"Secret Correspondence" by Carl von Bergen, Germany, 1891. Image: Wikipedia.

“Secret Correspondence” by Carl von Bergen, Germany, 1891. Image: Wikipedia.

A couple thoughts on the blog. I will employ sub-headings for organizational purposes. I’ve been working all day and don’t feel confident I can weave anything elegant right now. Thanks, sub-heading!

1. I like it when you read it. 
When I’m out teaching and speaking and dragging my suitcase around, folks come up to me and say, “I hope you don’t think I’m a stalker, but I read your blog… I have to ask: how’s your health? How are you dealing with Claus being gone? Congratulations on grad school! When do you start??” and so forth. Sometimes the person asking is sheepish in the extreme; they feel like they’re intruding. Don’t be sheepish! Actually, sheeps are cute, so be sheepish in a cute way, but know that I love that you read my blog. I write PaperGirl for you. I write it for myself, too; this is me practicing scales almost every day, trying to be a better writer like a flutist is trying to be a better flutist. This blog affords me opportunities to use the world flutist and say it in my mind: FLAU-tist. Now that’s entertainment. But yes: I love when I meet people who read the ol’ PG and you can ask me whatever you like. I reserve the right not to tell you, but I probably will tell you even more than you wanted to know.

2. The secret to a successful blog: consistency and variety.
I’m teaching my blog class at the University of Chicago in a couple weeks and have been working on my syllabus. The research is confirming what I knew already: the secret to a good blog is consistency and variety. This is what I say when I’m asked about blogging and this is what I’ll share with my students. You can’t expect to keep readers if you post once a month, then three times in a week, then three months later, then two weeks later, and so on. That’s true for any blog, be it political, mommy, foodie, or otherwise. What is also true is that variety is the spice of blogs. If I tried to be funny-ish 100% of the time or earnest 100% of the time or anxious 100% of the time or weird 100% of the time, I’d get bored, you’d get bored, and, worse even than that, we’d all be missing out on the breadth of the human experience. This is true even in a foodie blog. I want to hear about the bad meals as well as the good meals. Maybe that’s just me.

3. I still won’t advertise.
I should. I could. But I won’t. I hate those ads. I hate them so much. I hate how web ads know that I just looked at underpants on Amazon but didn’t buy them so now they want to get me to buy them someplace else. I can’t do it to you or to me, friends. PaperGirl is an oasis for me and I hope it is for you, too, just for a minute or two in your Internet life. No ads. Ever. I promise.


For the Good Advice File: Washing Your Face.

Woman Washing Her Face by Hashiguchi Goyō, 1920. Image: Wikipedia.

Woman Washing Her Face by Hashiguchi Goyō, 1920. Image: Wikipedia.

Some of the best advice I ever got was this: If you are feeling sad or lost or stuck in your day, go to the bathroom sink and wash your face. You don’t have to use soap, though doing a full wash is the best case scenario. If you don’t have soap or don’t have time for a full wash, turn on the faucet and splash your face with cool water for a minute or so.

If you’ve been crying, it’s a wonderful technique; it cools hot tear tracks and flushed cheeks. If you’re a woman who wears mascara, the water will also remove any dubiously sexy raccoon eye you’ve got going on after breaking down in whatever small or large way you just broke down.

But you don’t have to be weeping to use the cool-water-on-face fix. In fact, this feel-better method is almost more effective when you aren’t crying; feelings of despondency or anxiety can come and get the best of us, rob our days of better feelings. Splashing water on your face — cup your hands, make it count, you’re not flicking water, you’re doing this — washes away at least a thin layer of all that. Maybe it’s one of those ancient gestures and it just feels natural to do it, thereby returning us to a place and time with no alarming subject lines, no transaction fees, no social media blunders.

When you turn the faucet off and stand back up from being over the sink, the water runs off your chin; you figure it’ll do that. Gravity still matters. Gravity is not alarming. Gravity charges no transaction fee. Grab a towel and bring it to your face. Press. Now remove the towel. Daub your chin. Wipe at your hairline, away from the face. Take a breath. Look at yourself in the mirror.

You’ll be okay.

The Library, The Summer Reading.

That table full of books at a public library in Missouri is irresistible!  Photo: Wikipedia.

That table full of books at a public library in Missouri is irresistible! Photo: Wikipedia.

If you want to find me this summer, check the public library. I’m in the stacks!

My friend Sophie has a new rule for books. Let’s call it the Sophie Book Rule. “If there’s a book I’m dying to read,” she says, “I make myself get it at the library first. Once I read it, if I feel that I must own that book, then I go buy it.”

This is a good rule I am now trying to follow. I’m “trying” because I am faced with the desire to buy a book 1.2692 times a day; this is and likely forever will be an ongoing process. Why, just this very afternoon I discovered an intriguing author and what did I do? I clicked over to the Chicago Public Library website and put it on hold instead of clicking over to purchase it at any number of quality online booksellers who also have brick-and-mortar shops. (That’s Mary’s Book Rule.)

I’ll never stop buying books. But this return to the library is deeply satisfying. Being there regularly — I’ve been every couple days for about a month, now, returning or checking something out — connects me with a part of myself I forgot about.

Over the years, I drifted from the public library; I haven’t had this close a relationship with it since I was a kid. Was it the internet? Adult distractions? Of course I’ve been reading this whole time, but it’s been text on screens and books purchased at the bookstore or online. My sisters and I went to the public library in Winterset practically every day growing up. We would wait there for Mom to collect us after school or we were instructed to hang out there until our friends’ parents got home, stuff like that. The Winterset public library moved across town a few years ago; the old library building is the city building, now, but I bet you anything it smells the same and I still know all the rooms.

The summer was the best time to be a kid in love with the library because of Summer Reading. Summer Reading (this may not be a proper noun but I’m going with it) was a program to encourage reading in summer. The details of the program varied from year to year; some years there were lists, games, stickers, buttons, prizes for numbers of books read. The incentives I have forgotten completely; all I remember is the joy of a new stack of books with the check-out cards in the front envelopes. I remember the way the new books’ plastic covers were taut and the older books’ covers were loose and curled at the edges. I remember lazing on the couch in July, reading and reading and reading. This was a good way to spend a summer. It still is.

Sophie told me she used to feel possessive about books. I knew what she meant; sometimes you feel like a book was written for you and you alone and it can be hard to realize other people were also written to.

“But the library fixes that,” Sophie said. “Because when you check out a book from the library, you feel in the pages as you turn them all the people who read the book just like you’re reading it now, and it’s such a wonderful feeling. You’re together with them, you’re all in the book together at the same time. I love that.”

Storm vs. City!

A summer rainstorm in England. Wikipedia didn't have any good Chicago rainstorm pictures. Photo: Wikipedia.

A summer rainstorm in Manchester because Wikipedia didn’t have any good Chicago rainstorm pictures. Photo: Good ol’ Wikipedia.

The most hilarious thing happened about an hour ago.

The radio people said there would be severe thunderstorms tonight, even flash floods. I only half-listen to weather reports, though; I’m close to the lake and weather around the lake differs slightly from the rest of the city. But why risk it? I decided to go absolutely nowhere and work on projects.

I was stitching at my machine, watching Project Runway on my laptop when I heard the storm start. I went to the window and gaped. Sheets of rain were coming down. I could make out a few people running around on the street far below me, the poor things soaked to the bone. Ooh, I just love summer storms. I felt happy that it’s summertime, that it was storming, and that I was not outside. I went back to my work.

A few minutes later there was a bolt of lightning so big and close it lit up my house for several seconds like there was a fireworks display in my living room. We all know what follows lightning, right? The crack of thunder that came after that lightning strike was about as loud as I’ve ever heard. It crept along, hissed for a moment, then whammed. It was like, “Khhhhhssshhhh….krrrrrrrr…kak-kak-kak..KERRRRRRRAAAAAACK!!!!!”

