I made a trip back to South Dakota two years ago, after decades of not seeing it. I left the prairie as a child and hadn’t realized how deeply the roots of this landscape grew in me. Recognition rang me like a bell, even though many floods have changed what I found when I went “home.”
I could hardly speak my joy at the miles of wheat and barbed wire fencing, the glimpses of badlands, the red-winged blackbirds on every fence post, the tiny ground squirrels rushing across the highway. Water towers and speed traps, billboards calling me to tourist traps, the eerie grandeur of the Badlands. I drove a causeway over a lake full of migrating pelicans and dead trees gone bare and silver.
The floods that have reclaimed parts of the prairie have changed the landscape in subtle ways and loaned a pearly mist to the summer sky. It softens the summer heat I remember from my own childhood there. And it’s claimed so many of the farmhouses; farms are still active, but no one lives in the houses anymore.
Floods & Lost homes
This is why I couldn’t find my grandparents’ home outside Claremont. It’s gone, damaged beyond repair by flooding and torn down. I thought I couldn’t find it because the two rows of tall trees (species lost to memory) that flanked their long drive were cut down and sold long ago. Why keep such a welcome when there was money to be made from the lumber? But the last time I visited, in 1996, their two-story house still stood.
My grandfather bought this house for my grandmother in 1964, I believe. Their marriage had been strained by an attempt to live in the Bitterroot Valley in Montana. My grandfather was an ardent member of the John Birch Society. He wanted to live in a valley that could be dynamited closed at both ends in the event of a Communist attack, and there were only a few of those in the country. He chose Montana.
My grandmother hated Montana. She loved open vistas an the prairie horizon. She felt oppressed by mountains and excessive trees (later in life, she disliked Washington state for its forests). But Grandmother Lucille was a quiet woman who rarely drove and didn’t write a check until her husband died. I’m not sure how she orchestrated a return to the prairie. My grandfather always got his way, but in this, she prevailed. Had he screwed up in some grievous, secret way? Well yes, he had, my grandfather was a man of horrific secret practices, but my grandmother didn’t find that out for another eight years. I’m not sure why he returned to South Dakota, bought the farm, and gave my grandmother cart blanche to transform it, but he did.
A grandparent’s home is always seen through a lens of childhood. It is generally larger and more opulent than any other home in your memory, by sheer dint of your own smallness back then.
We approached along a tree-lined drive, an overarching ostentation that thrilled me as a child. We parked around the side of the house (the front door was enclosed by a newer screened porch), and entered through a mudroom at the back of the house. It was for boots, jackets, for deciding where you wanted to go–the house or the basement. There was an iron grate that closed off the basement steps, a showy affair with an “O” worked into the design, but my sister and I rarely went down there. Birchers are preppers (apparently they are experiencing a resurgence), and he had a basement full of canned goods and other defenses against the Commies, who he sincerely believed were poised off the coast in submarines, ready to take down America. I do remember an old Hoosier cabinet that we loved to play kitchen with, and how scandalized we were when my aunt took it away to California. It never occurred to us that it was hers.
We usually ignored the basement, and walked up three steps into a hallway that held a gigantic chest freezer. My grandfather had opened the first feedlot in South Dakota. That meant he raised small herds of cattle that, once they’d been pastured to a reasonable weight, were locked up in a feeding barn to gorge on corn, which marbled their flesh with oh-so-desirable fat. My grandfather was fond of opening the freezer and sweeping his hand across the pile of meat within, reverently intoning his favorite mantra: “(“However many pounds”) of corn-fed beef.” Then he would close it, so proud of the fruits of his livelihood.
This was primarily a corn-fed beef household, though our grandmother fried chicken fairly often, and invited us out to eat it since my mother refused to cook chicken. My grandmother was a magnificent cook of whatever she touched. Later in life, after my grandfather had his stroke and was in a nursing home, leaving her to pursue a quiet single life, Grandma said, “I remember when I could get a pot roast around with about as much effort as it takes me to make toast, now.” And she laughed.
It’s kind of amazing that my memory tour hasn’t even left the back hallway, isn’t it?
So we would leave the freezer behind, and walk into the laundry room, with its linoleum floor. On the wall was mounted an old wooden crank telephone, something my grandfather found at a farm auction. Aside from the washer and dryer, and a high shelf full of treasures like the metal Scotty dog with a broken tail that my grandmother occasionally let me play with, the only furniture was a small antique school desk with one drawer. In that drawer was a white enameled tin bowl full of crayons.
Those were for me. Other grandchildren visited, my siblings and cousins. But I, in my naive grandchild innocence, assumed the crayons were mine.
In the way of all rooms in those old farmhouses, the laundry room had five doorways. One was just the opening you passed through from the hall with the freezer. One door led to a half-bath, one to the kitchen, and a funny angled door actually led to a walk-in pantry. I wonder, now, just how small and useless that laundry room must have been. At the time, it seemed large and light to me, sitting in that school desk and coloring in my coloring books.
The main back hallway was carpeted, and similarly doored. It had the door from the laundry room, a second back door, a door to the upstairs, a door to the screen porch (formerly the front door), an archway into the living room, and an opening that led to my grandparents’ bedroom and en suite bathroom. I stayed out of their room and bathroom. These were part of their adult world. I do know they had twin beds, and that Grandmother had a huge box of costume jewelry that I loved to play with. But that was a penultimate treat, almost the last weapon in her arsenal of tricks to amuse visiting grandchildren. The ultimate treat was investigating the contents of the small glass-lidded jewelry box where she kept her “good” jewelry; watches, her first wedding set, her own mother’s white-gold wedding band.
