Wednesday, July 25, 2018

On Dress

Taken in Paris, 2008

Not everyone is lucky enough to grow up living down the street from their grandma. If you are one of those people, it often isn’t until you’ve grown up that you understand how lucky you have been. Frances Grigsby – or Nonnie as she was known to my brother and me – was our neighbour. And though I didn’t realise this until much later, she also became my closest friend. Nonnie had an almost daily presence in my life for ten years, before I left for college. Her house was a three-minute walk up the blacktop. And even once I’d moved away completely she was there, at Christmas and on summer vacations. Initially my brother and I made that walk to scarf down Cheezits and Snickers minis from the fridge while watching hours of Nickelodeon, since our parents refused to pay for cable TV. But eventually we would descend from the upstairs den to look for Nonnie. We’d find her at the kitchen table, or on the front porch, and that’s when we began to find out things about her.

She was born in a small town, the fourth of eight children, met our grandfather, Papa, and married him. When he was on the road most nights of the week, it was Nonnie who raised their five children. And while Papa famously adored dogs, making their beloved Alaskan Malamute, Harry, a spokes-pooch for several commercials, it was Nonnie who looked after all 14 hounds during their marriage. Nonnie looked after me, too. My mom was a high-school art teacher, and when she had to finish out the school year after having me, Nonnie and I spent that spring together, walking in Loose Park, browsing fabric shops and weaving our way through department stores. Of course I have no recollection of these outings, but I have always believed that on those strolls Nonnie was sharing something with me.

She made broth when I was sick, butterscotch brownies when I was blue, and when there no other reason for it, she made a heaping plate of walnut fudge. She knew how comforting comfort food was to her audience, but she herself was more of a purist: Her afternoon snack was a fresh tomato or half a cantaloupe with salt and pepper, and her own favourite dessert was anything lemon: bar, tart or cake. To me, that affinity for all things citron made her infinitely more sophisticated than the rest of us. In truth, she was more sophisticated than the rest of us, and she made it seem effortless: she had travelled the world with our grandpa. Her favourite book was the Oxford English Dictionary, and it comes as no surprise that she taught me the meaning of ‘erudition’. She knew enough French to crack a joke, and gave me the tapes as a push to learn. She painted watercolours and held no qualms about the number of furs she owned. She would tisk me for saying it, but she looked utterly glamorous holding a cigarette. And everyday at 4.21pm she indulged in a martini, to mark the anniversary of her and Bill’s first date. If further evidence of her je ne sais quoi is required, I would direct you to a photograph from the 1960s, showing a woman who has just caught an enormous hammerhead shark off the side of a yacht. She is beaming and not a hair is out of place.

Nonnie was soft-spoken but never aloof; confident, but not arrogant; she enjoyed the company of others but she also, it seemed, took pleasure in that of her own. What has always made me admire and aspire towards Nonnie’s chicness is that it was never contrived. Her own sense of style was a direct expression of her strong sense of self.

And, it has to be said, that self believed in dressing well.

I felt most connected to Nonnie when we spoke about clothes, and I’ll never forget the first time she let me into her closet. I had just finished high school when she said she had some old things I might like. She opened the wardrobe door and we dove into layers of chiffon and pleats and gabardine and silk until we landed on a light-as-air, camel-coloured cashmere cardigan and its matching snapaway mink stole. It was glamorous without trying to be. The Seiden’s tag was still inside. That was the first of several treasures Nonnie bestowed on what I felt were my own undeserving shoulders. There was the modish jacquard mini-dress that I never fit into but insisted on keeping just in case my bone structure happened to change. And the silk wrap-skirt that made me feel like I was living my best life as the embodiment of the J Peterman catalogue.

Through that closet I learned what clothes could be. Nonnie had what Virginia Woolf called ‘frock consciousness’. She knew the joy of getting dressed, but her clothes were also a kind of aide-memoire, a register of that joy and of her remarkable life. Attached to every blouse or skirt or dress or coat was a clear recollection of where they had been together.