I jumped about six feet. Then I laughed and shook my head. Thunder is incredible. That sound can make a grown woman clutch her pearls and gasp. Thunder: Mother Nature’s tympani drum. My marveling was short-lived, though: that thunder was so loud, it set off car alarms for blocks. I ran to the window again and saw cars on the street and a whole parking lot full of them with hazards blinking to this hellish chorus of car alarms. It was hilarious because it didn’t last too long; people blipped them off pretty soon, surely because they didn’t want to hear all that, either.

When I was a kid, I watched thunderstorms roll in on the plains of Iowa. I would sit with my sisters on the porch swing and watch the sky get dark, the wind pick up. We probably had cats on our knees. We probably had a quilt. We had never heard a car alarm or heard of such a thing at all.

I’ll be thirty-seven on August 6th. I wish I knew how many summer thunderstorms I’ve seen so far.


Of Upholstery and Dorothy Parker.

Young Dorothy. Image: Wikipedia.

A young Dorothy Parker looking visionary and thirsty, as usual. Image: Wikipedia.

Since deciding to stay in my condo, all I see are possibilities for home improvement and refreshment. Gazing into my bedroom over the weekend, I considered my bed. It’s a Mission style — not “missionary style” which is what I thought it was and then thought I’d better look up, which turned out to be wise — with an upholstered headboard and footboard. It occurred to me I could reupholster this bed. It would be like a new bed. But this might cost a fortune. A large or small fortune, I had no idea. I remembered that my friend Craig used to do upholstery for a living, so I emailed him.

It’s been years since I talked to Craig. He wrote back right away and said it would cost probably $1k. Craig was happy to learn I’ve returned to Chicago. He read some time ago that I had fallen in love and moved away; he referred to this blog post. The instant I read the title, “Fons In Love,” this Dorothy Parker poem sprang to my head:

“Into love and out again/Thus I went and thus I go/Spare your voice and save your pen/Well and bitterly I know/All the songs were ever sung/All the words were ever said/Could it be when I was young/Someone dropped me on my head?”

That post Craig read is two and a half years old. Good grief, I thought. Things have changed and changed and changed again since then and yes, into love and out again is a big part of the story.

A student of mine at the U of C came to class late, missed one entirely, and told me several times, breathless, “I’m a mess, I’m sorry. I’m a total mess these days, I’m just a complete disaster.” I told her in a grave tone that she shouldn’t tell that story about herself. I told her, “You’re not a mess. You’re human. Don’t say that stuff; you’ll start to believe it.” This is a strong conviction of mine.

As I catch up with a friend from the past and detail my love life since he saw me, it’s important for me not to paint my own portrait as the hapless single woman and/or an embittered Dorothy Parker because I’ve been in relationships that “didn’t work out.” I don’t feel hapless and I’m not bitter about it — not yet. I don’t believe I’m a commitment-phobe. I don’t think I have “bad luck” with men. I never say, sarcastically, to girlfriends or sisters, “I sure know how to pick ‘em!” and then roll my eyes and slap my forehead. The portrait of me as flake, as “crazy” or useless at relationships is not one I want to draw, even in jest, because those sentiments can very well create a picture of a person to herself and to everyone else.

The men I have chosen to spend serious time and life with have all been exceptional. For one reason or another these relationships have not become marriages (well, except for the one) or decades-long partnerships and that’s okay. It’ll happen — or not. All I know is that when I fall for someone, it’s real. I can’t turn it off and why on Earth would I want to? Later, if there’s trouble that truly rots and stinks, or if I start to lose my identity, or either of us starts to compromise core values, (or someone moves far away) then the relationship closes that particular chapter. Does this make me hapless? Unlucky in love? Selfish? It’s hard to be single, sometimes, not because I don’t like being alone — I do — but because when you’re single and closer to 40 than 20, you start to be the subject of conjecture. She must be a nightmare to live with. She must be obsessed with her career. She might be repressing some aspect of her sexuality. She must be impossible to please. None of these things are true about me, but I found myself getting very self-conscious telling Craig that no, I was no longer in love, and the love affair he mentioned was a whole love affair ago.

Who knows. Give me ten more years of “into love and out again” and maybe I’ll eat my hat, erase this post, and drink vodka all day like Dorothy Parker did and make cutting remarks about men and their faults. But today, I don’t want to feel hard toward love or my choices in love. I don’t want to feel impoverished or insane as I tell an old friend about my heart’s thrashing around. I just want my bed reupholstered for under $1k because that is not happening right now.

Dottie, bring us home:

“Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song/A medley of extemporanea/And love is a thing that can never go wrong/And I am Marie of Romania.”



The Baby’s Coming, The Baby’s Coming!

Maternal bliss in The Ladies' Home Journal, 1941. Image: Wikipedia.

Maternal bliss in The Ladies’ Home Journal, 1941. Image: Wikipedia.

There’s a baby on the way! Not mine, silly.

My dear friend Heather has been pregnant for about 8.5 months, which means that she is very pregnant right now. Kin-Kin (I like to call her Kin-Kin) always looks great with her curly red hair and flawless complexion, but she looks amazing pregnant. In fact, Kin-Kin looks so amazing pregnant, she should be pregnant all the time. I can hear every woman who has ever been pregnant, including Kin-Kin, laughing hysterically right now. I’m betting my sweet friend will look even more beautiful when she has that sweet little baby in her arms though, so I can accept if she rejects the suggestion of being pregnant for the rest of her life and goes for just having the kid.

And speaking of having the kid: Kin-Kin asked me if I would be willing to be second in command, if you will, when she goes into labor. My eyes got big and I said yes, yes, absolutely; I was honored she asked me. I signed a paper! On the wee baby’s birth day, I will be serving as the person in the room other than Sam, at the ready for absolutely anything she (or Sam) might need. I like to think of it as I’m Chief of Staff on Baby Day.

Me and Kin-Kin are pretty tight, but I’m also just a great candidate for this job. I’m single, for one thing, so I can take off in the dead of night and head to the hospital if need be — heck, sometimes I do just that for reasons that do not involve babies! But that hospital piece is actually hugely relevant: I have a ton of experience with Northwestern Hospital. I know how the elevators work (not all cars go to all floors), I know the food court, and I have a special way with nurses, which is to say nurses are angels and I treat them as such. What I’m saying is, if you’re going to have a baby in the Chicago Loop, you should probably give me a call. I’m like a midwife, but without any of the medical knowledge whatsoever. I can’t help you push, really, but I can get you a bagel and I can call your mother. I only ask that you name your baby “Mary” if it’s a girl and “Pendennis” if it’s a boy. Not a lot to ask. Do you want poppyseed or plain?

Heather, I’m so happy to help in any way I can when the day comes. Everything is gonna go great. I love you!!


Art School Girl Friday, On The Case.

One of the two lions in front of the Chicago Art Institute. Go Lions! Photo: Wikipedia.

Go Lions! Out front of the Art Institute. Photo: Wikipedia.

I applied for a job at the school paper. I have a school paper because I have a school!

The student-run paper at the School of the Art Institute is called F Newsmagazine. This would be a frustrating masthead for a newspaper/magazine if wasn’t an art school newspaper/magazine; fortunately, that’s what fNews is and being what it is, it can be — nay, must be — unconventional. It’s a fine publication; I remember picking it up downtown in years prior and admiring it. I would feel the thick, glossy paper it’s printed it on and look through the illustrations and read stories in never-before-seen-fonts-because-students-invented-them and think, “Wow. The people who make this magazine go to school at the Art Institute. That must be really fun.”

When I got my acceptance letter, I went to a reception and picked up the latest issue on the way out. Maybe could get a gig at the paper to help me pay for school, I thought. I saved up some money from my time making Quilty, but it’s not enough. It’s loan time. I applied to the school itself for a merit scholarship and I’ve done the paperwork for another small grant; the hunt continues. But rather than rely on someone/something else to give me money for tuition, I’m more comfortable rolling up my shirtsleeves and getting a job. This approach to things runs in my family and I’m glad, though I remain ever hopeful that some sane, at least marginally attractive wealthy widower reads PaperGirl and has fallen desperately in love with me and will offer to pay for my grad school in an attempt to get my attention and win my favor. I’m waiting, darling, and ready to coo about how you look in your top hat.

