How To Save Money For Home Improvement

posted in: Day In The Life 10
Repairing our frescoes is going to cost a fortune! Image: Wikipedia.


When I bought the apartment where Eric and I currently live, I knew it needed work. Everyone knew it needed work — that’s why I was able to buy it. The location, the building, the mise en scene; if I hadn’t gotten a discount, we wouldn’t have an address on our historic, tree-lined street.

But I did get a discount because the paint in the unit is an inch thick and the parquet floors are in terrible shape. The kitchen came with a Magic Chef stove ca. 1955 and a dishwasher from the pleistocene era. And the other day, one of the shelves in the inset bookcases literally collapsed. (There’s a joke in here about slouching toward Bethlehem, or Atlas shrugging, or the fall of the House of Usher, but that would require me to admit that I’ve still got a copy of Atlas Shrugged. It’s a first edition and it was a gift and it’s hard for me to let go of books, alright?)

Now that we’re staying put in Chicago for the foreseeable future, we’ve got to serious about home improvement. Eric and I have been discussing needs and wants. We need to replace all the molding; we want to connect the kitchen and the the dining room by opening up the east wall. We need to install ceiling lights; we want a gold toilet.* It’s going to cost a bunch of money because this is a big city and that’s just how it is. Plus, Eric would be cool with standard-issue everything, but I’m fancy. I told him this before we got married. He knows.

To get it done, we’ll have to take out a home loan. This is terrifying to me. Borrowing money with our home as collateral — I think that’s how it works — is just a very grown-up thing to do. I feel like a child most of the time and children don’t take out home loans. Can we manage another monthly bill? It’s freaky to think about. Student loan payments have been suspended for two years now, but that party will be over soon. And the apartment may have been on sale, but property taxes don’t get markdowns. If we want to do the work, we’ll have to get the loan, but I want it to be lean, lean, lean. This means I/we need to save money or make some more of it.

Here are things I can do to save money:

no new clothes (I hate this)
no fripperies (I love fripperies)
no major travel (let a book take you on an adventure, loser)

Here are things I can do to make some extra money:

sell my old clothes (but keep a few or I won’t have ANY clothes because I can’t buy new ones, apparently)
grow my Twitch and YouTube channels (harder than it sounds but I’m working on it)
rob a bank (complicated)

If you have other ideas, feel free to comment below! If you know how to rob a bank in your old, dumb clothes while broadcasting it all live on the internet, definitely comment below.


*do not want

Marianne Fons.

posted in: Day In The Life 28
The lady herself. Photo: Me, c. 2014?
The lady herself. Photo: Me, c. 2014.


Dear Mom:

By the time you read this, it’ll be tomorrow.

You’ll be home in Iowa with Mark and Scrabble. Your morning ritual will be done. You’ll have had your coffee. You’ll have put in an hour or more of work on your novel. Whether or not your morning ablutions are done, you’ll surely have your mental to-do list going; you’ll have a plan for the day.

By the time you read this, I’ll have done my own morning ritual, except that I drink tea and write nonfiction. That’s a huge difference — tea and nonfiction vs. coffee and fiction —  but is also sort of no difference at all, and I think it’s good for mothers and daughters to ride that line.

We covered both serious and frivolous ground in the 30 or so hours you were here in Chicago. We spoke of work, the future, creativity, family, fashion, sacrifice, choices, romance, time management, death (same as time management), taxes, and more. We talked quilts, of course. We talked about feminism because I’m studying the work of Miriam Schapiro and to talk about Miriam Schapiro is to talk about quilts and feminism.

I have so many questions about how making a quilt for the Bicentennial united so many women from different spots on the frenzied, polarized political spectrum of 1976. You were there, I wasn’t, yet. You were a stay-at-home mom, you took a quilting class, then you built this incredible business while raising up three girls all by yourself. My sisters and I go through life sort of continually shaking our heads in disbelief. Our family has certainly had its share of storms and shrieking eels, but the ship is sound: She tends to right herself.

