Mean Girls

I was never a mean girl.

But I have known a few mean girls in my life.

As a child I was shy, and then, when people got to know me, I was goofy and overly loving. This wasn’t a formula for social success, but that didn’t matter much in the tiny town of Claremont, South Dakota, where my memories of life begin. You only had a few choices as far as children your age to play with. I always had friends. I remember running up to one of them on the playground at Claremont’s tiny school and hugging her and saying, “I just love you so much!”

This is near Claremont, and I will fight anyone who says SD isn’t beautiful.

I’m still this way about friendship. Puppyish and delighted. I find myself thinking, “Dial it back, Karen, don’t be so effusive!” But no matter how much I try to be cool about it, I haven’t changed much in the intervening years, despite my interactions with some…

Really. Mean. Girls.

Surviving Edina

This story starts in December of 1970, when we moved from Rapid City, SD, to Edina, Minnesota. At the time, Edina was the most prosperous suburb of Minneapolis, and my prosperous uncle lived there, so of course that’s where we absolutely had to live according to my mother.

Edina, Minnesota is a bad place to be poor.

At first we rented the parsonage of my uncle’s church, which wasn’t an auspicious debut to Edina society, but there we were, the poor relations from South Dakota. My sister and I were enrolled in the same grade school, where the social hierarchy seemed to be centered on a playground slide called the “barn door.”

Let me describe this thing to you, please.

The barn door was a huge piece of metal set at an angle, like a 12-foot wide slide. There were ladders at each end, and a thick pole attached across the top. The idea was, you’d climb a ladder and shinny out on that pole, then slide down, landing I-don’t-know-how because it was really steep. The other side was just an empty drop to the playground.

I’m not making this up and I’m not describing it very well, but I ran it by my sister and she confirmed that this was real. Before I asked her, I spent ten minutes Googling “dangerous old playground slides.” I’m properly horrified, but I didn’t find an example.

So, back to the barn door.

No one actually used this as a slide. It was more like a set for a grade school production of Lord of the Flies. Kids would edge out onto the pole and straddle it like birds on a wire, clinging to their perch, crowing and jeering while the kids beside them tried to shove them down the slide. Other kids scrambled up the face of the slide and dragged the pole sitters down, something like the zombies swarming the wall in World War Z.

I was a retiring child, but I did love a challenge. That spring I’d gotten myself up there, which was nearly impossible to do because this playground feature was always mobbed. An older girl yanked on my coat to drag me down and I told her she was a ding-dong. So that’s what they called me. They were three nameless, faceless older girls who bullied me. I’d be walking down the hall minding my own business and one of them would see me and shout out “DIIIIIIIING-DOOOOOONG” and the others would join in.

There went my day.

I never made friends at this school and was desperately lonely. When summer came, I played with my sister and her friend Susan, or hung out in the basement where my brother’s room was, and we played Matchbox and Hot Wheels for hours. I was basically fine. That’s how it always was, right? Three weird kids moving somewhere new, enduring their time of being social pariahs by retreating into imaginative play. That was us.

A Fresh Start.

That summer, my parents bought a little Craftsman house in what felt like (to me) a neighborhood of sprawling contemporary fantasy castles. We were still in Edina, but our new home was in a better school district and a fancier neighborhood. I know the prevailing wisdom was to “buy the worst house in the best neighborhood.” But that means you’re always going to be the poorest people in the neighborhood.

That’s what we were, there in our tiny house with 1940s bark cloth wallpaper we couldn’t afford to replace, because my (then) stepdad immediately got laid off or fired, and my mother was newly pregnant and she certainly wasn’t going to go back to work. In contrast, our neighbor had an indoor swimming pool. And a sauna. And five kids who each had their own room.

I’d never understood how poor we were until we moved to this second house in Edina, but I figured it out quickly. Edina was the beginning of my education in the particulars of the American class system, which fascinates and angers me. That’s another blog post entirely, or you can read the Gentry books, because his struggles with it echo my own.

But back to fifth grade. When it came time to start school, I didn’t have any shoes; the heel had broken off my summer sandals, and my other shoes had a big hole in the sole. Mom took me to Southdale mall in my socks to get a pair of shoes.

Strangely enough, I was not a social pariah in this new school. I was immediately befriended by two girls; Nancy and Mary Ann.

Nancy, the Queen Bee

Nancy was short and blonde, with a pinched face and small, sharp teeth. She lived in a large multi-level ranch home on a cul de sac within walking distance of my house. She had a teenage sister who was blonde, plump and mean, and a middle-school-age brother who was also blond and mean. These three kids dealt with each other in a spiteful, cutting way that baffled me. Yes, my sister and I fought, and sometimes we ganged up on our older brother just to be creeps, but we were essentially calm with each other.

Still, I liked going over to Nancy’s house because it had the first family room I’d ever encountered, with wood paneling and special casual furniture and a big color TV. And they had snacks. We never had snacks at my house. Ever. The likely reason was my brother, who mercilessly ate through anything like that. But they had snacks at Nancy’s, and every so often, she’d ask me “Do you want a snack?” and I’d sheepishly say yes. And then she’d regale me with a wonderland of choices, from ice cream sandwiches to chips to Pudding Cups and so on.

I don’t remember ever seeing Nancy’s father, though he lived there. Her mother was a short, stocky, scowling presence with a brunette beehive. My only clear memory of her is from that Christmas. One afternoon that winter, I came over and Nancy let me in the front door and we walked past their formal living room. Nancy’s mother was in there sitting on the couch, cocktail in hand, staring at the lights of her flocked white tree, decorated with green and blue and gold glass ball ornaments. She didn’t even look at us.

I was disturbed by Nancy’s mother that day. She seemed palpably miserable in her sophisticated living room; silent, brooding, and drunk. To be fair, maybe she was simply having a drink and enjoying her fancy tree.

But I don’t think so.

Southdale decorated for Christmas
A Christmas postcard from Southdale Center, where my mother shoplifted all our Christmas presents in 1971, but that’s another blog post.

Mary Ann, the worker bee

The other part of our trio, Mary Ann, was going to be gorgeous, but at age 11 she was overly coltish; tall and thick in that athletic, muscular way that signals Scandinavian heritage and athletic ease. She had a huge smile with big straight white teeth, and tawny skin and wavy golden brown hair that was always done up in two childish braids.

Her hair and clothes were oddly juvenile, for a fifth grader. This was 1971, so there were cute, mod choices out there for girls, but Mary Ann always had on a plaid Polly Flinders smocked dress and those braids. The effect was very Cindy Brady. She was the youngest of many girls–she had four or five older sisters–so there must have been a sizable pile of hand-me-downs.

I only went to Mary Ann’s home a few times, but her many sisters were amazing. Tall and toothy and fashionable, laughing and joking, radiating intelligence and vigor, like healthy, strapping versions of the sisters in The Virgin Suicides. Someone was always getting ready to go skiing.

So, that’s Nancy and Mary Ann. I’d gone from friendless to having two best friends. They apparently didn’t mind my poverty, and the fact that I had very few clothes, and there were no snacks at my house. But I soon discovered that I’d been ushered into this trio for one reason, and one reason only.

They invited me in so they could leave me out.

To be part of a clique felt wonderful, at first. That sense of inclusion was intoxicating. But my lack of experience meant that I didn’t understand that along with inclusion came exclusion. I was clueless as to their social dynamics. I had no defenses when they’d not speak to me for a day or two, or do things secretly without me and then let me know “accidentally” so I’d be sure to feel left out. At least once a week they’d “ditch” me. Ditching was new to me, and humiliating. We’d all go to the girls’ room, and I’d come out of my stall, and they were gone.

Exclusion was devastating. And constant. One day, I was so upset by them that I came home and cried to my mother about it. That was a mistake. Without my knowing, she called each of their mothers and basically told these women that their daughters were rotten little brats who should have been drowned at birth. Mom maybe even used those words, I don’t know, she had a temper.

And of course both Mary Ann and Nancy sneered at me the next day, accusing me of “having your mom call our moms.” I had no idea Mom had done that, and was humiliated beyond words. Also, Nancy sneered at me for “eating all our snacks.” I was angry about that, because I’d had maybe a snack a month over there. Did my delight show that much? (probably). Then, miraculously, they decided to bring me back into the fold.

This went on for just a few months. Occasionally, they’d fight with each other, and each vie for my friendship. I found this triangulation excruciating. I was always relieved when they’d make up and I could go back to my role as third wheel, in spite of the fact that sooner or later, I’d be on the outs myself.

Listen, I had options.

When I was home, I played with my neighbor, Marcy, who lived in the house with the pool. I went to slumber parties for my other classmates, even though I despised sleepovers. There was a girl named Robin—a smart girl, but she was an only child, which was unheard of back then, so she could be a little intense. She invited me over to play, and lobbied hard for me to be her best friend. She even wrote some desperate notes to me about it. I didn’t know how to handle her ardent girl crush, so eventually, I ignored her (I’m sorry, Robin, I should have been friends with you, I really should have).

I could have made other friends, but there was an allure to the roller coaster of friendship with Mary Ann and Nancy. It was so awful when they were being awful, and then so fun when they were being fun. I couldn’t break free, but I was increasingly miserable. My stomach hurt all the time. I was missing school because of it.