I contacted the F newsmagazine offices and met the people in charge. I was given the chance to audition, if you will, by writing a story on the first-ever, free online course offered by the SAIC. I wrote the piece and they accepted it; yesterday I had my official interview with the paper’s advisor-slash-publisher. The conversation was great and I can’t say I was hired-hired because Paul and Sophie need to put their heads together about exactly where I’m best used. A strong handshake and a “You’ll be working with us in some capacity, that’s for sure” makes me feel like I can even tell you all this.

My grandmother (on Mom’s side) started the town paper in Norwalk, IA. My mother co-founded the most popular quilting magazine in history. My sister Hannah is associate editor at a real estate magazine in New York City. My sister Rebecca writes at her job at the Chicago International Film Festival and has been doing some freelance around town these days. We are not an east coast media mogul family. We’re not a midwest one, either. We’re not intrepid reporters, we don’t keep up on the Pulitzers. But the women in my family, we have ink on our hands.

It’s gonna feel really good to work on a magazine again.

“Pain” Is the Root Word of “Paint.”

Old, old, old can of paint. Image: Wikipedia.

Old, old, old can of paint. Image: Wikipedia.

Every time. Every time I want a wall in my dwelling place to be a different color, it’s the same conversation — and I’ve lived in lots of places and desired to look at different colors.

Me: I’m going to do it myself.
Other Me: Stop talking.
Me: Oh, painting’s not so bad.
Other Me: Yes, it is.
Me: (Pause.) It is. It’s awful.
Other Me: Taping the walls.
Me: Yeah, I hate that so much.
Other Me: Putting plastic over everything. Trying not to get paint on your feet. The dripping down the wall. Sore shoulders. Cleaning all the painty sticks and rollers.
Me: (Thinking.) Yeah. But —
Other Me: No.
Me: But it’s so expensive! And I can do it myself!
Other Me: Hire. Painters.
Me: (Grumbling.) Fine.
Other Me: Thank you.
Me: But I can do it, though!

When I moved into this place five years ago, someone gave me a bottle of Veuve Clicquot to celebrate the move downtown. Looking at the bottle on my countertop I realized that the lustrous golden orange color of the Veuve label was the perfect color for my bedroom. I took the label to the paint store, bought the paint, and I painted three of the four walls of my bedroom myself. I have to say, it looked great. Still does.

But after thinking deeply about this for some days, I have decided it’s time for a deep, burnished mustard and I am thisclose to going to the paint store tomorrow morning, getting what I need, and doing it myself over the weekend. I want it to be done right now! Besides, these are the days of economy. I can’t be squandering money on things I can very well do myself. And I can do it. I just don’t want to. I want someone else to do it. But when you are a single gal with no kids, there is no hubby to take care of it, no teenage child to punish.

Aw, hell: I’ll probably do it. Unless someone in the Chicagoland area knows really great painters who come really cheap. Please, please someone tell me you know those painters. I’ll give it twenty-four hours until I go get tarp.


Hand Quilting: The Love Affair Begins.

Larkin, detail. I have a knot I need to fix. Don't look at it! Photo: Me.

Larkin, detail. I have a knot I need to fix. Don’t look at it! Photo: Me.

I have fallen in love with a needle and thread.

A few weeks back, I directed you to a Quilt Scout column announcing my leap into hand quilting. At that point I had quilted just a few inches of my top and was still afraid I’d ruin it. I was not thrilled with the results at that point; I definitely didn’t feel like I had found my new best friend. Then three gigs bore down on me and it was shipping quilts, taking airplanes, teaching classes, and so on. I left “Larkin” on my recliner and went off to work.

But hand quilting this kaleidoscope is on my summer goal list and I don’t play around with summer goal lists, people. When I got home from Minnesota, I unpacked, locked the door, put on my favorite black cashmere pants and my halter top, put my hair in a ponytail, and settled into that recliner with my quilt and Netflix and started in for real.

I didn’t get up for four hours. The next morning, I sat for two more hours and only stopped because my index finger was sore. In the evening, it was me and Larkin again, parked in that mid-century black leather recliner I found in Washington, D.C. at a Salvation Army in a dodgy part of town. This is what this chair was meant to do: it was meant to hold me while I do this. If I sound like a charismatic, I am. I’m converted. I’m obsessed. I’ve worked on this quilt at least three hours every day since Sunday. Is it “good”? No, of course not. And that is so far from the point, I’m like, not interested in the point.

Rocking a needle in and out of layers of fabric is an ancient gesture. Stitching is a natural man/tool combination, like chopping wood with an axe or pumping water from a well. Using a simple tool creates simple pleasure. The act of loading stitches — going up, down, up, down with the needle through the fabric and then pulling the thread all the way through — and then doing it over and over until a pattern (and a quilt!) begins to reveal itself, this is inexplicably entertaining while putting a person in a tranquil place. You can’t type and hand quilt. You can’t cook and hand quilt. You can definitely binge watch The Office (both US and UK versions, though I’m working on the US version at the moment) and hand quilt, but that’s about it. It feels good.

My Scout column got a big response because there are a lot of hand quilters out there. Ladies? Gentlemen? Count me among your numbers. Want more proof? Today I finished my spiderweb quilt top, made the back and basted it just so it would be ready for me to hand quilt when I’m done with Larkin. 

Serious question: is there a club I can join? I want a card in my wallet to announce my love to the world. Or a promise ring. Anything.

True Confessions of a Real Estate Dropout.

Unique advertisement for real estate "near Puerto Rico" c. 1973. Photo: Wikipedia.

Unique advertisement for real estate “near Puerto Rico” c. 1973. Photo: Wikipedia.

True confession: I put my condo up for sale.I didn’t tell you. But it’s not for sale anymore.

When I came back in November, Chicago felt like a soft, fluffy cloud that wasn’t made out of water vapor but a material that made it soft and fluffy. I floated down to my Chicago cloud and bounced once, twice, three times, and then fell asleep dreaming of Nelson Algren and Lou Malnati’s pizza. Chicago was perfect in every way and I knew in my bones I was right to come home. But my condo felt strange.

Oh, it was clean after my renters. We talked about this. The building management was the same. Most of my neighbors and doormen guys were intact. No, it was something else. Was the ceiling lower in my unit? Was the sink I picked for the bathroom just a total misfire? The windows weren’t big enough. The carpet needed to be redone, or maybe hardwood floors? All the cosmetic issues led to deeper ones. The truth is, I have experienced pure agony in this space of both the physical and relational kind. Hospital, heartbreak; it’s all the same when it’s at Level 10, it’s just a question of whether you need a surgeon or Tom Waits. Even the good stuff that happened here felt hard to meet with again, e.g., I dreamed up Quilty here and by the time I came back, the girl was gone.

And so I listed it a few months ago. I thought, “New space, new life, reset.” I mean, at this point, I sorta miss moving. (That is a joke.)

It’s an amazing thing to live in a condo that is for sale. The best part is that I’ve kept the place immaculate; it has needed to be ready for a showing at any moment so everything is put away and shiny. While Claus was here I had a cleaning buddy and I miss that; good heavenly days could that man clean a kitchen! My adorable, capable realtor has been chipper, energetic, and optimistic from the start, but has been more interest than there have been offers. There are reasons. There are no dogs allowed in my building and that’s a drawback; the monthly assessments are crazy high (vintage building, doormen, amenities, new elevators, etc.); the remodeled kitchen is stunning but narrow, stuff like that. Everyone who has come into my home freaks out and loves it: but coming over for a dinner party, a sewing group, or a nightcap does not involve mortgage insurance. Real estate is a big deal and I’ve curated this place for one specific person: me.

As the months went by and I wasn’t getting what I was after, two things happened: 1) I continued to settle in; and 2) I looked around. There’s a saying that getting over a breakup takes half as long as the relationship lasted. That sounds like some 8th-grade girl math to me but I am an 8th-grade girl in many ways, so I like it. Maybe it’s true for moving back into a home. I was gone eighteen months; maybe it’s taking nine to readjust. It’s been about eight so far.