When Nonnie moved into Stonecrest, clothes became more important than ever, and I loved hearing her recount her shopping trips. Whether she was buying something or just browsing, simply being around clothes made life feel a little brighter. Evidently her sartorial affinities were not lost on her fellow residents, who recently voted her Best Dressed. I learned of this accolade just as I was pondering what to buy her for Christmas. The day before flying home to Kansas City I found myself weaving my way through a department store in London looking for a treasure that might mean something to the woman who, in giving so much of herself, had helped me determine my own sense of frock consciousness. Suddenly it felt as if she were there with me, guiding me past the polyester blends to something more sophisticated – glamorous without trying to be. When I came upon a pair of light-as-air, camel-coloured cashmere socks I knew I had my answer. If only they had come with a mink stole.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Today slipped away from me. I'm not sure why. I take that back. I know why.

I woke up with the sun and even took a picture to prove those melon and blueberry soaked strokes that bled juicy streaks on cottony white clouds were real. The slipping happened still — probably, somewhere between oohing, ahhing, accidentally falling asleep again and waking up a couple of hours later. 

When I don't rise early everything slows down. Everything goes one or two or three hours later than it should. Which is fine, sometimes. Maybe on a Sunday? It's not fine when there's writing to do. So much writing to do. And when things get pushed back, my mind bottle-necks. Everything that's supposed to happen clogs in the world's narrowest vessel that exists somewhere between my eyeballs and the back of my brain. I get grouchy. I'm annoyed for no good reason and find countless ways to place guilt on anyone who brushes past. Luckily, T doesn't take that kind of shit.

Today I woke up and the sun rose. I blinked and the sun set. I went what felt like a million places (okay, realistically: the grocery store, a second grocery store and over to West London). I walked eight miles! I watched B finish a tiny yellow scarf for Osey the Monkey. I read. I took notes. I read some more. But nothing happened that was supposed to happen. 

Nothing, except, well, dinner.

The interview didn't get transcribed. The article didn't get written. The blog post is still simmering (not successfully), and I continued to put off calling the Federal Loan office. But someone who normally has no requests for dinner asked for a tart. And that, I'm pleased to report, got made. With pleasure.

The beginnings of a savory balsamic fig tart, with homemade pesto, goats cheese, asparagus and (not pictured) — parma ham + red onions

Everyone lately has been mentioning the passing of time. 

"How quickly this year's gone by." 

"August is nearly over!"

"I'm 23, for God's sakes," said my friend M. "What the hell am I doing?"

Hopefully, I hope, having fun. 

23 feels like ages ago and it's less than two years from me. Everything is speeding up. Except the things I'd like to have happen. My hair is speckled with gray now. It's not a bad thing. At 25, it's an ironically glamorous thing.  I now know what my aunts and uncles feel like when they see their younger neices and nephews at only Christmases. "Did you get taller?" They joke. Saying that feels better than feeling older. I'm beginning to realize what my dad says when he reminds me to enjoy this time.

How does it go so quickly? When did I start to notice? 

On days like today, when I resent a need for rest over work, for rest over words, I can't help but get dramatic. The sun rises and sets with and without me. 

Everything about today slipped away. Except the figs. And the goats cheese. And the pesto. And the pastry. Thank goodness, at least, for that.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

"Have you ever had your makeup done? At first I didn't like her hands on my eyes. The brushes tickled. But I got used to it."

I couldn't see her. My back was towards her, but I could tell by the sound of her voice that she was tan and got pedicures. I could smell her from where I sat. She smelled good. Like shea butter lotion and coconut hair product. She was the type who said "fabulous" like fabulous. I pretended to read my book. Her friend made the obligatory sounds of someone who was pretending to care.

"And look," she said.

I imagined she was pointing to a picture on her iPhone. Or some device.

"The way the eye shadow reacts to light changes the color of your eyes. For the first time in my life, mine were blue."

"Unbelievable," said her friend. Mockingly?

I listened out for the empty, dramatic pause.

There it was.

"I know," said Fabulous. "Right?"

