One Sunday afternoon, many years ago in Iowa City, I was trying desperately to charm my then-boyfriend’s parents.
We were all riding in his parents’ car. His dad was driving. His mother sat in front seat. Guy and I were in the back. And I did fine the majority of the trip.
The fellow I was dating at the time was a chef — a good one. When I got the job at the cafe where he cheffed, I knew nothing about food beyond Mom’s spaghetti and my young-adult version of it.* But this person, this chef, taught me how to eat. He showed me the world of fresh food beautifully prepared and it changed my life because I love my family, would die for my family, respect and value my family — but my family is not a food family. That’s okay! But when I learned how to eat (and how to cook) because of the chef, life tasted different. And I like different.
So we’re in the folks’ Beemer and Chef’s lovely, intelligent, handsome mother asks me this or that question about this or that thing. I have the occasion to use a word that I liked — liked, past tense: chutzpah. Great word. Yiddish. Means “shameless audacity, impudence.” Like, “He had the chutzpah to run for class president after pulling that stunt in gym class.” I knew how to use the word. But I didn’t know that chutzpah was pronounced “HOOTZ-pah” and ideally, one should do that Yiddish glottal cough thing with the “H” sound. I didn’t know any of that. Your hapless heroine pronounced it, “CHUTT-spa.” Hard “CHUTT.” Spa.
These people were Jewish. By the way.
Chef’s mother made this sound that was half-gasp, half-snort and turned back to look at me with kindness but great, great mirth. “Honey, you pronounce it ‘HOOTZ-pah.” I cocked my head to the side.
“Ha. Ah. I see. Well, you know, then, ha. Ha, then. It’s… She had HOOTZ-pah. For the thing. Are we close? I think we’re close.”
Over a decade! Over a decade since I said “CHUTT-spa” in a car with three Jewish people all with generous Yiddish vocabularies and I still can’t forget it. I thought about it today because I saw the word in an article and that’s a pain because the chutzpah memory starts a machine in my head that spits out all the other times I’ve mispronounced words in mixed company. I was at a fancy lunch meeting once — one example — and ordered the endive salad. I said, “I’ll have the EN-dive salad, please.” The waitress repeated back, “The ahhn-DEEVE salad?” and I wanted to stick my head under the tablecloth.
Turns out you can say “ahn-DEEVE” or “EN-dive.” Both are okay. But there’s just one chutzpah.
I’m in Philadelphia. Just one night to see a good friend.
Sometimes, when I have to make a big decision, I am comforted by going through options that are not on the table. In short order, I must make the decision, once and for all, whether I’m going back to Chicago or staying in Washington. Before I list a few options I can cross out, let’s review why I am in Washington at all. (It’s so interesting: when I tell people I live in D.C., they almost always go, “D.C.?? How in the world did you end up there?” I like to tell them that I’m planning to run for president, but then I say that I’m kidding and I go through the story.)
1. I lived in beautiful Chicago, in my home in the South Loop.
2. I met Yuri, a Russian bitcoin speculator with a heart of gold who can play classical piano. We began to love each other very much.
3. Yuri got a job at an exciting startup in New York City.
4. Working, as I do, for myself, I have the ability to work from anywhere. Having, as I did, fond feelings for New York, Yuri and I said, “Let’s go together! Just for a year, see how we like it.”
5. I rented out my condo for a year, put things in storage, and moved to the East Village with 1/3 of my worldly possessions.
6. I detested living in New York City. It felt like I was at a crowded outdoor music festival all the time. I really, really hate outdoor music festivals. I became depressed.
7. Yuri and I, though we loved each other very much, broke up for reasons that people always break up: irreconcilable differences. We became depressed.
8. Having no love for New York and no workable love in New York, and essentially being in exile from Chicago until my tenants vacated in June, I was in a sticky position.
9. A dear friend said to me, “Why don’t you have an adventure? You can live wherever you want for the next eight months. Where have you always wanted to live?” I answered without hesitation, “Washington, D.C.” I performed with the Neo-Futurists for a whole month at the Woolly Mammoth theater several years ago and loved the city on contact. I wanted to return someday.
10. I packed the 1/3 of my worldly possessions into a U-Haul van and drove to D.C., not knowing anyone but excited. And I have a terrible, beautiful love for the city and don’t want to leave, yet, but Chicago is my best friend.