It hit me the other day that I don’t need to leave this place, that I don’t even want to. I just need some paint. I need to get that painting framed, finally. I might just go find a new couch, although spending anything over $150 is unwise — hello, grad school! — and $150 won’t buy you a couch you actually want to sit on. But I can do a lot with very little; I did it in D.C. not so very long ago. (In fact, I did it twice.)

Condo, I’m sorry. I love you. What was I thinking? You’re my buddy. Let’s get messy this summer. Let’s paint and rearrange stuff and find vintage gems. Let’s date each other. I’ll buy flowers for you and you let me sleep over.



Sampling of high school seniors headed off to prom. Photo: Wikipedia.

Sampling of high school seniors headed off to prom, c. 2012. Photo: Wikipedia.

At the hotel in St. Cloud on Friday, I saw two high schoolers in prom attire headed toward the restaurant. The girl had chosen a red sequined dress and there was a corsage pinned on it; her date was in a tux with a matching corsage.

As I passed them, I smiled a friendly smile and said to the girl, “You look so pretty. Have fun, you guys!” She beamed and her date stood up a little straighter. I know how pretty she felt and also how awkward they both were. A compliment couldn’t hurt.

When tell you I went to prom all four years of high school, that should not in any way lead you to think I was so exceedingly popular or pretty the boys in high school were counting the days until I entered Winterset Senior High School so they could bum rush me and fight for the opportunity to take me to the dance. That was hilariously not the case. It’s just that my freshman year, one of my closest friends was a junior, and he was gay, and he needed a date that year. (Our prom was open to juniors and seniors.) I accepted his cordial invitation that year and the next year, too; he was still gay and he needed a date again. We goofed off and had fun with the rest of the choir kids only he had a cummerbund and I curled my hair weird.

My junior year was the only year I nabbed a hot date: Jed. I have no idea how that happened. Did I ask him? I think I did, actually. Jed was more popular than me. Tall. Funny. Cute. He could’ve gotten another date; I must have caught him at a weak moment in choir practice. (Clearly, high school choir is the place to get a prom date.) I got lucky twice that year (not like that!!!) because someone at the town paper, The Madisonian, decided to do a story on a couple going to the prom that year. Who do you suppose they picked? Me and Jed. I couldn’t tell you why on Earth they did, but in the 1996 Madisonian archives is a picture of us in full prom attire on my mother’s staircase, me smiling so hard my teeth are about to break. Jed didn’t kiss me, by the way. I know!

But my real senior prom was the best. I went with my girlfriends Annie, Leia, and Jennifer. I got my dress at the Goodwill. It was mint green polyester with embroidered flowers at the neckline. I wore a hot Uma-Thurman-In-Pulp-Fiction wig, except it was red, so it went great with the dress. We danced like crazy to Abba. We monkeyed around for the photographer. We defied the entire “Who are you going to the prom with?” protocol by refusing everyone and going with our dang selves.

Now that I’m thinking of it: when did prom start happening this late in the year? Maybe those kids on Friday were on a real date. If kids that young are going to charity balls or black-tie political fundraisers in St. Cloud, MN, I need to reexamine what I thought I knew about St. Cloud, MN. Whatever they were doing that night, I hope they behave themselves.


Announcement! I’m Going To School For Writing.

PG SAIC Letter

The first half of the acceptance letter; the second half told me how much money I needed to give them to secure my spot for enrollment. (Letter: SAIC, scan: Me)

I’ve written and rewritten this post three times. It’s too special, I’m too excited, and as a result, nothing is coming out right. That’s ironic, because the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) thinks I’m good enough at writing to let me into their Writing MFA program this fall. By then, I’d better have my act together because I’m officially enrolled.

It’s been terrible keeping this secret; I got my acceptance letter in March. Claus was here, and when I opened the envelope and saw the good news, it was like I had a rocket pack on. Claus caught me and spun me around and around.

I waited to tell you because I wanted to share this properly. It’s a big deal, and not just because the SAIC is one of the finest educational institutions in the world, which it is. It’s a big deal because my life is changing with this. I engineered it that way, really; one day last fall when I was in Iowa to film TV, I burst into tears in the middle of my mother’s kitchen and admitted to myself that I wanted to study writing. I couldn’t deny it any longer and I began to research grad programs that very day. It became clear right away that the SAIC was the only school for me. I didn’t apply anywhere else.

So, the Art Institute of Chicago is the big, famous art museum downtown with the cool lions out front. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago actually started first, way back in 1866. The art the founders collected for students to study became the museum.

At the SAIC, a grad student can study textile art, performance, art therapy, art restoration, sculpture, painting, arts journalism, art history, interior architecture, writing — there are other departments I’m not thinking of. What’s extraordinary about the SAIC (one of the many, many extraordinary things) is that they encourage interdisciplinary study. They want performers to take sculpture classes. They want writers to take textile arts classes. They are legendarily good at educating creative people because they understand how creative people learn (i.e., by doing, usually by doing many things that appear unrelated.)

I submitted portfolios to Writing, Textile Art, and Performance. I had all the materials for each program because my entire life is interdisciplinary. But I wanted writing. I decided that if I got into textiles or performance, I wouldn’t go. Even if I could take writing classes while technically studying fiber arts or stage stuff, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to be a Writing MFA candidate. From there, I could study my other loves. And I got my first choice. So now, I can.

The School has a longarm in the Textiles department. What will my quilts become, now that I’m going to be in art school? What might it mean to use quilts in, say, a one-woman play? Will I write a quilter’s memoir? Will I create my own poetry magazine and if I do, will there be patchwork quilts on the cover? I’ll tell you that if I make a poetry magazine, there most certainly will be quilts on the cover. These are the sorts of synergies that are sure to occur when I begin school. I cannot wait. I am counting days.

My job is not one you quit — and I have no intention of doing so. I’ve got teaching and speaking gigs scheduled into 2018. New fabric is coming out in a few months. The Quilt Scout is going strong, I’m making quilts like crazy, I’m working on a pattern project, I’m curating a quilt exhibit at Spring Quilt Festival, I’m on the board of the Study Center. My career in the quilt world isn’t going anywhere — but it is changing (you’ll see me less on TV, for example.) But you watch: these changes will be nothing short of wonderful. You’ll see it all happen, right here. (Psst: it’s all for you, anyway.)

I’m scared. It’s so expensive. I’m taking out loans. It’s two years. It’s gonna be hard. But if I don’t do it now, when?


Hello, Dolly, Hello Summer.

Dual-breed cow on a hillside in Switzerland, in summer. (I am channelling this cow.) Image: Wikipedia.

Dual-breed cow on a hillside in Switzerland, in summer. (I am channelling this cow.) Image: Wikipedia.

Right now, this second, I just got off work.

About an hour ago, I took a bow after giving the evening program at the banquet dinner for the gorgeous, enormous Minnesota Quilt Show here in St. Cloud. The amount of work that goes into a show like this is remarkable. To all the attendees, to the women and men who help make the show every year — and who specifically helped me get here, do my thing, and scoot on out tomorrow morning — thank you. I said it all day long; now it’s in writing.

I got in late last night on a delayed flight. I taught a class from 8:30-11:30am. I learned my books didn’t arrive for the book signing. We did damage control. I did a lecture from 11:40-12:20. I did a book signing from 12:30-1:15. I did a class from 1:30-4:30. I arrived at the banquet dinner at 6:00pm. You may have noted that there wasn’t much time for lunch in my schedule, so I brought snacks. I’ve been trying to avoid excess sugar but there are no words for the joy and gratitude I had around 3:00pm for the four pieces of toffee I found in a Ziploc baggie in my purse. That toffee was the secret to my success.

