Posts By karengb

From the Trunk: On Grotesquerie

I’m busy as hell with preparations for the second Orcas book, getting ready for a literary festival in April, and working on another huge project that’s devouring hours of my time. But here’s a piece based on something “from the trunk”. It’s about grotesquerie; the worst part of any book.

Grotesquerie in rough draft

I’ve been handed some grotesque things to read in my life. A writer gave me a story about a couple who mutilated each other as part of their sex lives. He had the good sense to say, ”You might not want anything to do with me after you read this.” After forty pages of necrophilia, torture, self-mutilation, incest, matricide and so forth, I understood why he was worried. I believe he’d scared himself. That one was eventually published.

Years ago, someone I met in a writer’s group sent out 76 copies of his manuscript to various members, hoping for response. And I after I started reading it, I knew I’d never give him a response he’d enjoy hearing. The writing was endless ”telling” from a great height, the narrator looking down and pontificating madly on the chaos of the story. There wasn’t a shred of likeability or humanity in most of the characters, and the rare few who displayed any humanity were punished in one sadistic twist after another.  After a point I set aside the red pencil, realizing that since no publisher in the world would ever want to publish this, there was no need to offer editorial advice.

The author wrote me, saying he was disappointed that only three or four people seemed to have finished it. I didn’t tell him that a mutual friend had told me she’d ”set it aside and gone to throw up and take a shower.” I decided stunned silence was a merciful thing. If people had told him what they really thought, he might have gone on a homicidal rampage and acted out some of the more vicious tableaux in this book.

Grotesquerie in print

There are plenty of published books that contain cannibalism, which is where I draw the line. I can’t read about it. A few books that contain it have made it past my censors–John Dollar by Wiggins, Shallows by Tim Winton, and Ahab’s Wife by…somebody, which was an incredible disappointment because the first third of the book, before they stepped on that whaling ship, was so damn good. Actually, these were all good books that I wish I’d never read. I’m sure these writers are making a big fat metaphorical point, I just can’t stomach their metaphor, so the point is always lost on me. I wish all books that contain cannibalism had a big red warning ”C” on the cover.

Maybe even worse

The same thing with animal abuse. A friend loaned me two books that contained animal abuse. Like, just handed them to me casually with a “You’ll like these,” no warning, nothing. Thanks, Friend! The books were The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, and Wide Open by Nicola Barker. The first title is disturbing and extremely well-written. I had a glimpse of the hidden shocker, but only a glimpse. I’m good at figuring out the mysteries in the Gothic, but this time, the ending did surprise me. It all fit together beautifully. Wide Open was next. I liked it and wished I’d had the opportunity to discuss it, because beneath the plot shocks, sick humor and odd characters, there is a metaphysical twist that I haven’t quite figured out.

Because of the grotesque subject matter, I would never just hand these books off to a friend without a warning. Can you easily recommend a book that’s strength is its ability to illuminate the mindset of a character committing unthinkable, unforgivable acts, and to stir you to a horrified sympathy with that character? You have to loan these books carefully, but I have given Under the Skin, by Michel Faber, to more than one friend, and it’s one of the most disturbing novels I have ever read. I think it’s completely worth it.

Which brings us to me

This all brings me to my own experience with writing something unforgivably grotesque. Apparently, when describing some of the itchy ailments suffered by Asa Strug in Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer ParkI use the phrase “butt rust.” And my friend Alex was horrified by this. She said, “I can’t believe you made me read the words butt rust, Karen!” She was upset and disgusted. I didn’t even remember putting that in the book, to be honest. So I had to go find it.

IT WAS THURSDAY morning, and the most contented man in the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park was no longer content. He itched from head to toe. His hands rummaged through his locks as if they were sorting snakes, as if his torment could be shaken free like the louse that fell by the cracked nail of his largest toe.

“Lord, send relief.”

His hands moved to scratch at his bitten, scabby neck. He tore at the skin, tears in his eyes, his teeth grinding with frustration.

“I am bedeviled.”

He stood and reached for his back, his privates, his stomach. It was more than bugs. Years of not bathing had left him with crotch rot, butt rust, and between-the-toe fungus that made his toes appear webbed. His body was nothing more than a collection of maddening itches. He dug and writhed and came dangerously close to taking the name of the Lord in vain.

“Lord! I need vinegar!”

Yes, I really wrote that

Look, that is really gross. I wrote it, and I own it. I had no choice but to submit to Alex’s disgust, because upon rereading, that passage is sick. Sick, but necessary, as Asa is trapped in a body as tormented as his mind.

