Shoe Story.

posted in: Fashion, New York City, Tips 2
A British housewife puts out items for salvage during 1942. Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection
A British housewife puts out items for salvage during 1942. Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection.

Last night, I left a pair of gray Celine ankle boots outside the iron gate into the apartment building where I lived until this morning. If you happened to be walking west of Avenue A on 10th St. around 9pm last night, you would’ve seen them, placed nicely side-by-side against the brick wall. They were free to a good home, but you wouldn’t have wanted them. Even Celine boots aren’t worth much when they’re as trashed as those boots were. I blame Manhattan.

I’m hard on shoes, though. I didn’t know that was a trait one could possess until it was pointed out to me a few years ago. I don’t remember who did the pointing, but it must’ve been someone I cared about because I remember looking down at my feet and seeing my dinged-up shoes with scuffs deep like wounds and I remember feeling embarrassed about that.

It’s great when you make changes in your life based on feelings of self-confidence, but frequently it’s shame that compels us to change. Shoes are important. They communicate silent messages about how you feel and what you think about the world; certainly they affect how you move through it, figuratively and literally. I decided that I wanted to be the sort of person who cared about not just her shoe style but the state of the shoes themselves. I resolved to buy the best shoes I could afford, always, and take good care of those shoes.

And so I did: I’ve been a committed shoe-maintainer for many years, now. I visit a cobbler regularly. My cobbler in Chicago is located in my favorite building in the city, the Monadnock. Not only is the architecture of the Monadnock great, the lights in the building’s arcade are low, like gaslights, and there’s lots of wood and glass; the floor is mosaic and my heels make a great little tic! tic! as I walk the hall. The cobblers in the shoe repair shop know me well; they’re all Mexican and I get a “Buenos dias, Maria!” when I walk in. Orlando always takes my shoes and looks at the heels, first.

“Ohh, ohh. Yes, this bery bad,” he’ll say, and then cluck his tongue. There’s usually some catch to the repair he has to make. It’s not because he’s trying to take advantage of me; it’s that most of the shoes I buy are unique in construction or shape, e.g., the heel of the YSL pump is metal, the toe of the Marni pump is cloth, etc. We agree on a price for the fix and I come back the next morning to shoes that not only look better but feel better: maintaining great shoes is one of the most glorious feelings I know. I’m serious. There’s something so adult, so capable about a pair of resoled, polished shoes. Some people buy fancy shoes at full-retail prices and then they don’t take care of them. I buy fancy shoes on sale and take great care of them. I like my way.

So what about these Celine boots?

Oh, they were goners. I had them fixed twice. The seam over the instep was coming apart again and I could see my sock through the top. The stacked wood heels were chipped and battered, the leather was rubbed to discoloration. I walked miles and miles and miles in those shoes and they served me well. Very sharp, those boots.

Take care of them.

 

 

On Patchwork.

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

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

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

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

My mom likes to say this:

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

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

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

PaperGirl Celebrity Encounter: Tim Gunn!

Tim Gunn backstage during New York Fashion Week, 2009. Image: Wikipedia.
Tim Gunn backstage during New York Fashion Week, 2009. Image: Wikipedia.

 

I have only a few days left in Manhattan before I return to Chicago for a few weeks. I was getting worried that I hadn’t bumped into Madonna in the park or seen Sam Harris on the subway. I don’t seek out celebrity encounters, but I was a little bummed my elbows hadn’t been bumped by anyone fancy since arriving in the city.

Then I met Tim Gunn.

Yuri and I both had loads of work to do this weekend and decided to set up shop at the Balcony Lounge at the Met. This is a private lounge for members of the museum, and my family has a membership. (Thanks, Ma!) The lounge is quiet, serves excellent tea and cheese, there’s fast wireless, and if you need to take a break and go see Walker Evans photographs or stare at The Harvesters by Bruegel the Elder, you can absolutely do that. We all need Bruegel the Elder breaks from time to time.

I was focused on editing the May/June ’14 issue of Quilty when I heard a one-of-a-kind voice. I looked up to see none other than style icon and Project Runway host Tim Gunn greeting the nice lady at the registration desk. My mouth dropped open. I grabbed Yuri’s leg. I do that a lot for a variety of reasons on a regular basis, so he didn’t look up from his laptop.

“Yuri!” I hissed. “Yuri, it’s Tim Gunn. Tim Gunn just walked in!”

Yuri was programming. “Who?”

“Tim Gunn! Tim Gunn from Project Runway! And, like, fashion!”

My body was contorting into Martha Graham-like shapes. I was excited. Tim Gunn is someone whose career I admire. He taught at (and led) Parsons School of Design for many years. He was Chief Creative Officer at Liz Claiborne for awhile, which, according to my research, put him at the company during its morph into the Kate Spade-Juicy Couture-JC Penny animal it is now? This is unclear to me, but it is clear is that Tim Gunn is the man. And, as most people who are not named Yuri know, Tim Gunn has served as beloved mentor to designers cast in Project Runway since the very first season of the show in 2004. He’s written books, he’s done TV and film cameos; he’s even got his own catchphrase. Though we know people on screens are not magic, it’s plain as can be: Tim Gunn is neat.

I tried to focus on my work but it was impossible. I kept stealing teensy glances over to the sofa where Tim Gunn was sitting. He was perusing a large art book. There are many beautiful books of art on offer in the member lounge, no surprise, and he was engrossed in his selection.

What to do? I desperately wanted to meet him but refused to be weird or annoying. I decided after he had been there for an hour or so to write an extremely short, non-creepy little note to him. (Hear me out.) I would buy his glass of wine and give my note to the waitress to give to him in lieu of his check. My note said something like:

“Hi, Tim Gunn! Thank you for inspiring so many of us who work with textiles. If you ever need a quilt or a quilter for any reason, call me!”

I taped my business card in the center of the note using one of the stickers for my upcoming book. Actually speaking to the man was not part of my plan. I’d take care of the bill and Yuri and I would leave before he did or he’d call for his check and before he left, I’d escape to the bathroom so he wouldn’t feel obligated to come say anything. I wanted to make tiny, meaningful contact with a compliment. No awkwardness, no foul.

But then the waitress went on break! She was his waitress and my waitress! She was the lynchpin of my entire scheme! Now what?!

After a few panicky texts with my sisters, I changed my mind: I would deliver my note in person. If I didn’t try to say hello to Tim Gunn at the Met lounge at that moment, I would never have the chance again. I put on some lip gloss and walked over to where he was sitting.

Readers, I am happy to report that Tim Gunn is wonderful.

“Excuse me, Mr. Gunn?”

He was immediately on his feet.

“Call me Tim! Please!” He placed his book down on the table and stood to shake my hand. “How are you?” he asked, as though we had met. Eep!

“Oh, I’m fine,” I said. I was more timid than I have ever been in my life, I think. “I had this whole plan how not to disturb you. I was going to give you this little note and buy your glass of wine, but then the waitress went on break and, well, I just wanted to say thank you so much. You’re very inspiring. I’m a quilter.”

Tim Gunn was looking at my note. “This is wonderful! How delightful! My goodness! A quilter? That’s marvelous! What is this?” He was pointing to the sticker.

“That’s my book! My first book. It’s coming out in May.”

“That is a tremendous accomplishment,” said Tim Gunn. “I don’t know what I’d do without my co-author. She turns what I write into something actually worth reading! Congratulations to you! When does it come out?”