Here’s what I love to do:

– teach people how to make quilts
– lecture in an entertaining manner on the history of quiltmaking in America
– meet fellow quilters
– travel
– make a living doing what I just described

But I’m going to be honest: I’m in my nightgown with a face mask on, sitting in a Lay-Z-Boy recliner in a hotel room in St. Cloud, MN with my laptop and as of now, as of this very second, I have the entire summer off. This was it. Tonight was the last one. School’s out for the summer, you guys. The last time I had more than two weeks off was January for heaven’s sake. Before that, I couldn’t tell you. But from where I’m sitting, from what I’m looking at on my Google calendar, my next gig is in September and that means I have a summer.

I’m so excited. I’m so happy. I mentioned last week how I’m going to take a Spanish class. But there’s more. I’m going to park my tushie and hand quilt my first quilt. I’m going to work on a cool art project I’ve only just started. You bet your bippy I’ll be blogging. But I’m not going to be writing PaperGirl on a plane, which happens a lot — more than I tell you. I’m going to blog in my very own Lay-Z-Boy (note to self: purchase Lay-Z-Boy) with my very own bed not far away. I might even bake more bread.



I told a ballroom full of people tonight a special piece of news that I have only shared with a few people. Well, I’ve shared it with a few close people in my life and now a ballroom full of strangers. It’s big news, friends. Seismic. Tectonic plate-shifting big. I’m not pregnant. I’m not moving to Germany. I’m not sick again. The news is a very, very good thing. It is a big thing. And I didn’t know when I’d break the news but now, sitting here in a hotel on the banks of the Mississippi River, imagining this special summer stretching out before me, I see that it’s time.

We’ll talk tomorrow.


Chutzpah: If You Can’t Pronounce It…

Matzoh ball soup. I know how to pronounce it, too! Photo: Wikipedia.

Matzoh ball soup — that’s “MOTT-zuh.” Photo: Wikipedia.

On a Sunday afternoon many years ago in Iowa City, I was trying desperately to charm the patoopies off my then-boyfriend’s parents. We were all riding in his parents’ car: his dad was driving, Mom sat in front seat, Mr. Dreamboat and I were in the back. I did fine the majority of the trip, but then I said something cringe-inducingly dumb and I have been paying for it ever since!

The fellow I was dating at the time was a chef — a good one. He taught me how to eat. When I got the job at the cafe where he chef’ed, I knew nothing about food beyond Mom’s spaghetti and my version of it.* The Chef showed me the world of fresh food beautifully prepared and it changed my life because my life began to taste better and I learned how to cook the stuff myself. Because if it didn’t work out, you know, with me and him, I had better know how to make my own tarte tatin. (It didn’t, and I do.)

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.

*Note: I love my mother’s spaghetti very, very much — but she’s the first to admit she’s not a whiz in the kitchen. She has had to survive in this world with about 10,000 other talents. She’ll be okay.

From The PaperGirl Archive: “My Life As Alabaster.”

Mary, Queen of Scots by François Clouet, 1557. Image: Wikipedia.

Mary, Queen of Scots by François Clouet, 1557. Image: Wikipedia.

It’s summertime. And with summertime comes clothes that show more skin. Pasty as ever — even more pasty than usual, what with this pesky anemia thing — I am facing my short sleeves and dresses with a furrowed brow. And freckles.

For your reading pleasure, a post written two summers ago when I was living in New York City, which seems like it was a galaxy ago. A very close, very familiar galaxy ago.


Dear Mr. Fancy Pants Faulkner, Sir.

William Faulker portrait by Carl Van Vechten, 1951 (courtesy Library of Congress.) Arrow and title me, courtesy me, 2016.

William Faulkner portrait by Carl Van Vechten, 1951, courtesy Library of Congress. Arrow and title me, courtesy me, 2016.

The Sound and the Fury. As I Lay Dying. Intricate, internal monologues woven through boundary-pushing modernist novel structures; characters so complex and layered they are thisclose to materializing on the couch while you’re reading; trailblazing treatments of racism in American literature; one of the longest sentences in all of literary history (just shy of 1,300 words) found in Absalom! Absalom! and he won the Pulitzer for Literature in 1949 so okay, fine. William Faulkner knows about writing.

But I picked up Volume II of the Paris Review Interviews the other day and I have decided that though Faulkner deserves his spot at the table of Best Ever Writers, he was not nice and I don’t like him. Does Faulkner need to be nice? No. Does he need me to like him? Certainly not, for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that he is dead. But while I agree with some of his rallying cry stuff about how an artist has to be painfully dedicated and driven and in competition with herself, I read some of his answers and became deeply depressed. Because the kinds of things he said directly contribute to countless writers — young and otherwise — who think it’s okay to develop into myopic jerks, okay to maybe nurture an alcohol problem, and definitely okay to not make rent, all because Faulkner was feeling passionate and grumpy the day he said this kind of thing on record:

“The writer doesn’t need economic freedom. All he needs is a pencil and some paper. I’ve never known anything good in writing to come from having accepted any free gift of money The good writer never applies to a foundation. He’s too busy writing something.”

I see. So a person should never apply for a scholarship? Never apply to a foundation so she can write her book? That’s cool. I’ll just keep working nine jobs and try to squeeze in my Sound and the Fury while I’m on the interstate. Did they even have health insurance in 1929? Then there was this, when asked if writing movie scripts could hurt a person’s writing:

“Nothing can injure a man’s writing if he’s a first-rate writer. If a man is not a first-rate writer, there’s not anything can help it much.”

Mr. Faulkner, how do you feel about success?

“Good [writers] don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich. Success is feminine and like a woman; if you cringe before her, she will override you. So the way to treat her is to show her the back of your hand. Then maybe she will do the crawling.” 

Wow! Yuck!

These words strike me as not just harsh but barbarous and he must’ve meant it, because who cares about words more than William Faulkner? He cares about words so much that he says barbarous things to keep them safe, I guess, from people who abuse them, don’t understand them correctly, rub them together in ugly ways while he’s around to have to smell it. Look, I understand there are a whole lot of people in the world who would be better off being an actuaries, for example, than writers, but you know what? They/we will probably figure that out. And if they don’t but are blissfully happy writing their romance novels or whatnot, who cares, Bill? You’re a real piece of work!

I’m probably missing the entire point. Some Faulkner society will get a google alert that this blog post exists and they will laugh and highbrow-high-five each other at reading group. They can go ahead because I’m on Team Orwell and Orwell wasn’t nice but he wasn’t fancy, either.

*I wrote about the Paris Review books another time.


The Case of The Missing Drama Award Certificate.

The award, scanned all these years later. Image: Me and my trusty printer.

The award, scanned all these years later. Image courtesy my trusty printer.

When I was at home in Iowa last week, my mother called up the stairs: “Mary? I have something funny to give you!” I am always interested in getting funny things, so I immediately put down my book and went downstairs.

“Katy gave these to me,” Mom said, handing me two certificates on heavy cardstock. “She found them going through some boxes. I guess Mrs. Esser asked Katy to give them to you but she forgot. Isn’t that funny? They’re from 1996!”

Katy is my second mom in Winterset; she taught in the school system there for many years. Mrs. Esser was my high school speech and drama coach. Both are extremely responsible women, fully invested in the well-being of every last one of their students, so it’s funny that the certificates never got to me. I don’t remember being frantic about not getting them, so Katy coming across them was indeed amusing and gave me a chance to reflect on my footloose n’ fancy-free days competing in high school speech contests.

Little known fact: I was on the cheerleading squad heading into my freshman year. I knew I was lying to myself and everyone else about this cheerleading business, but I was barely fourteen; how could I know my life? How did I even know how to read at that point? But on the second day of school I saw a flyer: “FALL PLAY AUDITIONS.” My heart raced. The very next day, I left cheerleading practice early, tried out, got a part, and put up my pom-poms forever. I was in love. Leaving cheerleading for The Stage (!) is possibly the only decision in my life I can point to and say “That was unequivocally the right decision.” Everything after that is debatable.