Events come to a head.

That January, bronchitis kept me out of school for two weeks. I probably could have come back sooner, but it was a relief not to participate in the drama, and my stomach needed a rest. Of course, when I finally had to come back to class, it knotted right up again because they weren’t speaking to me.

At that point, it was almost normal. I got busy on my makeup assignments and waited for my time in exclusion hell to be over. But that wasn’t going to happen. Another girl, Renee, stopped by my desk and let me know with a smile that one day at recess, Nancy and Mary Ann had held a mock trial in my absence, to decide whether or not they still had to be friends with me.

The verdict was no.

I remember what that felt like, to hear about that trial, to imagine something like this taking place in front of (and with, there had to be a jury, right?) my classmates. I felt the scald of shame and humiliation under my skin, but I didn’t cry. I turned to steel. I resolved to never speak to either of them again.

Of course, those two were annoyed that I’d moved on, and within days they tried to get back in my good graces. I remember sitting in a lunchroom, eating from a tray by myself. They sat down at my table and had a long, loud conversation about how sad they were that “Karen won’t talk to us anymore.” “Even though we’re sorry.” “I really miss Karen, don’t you?” On and on in that vein.

I finished my lunch and picked up my tray and left them sitting there. They were dead to me.

Edina wasn’t all bad.

I try to remember other parts of this school year that had nothing to do with those awful girls. The school was a good one, with fine teachers, which isn’t surprising because this was Edina, Minnesota. I made excellent grades in everything, and won a penmanship award (which will amuse anyone who has to read my handwriting today).

I had my first crush on a real boy (as opposed to Ringo Starr, Davy Jones, and Jack Wild). His name was John. Instead of a short British man with dark hair and a heavy accent, I fell for a tall redheaded boy with chubby cheeks and a great sense of humor. Sadly, he had a crush of his own on a girl named Jane (more on Jane later).

For my classroom’s Minnesota history fair, I wrote a play about pioneers for me and my classmates to perform, and I played the father because we decided we didn’t want any boys to be in it. We brought down the house. For that same fair, one of the girls brought in an electric skillet and made frybread for us all. Does this seem minor to you? It wasn’t. It was a revelation, and I’ve loved frybread ever since.

Since this was Minnesota, we sledded at recess. I smashed into a tree on my (imitation) Flexible Flyer and rode in an ambulance to have my knee checked out (I was fine, and this remains the only time in my life I’ve ridden in an ambulance).

A prim school librarian quietly introduced me to the Narnia and Black Cauldron books at this school. She so had my number. I remember bringing her a plate of Christmas cookies in gratitude.

This period of my life lasted most of a school year, with other classmates and teachers and projects and and recesses full of jumping rope, and jacks competitions, and teaching each other cat’s cradle, and all those sing-song-hand-clap games I could still play if I just had a partner. Why aren’t these memories stronger than my memories of the Mean Girls?

I wish I knew.

A Happier Ending

Within a week, I’d made better friends. I finished the remainder of my time in Edina with Jane and Sarah. Jane had long wavy dark hair and sparkling eyes. There might have even been some freckles involved. She was fresh and steady and smart and funny, like a main character in a middle-reader book. Plucky, cute, smart Jane, a born leader and a fierce ally.

Sarah was kind and diligent, and the most beautiful girl I’d ever met; her honey-colored hair was long, her bangs trimmed with mathematical precision. I remember the gentle, methodical way she’d button her coat, draw on her mittens, and tie her hat before we went out for recess, like she was a loving adult dressing a cherished child for cold weather, only Sarah was the adult and the child, both.

These girls and their sincere, good natured friendship were an antidote to the spiteful machinations of Nancy and Mary Ann. We spent our recesses happily and without incident, until my parents decided to move to Arkansas in early April of that year, 1972. I had a week of popularity before I left, because it was glamorous to be moving. And during that week, Jane and Sarah and I let Nancy and Mary Ann play with us.

I could be merciful, thanks to my elevated status as the girl who was moving away.

Once I moved, I exchanged letters with my former friends, including Mary Ann, who wrote a very concerned letter after I wrote to her about falling off Mark’s horse. Or maybe Sarah wrote that, she was probably more likely to be frightened by something like that.

At any rate, all was forgiven. As it should be. We are all fifth graders at some point in our lives, and we all have lessons to learn about how to be, and how not to be.

Even mean girls.

Looking back

I like to imagine that Mary Ann outgrew her attachment to Nancy, along with those Polly Flinders dresses, and became more like her dazzling older sisters. I’m sure that sweet Robin found a best friend to whom she could pledge her starry-eyed devotion. I’ll bet Jane and Sarah grew from smart, happy girls into capable Minnesota women who live pleasant, educated, liberal lives in the Edina way. But I think Nancy was just a miserable person, period, and that probably didn’t change.

I don’t know. These are conjectures.

I do know from raising three daughters, that every girl seem to go through a year of social pain like my fifth grade. I’ve told each of my daughters the Ballad of Nancy and Mary Ann, my tragic tale of being ditched in the bathroom and put on mock trial to end the friendship. I wanted my daughters to understand that social humiliation is an inescapable part of growing up for girls. I wonder why, though. I wonder why we’re like this, and if it will ever change.

But that’s not my point. I do have one, you know. And mine is this: I’ve never found myself in a situation like this again in my life. Not even in high school, where Mean Girls thrive.

Oh, I’ve had some lopsided friendships, and friendships that ended in anger, and friends who faded away due to geography or inattention or the reality of how much of myself I can realistically share with other people before there’s nothing left. I’ve been dropped cold by two of my nearest and dearest, both of whom were men, by the way. I’ve even been friends with mean women, but that toxic stuff hasn’t taken hold in my life. They might still play these games, but I barely notice that part of them, and I certainly never engage with it.

So I guess I owe those two fifth graders a debt of gratitude, don’t I? Thanks, Nancy and Mary Ann. You inoculated me against your kind, and the immunity has lasted for fifty years.

No boosters needed.

Some other reading

Why does everyone hate on Edina?: Also linked above, but here it is again, in case you skipped it

A post about Polly Flinders dresses by a funny blogger, with photos: How Polly Flinders Ruined My Life

An academic paper on the Mean Girl Phenomenon: Queen Bees

A photo essay on America’s first indoor shopping mall, where I learned to shoplift: The History of Southdale Center, with photos

Arkansas and the Vagaries of Memory

A Snort of Derision

My sister and I have worked out a division of labor, as far as childhood memories. I ask questions, and she provides answers. It’s assumed that she remembers it all correctly. But recently, as we were talking about our Arkansas memories, I made an assertion about the past that generated an actual snort of derision from her.

Let me explain.

In March of 1971, we moved to Arkansas so my dad could begin his career in the Forest Service. Booneville is up in the northwestern corner of the state, in a region that’s below sea level. I think. This is what I was told and I’ve never done any research to back it up. The hot soup of humidity we swam through was evidence enough for me.

It certainly felt like we were living underwater.

On arrival, we stayed in a motel; three kids in one room, my parents in another. I was just barely 11, my sister was 13, and my brother was 16. It was too hot to breathe without air conditioning, so we kids stayed in our dingy little motel room and started fights with each other while Mom and Dad went out each day to try to find us a place to live.

They couldn’t find one. That same spring, a small toy factory had opened, and it lured in workers from around the state. All the rentals had been taken.

We were used to moving at that point, I guess, but we’d always moved from one house to another house. Motels were never involved. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this was a motel in Booneville, Arkansas, pop. 3200 or something like that.

My parents were desperate.

They finally drove us all out to see a tattered little farm in the country with a house on it: a one-story six-room rectangle that had sat empty for quite a while. It appeared to be right on the verge of falling over. There was no obvious sign of vandalism, but it was filthy. There was (biggish) poop in the kitchen sink, and invasive greenery growing around the window frames and into the rooms.

Six rooms, no hallway. This is not the house, but it reminds me of the house. Good times.

Image by SEspider from Pixabay

To give you an idea of how desperate my parents were to get out of that motel, they rented this place. They rented it despite the fact that it was miles out of town on a red dirt road. They rented it despite the rotting outbuildings that included an outhouse. And, most importantly, they rented this dump despite the fact that in just a few short months, they’d be welcoming a newborn baby.

The rent was delivered, the keys were ours, and we all pitched in to make the place habitable. Understand, my parents could transform anywhere into a home. Even this place. They weren’t ever going to buy it, so this was basically just a cover up job. Paint over the peeling plaster, lay down indoor/outdoor carpet in the kitchen and bathroom, deep-clean the linoleum floors in the rest of the house. What couldn’t be painted was papered. Somehow, they made this leaning, crumbling little wreck of a house into a place we could live.

My explorations

Even though that house was tiny and terrible, I found interesting things to consider about it. I was fascinated by the idea of a home with no hallway. If you came in via the back door, you entered the kitchen and began your circuit. Counter clockwise, it went: kitchen to bathroom to first bedroom to second bedroom room to living room to dining room and back into the kitchen. Or you could go clockwise and go kitchen, dining room, living room, second bedroom, first bedroom, bathroom, kitchen.