If you missed the cliffhanger decision-making process when I decided to leave New York, start here.
When I verbally go through the steps, I make it quick, but I can’t skip a single one of them. If I don’t say my condo was rented out, a person understandably says, “Well, why not just go back to Chicago?” If I say I moved to Washington without explaining that I had lived there, however briefly, once before, they don’t understand.
But my lease is up in D.C. on June 15th. My tenants are leaving. The clock ticks. The clock stares at me. The time is now. And a new cliffhanger begins. (Insert wink here.) And now, if you’re still with me, a few options that I can rule out, at least, as I work out what the Sam Hill I’m going to do now that it’s flipping May:
1. I am not moving to Philadelphia, nice as it is.
2. I am not moving to Kathmandu.
3. I am not taking a job with streets and sanitation.
4. I am not planning to eat an entire German chocolate cake in a single sitting.
5. I am not planning to throw myself into the Nile.
After making buttermilk pancakes for Yuri this morning (I had some buttermilk leftover from the pie and not everyone likes pie for breakfast, astonishingly) I hopped out the door and into New York. I was headed to the Yarn Co. for a good chunk of sewing time and I felt like I was wearing wings, that’s how excited I was to be sewing-machine bound.
I took the L line to 6th Avenue and then got on the 1 going uptown. On one single train ride I saw three quintessential, only-in-NYC, New York City moments. Let’s revisit.
Moment No. 1
At 34th St., the train pulled in and opened its doors. I saw a drawn, junkie-looking white dude in a stocking cap jump the turnstile right in front of me. He jumped it, gave a fast look around and then bam! he punched the Emergency Exit door to the left of the turnstiles. Through the door came his junkie girlfriend, every bit as strung-out as he was, maybe more. The alarm went off the instant he hit the bar to open the door, but they were gone just as fast. Junkie love in the city.
Moment No. 2
A kid of about eight, I’d guess, was sucking on a pacifier with fake teeth molded into it. It was a joke pacifier, I guess? I didn’t know they made joke pacifiers. If you had told me they existed, I would’ve been hard-pressed to guess at the audience for such things, but now I know. Eight-year-old New York City kids on the subway to school. And she was like, “What?” when I looked at her and in a very good-natured, friendly way, laughed a little. It was funny! Whatever, kid. You got a driver’s license? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Moment No. 3
Almost to my stop, I noticed a woman repeatedly digging into her purse. She was with a friend, clearly frustrated that she couldn’t find something important in her overstuffed, large handbag. There were two MTA employees across from her. Both older gentlemen, they were just getting off work or headed there to start the day. Kinda scruffy, both of them; one Indian, one of indeterminate (to me) ethnicity. The one guy took his flashlight off his tool belt and held it out to the woman with the nicest smile. She was so grateful and took the flashlight, shining it into her purse. It probably totally helped her. I had to exit the train before I found out what happened, but that was awesome.
All on one trip to the Upper West. This be the city.
A few months ago (in Las Vegas of all places) I saw the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
Now, I’ve received a lover’s gaze, I’ve seen a child take his first, wobbly steps toward mom, and I’ve seen a miniature Golden Doodle puppy run across a lawn. Today, I’m speaking of the art visual, observation as opposed to interaction. And I can say that on its face, the most beautiful thing I have seen ever in my life was the Michael Jackson hologram in the Cirque du Soleil show, “One.”
I beg you: allow me to attempt, however feebly, to describe it.
I had never seen a Cirque du Soleil show before and I did not feel sad about this. I knew the performers were talented and I had respect for the whole operation, but trapezes aren’t a selling point for me, especially if part of the spectacle involves a small man in a lizard leotard climbing over me and sticking a forked tongue in my face. Wasn’t that Cirque du Soleil’s whole schtick?
I was in Vegas on business. Cirque’s Michael Jackson show was in previews. I had a last-minute opportunity to go, and I jumped at it. I bailed on Penn & Teller ticket I had purchased already and ate the cost, even. I wouldn’t miss Michael for anything. I had no idea how smart my decision was when I took my seat.