“May,” I said, beaming. Talking to Tim Gunn was like talking to… Well, Tim Gunn. It was the best. And yes, he looked amazing in tailored everything and he smelled terrific.

We chatted a teensy bit more. He said, “Oh, good. I see your email, here. I’ll send you my last couple of books!” and I said, “I’ll send you mine! We’ll trade!” and Tim Gunn said that sounded like a fine idea.

Start to finish, the encounter was all of two minutes, but it sure was pleasant. Thanks, Tim Gunn, for being kind to a stranger who admires you a great deal. I hope you do receive my book when I send it to you; since it doesn’t come out till May, it’s possible you’ll forget why you’re getting it and your people will move it to the revolving file. But if you do get it, I hope the quilts in the book will inspire you, even a tiny bit.

My Sixty-Dollar Blunder-cum-Challenge-cum-Dinner.

The pan, the chef, and the tattoo combined cost less than the steak. Roughly.
A pan, a chef, and a tattoo combined cost less than the steak.. I’m bad at math, but that still about right.

Speaking of being remarkably stupid, I accidentally bought a sixty-dollar piece of meat that can’t be cooked where I’m currently living. Please let me explain.

About three weeks ago, I was having a heated discussion with someone I love very much at a chi-chi food emporium here in New York. Who I was with and what we were discussing is not important; what is important is that I bought a sixty-dollar piece of meat that I can’t cook where I’m currently living. Please let me keep explaining.

“I gotta get some meat for dinner!” I hollered at my loved one and she (essentially) said, “Fine! Get’cher dumb meat!!” and I stomped off, past the fancy spice aisle, around the fancy sweets display, up to the fancy meat counter. You’d think gazing at gorgeous, dead flesh in a wide glass case would make me forget my heated conversation, but it didn’t. I was distracted. There was only a vague awareness of my dinner plan. I was not registering the high prices of the meat I was scanning. My thought process was doing something like this:

what a lame day —> ooh lamb chops —> I’m a bad person who shouldn’t try to be right all the time —> do I need rosemary? —> that man is wearing a blue suit —> wow, look at that meat —> a roast would be good —> why does she say things like that? —> she loves you, just stop it —> standing rib roast —> Adam’s Rib —> Katherine Hepburn —> Out of Africa —> I want to go on my safari now, not in five years —> it’s getting late, pick something —> I should apologize —> chocolate —> order meat now

Indeed, it was within the stream of this magnificent cognition that I opened my mouth and ordered some meat. My selection? A 28-day dry-aged tomahawk ribeye steak, two-and-a-half inches thick. Oh, I didn’t say, “Please give me a 28-day dry-aged tomahawk ribeye steak, two-and-a-half inches thick.” That might’ve stopped me. No, I just pointed to it and said, “Let’s go with one of these guys.”

The butcher smiled (wouldn’t you?) and hauled the enormous section of cow from the case. He Frenched me a steak and wrapped it with what I can only assume is butcher paper made from unicorn hide. It was when he pushed the massive thing across the steel counter to me that I had my first moment of panic: did that sticker give the price of the entire steak or the price per pound? This was either bad or gasp-inducing bad news. Turned out to be the latter. I had requested a two-and-a-half pound cut of beef that cost $27/lb.

Can you give meat back? Once a butcher butchers, isn’t it like getting a manicure? It’s yours, now. The lacquer is dry; the meat is cut. If I could say, “Oh, wow! That is absolutely not anything I can afford! Please take your steak back!” and the butcher would, then what?* Does anyone want someone else’s meat? Will it just go to waste? I wasn’t thinking clearly, but I’m still not sure about this (feedback is welcome.)

I was thinking about whether or not to try and give it back when the second wave of panic hit: I had nowhere to cook this. Remember, my “kitchen” in the East Village is a tiny stove against a wall. That’s the kitchen. There is no countertop. My “workspace” is a cutting board I put over the sink and I’ve made that work pretty darned well, but this… In no universe was this gonna work. The steak is half the size of the range, and that is barely an exaggeration. And the place is so small, any large cut of cooking meat would deliver a film of fat over everything and impart a eau de seared cow fragrance to every last possession of Yuri’s and mine. What had I done?

My loved one and I left the food emporium worse off than when we came in, for a variety of reasons. The conversation hadn’t covered new ground, both people were hurt, and one person now felt very poor and very foolish. I don’t believe in a magical wizard in the sky who doles out punishments (or rewards) and karma is just one half of a song title by Boy George, but I did feel major cause-effect comeuppance. Being a brat, Fons? Bam! Sixty-dollar steak you can’t cook. You’re welcome.

The story ends okay. Me and my loved one still love each other very much and are fine. And this very night, I’m taking the tomahawk to my sister’s place. I will make this thing (no small feat; I’ve been researching for days how to not ruin it) and we will all enjoy it. It could feed a family of four, easy. I’ve learned the best way to get an even sear on it before you cook it in the oven is to place a foil-covered brick on top of it, after you truss and season it.

I will use the brick I frequently use for smacking my forehead.

 

*This notion of trying to return a manicure is fascinating. Consider: how awful would it be if you got a manicure and then realized you couldn’t pay for it? No cash, credit card declined. Would you have to sit there while the technician removed the manicure she had just given you?? The shame! The awkwardness! The stained (but nicely filed) nails! To me, this is almost Hitchcockian in its spookiness.

Nellie Bly + PaperGirl: Conversation #00172

posted in: Day In The Life 10
Walkies.
Walkies.

(MARY and NELLIE BLY walk along the Central Park reservoir. NELLIE records the conversation on her iPhone. MARY wears Nike Dunk hi-tops.)

NB: Are you sure I should be here?

PG: What? Why?

NB: It may be too soon for another Nellie Bly post. You don’t want people to get bored.

PG: (Considers this.) After this, you should probably get lost for awhile.

NB: No problem. How are you feeling?

PG: Much better, thank you. It took days to feel normal after the morphine. That was bad. I’m a little spooked about what would’ve happened if I had had three injections instead of just two.

NB: You might consider wearing a medical bracelet. I wear one.

PG: Really?

NB: Yes, I’m anemic.

PG: Hey, so am I!

NB: You told me you wanted to talk about a comment someone made online. I assume it was something hurtful?

PG: Right, yes, the comment. The comment wasn’t hurtful at all. It was a thoughtful, “get better” comment from a nice lady named Becky. But Becky said something about being surprised to learn I’ve have a chronic illness with insane complications. She said that on the outside looking in, it looks like I have “a perfect life” because of my job.

NB: What’s the issue?

PG: That is so wrong. It’s dangerously wrong.

NB: Okay.

PG: You just can’t draw conclusions like that. It made me furious at the power we give television and media.

NB: Ah. You’d better clarify that you’re not furious at Becky. This could go the wrong way.

PG: Good heavens, no! We love Becky. Becky is not the issue. Lots of other people made similar comments when I wrote about my parents’ divorce. They said things like, “Wow, you never would guessed your family endured something like that,” and “Everything seems perfect, looking at you gals on TV.” I just… I can’t believe it. I can’t believe anyone would look at me on TV or Mom on TV or both of us and think that we are somehow different from any other human beings. We’re people. We have family drama and skeletons and horrible mistakes and regrets. Well, Mom doesn’t have horrible mistakes. But we have problems and struggles like anyone does.

NB: More than others?