And if you’re a kid, which I was, you can’t wait to make the circuit while running, even though running in the house was verboten.

The farm itself held places of additonal interest. There were the outbuildings, which we were forbidden to enter. I explored them at length. One shed was full of empty moonshine bottles and wasps’ nests. I picked up a lot of bottles in there, and kicked my way through rotten hay in a tiny building that was possibly a barn, and I avoided the outhouse.

There was a stock pond that I was forbidden to go near. I picked my way to it through fields of ancient cow pies, to stand at the bank and consider wading in. Those cow pies made me squeamish about what the bottom might be like. There was a clear creek, where I spent hours watching water bugs skate on its surface, and trying cross it by walking on fallen logs. It was shallow and swift. I could walk across it without getting very wet, but those logs were always beckoning me. I fell into that creek a lot, that first summer.

The photo below is not that creek, but it’s how I remember it.

Image by G Johansen from Pixabay

We also had neighbors.

It was these neighbors my sister and I were discussing the other day. We were remembering how, during a visit from her Minneapolis friend, Salle, we climbed out our bedroom window and walked across acres of pasture to a neighboring farm, where we picked up our friend Deena (who had also climbed out her bedroom window) to join us for a terrifying midnight walk.

I’ll save the full story of the midnight walk for another time, but my sister started talking about Deena’s family. “God, they were trashy,” she said. “Just utter trash. They had those milk cows, and they’d get into skunkweed, and I remember sitting at their table during dinner, dreading when I’d have to drink that horrible milk.”

I was puzzled. Yes, that milk was awful, but I remembered this family very differently. I started talking about what I remembered, like how their ranch house had three levels and two hallways, and a dining room where we were periodically invited for glasses of icky fresh milk. Their barn was huge, and full of cows. I watched the kids milk those cows and strain the buckets into big milk containers, to get the flies out. And there were horses, because the kids all rode.

And swimming! “They had that lake,” I said to my sister. “Don’t you remember that private lake they had?” It was small, and Arkansas green, but that water was cool enough to make the heat bearable.

I described the six kids; two (now nameless) older teenage boys who struck me as impossibly alluring and breathtaking. They barely said a word to us, but when they did, it was indulgent and kind. Deena, at age thirteen, had long dark hair and a perfect figure, though her legs were a little bowed because these kids were always on horseback.

Those were the original kids, and then there were three adopted kids; Stacey, Mark, and Donna. Stacey was 12, Mark was 11, and Donna was somewhere between eight and ten (too young to hang out with us). They were nice-looking kids on the cusp of looking like whatever they were going to look like; a trio of siblings who had found a home with our neighbors.

I remember the boys explaining that they’d been adopted fairly recently. We’d also been adopted recently by my mom’s third husband, but our mother had forbidden us to tell anyone. Mom didn’t need to put the fear of God into us about it. I never mentioned being adopted, not because Mom wanted it that way, but because I was ashamed. The pride that my new father wanted me was overshadowed by the fact that my other father hadn’t. I’d been given away, which left me feeling unwanted, defective, and deeply ashamed.

And here were these boys, proudly talking about how they’d been able to choose new names as part of their adoption.

I try again.

I reminded my sister of all this. Well, I didn’t mention that shame part, because I assume she carries as much lifelong trauma as I do, but I did remind her about the neighbor kids picking out new names.

“And do you remember that even though we lived on neighboring farms, they went to school in some other town?” I asked her. “And in that town, wherever it was, the mom had a clothing store that she called ‘The DeenaDonna Boutique’? Don’t you remember that?”

“Oh my God, the DeenaDonna Boutique. I do remember.” My sister stopped laughing, and went a little quiet. “You remember more than I do,” she said. “That’s not how it usually is. I’m the one who usually…”

I interrupted her, “Of course I remember them. Stacey was my first boyfriend.”

My sister let out that previously mentioned snort of derision. “He was not your first boyfriend!”

“He sure was. Don’t you remember? I liked Mark at first, but Stacey was the one who asked me to be his girlfriend.” I went on to describe how that summer, Stacey and I would tie up the party line. Irritated older women would pick up and scold us to get off the phone.

My sister seemed to remember most of these details, but she still searched her memory for the idea that I’d had a boyfriend. She brought up the horses. “We rode horses with them all the time. You and I rode on the back, behind Deena.” Her voice was trailing off at this point. I could feel her remembering.

“No, you rode behind Deena, and I rode behind Mark or Stacey. Remember when I was alone on Mark’s horse, and it started for the barn and I slid right off the back?” He’d gotten down and left me sitting behind the saddle, and I couldn’t reach the reins and didn’t know to grab the saddle horn. I was so afraid of horses after that, and I still am. “And don’t you remember that Stacey would ride over on his horse, and we’d ride out together, just him and me?”

I could hear her voice change, as those memories were resurrected from wherever they’d been hiding. No one in the family could forget my falling off that horse. “Maybe they weren’t as trashy as I remember,” she said.

I don’t think they were trashy at all.

For me and Stacey, that was the extent of our young romance; a summer of swimming, horseback rides, and tying up the party line with awkward, giggling phone calls. We never so much as held hands. It was pretty perfect. When school started, I stopped hearing from him. He probably found a new girlfriend at his school in whichever little town that was.

Later that school year, we moved out of the farm and into Booneville proper, where we crammed the six of us into another absolutely stupid living set up. I’ll save that for another time. I had a new boyfriend that year, and another after that, but I’ll save those boys for another time, too.

For now, I just want to talk about yesterday, when my sister finally accepted that in this case, my memories were correct: My first boyfriend, at age 12, was a boy named Stacey, who lived on a neighboring farm with three brothers and two sisters. His father ran that farm, and his mother owned a clothing store. Their home was large enough to hold six kids. Their barn was huge and full of valuable livestock. They had five farm dogs, chickens, a private lake, and more wonders than I probably knew, because I was eleven years old and didn’t pay attention to campers and boats and the like.

My sister, who was my daily companion on that farm, didn’t remember Stacey or anything else about our neighbors besides their stinky milk. I think it was that milk that made her remember this family as trashy, even though at the time, they lived like they lived, while our family of six rented a decrepit two-bedroom farmhouse where my parents slept in the dining room with our new baby brother.

Here I am with that baby brother, who turns fifty today. Happy Birthday, E.

Memory is a strange, strange thing. I’m glad that between the two of us, my sister and I can patch together our shared past. But it definitely takes the both of us to sort through and figure out what really happened.

Nature Wants In: A Suburban Wildlife Safari

Mice

A mouse
Image by Here and now, unfortunately, ends my journey on Pixabay from Pixabay

When my second husband and I first bought this house in 1998, we loved the pseudo-country setting. Our paved street turned to gravel after our block, and three blocks later, the gravel road deadended at an undeveloped seven-acre parcel of land.

I don’t live in the country, but it feels like I do. There were still horses in the neighborhood when I first moved here. And lots of domesticated rabbits that had gone feral. And so many possums. And skunks. And moles in the yard. And field rats and field mice.

The thing about mice is, they don’t stay outside if given an opportunity to move into a nice comfortable house. And as much as I enjoy artistic representations of mice, and detailed somewhere in the meandering mess of this blog post over here, I don’t like the real thing at all.

When we found mice turds in our lower cabinets, we adopted a stray dog and left the lower cabinet doors open a few nights in a row. She took care of it and I’ve never seen a trace of a mouse in here since.

I loved that dog. Her name was Holly. She hunted birds, rats, mice, and whatever else she could catch. She’s the only dog I’ve ever had who earned her keep.

Wasps

A wasp
Image by wpoeschl from Pixabay

As the millennium wound down and we approached the year 2000, I was sitting in my family room at my computer working on some writing when I heard a strange chewing sound. It sounded expensive, so I ignored it. Maybe it would go away if I ignored it.

It went on for some time, to be honest. Just a gentle undertone of mastication. It was quiet at night, when I was home and typing away at my novels or papers or chatting in my chat room. During the day, I was in school, so I could more easily pretend it wasn’t there, but if I was home, it was getting louder and louder and louder.

Yes, something was devouring my home, but I’d become skilled at ignoring things I didn’t want to deal with over the course of my second marriage (which had also gone away at that point, so sometimes this approach worked, yes?).

But then one overcast afternoon while I was typing, the light from one of the two globe light fixtures on the family room ceiling darkened.

I looked up to see if the bulb had gone out. It hadn’t.

The light was on, and full of wasps—wasps that filled the glass globe entirely, then slipped around the edges of the fixture mount and into the room. Wasps spilled through the ceiling like a soft, buzzing liquid, flying in sleepy spirals around and around the light fixture, more and more of them, hundreds and hundreds of wasps, gradually creating an entire layer of wasps in the upper reaches of my family room.

I quietly stepped out of the room and gently closed the door. “Girls,” I said in a very calm, firm voice. “The family room is full of wasps. Don’t go in there until I call an exterminator.”

They didn’t go in, though I think they all peeked and squeaked while I made the call. It was only a hundred dollars to have the insects removed. Years later, when my roof had to be torn off due to a house fire, the contractor saved a nest he found in the family room rafters and showed it to me.

