Last night, until about 1:30am and this morning beginning at 6:30am, I was sewing. I was sewing two baby quilts for The Big Secret Project that will be announced soon. Last night at 12:30am, I felt the announcement bearing down on me like a train. A train covered in a patchwork quilt, with a conductor who is running the thing on a sewing machine engine. If you’re not a quilter, you don’t know that some of these puppies (?) are so powerful, they could probably power a locomotive. Especially those BabyLocks. They’re engines that can. I have four.
Paper-piecing is my favorite way to make patchwork. Paper-piecing means to sew fabric to a paper foundation and then tear the paper off the back when the block is complete. You don’t have to do patchwork this way; there is “traditional piecing” as well, but I’ll not go on about all this too much for those of you who don’t care about patchwork, though you should.
I used to be afraid of the paper-piecing technique — used in quiltmaking for at least 150 years — because the process involves some brain training. Once I got the hang of it, however, I began to look at every quilt block and think, “Okay, yeah, yeah: but how can I paper-piece it?” It’s like starving guy on a desert island who looks at everything he sees as a steak.
The drawback to paper-piecing is that your floor looks like the picture above. All those bits of paper must come off before you join all the blocks together and the more blocks you have, the more you become a badger, scrabbling at the backs of your blocks with little claws, paper going everywhere, including in your hair. At the end of the process, if the quilt is large, you have a nest. You do sit in it because it’s comfortable there on the floor.
Such is the glamorous life of a quilter who makes quilts for shows or magazines, etc. Quilting under a deadline is not fun at all. It sucks all joy from the process, though the finished product is still rewarding, but mostly because you can breathe again and pry your shoulders from your neck.
Marianne Fons is a legendary quilt personality known coast to coast and around the world. I’ve seen people practically kiss her hem upon meeting her; I’ve seen her sign napkins.** To thousands of quilters, my mother is Friend, Neighbor, and Beloved Quilt Teacher. But in the kitchen, my mother is no star. In the kitchen, she approaches remedial. She would be the first to admit this and did admit this when, moments ago, I yelled from the living room into the kitchen,
“You wouldn’t say you’re a good cook, right? I mean, you don’t consider yourself like, a person who makes more than four things? Is that accurate? Can I ask you something for PaperGirl?”
“Okay,” yelled my mother. Loud and unsure is an interesting tone of voice.
Knowing how much she hates interroom conversations, I picked up my laptop and went to where she was: at the kitchen sink. We kids pitch in in the kitchen when we’re here, but it cannot be denied that my mother does the lion’s share of dishwasher-ing at holidays. Mom seems to like KP duty. She’s first one with her hands in the sink, after all, holiday after holiday, practically racing to scrape the plates and haul out the box of Cascade. I slouched up to the other side of the bar, ate some grapes, and asked her in a more civilized way how she viewed herself as a cook.
“I make a great cherry pie,” she said. “I make good mostaccioli. My chicken ricotta soup is good. But I’m not a person who knows how to cook, no. I’m just good at following a recipe.”
“And you would admit you’re a picky eater.” It’s not possible to be a good cook if you’re picky.
“Oh, absolutely,” my mother said. I was glad she didn’t try to argue this point. I’ve never seen a pickier eater than my mother. Actually, I did see a pickier eater, once. She was four and was wearing an Elsa costume in public on a Saturday morning while I was trying to have brunch. Either that little girl agreed to eat something her tired, weary parents offered her or she has starved by now.
“The thing is, though, I’d much rather make a quilt than a dish,” my mother sniffed, hand-drying a pie plate. “At the end of a quilt, you have something that lasts.”
This is Marianne Fons-brand snobbery; harmless (no one will ever really fight over what’s more special, grandma’s chess pie recipe or grandma’s patchwork quilt) but readily available, designed to insure she comes out on top. Maybe it’s not snobbery at all but unflagging optimism; maybe we could all do with more of it, I don’t know. But regardless, every once in awhile my mother makes a comment that belies her “who needs it” position vis a vis food arts. She’s got a daughter (me) and a soon-to-be son-in-law (Jack) who take our cooking seriously. I got down to the chicken soup business yesterday and within a few minutes there was a nutrient-rich, aromatic slurry simmering on the stove; Jack has been known to say things like, “The lemons are macerating” or “Pass the dashi.” Jack and my facility in the kitchen seems to inspire Mom to gingerly expand her repertoire every once in awhile (read: Thanksgiving.)
My stepdad, Mark, was getting his hair cut the other day and saw the good people of Good Morning America talking about pumpkin flan. He told my mom that pumpkin flan sounded pretty good to him, and Mom, seeing this as her yearly opportunity to flex a bit at the stove, proclaimed that she would be making a pumpkin flan this year for Thanksgiving. And make it she did.