The stairs were carpeted, and led to two upstairs bedrooms. One was the “east room” and one was the “west room.” I have no sense of direction at all, so it remains a mystery which was which. One was furnished as a little sitting room, with a linen-covered loveseat and small tables, and a painting of a fruit basket on the wall that my mother and grandfather found at a farm auction. This room had a big closet in the eaves with an actual safe in it. Grandpa kept his gun in there. Since he was a John Bircher, he probably had a lot of money in there. I liked the closet because Grandmother Lucille kept her Mother West Wind books in there, which she read to me often in her gentle, calm voice.
The other bedroom was also called a “guest room.” It had a double bed and a closet full of cast-off clothing, including my grandmothers navy blue chiffon wedding dress. She was small enough in her youth, and I was tall enough in mine, that I could wear it in third grade. There was a low dresser full of the kinds of things that make their way into dressers when clothing doesn’t. I found the first baby pictures I’d ever seen of myself in this dresser when I was six or seven. I’d been wondering if I was adopted due to the lack of baby photos, so I was greatly relieved to see them.
But back to downstairs, which I usually reached by sliding down the steps on my bottom, thump thump thump all the way down on the carpet, then through the back hall, through the laundry room, and through another door. So many doors!
The kitchen was a galley, and at one end was “the breakfast room.” It looked out on Grandmother’s lilac hedges, and held a table and chairs and one of my grandfather’s recliners. We would all sit at the table, and he’d sit in that recliner. There must have been a breakfront or buffet table in there, because I remember a pair of huge ceramic chickens. My grandmother loved birds and chickens, or at least representations of them. They were everywhere in her house, including a small pewter toothpick holder with a baby chick sitting on a wishbone that I handled a lot, fascinated by the wishbone.
The kitchen had dark wood cabinets, and both the kitchen and breakfast room had dark, planked oak floors laid with pegs, no nails. My mother loved to tell me this with awe and house-lust in her voice, that these were pegged floors. Grandmother eventually had these floors covered with indoor-outdoor carpeting, which horrified my mother and me.
At the other end of the kitchen was an archway that led to the living room-dining room, with a huge heavy oak dining set that was only used on holidays, set with Grandmother’s fleur di lis china and ornate sterling silver. My mother knew the names of the patterns, and loved the brown and white china. A huge oak hutch stretched along the living room wall to hold the radio (it had tubes that needed to heat up) and a color TV, around which we would gather to watch The Lawrence Welk Show. My grandparents got so excited about Lawrence Welk. I’d catch the general vibe of anticipation, then become more and more confused as the show commenced through polkas, Bobby and Sissy, and so on. Why would anyone want to watch that?
The room held a beautifully upholstered tuck and roll sofa (there were matching draperies over the bay window), an oak butler’s tray coffee table, and of course, another ugly recliner for my grandfather. I thought this room was incredibly sophisticated. My mother told me the story of how Grandmother had ordered the “distressed oak” hutch top from England. A local woodworker had built the lower part of the hutch to order, and nearly cried when he had to take a bicycle chain to it before applying the finish. It had to be distressed, like the hutch top.
There was one other incredibly special part of this home, and it was the carpet. It was a wool short shag in shades of gold, and it covered the back hall, the stairs, all three bedrooms, the living and dining room. Grandmother Lucille had this carpet woven in England, all in one piece. The installers opened it up, unrolled it, and tacked it down. It fit perfectly. My mother thought this was carpet was incredible, and I have to agree. She would talk about the arrival of that carpet like it was the arrival of Christ.
Gone with the floods
And so, with its glorious details so thoroughly enshrined in my memory, is it any wonder that I couldn’t believe this house was gone? My grandparents’ home of endless doors and English wool carpet, where we spent Christmas Eves, basking in the beauty of their artificial tree with its spun cotton birds, red velvet bows and gold satin balls. Where my grandmother fixed an all-white Christmas Eve dinner for my grandfather that included oyster stew, oyster crackers, white rolls and vanilla ice cream. Where she cooked her fabulous meals and baked the best rhubarb pies and grew the sweetest tomatoes and tended her lavender lilacs and called everything “lovely.” How could this house be gone?
In my own home, I keep a little of it. The painting of the fruit basket hangs in my entry. The metal Scotty dog with the broken tail is on my bedroom bookcase, and the pewter toothpick holder is on my dining room buffet. The small antique desk is in my living room, though the crayons are gone. And a few pieces of Grandmother’s good jewelry made their way to my keeping, because I visited her when I was fifteen and she pressed them breathlessly into my hands, wanting me to “have something.”
But the house of pegged oak floors and one-piece English wool carpeting is gone, taken by the floods of South Dakota. Everything is lost, eventually. Everything goes on. But oh, how the cradle of memory rocks us.
It’s time for a cover reveal for that book I was going on about; here it is! Well, a draft of it, anyway. This beautiful cover (featuring Ruby, the Dachshund matriarch) was designed by the fantastic Mark Ferrari. The cover has me so excited!
The book will be live soon. Here is the synopsis, so you know what’s in store:
“I have five kids. I don’t have time to be happy.”
Each day, Iris Bourne runs a gauntlet in the California suburbs: dealing out meals with the ease of a professional card shark, scaling mountains of laundry, acting as judge and jury for sibling battles, negotiating bedtime with the skill of a career diplomat.
Iris has time for exactly one hobby—entering contests—and she’s just won a trip for two to Hawaii. She’s ready for a taste of Paradise, but her husband, Hart, keeps spoiling the mood by asking her if she’s happy. Happy? Iris has no time to be happy. When Hart announces that he is not, her life becomes even more complicated.