It was over three feet across.

Skunks

A skunk
Image by Christel SAGNIEZ from Pixabay

I’ve lived in this house since 1988, but my backyard was never fully fenced. There a nice fence across along one side and a crappy fence across the back, and a hedge on the other side. I closed things off with a dog fence eight years ago, but for 22 years the yard was a porous enclosure at best, and that meant animals traveled through it, especially at night.

There were raccoons aplenty, and possums until the coyotes cleaned those out of the neighborhood. Coyotes have been seen in my back yard. And for years, almost nightly, I saw a skunk or two, sometimes a mama skunk and her babies, traipsing on the diagonal through the yard from front to back, exiting somewhere under the cedar tree through the laurel hedge.

Before I took the dogs out, I’d sweep the yard with a flashlight. I still do that now, even though the yard is fenced. Coyotes go where they want to and my little dog fence won’t slow them down a bit. But that fence does stop the skunks. And the skunks don’t like it.  

I sleep with a window open, a window that’s right over the new stretch of dog fence.  And every week or so, I wake to the smell of skunk. Not an overwhelming amount, but when it comes to skunk spray, a little is a lot.

I imagine the skunk gets to the fence that blocks its familiar route, and lets out a little spray of irritation. The equivalent of the skunk saying, “Damn these detours.”

In the morning, the smell lingers inside the window, a reminder of who lived here first.

Birds

four sparrow chicks
Image by Monika Helmecke from Pixabay

Like most houses, mine has vents under the roofline. So does the building that houses my garage and a little studio apartment. These vents are covered with heavy-duty mesh that’s supposed to keep the birds out. It doesn’t.

Years ago, one of my tenants came home and found a baby bird drowned in her toilet. After I sealed up a gap around her bathroom sink pipe, she had no more problems, but my next tenant let me know that he could hear baby birds cheeping, cheeping, cheeping over his ceiling. My tenant was a tenderhearted man, I’m a tenderhearted woman, and we both felt like we didn’t want to disturb the nests until the babies were out of there.

Back then, in my extended single years, my dad often helped me out with home maintenance and repairs. When I told him about the birds cheeping, he happily volunteered to take care of it once the nests had emptied. We all agreed, then; me, the tenant, my dad. We’d let the nesting run its course.

One day I came home from work, and my dad had sealed off all the roof vents with stronger metal grates. “I took care of it!” he announced. “I didn’t hear any birds.” I was so grateful. But here’s the deal. My dad was almost completely deaf. He didn’t know he’d sealed off active nests.

My tenant had to listen to the baby birds die.

Ants

three ants on a peony bud
Image by Here and now, unfortunately, ends my journey on Pixabay from Pixabay

I have a sign up on my front window that I made at work. It’s a stern warning about NO SOLICITATION OF ANY KIND, including religious, political or sales. It’s trimmed in red white and blue, because I want it to look like the work of a hateful reactionary who probably owns guns and wouldn’t possibly contribute any money to Greenpeace and OSPIRG, because those people were taking up too much of my softhearted liberal time and I want them to leave me alone forever.

If anyone ever does knock on the door, I generally don’t answer it. I don’t roll down my car window when panhandlers knock on it downtown, so why would I open the door of my home, simply to tell someone to go away?

This is my home. My sanctuary. I don’t want to hear your Good News or learn about about your run for city council or buy your magazine subscriptions. I want you to leave me alone.

But three years ago, my neighborhood was overrun with ants. I don’t know what kind of ants they were and I don’t care. They were tiny and dark and smelled odd when I popped them under my fingertips.

They streamed in through invisible cracks and made long ant caravans across my floors. They gathered for huge ant parties on any scrap of food or drip of grease they found in the kitchen, and ruined the butter and took over the sugar bowl and hid in my houseplants. They walked across my arms while I was trying to sleep. They bubbled up out of the bathroom sink drains and found the toothpaste. They were on the dogs, for chrissakes.

We tried all the tricks and traps and baits and sprays. If someone suggested it, I tried it. Nothing worked. The ants were the topic of many over-the-fence and across-the-driveway conversations with my neighbors. We all had them, and we were all going nuts.

One evening, a young man in a uniform with a clipboard braved the warnings of my sternly pseudo-patriotic “GO AWAY, YOU” sign, stepped up to my door, and knocked.

What a brave young man.

I looked out and scowled, but he smiled. “Your neighbors suggested I stopped by.” He was with a pest control company, and he spent that entire day signing up my neighborhood up for “green” ant control.

I don’t know how “green” this ant control really is. I don’t care. Every three months, someone comes over here and makes sure those ants have their parties elsewhere. It also keeps away the carpenter ants, which I’m not going to bother writing about because even i can’t pretend that carpenter ants are interesting.

When it comes to ants, I am a total NIMBY.

Rabbits

a rabbit on high alert
Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Two years ago, in the spring, I started seeing a pair of wild bunnies in my back yard every morning. They were quite small, and extremely cute, and apparently living under one of my patios in a hole dug by my first dachshund, a sleek little demon named Mylo.

I thought the bunnies had moved into whatever Mylo dug all those years ago, but I didn’t know for certain. I didn’t know much about these bunnies. I didn’t know where they came from, or their genders, or if they were going to mate and fill the space under my patio with tiny bunny kittens that would in turn enlarge the warren and invade my crawlspace and tunnel up into the walls of my home and take it over like I saw on this terrifying episode of Hoarders in which a man let his pet bunnies eat a rented home from the inside out.

I only knew they were cute.

Well, I also knew that despite how cute they were, I should probably do something about them. But I didn’t. I ignored them and hoped they would go away.

This past spring, during the pandemic shutdown, I started working from home at my dining room table, which has a nice view of my backyard. I soon realized that there was only one bunny left in my yard. I saw this bunny almost every single day.

I enjoyed watching him nibble away at the greenery. He would eat for a while, then disappear through the back fence to the neighbor’s garden. Eventually, he’d hop back towards the house along the dog fence to…the patio? I wasn’t sure.

What did I do about this bunny? Well, let’s see. I showed him to my grandkids. I talked about him in group texts. I tried to take photos of him. I called him, “my bunny.” “Oh, my bunny is out in the yard.” “Here, let me show you my bunny.” “Ooops! There goes my bunny!”

But I’m not a moron. I know I can’t ignore rabbits forever, no matter how adorable they are. I’ve seen that episode of Hoarders, after all.

My husband and I had a talk. One morning, after we’d seen the rabbit go through the back fence and we knew we wouldn’t be trapping him, my husband filled in the presumed bunny hole at the side of the patio. He then arranged logs and pavers over the area, to really block it off.

After that, whenever I saw the bunny in the back corner of the yard, I let the dogs out. They would charge across the lawn, barking at top volume. My bunny was no moron, either. Long before they could reach him, he popped through the fence into the yard next door. I was sad to see him go, but it was time. I haven’t seen him in weeks.

I hope the neighbor likes his new bunny.

More Birds

Sparrow chicks
Image by Veronika Tóth-Péter from Pixabay

So, those vents around the roof line. Every vent needs to be covered with a heavier metal grate whether it looks like it’s been pecked through or not, because once you block one vent, the birds move their attentions to another. They want in.

They want in, and they get in.

After they could no longer nest in the garage/apartment building, the birds moved to the main house. At first I thought it was raccoons up in the attic, because it was so noisy. There’s all the scratching while they build the nest. And then, there’s the endless peeping of the hungry hatchlings. This peeping is more like screaming. Baby birds are hungry. We all got to hear about it. All the damn time.

The parent birds are protective, and they do a lot of swooping at you as you approach your home. You’re just walking up to your door, of your own house, where you live, and your new uninvited tenant comes swooping out at you. Clearly, the bird knows its nest and babies are a giant pain in the ass, and it needs to scare you away from evicting it.

You know exactly where these new bird neighbors live, because the entrance to their nesting place (a roof vent above a window) is soon streaked with bird poop. That means the siding, and the screen, and the glass, and the ground directly below are covered with droppings. Lots of droppings. Kind of a decorative fan shape of droppings.

I can tell you where the birds nested at my house. One site was directly over my oldest daughter’s former bedroom. The other was over the family room window. The poop fans made interesting additions to the front of the house.

And of course, me being me, I ignored it. The nests were active for (at least) two full springs and summers. Okay, maybe three. But this year, we were home all the time, and the peeping and the scratching and the swooping and the pooping were impossible to ignore.

It was time to evict the birds.

I ordered a bunch of metal grates from Amazon. My husband laid in spare drill bits and screws. He also got a taller ladder. We listened. We waited for silence, because that would mean the nests were empty.

The peeping and cheeping and rustling and scratching went on and on.

Had we missed our opportunity? Had the spring babies flown, was this actually a second nesting? Were we always going to have decorative poop fans on the front of our house? Or were we going to be terrible people, and nail up the grates, and kill the fledglings? We didn’t have the heart to do that.

So I ignored it, and hope it would go away.

Guess what? It did.

One day, we realized that we heard nothing. My husband went out with his electric drill and new ladder and got to work with those metal grates. After he had the grates up, he scrubbed the siding. We worked together on cleaning screens and windows and windowsills, and restored the house façade to respectability.

