Going Through the Garbage

Confessions.

I was listening to the radio in the early 2010s, and the hosts had asked people to call in with Oregon things they don’t like. Everyone in Oregon is supposed to always like certain Oregon things, except we don’t, so people were calling up with unthinkable confessions. “I hate coffee.” “I hate bicycles.” “I can’t stand hiking.” “I don’t eat salmon.” “I hate the ocean.” “I can’t stand hazelnuts.” “I won’t go camping.” The strongest radio host reaction was to this one: “I don’t like dogs.”

If I’d called in, I’d have told them that I hate recycling.

I do it badly. You know the type. We don’t flatten all the boxes. We have too much coated stock in there. We throw away the plastic peanut butter jars. We are crappy recyclers, resentfully going through the garbage, saving out what we can. But I do it, I rinse, sort, flatten, organize. It takes almost no effort but I actively resent it.

Going through the garbage.

A Child’s View of Trash

I never thought about garbage as a child. I never took out the trash, or paid attention to the garbage can, or wondered where its contents went once they left the alley. In my youngest life, garbage was invisible. Except, someone was dealing with it.

Garbage penetrated my youthful consciousness in Arkansas. I have lived at some questionable addresses, but my family’s rented farmhouse outside Booneville was the most rundown, ramshackle place I have ever called home in my life. When we arrived, the place was strewn with trash, inside and out.

Where was it supposed to go? If there were garbage trucks in Booneville, Arkansas, they certainly didn’t travel the red dirt roads out to our place. I’m sure there was some sort of decaying Southern midden somewhere on the property, and of course there was a dump somewhere. We weren’t going to seek it out. We burned our garbage.

It was a foul endeavor. A huge metal barrel on the other side of the abandoned garden collected the leavings of daily life, every food container, bathroom wad, the contents of my parents’ brimming ashtrays. It accumulated and festered until the barrel was full. Then it was dispatched to the skies with lighter fluid and wooden kitchen matches.

Our new father believed in giving children chores, and thanks to his Minnesota upbringing, he had a nicely gendered split for duties. My sister and I did the dishes, folded laundry, vacuumed, swept, helped with cooking, and took care of our little brother. Trash was a male endeavor.

Our older brother was sent out to the burn barrel. While the flames rose, he had to watch for sparks and stamp them out. This was possibly not a great use of his skills. My brilliant, artistic, musical brother was very overweight, tippy on his feet, and had terrible vision. He was soon excused from trash burning, as he lacked the visual acuity and physical nimbleness to track and stamp sparks.

Well, my sister and I were up to the challenge. We worked in tandem. Squirting the lethal-smelling lighter fluid all over the top, striking the wooden kitchen match, watching the wooooosh when it all went up. I’ve always been overly sensitive to smells, so I should have hated this duty, but I enjoyed it. Organics smelled terrible before they were burned, but plastics smelled the worst while burning. That was beside the point. The danger and heat of a fire absorbed us, no matter how toxic the flames. The sparks flew, we shrieked and chased. There were whoops of danger and triumph. If the blaze slowed, we’d give it a few more spurts of lighter fluid and get it going again. Now, that was a wooooosh.

Of course our father caught us doing this. He took over the garbage burning. And then we moved to town. As far as I know, there were garbage trucks ever after. But no one recycled. Not even my liberal parents.

There was no such thing as recycling.

My Overriding Question

Is this why I want to argue with recycling? To pick a fight with it? To demand of recycling whether or not it actually helps with the problem? The problem being us, humans, and how we are ruining everything, all the time, every day.

I want to know if recycling makes a difference. The answer appears to be, “It depends on who you ask.”

As far as plastic, according to the Atlantic: No. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/05/single-use-plastic-chemical-recycling-disposal/661141/

Paper is a different story. https://www.afandpa.org/priorities/recycling/does-paper-actually-get-recycled

Glass is a natural for recycling, but we don’t do well with it as a nation. https://cen.acs.org/materials/inorganic-chemistry/glass-recycling-US-broken/97/i6

I read all this. I think on it. I honestly don’t know if we are doing any good with all this sorting through of our garbage. At times, I think recycling is a scam designed to make us feel less guilty as we ruin the Earth. I imagine all the piously sorted recycling that isn’t actually recycled, loaded onto barges and towed out to sea, where it will be dumped to float in enormous archipelagoes until it reaches the Wide Sargasso Sea.

I’m always tempted to throw my plastic away to keep it out of the ocean. Am I the only one?

Taking Charge of Trash

Like my Minnesota father, I think of garbage and its tertiary duties as male. This was a problem in a post-divorce household consisting of me and my three daughters. None of us were interested in cracking gender binaries when it came to taking out the garbage, but it had to be done.

Often, when the can filled, I’d just set the full bag on the front porch. The idea was, the next person to go outside (on the way to the school bus stop, for instance) would pick up that bag and pitch it in the trashcan down by the garage.

That person was always me. Always. Unless I nagged, which I sometimes did, I nagged and yelled repeatedly to spare myself a trip to the can, and hated how I sounded, and decided at some point I’d rather just take out the trash than hear myself berating the girls for not doing it.

Almost always, then. Almost always me. I think two of my daughters enjoyed the pitching, slinging that bag up and into the container, slamming the lid. They liked it, but not enough to do it very often.

*

I forgive myself for not recycling when the kids were young. I had enough to deal with, didn’t I? So I threw it all away, right up until I began sorting my garbage like a good Oregonian.  The trouble is, I can’t remember when I started doing that.

I dated a man for three years who recycled so thoroughly that he didn’t have trash service. Every once in a while, he’d put a small, smelly bag of non-recyclable stuff in my garbage can. Did I start recycling because of him, I wonder? Did his modest little bi-weekly bag put me to such shame that I finally set up a system and started acting like a responsible human being?

But no, it was before that. Maybe I started recycling because of the house fire.

Burning UP

My house burned in April of 2006, an event of such trauma and dislocation that I don’t talk much about it. I talk around the edges of it. I reminisce, say, about the unreality of living in a rental house, where every single thing—every garbage can and spatula—was also rented. I talk about our strange landlord, and how to this day I cringe when I drive past her house on Lower Boones Ferry because she has campaign signs up for various election deniers.

I talk about how Zoe the Tiniest Dachshund killed a mole in the backyard. I can talk about how it felt to endure the months while the insurance companies duked it out and the house waited, torn back to the studs, to be reconstructed.  I can talk about how I couldn’t find my way around right after the fire, how I had to drive over to my house from the motel where I stayed for a few weeks, and plot my course from there.

But the fire? Ah, that’s hard.

Many of my most-treasured possessions made it through without being touched by flames. Accordingly, they were packed into smallish cardboard boxes and ozoned and returned to me six months later. Seventy boxes of papers alone, seventy-six actually, full of a tossed-together assortment of important papers, junk mail, keepsakes, photos, scrapbooks, drafts of novels, letters, all of it jumbled and random and nearly impossible to sort.  Now, add in the books. Have you seen my books? Well, there are a few. And it was all in boxes.

When I moved back into my newly rebuilt house that November, I had empty boxes stacked to the ceiling in in kitchen area. My then-boyfriend (now-husband) came over to break down boxes and take them to the curb. Then came Christmas, with its own load of recycling. It took diligent effort to get it all handled, but we did it, week by week.

I’d finally gotten it all hauled away in January. February was so much cleaner down at the curb. Until that one day when I lost it.

Yes, I lost it over recycling.

*

I live next to a fourplex, an older building that was a commercial chicken house until it was converted into apartments. With its shingles and white trim, it’s actually quite cute as an apartment building. And that February, someone in that apartment building brought a huge mess of wet, mildewed cardboard boxes, we are talking about the size of two cords of wood, and put them in my driveway.

I want to make it clear, these nowhere near the street. Not down at the curb, where the recyclers could take them away (thought they probably wouldn’t, because they were wet and mildewed, in addition to not being broken down). And not on the grassy strip between the two properties, a sort of no-man’s land where their cans sat next to mine on collection day. These boxes were on my driveway, on the other side of a huge laurel hedge that divides the properties, and up about twenty feet from the curb.

Whoever did it had to walk around that hedge, carrying this grossness. It would have taken a few trips. They’d gone to some effort to put the boxes on my driveway and I have never been able to figure out what that person was thinking.

I am absurdly slow to anger, but when it hits, watch out. My fury bordered on derangement. I walked over and coldly enquired of the tenant in Apartment #1 if he had any idea who did it. He directed me to Apartment #4 at the back, where no one answered my knock.

Okay, fine.

I went back to my driveway and pitched the whole mess across their driveway. Not close to the curb to where the recyclers might have taken it, if they were feeling generous. Yes, with less effort, I could have done that. But I didn’t. I made sure to take up their precious parking spaces, a madwoman in sweatpants flinging around mildewed cardboard and swearing under her breath.

It felt good.

My spell of madness did not last. I gathered my wits, regained my composure, and rolled down my own garbage can. Right next to it, I placed my tidy container of recycling, with boxes broken down and flattened, unwanted catalogs in their own paper bag. I wanted to make it VERY CLEAR to the garbage people and all the people driving by that this wet mess of cardboard had nothing to do with me.

Except for the part where I flung it all over the neighbors’ parking area.

*

As I write this, I realize that this wasn’t the first time I completely lost it over recycling, or rather, with recycling.

Just a few months earlier, while we were still in the rental, I’d been kept up until 4 AM by my college-aged daughter and her friend, who were sitting in the kitchen of our rental house—the super shitty rental home where we lived while our own house was being rebuilt—laughing and drinking and playing music, even though I asked them several times to quiet down.

I responded by getting up at 6 AM and slamming around the recycling to sort it, waking them up on purpose, slamming and huffing like a crazy woman.

Would you all just take a look at that crazy woman?

*

I can be kind to this version of myself in retrospect. Her house had burned down. And that wasn’t all. Her mother died in October of 2004. She had two relationships flame out in 2005. In 2005 she also had a hysterectomy. In April of 2006, her house burned down. That woman held it together, she held it all together. She finally lost her shit over some cardboard.

Let’s be kind to her.

But the story about my daughter and her friend reminds me that there was a pile of recycling in the kitchen of that rental house. So, this means I was recycling before I dated the recycling man, and before the house fire. So when did I start to recycle? I have no idea.

Today’s Trash

Whenever it happened, however it happened, I took out the garbage for twenty-five years, and that eventually included the recycling. I rolled the cans to the curb, arranged the recycling appropriately so that the collectors wouldn’t leave me a note explaining how I was out of sorts (if they only knew). I even (usually) rolled up the cans before the neighbors got mad at me.