With nonstop humor and heartbreaking honesty, Iris navigates parenthood, loss, new romance and the burdens of caregiving. Most importantly, she learns the lessons and limits of forgiveness. Readers will laugh, cry, and cheer as Iris rallies friends and family to defend her glorious, messy, beautiful suburban life.
Ordering the Iris Files
I’ll have an ordering link soon. Watch this space for further developments.
It’s hard, asking for things, isn’t it? At least, for me it is.
The word my mom always used to describe me is “self-sufficient.” She was amazed that a baby could have internal resources. She used the example of cleaning the sun room, which served as a toy room, when I was a baby. She’d dump all the toys from my brother and sister in the middle of the room, and then start sorting them away. I’d sit and play with whatever was left. Eventually, she said, I’d be sitting there, contentedly playing with dustbunnies and a clothespin.
Mom loved this story and I find it illustrative, but not in a “poor pathetic me” way. Oh look at me, the baby on the floor of the sun room, playing with dirt. No, that’s not how I see it, but I have a hard time articulating exactly how I do see it.
Asking for things.
I asked my mother for three things. A small bisque doll from the Shackmans catalog when I was five, like a tiny Bye-lo (it was just like this one). I tried to demand this and it didn’t work. I remember the tantrum I threw. Mom was adamant, but the doll showed up on my sixth birthday, and I remember internalizing the lesson. Things are given. One does not demand. One displays the need, the preference, and one is granted, like magic, what one desires.
I put this strategy to work with the next thing Mom said I asked for; a set of Raggedy Ann and Andy books that would come in the mail, like a book club. I brought her the flyer, talked with her about how I would happily share them with my older sister, how much I wanted them. And asked respectfully if we could at least sign up to get the free book. And miraculously, my mother agreed.
You’d think, having learned how to ask, I’d have tried again. But it wasn’t my nature. The bisque baby tantrum was an aberration in my childhood behavior, and not rewarded. But the book club request was also an aberration, and even though it was rewarded, it wasn’t repeated.
The third and final ask.
I didn’t ask for anything else until I was thirteen. I was at this cool boutique in Bozeman, and I found an alpaca cape trimmed with llama hide. It was a true 1973 leftover hippy wonder garment, and my sister and I wanted it. But I was the one who told our mother about it, I was the one who went home and described it and it cost forty dollars, do you have any idea how much money that was in 1973? I knew I would never get it. My dad made 11K a year as a forester, if that gives you any idea. From somewhere, Mom got the money and bought it for me. It seemed miraculous.
On the way home she explained, “It’s that you never ask for anything, Karen.” And she was right. I didn’t. I think those three things were it, as far as asking my mom for anything at all. She offered plenty and she gave plenty, but it wasn’t because I asked.
When asking backfires.
When my friend Jay was still alive, back when we were still friends, he said, “You don’t ask for much. Hardly anything, to be honest.” But I do ask for things, I really do. I actually lost my friendship with Jay because I asked for one week off from hearing about his problems with a friend of mine. I was so tired of hearing about it that I asked them both for a week where we talked about anything else but their breakup. She completely understood. He ended our friendship. Look, I wanted to say to him, look what happens when I ask for something. But of course, I never said that to him, and he passed away, so that was that.
Asking for something carries risk, then. There is the risk of rejection, of disappointment, of denial.
Still, I continue to ask. I ask for space. I ask for quiet. I ask for respect of my intellectual boundaries, the uninterrupted time I need to live in my head so that writing can come out. I ask for less engagement, less conversation. Sometimes I ask for conversations about dogs or TV shows, rather than emotions or disappointments. I ask for time to go away and be alone. I ask for weekends to myself. I ask for rain checks.
I ask for things that make people feel rejected. Because even though I love them, what I’m really asking for is less of them.
Asking within the marriage.
Everyone else wants more time, more contact, more conversation. I am atypical. And when I admit this, I see how much of the estrangement in my marriage was my fault. Because my ex is a man who needs more. More time, attention, affection and affirmation. Even now when he stops by, I set up my little fences, look at him over my glasses, over my laptop. Sorry, I say. Not a good time. Go talk to your girls.
I remember that he expressed this when we were married. He said, “You never make a fuss over me.” And I said, “What do you want, a one-man-band in the living room every night playing the ‘you are special’ song? A little party to celebrate you?” I also said, “What do you ever do to make me feel special? Ever?” He had no answer, because he basically didn’t do that (as a side note, whenever someone calls me nice, I crack up).
I’m not very nice, and I don’t need anyone to make me feel special. I don’t require it. I’m at times embarrassed when people make me feel special. There will be a birthday or the like and everyone will be so nice and giving and sweet and I’ll become completely flustered, unsure of how to graciously accept the attention. I do like it, once in a while. I just don’t need or want it most of the time.
I’m not like the other girls, you see.
I didn’t understand that. I didn’t understand that with my emotional self-sufficiency comes a lack of empathy for the millions of normal people who aren’t emotionally self-sufficient. Not everyone else is a self-repairing emotional robot. Not everyone wants to go live in their head and make up people and stare at a monitor and type until their fingertips go numb and their eyes bleed. I think anyone who doesn’t is missing out on the one true and real joy of life, but there you have it. Not everyone goes through life listening in on it, recording it for later use in the illustration of some basic emotional truth. Not everyone is interesting in observing life rather than living it.
This is why it shocks me when people say I’m a good mom. I’m not. I’m far too self-involved. I love the interior of my head and I adore my own company. I’m also not a very good friend because I forget people and I don’t make time and I pull away when I want to write or when I’m sad, tired, or overwhelmed by stress. That’s maybe ninety percent of the time. And yet I’m told I’m a good friend, too. I already know I’m hopeless as a wife or girlfriend and have periodically withdrawn myself from that market, though I appear to be doing a good job at the present time. But we are on our second go-round. He knows me. He knows how weird I am. He loves me anyway.