What’s next?

I don’t know. It’s not a jungle out there, but it’s a field and a forest and a meadow disguised as a backyard. Squirrels bury their nuts in my flowerpots, raccoons eat my flowers, geese occasionally fly over and drop massive curtains of crap on my cars, and a ground-nesting wasp nest boiled up and stung the crap out of me one day while I was working in the yard. The aforementioned coyotes are hard at work keeping the outdoor cat and chihuahua populations in check. Nature is out there and at times, it tries to get in or under or through my house. I’m going to continue ignoring that fact, right up until I can’t.

Also, I saw my bunny again this morning…

Cape Fear, 1962

Movie IN A THEATER

Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck in cape Fear, 1962

My husband and I went to see the 1962 version of “Cape Fear” last night at the Joy Cinema in our little suburb. I insisted we go, because I’d confused this “Robert Mitchum is a killer on a river” movie with “The Night of the Hunter,” another “Robert Mitchum is a killer on a river movie” that I saw at the Crystal Theater in Missoula, Montana in 1978. Perhaps my confusion is understandable after a gap of time like that, except I saw the Scorsese “Cape Fear” in the nineties and I should have known better.

Nevertheless.

This movie is dark and suspenseful and definitely worth seeing. Mitchum leans in as a baddie who is bad. Why is he bad? Because he’s BAD, I tell you. He’s a bad man who does bad things for one reason and one reason only; because he’s BAD. (Side note: I wrote two villains like this into Love & Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park, and though I forgive my one-dimensional characters at that point in my writing journey, and in this over-the-top book, I still giggle when I talk about BAD villains with my friend Shannon.)

Back to Cape Fear.

Mitchum is horrifying, brutal, hypnotizing, magnetic as Cady. He’s also overtly sexualized. They strip search him at one point, and there he is with a man’s body, tan and hairy, broad-shouldered and holding in his stomach. I watched Jimmy Stewart change his pajamas in “Rear Window” not that long ago, and he looked nothing like this. It’s interesting to consider a time when an actor didn’t hire a personal trainer and work out six hours a day for six months before he took off his shirt on camera, as is expected today.

While Cady stalks the lawyer’s family in the city, the trappings of urban life keep him slightly at bay. He’s unavoidable and somewhat containable in town. He’s also vile, sexy, fearless. His implacable menace is terrifying. Did they not have stalking laws and restraining orders in 1962? I believe they did not, and this is what it looked like.

On/In the Water

As bad as Cady is in town, once he gets to Cape Fear, Cady is in his element. There’s a moment when he takes off his shirt and crawls through the undergrowth to the riverbank, where he extends his upper body out over the water and waits, watches, smiles. That moment before he drops soundlessly into the water is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen. He’s an alligator on his way to get his prey and roll it in the water until it drowns. I wish he could have played Gator Rollins. He is something.

But the 1962 version of Cape Fear contains another performance that surpasses Mitchum’s. And it surpasses this performance with some of the worst acting I have ever watched in my life. We are talking astonishing, vigorous, howlingly awful acting.

Lorrie Martin and Gregory Peck, Cape fear 1962

No, I’m not talking about Lori Martin, who looks so teensy and pert next to Peck, like a gymnast. She’s just fine as one of the frightened women who run around being terrorized (Polly Bergen is the other). And yes, Gregory Peck does his usual wooden portrayal of an upright man in this movie. He’s best when he stays in his lane as a morally rigid and very correct character. He does that here. I leave it to you to decide if he was really as good as he’s supposed to have been, because I find him reassuring and handsome and not much more. But his acting is not the bad acting in question.

The Worst

No, I’m talking about Barrie Chase as Diane Taylor. Diane Taylor is an aimless young woman who lets Cady pick her up (in a bar that looks really fun by the way). She takes him back to her place and sleeps with him. I think. I mean, I am just not sure of the sequence of events because she is so incredibly, profoundly, confusingly bad in this role.

She has four scenes, and she’s fantastically awful in three of them. In the first, she’s flirting with Cady from across a crowded bar. Sometimes she looks like she’s giving him the come hither, and sometimes she looks like she knows him and is terrified, and sometimes she looks sneeringly disinterested. None of her expressions make any sense at all, especially considering the action that follows.

Because in the next scene, she’s in a car with him, all cuddled up, and languidly talking about the comfort a girl feels when she realizes she’s gone as low as she can possibly go by picking up someone like Cady. I thought this scene was fine. But in the next scene, we see Cady coming into her room (shirtless, of course), and she’s sprawled in her tossed bed in some really sexy black lingerie.

Barrie Chase in Cape Fear

Clearly they have had sex, yes? Or wait, are they just about to have sex, have they not had the sex yet? But he looks at her, and she looks at him, and some strange thing is going on, another inexplicable interaction. She looks as confused as I feel.

He’s clearly up to no good, flexing his fists, malevolent, ready to pounce. But her? What is all that expression about, all that screwing up of her face? Is she scared? Is she hopeful? What’s going on? Is she just tired? Because she’s lying there in what appears to be a post-coital haze. Or is she drunk and waiting? Does she realize it’s going to be terrible and violent at that point? Or has it already been terrible and this is more? Is she surprised, is she scared, what is she trying to tell us with this array of unreadable and bizarre expressions?

WHAT IS GOING ON?

She recoils, the doors close and noises of a violent nature begin. We are left to our imaginations as to what horrors are happening, which is, I think, one of the goals of this movie: to eroticize women’s fears, incarnating them in smoldering, terrifying, unstoppable Cady. Mitchum carries that load like a pro.

But we are not done with Barrie Chase as Dianne Taylor, not yet. There is one last scene where Telly Savalas and Martin Balsam (a private detective and police chief, respectively) come to her room. Savalas’s character has been tailing Cady, and follows him to this young woman’s rooming house, but doesn’t go up there until after Cady has had time to have sex with/maybe not have sex with/ subsequently (or maybe not subsequently) brutalize a young woman/escape out a fire escape, I guess. She’s huddled by the bed, and the scene that follows is a masterwork of terrible acting. I mean, you really need to see it to appreciate the reveal of her injuries, the head tossing, the stalking about, the phone call, the dramatic packing, the strange tones of voice and again, the utterly inexplicable facial expressions.

Staying Focused

I wished we were watching this at home instead of in a theater so I could have laughed out loud. But sitting in a darkened theater with other patrons restrains me, which keeps me focused on the movie, rather than letting me hit pause so I can ask if that actor was in something else, or get a drink of water, or bother my husband to the point where the thread of suspense is broken.

As we left the theater, I was talking about Mitchum. But all this morning, I’ve been thinking about Barrie. So there it is. It’s wonderful to see movies again, and perhaps next, we will see one filmed in the last couple of years.

Shout out to the Joy Cinema!

Me, Assault, and Todd Rundgren

Hello, It’s Me

I’ve committed a few instances of physical assault in my life, but just a precious few. Here’s one of those instances.

I’ve written before about my years in Montana, specifically those spent living on the Squaw Creek Ranger Station. I have to (again) point out that this is no longer the name of a ranger station, and for this, we can all be grateful. But that’s what it was called in 1973 when I lived there. As recently as when this article was published, people still remembered “Squaw Creek Station,” but when I visited in the spring of 2011, I found a deserted accumulation of log buildings and some other name on the sign.

The station was 20 miles from Bozeman. It was only eight miles to the closest town of Gallatin Gateway, where I went to school. I had to ride a bus to get there, and I was the first picked up and the last dropped off on a route that took us from one farm or ranch to another. I rode that bus for an hour each way, each day, and met the bus at 6:50 AM in all kinds of weather. They don’t close for storms in rural Montana. Storms just come with the territory. But I had a down jacket and a wool hat, so I never got frostbite.

We were isolated on the ranger station. In particular, I was isolated. I didn’t exactly fit in at Gallatin Gateway Elementary, a place where I became very, very mean in retaliation for the bullying I endured on the daily. There was no place for me in the social order of that tiny town. My parents were educated liberals, and I freely (loudly, repeatedly) espoused the beliefs they’d instilled in me, so even my teacher loathed me. In that school of 80 kids (K through 8), I was the foreign body that did not belong. I felt it keenly.

My sister was less isolated by virtue of being older. She went to high school in Bozeman, which is only 12 miles away from Gateway, but maybe 20 years ahead in attitudes and thinking. That meant my sister had town friends who lived in ranch homes with multiple bedrooms and multiple bathrooms. My sister’s friends’ parents taught at the university, or owned car dealerships, or drove long distance truck routes. Her friends often skied on the weekends, so they might have gone past the ranger station on their way to the Big Sky ski resort. When they rode home with her on the bus to spend the night, they brought little patterned suitcases full of cute pajamas, Bonnie Bell 10.0.6 facial scrub, sometimes a favored bed pillow.

I found my sister’s friends to be irresistibly glamorous.

So, returning to my assault narrative…

My sister’s friend Jenna was coming over for the weekend. Jenna had a few remarkable attributes. She was even meaner than I was. Her house was huge (I think her dad was a trucker). Her hair, which appeared to be naturally white blonde, was close cropped, even shorter than a pixie. It was almost a crew cut.