PG: No! The same amount! That’s the point! It’s not okay that television has the power to make people believe something impossible — namely, that there is such a thing as “a perfect life.”

NB: You’re really chewing that lip. 

PG: Look, if my life is perfect, someone has a lot of explaining to do.

NB: You realize you’re doing the “celebrities are people, too” thing.

PG: It’s not healthy to graft narratives onto people just because they’re on a screen. The only difference between me and the camera crew at Iowa Public Television is that I’m on one side of the lens and they’re on the other. My life is not special. There’s no magic — there’s just more footage.

NB: It’s natural to draw conclusions from what we see, though.

PG: Yes, but I’m making quilts. All a person can deduce from watching me make quilts on camera is that I make quilts on camera. You can’t even deduce that I like it, though of course I do. I love it.

NB: I’m trying to understand the anger, here.

PG: It’s not anger. It’s animated compassion. I just want people to never, ever compare themselves to something they see on television, ever, even if it’s a friendly quilting show. Look, my dad is like totally out to lunch. I had a messy divorce after two years of being married. Just the other day, I accidentally double-booked myself for a gig in June. Do you know how bad it is to double-book yourself? It’s really bad. And last summer, I tripped on my own flip-flop.

NB: Really?

PG: Oh, yeah. Middle of the day. Tripped on my flip-flop blam! flat on my face. I almost busted my nose. And these are all examples of things I can say online!

NB: Yeah, let’s not go into anything from 2003.

PG: It’s not like I’ve done heroin or anything. (pause.) What if I had done heroin?

NB: I’d counsel you to not bring it up here.

PG: Well, I haven’t, so it’s a non-issue. I did do —

NB: Look at the time, Mary. I’m glad you’re better.

(End.)

I Spent The Night in the Bellevue Emergency Room.

Before neon.
Pre-neon.

Saturday night, my body refused to be told what to do any longer; I was forced to visit to the emergency room. I ended up at historic Bellevue Hospital’s ER from about 1am till daybreak. This is my tale.

Earlier in the day, I had found it difficult to walk. My guts were churning toxic waste and my tummy hurt a lot. My bathroom trips were numbering in the ridonkulous. I rallied enough to make dinner for Yuri and myself, but I ate very little. When every morsel you put into your body winds up a punishment, you’re don’t get too hungry. I was weak and sad. We went to bed. I woke an hour or so later and, like a wounded/dying animal, I left the bed to try and curl up with my pain alone on the couch. I found no relief there, so I scraped myself up and went to deliver the bad news:

“Yuri,” I said. “I need to go to the hospital.”

Yuri bolted upright and mobilized quickly. I made sure he packed his laptop and brought anything else he’d like to have for the next 6-8 hours. I’ve done middle-of-the-night hospital trips plenty of times; he hasn’t.

I knew from riding the subway that Beth Israel Medical Center was on 1st Ave. and 16th. (There’s a tiled sign in the subway that says, “Beth Israel, 1st Ave. & 16th”.) We’re staying just down the street, so it was okay that when we went outside we couldn’t get a cab. I shuffled along the sidewalk as Yuri tried to hail one, but I knew he’d fail. Saturday night in the East Village means taxis, taxis, everywhere, and not a ride to catch. The cabs are full of nightlife already; nothing is available. And since the East Village in way down on the island and 1st Ave. is a one-way going uptown, you’re pretty much out of luck unless you catch someone coming out of a taxi and you slip in before it leaves again. We reached Beth Israel-Mount Sinai in about 15 minutes on foot.

When we found it, though, it appeared to be closed. Like, closed-closed. We went to two different doors. I know it sounds crazy, and a New Yorker might scoff at me that I didn’t “just go around” or something, but I’m telling you, that hospital was not open. Doors locked. No people. At this point, I was kind of hunching over, too, so if there was an arrow someplace, I missed it. A taxi driver was passing slowly and we caught him.

“Is this hospital open?” I asked at the window.

“Uh…” The driver wasn’t sure what I was asking. Or maybe I just looked that scary.

“Do you know if it’s open?” I asked again, and then, seeing there was no one in the backseat, I opened the door and asked a way better question: “Can you take me to the nearest hospital, please?” Yuri jumped in and we were off, headed to the other nearest hospital, which was at 1st and 27th St.

Bellevue.

Bellevue is the oldest public hospital in the country. Since 1736, the sick, maimed, crazy, indigent, burned, frozen, dying, pregnant, drunk, beaten, wounded, frightened, blitzed, and otherwise in-jeopardy humans of New York have made their way to Bellevue for help. The first-ever maternity ward? Bellevue. The first-ever ambulance service? Bellevue. But despite all that, despite the millions (counted and uncounted) who have received care at Bellevue over the centuries, despite being a landmark of American innovation and civilization, Bellevue’s reputation is not so great. This is probably because of the psych ward.

In New York City, everything is extreme. The poor are really poor, the rich are really rich. The food is really, really good; the garbage smells really, really bad. And the crazy people — sorry, the mentally ill people — are really, really nuts. Bellevue is where they go. And throughout the hospital’s history, tales of terror from the halls of Bellevue have kept Americans in thrall; suicidal starlets, frothing lunatics, axe-murderers, giggling perverts — they all end up in Bellevue. Add to that the occasional (and sorrowful) stories of mistreatment and abuse inside the ward and you get a place frequently referred to zero-to-little irony as “the hellhole” or “bedlam.” I was vaguely aware of this history as I entered the ER. I wasn’t going into the psych ward, but the buildings aren’t too far apart.

I was admitted quickly. It seemed quiet in there. I was hunched over in my chair while the triage nurse put the bracelet around my wrist and felt a surge of excitement push past my pain. I was going to get the inside scoop on a New York City emergency room on a Saturday night! This was gonna be great.

It might’ve been great, relatively speaking, except that I was injected with morphine and I am allergic to morphine. It wasn’t Bellevue’s fault; it’s been so long since I’ve even heard that drug suggested to me that I neglected to mention that I have a terrible, terrible reaction to it. When they asked me if I had allergies, I said no; I’m used to being treated frequently in hospitals that know me, and I was feeling so sick I didn’t think to mention, “Oh, yeah. A long time ago, morphine nearly killed me.” So when I was writhing in pain on my sickbed, the very capable and kind internist said, “I’m going to give you an injection; we’ll get an IV going soon,” I spluttered, “Yes, thank you,” and zip! There you go, morphine in my arm.

It’s a sad thing indeed to be injected with something you’re allergic to.

I wouldn’t feel that allergy/reaction immediately. All I felt was drowsy and in less pain, and that was okay for the moment. Yuri got a chair and sat near me. We heard people talking on the other side of the curtain to my left and tried to listen in on what they were saying. Our eyes grew wide as we realized…the guy got stabbed! We had a stab wound victim in the bed next to us! Holy crap! There was blood on the curtain, too! Wow! Then there were cops! Five cops! All grilling the guy about the stab wound! So far, New York City emergency room report = excellent!

From there, though, the Bellevue ER took off and I went down. It was nuts. I passed out and woke up, hella nauseated, to two Jersey girls screeching next to me; one had twisted her ankle and the other was furiously yelling into her cell phone. They were both roaring drunk. On my way to the bathroom, I passed four indigent men passed out on beds in the hallway; each of their pants were 90% off. When I got to the bathroom, I couldn’t use it. It was filthy. Fecal matter was sprayed around the back of the toilet. There was blood, dried and fresh, kinda everywhere. I turned on my morphine-woozy heels and Yuri helped me back to bed. I stepped around other gurneys and sick people and caught the nurse.