I was hooked, but outside the fall play and the spring musical, the only other outlet for saying stuff to an audience was debate (check) and speech contest; there was no drama club, no community theater in town. So along with some beautiful, geeky, awkward, brilliant friends, I competed in the statewide speech/drama competitions in categories like acting, group ensemble, poetry recitation, extemporaneous speaking, improv, radio announcing, etc.

Our group would travel with Mrs. Esser around the state to Creston or Valley or Roosevelt High along with hundreds of other students and their coaches. The schools would camp out on the gym floor and eat Twizzlers and drink Mt. Dew while each student went to do her or his bouts throughout the day. We’d all wait in physical pain until the clerks came and posted the scores. If you got three 1’s, you went to All-State. I went to All-State a bunch of times and I’m pretty sure I got awards there, too, but obviously the certificates or distinctions were not of lasting importance. What those competitions did was give me a sense of self, a feeling that I had something worth cultivating, a reason to keep reading books, to keep writing poems, to keep learning lines by heart. To keep trying my best, I think, is something I learned doing that for four years.

I threw both of these long-lost certificates away once I scanned the one here into my computer. I’ve lived this long without them and I’ve been all right. Besides, with all these pictures of me on the 1993 J.V. Winterset Huskies cheerleading squad, there’s just no room on the wall…

POST SCRIPT FROM THE EDITORS: The elegant and shrewd Ms. Joan Millman Schnadig pointed out to me that this certificate is exactly twenty years old to the day. June 3rd, 1996 is the date on the certificate — and it’s June 3rd, 2016. I actually wrote this last night, but if you account for the orbit of the Earth and entropy and all, this award was signed exactly twenty years ago today. Fabulous!


“I’m Teaching at QuiltCon in Savannah in 2017!”

It's pronounced "Savan-ahhhhhhhh" if it's the end of February. Image: MQG

It’s pronounced “Savan-ahhhhhhhh” if it’s the end of February. Image: MQG.

That’s right: I’m teaching at QuiltCon in Savannah in 2017!

Today, the Modern Quilt Guild folks released the course catalog for the big show in February and if you’re like me, you pounce on these kinds of things and dream up the kind of person you will be when you get to February and take Amazing Class A and Incredible Class B and sit in the audience for Mind-Blowing Lecture Q. What color will your hair be? Who will you be dating or married to? Isn’t it all so delicious??

I’m happy to tell you that I’ll be teaching two blocks of my all-day “No Fear Partial Seams” class: one on Thursday and one on Friday. The quilt I’m making is shaping up to be extremely beautiful (it’s a red-and-white.) Then I’m doing my spankin’ new, essential lecture: “Standing On The Shoulders of Giants: A Brief History of the American Quilt.”

The QuiltCon 2017 course catalog — with full class/lecture descriptions and info about registering and so forth — can be found here. Let me make something very clear: if you have questions about registration, when stuff opens up, how to pay, etc., you’ll have better luck getting an answer from your cat. I don’t know about that part: I’m only the talent. The MQG people are running a really slick show, though, so use the helpdesk over there; they’ll get you squared away.

What fun! Come hang out!


Who’s Creepy?

Men -- probably very nice, non-threatening ones -- in New Orleans in 1982. Photo: Wikipedia

Men — probably very nice, non-creeper ones — in New Orleans in 1982. Photo: Wikipedia.

Something disturbing happened today. The nature of what happened made me extremely uncomfortable and on top of that, I’m disturbed by the larger implications of what happened.

On my flight home from Iowa today, I cracked open my laptop to work on the next Quilt Scout column. I’ve been thinking I should write about the time I flamed out teaching a class at the 2013 QuiltCon, how much I learned from that experience, and how without that disastrous class, I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today. At the top of the open document on my computer I titled the piece, “On Failing As a Teacher.” I drafted three or four paragraphs and it seemed to be shaping up with no major problems, so I closed my eyes to catch a quick snooze. I woke to the flight attendant tapping me on the shoulder to put my laptop away because we were in our final descent. Perfect.

When we came to a stop, before they opened the pod bay doors, the man to my left leaned toward me like he was going to say something to me. It was almost imperceptible, but I am a perceptive person, so I noticed it. But he said nothing and I thought, “That was weird.” But right when our row was free to leave, he did say something:

“You know, I think you’d be a wonderful teacher. I can tell you’re a very insightful, sensitive person. I don’t think you’d fail at teaching, even if you did in the past.” He didn’t really look me in the eye. He didn’t introduce himself. He didn’t say, “Listen, I’m sorry, but I saw something on your computer and…” No, he got right to the point.

I can’t remember the last time I mumbled. I avoid mumbling. But I was so flummoxed, so caught off guard and utterly uncomfortable, I mumbled: “I… Well, I am a teacher, I… I’ve been teaching a long time… This was –” and then I stopped because I could not compute this. He had read my computer screen. While I was asleep. He read my screen and read it so completely, so thoroughly, he could comment on the story I was drafting. I didn’t need to explain what it was he had read.

Look, I’m going to tell you straight: I was disgusted by this. I didn’t think it was nice. I didn’t feel it was a point of entry for conversation. It was a violation of my privacy. Even when you’re squished together with people on an airplane a person still has her personal space. A furtive glance at someone’s screen or a peek at what book they’re reading; that’s normal. But he read three paragraphs of what I was writing. While I was sleeping. I felt like I needed a shower. He was a few paces ahead of me as everyone walked toward baggage claim; I could’ve caught him to tell him what a creeper he was, but I did not want to engage this person further.

But here’s the lingering problem: if I had found him attractive, would I be upset? This man was not my type. At all. He was unattractive to me in a myriad of ways. But if Andy Garcia in TheGodfather III had said, “I think you’d be a wonderful teacher” and “I can tell you’re a very insightful, sensitive person” would I be using words like “violate” and “disgusted”?

When I ask these Big Questions I get scared that I have wandered into some hoary, post-modern dialectic and that my multiple blind sides are going to out me as a pathetic, politically incorrect waste of space who is so clueless she can’t be salvaged. But I can’t be scared to ask: if that man had looked like Andy Garcia, would I feel the same way? What does that say about me? Is it wrong? How come this stuff matters? And I don’t want to undercut these legitimately confusing-for-me questions by being flip, but also: have we confirmed that Andy Garcia in The Godfather III is an actual human and not a hologram of physical perfection and smoldering sexiness created to make me swoon and die with hormone overload?

It’s good to be home, but it’s so weird that Claus isn’t here.


Chica de Papel!

"Spanish Woman" by Alexej von Jawlensky, 1911.

“Spanish Woman” by Alexej von Jawlensky, 1911.

Guess what?! I’m taking Spanish lessons this summer! Chica de Papel is “Papergirl” in Espanol!

Truth be told, I kinda want to learn French more than Spanish but here’s what I’m good at: making soup. Here’s what I’m not good at: foreign languages. When I think about sitting in a desk in Beginner French: Level 1 my scalp gets itchy. It’s too big of a leap. I figure I can prime my pumps with Spanish, see how I do, and then maybe approach French in a couple years. The bonus is that I’ll learn Spanish along the way! I love words and Spanish has a lot of pretty ones.

Plus, I’ve got training wheels because I took Spanish in high school like everyone else and I had enough Italian in college to order a caprese salad and say it right. (It’s pronounced ca-PRAY-zay, not ca-PREESE and that’s a fact.) When Claus and I were going to go to Peru, I surprised myself with how many palabras en espanol I remembered. I head into my 12-week course feeling like I’ve got enough of a basic idea of masculine/feminine agreements, pronouns, and those verbs’ conjugal visits to achieve success — and I think we can all agree “success” means me annoyingly using Spanish words all over my posts for awhile until I get it out of my system. ¿Qué esperas? La clase es muy caro.

What’s incredible is that this is happening at all. I’m never, ever home for long enough to do stuff like this. Why take a course in something if you’re going to have to miss four of the twelve classes for work? Pottery, hang-gliding, the art of Ethiopian cuisine — the bounty of classes and continuing education offered by Chicago often feels impossible for me to access. Well, this summer, I’m at the mesa. (That’s “table” in Spanish! I’m speaking Spanish!!)