So after Alex chastised me for a bit more, she asked me to read a book she loved. It was Cruddy, by Lynda Barry. I love Lynda Barry, I’ve met her and I’m a fan of her person and her work; but have you read this book? It’s good and tragic and funny, and it contains so much gross stuff, scabs and flakes and itches that are exponentially worse than the phrase “butt rust.” Cruddy even needs to have that big reg “C” on the cover, for cannibalism.

Alex had no trouble with anything in Cruddy. But she couldn’t handle “butt rust.”

My pledge

Consider this a pledge: You will never read a book that contains cannibalism written by me. But I just might break out “butt rust” again. So be prepared.


ORCAS INTRUDER is ready to preorder!

The sequel to Orcas Intrigue is here, with ORCAS INTRUDER.


CAMILLE TATE always tells herself to calm down, but her instincts always warn her to disappear.

After the fright of her first weeks on Orcas Island, Cam wants a quiet Thanksgiving with her family and a few friends. She’s hoping that time with her foster parents will help her recover from the horror of witnessing a shooting and being kidnapped.

But her employers, the Brixtons, are arriving, along with a few unexpected visitors from Cam’s past. Her peaceful holiday is nowhere to be found. When her neighbor’s home is burglarized and ransacked, Cam’s world is threatened, too. As mysterious intruders haunt her island life, Cam realizes that the intrigue is far from over.

Here’s the link for preorder:


This is another fun one, taking place over the long holiday weekend. Go get it!

The special creepy valentines hotdogs post!

SO MANY valentines reference hotdogs that I hardly know where to start. I have left off the examples that have people carrying around hotdogs, leaving those in the strange meat valentine category. These are hotdogs without people. Just hotdog after hotdog. Self-slicing hotdogs. Amorous hotdogs. Married hotdogs. And there are the lonely hotdogs, and the pairs of hotdogs, and the hotdogs seeking buns. Hmm. There seem to be so many plays on the word “relish,” which has fallen out of favor these days except as a condiment, and on the word “frank,” which is likewise not used much anymore.

Why are there so many of these? I have no idea.

creepy valentines…guns.

Today, I bring you everyone’s symbol of love and romance…GUNS.

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At least this little skunk is killing himself for love, and not the object of his skunkish affections. But this next one is worse. It appears to have instructions for how to do away with yourself (and a happy ending, thank goodness).

I really have to wonder about the level of frustration in the lives of designers of vintage valentines. I’m getting a little weirded out.

creepy valentines with strange meat themes

I don’t know how these tie in with the idea of romance, either. Cannibalism and butchery shouldn’t be part of the romance plan, should it? Were all the designers of vintage valentines secretly serial killers?

My intention is to do a future post devoted to hotdog valentines, which figure prominently in the vintage valentine lexicon of love. But I’ve included the ones with people and hotdogs here, because, well, meat. However, we have steaks, baloney, wurst and hotdogs, and…veal. But let’s start with a lovingly rendered slice of marbled beef, because I know that says romance to so many.

 Kinda grooving on the baloney slicer, I won’t lie. I’m sure the true bonds of love are formed with sausage links when, for instance, you cook breakfast for someone. Okay, maybe not. However I do love this one. Especially that little dog. The rubber gloves, the cleaver, the deranged grin, the oddly clean apron–Boy, I bet that guy gets a lot of dates.


A VEAL THEMED VALENTINE?? That one just makes me sad.


creepy valentines—cannibals

Some romantic vintage Valentines with overt references to acts of cannibalism. YOU’RE WELCOME.

  I’m aware that the next Valentine is racially offensive. Believe me, I found three more that were so much worse.

Seriously, what was the point of these? Why were they entertaining? CAN SOMEONE EXPLAIN PLEASE!

Hoping your Valentine’s Day includes no cauldrons.



From the Trunk: What Not to Wear

I think I look all right, but people seem to think I’m on an eternal episode of What Not to Wear. I attract fashion advice, and I don’t really know why. Do I look that strange?

My fashion advisor

Sometimes, it’s entertaining. One friend who has given me a lot of fashion pointers over the years is a five-foot-tall New Yorker. The first piece of fashion advice she ever gave me was to wear boot cut jeans. This was in the nineties, and as a woman of 5’11”, I was at the mercy of tall jean manufacturers when it came to the arrival of the boot cuts. I promised her I’d give them a try just as soon as I could. Tall boot cuts arrived on the market, I put them on, my friend was right, and she earned lifetime rights to telling me how to dress. She’s a coach, so she tells a lot of people how they should be doing things. It’s almost cost her friends before (I am thinking of the Great Male Eyebrow Waxing Debacle), but it will never cost her my friendship because I understand that this is just how she is.