I did it all, and then I got married. My husband takes out the garbage now. He likes a full can liner, one that sometimes requires two people to shimmy it out of the can. He wants that trashcan liner to be so stuffed and heavy that it might break the drawstrings.

I, of course, hate this. What a pain in the ass, a bag that wants to split, those straining red drawstrings that want to amputate your fingers. Why would you do that to yourself?

And with my nose, there’s the issue of smell. I will ask him to remove a stinking but not-full bag full of meat wrappers and onion peels (I do not compost, there is a limit). He is slightly resistant, but does it when asked. First, he gives me a look. Maybe he hates being told what to do (he does hate being told what to do, and even though it’s phrased as a question, I am telling him what to do). But it’s more than that. I think he feels like taking a not-full bag out is wasteful. He’s right. But I don’t want to smell garbage.

My husband is a better recycler than I am. He diplomatically pretends not to notice when I throw away a peanut butter jar because I hate scrubbing those out. He manages our laundry room system for the recycling, which isn’t a big hassle, so I don’t know why I’m a big resistant baby about it.

Unlike me, my husband knows the collection schedule. He knows exactly when the recycling and the lawn waste will be picked up, and puts it all out as necessary. He takes care to leave the returnable cans where they can be picked up by the man who comes down the street after dark on Monday nights, gathering the neighborhood empties before the recycling truck comes on Tuesday.

I welcome my husband’s attention to all this. I appreciate that he does it. Because I hate doing it.

Please don’t come for me. I have toed the line. I recycle. I might wonder if it’s doing any good at all. That doesn’t matter. I do it even though I doubt it. I do it even though I didn’t grow up with it. I do it even though I hate it.

I do it even though I watched this video.

We might have already have passed the point of no return, but we have to try.

The last chapter of the Chameleon Chronicles – Cam Solves it All.

It’s here, and you’ll love it.

book cover for Orcas Intermission

Camille Tate is ready to be seen…but is her world ready to see her?

Camille is working both sides, now, and she’s stunned by the avalanche of secrets she’s uncovering. Old mysteries are unlocked as new puzzles emerge. Is anyone who they seem to be on Orcas Island? One revelation leads to another, and it becomes more and more impossible for Cam to concentrate on her newest assignment: steering her play through the process of casting, rehearsal, and staging. As she digs deeply into the mysteries that have surrounded her since she arrived, Cam learns the truth about her closest friends and most feared enemies. It all comes together on an unforgettable opening night…when Cam finally understands everything, including herself.

Yes, it’s finally here. And was this ever a fun book to write. Cam and her crew answer the last of the questions from deep in the heart of a…theater company? Folks, it was there from the very first book. We just had to do it. And oh my gosh, was it fun to write.

Preorder the e-book here: ORCAS INTERMISSION BY LAURA GAYLE

I don’t want to spoil a dang thing. Just trust me, this book will have you laughing, and maybe even tearing up a bit. Mysteries are revealed, prices are paid, and friendships change forever. I hope all that passive voice has preserved the mystery.

Changes afoot

It is also a little emotional for me. This is where I duck out of Laura Gayle, at least for now. Laura Gayle has exciting future plans, don’t worry, she’s not going anywhere, but she will have to carry on without me. Solo projects are calling my name.

Shannon and I have had so much fun with this project, which we started before I even visited the island. I’ve never written collaboratively before (which I talked about here: The Joy of Collaboration) and I wasn’t sure how much I would like it. I loved it. Shannon has been a perfect partner and I know we will work together again in the future.

It has been awesome to be the official Orcas Island Bestseller. Long may we reign! Thanks our readers, our editors, and to Mark for his wonderful covers. I want to give special thanks to the staff of Darvill’s Bookstore for all their support over the years.

Now, go read how it all comes out!

The Puberty Contraption

A fascinating article

I recently read this feature in the New Yorker about how there was a huge drop in the ages at which girls all over the world went into puberty during the pandemic.

https://www.newyorker.com/science/annals-of-medicine/why-more-and-more-girls-are-hitting-puberty-early

This is a deep dive into the science of puberty, with an equally deep consideration of the emotional and social consequences of entering it early. It got me thinking about my own entrance into puberty. I knew I came to womanhood early in far too many ways, but I never actually thought about the biological side of it. I have tracked how I was pushed into premature adulthood by family pressures, but Nature had a hand in it, too.

Thanks, Puberty.

Karen at age eight in Rapid City, South Dakota
Me at age eight, before all this started. Orange loafers, pink sunglasses, and a romper. I was stylin’.

In my childhood experience, boys were not interested in girls. They were interested in boy things, boy pastimes, boy games. Girls were beside the point. When boys started to notice girls, it was because of our parts.

I didn’t like being noticed for my parts.

I was a tall girl with subcutaneous body fat, so I began to develop in the fourth grade. So I was nine. I remember exactly where I was, what I was doing, and what I was wearing when this was pointed out to me. I was playing outside with two neighborhood boys. I had on a navy blue sweater dress with a tan striped collar, a hand-me-down from my sister.

It was complicated playing with boys and climbing trees in a dress, but this was after school, and in those days, in the Midwest at least, girls were not allowed to wear pants of any kind to school. So while playing, I did what I could to observe the forms of modesty, which was (I assume) the entire point of making girls wear dresses; to make us be careful and modest.

That day, one of the boys said to me with a little sneer in his voice, “You need a bra.” I looked down to see what he was talking about. Yes, there was something there, on my chest. Possibly those bumps were breasts. I didn’t want them, I didn’t need them, so I ignored them. But boys didn’t. That day of play was ruined, and I went home feeling shame and confusion.

Time to Train

I immediately told my mother what had happened, because I told her everything. She took me to be fitted for a training bra. From what I can tell, this particular garment has passed into the ether of outdated ideas, replaced by the bralette or the sports bra, so let me describe it for you.

The training bra was a flimsy little apparatus built along the lines of an actual bra, but without a support function. It was intended to get a girl used to the idea of a bra. She would learn to fasten the hooks, adjust the straps, and live with the protrusion of a small rosette trim between her nonexistent breasts.

In the literature of the training bra, there are two kinds of girls. One longs for the training bra. She thinks it is the prettiest thing in the world. She can’t wait for her dainty bra straps to show. She knows if the rosette shows, her top is too tight. Her bra is a rite of passage, a lacy privilege. She feels celebrated.

And then, there are girls like me, as illustrated by the New Yorker piece.

In Judy Blume’s 1970 young-adult novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” which has served as a puberty handbook of sorts for generations of girls, a character named Laura Danker looms awkwardly on the periphery. Laura is studious, very shy, and very tall. When the eleven-year-old narrator of the book, Margaret Simon, sees Laura on the first day of school, she mistakes her for a teacher, not a fellow sixth grader. “You could see the outline of her bra through her blouse and you could also tell from the front that it wasn’t the smallest size,” Margaret observes. “She sat down alone and didn’t talk to anyone.” … Laura’s body commands a chaotic attention from her peers: by turns affronted and leering, repelled and keenly envious. Her body provokes their imagination, then serves to corroborate whatever they might imagine. Laura belongs nowhere: a head taller than all the boys, arms crossed over her chest, feeling the shame and confusion of the eleven-year-old she is but does not look like.

As I recall, Margaret liked getting her training bra. My own appointment in the lingerie department of a large store was a humiliating debacle, because you’re not supposed to spill out of a training bra. I was already past the training stage. My mother, unsure of what to do, simply left without buying me anything.

That was fine with me. I wanted nothing to do with such a confining contraption. I went back to ignoring the entire issue of breasts, even though the boys didn’t.

Bodily Privacy

Coming of age is tricky and difficult. Some children seem to sprint gracefully into it like gazelles, but those are outward appearances. Internal realities are probably different.

My own experience was not graceful. I became the focus of unwanted attention and there was no taking it off me. My bodily privacy had been violated by early development. This wasn’t fair. I was a child, surrounded by other children. They were allowed to live their lives as kids, unencumbered in a particular way I was not. I felt confusion and shame. Shame, because that’s the backbone of how girls are socialized, and confusion, because even then, I knew I hadn’t chosen early puberty or the assumption of maturity it thrust upon me.

This bit of the New Yorker article spoke to me, even though it is specific to Black girls, who tend to go into puberty early.

A 2017 report from the Georgetown Law School’s Center on Poverty and Inequality studied the impact of “adultification,” a phenomenon in which children are socialized to act older than they are, and in which Black kids, specifically, are perceived as “less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers”—less in need, or less deserving, of the kinds of protections that childhood confers.

At age ten, grown men began flirting with me. I remember one in particular. I was sitting on the dryer in our sunny utility porch in Rapid City, holding court during an afternoon potluck. I thought it was my superior wit engaging the attention of this man in his twenties. I was a sharp, sarcastic kid, there is no doubt about it. But more likely, it was the allure of a very tall, very young girl with pretty eyes and the clear beginnings of a womanly body.

Karen, age 11.
This was taken a little later, in Arkansas, when I was eleven. If you’re wondering where my nose is, it was clearly visible from the other side, but this was always my favorite photo because it sort of disappeared in this shot.

At the end of fifth grade, we moved to Arkansas. The South declares open season on girls at an early age. We lived way out of town on a farm, and my neighboring-farm boyfriend was a perfect gentleman, but puberty had arrived. My father finally made my mother understand that she had to do something about the bra issue.

Of course, she told me that. “Your dad told me you needed to start wearing a bra.” There was a note of derision in how she said it. Again, I felt the shame.

I’ve thought about this too much. There was nothing creepy about him saying this. He was pointing out the very obvious facts of the situation my mother and I were ignoring. But he’d only been my dad since I was nine. In certain ways, my new father was much better at parenting than my mother. He had a Midwestern Minnesota handle on what childhood should include for children, and the stages we would be going through as we left it. But I was eleven, and scalded by embarrassment.

Why did my mom even tell me it was Dad, anyway? Wasn’t that the creepy part of it? Her telling me? Maybe she knew how resistant I was to the contraption, and she wanted backup.

At any rate, she brought home what she thought would fit, and I wore it.

Karen, age 11
Look at me, a little red-eyed devil at age 11, absolutely loving myself, despite the fact that I was growing up. But then, Ophelia started drowning.

I also started my period that year at age eleven. I understood the first morning I woke up in a bloody bed that childhood was over for me.

On with Adulthood

I started high school at age 12, because you started high school in seventh grade in Booneville. I was sent to the principal’s office for wearing shorts under my skirts. I thought this was a solution to the problems caused by not being able to wear pants to school, but it was explained to me that it made me less modest.

