicago.

Sitting here on my lily pad, I cannot believe my transgressions. New York bewitched me. Indeed, the city may get me in chunks (I have a return ticket even as I write this) and my favorite thing in the world is to get on an airplane. But I can never love a person or another place on this earth like I love this town.

It’s good, as they say, to be home. Yo, Billy; let’s get that drink.

*And I do mean crappy. I was a brunch waitress in Uptown and a coat check girl in two different/terrible nightclubs; he did the graveyard shift at a desk at mental health facility on Western and North Ave.

 

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