Thanks for coming to Chicago, Mama. I miss being on TV with you. Judging by the (hundreds of!) people that came to see us today at the convention center, I’m not the only one. We’re a good team. But even if we never film another episode, we’ll always have those shows. We got to sew together and someone taped it! Way cool.

Lastly, thanks for buying me that dress. We went into Nordstrom Rack and my eyes laser-beamed on it immediately. It was smooshed into an overcrowded display, the only one of its kind. My size. On clearance. I knew it was perfect; you were dubious and made me try it on. When I came out of the dressing room, you took one look and threw up your hands and said, “Well, it’s perfect!”

And I felt so happy because I love being a person you like, a person that reliably makes you smile and shake your head because she can find the clearance-rack designer dress that fits perfectly and she can do it in 5 seconds flat.

It’s nice to be loved by my mom. It’s even nicer to know that I delight and amuse her. My sisters do that for you, too, and this makes me deeply, indelibly content. I speak for us all when I say we don’t take this particular contentment for granted.

See you next in Iowa, Mom, for the opening of the theater. Remind me to do an interview update with you and Rebecca this week or next week.


Small Wonders Wednesday: Random Blog Winner Takes All

The accessory pattern: tote, wristlet, and plucky headscarf.
The accessory pattern: tote, wristlet, and plucky headscarf.

In 1870, a Scottish immigrant named James McCall — odd, because “McCall” doesn’t sound Scottish  — put out an “illustrated guide” to a pair of gloves he was manufacturing. The McCall’s pattern was born.

Fast forward nearly 150 years, and I’m posting a picture of a McCall’s pattern on a phantasmagorical thing called the Internet. What would James McCall think? He’d probably go look at the books and see how his company was doing and whether or not it was being publicly traded. (I think it is, but it’s confusing.)

When the Small Wonders line was shown to the nice people at McCall’s by the fine folks at Springs Creative, they liked it a lot. In fact, they were immediately inspired. They felt the line could be put to use in their business. When making garments and the sewn accessory, larger-scale prints may be harder to work with for folks who don’t do these things on a professional level. Matching seams becomes a bit trickier; a large flower gets chopped in half and suddenly looks like something from Little Shop of Horrors and you just hope no one looks at you from the back. A toile can give fits. A damask languishes in the stash. Projects stall.

The small print is a lovely choice for an apron, say, or a painfully adorable romper outfit for a baby, because these problems cannot occur. Besides, tulips are cute. So McCall’s and Springs joined together and I worked with McCall’s to create an 8-piece pattern line for sewists. These are bag, accessory, and clothing patterns and I’m so pleased with them because I know you will be, also. And I’ve never claimed I was a garment-sewing person; I’m not, though I’ve made bags in my day. No, I’m just the fabric designer and pored over patterns until I found the ones that fit the best. It’s interesting to note that these are the first patterns McCall’s has produced for independent retailers in…ever.

Today, I’m giving away a 3-pack of these patterns — which, again, are available only at local quilt shops and independent online retailers like Fabric Depot, Missouri Star, etc. The 3-pack goes to Ms. Lou, who made an adorable bag of her own from the China group of Small Wonders. I think you’ll like the bag patterns you’ll be receiving in the mail soon, friend. You’re getting the pattern above, plus the painfully adorable romper outfit, plus the girl dress with matching doll dress one.*

Congratulations, Ms. Lou. Send me your mailing address (smallwonderswednesday @ gmail)  — and you keep totin’.

*I was never the girl with a dress that matched my doll. So I’m passing my pain onto the world to fix. Everything always works out. 

Heart Party!

posted in: Chicago 0
That's a good-lookin' dame.
Now that’s a good-lookin’ dame.

My body feels like it got run over by a truck. A moving truck. I also feel like I slept in feathers and I dreamed of swimming in vanilla frosting. (That’s good!)