As a young lady, it was my job to keep my knees together. I was threatened with a “whupping” should it happen again. Yes, you still got whupped by the principal in 1972. And of course, I kept wearing shorts under my skirts because I found this all absolutely ridiculous.

This was the South. Boys came knocking, but I was not as mature as my body. This attention was disconcerting, sometimes even frightening because it did not come from boys my age. The boys I liked in my class (Melvin, Todd, Bruce) were way shorter than me. In the sixth grade, I was 5’5” and they were nowhere near that. Especially Todd, the class clown, who was hilarious but really short. And that was okay, because it was easier for me to garner no attention, than to garner the kind of attention I was too young to want.

This is an excerpt from the article, quoting a woman named Megan Gray, who went into puberty at age eight. “When you’re shamed at a young age for a sexuality that you don’t even have, I think it inhibits you from developing a sexuality. I began to associate people seeing me in a sexual way, or even as attractive, as a negative. At the same time, when you’re entering that age, you do want people to like you. And you want to like other people. There was that constant tension of, you know, liking is good, but attraction is bad, even if, on a rational level, I understood that wasn’t true. That contradiction started very young.”

Cat and I, ages 12 and (just barely by one day) 15.
I was twelve here. Adolescence was fully upon me. This was the Christmas Eve my mom was in the hospital, so it was very calm at our house for a change. I’ll write about that another time.

The best word to describe my feelings for boys at this time was, longing. I was longing for boys. I enjoyed this feeling, but preferred that the boys in question not be real. Teen idols fit in nicely, because you could long for them without any complications or expectations. You could practice safely. This also coincided with the growth of deeply imaginative play for me and my sister, in which my characters were always male. I felt safer when I pretended to be male. My own precipitous puberty and unwelcome sexuality were held at bay while playing at being a boy. Somehow, this allowed me to recover my bodily privacy.

But sometimes, I longed for real boys.

Real Boys

My family lived in Booneville, and Tommy and Floyd Daphren, or maybe it was Daffron, I don’t remember, lived in a neighboring town. They both had very wavy blonde hair down to their shoulders. I think Floyd was fifteen and Tommy was seventeen. My sister and I encountered them at the lake.

Tommy was tall and silent and stunningly handsome to my 12 year-old eyes. Just looking at him struck me dumb. I mean, he wore his hair parted down the middle. Floyd was smaller and funnier and should therefore have been my type, but my heart longed for Tommy. I was possessed with the idea of wearing his FFA jacket (dark blue corduroy trucker style with a big FFA emblem on the back and his name embroidered over the left chest pocket, if you’ve never seen one).

I did manage to chat him up at a dance. I found myself standing next to him, and cracked his stunning but rather blank façade of beauty with wisecracks. Humor was a start, but I already understood that if I wanted a boy like this, an older boy, some sort of physical contact would be involved. I was only twelve, but if we hadn’t left Arkansas, I might have been able to land him.

My parents hated Arkansas. As kids, we were happy there, academically successful, socially accepted. My older brother was possibly less enamored of the place than my sister and me, but he’d won a scholarship to art school in Minneapolis, so he went back first. My liberal parents were desperate to go back North, so we left Arkansas for Montana. Was that supposed to be an improvement? Rural Montana? Was that a hotbed of liberal thought in 1973?

Karen and a trash can at the corner of Booneville High where I hung out with my sister and her friends.
Me, age 12. I would never have dared wear a skirt this short (my sister and I wore this as a top with jeans on the weekend), but it was my last day at Booneville High and I felt immune from whuppings. The shoes were also a bold statement. They were called N-word shoes whenever I wore them.

We stopped in Minneapolis to see my father’s family on the way. My great-grandfather Otto took one look at me and exclaimed, “What? You’re not married yet?” I said, “Grandpa! I’m twelve!” The house erupted in laughter. As my adoptive great-grandfather, he could be forgiven for not keeping track of my age.

I finished coming of age in Montana, a gorgeous, isolated combination of natural paradise and traumatic hellhole where my young life went completely off track.

Taken by a friend of my mother's named Ron on a visit to Albequerque, NM. Age just turned 14.
Taken shortly before I graduated eighth grade, when I was the hippie-girl scandal of Gallatin Gateway Elementary.

To quote the New Yorker:

The stigma of early development in girls is particularly painful because, in some cases, it may perpetuate a vicious cycle. An article published in the Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, in May, found that early puberty put girls at higher risk for obesity, type-2 diabetes, breast cancer, and heart disease along with “depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and antisocial behaviors,” “earlier onset of sexual activity, higher number of sexual partners, and higher likelihood of substance use, delinquency, and low academic achievement.” The journal Hormones and Behavior, in 2013, argued that “early maturing girls are at unique risk for psychopathology.” A Pediatrics article titled “Early Puberty, Negative Peer Influence, and Problem Behaviors in Adolescent Girls,” from 2013, stated, “Early timing of puberty and affiliation with deviant friends are associated with higher levels of delinquent and aggressive behavior. Early-maturing adolescents tend to affiliate with more-deviant peers and appear more susceptible to negative peer influences.”

This photo was taken five or six years after the first photo in this post.

Karen, Eric, Kittycat. Squaw Creek Ranger Station, 1973 or 1974.
At the ranger station with my baby brother, who was no longer a baby but I still call him that, and he’s fifty. Biologically, I was year shy of being able to give birth when he was conceived.

At fourteen, I was drinking heavily and sexually active. At fifteen, I left home.

1974, Karen
The disembodied hand and my plaid shirt belong to the boyfriend who would become my first husband. He had staked his claim with that seagull ring on the third finger of my left hand. 1974, taken at Faculty Court, married student housing, Bozeman MT – this was a three bedroom unit in the “Monopoly Houses,” now torn down.

A Pattern Repeated

When I consider my life, my misspent youth, I have failed to consider biology and generational trauma. I have thought too much about the emotional factors involved in this (see my last blog post), and not enough about the other factors.

I inherited much of my biology from my mother. It’s more than just the look of our bodies, so similar that you’d be forgiven for mistaking us for each other from behind. It’s more than the lipedema, it’s more than our wonky foreguts. If you just looked at us together, you would see it.

Me and my lovely mom in 1979, Christmas in Eugene, OR at my sister's house.
Me and my lovely mom in our matching robes. Taken in 1979, Christmas in Eugene, OR at my sister’s house. I was actually taller than her but I was barefoot and she had on her Famolares.

Mom hurtled into life. She grew up very fast, but to me, she seemed happy about it. According to family lore, she actually wanted to grow up faster than she did. She wanted to marry a sailor named Red at age fifteen, but was forbidden to do so by her parents. He was banished from the premises, so my mother married another sailor named Burl and had my older brother at seventeen.

Gaye Elva Odland marrying Burl Fain in 1957, North Hollywood, CA.
I found this photo in my brother’s papers after he died. My mom and Steve’s dad look so radiantly happy and young. 1957

The seeds for this were planted by her early development. She was four years younger than her sister, but taller than her by age twelve. This was exceedingly rare in the 1950s, a child who looked like a grown woman. My mother tagged along with the older kids like I did, but my sister is only two years older than me. What did it mean to my mother, to be running with the sixteen year-olds when she was twelve? Why was she allowed to go at life so early? And how could she let me do the same, when she knew where it could lead?

Oh Mom, I am trying so hard to understand.

Maybe the New Yorker can help.

A tall, developed ten-year-old who has reached menarche may not be chronologically older than a petite, flat-chested ten-year-old who has not—but she is, in a real sense, physically and even experientially older. Adults and other children will almost inevitably relate to the girl differently—and not necessarily even in a sexualized way, although that is of grave concern; but intellectually, socially, emotionally. They may have advanced expectations of her, and she may strive to meet those expectations or fail to, and, either way, that cycle of stimulus and response is determining her place in her social milieu, conjuring a mirror in which she sees herself, and wiring her brain in configurations that subtly differ from those of her average-developing peers. Nature begets nurture. For this girl, the hands of the clock simply go faster.

I tried to shield my own girls from this fate. I tried too hard. I wanted my girls to be children, not women. I hid my beautiful, bountiful mixed-race daughters out here in a White suburb, where they went untouched by the pencil-necked White boys. As a result, my girls didn’t understand their own beauty. I hope they can forgive me for that. For the most part, I think they have.

Three beautiful mixed race girls.
My youngest hates this photo, but I wanted one where they were all a little awkward. Sorry, kid. Besides, you know how beautiful you are.

My daughters and I were texting the other day, as we do most days, on and off, all day long. I told them I was doing a deep dive into the music of our past. I texted, “I only have one question. How did we all survive the Fiona Apple “Tidal” CD? It’s like stepping onto a loopy dangerous adolescent carousel ride. Brilliant, but Jesus.”

This led to a declaration that “Being virgins in adolescence saved us,” from one daughter. Then, of sex in your teens, I said, “It is an unnecessary complication.” The girls tapped their little “HaHa” icons onto the corner of this text, because of course a mother would say this. But I stand by it. It is too much, too soon.

Biology is inevitable. I couldn’t stop it for my daughters, but I could extend the protections of childhood to their young selves while their minds and emotions caught up with their bodies. Or maybe I overprotected them.

Maybe I hurt them in other ways. Maybe I always did everything wrong.

I’m sure of only one thing.

I tried.

*

All quotes are from Annals of Medicine – Why More and More Girls Are Hitting Puberty Early: A pandemic-era rise in early puberty may help physicians to better understand its causes. By Jessica Winter, published October 27, 2022, © 2022 Condé Nast, all rights reserved

The Birds

Image via Pixabay

My mother had no common phobias that I knew of, growing up. She didn’t like mice or insects, but disposed of them with a minimum of fuss. We never encountered snakes. I don’t remember her having any reaction to my fears, which are heights and bridges. But she was wildly afraid of birds.

Birds. All of them. Even the tiny finches that populate my bushes in hopping swarms, hunting bugs on branches before they flutter off. She feared the bright-beaked chickadees and fat-bellied robins, the overbearing jays, the comical crows.

I love the songbirds and the corvids, but I can understand a healthy wariness of raptors. They have a focused and lethal beauty, but I am not a mouse, a shrew, or a field rat. I am completely beside the point for a raptor. And now that I no longer have to watch for owls when I let small dogs out at night, I can let myself admire the owls.

Talking birds are a little iffier for me. Very large tropical birds have talons and beaks. They speak. This is an uncanny combination, and unsettling even to me. But the smaller talking birds? The wee parrots, parakeets and budgies? Oh, I adore them.

Mom was terrified of them. All of them. Every single bird.

*

My parents were both educated, literate people. They were passionate about politics, art, music, literature. They raised us to be the same.

Our house was alive with conversation.