It looked just the way it was supposed to. It came out of the pan beautifully and the flavor was spot-on. I know because actually ate some. Pumpkin flan is definitely not on my list of “legal” foods, but I’ve been so sick lately, I figured it couldn’t possibly get any worse. So far, I have not died.
And so, my mother’s new name is Marianne Flans. We’ve decided she needs to make pumpkin flan every year for Thanksgiving because it is delicious, but also so that she can come by her new name honestly: she needs to make multiple flans to truly be Marianne Flans, plural. But we did also decide that when used in the singular, it’s acceptable to pronounce “FLAH-hn” as “f-LAN,” with the long “A” sound, for this means we have a new word to add to our favorite game ever.
**My mother would want me to point out that I’m signing napkins, now, too; I also have a fame experience my mother likely will never have and would not want: I was asked to sign a girl’s cleavage with a tube of lipstick after performing my set at the Green Mill Uptown Poetry Slam. It was a memorable moment for all.
Trudging through Kmart yesterday, my sister and I both had the same disorienting experience at the exact same time: we both caught a whiff of Electric Youth perfume. Here’s what that moment looked like:
MARY: “Dude. I just smelled Electric Youth.”
NAN: “Dude. Me too.”
Electric Youth was a perfume (never a “parfum”) unleashed on the marketplace in 1989. The target demographic was the tween, though that term had not yet been coined. Back then, it was the mighty “teeny-bopper” dollar that the fragrance was trying to capture, and capture it it did. Those out to profit were the record executives who ran the career of pop sensation Debbie Gibson. Electric Youth was the first in a long, long line of celebrity-inspired fragrances and I, for one, had to have it. I loved Debbie Gibson and had a cassette of her album. I believe that album was called “Electric Youth.”
There were two dueling pop stars when I was in fourth grade: Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, whose last name was withheld in hopes Barbara and Judy would more quickly recognize her as one of their own. I was on the fence as to who I liked more and my neutrality came at great peril: it was expected by one’s elementary school peers in those days to choose sides. Debbie Gibson was the good girl. She was blonde, blue-eyed; kind of a white-tube-socks-with-white-Ked’s girl. She wore scrunchies and boxy vests printed with geometric shapes. Tiffany, on the other hand, was understood to have weaker moral fiber. Tiffany was a redhead, for one thing. Nothing but trouble there. And her first (only?) hit was a cover of the Shondell’s “I Think We’re Alone Now,” which contained the lyrics:
“We’re runnin’ just as fast as we can/holdin’ on to one another’s hands/tryin’ to get away/into the night/and then you put your arms around me and we tumble to the ground and then you say: “I think we’re alone now…”
Tiffany had a little curl to her lip when she sang her song and she put a little stank on the “into the niiiiight” part, which clearly meant she was having sex. She also wore acid washed denim jackets, so… Mothers did not like Tiffany.
They dug Debbie, though. Debbie’s first single was the docile, sweet “Only In My Dreams,” which pleased these mothers. With Debbie, their daughters’ sexual fantasies were happening exactly where and when they should be happening: while they were fast asleep, alone, locked in the house.
If Tiffany had had a perfume, it would’ve smelled musky, with notes of Aqua Net and a car dashboard. But Tiffany never had a fragrance; only Debbie signed that deal. Electric Youth perfume was a deeply synthetic, fruity floral with no “notes” of anything, no “low end” of wood or caille lily or moss. This was candy in a spritzer. The fluid itself was colored pink — an easy decision for the executives, I suspect. And inside the clear bottle was a pink plastic spring, clearly showing the exuberance — nay, the electricity — of youth. And we loved it. We sprayed it on with wild abandon and our parents’ headaches meant nothing. Nothing!
Electric Youth is not made anymore. You can find it on eBay and Amazon, but these are bottles of old perfume; as you can see by the picture above, the pink has faded and reviews are mixed as to whether the scent is still any good (or there at all, for that matter.) But in its prime, Electric Youth left its pink, sticky fingerprints all over the limbic systems of young American girls across the nation and when Nan and I smelled whatever we smelled in Kmart yesterday, it transported us back to a simpler, cheaper time.
The U.S. Department of Labor tells us that in 1887, there were five forward-thinking states that voted to observe a newfangled thing called “Labor Day.” Among those five states: New York. Perhaps that’s why everyone has been so crazy in the city this weekend; I’m sure everyone living here knows New York was an early adopter of Labor Day and the knowledge has made them drunk on power. And alcohol.
Before I get to the story about nearly stepping on two kids making out in my apartment building last night, a terrific quote from one Mr. Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners back in the early 1880s. McGuire was a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor and he is credited by many as being the first to suggest there oughtta be a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”
I think that’s pretty well-said, don’t you? “Who from rude nature” and “delved and carved” are downright snazzy, son. And he’s right, too: We do behold grandeur, all over the place, all the time. If you don’t see it, you should clean your glasses.