This was a remarkably badass hairstyle to be rocking in 1973. Most of us were growing our hair as long as we possibly could and parting it down the middle, which was a difficult style for me to wear because I have an asymmetrical face and a long, very prominent nose, so I hacked away with cuticle scissors to create some bangs to lessen the starkness and called it good.

Jenna’s hair was professionally cut at a salon (I think we still called them beauty parlors back then). Along with her remarkabe hairstyle, she had a sense of humor that was almost as mean as mine. I’m sure when we got together, it was a battle of teenaged wits, like the Sharks vs the Jets but with verbal knives. As a ferociously unhappy adolescent, I always looked forward to Jenna’s visits. On this particular weekend, we had something else to anticipate.

Todd Rundgren was going to be on Midnight Special that week.

The deal with Midnight Special

Now, for those of you who don’t know, Midnight Special was a big deal in the early seventies. Appearing on it was a badge of honor that meant you’d arrived, so I’m sure it was something special for the performers. But for the television audience, it was a chance to see performances by bands that might never come through your area (though a surprising amount of bands did come through, because Bozeman is a college town).

The week’s lineup would be announced in my brother’s Rolling Stone, which was another highlight for us rural kids living out in the middle of nowhere. And if the band or the performer was exciting enough, I would make the effort to stay up until midnight, which was HUGE for me because I loved to sleep. Sleep has always been one of my favorite pastimes, seriously, because I could escape whatever social hellhole I was living in and dream of something better.

So I’m saying, it had to be a big deal for me to make it until 1 AM, even on a weekend.

Todd Rundgren was a big deal.

A social isolation digression

I’ve written about this before. My older brother, sister and I were odd kids in our own special ways. I was just too tall and weird and had far too large a nose for Montana. I mean, I understand that now, due to visiting Pendleton, Oregon. There is a way women are supposed to be in cowboy country, which is trim and perky and small in body, facial features, and attitude. Think of barrel racers. There is just nothing trim or perky or small about me, and I doubt there ever has been. I’m built more along the lushly overgrown model. There’s not a lot of demand for pre-Raphaelite women in the world of rodeos and stock auctions.

I didn’t understand this at 12 and 13. In Arkansas I’d been considered smart, pretty, and talented, but when we moved to Montana I was moved over into the category of aberrant freak. Same me, same nose, same build, different surroundings. I leaned into it hard. They wanted a freak, they got one.

But I was just part of the problem. My brother was extremely obese by the standards of the day, though he was not at all near the weights I see on TV these days. People just weren’t fat back then, they simply were not fat. So Montana was hell for him, too. My sister appeared the most normal, but she was fighting an internal war on a hellscape that’s not my place to write about. She might have looked fine, but she really wasn’t. So we escaped our lives as best we could. One of those ways was music.

We were an extremely musical family. Steve could play the guitar, and we could all sing, and boy did we. We listened to albums until they wore out, singing along with all the lyrics, guitar solos, horn parts, even the violins. If there was a note to hit, we hit it. We learned record after record verbatim, and some of them still sit in my hind brain, a full library of songs ready to be triggered by two opening notes.

Todd is God

I knew every note, skip, intake of breath on Something/Anything. Even when I didn’t like a song (Black Mariah) I learned it. I studied the lyrics sheets, read and reread the liner notes, and looked carefully at the two photos of Todd on the covers. I felt I knew Todd Rundgren, and I was thrilled to finally see him perform.

The anticipation was high. I’m sure I preplayed my favorite tracks for Jenna, monopolizing her in the way of a socially starved younger sister. She probably got the whole tour of my favorite Todd songs.

We also had pops that night. Not sodas or Cokes or soft drinks (did anyone anywhere ever actually call them soft drinks?) We had pops.

That was a special treat laid in for the overnight visitor to the ranger station.

A ‘soft drink’ digression

It was a big deal to have pop in my household, growing up, because it was considered a treat. My mother carefully rationed all treats including our pop consumption, and really made an occasion of getting a pop.

I have sense memories of hot weather, my brother and sister and I in the back seat of a large car, the glare of a prairie summer. We went somewhere in the tiny town of Claremont, South Dakota, and there was an old cooler-type machine where I put in my nickel, and lifted the lid, and wrested out one bottle of pop. The bottles were reused, so sometimes my bottle showed a lot of wear, but occasionally it was pristine. I got a strawberry Crush, and those bottles were quite textured. As I popped off the cap on a built-in bottle opener on the side of the cooler, I loved that satisfying plink. My brother and sister did the same, and I have no idea what they drank, only that it wasn’t Crush.

This was pop (not soda, never soda) in my childhood. A big treat. A special trip. Destination, selection, and anticipation.

So we’d all have our pops, yes? And then I would take a sip, and the double blast of carbonation and chemical flavors would swarm up into my palate and drill right up into my brain. I’d think I was going to die. My brother and sister watched patiently while I tried to drink it, knowing I’d hand it off after a few sips because I literally could not make myself finish this weird explosion of sugar, metal, and fizz.

The truth is, I hate pop. I hated it then, and I hate it now. But there were years when I tried to enjoy what everyone else was enjoying, and that evening in Montana was one of those occasions.

For the watching of Midnight Special, I had a can of cheap orange pop.

The Big Night

So there we were in front of the television, in a state of high anticipation. Me, my sister, and Jenna, and whatever pop Mom had let us purchase. I was practically levitating with anticipation.

And here came Todd at the piano, with his sweet long face, crooked teeth, and feathers artistically arranged around his eyes and shoulders and, well, everywhere.

Jenna’s reaction was immediate. “Oh my God,” she said while laughing at me. “Look at him. He’s a faggot. He’s such a faggot. I can’t believe what a faggot he is. Look at that faggot.”

She might have said more, but she was cut short because as soon as she started in on my feather-festooned idol, I put my thumb over the opening of my pop can and started shaking. A stark wall of fury slammed down inside me. Yes, I was furious at her insults, because one, he looked beautiful, and two, I loved David Bowie and Marc Bolan and a whole crew of gender benders, but anger was beside the point.

This was Todd Rundgren.

I removed my thumb and sprayed her top to bottom with sticky orange pop. The look on her face.

It was wonderful.

What came after was perhaps less wonderful. There was pop all over everywhere, not just on Jenna, and my sister was upset, and Jenna was absolutely stunned. I of course had to apologize and clean up all that pop. She took a shower and put on her pajamas. We probably washed her clothes. I’m sure it was a long night.

But I have never enjoyed another pop quite as much as I enjoyed that one.

In closing

Here’s another performance by Todd. It’s supposed to be the first one of the evening, but I don’t think it was. I sure didn’t see it that night. Maybe my mother made us turn off the TV after my pop assault of Jenna, or maybe this was a different episode of Midnight Special. I just saw it last week, 48 years later at this link in (of course) Rolling Stone.

Enjoy. Todd on Midnight Special

Mister Rogers? I love you.

How I came to love Fred Rogers, and why I didn’t at first.

Source and permissions

A note to my blog followers: I’m sorry you’re getting all these emails about new posts that are actually old posts. What’s happening is, I’m migrating my Medium.com content over to my blog. I haven’t earned much traction over there (or much money) because I haven’t put much energy into it. So while I decide whether or not I’m going to continue on that platform, I’m making sure everything is backed up on the blog. I’m sorry! Thank you for subscribing! Please be patient! Gesundheit!

Mister Rogers & Me

There was Children’s TV before I knew there was such a thing; public television existed, but hadn’t reached the prairies of South Dakota, where I spent much of my first ten years. By the time we lived in a town large enough to have PBS, I was eleven years old — far too old for any of the lessons involved. Even so, I loved the frenetic nature of Sesame Street, the rhythmic phonics of The Electric Company. I’d secretly switch over from Gilligan’s Island to public television, watching for the songs, animation, puppets, and Morgan Freeman’s beautiful voice.

The undersaturated retro simplicity of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood did absolutely nothing for me. The strange hand puppets? The dinging trolley car? An unapologetic opera singer? And above all else, someone with the last name of “McFeely”?

No thank you, I was not having it.

Mr. Rogers embarrassed me, to be truthful. The cardigan. The sneakers. Feeding the fish. And my god, the songs. His voice reminded me of my grandmother singing hymns beside me in the basement of the First Church of Christ Scientist in Aberdeen, South Dakota. When he came on, I’d switch back to whatever other rerun was on during the day. Something like Green Acres.

And then at age 14, I was left behind by my parents during a move. I wouldn’t live with my parents again until I was almost 20. I couldn’t afford a TV during those teen years, but I kept current with the state of children’s TV through my much younger brother, who watched a lot of Nickelodeon. The early Nick was commercial free and full of animated European shorts.

I loved it.

I moved back in with my family in 1980, the year Mount St. Helens erupted and covered the city of Portland with a rain of volcanic ash. My parents sent my younger brother to stay with grandparents in Minnesota for a month, until the ash settled down. He was eight years old, and baffled by an afternoon ritual there in Minnesota. At 3 PM, my grandmother would call him in from wherever he was playing, sit him down in front of the TV with a Wonder Bread and Cheez Whiz sandwich, and turn on Mister Rogers.