*

When they lived in Missoula, my parents rented office space in the Wilma Building. If you’ve never lived in Missoula, this means nothing to you. If you have lived in Missoula, you know what an adventure that was back in the 1970s, when Bob and Eddie presided over Missoula’s small gay culture from their lavish apartments on the Wilma’s upper stories.

One day, while waiting for a ride down, the elevator opened on Mom’s floor. Out stepped Bob (or maybe it was Eddie), a small green bird riding on his shoulder. My mother went white and flattened herself against the hallway wall. She let him pass without a word. Mom, I told her, that was a parakeet.

It didn’t matter. A bird indoors was her worst fear.

*

I need to make it clear how much I loved my mother. I longed to spend time with her. She was my favorite person in the world.

*

I believe most phobias have an origin. My own fear of bridges happened after Mom had a friend—I’d describe him as an arrogant jerk—who took us out on his huge sailboat. He had a daughter close to Lauren’s age who had grown up on this boat, and he laughed when I asked for life jackets for my two children. He accused me of not trusting his expertise.

I spent the entire sail around the Sound watching Lauren in an eagle-eyed panic, with one arm tightly wrapped around baby Rachel, and the other looped into the strap of a floatable cushion. I was sick with fear the entire outing, trying to figure out how to save two children if we went into the icy water. How long would we last? Would Lauren’s swimming lessons pay off? Dear God, would it never be over?

During this sail, my mother was serene and joyful, as she was on a boat. When we docked, she alighted, refreshed and exuberant. My knees shook so hard that I almost couldn’t walk. I vowed to never back down on an issue of safety again, but the damage was done. For the next twenty years, I approached any bridge with hammering heart and prickling armpits, gripping the wheel, determined not to let this new phobia get the best of me. It has mostly abated.

Where did Mom’s bird phobia come from?

*

My mother’s mother, Grandma Lucille, had representations of birds throughout her home. There was a pair of large ceramic chickens on the side table in her breakfast room. There was a framed print of a nesting robin on her dining room wall. There was a ceramic cardinal, because she lived in South Dakota and my grandmother loved a cardinal. And there were two porcelain robins, a pretty one and a fat, grumpy one. I loved him.

But I discovered my favorite of Grandma’s birds in her dressing room. It was California pottery by an artist named Kay Finch, who specialized in figurines of birds and animals with signature curling eyelashes. This little bird was ivory colored and trimmed with green. He looked so happy to me with his fat cheeks and feminine eyelashes. One day, while admiring him, I turned him over. Written on the bottom in girlish script was a loving message to my grandmother from my mother, who at some point had bought this bird for Grandma Lucille and inscribed it.

Later in her life, my mother gave Grandma Lucille two Limoges plates with birds on them. They were different than Grandma’s usual birds, more elegant and stylized, and Mom had found them in France. She was a bit defensive about this expensive gift, as she was defensive about so many things. But Grandma seemed happy with them.  She displayed them in her hutch.

My mother grew up feeling unloved and unappreciated by her mother. According to my grandmother and aunt, Mom was furious most of the time. She was personally affronted by her sister’s slim beauty, and found her mother maddening. My grandmother was a deliberately oblique person, determinedly serene, who hid from life’s difficulties in Christian Science. She found her daughter exhausting.

They were an ill-matched pair, as far as a child’s needs and an adult’s capabilities. But I took comfort in these gifts from my mother to my grandmother, the plump bird, the elegant plates. My mother hated birds, but she gave them to her mother. This was physical evidence. They showed (to me, at least) a desire to love.

*

If I were to write a memoir about my parents, I would call it “Always Starting Over.”

*

My grandmother’s home was lovely. It was full of items my mother coveted. She spoke of it reverently, cataloguing the origins and perceived value of its contents. Grandma kept some items her entire life. My Aunt Elaine ended up with all of it when my grandmother died, and expected me to be upset about it.

I wasn’t. I have things from Grandma, I reassured her. I have a painting, bricabrac. I have some jewelry.

She still worried. When she and my uncle finally sold their home, my aunt specifically called to apologize for leaving behind Grandmother Lucille’s loveseat in her barn.

My mother had beautiful things, but she sold them because our constant moves would wreck them. Besides, we needed the money. So one by one, they went. A secretary desk here. A massive oak table there. Daybeds and chairs. Washstands. Headboards. All left behind in my childhood, shed like the sideboards and pianos discarded by early pioneers on the Oregon Trail.

*

Raptors know that a comfortable chick will never learn to kill. So as soon as chicks are ready to fledge, the eagles begin to remove whatever made them comfortable. This is called “stirring the nest.”

*

My mother had therapy at different times in her life. The longest stretch came in her mid-fifties. This coincided with menopause, which finally brought relief from her PMDS. She didn’t have a medical diagnosis for this, only my armchair diagnosis, based on witnessing her day-long tirades every four weeks for most of my early life. Mom could fly off the handle at any time, but these rages were perfectly timed with my own period. It didn’t take a genius to figure it out.

I imagine their cessation was a huge relief for her. Maybe that’s why she was ready to do some work. Once she reached her fifties, my mother’s life was fairly serene, at least by our family’s standards.

She learned a few things in therapy. She was fascinated by a new idea that all events are neutral. She’d always interpreted every upset as a personal attack on her. But she started to repeat this like a mantra. “All events are neutral.”

Another revelation was repeated less often. I remember when she told me that she had a narcissistic personality.  She wanted to share this information about herself, but she did it with an edge of her trademark defensiveness. “It means that I interpret every event in terms of how it affects me,” she explained. I’m sure it had not occurred to my mother that this was unusual, even pathological. She wanted me to understand that to her, it was only natural.

I listened, nodded. I treated the information as neutral.

*

My mother didn’t understand the anxiety that plagued all four of her children. We are riddled with it. It would shut down my older brother to the point where she and my dad would have to intervene at times. Pay his bills. Hold his hand. Even bring him to live with them for a bit, until he calmed down enough to take on life again.

But Steve was simply the most affected by anxiety. The rest of us dealt with it as best we could. Mom would shake her head, baffled. “I just don’t have that,” she would say. As if it were inconceivable that we would have something she didn’t. As if its very presence were a complete mystery. As if our anxieties could not be traced back to childhoods marked by her monthly tirades, her screaming arguments with our birth fathers, the divorces, constant moves, and social rejection brought on by always starting over. We always experienced financial insecurity, often to the degree of not having food in the house.

Those were our shared disasters, but we each had our own personal load to carry. My older brother lived with the torment of being extremely obese back when there were no fat kids. My sister was abused from a very early age by a trusted male relative. After the older kids left home, my younger brother was left alone repeatedly to fend for himself while my parents spent their evenings in coffee shops or bars. He was six years old.

And me? Well, in addition to what I shared with my siblings, there was the fallout from being put out at age fifteen to live in a different state with a physically abusive older boyfriend. That was terrible—with the first few months marked by profound loneliness and anxiety attacks that robbed me of my ability to breathe—but at least I could finish high school in one place. My parents lived in three states and six homes during my last two years of high school.

Besides, he didn’t hit me that often.

*

When I finally called my parents and told them what was happening, my mother said, “Just try not to make him mad, Honey.”

*

I have turned my own life over and over in my hands, trying to understand how it went so radically astray, trying to understand what it has done to me, what I did to myself. As hard as it was to be on my own at fifteen, I think it probably saved me. My worst misfortune was that I grew up in a house of volcanoes. I was the only calm person in a household of reactive, emotional personalities, screaming and crying and shaking and falling down in fits. This is its own kind of trauma. 

*

So, yeah, we had anxiety. And Mom didn’t get it.

*

I wondered if Mom told her therapist about any of this, our U-Haul odyssey of a life, daughters shoved out too early. I doubt it. It would have blown her hard-won cover.

She and Dad had reinvented themselves on Bainbridge Island. They both worked at Boeing as technical writers. They owned bed & breakfasts. They moved a lot—eight houses in twenty years—but they stayed on the island where they had a group of friends, daily coffee meet-ups, the opera. Bainbridge was the base from which they traveled internationally. They went to live in Turkey for a while but came back to finish out their lives on Bainbridge.

I want that to be true. But it isn’t.

There was one more major life disruption in the works. My parents were actively planning to divorce when my mother found out she had cancer. They didn’t get a divorce, obviously. They clung together for the duration of her very short decline.

My father was gutted by her death, as were we all.

*

As I’ve said, I don’t know all that Mom worked on in therapy. I do know that Mom talked about her bird phobia with her therapist. At first, she thought it had to do with her own mother, something about Grandma Lucille’s love of birds, some aspects of her demeanor that were supposedly bird-like. But in truth, Grandma’s birds were simply knickknacks. After much discussion, my mother and her therapist decided it was something else.

The movie.

Mom saw “The Birds” and never got over it.

*

During the Dust Bowl, crows built nests out of barbed wire. They built with what they had.

Once I learned that fact, I have never quite gotten over it.

*

I haven’t had a lot of therapy, but I have worked on a lot, mostly through writing. One thing I still work on is giving myself permission to write honestly about my life. This, of course, includes writing about my mother. It feels incredibly disloyal to tell the truth. It also feels incomplete.

I had a difficult mother, but I didn’t have a difficult relationship with her. I loved her. But more importantly, I always felt so loved by her. I never doubted her love for an instant, and her last words to me were, Oh, I love you. She feared being taken to task for the ways she had failed me, but I never had the heart to do it. I forgave her, completely, honestly, repeatedly.

I hope she felt my love flying from my heart to hers, constant and true to this day.

So, I had Covid again.

Yeah. How did that happen?

Flower

Supposedly, I’m a liberal person who is cloaked in the moral righteousness of taking Covid seriously.

Supposedly, I’m a very careful person who works remotely and always wears her mask in public spaces.

Supposedly, thanks to my vaccinations and boosters, I have some degree of protection, and if I were to get Covid again, it would be mild.

Ha, I tell you. Ha, and ha again.

A Quick Review

With the Omicron variants, you carry the virus for three or four days before you show any symptoms. This means that I was possibly contagious on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, before my symptoms showed up on Thursday. So let’s review those days.

My four year-old grandson had been with me all weekend. I must have picked up the virus while running around with him and my daughter before she flew to New York on Sunday morning. I dropped her at the airport and kept the grandson. I’d keep him all the time if I could, just saying, but I had stuff going on, so I had to share him.

My oldest daughter and her fiancé watched him Sunday evening so I could go to a little talk that was part of a class I’m taking. I picked him up, and he stayed with me Sunday night. But I also needed to work, so early Monday morning, I dropped him off at my middle daughter’s home. I didn’t go inside, just said hello to everyone on the front porch, where they enjoy their morning coffee. He spent the night there on Monday night.