“The bathroom… It’s… I can’t use it,” I said, reeling.

“Oh, yeah. That’s why I hold my urine for twelve hours,” he said. “There’s another bathroom, though,” and he told us where to go. I don’t remember if I used it or not. By that point, I was quickly succumbing to my morphine problem. I don’t remember being released. I don’t remember getting home. I slept the entire day on Sunday and today was mostly lost.

Bellevue, you didn’t do me wrong. But I still ain’t right.

Nellie Bly + PaperGirl: Impossible Conversations (Part I)

posted in: Word Nerd 0
Bly.
Yo, Nellie Bly. ‘Sup girl.

Beginning around 2006 or 2007, when PaperGirl was hosted by another server, when the layout was way different, when life was baffling and great but in totally different ways, I presented from time to time dialogues between myself and Nellie Bly. Long-long-time readers may recall these; I may dig one up one day for our fun. They’re all in the archives.

Nellie Bly is known to grammar school students across America as “the first woman reporter” and I doubt that that is true, history textbooks being what they are (watered-down and probably SEO-driven at this point.) Bly was certainly among the first women journalists to be recognized for their work in the profession, and that makes Nellie Bly cool. She’s cool enough to be the subject of innumerable 5th grade book reports, cool enough to have an amusement park in Brooklyn named after her**, and cool enough to be the only person I’ve ever wanted to be a foil to my brain in this blog.

When I was at my sickest in 2008-2009, Nellie Bly and I would have what I called “Health Chats,” where she would ask me questions about the state of my scary body and I would answer. I always told her the truth. On the days when I couldn’t possibly figure out how to otherwise narrate what was happening to me — either because I was too high on Dilaudid or because the news was too bad and too overwhelming to comprehend — writing a two-person conversation felt like my only option. But it was an option I loved. I just talked to Nellie; I just answered her questions. We talked about other topics from time to time, but for the most part, and definitely during my illness, it was “Health Chat” with Bly every week or two because it helped me get better. I believe it.

I only realized a few hours ago that it’s International Women’s Day. Re-introducing Nellie, vis a vis PaperGirl, is perfect for the occasion.

Stay tuned for the conversation.

**Recently renamed “Adventurer’s Family Entertainment Center” because no one cares about anything and everything is terrible.

Me, Dad, and Cheesecake for Breakfast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I’m a Southwest Girl.

posted in: Day In The Life 4
A low-cost carrier...of awesomeness.
A low-cost carrier…of awesomeness.

I love Southwest Airlines.

This is not a paid or otherwise incentivized post. It’s a paean, a big sloppy kiss on the nose of every 747 in the SA fleet. In a time when air travel experiences so often fall into categories ranging from disappointing to Rape of Nanking-y, Southwest is a blue-and-orange oasis of sanity that confers dignity upon the people they move around in airplanes. Those people are me.

Here’s what life is good at doing: changing. Here’s what Southwest is good at doing: understanding. When you buy a ticket from Chicago to New York City for a May 3rd flight, for example, and you realize you could return two days earlier and make an important meeting, you can move your flight on May 3rd to May 1st — at no charge. Anytime I do that (and I do that a fair amount right now, seeing as how I live nowhere) I feel like I’m getting away with something. I feel like there must be a catch, a shoe waiting to drop, a Customer Service Representative waiting in the wings to slap a not-insignificant fee on me for not being able to live life with zero fumbles and total clairvoyance. But no one slaps me. And I get back to work with a little extra “zing!” even when I’m just typing something into a Google spreadsheet. (I try to keep such tasks to a minimum.)

Most people’s beef with Southwest is that you don’t have an assigned seat. Why do you want that?

Another reason I love Southwest is because they don’t charge you extra for your luggage and they let you bring two pieces! At no charge! I Every other airline charges what I think of as a fine, not a fee. They’re fining you for needing to brush your teeth later, fining you for not having a magical dress that you can travel in, go to a meeting in, go out to dinner in, and also feel like wearing again the next day and the day after that. Southwest knows that when you leave your home for a week you need stuff, and that stuff won’t fit in your briefcase. Rather than add $50+ dollars to your transportation cost, however, they’ve figured out how to not do that while keeping airfare prices for the consumer still relatively low. Relatively really low. How could this be possible unless the people running Southwest Airlines were really good at running an airline? Methinks they are good. Also: peanuts.

Thank you, Southwest Airlines. Today, the gate agent who boarded the flight from Denver came onto the plane and announced a birthday before we pushed off. She also said:

“This is a shout-out to Mary Katherine Fons. I love your quilts! I’m a quilter! I love your magazine!”

United has never done that. And you know, I don’t plan on giving them the opportunity to try. I’m a Southwest girl and I wear my wings with pride. Low, low-cost pride.

 

They Call It “Bitter” For a Reason.

posted in: Day In The Life 1
American Expeditionary Force, Siberia. Over 27,000 sets of train wheels stockpiled for war effort.
American Expeditionary Force, Siberia. Over 27,000 sets of train wheels stockpiled for war effort.

I moved quickly on the street to get to the Roosevelt station. I wasn’t running late; I was running from the cold.

The escalator up to the platform at the Roosevelt el stop is long because the platform is up high off the street. It’s a painful ride if you have a heavy suitcase with you: you’re on this long, moving staircase and you simply can’t force it to go faster. When you hear your train coming — worse yet, leaving — you can’t will yourself up to the top of the escalator in time to catch it. You’re stuck.

I was stuck on that escalator ride this morning, straining my neck to try and hear my train was approaching or leaving, straining so hard I almost pulled a muscle. I could not miss the train. I could not miss the train because that would mean I would have to wait for the next one outside on the Roosevelt platform. The Roosevelt platform, like the rest of Chicago, was/is dangerously cold.

“Today,” the city weatherman said, “it will feel like -10 to -20.” But “feel” is a useless term when you’re talking about cold this absurd. Humans “feel” only bitterness, aches, and dread at -10 to -20 degrees. Records are being set every day in Chicago — 2014 now the coldest winter on record — and the winter has taken on a wicked quality. There’s an evilness about it. The cold has a personality and it is monstrous. I was in my home city for exactly 49 hours and I felt scared of the beast that has overthrown her.

The monster has sharp teeth. It’s eating people, throwing men, women, and children into its icy, cavernous maw. Inside it, the wind blows and blows forever and there are coats everywhere but they all have holes and no hoods. Hell does not exist but if it did, the best joke on everyone would be that it is not hot and firey, but cold and empty.

The worst part about the snickering, sharp Cold Monster is that it made me afraid of Chicago the two days I was there. I saw people huddled and angry, shuffling along the streets in clothes that looked like bandages. No one speaks. It hurts to breathe. What I didn’t see or hear was worse: three-quarters of the usual citizens weren’t on the streets at all: no one comes out unless they have to. Millions of eyes are looking out from high above or below, waiting out the cold inside (as long as they can without going crazy and you can bet some have gone crazy.)

It’s a terrible thing to be afraid of something (or someone) you love. It’s like being a child and seeing a parent get drunk. The child can’t understand the adult’s funny walk, or why they’re so angry, or why their voice sounds mushy. It’s startling, it’s confusing, and even if it only happens once, the child gets a glimpse into a different, frightening side of their loved one that they will never forget. The fright they experience is indelible, even if the parent never drinks again, because there’s a world inside that person that he/she never imagined could exist.