This was the right choice. If I’ve ever felt so strongly that I made the right choice, I can’t remember. The sun is shining through the south-facing windows in my beautiful home and not far away, the sun is bouncing off the lake. It can do both, because it’s Lake Michigan. The tea kettle I have carried with me for 1.5 years is about to whistle. Get ready, pot of honey and pitcher of milk. It’s on.

If Chicago’s wrong, I don’t want to be right and also I am never, ever moving again unless there are rats. Actually, at this point, I would be down with rats. Rats are cool. Rats just do rats, man. Besides, Chicago rats don’t work on Capitol Hill and they eat too much Lou Malnati’s to move very fast.

Soon, I will be selling furniture, so watch Facebook and PaperGirl. Because I have double everything, basically. And double happiness, but I’m keeping that.

Praise the lord and pass the hot dogs!

On Washing Clothes In A Creek.

posted in: Travel 0
Women washing clothes somewhere in Eastern Europe, 1962. Photo: Wikipedia
Women washing clothes. Somewhere in Eastern Europe, 1962. Photo: Wikipedia

Here’s the thing about washing your clothes in a creek or river: when you’re done, they’re not clean.

Oh, they’ll be cleaner than they were, especially if you’ve been wearing those clothes three days in a row. But they will not be clean in the way most of us are used to. Our laundry, if we’re lucky, is gently, soapily agitated to purity and freshness then puffed into fluff by the warm air of the dryer. The river-wash (and subsequent tree- or rock-dry) is a world away. Indeed, one must be a world away to wash one’s clothes in a river; in a faraway country different from ours or, you know, in the country.

The road trip was three weeks long. I planned to go for two weeks with a possible one-week extension, but when I set out I didn’t figure I’d take the option. I don’t camp. I don’t rough it. I need things.

But then I found myself sitting on a rock on the bank of a real-life babbling brook outside Zion, hand-washing my dress. The sun was shining on the water, my skin, the water. Rub, dunk, swoosh, rub, dunk, swoosh. This was Week Two and it was right then that I decided that I wasn’t going home, that you’d have to drag me by my sleeping bag the whole way. No way, not yet, not leaving this.

Because Zion National Park is paradise. The early Mormons, when they were heading west, stopped the entire journey when they hit Zion because they looked at each other and said, “Yeah, so…it doesn’t get better than this.” They were not wrong. Lush vegetation, the modest-but-mighty Virgin River, the red mountains, the rich soil — it’s almost too much, especially if you’ve just come out of Death Valley, which we very much had.*

Butterflies were flitting around my head, goofing off as butterflies do, and I hung my clothes on the tree branches in the sun, basically creating a scene from an Ang Lee movie. The place and time, the reason, and the task were all in harmony. Harmony, as it turns out, is great.

Standard-issue life began yesterday. Sitting here, now, finally, I am glad to be back. Because washing clothes at the riverbank is good, but it doesn’t mean I didn’t miss you.

*One-hundred eighteen degrees our second day there.
Death Valley stories to come. Prepare to be entertained.

My Life In Definitions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

existential (adj): of or relating to existence

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

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

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

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

Mary’s Cheesy Biscuits: A Recipe For All

posted in: Food 0
Pyrex mixing bowl, circa my 4th grade year.
From one bowl, many tasty but shapeless foods have come.

The Thanksgiving holiday is nearly upon us. I wonder if I might contribute an idea as you plan your meal. If someone coming to dinner has Crohn’s or Colitis, you might already have special (read: expensive and time-consuming) foods on your menu, but I’ll offer my suggestion anyway in hopes you don’t know anyone with either disease and you can just take my recipe as amusing and possibly worth making and serving.

I make these cheesy biscuits. They taste so good and they do not destroy me. They will taste good to you and will not destroy you, either. And now:

Mary’s Non-Destroying Cheesy Biscuits

Big portion of farmer’s cheese
Bunch of blanched almond meal (also called almond flour, but only get the blanched kind)
A whole lot of grated, quality parmesan cheese (not that Kraft stuff in the green can! For shame!)
Couple eggs
Salt + pepper

Serves: A lot, I’m not sure. What’s a serving?