On Monday and Tuesday, I worked from home. Late Tuesday afternoon, I went to a class with eight students and an instructor. We meet outside, and we’re careful, but is anyone really careful enough in the age of Omicron? I love this class, but sitting outside over the course of the summer has meant I’m roasting out there for three hours in 102 degree weather. Has it been worth it? Absolutely. But has it been easy? God, no.

After my roasty class, sweaty and heat-exhausted, I picked up my grandson at my middle daughter’s house. I went inside and saw her, her wife, their two kids before we left.

On Wednesday, I worked from home while my grandson amused himself. I had a great “carrot” for him: If he would let me concentrate, we’d go see the new Minions movie. He kept himself busy.

A former coworker dropped by the house at noon and we had a nice chat at my dining room table/office.

Then at 5:30, I took my grandson to experience to his first movie at a movie theater. It was great. We shared some popcorn and a Pepsi slushy (his choice and I dislike soda but I had to admit it was tasty). He did a fine job of paying attention. There were only five other people in the auditorium besides us, so when he got a little antsy and began to clamber about on the seat backs, no one was bothered. (An aside, I have loved every Despicable Me/Minions movie. There is something hilarious every minute, and I don’t know who writes these or how much cocaine it takes to be this funny, but Bravo.)

Anyway. On Thursday, other than a mad dash to the store for juice boxes, we were once again at my house all day. My exiting tenant dropped by to leave a key and a forwarding address. In the early evening, my middle daughter came over with my younger grandson. My daughter and I talked, but mostly we just enjoyed watching the boys thunder through the house between the guest room and the TV room, echoing down the hallway, thrilled because you can run inside at Nonna’s house.

And then, I coughed.

Just that. A dry little cough. And then I coughed again.

That’s all. Just a couple of dry coughs.

They went home and I put my happy grandson to bed in the guest room, where he’d been sleeping happily and alone for days. But Thursday night was special, because he knew when he woke up, his mom would be there.

Late that night, my ex-husband picked up my youngest daughter at the airport and drove her to my house, where she slipped in the door and went to sleep next to my grandson, just as she’d promised him on the phone.

All was right with the world.

On Friday morning, I woke up before everyone else feeling a little stuffy, coughing now and then, no big deal. But just to be on the safe side, I tested.

Negative. Excellent. I had a summer cold of some sort. I worked all day, and I’m working from home so my mild cold wouldn’t factor in, but how reassuring to know It wasn’t covid.

That same morning, my daughter’s boyfriend arrived from Eugene with my sweet bonus granddaughter. We had a hugs and hellos and nice chat, hello! The trip! Presents from NYC! My granddaughter went in and played with my old dollhouse for a while, which is her favorite thing to do at my house. And we heard all about my daughter’s exciting trip to NY, where she modeled for a Big Company’s marketing efforts.

Eventually, everyone got packed up and ready. I gave them drinks and snacks for the road, and then they left for that two-hour drive home which never takes anyone two hours, because it’s I5 South.

I worked like hell for the rest of the day. My husband came home after work and brought us teriyaki for dinner. I could taste everything, so I felt reassured.

Saturday morning plans involved my brother, his wife, coffee and donuts. But I woke up feeling really snuffly, so I decided to test again, “Just to be on the safe side.” I swabbed and swirled and squeezed and dripped the drops in the little reservoir and watched as the entire test strip lit up pink before the control and positive bars settled in, clear as beacons.

“Oh Honey,” I said to my husband. “I’ve got it. I’m positive.”

Coffee and donuts were cancelled.

So let’s do the math.

Four days before I got sick, I might not have been contagious. It depends on who you ask. On that day, I was around:

Youngest daughter, grandson the first (inside, outside, upside down)

Nine or ten people at the informational talk (outside)

Oldest daughter and her fiancé (inside)

Three days before that first dry cough, I was around:

Middle daughter, Daughter-in-law, Grandson the second, Granddaughter (outside)

Two days before that first dry cough, I was around:

My entire Tuesday class (outside)

Middle daughter, Daughter-in-law, Grandson the second, Granddaughter (inside)

and of course my older grandson (inside and outside)

One day before that first dry cough, I was around:

My grandson (inside)

Former coworker (inside)

Five strangers in the movie auditorium (inside)

Day of:

Grandson (inside)

Former tenant (inside)

Middle daughter and younger grandson (inside)

Every single day:

My husband

That’s so many possible exposures, and I work from home. But I also ran in to the store to get juice boxes and a few other things, right? And I bought gas, and tickets and snacks at the theater. This is how it happens, and how it keeps happening.

Being sick

I had to make quite a few calls and texts, but I felt fine enough to do that.

My husband tested negative, so we instituted some halfassed isolation measures that we assumed wouldn’t work, but we had to at least try. I wasn’t feeling that bad, really. Along about midday Saturday, I called my doctor’s office and let them know that I had Covid, and because I have some risk factors (weight, heart, age) I wanted to know if I should take Paxlovid.

They called back and said they’d made a remote appointment for me with their Paxlovid clinic on Sunday at 3:15. So all I had to do was survive until then. That seemed entirely possible on Saturday morning. But by Saturday afternoon, I was having some doubts.

Do you remember hearing that if you got vaccinated, you’d have a mild case? Remember that? I’m vaccinated and boosted, so I was going along under the assumption that my case would be mild.

Silly me.

I realized how sick I was while trying to participate in an online book group at 4 PM. I was coughing and sneezing, and my eyes watered. Painful, burning fatigue settled on my shoulders, making it hard to remain upright. So I signed off and went to bed, where I rolled around in a fever all that evening and night, blowing my nose and coughing. That cough, deep, painful and smothering, felt like the cough I remembered from February of 2020.

I woke up the next morning horrifically nauseated. I won’t go into it, just trust me, it was terrible. By Sunday afternoon I was a wreck.

Getting myself mentally organized for the telehealth appointment felt impossible. How did Zoom work, again? I really had to think about it, and I’ve been Zooming for how long?

Sitting in a chair also seemed impossible. I was supposed to sit there and hold my head up? How did people do that, anyway? I’d forgotten. But I managed, and met with the doctor, and he gave me the prescription.

My husband (still testing negative) masked up and went to the store, where he procured the Paxlovid, some anti-nausea pills, two magical Mucinex elixirs that helped last time, and a six-pack of soft Kleenex.

As soon as he got home, I took the anti-nausea pill and a dose of Paxlovid, and rolled up in a quilt on our bed, waiting for death or a miracle, whichever came first.

After an hour, my husband peeked in. “Are you feeling any better, sweetie?”

“They said it would take 24 hours,” I replied. “It’s been one.”

The Miracle

But the truth is, I did feel better. The horrible smothering cough improved rapidly. To have that lift felt like a miracle. And after another night of breaking fevers and weird obsessive thoughts where I mentally played my Wordcrossy game (quite brilliantly, I might add), I woke up on Monday morning feeling human again. Weak, dizzy, coughing and spewing snot, but human. So I’ll say it.

Paxlovid is a miracle.

And yes, the taste in your mouth is horrific. If you’ve heard someone complain and thought, how bad could it be? Trust me, it’s worse.

Okay, here are my best descriptions. If you haven’t had your gall bladder out, imagine some dried moldy grapefruit peels, and then light them on fire. In your mouth. Or, if you have had your gall bladder out, once in a while you get something called bile reflux, which is when your stomach fills with bile from your small intestine. It’s painful and horrible and yes, you throw up, and that’s what Paxlovid tastes like. And it’s absolutely worth every wretched moment of that sickening taste, because it helps so much.

Everyone tested again on Sunday. Everyone was negative. Including my husband.

And then, Monday came.

My husband tested negative, so according to his employer’s guidelines, he could go to work masked. But Youngest daughter tested positive and became rapidly, horribly sick, shivering and bed-bound. She was able to get the Paxlovid that same day. It fixed her up enough that she could get out of bed and sit on the sofa, and believe me, that’s a tremendous accomplishment when you have a tough case. She improved steadily and tested negative on the fourth day and has tested negative since.

Grandson the first tested positive on Tuesday. Sick, coughing, feverish for two days, then right as rain. He tested negative on the fourth day. His father tested positive on Wednesday, and tested negative after three days, that young and healthy brute (I am so envious).

I’d managed to expose so many people. No one else in the family got it. My former tenant and former coworker never got it. No one in my class got it. My husband never got it. But still.

Oh, My Guilt

I was devastated when the Eugene branch went down. My family insisted that I get down from the cross because really, they were more worried about me. I’m older and the only mom they have and I have an errant ticker, and I was sick, sick, sick. But I made it through.

After a week, I went back to work (from home, of course). I tested negative on that Friday, and have done a test every day or two since to make sure I don’t have a rebound case, because there’s something going on with my sinuses on left side. It took six weeks for my sinuses to dry out last time, and I’m prepared for it to take that long again.

So, how did this compare to the original Covid?

Well, the fatigue was just as awful, as was the cough: violent, overwhelming, like I was going to suffocate. The nasal congestion has been just as spectacular, and I had vertigo again, and the same general sense of unreality and disorientation.

But the first time around, I didn’t have fevers. I also didn’t have any nausea. So this time was actually worse, except for the fact that I didn’t lose my sense of taste and smell. I am extremely relieved about that.

So aside from the fever and the nausea, the main difference is, the first time around I had no warning, no idea how to prevent this, and no treatment for it. I was a hapless victim of a new illness that everyone kept insisting I couldn’t have because it wasn’t present in the US when my husband and I got it. Except, it was here, and there was nothing I could do about it. But that was last time.

This time, I was just a moron who didn’t mask up at some point. I’m not even sure when. I have become haphazard, but no more. I’ve been a diligent masker after the fact. For one thing, my daughter is getting married in a week. What if I’d gotten it this week? The thought gives me chills, and I’ve had enough of those lately.

So don’t be an idiot, and don’t get sick. Take it from me, who was both.

Current Events I’m Tracking Besides the January 6th Hearings.

Vintage postcard of the American flag, public domain image
photo in the public domain

Which talented artist and renowned humanitarian died in 2022? Please only choose one, thank you.

  1. Bob Saget
  2. Meatloaf
  3. Orrin Hatch
  4. Ivana Trump
  5. Sidney Poitier

What was your reaction to the news that Jennifer Lopez took Ben Affleck’s last name when they got married in Las Vegas recently?

  1. Why are you asking me this question?
  2. OMG she did? That’s so romantic! Long Live Bennifer!
  3. I thought they broke up ten years ago.
  4. Karen, is that really you typing? I’m concerned.
  5. Those people got married? Good for them, whatever, I don’t actually care.