Over the years, she’s sent me links to some strange clothing choices for a woman who lives in the home city of Columbia Sportswear and Keens. “These would look great on you,” she said of sequin-and-embroidery embellished jeans with velvet tuxedo stripes down the legs. “I wear these, they are so fun,” she said of crotcheted beaded hip scarves. The height thing has never made sense to her. She has sent me links to tie-dyed maxis that would be midis on me, and shorter dresses that would be tunics. She can’t quite figure out the difference between the wardrobe of a Lilliputian New Yorker and Brobdinagian Portlander.

Things finally came to a head when we met in Vegas years ago. I will never fit in, in Vegas. I’ll always be that lady with the brown glasses and the clogs in Vegas, that lady from who looks like she’s from Oregon. I’m never going to have Vegas clothes. On that trip, she didn’t bug me about my heathered green v-neck tee or my Danskos, but she did keep pestering me to try on a Spanx bra that she loved. “You can sleep in it!” she told me. I don’t sleep in a bra. “But you could!” But I won’t.

She kept on, I kept demurring. The straps don’t adjust, I kept telling her. But she is 4’11” and I am 5’11” and she’d never had to consider the role of adjustable bra straps in the life of a woman my height. Finally, to make her stop, I did the wrong thing. I agreed to try it on. I went into the bathroom. “You have to put it on from the bottom up!” she called through the door, “Over your hips!” Nothing that fits around the top of me is going to slide up over the bottom of me, that’s just not how I’m built. So I put it on over my head and pulled it down. It fit nicely around my chest–right at armpit level.

Time for a turnaround

The trying on of this bra marked a turning point in my life. I stood there with that bra in my armpits and realized that a big part of the problem was my own. I was a partner in this because I was always trying to find a polite way to turn away fashion suggestions, like pleading cost or lifestyle or length issues. I was tired of making my point that way. I should have just said that I like a bra with hooks and underwires and cups and stretchy adjustable straps, and so she should just leave me alone about any bra I could (shudder) sleep in.

I decided to stop ignoring and skirting fashion advice. I decided to start openly rejecting it.

My hair advisor

This attitude  helped me with another friend who really, really hated my hair. It’s long and I don’t color it. This friend, who works with me, found my hair horrifying. She started pestering me about it in my forties. She was devoted to getting me a smart, short, stylish haircut that I could keep properly dyed and, well, under control. She would say, quite firmly, “Don’t you want a cute short haircut? You’d look so much better with short hair, Karen.”

I am a tall, sturdy woman with strong facial features. I would look like kd lang if I had short hair. And though I admire kd and enjoy her music, I do not think her style conveys what I want to say about myself. I would express this. My friend wouldn’t let it die. She thought she was doing me a favor. I guess she thought that I didn’t know my hair was long, and I didn’t know it was going grey, so she had to keep telling me. Otherwise, you see, I wouldn’t be aware of what’s on my head. You know, like the people who tell you that you’re fat because the combined input of the scale, the mirror and the waistband of your jeans isn’t enough, you need helpful friends to let you know you’re getting to be quite a porker.


Discussions with this friend culminated in a heated coffee break discussion in which she said, “So, you have long grey hair that makes you look like a witch. Do you want to look like a witch?” I remember saying, quite emphatically, “Yes, yes I do. I want to look like a witch. That’s exactly what I’m going for, so please leave me alone about my hair.”

We haven’t discussed it since.

For the record, my New York friend wanted me to leave my hair long, but dye it dark brown while leaving two silver stripes at the front “like that chick on What Not to Wear.” This would have been a little too Elvira for me, and I told her that. Several times.

Everybody has opinions. No one seems to have considered that I look the way I look because I like it. I’m my own personal expert at handling the particular challenges of my chthonic proportions. I’m dressing pretty well within the bounds of good taste and poverty. I make missteps once in a while, but every single thing about my appearance is thought out and done on purpose. No one needs to tell me what to wear, or what not to wear.

The culprit

I blame a lot of this on the show What Not to Wear. While it was on, everyone in America now considered him or herself an expert on what other people should wear because of that show, which I used to watch. It was initially hilarious to see the women on that show with their fashion missteps. We cringed at the breast-baring Ren Faire dresses, the quilted jackets made of hemp and misguided artistic intentions, the tiny club dresses that revealed personal grooming habits.