From the time the lights went down, I was transfixed. I sat straight up in my chair like I was an 8-year-old at, you know, the circus. The dancers were astonishing. They have rubber bodies! And if a dancer has a rubber body and can bounce off a damned wall and do a spin in mid-air, you can bet your sparkly glove they can moonwalk, breakdance, and destroy any hip hop move you can throw at them. Man, were they good. I was chair-dancing, boogie-ing as much as possible without actually standing up because there wasn’t room to do so. Michael Jackson’s music is just so good, you guys. It’s made for joy and dancing, for fun and for life. I love his music, always have.
And it’s painful, because we killed him. We did. The star-maker machine, the press. Pop life, the cult of celebrity; it was a homicide. I believe with grave sincerity we all have Michael Jackson’s blood on our hands. You can exempt yourself if you like — it’s not polite of me to say so, having never met most of you — but that man was a fragile person with a one-in-a-billion gift and as a culture, we crushed it into bone powder, slopped it with a mop, and smeared the slurry till it squished under our feet. And Michael still made great music, still kept living when he was deadened by the crush of the crowd on the streets, in the news, and in his head.
So there I am, I’m grinning from ear to ear while watching the show and in the back of my mind I’m deeply sad, too, thinking about Michael and how this genius in our time died so painfully. It was bitter and it was sweet, the worst kind of bitter, the best kind of sweet.
And then it happened.
The theater goes totally dark. Then: stars. Twinkling stars wink, wink, winking across us, all the way from the back of the house to high up in the grid. Woosh… Woosh… Golden stars twinkling, spinning, starting to pick up speed as they collect and move, impossibly, as a group, like a school of fish! Everyone is craning their heads around, a full theater of adults like children, looking here and there and back again at this crazy cloud of stars and the strains of music begin. One couldn’t tell exactly what it was, though it sounded familiar…
The stars floated to the stage. The stars whirled around each other like glowing hummingbirds, faster and around and then, just as it hit you that the music was “Man In the Mirror,” there he was: Michael Jackson. The stars made Michael Jackson. They made a hologram of him. I gasped. Everyone did. This was alchemy.
As I live and breathe, the man appeared as real and as vital as any flesh and blood person there that night. The effect was incomprehensibly executed, an optical illusion without parallel. Michael Jackson was onstage. Humans haven’t evolved to understand this kind of thing. He is dead, but he was there, he was there, young and talented and he was singing, dancing to “Man In the Mirror,” a song I have long believed must’ve been among his favorites because it simply won’t end. There’s an extended coda to MITM that would be uncomfortable if the song wasn’t so freaking great. After his first “shah-mo” at the final third of the song, you really think it’s going to wrap up but it just keeps going. One gets the feeling Michael wanted that song to go on a long time, maybe forever.
If it would have been appropriate, we all would’ve been clapping, but no one spoke or whooped or did anything. We were all just either crying or holding our breath. The dancers danced with him. They moved as an ensemble with him and it was beautiful. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen because it was human ingenuity that brought it into existence. The work that it must’ve taken to build that effect, the science that went into it, the tweaking, the bug fixes, the failures on the way to the end result. I cried the whole time, from the star cloud to the ending strains when the stars whooshed away into nothingness, partly for Thomas Edison for heaven’s sake: we have him to thank for this, too.
It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen because glowing stars are pretty. And it was the most beautiful because a brilliant entertainer who cared about the world way, way too much to be in his line of work, lived again. And he was doing what he loved the most in a place where he was totally safe and sound: onstage. I don’t believe in ghosts and I don’t believe in heaven. I don’t have to. We have holograms and Thomas Edison, Michael Jackson and airplanes to take us to Las Vegas (and back, thank goodness.)
If you can see that show, you should. Let me know if you do.
I am not new to blogging. From 2006 – 2011 and a little into 2012, I posted to my blog nearly every day. The long-term experiment was called “PaperGirl” and she was among my best of friends. Wanna see what roughly six years of blogging looks like on paper? It looks like that picture up there. As I begin this iteration of my blog, I have this probably unfounded and rather obsessive need to let everyone know that I’m not new to this, that this is like drinking water, that I’m not going to drop of the face of the planet, that you can trust me.