On a scale of one to five, with one being the most and five being the least, please tell me how concerned you are about Monkeypox.

  1. Extremely concerned. I think I already have it. Look, doesn’t that look like a monkeypox? I told you I have it.
  2. Very concerned. I never leave my house, but now I’m really never leaving my house.
  3. I understand that this is a disease passed through the exchange of body fluids, and my chances of contracting it are very low, but I do like to stay informed on matters of national health.
  4. It’s a hoax, made up to deprive us of our constitutional rights not to wear face diapers.
  5. I ain’t no monkey so I ain’t clicking.

Please weigh in on the Tristan/Khloe paternity scandal.

  1. No, stop this. I refuse. I have limits.
  2. Look, I get it, Khloe has always been the matchy-matchy sister, and she needs her babies to match.
  3. I’m 100% here for the “who has the worst taste in men” contest that is the Kardashian family. So far, it’s a dead heat among four of the five.
  4. Are you actually speaking English, Karen?

Will anything ever stick to Teflon Don?

  1. After these hearings? They HAVE to indict him for something.
  2. No.
  3. Never.
  4. No way.
  5. Absolutely not.

Which author who writes about murder is wanted for questioning in an actual murder?

  1. Thomas Harris, who I won’t read, thankyouverymuch.
  2. Kate Atkinson, who often solves the crime with someone introduced late in the book, which isn’t fair for those of us playing along at home.
  3. Gillian Flynn, who would be so talented at figuring out how to do it and not get caught that you would applaud her murders.
  4. Dash Hammett, who is also dead.
  5. Ruth Rendell, especially when writing as Barbara Vine.
  6. Delia Owens, but I’m seeing the movie anyway.

Who appears in every single movie released in the last ten years?

  1. Tessa Thompson.

What has happened since the Uvalde school shooting?

  1. The United States has moved swiftly to institute a ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons of war for the protection of our children.
  2. The same thing that happened inside that hallway during the shooting (nothing).

Are you a pooping woman?

  1. I am, and I agree with this message.
  2. It’s a natural body function, and it’s time we discussed it openly.
  3. THIS NEEDS TO STOP, NOW.

What eradicated disease just showed up again in NYC?

  1. COVID, because it wasn’t real.
  2. Polio, because anti-vaxxers are very real.

The Gray Days

So Much Gray.

A knife, fork and spoon on gray towel.
Image via Pixabay

No, I’m not talking about the weather here in Oregon, though I could. I’m talking about an Instagram Reel I watched today, in which a successful realtor talked about “avoiding décor mistakes in your new build.” Like, avoid counters with lots of “movement” in the stone. Choose a classic floor tile, not a fun one. And guess what’s over in flips and new construction? That’s right. Gray decor has had its day.

Gray is passé !

Apologies in advance to anyone reading this who has a gray kitchen, gray floors, or a preponderance of gray décor. I myself cop to having gray furniture in my TV room, but it’s set against wood bookshelves and red walls (not red red, I am way too boring for that–think of Campbell’s Tomato Soup but made with milk like moms did so long ago). I added some red pillows and throws to punch it up a little more, because, seriously, gray has been an object of mild derision in my house since November of 2016.

What happened in November of 2016? Well, certainly you haven’t forgotten that night in November when a chasm opened underneath America, a chasm over which we still balance, thanks to the polarization of our country.

But how exactly did that lead to my mockery of gray décor?

It happened because after election night, I stared at MSNBC, hollow eyed and grim, for about a week, waiting for someone to DO something, waiting for what had apparently happened to go away, or be challenged, or…something. But nothing happened, aside from an eventual and orderly transfer of power. Remember those?

So I started watching HGTV. Because it was easy. Distracting. Occasionally hilarious, though that was inadvertent. It was like eating toast when your stomach is upset. Toast may or may not be any less offensive to the system than any other food, but it smells good and there’s butter, and sometimes that’s enough.

HGTV was the warm buttered toast my soul needed, when I’d had enough of outrage for the day. Outrage was earned, and constant, and exhausting, so my husband and I watched it.

All. The. Time.

And we were not alone. I think a bunch of famous people did that, too, based on the new crop of celebrity-themed shows that have popped up on the network. Quite a few of us collapsed in front of HGTV in 2016, and we all have our favorite shows. Those of us who are celebrities can have shows, too, like Lil John and Melissa McCarthy.

These Johnny-come-lately celebrities do not host my favorite HGTV shows. I like them old school, and that means…

FLiP oR fLoP

Before Ben & Erin, and aside from the Gaineses, the First Couple of HGTV was/were the mighty El-Moussas, Tarek and Christina. He was dorky and innocent, and she was blonde and prone to rolling her eyes and smirking at her husband. This lasted until the inevitable divorce, after which Tarek remodeled himself into a hunk so he could catch a younger realtor, and Christina completely checked out.

Despite her contempt for him and his almost total lack of a personality, I found them so easy to watch. They would find a cheap house in a passable neighborhood somewhere in the hive of freeways that is the LA area. Sometimes they would luck into an expensive house in an expensive neighborhood, where they would be almost guaranteed to lose money.

Wherever the property was located, they would tour the house while Christina said “Ew” a lot. Tarek would underestimate the cost of flipping with or without a contractor present, then pretend to “call the seller” (who I assume was a producer standing just off-camera) to dicker over the price.

Then they would gut the house and make everything gray.

A gray open concept kitchen
Photo via Pixabay

Christina, whose voice is heavy on the vocal fry and SoCal Valleyspeak, would always be going on about being “obsessed.” She was almost always obsessed with something gray. “I’m obsessed with this backsplash.” “Buyers will be obsessed with this bathroom.” “I’m obsessed with these floors.” Christina seems to have some caps in her orthodontic history, so “obsessed” seemed really sibilant and over-applied because do people really get obsessed with a backsplash?

Especially when all the backsplashes were gray.

They were. Really. The backsplashes were gray, or gray marble, or those cement-look “let’s-have-a-fiesta” patterns in black, gray, and charcoal. The counters were generally white quartz with big swirls of gray running through them, but sometimes they were gray. The floors were done up in that taupe-gray, or just plain gray fake wood laminate.

Sometimes they went absolutely wild, and used gray ceramic floor tiles.

With all this gray, each home had the warmth and personality of a TJMaxx restroom.

Once the interior had been created in this cold, boring palette, they would go outside and paint three colors of gray on the siding. Christina sometimes slapped up a really strange color like puce, so she could roll her eyes and smirk at Tarek while he protested. Then fun time would be over, and they would agree on one that Christina called, “a nice warm gray.”

Seriously? A nice warm gray?

Is there a nice warm gray? I mean, really? Isn’t gray by nature a cool, dull, nearly invisible color? Like, have you ever just not seen a gray car on the freeway, because it’s the same color as the road? My brother actually sold a gray car after he got rear-ended twice by people who didn’t see him.

And the sheer ocular boredom of it. I have a soft beige bedroom because I want it soothing and restful. I guess gray could be that way, too. But a gray bedroom would veer from serenity to despair very quickly. Like, why am I in a cave?

But for ten years, gray décor has led the way. Especially in flipped homes, which are remodeled to be as basic as possible, so that no one can object to anything at all about the décor. They are engineered to be devoid of personality, which is apparently causing some trouble with resale, now. Can you imagine the stagers coming into these homes? “Quick! Splash some teal around here! Unearth some daffodil! For god’s sake, liberate the tangerine!” It must be a color emergency, every single time.

So is gray finally over?

Let’s see what the experts have to say about it.

From HGTV.com: Go Under-board

“… the days of monochromatic gray interiors appear to be dwindling,” says interior designer Marie Flanigan. “Although we’re seeing less full-on gray spaces, people continue to be drawn to the thoughtful use of the hue.” The lesson here? A little goes a long way.

From the Washington Post, where “Democracy Dies in Darkness, but we still talk about decorating trends” : After years of being the ‘it’ neutral, gray may be on its way out

There are a lot of things people are sick of these days: bad news, limited gatherings, Zoom calls, incessant cleaning and disinfecting, and, judging from the comments I see on social media, the color gray. Whether it’s a pale shade or a deep charcoal, gray seems to have overstayed its welcome.

From Apartmenttherapy.com: Why Real Estate Agents Hate Gray Living Rooms

As is the nature of trends, it seems gray has been overdone to the extreme, with homeowners outfitting their abodes in the neutral hue from floor to ceiling—accessories and furniture included.

So sure, if you read these articles, which date from 2020 to today, you’d think gray was over. You’d think. But for every article I found condemning gray for the empty choice it is, I found another going on about timeless neutrals and versatile basics.

These articles extol colors like Agreeable Gray, Repose Gray, Light French Gray, and Mindful Gray, from Sherwin Williams (they also have Amazing Gray and Dorian Gray, which are clever, clever, clever).

Benjamin Moore has Edgecomb Gray, Silver Satin, Gray Owl, Gray Cloud, and Revere Pewter.

Do any of these names give you any actual information about which shade of gray they might be? And does it matter?

Let’s be honest about gray.

Let’s give gray the color names it deserves. Like…

Mouse-in-a-trap Gray.

Humdrum Gray.

Cracked Patio Gray.

Dryer Lint Gray.

Wheel Rim Gray.

Cinderblock Gray.

Sidewalk Gray.

Basement Floor Gray.

So, to answer my own question, I think gray might be over. I think gray should be over.

But since so many houses are gray now, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Living While Fat

Zaftig

Sculpture of a fat woman with a big, happy hiney.
Image via Pixabay

ZAHF-tig

Part of speech: adjective

Origin: Yiddish, 1930s

Having a full, rounded figure; plump (typically used of a woman)

Dating while fat

Back when I was filling out those online dating profiles, I used to wonder what to call myself. My weight varied and I didn’t own a scale. I was fairly sure I wasn’t “a few extra pounds” because it was way more than a few. There was “curvy,” which was true—in those days I had a true hourglass with a flat stomach and admirable waist-to-hip ratio—but that didn’t take into account the exaggerated nature of the hourglass.

“Big and beautiful” seemed too much of a value judgment on my part. Big, yes, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A man I dated a few times confirmed my reluctance around that term when he said, “Just because you’re fat, doesn’t mean you’re pretty” (he did think I was pretty). He told me I was what his black friends in the military called “thick” (now “thicc” in the parlance of the day). To me, that term implies a certain firmness or muscularity I lack.

There was “full-figured.” I probably chose that the most, but it was a term that no one (including me) understood. My dear friend and dating guru, who is exactly what “curvy” should mean on those profiles, thought I should instead put “curvy.” She believed in casting a wide net. When the inevitable coffee date came, she thought my superior wit and charm would cancel out the fact that I hadn’t been honest.