That is a wonderful thing, to ask for acceptance and love, and to receive it.
I guess I never really understood how strange I am until I started thinking about this. I think I should have to wear a sign. It would say, “Faulty wiring.” It would warn the world that I’m not quite the norm in the head, but I like it in here, anyway.
And now, I’m off to play with my dustbunnies and clothespins.
Yes, I’m going to make a book announcement about The Iris Files. Yes, it’s actually going to be called The Iris Files: Notes from a Desperate Housewife. Yes, I’ll talk more about that book in a minute. But first, I want to talk about…
I never wanted a yard, but I have one. I wanted a big house on a small lot, but my ex-husband wanted the reverse and he won. But then he left, and here I am on this junior acre, twenty years later. My yard is TERRIBLE. Various broken stragglers lean here and there like emaciated beggars in a third world city, begging to be pruned or moved or just dug up and put out of their misery. I’m not a yardwork person, and so this is just how it’s going to be until I give up and buy a condo.
As I mentioned, I still live in the house I bought with my ex-husband. He was my second husband, and I have this tendency to call him my ex-husband, instead of my second ex-husband. It’s embarrassing to have two of those, and since he is the father of my children, he’s the ex-husband who counts. So he is heretofore referred to as my ex-husband.
Back when we bought this house, it had minimal landscaping. It was basically Kentucky Bluegrass (a terrible choice for Oregon) bordered by long channels of red lava rock. Like a military base. The only flowers were bearded irises. MASSES of bearded irises, rising in a long line up the walkway. Yellow, purple, maroon, with a few of the purple and white, blooming madly and emitting their toothpaste smell as I went to my front door. They were not my kind of flower—I prefer the more delicate wild iris—but the bearded blooms have a certain acromegalic majesty. Our iris display was dramatic enough to draw commentary from passers by.
More Yard Nonsense
Over the six years that my ex and I shared this home, we tried valiantly to find plants and flowers that would thrive in the horrible clay soil of our yard. We added some rhodies, which still wither in the reflective heart of the driveway to this day. We tried roses, which have somehow survived the heinous neglect I have subjected them to. Neighbors gave us gorgeous white calla lily bulbs, which did fine for years. But of course, like irises, lilies must be unearthed and divided now and then. Guess who didn’t do that after her husband moved out? That’s right. The death of the irises is all my fault.
But not all the Irises have died!
Some years after my divorce, I wrote a book about a woman named Iris. It’s about a failing marriage, and I probably thought it was too personal to publish. No, my name is not Iris. I do not have five children, nor do I have four dogs. But in too many ways, it is the most personal book I will ever write. And it is going live soon.
The Iris Files: Notes from a Desperate Housewife
The Iris Files is coming out for these reasons:
- Because my progress with the new Orcas book is slow and steady, even after my co-author’s magnificent SFWA reading of the first chapter had them roaring with laughter the other night.
- Because it is Sue’s favorite.
- Because I am impatient with a much larger project, basically my life’s writing project, that will hopefully arrive this fall. I needed an interim project to give my mind something to work
onover like a bone.
- Because I can.
I will soon have a cover and a link for preorder and all the things one must have in order to make a book real. Until then, read something else and pray for my yard. Thanks.
A first person account of a day spent thrift shopping–written probably ten years ago. I’m putting it up because, aside from being alone as much as i want these days, it’s still that same feeling to go to a thrift store.
I’ve spent today doing what I like to, instead of what I have to. This is because I am alone. Me, alone. I am never alone. Imagine me, alone. Just imagine you’re me, and you wake up and you know you’re going to be alone.
Union Gospel Mission
I start the day by dropping off Oldest at a long rehearsal, and then get myself some coffee and go to the Union Gospel Thrift Store. It’s always been a waste of time to go to Union Gospel. They have the worst crap ever. I go for sociological reasons, I tell myself, I go to see the abandoned detritus of every pointless garage sale in my neighborhood, arranged and priced as if anyone anywhere would ever buy it, and the secret hope that any thrifter has, which is that she will find treasure.
First, there’s the building. I believe at one point this was a waterbed store. Do any of you remember waterbed stores? Well, I do, I remember the waterbed as you will all remember the futon when everyone abandons those. At least waterbeds were comfortable. The building is concrete-floored and hangar-sized, with high, bright florescent lights that buzz unmercifully and a back loft reached by two staircases made out of what looks like heavily bolted waterbed wood. This is one sturdy building, which makes sense when you think that at one point they probably had a hundred full waterbeds on display.
I love to think of those days, the heyday of the waterbed, all burnt-edged and mirror-hutched. I spent them drinking too much and finishing high school, completely unaware of what my life was going to be. I lived in the moment. But those days are over, along with feathered hair and perms and aviator-shaped wire rim glasses and A Smile and Gelato pants and disco dancing. We are back to the present, we are not in a waterbed emporium, we are at the Union Gospel Thrift Store, facing life after the End of Waterbeds. And I am the only customer in this enormous building.
Contemporary Christian music blares out over the junk, and the walls are hung with Praise banners. There is also a big sign telling me that there is a sale going on, in which everything over the price of five dollars is half price. Wow. I look around, and realize it won’t make a lick of difference. No one is going to buy anything. Union Gospel is one of the few thrift stores that will take old sofas, and so they always have lots of those, sagging, flattened, faded, filthy sofas with price signs that say “10.00 Flat!” on them. What is “flat”? Even the books are bad, because they won’t sell anything supernatural or racy, due to the overwhelming religious sensibilities of the Union Gospel Mission. For this same reason they will not sell anything Halloween-related.