We did not grow up with Wonder Bread, Cheez Whiz, or Mister Rogers. But we were raised to be endlessly, achingly polite. So my little brother sat down and ate the sandwich and watched the show, not really liking either one. He endured this wonderful, awful pairing without a peep of protest. Was it a relic from my uncle’s childhood?

Probably.

I dismissed Mister Rogers, and went on with my young life. When I was twenty, I enrolled in the local university and got a job as a nanny to augment my BEOG money. I worked for a doctor, watching her three kids after school into the evening. She told me they all sat down at 3 PM for snacks (carrots, cheddar and Triscuits) and Mister Rogers.

I probably scoffed. Mister Rogers?

I remember the warm twinkle in my employer’s eyes, her sweet and squirrelly smile. “Oh,” she said, “He’s so gentle.”

This employer taught me many things when I was 20. She taught me how to prepare chicken and fish and brown rice and magnificent salads, lessons I put immediately to use. She taught me how to relax on beach vacations, which takes practice. She tried to teach me that intelligence would be the most important attribute to seek in a man, and I eventually did learn that one, but not for a while. And by example, she taught me that a single woman in her forties and fifties could be vital, attractive and pursued, a lesson I wouldn’t realize the importance of until I was in my forties and fifties.

She also taught me to watch Mister Rogers.

The keyword was gentle. He was gentle with his viewers, and his viewers need to be gentle with Mister Rogers. We need to quietly anticipate the regularity of his entrance, his changing into his cardigan, the occasional plucky toss of a shoe from one hand to the other. We need to mildly care that the fish are hungry, and that he enjoys answering that hunger with just the right pinch of food. We need to approach Mr. McFeely with interest, since he delivers items of interest to Mister Rogers. We need to listen to the songs, because they contain surprising and beautiful messages about the anxiety children feel when they discover that boys and girls are a built little different from each other. We need to wait patiently for the dinging of the trolley, since it’s going to deliver us to the Neighborhood of Make Believe.

I had more fun than expected while visiting the Neighborhood of Make Believe with my young charges. I learned about the traits, the voices and the psyches of each and every one of the hand puppets; Daniel Tiger’s fearfulness, King Friday’s pomposity, and the selfish, grabby narcissism of Lady Elaine Fairchild. I experienced all kinds of happenings, but my favorite was an opera about a cow who wanted to be a potato bug. See some of it here. It was the very worst, and the very best. I couldn’t believe how perfect it was.

Only one of my own children loved Mister Rogers. And she was the child I took to see the Mister Rogers documentary. We watched this wonderful portrayal of a singular, strange man who shared his personal vision of love and kindness with the world. I had a shiver over his attachment to the number 143, because I fear that this formerly chubby child only felt lovable when he weighed exactly 143 pounds. He was prescient, he was kind, and he believed he was doing important work.

Guess what? He was.

I am so sad that that “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was completely shut out of the Oscars. But I’m not sure that Fred Rogers would have cared. He was too busy with his imagination and his belief in kindness to care too much about awards.

But it would have been the best acceptance speech ever.

I have a coffee cup problem.

And I’m not sure I want to solve it.

A hand holds a coffee cup half-full of coffee. Or is it half empty? You decide.
Image by Pixabay

I’ve written before about stuff; how much I have vs. how much I need to have. My house is very organized but it’s FULL, and no one wants any of this stuff when I die, so I need to get rid of it. I’m working on this attachment to material possessions problem, I really am.

But I can’t get over this coffee cup thing.

There is a two-door/three-shelf cabinet in my kitchen where, I suppose, a more NORMAL person would store her dishes. All of her dishes. In my house, all three shelves hold coffee cups.

The first shelf holds single mugs, many of them English. The English, with their love of tea, make a damn fine mug; lightweight, medium-sized, fired almost to a porcelain state, and capable of holding the hottest beverages. They also look adorable and quaint and jolly. I have English mugs that date back to the 1970s, and they last forever. People know this about English mugs. In fact, some of mine (the Hornsea mugs) are worth $50 a piece, according to Etsy and eBay. Which just gives me more of an excuse to hang on to more mugs than I can ever drink out of in my life.

I don’t use my Hornsea mugs. In fact, I have them stashed in another cabinet in the dining room so they don’t get chipped. But we’re not going to discuss those other mugs that have been deemed collectible. We’re just going to talk about the mugs in the kitchen cabinet.

Not all of the single mugs are English. One is a “Write like a m0therfucker” mug (some of you recognize that from Dear Sugar) that used to be my day job coffee mug. But at some point I carried coffee into a big meeting with our very conservative company president and realized I was drinking out of a mug that said “m0therfucker” on it, so I brought it home. It sits with others I’ve deemed sentimentally important. Mugs are emotional, I tell you. I made myself get rid of ten mugs earlier this year, just ten, mind you. I was restocking my father’s estate sale and I certainly had enough mugs to spare, but you’d have thought it was Sophie’s Choice there in the kitchen.

I still have too many mugs on this shelf.

Do any of you need any mugs?

Because above the shelf with all those single mugs, there are mugs in sets. I have three pairs of matched mugs, which seems very cozy but is silly because my husband is not a coffee drinker. When he drinks hot tea, he has his own mugs he brought into the marriage. I consider these mugs acceptable but not exceptional, and they sit on the first shelf with all of my superior mugs. I mean, he only has two mugs. Some people who live in my house are sane.

There’s a set of six Japanese stoneware mugs I break out for book group, because one of my book groups has a lot of tea drinkers. So apparently I think it’s nice for them to all be confused by which mug might be theirs.

Does anyone need a set of nice mid-century stoneware mugs?

I know a crazy lady who six to spare.

Next to the mug sets, there’s a special category of mugs that are gorgeous, gigantic, gleaming vessels of great beauty. These mugs are far too large for hot drinks. They are so large, your coffee is cold by the time you finish filling the thing. These mugs only work for drinking water all day at your desk.

My company makes them.

Every few years, I buy a new one at the employee store because it’s so damn beautiful, and it sits on my desk for water, until a new one comes out that is also so damn beautiful, and then the old mug joins its brethren in my kitchen cabinet. I sometimes find these at thrift stores and I can’t leave them languishing in their gigantic gorgeousness. So there is an actual half-a-shelf of these monstrous beauties in my cabinet.

Do any of you want one of these? They also work great for soup.

The top shelf in my coffee cup cabinet is hard to reach. One side of the shelf is mostly empty, except for two fine English porcelain tea mugs that are beautiful and useless, in that they get too hot to touch when they are full. One has a cat sitting in a rainbow garden, and one has inchworms inching greenly and cutely around the bottom. Both of these mugs are lovely and fine and utterly useless.

Do any of you want them? I need to get rid of them.

The other side of the cabinet has Christmas mugs. Yes, it does. No, I’m not kidding. There are maybe eight in there. I have no idea why, since they are only applicable for like three weeks per year. Some years, I forget to take them down, so they sit up there, unused, for two years.

No one can have any of my Christmas mugs.

I still scan the mug rack every time I go to a thrift store.

About once a month, I find a mug I can’t resist. It might be perfect for my sister, who doesn’t need any mugs, either. I also find mugs for my daughters, who don’t want or need any more mugs. I know this. They know this. But I say, “I found a mug you might like,” and they protest, they have enough mugs, and I nod, because they are absolutely right. And then I get it out and I see a familiar expression of appreciation and longing flit across their faces.

The mugs go home with them.

I’m going to tell you the worst part of this whole thing. I only drink coffee out of one mug, and one mug only. It’s handmade, from Orcas Island Pottery, one of the most magical places on that magical island. I paid quite a bit for this (worth every dollar) and consider it to be the One True Mug. And it’s the only one I ever use for my morning coffee.

A brown coffee cup full of brown coffee sitting on a brown counter, surrounded by brown strips.
Photo by author (that’s why it’s so crummy)

I was thinking, could anyone care about this coffee cup problem of mine? And then, in a meeting at work, one of my coworkers brought up the box of mugs she has out in her garage, waiting for one of her cabinet mugs to break so she can call them into use. And my manager chimed in about her special mugs made by her artist friends, and how she is going to put up a shelf to display the most “important” of the mugs! So I realized that I am not alone! We are all weird about mugs!

Pssst. Wanna mug? I can make you a deal….

(P.S.)

I went looking for this blog post because I wanted to link to it from this other blog post, and I couldn’t find it. And I looked high, and I looked low, and I even emailed my friend who runs the blogging platform I use, because my blog post had up and disappeared, and he looked for it and he couldn’t find it either. But of course, I then remembered that I’d posted this on Medium, and not here on my blog, so I had to sheepishly apologize for wasting his time. He forgave me, and I decided to add this post to my blog so that I never lose it again.

Thanks, Bill.

Parks & Points Anthology: I’m in it!

This one’s a beauty.