Nothing Fabulous and her friend spoke about was of particular interest. There was no reason to take offense. Except the fact that I was here, at this cafe, under this fig tree first. Reading my book in silence. Then they sat down to smoke and chat about Bobbi Brown makeovers.

I am no one to badmouth Bobbi Brown and her makeovers. I know firsthand the wonders she works. Her longwear gel eyeliner changed my life. Well, not really, but since buying my first jar years ago, my eye makeup has never looked better, even post-sleep. But this didn't detract from the fact that Fabulous & Co. were cramping on my afternoon.

Really, the events under the fig tree were a matter of volume and nothing more. I've met women like Fabulous. I haven't just heard them while I pretend to read Didion. They want to be heard. They want to be heard talking about eye makeup. I'm still trying to figure out why.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A July 4th Memory

That July was so hot I remember thinking my eyes were sweating even with the air conditioning on full-blast. I was in the front passenger seat of the minivan. Mom was driving. We were meeting my dad and my brother Paul at the Retzer's house for 4th of July burgers and fireworks. We turned right at the busy intersection and onto a road lined by dying oaks and pines. We curved past the graveyard entrance and the lake docks. Then the shaded asphalt opened up to a wide boulevard built on top of the Riss Lake dam. The sun was so bright it pulsed a haze into Missouri's atmospheric pressure. But out the front windshield I didn't see the sun. All we saw was a a curtain of black. It looked like a raincloud, but Platte County was in the midst of its usual summer drought. Had the Riss Lake subdivision caught fire? 

At eye-level, the neighborhood's houses appeared normal — all beige, grey and sage-colored versions of the next, bedecked with holiday-appropriate bunting and flags. In one driveway, a dad wore his suntan and golf shirt like an advertisement and lit the charcoals of his Weber. These were the only flames in sight. Still, the amount of darkness that hung over the community was worrying. We drove by Walnut Way and Spinnaker Pointe, and the fake ponds with fountains that light up at sunset. We were getting closer to the Retzer's house, and the cloud was getting darker. When we turned onto their street, the firetruck had already arrived. Two police cars were parked on the curb. I could hear my mom's mind race through the possibilities: Had the backyard caught fire? Did Paul blow up his hand? Had Dad blown up his face? We got out of the minivan and ran towards the driveway, where everyone gathered while my dad and Richard Retzer clearly played dumb for the cops. 

What happened was sometime in the course of the week leading up to the 4th, Mr. Retzer had acquired a military-grade smoke bomb. He knew my brother lived for the 4th of July — it was the only day he was allowed to blow stuff up. So he lit a punk for his son Alex and Paul and told them to have at it. The grown-ups knew the effect would be big! and exciting! They didn't know the smoke bomb would put all of Parkville's Finest on-call. When the sirens showed up, Mrs. Retzer handed out burgers to the officers, which seemed to convince them all was well enough to turn a blind eye and leave. I remember that my brother was ecstatic. All smiles and jumps and making fake explosion sounds with his mouth. He was 10, so it was kind of cute.

This particular July 4th became a legend in Riss Lake. For years, at any summer block party, someone would undoubtedly bring up the neighborhood's smoke bomb. "How did it happen?" they'd ask. And we'd all respond with our recollections of the truth. I'm almost too afraid to strike a match, but I've always wished I had been there to help fill the subdivision sky with smoke so thick that when the the sun set and the fake fountains switched on, you couldn't even see the fireworks from across the dam.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Scene whilst the moon rises.

The girl on the beach dances like she’s never had the chance but has always known how. Casually, rhythmically she corkscrews to the chanteuse on the record player. Her wrists bend slightly. In her hands, she holds invisible drumsticks that lightly brush a set of invisible cymbals. She moves with her eyes closed. In her ruffled white bra top and patterned underpants, she is aware of her body but tries not to be. He watches her till he catches himself. He throws back his head. He throws back his arms. A skinny, boy-teen, he flails in his briefs and open shirt. In the growing dusk they flail together. They could flail forever. Or at least until darkness settles and they are too tired for any task but bed. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

What My Dad Cooks

What I learned from Esquire's "What My Dad Cooked:" 

Dads like fried stuff, especially fried breakfasts. Mostly eggs and bacon. Steaks are good too. The dads of many of these famous chef's reminded me of mine (despite the fact that I am neither a famous chef nor a man). So I wrote something in honor of this upcoming Father's Day and "What My Dad Cooked." Only, my father still logs a fair amount of kitchen time (there's no "cooked" past-tense here).