I carefully, slowly, langorously inspect the offerings, which are too pathetic to describe in any detail. It is a graveyard of ugly clothing, spotted mattresses, rejected dinettes, early American wood veneer hutches, and wall art that is too dated to grace the bathroom wall of a Grocery Outlet. But I look at it, because, you know, there might be treasure. I inspect the television cabinets, hoping one will be right for my personal papers, but of course they are all wretched. I even look at the luggage, looking for an old piece of Samsonite, you know the kind, with the satin pouches and grogain ties inside. But no luck. No treasure.
Under one set of stairs, I see a painted booth erected for trying on clothes. It has a latch and a mirror and a sign about not bringing merchandise other than clothing in, while trying on. Since the stairs are just treads, not risers, it has a ceiling on it. I cannot imagine trying on clothing in it, even on the off chance that I found something worth trying on in the racks. It looks like an outhouse. But I never look at clothes at thrift stores, so it’s only an object of passing interest.
I walk up one of the wide, sturdy waterbed furniture staircases, and I look at the books, which are as bad as usual, though I note with interest that they have separated the “Man authors” from the “Woman authors” and alphabetized accordingly. Is this a new thing, the sexual segregation of reading material? Whose idea was this, I want to ask? But the ragged man slamming videos into the table that is already stuffed with videos (Uncle Buck, Curly Sue) doesn’t invite conversation about the sorting methods utilized there at the Union Gospel Mission Thrift Store.
I can’t even find the housewares, which I am only trying to find because I’m hoping there will be a super-heavy vintage Revere soup pot, the big size. Oldest ruined mine a couple of years ago and I still haven’t gotten over it. I finally find what appears to be the kitchenwares corner, but it’s predominantly filled with airpots for hot beverages. I count 14 of them there in the corner. 14 airpots, and not one vintage Revere soup pot.
I go back down the other massive wooden stairs, and make my way to the front of the store, where the woman who works the cashier desk is making the popcorn while singing along to the song on the PA system, which I have never heard before. This music is as meaningless to me as the buzzing of the lighting. “Bye,” I say to her, and “Have a good day,” she replies. Which she seems to mean, so it makes me smile.
I make my way down the highway to Value Village, because I have no treasure. None. And perhaps I’ll find some there.
Value Village used to be a Safeway, and it is large, clean, well-lit, with nice booths for trying on clothing and a clean bathroom. They used to sell popcorn, but they don’t anymore, which is fine. Popcorn breaks my teeth. I have a definite circuit in Value Village, which is: dishes, housewares, furniture, books. They never have any books. Value Village (or “Savers,” if you live in another state) buys their stuff by the ton from Goodwill, and I think Goodwill is not letting them buy books anymore, so I never find anything there. But I find two glasses that match my glasses, which is great because my glasses are always disappearing, so I snag those, and then I find a pretty throw pillow for my pretty bed (my bed is really pretty, if I haven’t already mentioned this ten times, it’s very pretty), so I snag that.
And then while perusing lamps, I see a vintage typewriter and it’s really cool, and it makes me think about a lovely chat friend turned blog friend who adores typewriters, but the truth is it weighs a ton and I have nowhere to put it and if I move this fall, I’ll have to move this. But it’s a good price, and a cool thing, so I make myself a deal. I will advance it until I have to use the return lever, and if it dings, I’ll buy it. The dinger does not ding. So I leave it there for someone like my friend to find, someone who really loves it and wants it and will know how to fix the dinger, as opposed to someone like me who recognizes that it’s wonderful but does not really want to own it.
And then I cruise past the luggage, always hoping because well, you never know, and yes, there it is. The treasure. It’s a large mottled ivory piece of real Samsonite. I set down my glasses and my throw pillow and I swing the suitcase up on a pile of mattresses to pop the shiny brass latches, you know the kind, they are pointed at each end and you pull the lower point towards you and they pop out and up, and they both work. There is a Samsonite shield near the lock, and the initials of the original owner, AFC, as well. The interior is intact, all the taffeta lining, the ruched divider, the side pockets with their ruffles and elastic, the plastic bar to hold things down. It’s perfect and lovely and it’s marked at 6.99.
SIX NINETY NINE!!!!
Salvation Army Boutique
A find like this can keep a woman thrifting for hours. A find like this is what drew me out to the thrift stores, to be honest, because I’d stopped by the Salvation Army “Boutique” after work last night, hoping to find a vintage jewelry box for my sister. I didn’t, but I found an old frame for an old photo I already have of a towheaded child with a Prince Valiant haircut dressed in white lawn and kid maryjanes (the first name is written across the bottom of the photo–“Cleo” something–I still can’t tell if Cleo is a boy or a girl, but I love the photo), and then I found another framed sepia photo of a small graduating class in 1920-something, three rows of somber boys and girls holding rolled (I think grade school) diplomas, and then I found three old wind-up alarm clocks, three, all ivory painted metal and faded brown dials with a million keys and levers on the backs, for 3.99 each, and I bought all three and brought them home and it’s the lingering memory of last night’s finds that has brought me out today, and it could keep me thrifting all day, it’s what keeps the slots-player plugging in the coins after the jackpot has been hit, the card player meeting the ante after a spectacular hand, it’s the desire for another hit, and I could circle thrift stores all day hoping for another find like this suitcase or that Big Ben and its two lovely wind-up companions, and never find one more thing worth buying.
But I am saved from this fruitlessness by a call from Youngest. She’s awake and where am I and would I please bring her a biscuit? Of course. And so I leave the treasure hunting for the day, and return home to give her a hug and a biscuit, and listen to her make fun of her hair and hear about a very lame party she went to the night before, and then I watch her leave, leaving me alone in my home, alone, alone. I am blissfully alone to listen to music, sort out my jewelry box, work some more on my new short story, listen to CDs at any volume I like, eat Brussells sprouts for lunch, mend the broken legs on a horse netsuke, and prepare two big quiche for Sunday dinner tomorrow.