My poem, Spire Rock, is included a new print anthology, Wayfinding, edited by Amy Beth and Derek Wright. This is a collection of poetry inspired by America’s public lands; national parks, monuments, wildernesses and wild places.

the cover of WAYFINDING, a poetry anthology

Praise for Wayfinding

“When visiting national parks, we mostly rely on our visual senses to record the memory. But the poetry in Wayfinding touches other senses, wrapping the reader in bird chirps, campfire smells, and cool earthen textures. In doing so, the poems lure us into the interior journeys that shape our emotional connections to the parks.The poetry, written by mostly published and award-winning poets, walks paths through dank cedar forests and red-walled canyons, below upthrusts of granite and through the soggy wetlands of the mind, reminding us that our park experiences are all different, yet all part of what the wild offers. The words focus our attention on both the inward and outward journey on public lands. They nudge us to experience the parks more fully–to slow down to let all of our senses engage with often-missed wonders.”—Becky Lomax, author of Moon Guides’ Moon USA National Parks: The Complete Guide to All 62 Parks.

I’m proud to be included, though my early years as the daughter of a forester didn’t exactly make me an outdoorsy person as an adult. But I do love the wilderness. I can’t wait to read adventurous poems written by far more adventurous people than myself.

Preordering information is here: WAYFINDING

How to Cure Yourself of eBay During a Pandemic

I’ve bought 44 things on eBay since the COVID-19 quarantine started.

Am I the only one? I can’t be the only one. But I cured myself, and I’m going to tell you how I did that. But first, let me tell you how things got out of control.

It started with clothes. I began working from home last year with a strong commitment to sitting down at my computer at 7:30 AM each morning, showered, dressed, and wearing makeup, shoes, and accessories.

Yeah, right.

That lasted a month.

Jeans were tossed aside early on. The one outfit I could consistently coax myself into was leggings and a knit Old Navy swing dress. I had a couple, but thanks to eBay, I soon had…many. Probably too many. I could go in there (there being my closet) and count, but that might be really disheartening. There are more than a few, thank you. Isn’t that enough?

Fine, I’ll go make a count.

Fourteen.

Okay? Are you happy, now? There are fourteen Old Navy knit swing dresses in my closet (well, one of them is currently on my body), and when this all started, there were two. I gave another two away because the stripes weren’t flattering, but I refuse to count those. So, fourteen.

And you know, with my Mary Jane-type Dansko clogs (of which I have four pair because I like to overbuy whatever works for my feet), I really have a look going on. I put on a scarf and earrings and I look so kicky and middle-aged and also sort of like a chubby toddler who has gotten into Grandma’s accessories.

Will I change my style when I go back to the office full time? Jesus, I sure hope so. But I so rarely wear anything else. When I do mix it up with, say, jeans and a not-long top? A stranger looks back at me from the mirror.

It isn’t just clothing.

I collect things. Many things, but I go wide in collecting, not deep. There’s some axiom that “Three things is a collection,” and if that’s the case, then I have quite a few collections sitting together in my home.

I have four glass paperweights on a windowsill. One was inherited, one was a gift, one was a souvenir, and one was thrifted. That’s all I have and all I probably ever will have, as far as glass paperweights go. But I like them, so I keep them.

It gets weird on my hutch, but not because I’ve gone deep into one thing or another. Still, going wide adds up. Three pieces of Marcrest pottery. Some eight or so various pieces of froth/drip pottery from Hull and Pfaltzgraff. Some Denby plates.  Three Howard Pierce ceramic animals. A little of this, a little of that.

But I have FIFTEEN vintage honeypots on that hutch. I don’t want to count how many small, poorly painted, ridiculously cute made-in-occupied-Japan ceramic dogs are scattered around the house. So I can go too far.

I have lost control in quarantine.

I blame eBay for allowing me to go off on strange purchasing jags, including a particular style of Fitz & Floyd figurines from the 1980s (they are really neat in a Lisa Larsson knockoff way). I have picked them off with steely precision when they came up for bid. They are cute, but they are also cutesy.

What did my husband think, watching me liberate all these gewgaws from their protective bubble wrappings? Did he think I was nuts? Or was he just happy that I was happy?

I was happy until I bought two that didn’t quite fit with the general aesthetic. They were too blue, and they ruined everything, so I donated them and called myself done. And so far I’ve stuck to that, but I’ve bought other things. Just a couple. I’m trying to keep myself in check.

But finally, I went too far.

I like handmade coffee mugs. I have…a few now, as opposed to when I wrote a Medium piece about my mug problem. I buy the mugs at thrift stores, though my “one true mug” was purchased at the pottery place on Orcas Island.

I also like mice and rats. To be clear, I don’t like mice and rats themselves, so much as I like representations of them. I love me some Hunca Munca, and Brambly Hedge books, and that kind of nonsense. I was born in the Year of the Rat, so, I have a lot of rat netsuke (Oh, I forgot to talk about my netsuke collection, didn’t I. That one is kind of deep).

So when a certain item showed up on eBay, I thought, “Wow, that looks interesting! This item combines my love of artistic representations of rats with my love of handmade pottery coffee cups! I should bid on that! This will be cute!”

Guess what. It isn’t cute. Not at all.

It. Is. Monstrous.

It’s three times the size I thought it would be, and horribly realistic. It’s huge, and detailed, with inset glass eyes and a gross, bumpy tail for a handle. The head of the thing is easily six times the size of a real rat’s head (and I know this because of course we have had pet rats over the years). Real rats have disturbing pink tails, but aside from that they are very smart, and sweet.

This thing is a nightmare.

I sent photos of it to my sister. Once she stopped bawling with horrified laughter, she said (diplomatically), “I guess I’m having some trouble seeing why you thought this might be cute, no matter how big it was.” I told her I had somehow conflated it with the first netsuke I ever bought in 1978, a round rat which fits nicely in the palm of my hand and brings me joy.

A rat netsuke (reproduction) held in the blogger's hand.

I thought this gigantic rat mug would bring me similar joy. It doesn’t. It brings me horror, and a degree of shame and self-loathing. How could I have bought such a thing? Any sane person would banish it from her home immediately.

I kept it.

I have it prominently displayed on my hutch. It’s over there right now, leering at me over its left shoulder (imagine, a coffee mug with shoulders) with its glass-eyed, whiskered smile. It is doing some important work, there on my hutch. Every time I go to eBay, and I get the urge to bid on something, I make myself look at this monstrosity, instead.

And that’s how you cure yourself of eBay, during a pandemic.

(P.S.)

In case you were wondering about my netsuke rats, here they are. Yes, I know some of these are reproductions. Additionally, I know that some of these things are not netsuke.

14 small carvings of rats and mice on a wooden table.

This is but a fraction of the netsuke, but every netsuke and netsuke-adjacent item I own fits in this card box, with my glasses for scale. I can live with it.

A box on a tabletop, with a pair of glasses on top of the box.

Wait. You’re saying, that’s it? We read all this garbage about all your garbage, and we don’t even get to see the hideous rat mug in question?

Okay. Fine. Here it is. Just imagine sipping your tea from this thing. Keep in mind that it is fully nine inches from stem to stern.

Black-Eyed Peas on New Year’s Day – an Anthology of Hope

I’m excited!

Book cover for BLACK-EYED PEAS ON NEW YEAR'S DAY: Stories of Hope

Yes, that’s a new book cover, and it’s an anthology of hopeful stories (including one of mine).

Really, it couldn’t have come at a better time, could it? When a friend sent out a call for stories centered on hope, I scoffed. “Hope? I don’t write anything hopeful. I HAVE NO HOPE.” And then I remembered this little hopeful story I’d written, and I sent it in, and, well…

…it gave me some hope.

Here’s the introduction:

2020 wasn’t kind to any of us, was it? (And 2021 is off to a shaky start at best!) Pandemic, economic collapse, out-of-control wildfires the world ’round, ice storms, murder hornets…and that’s without even discussing politics. It’s time to send some good energy out there into the world. Good luck, good wishes, good magic, talismans and rituals and lucky charms–you name it, we’ve got it here.

BLACK-EYED PEAS ON NEW YEAR’S DAY is a multi-genre anthology focused on hope. Here you’ll find more than a double dozen tales–fantasy, science fiction, literary, even nonfiction–that will bring a smile to your face and some optimism to your heart. After all, we’re all in this together. (Except the murder hornets. They’re not welcome here.)

REVIEW:

This is a wonderful, diverse, and extensive collection of short stories (and a few miscellany) based on the theme of Hope. Which is understandable, and in some ways mandated by the past year of Covid, racial injustice and tension, political divisiveness, conspiracy craziness, and simple mean-spiritedness that has permeated almost all levels of culture. Of course, there is another way to view the past year, and that is the unfettered  creativity and triumph of the human spirit that emerged in front-line workers, parents, teachers, and a whole host of others. And this is where the Black-Eyed Peas Anthology is situated. On the positive side of the line. It is, quite simply, an antidote.
-Paul S. Piper, author of Dogs and Other Poems and The Wolves of Mirr

How to get it

There’s Amazon: Black-Eyed Peas on New Year’s Day

And e-books can be ordered and downloaded directly from the publisher, Book View Cafe: Black-Eyed Peas on New Year’s Day

My own hopes

I’ve had my first shot, and I’m scheduled for my second. My one great big hope right now is that I’ll be able to SAFELY take my older grandson to the Dinosaurs exhibit at OMSI in May.

Fingers crossed.