Yes, there were the overwhelmed moms who hated their post-pregnancy bodies so much that they were simply swathing themselves with whatever fabric was at hand, but they were not the majority on that show. Most of the women who were secretly filmed, humiliated at screenings, and bullied by their friends and families into going on the show, actually adored their clothes. They were wearing just what they wanted to, in just the way they wanted to wear it.

If you’re an astrophysicist and what you want to wear is a wolf t-shirt, a denim miniskirt and some bowling shoes, well, have at it, I say. Wear that, rather than the Clinton and Stacy Outfit They All Got. Which was this: a tailored jacket over a flowy blouse over wide leg trouser jeans, and heels. There were slight variations, but this was the look that Clinton and Stacy really believed in it, for every woman, all women, all shapes and sizes, this was IT.


Now, if you love this outfit, then have at it. Wear it every day. But I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to wear that outfit! You can wear what you want. Let your freak flag fly.

But the funny thing is…

The funny thing is, Stacy herself has repudiated this whole wardrobe homogeny. Here’s an article called “How I Moved on From My What Not To Wear Style.” In it, she says:

When I look back, I realize the style I had while I was on What Not to Wear — the pencil skirts and sheath dresses, the floral and ruffled tops — does not reflect who I am now. It reflects the television persona I gave up a long time ago. It no longer “fits.” (Pun intended.) I dress much more androgynously than I did when I was younger. Frilly, girly clothes don’t have enough gravitas for me. I like suits and leather and jumpsuits, and I almost exclusively wear pants. I am pretty sure this change in my style happened quite naturally. But there have been times when I’ve worried this change won’t sit well with fans of my old look, that I’ve ostracized them, that I am no longer playing by the rules I prescribed to countless women over the course of the show. More than anything, I don’t want people who have believed in my advice over the years to feel I’ve betrayed them by no longer “looking the part.” The fact is, my public persona was only ever “part” of who I was to begin with. The Stacy I was in 2002 cannot possibly be the Stacy of 2016. Age is part of time, and does in fact change things.

So Stacy herself has turned over a fashion leaf, and now she looks like this.

Do you love it? I love it. It has nothing to do with me or my style, but I love it on her. If you don’t, well, go put on those wide leg jeans. Me, I’ll just be over here, brushing out my witch hair.

Invisible Committees and the Judgment of Others

In my book Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park, I have a character named Rhondalee LaCour who is absolutely insufferable. She’s a frustrated busybody who gossips and spies. She rains down storms of accusation and judgment on her husband. She pulls her granddaughter around by the arm, and possibly by the hair when no one is looking. She’s TERRIBLE. I can’t even describe how fun she was to write.

Now, not everyone can enjoy Rhondalee as much as her creator does, I understand that. But everyone who reads her identifies with one part of Rhondalee. And that is…

The Invisible Committee

The Invisible Committee is a board that sits in judgment of Rhondalee’s actions, appearance, words, ambitions and marriage. Its existence is established during a very early scene in the book, while Rhondalee is vaccuming the courtyard of the trailer park’s clubhouse (it is covered with indoor/outdoor carpeting). “She ran the Kirby with ferocity, sucking up every trace of dust while laying our her thoughts to an Invisible Committee she’d mentally convened to hear her evidence and render a judgment as to her fitness as a wife and Tender’s failure as a husband.” The Committee hears her complaints, but stays silent as it becomes clear that Tender LaCour is indisputably in love with another woman.

I’ve been asked over and over who Rhondalee is based on, and the answer is, no one and everyone. She is a creation of my twisted sense of humor, written to satisfy the unadulterated glee I take in women behaving badly. But as distasteful as she is to so many readers, everyone seems to identify with her Invisible Committee. And why is that? Do we all believe there is some committee in the sky, watching and judging and issuing pronouncements on our lives?

After listening to my friends talk about it, I’ve decided that we do. It’s just located in different places.

God is Watching Us

Please understand, I was raised without the concept of Heaven and Hell. I was pretty creeped out when I found out about the idea at age eight. I remember sitting in a basement rec room, wood-panelling and all, with some Catholic friends explaining the lake of fire, and the Devil, and sin in great detail. I kept saying, “You really believe this stuff?” and shaking my head. You can’t imagine how absurd it sounded. The Devil was a Halloween costume, nothing more. And sin? The whole idea of sin? I went to church and Sunday school each week, I learned my Bible verses and sang my hymns, but I had never even HEARD of sin. But to my Catholic friends, this was all part of an invisible world, inhabited by unseen beings that included an utterly unfamiliar God; one who sat up in Heaven on a throne, watching and judging and somehow controlling the world with his judgment.

I am aware that a lot of people–a LOT–believe this way. I never could.