My dad is a decent cook, but he thrives in the art of basic cocktails and dips. This isn't a dig. I'm serious, people. In a tall glass full of cubes, with just a splash of tonic, a standard G&T becomes a refreshingly fizzy wonder of citrus and crisp top-shelf spirits. Bloody Mary's are filled high with extra spicy V8 and bedecked with as many edible garnishes as the fridge allows. Topped off with a glunk of worcestershire sauce and Cavender's Greek seasoning, a Mike-made Bloody Mary isn't for the faint of heart. You'd better have a thing for heat. 

At times it seems a shame to patronize fancy cocktail bars when I've savored spiked sips of something so basic. Not to mention, these libations are strong to boot.

But it doesn't stop at happy hour. With enough avocados and garlic to scare even the toughest vampiric iteration, my dad's guacamole is a dish to be revered. Any game day or sunny Saturday evening provides a perfect excuse to cut, pit, dice and smash halves and wholes of the ripe green fruit atop wooden chopping blocks. 

Like any good ol' guac recipe, there is no recipe. The man measures nothing. Instead, he determines every diner will consume approximately one avocado. And he always portions four extra for himself. 

Cheeses, nuts and cured meats are a similar story. There's no pastry or oven temperatures to worry about, no broiler to check. He'll pour a can of Planter's fancy cashews into one of Mom's nice bowls, and it will mysteriously remain refilled throughout the night — past cocktails, past dinner and long-past the feeling of full, when mindless snacking becomes a vital necessity for eternal games of pool or late-night television comedies. This stuff is simple. And lately it's consistently better than all of the messy bruschetta that's stained my shirts.

Along with possessing a bottomless stomach and Olymipian-rate metabolism, my father is a generous guy. Depending on his mood, he may not say much, but there will always, always, be enough food and drink to satisfy the hungriest of travelers and friends. Perhaps it's because my dad is one of the hungriest people I know. And who would want their guests to endure the same feeling?

Friday, June 8, 2012


“You will never know everything about anything, especially something you love.”
— Julia Child

It happened so fast. I’d safely managed to back the heaving Oldsmobile out of the garage. The glass window creaked a tiny scream as it rolled down, releasing the musty, aging scent of the car’s leather interior out towards honeysuckled April. “Hang on,” called my mom from the front yard. She ran to the driver’s-side door. I braked hard and lurched forward inside the boat-sized sedan. Squinting towards her, I silently reminded myself how to park. With the camera to her eye, she snapped a picture. It was the first time I had driven on my own. How illegal. Craning my neck through the window, I blew her a kiss, threw the car in reverse, and waved as I backed up the black-top driveway and into a tree.

Eight years later, I am smearing fluorescent orange ink on the roller of the letterpress. I nervously hold down the large blue metal button: On.

Immediately, I hear and feel four different rollers turn methodically, mechanically, creating a soundtrack that mimics a mix of television static and metronomic tongue clicks. The spotless, silver surface grades to the shade of construction cones. I think of KitchenAid mixers; bicycle gears; keys turning; that day in the driveway.

In the photo, I am blonde, 16, pink-cheeked and smiling from the window. I had never been happier. I had never been more scared. The car I would later name Darth definitely weighed two tons and went on for days. He housed five seatbelts, but on the night of my senior prom, seven of us would cram inside. Driving Darth was exhilarating — like piloting a jumbo jet in a high-speed, airborne race.