Oh, it’s a nice day. When it rains I feel cozy, and then the sun breaks through, I feel euphoric. I have listened to Brandi Carlile, and William Topley, and Mindy Smith’s newest, and now with the Ryan Adams. And you should see the suitcase.
It’s treasure, I tell you, treasure.
How are you sleeping? my friends and I ask each other with honest concern. We don’t just mean how well are you sleeping, we want to know the exact mechanism by which sleep is attained. Because we are all crazy for sleep right now.
I’ve shocked myself by sleeping steadily for the last three nights. I have a sick little dog, and she’s been waking me up for over a month with various needs and tiny but terrible episodes (she is a tiny but terrible dog, that one). But for the last three nights, she’s slept soundly. So have I.
I have waltzed into work each morning and bragged about it like a total sleep whore. Some people brag about promotions, grandchildren, vacations, sex. I brag about sleep. “I got such amazing sleep last night.” Of course, my friends are actually envious. Sleep is so elusive and alluring.
just one of the gang
Most of us have severely disrupted sleep. Much of the time it’s cats. Snoring is another culprit, our own or that of our bed partners. Then there are the hot flashes. And once we’re awake, going back to sleep is impossible. Our lives are full of midlife worries and woes that keep us up when the dreaded awakening comes at 3 or 4 AM.
One of my friends does a mental shopping trip when she can’t sleep. She imagines going through the aisles of a store, and finding things by alphabet. Like, Apples, Benadryl, Coloring book, and so on. I have tried this but I invariably start to worry about how much it’s all going to cost, just like in real life.
I have a breathing trick I do. You can read about it here: How to Fall Asleep Right Away I forget about this trick sometimes, and then remember it and think, “I might as well give it a try.” The entire time I am breathing and counting, I’m thinking how stupid this trick is, and how it will never work, and why do I even try these dumb internet things anyway, and right about then I fall deeply asleep and there you go.
insomnia and ambien
I went through a time in my life when insomnia had me in its grip. This was ten years ago, and I made the decision to start taking Ambien. Ambien is a miracle, at first. You take it and stay asleep for eight hours. For a single mother in her forties gripped with the stress of work, finances and children, that’s unheard of.
EIGHT HOURS OF SLEEP.
The problem is, of course, you can’t vary your schedule. You have to plan movie times and leave concerts early to make sure that you won’t be driving less than eight hours from when you take the miracle drug. You start arranging everything in your life so that you’re in bed with the pill on your tongue by 9:30 PM. And you get suspiciously grumpy when anything stands in your way.
There’s also the fact that you become completely addicted to this little pill. To fend this off, doctors are only allowed to prescribe you 11 pills for each 14 day period. I actually remember standing in the pharmacy tech and whining, “What am I supposed to do on the other three nights? Just not sleep?” in this horrible, crabby, mean way. It took about a month to become a complete Ambien addict, shambling around the drugstore in my yoga pants and UGGs, scowling, waiting for my scrip.
After four or five months of this mess, I decided it was time to go off. Maybe six months. So I took 2/3 of a pill each night for a while, and then I took ½ a pill, and by gosh I made it down to ¼ of a pill and was sleeping fine. I told my doctor I took ¼ a pill and she huffed, “That’s placebo effect. Go without it, you’ll be able to sleep.” And she was right.
outliving one’s usefulness
My sleeping was fine again until 2014, when I became some kind of wild-eyed hot-flashing menopausal cliché of a person. For over a year, I had ten hot flashes a night, bad ones that woke me up. I didn’t think I needed sleep so much as I needed euthanizing. Really. I would lie there and think, “Why do I need to go on? I’m clearly useless and just a drain on the world’s resources. I’ve done my part, I’m in the gene pool. Can’t someone push me over a railing and put me out of my misery?” But no one ever did.
This is a good thing, as all that passed, and I have slept decently since. Unless some little dog needs something. Or I have heartburn. Or the man snores too much. Or the moon is too bright. Or I’m in an unfamiliar bed. Or I forgot to apply my Carmex. Or…you get the picture.
As I said, none of my friends sleep well. I have friends who take Ambien, and friends who take ZQuil, and friends who take Melatonin. I have friends who swear by smoking pot, and others who swear by exercise (what is wrong with those people? the exercisers, I mean). Others drink red wine to go to sleep, which is just courting some kind of hot flash heartburn nightmare, in my book.
How about you? Are you sleeping? How are you sleeping? Tell me, friend. I care.
Poem up! A coming-of-age poem set on the Squaw Creek Ranger station outside Gallatin Gateway, Montana.
Hope you like it. Spire Rock
Oh you lucky dogs, two blog posts in one week.
We made a quick trip to Las Vegas last week. We flew out on Thursday afternoon and flew home Saturday morning, like some bizarre weirdos because who leaves Vegas on Saturday besides bizarre weirdos? Well, we did, and I was so happy to do so (see my previous post on introversion). Las Vegas is not an environment in which the introvert generally flourishes. The dinging, blinging half-life of the casino gets old fast, and creates in me an intense longing for a window that looks out on greenery.
Still, the trip was awesome. It was awesome because I was traveling with my own personal Vegas expert, who planned and executed the entire trip to rectify an omission in my life. A serious omission. A nearly inexplicable omission.
The story of that omission begins on a Montana ranger station in 1973.
That’s me, folks.