Mix farmer’s cheese (also called dry-curd cottage cheese; hard to find but findable and not the same as regular cottage cheese for lord’s sake) and the eggs in a big mixing bowl. A wooden spoon is fine for stirring, but if you have a big mixer, great. Pour in some of the almond meal. Then some of the parmesan. Throw in some salt. Little pepper. Keep putting in almond meal and cheese into the bowl and mix it real good so that deep within your soul, you feel like everything is distributed. Add a touch more salt. Just make it look like biscuit batter, kinda lumpy and thick, not runny. (You couldn’t make this stuff runny if you tried because you’re dealing with nuts and cheese. If your batter is runny, you have done something I do not understand.) Spoon lumps of batter onto a non-stick cooky sheet. They should be the size of gooey hockey pucks.

Remember that you forgot to turn on the oven. Turn it on to about 350-degrees. When it’s probably hot enough but who knows for lord’s sake, put the be-biscuited sheet into the oven for like 12 minutes? Set the timer or you will forget. When the timer beeps, check on your biscuits. They will need more time in the oven. I usually turn the sheet around at this point (using hot pads) because our oven in NYC is old and crotchety. Bake the biscuits a little longer. Five minutes? Six? I can’t help you with everything! You’ll have to figure it out. You can smell them when they’re done and when you see that they’re just beginning to brown, they’re for sure done. Take them out of the oven. Attempt to wait for them to cool; fail. Slather your chosen biscuit with butter; keep transferring hot buttered biscuit from one hand to other; blow on biscuit; burn lips; enjoy.

Clearly, I created these on my own and I have no exact amounts of ingredients or time to offer you. I wing ’em every time, but they always turn out fantastic. Just keep adding cheese, and if it gets too dry, add another egg. You’ll be okay.

If you’re interested in gluten-free foods, they are that. If you’re a paleo-person, they are that, also. They are totally non-carb, as well, if you care. All I know is that they taste like cheese, you can put butter on them and most importantly, they actually taste like real biscuits but they do not destroy me.

Good luck!

“Epitaph In Bookish Style,” by Benjamin Franklin, Poet.

posted in: Paean, Poetry 1
"When Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris, he was wearing a little fur cap to keep his bald head warm. To the French, the hat was the embodiment of the rugged American frontiersman and proof that Franklin was a true "natural man." In fact, Franklin sent back to America for a large supply of the caps, which he wore everywhere around Paris."
Portrait of Ben Franklin, c. 1776, Paris. I can’t locate the artist’s name. I have read that in this picture, he is supposedly wearing a coonskin cap to communicate his rugged Americanness. 

In observance of Independence Day, I will share a poem written by Benjamin Franklin. Of all the founding fathers, I know the least about him. I did know he wrote poems, though, and so I found and read a few of them today.

Epitaph In Bookish Style
by Benjamin Franklin

The Body of Benjamin Franklin (Printer)
(Like the cover of an old book
Its contents torn out
And stript of its lettering and gilding)
Lies here, food for worms.
But the work shall not be lost
For it will (as he believed) appear once more
In a new and more elegant edition
Revised and corrected
The Author. 

Happy Birthday, America. Please, please do not blow your — or anyone else’s — face off with a firecracker.

Tales From The Move: Used Books

posted in: Day In The Life 1
Ay, papi. Oof.
Ay, papi. Oof.

Outside: New York City.

Inside: New York City.

Alone, because Yuri isn’t here, yet. I wish he was. Baby? I wish you were.

And I’m pretty sure I’m a cliche, a thirtysomething woman, transplanted, enchanted and terrified by New York City tonight. (I’ll have you know I’ve seen exactly 0.75 episodes of Sex & The City — and that estimate may be generous. I believe the show has something to do with a woman who blogs or writes a column inside Manhattan and has a lot of shoes. I do have a lot of shoes, but they are mostly in storage in Chicago. There is no room in Manhattan for lots of shoes unless you have lots of money and I do not have lots of money. I have a little money, and that is for rent, now. Goodbye, shoes.)