The reasons I stopped PaperGirl (unofficially but clearly, once it had been 6 months since my last post) was simple: life got complicated. My marriage failed. I got slightly famous in a small corner of the world and wasn’t so sure how to navigate the personal and private at first. I became the editor of a magazine, i.e., work heated up. There were reasons to stop blogging and they were all excellent. It was a matter of appropriateness and responsibility, of priorities and timing. I actually prioritize nothing over self-expression, so that didn’t go away: it just went offline. My volumes of journals will bear this out, but you won’t see those. Sorry — aside from being handwritten and hard to read, I think I have a moral turpitude clause in my contract.
It feels so good to be home. I mean, back. I mean home. I mean home.
Several people in totally unrelated situations have said to me relatively recently, “I’d rather be lucky than smart any day.” The first time I heard this, I was appalled. How could anyone wish to be anything but smart? But if you apply it to business at least, it makes perfect sense. All the brains in the world won’t make your business succeed if the economy tanks or someone beats you to the patent punch. Ah, but if you’re lucky. If you’re lucky, there’s a snowstorm the day you debut your new + improved snowshoe and bam! Congratulations, old chap. Lucky trumps smart and you’re laughing all the way to the bank, except that it’s closed due to the snowstorm. It’ll be open tomorrow, don’t worry.
Anyhow, I am lucky to have found my current home when and where I did. It was a steal and it’s 100% perfect for me, not the least because I live close to the Chicago Art Institute. I can’t lean out my window and spit on it, not that I would, but it’s a pleasant 10 minute walk from my building which means that technically, it’s real close.
[Editor’s note: Sorry to digress, but I simply must share with you what I usually call The Chicago Art Institute, how I always see the words in my head: The Art Insta-Toot. It makes me laugh, you see, to call that venerable institution “The ‘Toot.” It’s like calling your beautiful daughter “Squirt” or the Hadron Collider “Binky.”]
I strolled up with a friend to see the latest exhibit, “Impressionism, Fashion, & Modernity,” and the whole thing just rocked my face off. It’s an astonishingly well-designed exhibit and I urge anyone who has it within their power to see it, see it. Please. It approaches life-changing. I took notes. I’ll likely revisit those notes again and again and you’ll have to hear about Manet and plackets and gouache from me, which is a dubious way to spend your time, but these things are up to you. Really, it’s wonderful and I commend the curators.
I learned a new word there at the ‘Toot: soutache. I saw this dress in one of the galleries and thought, “Hey! I know that motif! It’s in quilts!”
On the card next to this stunning garment was a note about how the “soutache embroidery.” I immediately thought of a sort of quilt, which, while it has variations and even different names depending on regions, makers, etc., is called “Lover’s Knot”:
See what I mean? The motif of interlocking, geometric loop-de-loops is clearly shared. So I thought, “Well heck, maybe soutache is the name for that motif. Maybe that interlocking pattern of lines is called soutache.”
Soutache is “the narrow, flat ornamental braid used to trim garments.” So it’s the trim, not the design of the trim. But that’s okay. I still learned the word. And it got me thinking about all the connections in textiles that exist. We human beings, we just love to make things. And from the prairie wife to the Parisienne, well, we love beauty, too. It was a neat connection to make in my brain and it made me feel so happy to be a person in the world who gets to see all the these beautiful creations mankind has wrested from the earth.
Did you sleep well? You look amazing. Your hair is like, perfectly messed up. Very stylishly mussed. Do you know the word sprezzatura? It’s Italian, obviously. It means “studied carelessness”. A woman spending hours on her hair to make it look like she just rolled out of bed is working sprezzatura. That’s you right now, sprezzatura. Say “spretz-uh-TOO-ra.” Exactly.
Yes! Coffee! Here, I just made some. It’s French press; I don’t have a coffeemaker. No, because I hate appliances. All those cords and plastic; I can’t take it.
You did?? Oh no! Tell me. Oh, gosh. Oh, dear. Come here, darling. Oh, my, my, my. That’s simply awful. That’s an awful one. A wild boar chasing you is bad enough but not knowing the lines in the play on top of all that — yes, I’ve had that dream too, and it is just the worst. It was only a dream, though, and it’s over.
May I have a kiss, please? Thank you, darling. I do need plenty of kisses in the morning. Here’s the cream and sugar. Enjoy your coffee and I’ll get you a pastry. Take your time and we can think about what to do with the day. We have all the time in the world.