And it’s cold there.

For [REDACTED]

posted in: Day In The Life 1
To "redact" is to omit text for publication. It's usually synonymous with censorship, but sometimes it's because the author (ahem) would like to a) be classy and not use names in situations like this for heaven's sakes; and b) bad words.
To “redact” is to omit text for publication. 

Poetry is in my head a lot lately; love may be responsible for this. Loss can do it, too, and I’ve had doses of both over the past few months. Nothing but nothing is better than poetry for unsolvable situations like love and loss.

And now, a poem I recalled while walking through the Midway airport earlier today. I’m home in Chicago for 48-hours before leaving for California. I wrote this piece in my head while gazing at a roaring fire in a fireplace in early 2012. I was up at our place in Door County where it was almost as cold as it is tonight. The poem took about two hours to write, which is either not any time at all or a very long time, depending on how much poetry you write. Because I composed it in my head, I had to repeat the lines over and over so I wouldn’t forget them; as I edited, those lines had to be re-memorized and then put with the other phrases. As soon as I had it just right, I fetched some paper and wrote it down.

I enjoy writing poems in this way. It’s challenging for sure, and there’s a lyricism that happens naturally when you don’t have the paper to tack you down. This piece is pointedly in the style of Dorothy Parker; I felt a kinship with her vis a vis the subject matter.

I hope you enjoy the piece. Do not give it to your lover if he/she snores. I am beyond grateful I don’t have that problem these days. If I did, this poem would not see the light of day. Poetry is dangerous!

For [REDACTED]
by Mary Fons (c) 2012

I shall not see you anymore;
You snore.

I cannot sleep!
Besides, you weep
(Pray tell, what can a man be for?)

Your kiss lacks the ability
To prime my parts most womanly,
And if they did but once or twice,
Well, that was me just being nice,
I feel nothing for you, dear,
I’ll repeat, while I’m still here:

Don’t bother with text messaging –
This is me, exiting,
And where I’m going I’ll have no cell –
Best to find the next fresh hell
Than stay with such a wretched bore, Oh, I am certain to my core:

[REDACTED] you,
I shall,
nevermore.

Oh, dear, my dear:
You snore.
 

 

“Quilter In Residence” at The Yarn Company!

posted in: Day In The Life 5
Feel like making something gorgeous? Yeah, me too.
Feel like making something gorgeous? Yeah, me too.

Something magical has happened.

As excited as I was about getting my BabyLock here in New York, cold, hard reality smacked me upside the head the moment I took that glorious sewing machine out of the box: there’s about as much room for quilt-making in this apartment as there is for woodworking or ballroom dancing, which is to say there is none. What to do? To make patchwork is to live — and I am not ready to die.

Well, it just so happens that I have lovely friends. And those friends have lovely friends. And the majority of this collection of people, we make things with our hands. There exists a kind of code, or a kinship with us: no one is going to let anyone die from art/craft-related complications. You need a 1/2 yard of a Kaffe Fassett print from 2006? Baby, I’ma hook you up. Fresh out of sequins? I got this! We trade binding for quilting, piecing for yarn; we share scissors, gum, patterns, rides to the airport to go to the shows. We help each other because we’re human and humans (mostly) help each other, but we go extra miles for makers because we are also makers.

And so it was that on Friday, a kind and virtuous friend (let’s call her Susan because her name is Susan) was in New York and wanted me to meet someone. She wanted me to meet Tavy, co-owner of The Yarn Company on the Upper West Side. For all the quilters out there who are also knitters or yarnfolk, you may have just squealed with delight. The Yarn Company is a legendary yarn and knitter’s shop. It was the cradle of the knitting craze that began in the 1970s, the craze that has stayed with us ever since, waxing and waning over the decades a bit but mostly waxing. When celebrities in the 1970s were in homemaker magazines with their crochet hooks, they got them at The Yarn Company. When knitting got hot again with the so-called DIY’ers in the late 1990s, The Yarn Company was right there, packing its slender rooms on the second floor with crazed, “I must knit nine more scarves immediately!” people who flocked to yarn mecca.

Tavy and her brother Assaf bought the shop in 2011 and breathed new, needed life into the place. These days, it’s all warm wood and great light and big, broad tables. The yarn surrounds your very soul when you walk in: there are colors and textures of yarn that defy description, they’re so beautiful and soft. If yarn could melt in your mouth — if that were something that you would want to have happen — you’d get that yarn at The Yarn Company.

But it ain’t just skeins over there. The shop likes sewists and they love quilters, too. They have a gorgeous collection of yardage, though it’s modest at the moment. They teach sewing classes. When Tavy and her brother bought The Yarn Company, their vision from the start was to incorporate more makers than just the yarn people.

Enter The Yarn Company’s first-ever Quilter In Residence: me!

The good people of The Yarn Company have extended an invitation to me to set up my machine in the second room of the shop so that I can cut, sew, press, design, and hang out there. (I plan to learn to knit by osmosis.) I’ll be able to talk to knitters about quilts and why they should make them. I’ll be able to have a little design wall, something not possible in the apartment at all. I can answer patchwork questions if they come up while I’m there during business hours and I can sew late into the night! And there’s amazing vegan food across the street! Not that I’m vegan! But still! Vegans! Sewing blocks! Upper West Side! Yarn people! City quilting! Oh, the humanity!

This is gonna be really fun. My thanks to The Yarn Company in advance. Watch this space for news about events and things because they’re sure to occur. Tomorrow, I’ll go to the shop and set up my Elissimo and my cutting mat (thanks, Havel’s Sewing!) and I promise to post pictures on Facebook of what’s being made.

Just get out of bed in the morning. That’s all you have to do. Life transpires.

 

Fremd High Writer’s Week 2014: Part I

posted in: Day In The Life 2
That's the door I usually take to go inside. By year four, I actually remembered that.
That’s not the door I need to use. By year four, I actually remembered that and went to the other door.

Every year for (oh my) nine years? ten? something ridiculous like that, I have served as a presenter at Fremd High School’s Writer’s Week. Writer’s Week XIX kicks off on Monday, and I just happen to be headed to Chicago on Tuesday, so on Wednesday morning, bright and early, I’m taking a Metra train to Palatine and to try and kick up a little writer-y magic for my Fremd homies.

Here’s an abbreviated description of what Writer’s Week is, taken from the Fremd website:

“Writers Week began in 1995 when we featured students, faculty, and professional writers during lunch hours for a week in April. Since then, about a thousand Fremd students have taken the stage to share their writing. Faculty members from every department have related their stories through writing. More than two hundred professional writers from around the world have visited the Fremd campus during Writers Week to help us better understand writing and authors.”

Good idea, right? Lots of folks agree, including the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks, who presented at Fremd years ago. Billy Collins. Marc Smith. These are writers of consequence, authors whose work has shaped (still shapes) the American literary conversation. And because people on that little patch of land in Illinois believe in the power of and the need for good writers writing, high school students get to walk into an auditorium in their very own high school and receive the lessons, the joy, the discomfiting feelings — the blessed thought — good writing can bring. The amount of work involved in putting on Writer’s Week is head-spinning. Scheduling, booking, fundraising, booster-ing, coordinating — it’s nothing any of the teachers get paid extra to do and they do it all anyway, year after dedicated year.