I saw a boa constrictor (anaconda? python?) snake today, curled around a girl’s shoulders; a snake handler was selling pictures with it at The Cube at Astor Place. That beast was so astonishingly thick and long, I gasped out loud when I saw it, nearly fell over a waiting Yellow Cab. I saw a rainshower and a sunbeam, both through the tree that bows over 2nd and St. Mark’s. I saw a girl so pretty my teeth hurt. She was getting coffee, wearing a short skirt with daisies on it. I thought these exact three thoughts in rapid succession: 1) there is nothing more powerful on this earth than a beautiful girl; 2) fashion/perception is everything; 3) New York will fall in a terrorist attack, hurricane, or contagion and this girl and me, we are as good as dead.

So I’m fitting in!

This post was supposed to be a Tale From The Move because I need more time to get my New York thoughts in order. It’s all too raw and green, like an East Village wheatgrass shot. Better to go back to Chicago.

The laundry room in my (former) building has these cute bookshelves that serve as a resident library. Leave a book or magazine, take a book or magazine. Isn’t that charming? I think so. I was a dutiful, silent member of this library from the day I moved into the building, leaving excellent magazines (e.g., Vogue, New York, Harper’swhenever I washed muh’ skivvies. I took stuff, too, but for the most part, I was giving more than I got. Though I scored decent magazines that I would have never gotten on my own (Town & Country, House Beautiful, etc.), the vast majority of the books available were not so much my taste. but I rarely got any good books, except the time I spied an early edition of Bellow’s Dangling Man; I still have that copy and yes, it’s currently in storage.

When I packed up to move out, I had a big box of books that I decided would be my gift to the building. When I took my box up to the 20th floor, however, I had to make room. Some of the titles I decided to uh, liberate, included Danielle Steele’s clearly impossible-to-resist The Klone & I; Robert James Waller’s lesser-known Puerta Vallarta Squeeze; and what looked to be Dan Brown’s entire catalog. Ew. I put those all near recycle bin. They had been there for over two years!

Here are a few titles I left for the good people of [REDACTED]:

Fraud, David Rakoff (Doubleday, 2001)
The Chinese Opium Wars, Jack Beeching (Mariner Books, 1977)
Marriage & Morals, Bertrand Russell (Liveright, 1970)
…and a copy of Madame Bovery and many others I can’t recall, now.

You’re welcome.

(And I slightly miss you.)

Today! The Yarn Company, 4-5pm!

Keffi, The Yarn Company Mascot.
Keffi, The Yarn Company Mascot.

A lil’ reminder for NYC folk:

I’m doing a little meet n’ greet n’ shop talk talk at The Yarn Company, that lovely haven of color and fiber where I was able to sew this spring. From 4-5, I’ll be showing some quilts, talking patchwork, and generally hanging out to meet whomever feels like dropping by. Let’s do it!

I need a break from unpacking, so I will be in an EXCELLENT mood.

The Yarn Company is located at 2274 N. Broadway, upstairs. (That’s the corner of 82nd and Broadway.) Look for the totes adorbs sheep mascot, Keffi, on the sign above the door.


William Morris, Nervous Breakdowns.

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

Because I’m renting my condo furnished this summer, I falsely assumed the task of moving would be less arduous and there would be no need to hire professional movers. I was wrong, and thus have spent the last two days in hell.

Fundamental truth: I am ruthless when it comes to disposing of excess stuff. I claim no bric-a-brac. I keep no old shoe. Being a purger (??) is made easier because I live and die by the words of Arts and Crafts giant William Morris, who proclaimed in 1880

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

Yes, Willy, Yes!