The Universe

There is a modern, spiritual-not-religious alternative to the big man in the sky, which is the Universe. People need to listen to the Universe and these same people believe that the Universe speaks to them. The Universe is always trying to tell these people something, mostly around how important they are and how needful their endeavors are, be that a line of handmade stained-glass earrings or a CD of drumming and chanting or the like. The Universe isn’t as judge-y as some of our invisible committees, but it’s still out there–vast, concerned, instructive.

The Universe is infinite. I have a limited ability to comprehend infinity, but I know it’s BIG. I have a hard time believing that the cosmos is personally invested in my self-publishing endeavors. I remember watching The Tree of Life, a brilliant, baffling film that features the endless stream of prayer and supplication that pours from humanity into this cosmic infinity; all the guilt and hope and supplication and anguish we send up as a species, alternating with gorgeous shots of nebulae and stardust.

That’s the universe. I don’t think it cares whether or not I leave my e-books on Kindle Unlimited or not. But some believe the Universe is ALL OVER IT.


You don’t have to go into the Cosmos or up to Heaven to find invisible judgment. There are much more localized sources. In the olden days, in the fifties and sixties, the question was, “What would the neighbors think?” This concern seemed to spring up after the uproar of what Great Depression and WWII, when so many expectations were set aside in the name of survival. Women donned coveralls and made decisions and worked in factories and men were–gone. At war. Scarce.

When the men came home, America embraced conventionality like a religion. We invented the nuclear family–a great failed social experiment, in my opinion–and created suburbia. With suburbia came that old saw of a line, “What would the neighbors think?” Those neighbors didn’t have names or faces or any kind of distinct identity to add value to their judgment. But streets full of those invisible neighbors observed everything. Everyone was SURE of it.

I’ve read some beautiful, difficult books that deal with the judgment and oppression of early Suburbia.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates – The suburbs can be lethal.

The Weedkiller’s Daughter by Harriet Simpson Arnow – This novel is a perhaps overwrought and cliche-ridden, but it’s trying to convey something about the smothering sterility of suburban life. I like the author more when she’s writing about Appalachia, but I still feel this one is worth a read because it took on the burbs fairly early, and from the viewpoint of alienation from Nature.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham – This heartbreaking book is about several women through the generations, but the runaway suburban mother just grabbed me by the throat.

The Ice Storm by Rick Moody – A depressing look at WASPy alienation.

Three of these novels have been made into excellent movies. Then, there’s TV, specifically Mad Men. Who could forget the moment when Betty Draper went outside with the shotgun and started picking off ducks? Betty was such a casualty of suburbia. I waited through the entirety of the shown for her awakening, which never, ever came.


“What would the neighbors think?” was already more of a punchline than a true concern when I entered my teens. If you watch the movies of the era, there’s a general mockery of the idea. Some Bohemian young woman is always turning to her mother, to say, “Oh MOTHER, I KNOW, WHAT WOULD THE NEIGHBORS THINK?!?!?” Because this young woman with her center part and her miniskirt is liberated, and her dotty, repressed mother still cares, which makes her quaint at best and ridiculous at worst.

I always wondered who those neighbors were. I’m fairly certain that none of our many neighbors gave a damn what my family did when I was a kid, and if they did, we moved so often that we didn’t provide much interest for long. People my age would like to think that the women’s movement, the Watergate era and general consciousness-raising resulted in dismissal of conventional standards. And in some ways, things have changed. Though my novel The Iris Files is set in suburbia, nothing’s been the same out here since the 70s, and that’s a good thing, especially for Iris.

But our need to assume judgment never really went away. Because, now we have…

Social Media

Welcome to our current  social media parade, in which we are obsessed with how our lives come across to others: how they appear visually on Instagram, how eventful they seem when we check in on Facebook, how well our thoughts read on Twitter feeds. Why, some people even have BLOGS.

And for the first time, we have actual feedback, by way of likes or comments or replies. But we don’t know most of those people. They are not our neighbors, our coworkers. They are for the most part, invisible in our daily lives. All over the world, people are curating and preaching to and performing life for the eyes and ears of unseen, unknown strangers. The larger the following, the larger the performance.

It’s obvious to me that we crave the judgment of invisible others. If not God, then the Universe. If not the Universe, then the neighbors. If not neighbors, then the Internet.

But why?

Rhondalee is a middle-aged woman who manages a trailer park in the middle of nowhere. She has had her dreams crushed. Her life is tiny. It only matters to Rhondalee if her marriage falters, or her daughter never goes back onstage, or her community newsletter column goes unread. But when the Invisible Committee is watching, Rhondalee feels important. Her anger is forceful, her rage impactful. Her struggles matter.