I’m slightly famous at Fremd because I usually end up kissing people. There’s a piece in my lil’ repertoire that involves kissing an audience member. You want to make an impression on an auditorium full of 500+ high school students? Try kissing one of them. I’m not making out with anyone; it’s just a kiss on the cheek. But it’s a kiss on the cheek with commitment, and I’m nothing if not committed. That usually causes a stir, but I might be famous at Fremd because I write a poem on the spot for a student every year, or because I had a breakdancer kick it onstage (he was up there anyway getting a poem!), or because I presented a Lady Gaga song as verse once time — anything can happen and I think we all like it that way. Whatever the material might be, I give 100% of myself (my attention, my focus, my passion for words, my passion for having fun with them for heaven’s sake) to the Fremdians.

I seriously love that entire high school. It’s like we’re dating long-distance. I don’t see you very often, darling, but when I do, when I do.

I’ll dress up for you, darling. And I’ll bring you a gift from New York. Wait for me.

 

 

Home Is Where the Bobbin Is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cookshop

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

I’m mad decent in the kitchen.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

ArtSpy #071862: George B. Luks, Allen Street, c. 1905

George B. Luks, Allen Street, c. 1905.
George B. Luks, Allen Street, c. 1905.

I was there today, right there to the left of the red chair. You can still see my imprint! I have a yoga mat on my back and I’m wearing really insane winter boots with saw soles.

My NYC yoga studio is in the Lower East Side at the corner of Stanton and Allen, the very same Allen Street George B. Luks captured so brilliantly in his painting. His version of the scene in oil and the handful of versions I snapped of it in Instagram aren’t dissimilar. These days, there are fewer bonnets — or are those burkas on Luks’s women? — on Allen Street, but there’s just as much stuff for sale and there are dress shops and people stacked on top of one another.

Luks was an artist of the Ashcan School. If “The Ashcan School” sounds fancy, that’s just what the Ashcan painters want you to think, but the name comes from the actual object: the ash can.

These guys were a belligerent bunch. It was around the turn of the 20th century they were doing their thing. The grand poo-bah of the (loosely affiliated) group was a newspaper illustrator named Robert Henri. He said he wanted art to be more like journalism: hard, honest, unflinching. The John Singer-Sargent stuff was starting to rot everyone’s teeth out, and Henri and his band of super grumpy painters wanted to portray the real people they saw in the cities where they all hailed from, New York City and Philly. Down-and-out beggars, rag-pickers, elderly indigent women, the unwashed masses — these were the subjects for the Ashcan guys. They painted on wood panels they found, on boards, on window shades. They got into bar fights. Luks was such a bad boy, he actually died in a bar fight in 1933.

In New York, on Allen and Stanton, I can feel the past bear down so hard on me, I actually tend to walk a little faster. I love it down there on the Lower East Side, but the air has an edge and it ain’t the rock clubs. It’s the tenement houses, long burned down. It’s the rag-pickers. It’s that Allen Street was Asylum Street for a good while — why? Because it was where the New York Orphan Asylum was, of course. There’s something in the grime that produces slides in my brain: hungry faces and brawling drunks; the smell of boiling meat, boiling clothing, boiling hot days in August.

Yoga was good. I’ve returned to my Bikram practice. It wasn’t so rough today, but I’ve been in class when there were forty or fifty people packed into that room. It’s no more than 450 sq. ft. and it’s heated to 105 degrees. I’ve been in classes so packed that when I did my forward standing bend, I’ve hit the butt of the girl in front of me with my forehead.

And the grime becomes you.

An Open Thank -You Note to Ms. Camilla Skovgaard

Bi-Sepia Ankle Wedge Boot w/Saw Sole by Camilla Skovgaard, now onsale. Visit camillaskovgaard.com, baby.
Bi-Sepia Ankle Wedge Boot w/Saw Sole by Camilla Skovgaard, now onsale. Visit camillaskovgaard.com, baby.

Dear Ms. Skovgaard:

I purchased your Bi-Sepia Ankle Wedge Boot w/Saw Sole last season from a designer discount retailer. You’ll be happy to know your boots were still hella expensive! I knew when I saw them that I was in trouble: they were singular and ferocious. I also needed a boot desperately, as I had actually worn through the leather of my old pair. They went into my digital shopping cart at once. Little did I know what a phenomenal purchase I had just made.

Yesterday, slushy, wet, fat snow came down in New York. It stuck to everyone’s hair and made all the wool in the city smell like wet dog, which was super. Though you are based in London, I have a hunch you’ve been in NYC a few times and have seen the state of the streets here. The state of the streets is not good, especially at the curb of any intersection in lower Manhattan. When the big snow grater in the sky opens up, Olympic-sized pools of evil slush form in these canyons and you find yourself quite literally at an impasse.

Unless you’re me. In your boots.

When my sister first saw them she rolled her eyes and said, “Okay, so you’re going to break your neck.” True, your boots do not look practical for snow and ice. But we know better, don’t we, Ms. Skovgaard. We know you have created the perfect city winter boot precisely because of the height. It’s like walking on wooden blocks 5” above the slush and snow! These things are freaking stilts! My socks never get wet! I can practically wade through the slurry! And I look hot doing it!  

But that’s not all!

The saw sole is genius. I have never found a lady’s boot with this kind of traction, and that includes ladyboots found in the Circle B farm equipment store in my midwest hometown. The rubber teeth on these boots are for serious urban-winter walking. I do not slip. I do not stumble. I do not slide. I crunch. I stomp. I skump. (I don’t know what skumping is, but I don’t know what’s in that NYC slush, either; all I know is that I don’t get any on me when I’m skumping around in my sick, sick boots.) Your brilliant design of the heel must also be noted: as you know, it is very, very narrow. I was alarmed at first, thinking the extremely narrow heel would cause balance trouble. Quite the contrary. It acts as a damn ice pick if I have to scale a small (dirty) snow drift either here or in Chicago! Sometimes I hit a skump of ice with my heel first to get purchase and then I vault over it with a push from the other leg. Can you hear me right now? Slow-clapping and whistling my approval?

This is my second winter with my boots, Ms. Skovgaard, and I am as pleased this year as I was last. I feel like a character in a video game because a) I look like a character in a video game and b) I feel like I have special powers that not everyone has. Not that they shouldn’t have them, too. Everyone should. I hope this thank-you note leads to even one more pair of your boots sold.

Hats off to you and your team. Hats off, boots on and on.

Sincerely,
Mary Fons

 

 

 

“A Quilter and a Voguer Walk Into a Lobby…”

Vintage Vogue. Horst, 1939.
Horst, 1939. Vogue magazine.

If you want to work in the quilt industry — and with a $3.5B+ annual market valuation, a lot of people do — you’re going to need to go to Quilt Market. Anyone doing serious business in the quilt world is there and though there are many shows throughout the year that serve the industry, when people ask you, “Will I see you at Market?” they mean either International Spring or International Fall Market, whichever comes next on the calendar. The answer to the question should be, “Absolutely.”

At Market, you see what’s new. You get the V.I.P. scoop. You make predictions. You discover new designers, new talent. You see who’s hot, who’s tepid, and who isn’t there at all. You make deals. You make friends and faux pas. If you want to be in the business, you have to be at Market because please. Everyone who’s anyone, darling.