I am the anti-hoarder. I keep nothing, buy nothing that is not useful/beautiful. If I need a can opener, for example, but can only find lame ones made of plastic, I will wait until I can find a basic metal one and go without canned things. A plastic can opener might be useful but it is not beautiful, so it’s out. A classic, metal can opener is timeless! an objet d’art! I’m 100% serious and I’d like to think my home is harmonious as a result.**

But for heaven’s sake, I’m a person with a home that doubles as an office and a sewing studio. I have so many objects. Harmonious or discordant, this move is gargantuan. Do it all myself? Or even just with Yuri? What planet was I living on? (No! Don’t answer that!)

The Russian and I got boxes, a storage unit, a cargo van. Horrible, all of it. Soul-crushing. I’ve been doing my Midwest-work-ethic best, packing, eliminating, Goodwill-ing, all while still answering emails and attending to work-related tasks! I also remembered to brush my teeth! What race am I running, here?? (No! Shush!!)

As one might imagine, my productivity and emotional fitness ebbed and flowed throughout yesterday and today. This morning, I was actually in a fetal position for a spell, curled up near my desk in a sea of paper, wailing at Yuri, who was in the other room:

“Help me! HELP! ME! I’m doing the work of ten men! TEN MEN, DO YOU HEAR ME! I hate you! I can’t do this! I HATE YOU AND I NEED HELP!”

One of the reasons I love Yuri is because in situations like these he does two things:

1) he lightens the mood by coming into the room with a grin, saying something like, “Aw, who’s on the struggle bus? Who’s lookin’ so fine, ridin’ that struggle bus?” and of course this makes me bust out laughing, still on the floor
2) he helps

But the hard part about moving is never the logistics.

The logistics suck all right. But the core of it, the real trouble in River City is that you’re kicking up deadly serious dust. The longer you live in a place, the deeper and more emotional that dust becomes; if you have a strong emotional connection to a place (like I have to this place) it’s a double whammy. In the past 48 hours, I’ve hit upon a lot of life — more than I really cared to hit right now, honestly. Books, pictures, fabric, dresses, quilts — what we own owns us. And when we move we’re at the mercy of it all, we’re possessed by those possessions, even when we think we don’t hang onto much.

We do.

I do.

I hang onto absolutely everything. I just store it differently.

I store it here.


**All this editing may be due in part to my peripatetic lifestyle. If I’m not harmonious, I’m sunk. I heard once that “every item or object in your home is a thought in your head,” which is to say that belongings take up valuable real estate in one’s brain. A cleaner home equals a clearer head; I need every advantage I can get. 

Why I’m Moving To New York City



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

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

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


I am moving to New York City.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Recipe To Change (Your) Life.

posted in: Food 2
With honey, I'm home.
With honey, I’m home.

Long ago, in a Chicago far away, when I was a poet with barely enough rent money and my friends were all theater performers and poets with barely enough rent money, I learned a simple way to be happy.

It involves a grapefruit. So have one handy. I’ll wait.

*       *       *

I was in a friend’s apartment at Belmont and Clark. If you know Chicago, you know the corner of Belmont and Clark is rough around the edges: there’s a Dunkin Donuts, a crack spot, and a recovery house all crammed together, and that’s all next door to the tattoo shop, the Chinese market, and the skankiest Jamba Juice on earth. The Mexican restaurant down the block is good, if “good” means a place that serves margaritas so strong you don’t know your name when you leave.

My friend and I had been up and out all night. We were twenty-two. Kids. Kids with lame jobs, adult responsibilities, and zero supervision. We woke hungover, of course, and annoyed that the sun existed.

My friend’s apartment was in the bird’s nest part of the building on the corner of Belmont and Clark and it had these gorgeous, tall windows. I appreciated them aesthetically, even then, but I hated them that morning. Light poured in; there were no blinds. We were clearly ants under a microscope held by some supernatural force who was punishing us for our sins.

“Do you want a grapefruit?” my friend asked me, coming back into the living room where I was, scrunched into the couch trying to escape the light. I had crashed on the couch several hours earlier.

“No,” I said. “I would like to go home.”