I tried that a few times, but the disappointment in men’s eyes on meeting was more than I could take. So I always made it quite clear that I was not thin. I did this on purpose. If weight was an issue, I didn’t want to meet. I was being…efficient.

Even so, I’d be gently questioned by my correspondents, politely asking the equivalent of, “Just how fat are you?” Pretty damn fat, thanks for asking. This might be followed by a polite request for some specific data, as in, height, weight, measurements, dress size, and so on. Or better yet, a nude photo.

To which I replied, “Next.”

Other times, men would try to argue with me about my size. Something equivalent to, “I bet you’re not fat at all. I bet you’ve just bought into our society’s unrealistic weight standards for women.” The wishful thinking behind this was pretty obvious, and there was no point in stringing them along. “Nope,” I’d insist, “I’m actually overweight. I don’t hate myself, I’m not slamming myself, I’m just being honest so that neither of us wastes any time.”

Despite all my efforts to weed them out, some men who objected to my weight would be brave and meet me anyway. My guess is, they were taken enough by my face and wit that they thought they could get past it, and were disappointed that they couldn’t. A few asked me why I didn’t lose weight. “Oh, I don’t know,” I’d say. “I’ve gained and lost so much weight over the course of my life, and I want to take a break from all that.”

This was a revolutionary stance, back in the day. I wasn’t loud and proud about my self-acceptance, but I was firm in my quiet refusal to accept the idea that I had no worth or value in the world because I was fat. I also made it clear that this probably wasn’t going to change. This attitude actively antagonized some men. I guess I didn’t hate myself enough for them.

At any rate, the point of all this is that when I wanted to, I found men who admired and accepted me, and were proud to take me out and about. And even though I wrote an entire book about a very specific time in my dating years when I was laser focused on finding a man worthy of commitment, and how fruitless that particular search was, that was less than six months. Most of the time I did fine. I’m also glad to be married, and off the market.

As a side note (and to be fair), I think that combination of fat/devoid of self-hatred is rare out there in the dating arena. So many fat women cower in shame over taking up any space at all. I understand, because every six or eight months I slide into self-loathing over my weight. Usually this happens when I have to fly, because sometimes I have to ask for a seatbelt extender and sometimes I don’t. I have not completely reinvented contemporary womanhood, and that experience can melt me right down. I might even start a diet when this happens. The last thing I tried was intermittent fasting, which worked for a week, and then I boomed right back up to my starting weight, so forget that.

I have a life to live.

Living while fat

I was over at a friend’s house for dinner the other evening, and we talked about weight. My friend is healthy and slim, with a graceful, classically proportioned shape. Like, those elongated Venus on the half-shell proportions. But she was an overweight kid and teen. That will scar you. Even though she lost her weight forty+ years ago, it still haunts her. It’s hiding around the corner, a big pink blob waiting to jump back on her if she relaxes her vigilance. She weighs herself each morning, and carefully considers every bite of food that goes into her mouth. She doesn’t trust her thinness. She says she has body dysmorphia.

I told her that (like Ann Wilson of Heart) I have body promorphia. That I always think I look fine. I walk around here like I have a right to be here, thinking I look great most of the time. And occasionally I see a photo or a reflection that contradicts this, a self-view that makes me say “Yeesh, Karen. Seriously?” Those moments of reckoning (like the seatbelt extender) can trigger self-loathing, but I furiously beat it back.

The thing is, I wasn’t always this way. I used to feel extremely upset with any weight gain. Here’s a very old photo of me right after I had a baby, and was awash with self-loathing over how fat I was.

It is clear that I was not fat. It is also clear that I like myself more now than I did then, despite the enormous difference in my size.

I don’t care if anyone else understands or accepts my acceptance of being fat, but I realize this is an affront to people who fight hard not to be fat. I’ve likened it to religion. Some people find a religion and are gripped with apostolic fervor. They organize their life around it, and forego certain of life’s pleasures, and resist temptations and struggle through dark nights of the soul because they have found the answer, the one true way.

And there they are suffering for their beliefs, and here I am, shrugging, because as far as religion goes, I’m fine without it. I realize this is a slap in the face to true believers. My “whatever, no thanks” attitude about diet and fitness probably feels the same to those who have devoted their lives to it.

The formerly fat fitness influencers I see on Instagram have gorgeously muscled bodies and post things like, “If I can do it, you can do it. You have to want it enough.” I agree, you do have to want it enough and I don’t. Whatever the cost is to being thin—eating 900 calories a day, time at the gym, all that damn sweating—I don’t want to pay it. I’ll just stay over here, putting half and half in my coffee, eating whatever the hell I want to, and being fat.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I have a life to live.   

Eating while fat

Believe it or not, I don’t eat that much. I have something called lipedema, or lipoedema, or lipoeadema, depending on who you ask. You can fall down the rabbit hole of googling it, or you can look here: https://www.lipedema.org/  This condition has been recognized since the 1940s, but American doctors don’t diagnose it because isn’t it easier to tell your patients that they can lose weight if they just want it enough? Isn’t it more effective for the medical community to shame you for your weight? Isn’t this poorly understood medical condition just another excuse for women to be lazy and fat?

But the reason I don’t eat that much has nothing to do with lipidema. I went through a bunch of foregut testing six years ago. My mother died of small cell carcinoma of the esophagus (as opposed to the kind of throat cancer caused by HPV), and I wanted to understand my own risk factors. I’d had chronic heartburn for years and years, and treated it with OTC acid suppressors, but I was starting to have a lot of night regurgitation and thought it was time to get things straightened out.

So in addition to an endoscopy, I did all these tests. Like, they implanted a little capsule-sized sensor in my esophagus that measured every acid spike that rose into my throat. Every time I had a stab of heartburn, I clicked a thingie that then coordinated with the information gathered by the capsule. And yes, if you’re wondering, I could feel the capsule in there. I felt like I’d swallowed a pill that wouldn’t go down. It was supposed to fall out after three or four days and go through my digestive system, but it took two weeks to do that. Fun times.

But wait, there’s more!

Next, I had a tube snaked into one nostril and down into my stomach to measure something else. That was also uncomfortable. That was a swallowing reflex text. Then I sat in the office and drank something disgusting and had my swallowing reflex measured in another way.

We found out some interesting information during all that.

I had serious chronic heartburn, and yes, I could tell when I had acid spikes. Believe it or not, that’s good, because some people’s esophagi are so scarred, they don’t feel the pain anymore. Despite my huge nostrils, I have tiny sinus passages and a small esophagus that narrows at the bottom due to scar tissue from acid reflux.

I have a hiatal hernia that a nurse called “cute.” “You have a cute little hiatal hernia bobbing around in there.” I’ve always wondered about that. What makes a hernia cute?

My swallowing reflex is pathetic, which is the cause of my esophageal spasms (these are so painful that some people mistake them for heart attacks).

I have chronic heartburn because don’t have a valve at the top of my stomach. Oddly enough, my sister and younger brother are the same. My guess is, this is an anomaly inherited from our mother, and explains why her esophagus became cancerous.

There are surgeries that might help with some of this, but if they go wrong, they really go wrong. Like, goodbye to solid food wrong. So I have developed an entire protocol for how, when, and what I eat to try to deal with all this stuff. A big part of it is, I never want to be too full.

I don’t eat that much.

I’m a queen of the leftovers. I cook for two at home, but still save leftovers from most dinners and eat them for lunch. If we eat out, I always have to ask for a box.

I also eat early. This makes me a difficult dinner guest because I need two or three hours and a bunch of water before I go to bed, and if we start eating at 8 PM, I have to sit up and sip water until the wee hours before getting prone. I’ve been eating like a senior citizen for many years. There is a certain relief in actually reaching senior citizen age, because now my early eating habits seem less absurd.

So you’d think with all that, I’d just give up food and switch to protein shakes or something. But even though I’m fat, and I’m supposed to be ashamed and secretive about it, I actually do enjoy eating food, so I muddle through.

Growing up with fat

As previously mentioned, I haven’t reinvented womanhood. I do care about how I look, and it does get tiresome to be fat sometimes, but I’m determined to like myself because I was raised by a woman who didn’t. My mom also had lipidema, though we didn’t have a medical name for it. We just called it “Mom’s legs.” Mom’s legs were her lifelong shame, and I inherited those same legs—well, not exactly the same, but my fat-legged genetic destiny was inescapable. I accepted that, but I didn’t accept that my body should be a source of pain, anger and self-loathing, like it was for Mom. She inspired me to try to find a different path.

But first I had to get through my childhood.

There is so much I could write here about my mother, and my older brother, who was morbidly obese before he was a year old, and the diets my mother started subjecting me to at age seven, and my sister’s eating disorders, and my birth father’s very vocal hatred of fat women, and my own decades of up and down dieting. It would fill a book and at some point I might even write that book. I’m taking a memoir class with a friend this summer, and I assume we will be asked to pick a topic to write about, and maybe this will be mine.

I’m not sure I want to do that.

There’s a crew of people who have recently decided it’s okay to be fat because they watched some Lizzo videos or read Lindy West’s books or whatever.  They’re trying to stop pitying and/or despising fat people, and are desperately trying to find them admirable.

“You go girl, look at you, over there being fat and everything! Whoohoo, chubby woman! I feel you! Team cellulite!”

Writing a book about my weight might feel too much like initiating a conversation I’m not quite ready to have, especially with those people. I dread the idea of offering up my fat reality to their new understanding that I’m a human being.

But whether or not I ever write at length about how deeply weight affected my earliest years of life, and what weight loss and weight gain meant to my personal happiness, at some point I decided to get on with life without worrying about my weight all the time. I had a life to live, and no matter what I weighed, I went ahead and lived it.

I’m starting to understand what a radical act that was.

A New One Arrives

Recent travel for reasons delightful

A baby girl whose name is Pearl.

I’m recently back from Brooklyn, where my daughter and her wife have welcomed a new baby girl to the world. This is my first granddaughter, so I braved a plane ride and Omicron to visit them, to help with the baby, to enjoy my three year-old grandson, and to just spend some time with my far-flung girl, who left Oregon at age 22 and has been a Brooklynite ever since.

I was warned that my grandson had a cold. I’ve had lots of colds, so that was not going to deter me. I got on that plane and kept my elbows in for five hours and arrived at JFK fairly late. The long ride in was quiet. My Uber driver didn’t chat me up, so I was free to watch the neighborhoods unspool before my Oregon eyes; commercial strips that seemed like perfectly constructed movie sets with marginal businesses with their graffiti-sprayed pull-down doors. I honestly don’t know where I was, even thought I’ve taken this ride many times on my way around Prospect Park, and into Park Slope, where the kids live.