I think so many people come up with the equivalent of an Invisible Committee because the alternative is humbling. The alternative to invisible judgment is your own invisibility. No one is watching you. No one has much of an opinion about how you live or who you love or where you shop or what you wear or drive or eat or consume for entertainment. No one outside your immediate family cares whether or not you have children. No one worries about when you’re going to finish your novel or make a success of your career or travel to New Zealand, or whatever metric you’ve set up to judge yourself against. No one is watching, no one is judging, and you are free to live your life just as large or as small as you choose to.

To some people, I imagine this feels terribly small and lonely. It’s just them, dancing for their dinners, trying to convince each other that their actions and opinions are terribly important to someone, somewhere. But to me? It is a calm, liberated place to be.

So if you have an invisible Committee, consider shutting it down. I am not sure what Rhondalee is going to do with hers, to be honest. She’s experiencing something like personal growth in book two. The days of her Invisible Committee might be numbered.

Soldier of the Heart: Saying Goodbye to Brother Steve

On December 6th, I lost my older brother to an array of medical woes that have been changing the shape of his life for the last ten years.

If I were to list for you what he endured, you wouldn’t believe anyone could. At birth, my brother got a bum ticket when it came to his body and health. But he lived life as large as he could within the bounds of his earthly container, and he fought long and hard for each day, no matter how much pain and discomfort it held.


Steve promised me that he wasn’t actually going to die. His specific promise was “Keith Richards, the cockroaches, and me.” Despite this promise, he’d been trying to die for a long time. Many times in the last ten years, we’ve been summoned as a family to make the hardest decisions, the final decisions. We’ve been asked to come to terms with his end and to prepare ourselves and wait. Every single time, he’d rallied in what was no less than a medical miracle.

After each of these events, Steve expressed, with some huffiness, his disbelief that the doctors expected him to die. He found it unthinkable and a little personally insulting. “They thought I was going to die.”

So in early December, when he came to the point where he was done fighting, none of us could believe it. We sat with him and waited, but at some point, he turned to the love of his life, Elaine, and whispered, “I wish we could just be alone. Just the two of us.” And though what he probably wanted was their life at home, with the cats and their favorite music and her gently preparing the simple meals he could eat, he also meant that he wanted to be alone with her as he struggled his way out of here. They did so much living that way. He loved his life with her.


Brother Steve died on the sixth of December. He died during my busiest month at work, the peak of deadlines and sales meetings and project coordination. And there’s that little thing called Christmas, which brings far-flung girls home to roost, and family gatherings, presents and parties and concerts. If you’re trying to avoid sitting alone with your grief, I recommend December. You can careen from distraction to distraction, especially if you can add the anxiety of writing an obituary and planning a memorial service on top of everything else. You can do so much to avoid your grief in December.

There are no good words for losing your brother. There just aren’t any. And I know it’s this “time of life” and all that, I’m in my late fifties and I know this is the season of loss, that all around me my friends are facing the same thing. As I said to my friend Kim years ago, we are designed to outlive our parents. That loss is survivable. But siblings? My big brother? Brother Steve? Even though I have been staring down the barrel of this for a decade, I still can’t stand it. So I planned him a pretty little memorial service with friends and family and a slideshow, my brother’s life projected on a wall, from his beginnings in California to his death in Portland. I had mostly my own photos to draw from, so there are many shots of my brother and I side-by-side, with our long hair and big noses and big smiles. Eventually, we both had big glasses.

You could always tell that Steve and I were related.

Saints and sinners

I dislike the sainting we do of people after they die. The polishing up and perfecting. My brother Steve, like any human being, was deeply flawed. He had sustained grievous injuries to his psyche, along with the life-long difficulties of his health. He was perhaps the most passive-aggressive person I have ever known, but as he said to me once, “Isn’t passive-aggressive better than outright aggressive?” Which made me laugh, even as it exasperated me.

He did things that drove me a little nuts, like ascribing long, complex motivations and desires to pets. He also had a unique mindset about the past that I can best explain this way; if it happened once to Steve, he saw it as always going on. So an isolated event loomed larger for Steve than it should have—having been followed home from school by a bully one afternoon, he remembered this as if he were followed home from school every single day. He extrapolated long, murky motivations from awkward social interactions, and had his feelings hurt accordingly. There was a tangle in there around his great big heart, mostly made of insecurity about whether or not people really loved him.

Trust me. People really loved my brother.