“It’s really good how I make it,” he said. “I promise. Come sit at the table.”

The look I gave him was full dagger. But he had been rebuffed the night before by the boy he was in love with, so I couldn’t be mean. I pulled my bones up and dragged my body to the formica-topped table in the tiny kitchen. And there, I watched my friend make a magic treat.

He cut a beautiful, big, ruby red grapefruit in half with a serrated knife. He put each half in a bowl. Then he took down a Honey Bear (proper noun?) and drizzled honey over the top of each half. He then went to the microwave and put the bowls inside. He punched some buttons.

“Thirty seconds,” he said, and I squinted at him. He slumped against the sink like he was an old, old man. Youth is not wasted on the young. The young, they pay for it. We paid for it.

The microwave beeped that it was done. My friend put my hot grapefruit in front of me, sat down with his, handed me a grapefruit spoon (clearly a possession in his life vis a vis a kind set of civilized parents) and we dug in.

And everything was okay. Because into my mouth went chunks of cool, juicy, tart chunks of grapefruit, each with hot, melted sweetness on top. The warmth, the chill; the tart, the sweet. It was a revelation, and nothing felt bad anymore, and the sun looked the way it actually was: beautiful.

I eat grapefruit prepared this way quite a bit, so many years later.


Me and Renaldo, We Figure It Out.

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

Black, black, black was my mood this morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, Renaldo. We are all screwed.

Can You Panhandle It?

In Florida. Photo: Wikipedia

America is big and wide and I’ve seen a fair amount of it.

Before I gigged around as a quilter, I gigged around as a theater performer, and before that, I gigged around as a poet, if you can believe it. I’ve couch surfed in Massachusetts, I’ve lugged a duffel bag through California, I’ve been on stages in Maine and in all the major Texan cities (I think.) When you add in drive-throughs and personal, non-work travel experiences, it appears I’ve gotten on and off airplanes or in and out of cars in all the continental United States except Montana, Delaware, and West Virginnny. Oh, and Rhode Island. Always piping up to be counted, little Rhode Island.

SIDENOTE 1: May I remind readers residing in these last four (attractive, well-governed) states that I am available for booking and can be contacted via the booking form on this website? Wouldn’t it be fun to check these states off the list together? As for the Alaskans and the Hawaiians… Surely there is an over-achiever among you who would like to inaugurate me into the All Fifty States Traveler’s Club. You get me to where you are and you will be richly rewarded, bonus prizes for everyone if we can find a way to book Juno and Honolulu back to back. Think of the PaperGirl posts!

I write to you now from deep in the Florida Panhandle.

For the next couple days I’ll be working here, meeting and greeting and communing with quilters. The location itself is remote to be sure: the Pensacola airport is an hour away from the town where all this is taking place, and I was informed the dirt roads in the area were only recently paved with gravel. The simplicity of the area belies the commerce taking place within it, though; there’s a whole lot of sewin’ going on down here, and I’m looking forward to the action.

SIDENOTE 2: I am compelled to admit that until (very) recently, I never knew that the Florida Panhandle was named for the shape of the region. I knew it was geographical, the term, but I didn’t realize people were being so adorable about it. The stick part of the shape of the state of Florida looks like the handle on a pan! Could you die? No, you’re saying, I don’t want to die in or because of the Florida Panhandle. And you’re also saying, “You didn’t know that? But everyone knows that.” But that’s not true. There’s a lot everyone doesn’t know about the Florida Panhandle and a lot of other things. 

II also hope to see an alligator from far away. I also hope to eat fried chicken. I am 80% confident at least one of these things will happen on this, my current American adventure.

The Canoodling Burrito: A Love Story


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

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

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

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

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

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

I nearly hugged her.

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

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

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

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

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

GUY: Yeah, he’s doing great.


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

(Long smooch.)

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


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


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

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

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

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

It was a Rice Krispie treat!

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

They probably went home and had a lot of sex.

*Me, a lot.

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.


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.



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.