Now, about stepping on these kids.
Several of Yuri’s friends were in New York to attend the U.S. Open and we went out with them last night. It was very, very difficult for me to wrench myself away from my sewing machine (I’m working on entering a quilt in QuiltCon this year) but I delved and carved myself into a Roberto Cavalli dress that made me feel like a real kitten and I got into the mood. I checked my diet rulebook and, to my delight, found that tequila is allowed. I had two modest servings of Don Julio on the rocks last night and nothing horrifying occurred. Good news for my guts and my brain, which was starting to feel a little “all work, no play.”
We taxied to a place. We danced. We clinked glasses with friends. We moved to another place. There was revelry. But not surprisingly, I was ready to go home before Yuri was ready. There was no drama in this. We’re reasonable people and we have different thresholds and clocks and such.
“Honey, I think I’m gonna dip!” I shouted over the boots-cats-boots-cats music throbbing through the speakers somewhere deep in the Lower East Side.
“What?” Yuri turned his ear toward me. An extremely enthusiastic Puerto Rican girl who wasn’t an inch over five feet tall careened past us and slammed into a man I hoped was her boyfriend. Splash.
“I’m gonna take off! I’ve had fun! I’m good! You stay out!” Behind me, a hand rested lightly on my waist. I realized it was not Yuri and gave the man behind me a filthy look; he retreated.
Yuri gave me a look of “I don’t want you to leave” but, being a reasonable person who knows me by now, said, “Are you sure?” and when I nodded vigorously, hugged me tight and said, “Okay, baby. Let’s get you a cab.”
When I got home, I had a dickens of a time getting the front gate open. I was at it for 10 minutes and when I finally got in the door, I was elated. It was nearly two in the morning and I was in very high heels. I was so happy, I didn’t mind that I nearly stepped on two youngsters in flagrante on the floor. Right there, on the floor of the building, at the foot of the stairs, laying on top of each other and vigorously making out, was the son of my landlord and a cute little blond gal.
“Oh! Uh, sorry,” I said, and waited for them to sort of roll out of my way. I needed to go up the stairs.
“No, we’re sorry,” said the young man, and kind of smooshed his way over to the side. I can’t verify it, but I’m guessing they had been drinking. An iPhone fell out of the girl’s pocket and I barely missed stepping on that. I’m telling you, they were lying on the floor! The landlord’s kid! And some girl who looked like she just had her sweet sixteen! A Labor Day scandal!
“Watch your phone, there,” I said, and I couldn’t help but smile as I made my way up the stairs. I thought about those kids — they were maybe college freshman-age? younger? — and how different their lives are from mine. I mean, this apartment building is really pretty amazing and the young guy, his dad owns it. In New York City. It’s huge. It’s pre-war. It’s a stunning place, with art all over the walls and vaulted ceilings. No wonder the landlord’s kid can nab the cute blondes, you know? He’s got game. My make-out sessions in high school (which totaled about four, by the way) took place in cars or cornfields. Same planet — but you know what they say about the worlds.
Enjoy your four-day work week, you crazy New Yorkers. And me, and you. Let’s all enjoy the grandeur of the week however many bodies we have to step over as we labor.
“Can I have a another cooky first? You tell long stories.”
“Here. Anything else?”
“Good. Okay, then, PaperGirl. Well, once upon a time, long ago, I wrote a poem.”
“What was it called?”
“I’m getting to it. It was called ‘The Paper Poem,’ and it was an extended metaphor about the nature of existence being fragile like paper, but beautiful, too, like paper is beautiful.”
“Before your time.”
“Oh. Your poem sounds cool, grandma.”
“I liked it. Other people liked it, too, and I performed it in many places all over the country.”
“Like in Bismark?”
“No, never actually in Bismark, I don’t think. Maybe. It was a long time ago. Anyway, there’s a verse where I say ‘I will be your paper girl,’ and that’s where ‘PaperGirl’ comes from.”
“What’s the verse?”
“You want to hear the whole verse?”
“Is it long?”
“No, it’s not long. It’s the second-to-last verse of the poem and it goes like this:
But if you are a paper doll, too, then I shall know you on sight,
And if you are with me, come with me tonight; I will match up our bodies
by the tears in our arms —
We will form paper barricades against matchstick harm;
I will make paper love to you for as long as I can in this shreddable world;
I will be your paper girl.
“That’s nice, grandma.”
“And you named your blog that because of that poem?”
“Yes. And PaperGirl is the name of my LLC, too. And that small island I bought. And the Beaux Arts building you like so much in Paris. And my foundation in Dubai and all the vineyards in Spain. Everything in my empire, it’s all under the PaperGirl umbrella.”