Really, going to Quilt Market is a little like being in New York City. Everything happens here first. If you’re not here, you’re just gonna have to find out when everyone else does: later.

I’m staying in an East Village hotel while my NYC living situation sorts itself out. At 4:00am this morning, I woke with a stomachache and couldn’t get back to sleep. (When you don’t eat much during the day and then you eat steak, these things happen.) My hard and fast rule about insomnia? Get up. Tossing and turning is unacceptable. Just get up. Read something or clean something. If you’re in my situation, pad down to the lobby with your computer and talk about vogueing with Zachary, the night porter.

I was scamming some tea from the not-technically-open tea and coffee station when Zachary appeared. He startled me and I instantly regretting not combing my hair or at least putting on flip-flops. I looked like a barefoot, homeless crazy person.

“Please don’t throw me out,” I said, sleep-deprived and thieving. “I just knew where the honey was. I-I’m a good person,” I spluttered.

“You’re fine,” said Zachary, dressed in black skinny jeans and a cap, laconic and cool in that way that early twenty-something New York kids are laconic and cool.

“Thanks,” I said. “I couldn’t sleep, so I’m awake.” Even in the middle of the night, I am excellent at stating the obvious. It’s a talent.

We started chatting. I told him about being a writer and a quilter; he told me about a nearby gallery that is currently exhibiting quilts. I asked him what he did when he wasn’t working at a small hotel at 4am. He told me he graduated last year with degrees in art history and publishing, that he was also a writer, and that he is holding a panel discussion on ballroom culture on Thursday.

“Ooh,” I said, “Tell me more.” Because Zachary wasn’t referring to tango clubs or waltzing, and I knew it. Ballroom culture refers to the dance-centric, underground LGBT subculture that brought us such touchstones as vogueing and the “house” system, a way of forming alliances/collectives within the underground drag and dance community. Mainstream references to all this include the seminal Paris Is Burning film (1990), Madonna’s “Vogue,” and RuPaul’s “House of Love” and Lady Gaga’s “House of Gaga,” though one must note the mass-appeal versions of these things look different from the ground-floor ballroom world Zachary knows.

What he shared with me about the evolution and current state of ballroom culture was fascinating. I was getting the story, that Market-style scoop.

Vogueing has its roots in 1960s Harlem, it became vogueing in the 1980s and 1990s. But it’s been twenty-five-ish years since Paris is Burning and a whole lot has happened in the scene in that time, no surprise. There’s femme voguing (extravagant, feminine, beat-centric) and “dramatics” (jerky, hard, battle-centric) and those styles are already waning to make room for what’s next. The music has changed a lot, too; less wailing diva house, more crunchy, techy beats so fast and frenetic the standard measure of “beats per minute” ceases to be applicable. The Internet happened in there, too, so now the good DJs are instantly hot across the country, as opposed to how it happened in the old days: slowly, while mixtapes were transported from NYC to Chicago to San Francisco and back. Dance styles are instantly mimicked and adapted. We watched YouTube videos together for some time and Zachary showed me the vibrant and vital community of people who are keeping ballroom alive, well, and just as competitive and snatchy as ever. That’s a compliment, by the way.

Anything I’ve gotten wrong or weird in my report is to be blamed entirely on me and my lack of sleep, not Zachary. He knows his subject, he dances, he is more than qualified to host his panel on Thursday.

This is why you get up when you can’t sleep. There’s so much to learn. There’s so much to see, even at 4am. And in the center of the world (that would be New York City), it’s ever-so-slightly more true.

Work.

My Soup, My Salad, My Nemesis: Vapiano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously, it’s great.

What Fresh Elle Is This? (A Rant.)

posted in: Fashion, Rant, Tips 10
It's like a sea of fat-free raspberry balsamic vinaigrette.
It’s like a sea of fat-free raspberry balsamic vinaigrette.

I take several magazines, but I’m editing. Elle has got to go.

Elle is good at what it does, reaching with almost surgical precision into the hearts and minds of its customer: the female of the species. Though the world of fashion publishing is slightly more fickle (and fraught, and funded) than the quilt one, I am a magazine editor and I can assure you: getting into hearts and minds is the difficult and never-ending job of any magazine that wants to succeed. Elle makes it look easy. Published by Hearst here in the U.S. since 1945, Elle wins industry awards frequently, and the number of ads inside speaks to its profitability. The editorial is solid (mostly), the photography and the layouts are tops, and if you want to know what’s fashionable these days, you will find out in Elle.

But it’s over, and it happened yesterday morning.

I was staring out the window, thinking about the concept of study hall and noticed the latest issue of Elle in my mail stack. Lovely! Historically, I have enjoyed fashion magazines, thus the getting one in the mail and all. I pulled the magazine to my lap and spent 20 minutes — not a moment longer — flipping through the pages and feeling increasingly ill. Page after page of peacock colors, nail lacquer, hair product, handbags, oils, skin cream, more shoes; miserable fourteen-year-old girls, hostile ad campaigns, backstage “candids” that took thirty minutes to set up; “up and comers,” “ones to watch,” and reanimated has-beens who have been given a page because it’s ironic to see a now-haggard Jennifer Beals in a leather jumper posing with Miley Cyrus. Or something.

What the hell are they doing to us?

The fashion industry is an easy target. It’s foolish, it’s vicious, it’s myopic, it’s preposterous: I am saying zero new things. I’m also not saying that fashion is frivolous. I care deeply about style and apparel. This is precisely the problem. The New York Times street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham said once, “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life,.” Correct. Every morning, I decide who I will be that day by choosing what I’ll wear. My mood and my mien are directly tied to what I’m in by 7:00am. I’m not alone in this. Fashion is powerful.

Fashion magazines are not. That’s why I’m done. Fashion magazines take the awesome power of fashion and kill it dead. Fashion magazines show one, itsy-bitsy tier of fashion: the one that proclaims, “Price is no object. Neither is location.” I don’t begrudge the people who take up this space; I’m genuinely happy they can access it. But I turned to a picture of a woman in a skirt that cost $6,995 and with deep conviction, I rolled up the magazine and banged it on the couch with a whap! whap! whap! I was furious. You know who buys and reads Elle? The 27-year-old admin assistant who just got a modest raise. She lives in the west suburbs and drives an hour in traffic twice a day. The married mother of two getting a mani-pedi in Omaha. The single girl in the city who has some disposable income but also student loans that wake her up at night. The aging sun-tanner. They all love fashion, too, so they look at fashion magazines. But the message shared with them isn’t one of inclusion: it’s either a) this isn’t really for you; or b) you should be able to buy this, eventually.

Shame on you, Elle. Shame on you and your brethren for totally obscuring fashion with money. I have an idea: you take that $6,995 skirt and you wear it. Go ahead. Put it on. That’ll be punishment enough. It looks as ridiculous on you as it would on the Omaha mom. Floor-length silk pleats? Are you drunk?

Silver lining: the rise of the street fashion blog. These blogs show actual citizens of Earth doing fashion and showing style, mixing the high and the low, getting bourgeoise a little smutty or classing up what’s grungy. In these images, the power of fashion returns. Consider me clicking — and not leafing — forevermore.

Record, Repeat, Dance, Advil.

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

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

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

I suggest keeping a journal.

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

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

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

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

Cheers, comrades.