My Brilliant Brother

Steve had gifts that far outshone his flaws; a curious, brilliant, lively mind. Artistic and writing gifts of staggering proportion. A delightful sense of humor—playful and a little sharp, with a gleeful sense of mischief. And oh my gosh, could he converse. Steve focused on you when he was with you, and that gift of singular attention made him one of the finest conversationalists you would ever have the good fortune to know. I think he got both of these from our mother. Their conversations were epic. But if you really wanted to know Steve’s genius, you would find it in his relationship with music.

Steve’s involvement with music went so much further than just his own personal gifts. Yes, Steve had a voice like an angel from his earliest years. My aunt remembers him at age three, hearing things on the radio and then going over to my mother’s piano and picking out the tune by ear. He had a perfect soprano, she says. I remember when my mother was teaching him to play the guitar. Mom played the piano and the guitar, which she learned so she could play classical style, like Segovia. And it wasn’t easy for Mom to teach Steve—I have a distinct memory of her stern face, her cat eye glasses somewhat askew, as she worked and worked with him—but once Steve learned, he blew right past her in skill and devotion. Nothing made my mother more proud than when Steve surpassed her on the guitar.

His voice

So I remember my brother playing the guitar and singing. His voice, people, my brother’s voice. So high and clear and strong and beautiful. Singing at talent shows and in choir and in school assemblies and at his high school commencement, where he sang “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I was an adult before I understood the relationship between Steve’s weight and his incredible voice. All I knew was that when he was twenty, and he had the bariatric surgery to lose weight, his voice changed. He loved it, Steve enjoyed that his voice got a little lower, a little grittier, but I always missed that high tenor that rang like a bell.

Steve wrote songs, played in bands, picked up other instruments and learned them easily—banjo, mandolin, ukelele. Music formed the basis of his social life and it brought him Elaine, who he met on an Americana music board. You know how some people shut down and stop listening to any new music at some point in life, and there they are, back with Huey Lewis or whatever? That never happened to Steve. For his entire life, he was alive and curious and omnivorous in his musical tastes, and he shared them all with me. I’ve already written about how he brought home music that has always played a key role in my life and creativity.

But Steve was also my singing partner. Because of arthritis and illness, it’s been years since Steve could sing or play, but it always felt like, as long as he was alive, it might happen. We could still lift up our voices together on “Grievous Angel,” “Love Hurts,” “Six Blocks Away,” “Blackbird.” We sang together constantly. My voice is loud, so he often did harmonies while I took the lead. And Steve and I are both musical omnivores. The earliest songs I remember singing with him? The Beatles. We were always planning a CD, our CD that we would cut together and share with family and friends.

That CD won’t be made, now. I can’t believe I will never sing with my brother again. I can’t hold this in my heart.

The memorial

I thought I could choose the music easily. Just start with the Beatles and come forward. But Steve loved so many styles of music, jazz and classical included. And like, Bjork. EVERYTHING. He listened like I eat—happily, with great curiosity and interest and openness to anything new. As a result, the thought of choosing music for his memorial service made my head spin.

Listen, I had figured out all the rest of it. Where to have it, and when, and who to include, and which photos to put on the board, and what should be on the table, and which flowers to bring, and food, and format. But the most important part of it was the MUSIC, and yesterday morning, I was sitting in my armchair crying because the day had arrived, and this was the most important part of the entire event and I hadn’t figured it out. How could I not have figured out the music for my brother’s memorial service?

I have always turned to Steve for music. We swapped songs like marbles. Have you heard—let me play—listen to this—you might like—All our LIVES we have done this. And Steve had curated a series of CDs for me that he called “Sweet Harmony.” There is a Sweet Harmony 1, 2, 3 and 4. These were the songs Steve wanted to sing with me on that mythic record that we were going to cut together, and never did. So I loaded those CDs into my shelf stereo, unplugged it, put it in a Winco bag and carried it to Nordia House. Steve chose the music for his own memorial service, after all. Gram Parsons, Lucinda Williams, Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, and the Beatles, too.

The other CD I chose was a compilation of two records by an obscure artist that Steve and I loved to distraction in 1974. She was a heroin addict and a hold-up artist who spent time in prison and found God and music and made something magical of all these ingredients. I believe she was the first artist ever signed by David Geffen. She made two records that were not commercial successes, and died poor and alone. Her music is haunting, sacred, and strange. She has that singular musical sensibility of Dennis Wilson—swooping and eerie and deeply personal. It makes the hairs on my arms stand up.

So I had that playing while people arrived. We were going to have some light catering by Broder Soder, and as Casey from Broder was setting out the food, he lifted his head and said, “Are you playing Judee Sill?”