And all of you, my flamencos elegantes y exitosos (my graceful and accomplished flamingos) will be my accountability partners. Don’t let me be squishy on this Spanish class thing. Check up on me. Make sure I’m doing my homework. I’m sure I’ll have lots of good cuentos to tell you and I apologize in advance for the silly poems I’ll write to practice my vocabulary. I can’t wait to write them, though.

Viva la Chica de Papel!



The United States of John Wayne.

Outdoor screening of "The Searchers", Winterset, IA. Photo: Me

People showing up early for the screening of “The Searchers”, Winterset, IA. Photo: Me

Hollywood film legend John Wayne was born in Madison County, in my hometown of Winterset, IA in 1907. Wintersetians take this seriously. If we had to choose between being known for the covered bridges or being known as the spot on the globe where The Duke took his first breath, we’d suck on our collective teeth and shake our collective heads and have to take the latter. Then we’d ask you for your delicious cookie bar recipe and hold the nation’s first presidential caucus.

This weekend was John Wayne birthday celebration weekend and I was here for a particularly exciting part of it: an outdoor screening of John Ford’s classic The Searchers, starring John Wayne in one of the most important roles of his career. The screening took place on the town square, right on the lawn of the courthouse. This was the first time a movie had ever screened there, birthday weekend or no. Who do you suppose orchestrated the event? My sister and my mother.

My mother, as many of you know, purchased the movie theater in Winterset when it went up for sale some months ago. The restoration project is well underway; seven trips to the dump emptied it of garbage, rusted stuff, rotten boards, etc., and every day that passes more wonder is discovered in that old movie house. One of the treasures is the screen itself. It’s in great shape. And it was the Iowa Theater’s very own screen that was put up by our beloved contractor, Steve, for the movie last night.

Families came. A few teenagers came. Old folks came. There’s a film crew making a movie of the restoration project and they were there. My might-as-well-be-my-cousin cousin Will played his guitar and sang folk songs to the audience as we waited for it to get dark enough to start the movie. The air was sweet. With the music and the sun slowly sinking down the sky — the rain that was predicted never even threatened to fall — an eventide spell was cast. The Chamber of Commerce sold candy, soda, and popcorn from a popcorn cart. I can’t confirm or deny that I had a bottle of Stella Artois in my hoodie pocket, nor can I confirm or deny that anyone else had a go-cup of anything similar, but doesn’t that sound nice? We’ll never know.

My sister Rebecca is the head of the entire Iowa Theater restoration project; she’s writing the grants, touching every logistic from projector to neon marquee rebuild, doing strategic planning — everything. She was the engine behind the outdoor screening, too, and my brother-in-law ran the projector. Before the show began, Mom and Rebecca gave a speech about the future of the theater, how 95% of the work being done is being done by locals, how the goal is to make a space the town loves and uses and grows for a long, long time.

About thirty minutes into watching The Duke search for Debbie, I gave into the desire for popcorn. I went over to the Chamber kiosk.

“Hi! I think I’ll get some popcorn,” I said.

The person who scooped some up for me was a bubbly, attractive woman named Heather. She handed me a modest sack of popcorn and I was surprised at how happy I was it was not a tub as big as my head. Heather shook her head. “This is just amazing. Just amazing. You’re Rebecca’s sister, right?”

I said I was and we talked for a minute, geeking out with happiness at the scene before us: people outside, together, enjoying their town, their town’s history, tasty snacks, and a movie, all on a long Memorial Day weekend. We agreed this needs to happen every year, if not more often.

“It just makes me happy,” Heather said, looking out at the one hundred or so people in lawn chairs. “I guess it’s America, right? It’s good. It’s good that kids can come here and it’s safe. You know?”

That popcorn was a buck.


The Dog On The Plane.

Standard Australian Shepherd. Photo: Wikipedia.

Standard (but clearly perfect) Australian Shepherd. Photo: Wikipedia.

There was a service dog on my flight from Sacramento to Chicago on Tuesday, a miniature Australian Shepherd with brown, white, and black fur. His owner was a man with disabilities I could detect but not define. There were certain limitations in his movements, mannerisms that implied a condition that inhibits his ability to move through the world in the breezy way so many others do and don’t think about, don’t have to think about.

The Shepherd had permission to sit on his owner’s lap and I was sitting across from his owner. This means the travel gods were smiling on me that day because how can you have a bad flight when there’s an I’m-gonna-squeeze-you-you-so-cute puppy across the aisle? On top of that, I had a coupon for a free adult beverage because at this point I’m putting Southwest Airlines employees’ kids through college and they give me drink coupons to say thanks. You’re welcome, guys. Merlot.

I know better than to try and pet a stranger’s dog without asking; I certainly know not to reach for a service dog without permission. But when we were delayed on the runway for another ten minutes and everyone was sitting around bored, I figured it would be okay to ask if I could pet the dog.

“Yes, you can pet him,” the man said, friendly, his speech staccato. “His name is Cody.”

I put my hand out for Cody to sniff it and then, having been accepted, I petted that sweet creature and felt every tense cell in my body melt. I don’t love all dogs — I’m afraid of most big dogs, in fact — but there are magical dogs in this world. Cody was one of them. Mild. Kind. A honey of a animal. Which made it all the more painful to watch him as we took off.

The captain announced we were next up for departure and as the engines began to rev, Cody began to pant. He whipped his head around, scared at the noises: the fans, the announcements, the wheels, the machinery in the belly of the beast. I never realized just how noisy it is when a plane begins to take off; it’s loud in there. Cody’s brow displayed intense fear. He never whined, but he shook and shook, trembling so hard his owner had to hold him tight to his chest to keep him safe.

My heart ached. I don’t know why it was so hard to see it, but when Cody plunged his head into the crook of his owner’s arm to hide, to make it go away, there were tears in my eyes. Life is terrifying. Oh, it’s grand and it’s great but it’s terrifying — and that grand, great stuff can be as terrifying as the rest of it. The man told me later in the flight that Cody was attacked by pit bulls a couple years ago and was still traumatized by the event. He said Cody didn’t use to be so nervous.

Landing was tough, too. But when we deplaned, a little girl of about six was at the gate where we came out and squealed with pure joy when she saw Cody. She ran up to the owner and asked if she could pet the dog. As I passed them to head toward baggage check, I saw the little girl love Cody completely and totally, smiling, welcoming him to terra firma with no idea how happy Cody was to see her.


A Jar of Peanut Butter and a Mouse.

Peanut butter is love. Image: Wikipedia

I figured an image of peanut butter would be more welcome than one of a mouse. Image: Wikipedia.

I’ve come to Iowa for the America Quilts EXPO show in Des Moines. Usually, when I’m in Iowa for quilt-related business I’m taping TV and I’m here with only Mom, my stepdad Mark, and Scrabble. This time, my sister Rebecca and my brother-in-law Jack are here too! They’ve come to work on the movie theater and host a special screening of the John Wayne classic The Searchers up on the town square on Saturday night. (If you’re in the area, you must come down; I’ll post details on my Facebook page.)

We all crammed ourselves into a booth at the Northside Cafe for dinner tonight. Between spoonfuls of chili and glasses of white wine, we reminisced about how Jack and Rebecca got together because it’s basically their one-year anniversary. We talked about how we have peanut butter and a mouse to thank for their love. Yup: a peanut butter and a mouse.

Jack knew Rebecca from work circles and when they met they connected instantly. They were just friends though, because Rebecca was already seeing someone. They kept everything on the level, but it was plain how excited they were to have met the other and every exchange they had was pure delight and intrigue. Jack began to bring homemade peanut butter to my sister’s office. (If that’s not a genius way to get the girl, you’re gonna have to help me know what is.) When Rebecca told me about her new friend Jack, her eyes sparkled. I didn’t think her boyfriend at the time was the right match at all so I was excited about the peanut butter — okay, I prayed about the peanut butter, if catch my drift.