Traveling Quilter

See, it's a hobo duck and it's got a patch on its jeans, so it's like me, kinda homeless, trying to figure out how to be a quilt designer/maker without a studio.
Illustration © Magic Sweater 2013. Permission Pending. (Also: a patch on the elbow and on the pants? He’s so a quilter.)

The phrase, “I’m just really stressed out” is a tired one. The phrase is tired. Upon hearing it, the listener is tired, and we all know the person saying it is extremely tired. I stay away from phrases like this because George Orwell said I should. But Orwell also believed in saying what you mean and this time I mean it: I’m stressed out.

On Wednesday, I get in a plane and fly to New York City. I will stay there for six weeks. Six weeks! If you’re new around here or if you don’t have room in your head for the details of my life (I don’t either), here’s why I’m leaving Chicago: I have a refrigerator, a dishwasher, a range, and a kitchen’s worth of cabinetry in my living room which was already layered with dust and compromised with construction zones. (I’m renovating a kitchen and bathroom in a 1500 sq. ft. condo.) Also, my main squeeze is moving to New York City. Also, my sister lives there. Reasons abound for a sojourn in Manhattan, but it’s no weekend jaunt: I’m going there to live for over a month and a half. It will be mid-March before I’m home again. Jiggity-jig.

Here’s the main issue: I’m a quilter. I make quilts. I ask you, fellow quilters: how do you pack up your studio for a six-week trip in the middle of a tremendously inspired and productive period? Seriously, your input — or commiseration — would be appreciated.

 

For those of you who don’t know, fabric to quilters is as paint is to painters. Fabric is our palate. I have a mad decent palate, too: my stash is sick. If I want, say, a black and white polka dot, not too big, mostly black, well, I just go grab it from the drawer. Whatever will I do in New York City? Yes, yes, I could buy more, but I’d rather not my NYC spell be doubly expensive because I’m 3,000 miles away from my fabric. Trust me: this relocation is gonna cost a few bucks already. And my design wall! And my cutting mat! Oy.

Here’s my solution so far: make up kits for the two quilts I have going right now. Pack them with fabric I want and additional fabric that I might want. Send my machine ahead of me. Commandeer a wall in the apartment to serve as my design wall: be flexible, gentle, and concessionary on everything but this in terms of space-sharing with the fellow.

And make my quilts. And do my work. And look out whatever window I end up with and smile, because my life is charmed, charmed, charmed, after all.

Meet The Chastushka

posted in: Art, Poetry, Word Nerd 5
And pretty maids all in a row.
And pretty maids all in a row.

We’re going to talk about a Russian quatrain, but first we have to go to France. Stéphane Mallarmé was a French poet and critic who lived from 1842-1898. You know how poems sometimes do this on the page?

poems     sometimes
do
this                                    on the
page?

Yeah, it’s super annoying unless it’s gorgeous and it usually isn’t — sorry, aspiring poets but hey: I can’t make it gorgeous, either. Mallarmé was among the first to do that sort of thing and his influence on 20th century art was huge. I read a quote from Mallarmé a couple months ago that I loved so much, that rang so true, I melted into weepiness. I set about memorizing it and now when I’m falling asleep at night, I turn it over and over in my head because, well:

“Poetry is the expression, in human language restored to its essential rhythm, of the mysterious meaning of the aspects of existence: in this way it confers authenticity on our time on earth and constitutes the only spiritual task there is.”

I know, right? It’s not just a definition but a reason for poetry. Gah! Flutter, sputter, perish by art. And so it was with Mallarmé’s wisdom on repeat in my head that I set about researching a poem discovery: the chastushka.

The chastushka is a Russian form of poetry whose closest cousin in English is the limerick. “Chastushka” means “to speak fast.” Like the limerick, the chastushka rhymes, though with just four lines to the limerick’s five, it’s a straight ABAB or AABB rhyme scheme. The poem’s subject matter covers the breadth of human experience, but you won’t find a ton of chastushki about the beauty of the sunset; these poems usually focus on sex, politics, or your mother. Also, Chastushki are written in something called trochaic tetrameter, which sounds horrible but is simply the rhythm, or meter, of the form. It’s set. And here’s what it sounds like:

Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her

…or look at these two lines from William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger”:

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,
In the forest of the night;

See? You totally know what trochaic tetrameter is! And that’s a chastushka’s meter. Fun, right? Totally, and I wanted to try writing a few. And now, I present some chastushki for you on this wintry night. You should write a few. You’re not going anywhere. I will not post any chastushki about politics or your mother. That’s for the other blog. Just kidding — there is no other blog. Yet.

Fluffy goose-down pillow fight,
In the morning or at night,
I whup you upside your head,
We laugh and then go back to bed.

When Swanky Squirrel goes into town,
He dresses up and never down,
His suits are crafted by the best,
You should see his bespoke vest!

 

 

Gravel Roads

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

I grew up on a farm. Sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we never went back.

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

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

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

Fons In Love

Love means absolutely saying you're sorry. A lot. Who writes this stuff?
Love means absolutely saying you’re sorry. A lot. Who writes this stuff?

Well, I’ve gone and done it. I’m in love.

Given as I am to hyperbole and dramatics, one could read the above sentence and figure I’m in love with a dress, or an author, or a particular kind of squash. But no, I’m in love with a man. It’s happened, and it’s time to say something.

Admitting that you’ve fallen in love is a bit (I hear) like sharing that you’re pregnant: you don’t want to say anything until you’re absolutely sure and everything looks rosy because, you know, things happen. And people are so excited when someone falls in love or gets pregnant because except in a very few sad cases this is a happy occasion. (Sad cases for falling in love include it occuring when you are married to someone else; sad cases for getting pregnant include when you have a gaggle of children already and someone just lost a job. These sorts of things.)

It’s going on five months, now, spending time with this fellow. I reckon that’s about how long it takes to go gaga and see a relationship of consequence grow and inspire. Think about it: one month is just enough time to understand the other person’s job. Two months is great fun but come on. Three months and you’re like, “Hm, now wait a second,” four months is like, “Holy crap, I like you so much and we’re sort of dating,” and entering the fifth month is the bare minimum in terms of acceptability for announcing the world that you’ve gone round the bend and there has been embarrassing levels of eyeball-gazing between the two of you.

Is this all too sterile an analysis? It might even sound defensive. Okay, then forget all that. Let me just tell you about this person.

He’s devastatingly good-looking. (I will spare you details of his perfect smile, his sparkly eyes, his abdominal muscles.) He’s gainfully employed. He’s an excellent writer — perhaps the only “dealbreaker” I have, much as I hate that concept — he’s witty, he’s responsible, he’s way too much fun, he’s trilingual, and ladies? Brace yourself: he’s an accomplished piano player. HE PLAYS THE DAMNED PIANO. Very well, I might add. Oh for heaven’s sake! The moment I witnessed that, I was toast. Toast!

I out with it now because at this point, I’m skipping huge swaths of juicy PaperGirl content for the sake of modesty. But the adventures I’m having with this person are too good not to write about. So here we are.

He’s marvelous. I’m over the moon.

And in a mad change of plans, I’ll be leaving the icy slick of Iowa tomorrow morning on a plane to sun-drenched California. He’s visiting his family there and we’ve been apart almost three weeks. We can’t stand it another minute, so I booked a ticket. When I arrive in Santa Ana at 2:30 tomorrow afternoon, it’ll be the smooch heard ’round the world.

Darling, I’m on my way.

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