We find our consolations where we can. Despite these times when I am left alone with my grief, my tears, and these songs my brother left me, and this emptiness where he should be. This has to be survivable, too.


When I was 11, and my brother was 16, and our sister was 13, the three of us were sitting around a kitchen table in a ratty little house on a rundown farm outside Booneville, Arkansas. We were strange kids, all too smart for our own good, exhausted by the burdens of being outsiders, but strangely proud of it. Our childhood honed us, made us sharp and keen. And I said, “I don’t want to go to Heaven, and I don’t want to go to Hell. I want to start my own place.” My brother and sister loved this idea. After some discussion, we decided we’d name it “Joe’s Bar & Grill.”

So, Brother Steve, I will see you there, at Joe’s Bar and Grill. Please stock the jukebox with all my favorites.

Please bring your guitar.

From the Trunk: What’s with those Christmas lights?

I live in a low-rent neighborhood in a high-end suburb. It shows in our Christmas lights, with holiday choochoo trains on the rooftops and candy canes making fences all up and down the lane. Other displays are so sad, I wonder why anyone bothers.

(This might be a slight exaggeration.)

Others are masses of bad taste. Tangles of Christmas lights hang from every eave and gutter. Yard after yard features inflated nylon Christmas figures, giant Santas and polar bears and occasionally a ScoobyDoo or the like. During the day, these lay in collapsed nylon heaps all over the neighborhood’s lawns. In the evening they billow and teeter, grinning and undulating and making me wish for a BB gun.

Not in my neighborhood, thankfully

Bad taste abounding

My neighborhood can proudly claim the title of ”Most Lame Christmas Lights in the greater Portland Metro area.” People who are new to the neighborhood usually start out lighting their houses in a tasteful, restrained fashion, with crisp rows of white lights running along the gutters and a pleasing bounty of colored lights on the rhododendrons. Maybe a lighted wreath over the garage door.Here’s a beautifully lit home, in my opinion.

Also not actually in my neighborhood, but you get the idea of what I admire

But there’s some kind of taste drain at work here, so in a couple of years, their houses have gone native–green and red alternating lights on the house instead of white, odd bell-things made of lights showing up in the peaks of the dormers. Then those white lighted reindeer skeletons start cropping the grass and …

Must you, neighbor? Must you?

It’s all over.

We have the standard offenses–the previously mentioned reindeer that look like illuminated reindeer skeletons, big lit crosses, the spiral trees that make me kind of dizzy to look at, the excessive use of hanging icicle lights, those weird light nets that you can put over a bush or a tree if you want it to look like it’s been covered in an illuminated fishnet. But we have some extra-special stuff that I only seem to see around here. Year after year. Honed to an illuminated art form, these displays.

Trunk Wrap

First, there’s the Trunk Wrap. The Trunk Wrap is when lights are tightly wrapped around the trunk of a tree. In an ideal world, the trunk is wrapped, and then the branches, and then a bunch of colorful lights are hung randomly where the leaves of the tree used to be. That’s actually pretty. In our neighborhood, homeowners either run out of energy or lights or both, and so the wrapping goes partly up the trunk and then Joe Suburb says ‘fuckit.’ This results in a bunch of short, lighted trunks with no branches, like all the trees were blasted off in the middle.

Hedge Drip

We also have a lot of the Hedge Drippers. This is when someone drapes colored lights up and down and up and down on a hedge or a bank of arborvitae, somewhat in the manner of how I put mustard on a hotdog when I have a squeeze bottle and I want to be fancy. It looks terrible. Especially when it forms the backdrop for a bunch of Trunk Wrapped trees.

Something new!

This year, we have, of course, the newest lighting craze; a laser projector that shines dancing little squares of lights and eerie floating Christmas tree decorations onto the sides of home and garages. There is one across the street, and it’s always on at 7 AM, when I stand in the dark waiting for T to pick me up and take me downtown. I stand there and watch, repulsed and hypnotized, wondering if I would have liked this thirty years ago, when I was new here, back when I was so painfully excited by any holiday displays.

I do admire people who do something unique, like the peace sign wreaths that are popping up around here. My parents made one in 1971, so it’s not exactly a new idea, but it’s a nice one. My favorite guy in the neighborhood throws all his white plastic deck chairs up on top of one of his trees and drapes them with a bunch of lights. I have no idea why or how he does this. All I know is, every year there’s a big tangle of white plastic chairs and Christmas lights at the top of his oak trees.

So I hope you’re all lit up and ready for the holiday. And it’s pretty.