Me in all my 13 year-old glory, me with my self-cut bangs and my big-legged jeans covered with patches and embroidery, and of course, me in my tank top, because that was my favorite outfit. Jeans of enormity and texture, and as little top as possible. There were also some giant sweaters, one with a frayed heart appliqued on it, and moccasins that were somewhat too large, and a chambray shirt worn to shreds.
I actually didn’t look like that when I arrived in Montana in seventh grade. Before that, we’d been living in a tiny town in Booneville, Arkansas. I was a fairly normal seventh grader in Arkansas, wearing normal clothing, getting straight A’s, part of a family of good singers who were welcomed and utilized in choir, and called to perform at patriotic rallies and the like. Teachers seemed to enjoy me, despite my need to argue at length about why McGovern should win with my Social Studies teacher. I was liked by most of my classmates because I was funny, and pursued by older boys because I was physically mature. I was happy in Arkansas, and I liked who I was when I arrived in Montana. But a few months there turned me into someone else entirely.
How did we get there?
My dad was a forester, and his assignment took us from Arkansas to Montana. We lived in a little log house up the Gallatin River from a tiny town called Gallatin Gateway, on the Squaw Creek Ranger Station. The name has since been changed to something else (let’s all be glad together), and our little log house is gone. But Gallatin Gateway is still there.
Back then, the people who lived there called it Gateway. To me, it seemed that the adult residents were all some configuration of Christians, alcoholics and ropers (what they called themselves instead of cowboys). Whatever their children’s dreams might have been, the rigid suffocation of conservatism and poverty meant that their children were in training to be the same.
Just looking at the photo above, you can see that I fit in splendidly, yes?
But my appearance was a result, not a cause. I have never in my life been as scorned, mocked and hated as I was in Gateway, and it drove me to extremes of rebellion. I can talk about that in another post (though I probably won’t), but for now, just look at that girl and marvel that she was able to survive anywhere, let alone in a tiny K through 8 grade school of eighty kids in the mountains of Montana. How did I do it? A sweet, wise, deeply intelligent friend named Merry, and…
I had my own music, of course, leftover from teen idol worship of one longhaired guy or another. But my sister and I were outgrowing The Partridge Family and Jack Wild. We were ready to move on. We tried out where to go next with 45s galore and the occasional LP. When it came to albums, we had Cat Stevens, mostly. I was bewitched by his bearded male beauty. Whatever it is in me that loves a suffering man, it was incubated in his tortured, emotional voice.
But soon, I had a better source. My older brother was in art school in Minneapolis, and he brought home record after record. And such records they were. David Bromberg, John Prine, Jackson Brown. Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything, Runt, A Wizard A True Star. He would bring them home to share with me, and then he’d just leave them. Maybe he knew he’d be back home after a year. Or, just maybe, he’d watch me put a vinyl LP on the turntable of my dad’s expensive stereo, wrap those giant headphones around my ears, and escape my painful, difficult adolescent nightmare. My brother was not about to take away my magical door.
That was the year he brought home this record.
This began a love of Bonnie Raitt that has stretched through my entire life. I have almost every record she’s ever released. The first five records + Fundamental are so deeply ingrained in my brain stem that I can sing every syllable. My brother and I had a trifecta: Woman Be Wise, Give it Up, and Love Me Like a Man, him playing guitar and me singing, performed more times than I could possibly count.
I have sung her songs at karaoke and coffee shops and in acting class when we had to do some silly exercise about not breaking character. I have sung them in the shower and on my way to work and on my way home. My daughters will confirm that even though they had their own tastes and preferences, Bonnie sang the soundtrack of their childhood because I picked the music on car trips.
I bet you’re wondering about the point, here.
The point is, I mentioned to my conversational partner that I’d never actually seen Bonnie in concert. There was no reasonable explanation for it. Everyone else had seen her. People who didn’t love her nearly as well as I loved her had seen her. Sometimes, I would actually fib and say that I had seen her, because it was embarrassing that I’d never managed to see her live after all these years.
Since this was a conversation, he replied, “She’s playing at the Palms in Vegas in February. Let me do a little checking.”
This is how, last Friday night, I found myself in a nice-sized concert arena inside the Palms Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. This is how, after forty-three years of listening to and loving Bonnie Raitt, I finally saw her take the stage for the first time. And oh, how she takes a stage.
She’s 67 years old, tiny, trim, with that silvery streak in her big red mane. Her voice is as strong as ever, her guitar work as magnificent. She did new stuff, old stuff, good stuff, fantastic stuff. She reached way back, sending me sky-high with delight with one of my old standbys, “Woman Be Wise.” She also sang the saddest song ever recorded. It’s the song my then-husband heard on his way to work that made him pull over and cry for twenty minutes because when he heard it, he understood that it wasn’t my fault that he didn’t love me anymore. It’s a song that’s almost too painful to endure when you’ve had your heart broken, but you endure it because it hurts you so beautifully.
We have all had to forgive Bonnie for that song, and we should all thank her for it, too.
And I got to see the show thanks to, and alongside, my personal Vegas expert, my conversational partner, my guy. There is no one on earth who would have made it happen so well or so fast. And there is no one in the world I’d rather have shared this experience with. Here’s a little something about my guy. He has what my friend Grant calls “tells.” Little moves and sounds that give him away completely. When Bonnie started to sing this one, my sweet man was all tells.
So sweetie, here you go. You picked it.
And for those who thought my dream-come-true might be a Vegas wedding, nope. It was Bonnie.
Introverts are rarely bored when they are alone, and often bored when in the company of other people. What interests an introvert are the contents of her own head; ideas, memories, mildly obsessional interests and crooked musings. This is why introverts all have blogs.
Introverts invented blogging. Extroverts ruined it.