I do not realize that this feeling has ever been catalogued until I lunge ahead with the steel crank and turn my first sheet of paper through the press. It too, feels illegal. Thrilling. Powerful. I cannot discern the pedal of the press from the pedal of that car.

In the studio, I work under self-imposed, happily un-safe conditions. Early on I relinquish ideas of perfection. Unlike writing I am less focused on the outcome — or being completely understood. I sift through my mental catalogue and cannot recall another recent physical experience with words. These weeks with the letterpress are mentally filed as love/hate — in one moment the slow, tangible process is languid, refreshing, metallic. After lunch the tiny letters transform into painful, leaden, dead weights.

The studio is a vista of connected disconnect. Metal pieces make little sense in their singular, backwards-upside-down positions. The cases are divided into nooks. I note letterly neighbors. Each one requires attention. Each metal block is there for a reason. Time does not allow for empty language. There is time, though — in the meticulous preparation and routine — for thinking and drifting.

The room in the building on Coronet was a forest: There were letters — so many of them, in boxes and on desks; hanging on walls and printed on artworks. This was a forest so dense with letters it was difficult to make out a single one. Cases of haphazardly labeled uppers and lowers were stacked to the ceiling. The wooden shapes grazed our arms like tree branches. In the center of the forest was the press. Though I had seen many letters and words on paper and screens, and had thought of many ways I could use them, only one word ran through me: machine. The press was heavy and grey and must have weighed two tons. In a hundred years its lustrous muscles had pressed thousands of phrases. I wondered if it had a brain. Its weight excited me. Suddenly, the laptop in my bag felt light. I wanted to touch its cool metal skin but I couldn’t shake the image of scratching a Rolls Royce.

Inside the South London studio I try to sketch and plan. I think about the quote I am printing. About how it might look. About how Julia Child might've sounded when she said it. She is a serif, I decide. She would use italics, too — purposefully like butter, but discriminately, like Herbes de Provence. My mind drifts in the in-between world of food and mechanics and engines. I daydream about appliances and drive-thrus. I can’t visualize without my computer. When I open Adobe Illustrator, I feel guilty for falling on my crutch, but Sheena says there’s no right or wrong. Julia would say, “Never apologize!”

The French Chef weighs on me as I scour typefaces — Garamond, Bembo. Before I see it, I am seduced by the sound of Lectura. In my mouth its name feels like three courses I’d like to taste in summer: chilled cucumber soup, red snapper, lavender ice cream. But this is an impulsively fantasized glottal interpretation. In my hand, the letters are small and weigh nothing. Yet they are carved, forever and permanent. Their homes are so heavy. I carry a set to my workspace and try to assuage the paranoid image of 18-point bits sprinkling from the cases, scattering across the floor like lead candies.

Time is wicked. I make four lines, made of ten words, made of sixty-six characters, and two hours pass. Words form slowly like dough that rises from a recipe meticulously followed. They take on new meaning. They transcend definition. They are clauses of carefully crafted shapes.

Then, I ink and print in 15-minutes. A stopping point presents itself. I pack my things. A week passes.

The days away from the press are difficult to cope with. When I return, the space and equipment are familiar, but the first hour of every week for the past five Saturdays has been a game of getting-to-know-you. I think of December, when I drove again for the first time in months, and my old car’s foreign familiarity. I find my forme and trace my fingers over the phrase I’ve memorized — one that I now hear Julia Child say clearly, as if she has told it to me herself. But the cool metal surfaces of the letters remain backwards, three-dimensional strangers.

In our first meeting, Sheena paraphrased A.J. Liebling when she said, “Freedom of the press is for those who own one.” I never owned Darth. He belonged to my parents. I won’t own a letterpress. The words I print are Julia Child’s. But in a way I have never experienced as a writer, I own these letters. When they print, I think of first times — that first drive; that first crash; the realization that these letters have never been used in this way. I think about how strangely and unexpectedly relevant my quote has become. No matter how long you’ve done something, the something that you do never reveals itself completely. There are flashes, though, of that something realized. And although you’ve prepared, you’re never completely ready — it’s exhilarating — because it all happens so fast.