Park Slope

I love this area. I often visited one my best friends here from 1997 to 2014, when she moved away from Brooklyn. I can’t say that I know my way around Park Slope, because I really don’t. But I know the feeling of it. The brownstone streets soothe and delight me. When I walk down one of these streets—or even just look down one of them from a more commercial street—I’m instantly delighted and uplifted.

Here, my gut says, here is a place you could actually live in New York, Karen. You actually belong on one of these streets, with these fenced and tended trees, with these curving stoops constructed to last centuries. My entire body thrills to the idea. But I am hopelessly rooted in the Pacific Northwest. I count myself lucky to have visited this neighborhood, to have understood the beauty and allure of this part of the city.

After a 45 minute drive, I found my daughter waiting on the street for me. We shared the first hug in years, because the last time I saw her was pre-vaccine, and our visits were distanced. So we had a nice, long hug, me and my girl, there on the streets of Park Slope. And then, I went in to see her “new place.” It was close to 11pm, and I’d had hopes that the new baby might be awake. But she is what one calls “a good baby,” so she sleeps at night. All I had was a quick peek into a darkened room, to see her swaddled form in her bassinette.

The next morning, I got to meet her.

And oh, what a peach she is. Just a snuggly little armful of new baby girl, with bright eyes that open up so wide that the whites show over her irises! And so many things made her eyes open like that; the miracle of the front windows, some particular picture frames, and of course, our faces. She was seven weeks old, two weeks older than her brother was when I first met him. Smiling and occasionally giggling, interested in her baby books, prone to evening colic with a fierce, low, pissed-off squall, and occasionally catching sight of her own hands with bemused wonder.

There are not too many things to say about new babies, which is too bad, because they truly do function as the center of the universe. There is the baby’s appearance, which is, in the case of my granddaughter, absolute perfection. This baby is a beauty, with brown eyes and wavy, almost-black hair, and beautiful darkly golden skin. After a blonde, blue-eyed grandson, and a strawberry blonde, hazel-eyed grandson, it appears that the dominant genes have come into play. She looks like my first two daughters, and it’s pretty special, I tell you. She is a substantial, healthy baby. Her feet are tiny, with narrow heels, and her hands? Well, certainly no other hands have such intriguing wrinkles and perfectly shaped nail beds.

Every tiny piece and parcel of a new baby is fascinating, even though they don’t do that much besides the rudimentary functions of life. For these functions—nursing, burping, spitting up, peeing, pooping, sleeping, crying—they are endlessly praised. As they should be. I am here to report that my granddaughter is an absolute champion at all of these, just so you know.

Rolling and Back Sleeping

Her older brother rolled over for the first time while I was visiting him at five weeks, but she hasn’t. I hope she does soon, because she loves to sleep on her stomach.  Did you know there are rules, now, about babies sleeping on their stomachs, and not having any blankets or bumpers in cribs or cradles? Babies sleep on their backs in swaddles, something I learned when my oldest grandson was born four years ago. It’s a wonder my kids survived their infancies, because they slept on their stomachs under baby blankets, surrounded by lethal bumpers and killer teddy bears.

Once my granddaughter can roll, she can safely sleep on her stomach, which was her favorite thing to do while I was there, to fill up at the breast and then sleep on her stomach on someone’s chest for hours, safe and warm and soothed by an adult heartbeat.

So that’s what I did.

I held her and rocked her, changed her diapers, and walked her fussies away. I entertained her with various black and white picture books and things that squeaked and jangled. I also became terribly sick with my grandson’s cold, and managed to live through a day when I couldn’t get out of bed. But I think, on the whole, I was a benefit to her moms.

I haven’t even talked about my grandson, who I was really able to get to know as a talkative three year-old. We had mountains of fun. Nothing entertains me more than kids. I want to observe their ways, and understand how they see the world, and cherish up all their funny little ways of saying things, like, for example.

Okay, like this one.

My daughter was looking forward to my cooking while I was there. One night she asked me to make my special pork chops, and to show her how to make them. My smothered pork chops are really easy to make, but the recipe is not mine. I actually learned how to make these from her great aunt on her father’s side, who used to sell dinners off her back porch in New Orleans. So there was a lot of talk about these chops, and how to make them. My grandson was intrigued, but he had already eaten by the time they were done.

So the next night he kept asking about “Nonna’s peshul foe charts” which sounded to us like he wanted my special flow charts, and then his mom figured out he was asking about “Nonna’s special pork chops.” We’d saved him one, he ate it right up for dinner, and all was well. But I giggle over the idea of my special flow charts, every time. He also helped me make tuna casserole, but when I served him some, he didn’t like it at all. “It’s not tasty to me! Why it’s not tasty!” Hey, you can’t please everyone, even an omnivorous, adventurous eater like this grandson.

Becoming Nonna

We definitely built a nice rapport while I was there. I could type in about a hundred different times when he chose me for reading night time stories, playing magna tiles, holding his hand, doing the post-potty paperwork, painting pictures, watching the paleontology episode of Sesame Street, and so on. He was a delightful guy to hang out with.

When it was time to go, we were both sad. When I left him in Brooklyn three years ago, I cried all the way across America, wondering when I’d see him again. And you’d think that this time, since I was leaving two grandchildren behind, I’d have cried twice as much. But I didn’t.

You know why? In August, they are moving back to Oregon.

Karen Berry in the UK, what has happened to you?

Face of a vintage slot machine with numbers and fruits
Image by Igor Ovsyannykov from Pixabay

OTHER KBs

Okay, by now you’ve probably heard me complain about the 250+ people who have my name, and therefore sign up for things using my email address. Right now, I’m wishing the Karen Berry (I’m guess in North Carolina or Florida) who signed me up for the Epoch News would have her Internet privileges revoked permanently. You should see my spam folder, it’s a right-wing parade of requests for money from Don Junior and Tucker Carlson and the like. “Stop the Radical Left NOW!” they demand, while demanding my money, which of course they will never get because apparently I am the radical left, even though there’s nothing remotely radical about me.

But now, I’m concerned about the UK KBs.

It all started with the appearance of ads for online slots gambling games on my Instagram account. Now, you know, sometimes you get some strange ads on Facebook and Instagram, like I was bombarded with ads for palletizing equipment for about a month. What is palletizing, you might ask? I’m not sure, but I imagine it has to do with preparing pallets for shipping. I promise you that I am not now, nor have I been in the past, in any way involved with palletizing, but those ads were all over my feeds.

So when I started to be constantly bombarded with ads for casino-type games, i wondered what the heck was going on. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I don’t enjoy gambling. I find it dull and pointless. When in Vegas, my loss limit for the whole trip is either 20 dollars or 40 dollars, depending on how long we’re staying. If I’m lucky, I can get those losses out of the way within the first fifteen minutes in a casino, freeing up my Vegas time for things I actually enjoy doing, like sightseeing, going to shows, reading in the room, and eating. And it’s been quite a while since we went to Vegas, due to the pandemic. So when these ads started appearing, I knew something was up.

After the ads came the emails.

SO MANY emails, because someone in the UK with my name has signed up for at least ten different UK gambling sites, most of which don’t require a verification of the email address. Every day, I get emails from a new one, offering free spins and so forth. So some Karen Berry in the UK has completely gone down the rabbit hole of online gambling, and she’s taken me with her!

The emails are not a big deal, really. I either write to them and tell them to take me off their rolls (if I can find a contact email) or I unsubscribe. But my email address is associated with these sites, and that’s why I’m getting all these damn ads. I’m also on the dark web with the wrong email password, and I assume it’s because she’s signed into some shady site. I really don’t like that at all. What’s worse, I’ve started to receive “Do you have a gambling addiction?” emails from the UK gaming commission, offering resources for people who have gotten themselves into financial trouble with gambling.

So, this is where the writer in me kicks in, and starts making up stories.

Is it you, New Zealand KB?

I know there is at least one KB in New Zealand, because she tries to sign up for health club appointments, spa appointments, training sessions and the like with my email. Now, if you know me, you also know that I enjoy fitness endeavors just about as much as I enjoy gambling. But this KB is just living her best life. So even though I’ve had to correct senders now and then, she appears to have learned her own email address. But in my story, this type A fitness buff has experienced a sport-related injury, and turned to online gambling during her convalescence. She’s stopped registering for 5K runs and started registering for Slots-O-Mania, instead. Her carefully maintained body falls to hell, as does her type-A lifestyle, as she sinks further into online gambling.

I like this idea, but is it interesting? Is the fall of the Type-A an overdone trope? And perhaps more importantly, am I the person who could convincingly write from the perspective of a person who is fiercely devoted to physical fitness?

That’s a serious question, by the way.

Or maybe it’s you, Ireland KB.

There’s also the KB in Dublin, Ireland, who signed up for PlentyOfFish with my email. Since I’m married, I really don’t want my email address associated with any dating sites. So I signed in, changed her password, and tried to cancel the account. PoF wouldn’t let me! If you sign up there, you have to let the account ride for a while until you can make it go away. Well, because I was irritated as hell about this, I edited her profile to reflect the carelessness of a person who doesn’t know her own email address. I said something like, “Hi, I’m a idiot who doesn’t know her own email address, so now a stranger is getting my emails!”

After about ten “reset your password” emails arrived, I signed in again and added some more choice words about intelligence. Then I wrote to PoF and told them what happened. They finally took the profile down. That’s great, but there is something about PlentyOfFish–a dating site that is well-stocked with bottom feeders–and an online slots addiction that go together in my mind.

But this is too messy and too tidy at the same time. It’s just not as interesting to me.

Please don’t have it be you, Wales KB.

My thoughts have turned a Welsh KB who was approaching retirement. This past year, I was contacted by a financial counselor with all kinds of personal documents attached, as well as an email trail in which KB in Wales requested that her on-file email address be changed to MY email address. It’s not often that I actually have my hands on the real email address belonging to one of my many email offenders, so of course I wrote to her, and asking in caps to “PLEASE STOP USING MY EMAIL ADDRESS NOW, THANK YOU.”

A week later, I got an email back from her denying that she’d ever done such a thing, and telling me that my use of caps was uncalled for and most upsetting. I guess they are very tender and sensitive in Wales regarding the use of caps. Who knew. But this KB does provide fictional potential; a story about a woman who has longed for her retirement only to find that when it arrives, she needs some thrills, chills and spills–the kind that can only be provided by online slots machines.

Which should I use?

That’s three story ideas, with three different KB main characters. Should I use the fitness buff, the online dater, or the new retiree? I can’t decide. But don’t worry. Whichever one I use, I’m absolutely going to change her name.