The introvert has grown up hearing that she is ”aloof,” ”uncaring,” ”self-absorbed.” She is none of these and all of these. She probably bridles at being called self-absorbed, because she doesn’t think of herself as all that interesting. She doesn’t think anyone else is all that interesting, either.
Introverts greet the friendship advances of emotional extroverts, who initially bring a lot of caring and fun to the table, with confusion and some relief. These friendships can feel to the introvert like inclusion in a private, wonderful club.
The lack of emotional displays on the part of the introvert are too often interpreted by the emotional extrovert as an “all-clear” to stage some histrionics. The first time this happens, the introvert will probably fuss around and try to help. This is, after all, human nature, and polite. This gives the impression that the introvert is a good listener. The introvert actually is a good listener. She is listening to everything you say. She is also, unfortunately, listening to everything you don’t say.
Introverts are not nearly as patient as they have to be.
Eventually, if you talk about the same problem too often, the introvert will start a slight emotional withdrawal, marked by practical statements concerning your situation. The extrovert wants supportive statements. She is always confused by the emotional pragmatism of the introvert. The introvert is always confused by the conversion of friendship from spending time together based on mutual interests and enjoyment into a completely different kind of arrangement based on the introvert’s always “being there” for the extrovert.
There is possibly no one on the planet less interested in your pain than a bored introvert.
When an emotional extrovert feels inadequately heard, she might be spurred on to greater levels of agony in order to elicit a proper emotional response. This is a tactical error. While the tantrum takes place, the introvert quietly moves herself out of range. The extrovert’s pain become something happening elsewhere, an overemotional puppet show on a faraway stage.
Introverts are very good at being quiet.
What does it mean when an introvert is quiet? It depends on the introvert. Most of the time, when an introvert is quiet, it means she’s thinking. If she were interested in sharing what she was thinking, she’d probably have told you.
Occasionally, a quiet introvert is wondering what your deal is. This doesn’t mean she’s angry. If an introvert is mad at you, you’ll know. In fact, it might be scary, it will be so clear. Do not interpret silence or preoccupation as anger, unless it is also accompanied by a visible exercise of self-control. An introvert in this state is a ticking bomb and best avoided at all costs. Whatever you do, don’t try to ”talk about it.” Do not expect her to ”share,” do NOT ask what you’ve done wrong. Why? Because she will tell you.
Sometimes, when an introvert is being quiet, she’s simply thinking about how much she wishes you would be quiet. At other times, a quiet introvert is quietly studying all the exits. She is studying them in a metaphorical and a literal sense. She is also considering a tunnel. Whatever it takes.
If you are an extrovert and you notice a certain silence or wandering setting in with an introverted friend, you might think the answer is to amp up your emotional needs. I can tell you this with 100 percent conviction: whatever the answer is, it does not involve amping up your emotional needs.
Introverts enjoy quiet spaces. Extroverts fill those spaces.
Sometimes, while an emotional extrovert is rehashing an emotional event in which she perceives herself as the victim, the introvert will say something that seems uncaring. Do not ask for clarification. The explanation is bound to be even more harsh than the original comment.
Withdrawal signals what those in the introversion trade call a “sea change.” That means the introvert’s desire to be polite has been overridden by the introvert’s desire to not hear any more about the situation under scrutiny. Since the extrovert has never doubted that her emotional distress is top number one priority for the introvert, this withdrawal can occasion feelings of betrayal. Please do not take this withdrawal personally. It is simply that the introvert can no longer stand you and doesn’t know how to politely say so.
The introvert likes hugs when she’s happy, not when she’s sad.
Because the introvert is so emotionally self-contained, she is often mistaken for a person who has no emotional needs of her own. This is a misconception. The introvert has many emotional needs of her own, most of which involve you not bothering her with your emotional needs.
When an extrovert needs emotional tending, she will burst into hysterical tears and hyperventilate. When an introvert needs emotional attention, she will ask if you have any antacid. Other signs an introvert is in deep emotional distress include arriving with a bottle of wine and stressing over a misplaced back issue of the New Yorker that had a feature she wanted you to read.
Introverts almost always respond to life’s biggest blows with silent, stoic endurance. And they really, really wonder why extroverts don’t react the same way.
Once in a while, a friendship between an introvert and an extrovert survives their mutual disillusionment. It helps to live in different states. If you are an emotional extrovert who somehow has managed to remain friends with an introvert and she’s been through hell and she finally does want to talk, she does not want what she says about her life to make you cry. She also does not want you to hug her. She wishes you would knock that off and just listen. This is not about you.
Introverts can get lonely, believe it or not. This happens partly because introverts are often quietly slipping out of friendships with needy people as soon as possible, and partly because introverts are sometimes so self-contained that they forget to make friends in the first place.
Introverts have a built-in breed recognition. They are like wolves. Their packs are invisible.
Watching two introverts make friends is kind of sweet. It is a very quiet, gradual process, marked by awkwardness and the equivalent of parallel play in toddlers. When these friendship bonds finally cement, they are generally unbreakable.
A confirmed friendship between two introverts has the constancy of pi. Neither asks for much, but both would give anything. These friendships endure geographical separation and long periods of no contact. They generally take up right where they left off.
If an introvert asks you to return a book, you are dead to her.
And I am too sick at heart and full of grief to do it.
But I’m still here, plugging away at the work of my life while my country’s constitution goes up in flames. Writing, submitting poems, figuring out cover art for my next project, playing with the dogs, making dinner plans, getting snowed in and dug out.
Part of me wants to be like Achilles, to cut my hair and pour dirt on my head and drag a dead body around the city to demonstrate my grief. As much as I would like to, I can’t do it. It won’t help.
I will blog again soon. When I can bear to. Until then, hold your shield high, America.