One night in Chicago, I went to Rebecca’s apartment. She had come from roller derby practice and was real sweaty. We were talking at her dining room table when we saw a mouse run fast across the floor. We jumped ten feet in the air and landed on top of the table, pathetic in our terror. Not long after, we heard a terrible, terrible sound: the mouse was caught in a trap — set by the landlord, apparently — under the stove. But it was not dead. It was alive. The sound was horrible and these two extremely capable young women were somehow incapable of dealing with this dying-mouse-under-the-stove situation ourselves. Women and mice, man: it’s a thing.

Rebecca called her boyfriend to come help. But when she got hi on the line, he said “didn’t think [he] could make it.” It wasn’t that he was busy; he just “wasn’t sure” how he was supposed to help. When Rebecca got off the phone and told me this, I tried very hard to continue to support the relationship, but we were literally huddled on the dining room table in distress. I looked at my sister.

“What if you called Jack?” My sister looked at me. She nodded slowly. And in that moment, she knew what she had to do. She called, and Jack said he’d be over in twenty minutes. I insisted she change out of her sweaty roller derby clothes, comb her hair, and put on some lipstick. She thanks me to this day for that, but that’s just my way and what an older sister ought to do.

Jack arrived and went straight to the kitchen. He got down on the floor, eye-level to the mouse, and pulled that thing out. Then he took it out back and made sure that mouse went up to the big Swiss cheese wedge in the sky real quick. He cleaned up from where he moved the stove, he washed his hands. This was a good guy. This was the kind of guy my sister needed to have in her life and in the months and years that have followed The Night Of The Mouse, she and Jack have grown to be the most inspiring, hilarious, marvelous couple I know.

That was the night it really happened — and that’s the way it happened, too. Happy anniversary, you guys.

Home Economics: The Reckoning

Women's cookery class, Ohio State Normal College, 1913. Photo: Wikipedia

Women’s cookery class, Ohio State Normal College, 1913. Photo: Wikipedia

When I was in junior high school, I experienced home economics class twice: the first section was for one half of one term my seventh grade year, the second for one half of one term in my eighth. That is not a lot of home ec, or “family and consumer science.” When you consider where I’m from — a rural farming community with a population of 5,000, a town with a county fair and a noon whistle — this may surprise you. Because when you look at the definition of home economics, what you find seems to square with the basic values of small town America:

“[Home economics is] the profession and field of study that deals with the economics and management of the home and community. The field deals with the relationship between individuals, families, and communities, and the environment in which they live.”

Or maybe that’s not “small town America” stuff; maybe that’s everyone-on-the-planet stuff. What could be more important than studying how to make and manage a good home? That seems foundational to me. And ’tis a noble pursuit to examine “relationships between individuals, families, and communities, and the environment in which they live.” Am I missing something? This all sounds like good stuff to teach a kid.

But in the 1990s — at least in my town — home economics curriculum was usurped by keyboarding and computer classes and scarcely any home ec programming survived. The kids didn’t choose to swap out home ec; the parents and the school board did. In order to compete in an increasingly tech-driven world, the adults felt kids needed to learn computers and they weren’t wrong. So unless you were in 4-H or FHA (Future Homemakers of America) you learned precious little in school about managing a household and a whole heck of a lot about the proper storage of floppy discs. I remember three projects we did in home ec: we made drawstring bag, we learned how to sign a check, and we made chocolate chip cookies.

I think deleting 90% of home ec curriculum was a mistake.* “Family and consumer science” is an umbrella under which so many crucial life skills could be taught. My mom did a great job raising us, but if I’d had more instruction in financial management I might’ve avoided being suckered into that college freshman credit card. I would’ve loved to learn how to bake bread, how to organize a community meeting, how to get a marriage license.

With more home ec, my classmates and I might’ve learned how to avoid the schemes of the grocery store designers (junk food at eye-level, dairy stocked at the furthest point from the door so you have to walk through the junk food to get to what you actually need); we might’ve gone on a field trip to a working farm, to an office building, to the community playhouse in Des Moines. We could’ve learned how not to yell at the customer service agent when we’re frustrated on the phone. I would’ve rolled my eyes like any dutiful junior- or high-schooler while all this was being taught, but I would’ve appreciated it later like I appreciate the rest of my public school education.

Ours is a service-oriented culture. We are no longer the manufacturing nation we once were. Rather than this being a reason to jettison home ec under the assumption that the world has changed so drastically “household” knowledge is at best old-fashioned and at worst obsolete, I see the shift as a reason to fiercely support home economics in schools: it’s a brave new world and we need to learn how to live in it. Besides: when you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, the hot answers these days include chef, fashion designer, and business owner. Looks like cooking, sewing, and economics to me. Does it look like that to you?

If you sat with your mom and dad and absorbed their excellent time management skills, great. If you worked at a job from an early age and learned cash registers and bank drops, awesome. If your nanna baked cinnamon rolls and you became a mean baker by osmosis, wonderful. But many, many kids out there do not get this kind of teaching at home. It makes all the sense in the world that home economics classes in schools can close the gap on essential life skills like these. Even those who do come from a “civic duty” kind of family can always expand their knowledge of life skills. As a woman with no children I’m not sure how to affect change regarding this issue, but I feel passionately about it. Perhaps I’ll put a colander on my head and march through the streets banging a pot with a ruler, shouting:

“Viva la spatula! Viva la spreadsheet! Viva la home economics!”

*There are school systems out there with current, even robust, home ec curriculum. In my experience talking to many thousands of people across the US about this topic, however, it appears that home ec has dried up or completely disappeared in most regions.


The AMC “Dine-In” Movie Theater: Goodbye, Cruel World.

The "scene" of the crime! Get it? Scene? Like a scene in a movie? Oh, brother! I kill me! Photo: Me.

A: Claus’s feet, my feet; B. pinot noir; C. popcorn bucket; D. lights that had to stay on low through the whole movie because the waiters have to see where they’re going; E. peanut butter M&M’s, naturally. Photo: Me

I’m going to tell a story about Claus but I’m not being nostalgic.

Last weekend, I wanted to check out the fancy new theater up on State Street. The theater is new within the year, I think, though sometimes I’m the last to know about these things. It looks new: everything is shiny and the carpet is fresh-smelling. But that’s not all that’s going on at the AMC on State Street, oh, no.

This AMC features “Cinema-Suites.” What’s a Cinema-Suite, you ask? A Cinema-Suites is a place where you go to die happy. The official description is different; AMC decided to not include “die” in their messaging for some reason. Officially, “Cinema-Suites [offer] a grown-up atmosphere featuring in-theater dining, a full bar, and extra-comfy recliners. Enjoy handcrafted burgers, bowls, desserts, and more while you enjoy the show.” Oh, but, AMC! You’re being modest!

Here’s how it works: You get your ticket. You go into your theater. You are shown to your specific seat by an usher. You sink into the comfiest recliner into which you ever sank your tush. A table tray swings in from your right hand side. There’s a cup holder. There’s no bib, but you feel like there could be and that would be fine. There’s a button on the left side of the chair and when you push it, the chair begins molesting you in a friendly way, raising your feet up on the foot rest as it’s reclining you back. It’s not a massage, exactly, but it’s not not a massage. Then, just when you’re laughing with a tall German that this is so much fun and way, way too easy to love, a waiter — a real waiter! — comes and gives you menus.

There are delicious foods on this menu. Your waiter comes and takes your order and he will bring you what you ordered while you watch the movie. Hot food. Like a burger. Or a hot fudge sundae! Or — wait for this, you can’t believe this — popcorn! You can’t get popcorn at a concession stand because they bring you your popcorn on a tray. Is anyone else freaking out about this? Because I am not being sarcastic: this is amazing. I didn’t even want popcorn. I’m not supposed to eat popcorn. But I ordered some anyway because it was Claus and my last date and because they were going to bring it on a tray. A big bucket of popcorn on a tray, brought to me while I’m essentially lying in a bed, watching a Hollywood movie that cost more to make than the GDP of most of the world’s developing countries.

I’m not saying it’s bad. I’m saying it’s a heckuva town.