This story begins on April 13th, 2018, when I was reading a book in the living room of some friends’ house up on Orcas Island. My one true love came in and put his hand on my shoulder. He said, “Do you want to get married?” and I said “Yes!” Of course I wanted to get married! To him! Absolutely! But a moment later, I said, “To you, right?” because there was always a chance it was just a general query, sort of a survey question, and not an actual proposal. He said, “Yes. To me.”
We’d both said yes to love. Love is hard to find, and rare. Love deserves a celebration. That means a wedding. I didn’t want a wedding, but I was marrying a very romantic man. He wanted a wedding.
So I said yes to that, too.
A wedding? Kill me now.
Now, I should clarify that I don’t like big weddings, especially not where I’m concerned. I was married at age 18 and again at age 21, and what those weddings had in common (besides my youth and idiocy at thinking I should marry that young) was that they were tiny events. Miniscule. Which was nice, because when the marriages ended, at least I didn’t have to apologize to my parents for spending a fortune on my bad ideas.
I liked the sound of those old weddings in the forties, when the couple went to the judge’s chamber, wearing their nicest suits. She probably wore a neat little hat and gloves, and carried a nosegay. After the ceremony, one of the relatives hosted a luncheon with things like cold meats and aspics and finger sandwiches, and cake, nuts, mints and punch. After which the couple headed out on a sweet, rustic honeymoon.
Oh, how I longed for a sweet wedding luncheon and a trip to Niagara Falls.
Alternatives examined and discarded
Why, you might ask, didn’t we just elope? Well, for a few reasons. He’d eloped to Vegas before, so that carried all kinds of associations for him, none of them happy. I talked about doing it at the courthouse, but with both our families, the have-to-be-there list was lengthy, and we’d be having some kind of a party after, so why not let everyone come to the ceremony? We both had important friends with whom we wanted to share this day.
But then we had to plan a wedding.
Getting married should be simple. All you really need to get married is a couple, an officiant, at least one ring and some expensive pieces of paper for the legal part. And a pen, I guess, to sign those papers.
But getting married is not the same as having a wedding. Weddings are all about choices and money. When. Where. Who. How much. Nothing is simple or easy. This time, our parents wouldn’t be paying for any part of this event, since (1) this would be the third marriage for each of us, (2) we are both gainfully employed, and (3) we are old, really, for getting married.
Okay, we are not quite old yet, but we are certainly not young. We are not even middle-aged, unless we’re planning to live to 106 and 118 years of age, respectively. But we’re old enough that when we hold hands or kiss in public, people assume we’re cute older people who have been together forever and still manage to be romantic. Teenage ticket sellers squint at us through the glass of the ticket booth, asking if we want senior rates. I am even able to order from the senior menu at my neighborhood pie house, a fact I like to rub in the face of anyone under 55.
Envy me. I get the bacon and eggs for seven dollars.
But back to the wedding
Timing was an issue. Some of his important relatives (sister, niece, great-nephew) had to fly in, so they needed time to book flights and plan a trip to the PNW. One of my daughters is pregnant and lives across the country, and wouldn’t be able to fly past a certain point. Another daughter lives five hours away, and would be working every single weekend with no exceptions and no choice about it until a break that started on November 1st.
The largest issue, though, was that my father was terminally ill and quite fragile. We had to decide first thing if we wanted time to plan, or to have him at the wedding. That choice was easy to make. We both wanted him there. So we chose a date seven months out, started talking about what we wanted, and hoped for the best.
I made a spread sheet, of course. It had a scheduled to-do list, a tab for guests and their addresses and responses, and a tab for expenses. We’d given ourselves a small budget so that we could pay as we went, because I refused to go into debt for any of this. The budget talk was something like this: “I’d like to do it for 4K, but it’s going to be 5K.” “We can do it for 4K!” “Oh, just you wait.”
I asked my younger brother to officiate, and we chose a date to get the license, and then we got down to the hard stuff. Where would we get married? What would we eat? What would we wear, and say, and listen to, and put on our fingers? Would there be aspics, cake, nuts, mints and punch? Would there be nosegays?
A banquet of choices
Now, here’s something I know about my man. He enjoys having lots of choices. Like, a banquet of choices. He will take the buffet any time we are in Vegas, because he likes an expanse of items to consider, inspect, and reject before he finally makes his choice. It’s one of his great joys in life. It’s one reason (I think) that he tolerated online dating better than I did. He liked that there were so many women to choose from. Me? I prefer not so many choices. I want to develop a set of criteria, drill down and get busy.
I found that this variance in our personalities was not helpful in a few areas of wedding planning. Like choosing a venue. I wanted to choose a venue. He wanted to see venues. Plenty of venues, because he loves choices. He took me to a few that summer, and they were all outdoors. He’d stand by the set-up for a summer wedding that was happening later that afternoon or that evening, and smile at how nice it all was, with the decorations and dance floor and the DIY table settings and all. The guy is so romantic.
And what would I do? I’d tap my foot and scowl and say, “Why are we wasting time looking at outdoor venues when we’re getting married in November in Oregon? What is the point?” The point, of course, was choices. Options. And being romantic. And I just poured my salty pickle juice all over his sweet, spoony enthusiasm.
I was horribly pragmatic. I would quote costs to him for a dance floor and band, for seated dinners and rented tableware and the like, all of which would drive our costs up and waaaaay over our budget of 5K. I tried not to be crabby about it, but we only had a few months to put it all together and why were we wasting time at places that wouldn’t work for our wedding?
So we go indoors
We started pricing indoor places, and were dismayed by, well, everything. Venues are expensive, and not necessarily accessible when one of the guests is in a wheelchair. Meal choices are limited, and cost a fortune per plate. A nice place makes its money through the food and drink, and gross places were, well, gross. Not acceptable. We even looked at the tiny Oaks Pioneer Church, which is adorable and nondenominational, but you can’t have a reception there. We’d have had to wheel my fragile father to two places. Nothing was right, everything was absurdly costly, and I felt discouraged.
I can’t remember what we’d looked at when I said, “Don’t any of our friends live in a really big house, or maybe a condo with a big club room?”
Lightning bolt. Yes.
We had friends who lived in a lovely downtown condo, and they had a beautiful club room with a fireplace and a wall of windows that looked out on an elegant courtyard. The room was full of sofas and tables and chairs, with a battalion of portable tables and chairs just waiting to be requested. And bathrooms. And a full kitchen with punch bowls and serving utensils and spare silverware. And another big room where we could set up all the food and drink. This room also came with a security guard, to keep the riffraff from wandering out of the event space into the luxury condos, I’m sure, and the capable event-planning assistance of my dear friend San, who was absolutely delighted to share her lovely space with us.
We had a time, a place, an officiant, and San. We were getting closer.
Put a ring on it
We also had a terrible time picking out rings. I picked mine first, being “engaged” and all. And despite my idea of myself as decisive, I was terribly indecisive. I’d get something all picked out, show my guy, he’d get out his wallet to order and and I’d say “Not yet!” A week later, I’d have a completely different choice in mind. and of course I chose an artisan ring, which made choosing the band that much more difficult. I want to point out that I was a complete pain in the ass, here.
My guy wanted to look at choices for his ring with me, and he wanted to look at all the rings in the entire world. We went to several jewelry stores, and he’d ask to see rings, and I’d say, “Is that something you’d like?” and he’d say, “No, I just wanted to see what it looked like.” That choices thing, again. He ke[t asking to see rings, and then saying, “Weird.” Part of the fun, for him, was laughing at rings that looked like engine parts or car tires or the like.
We moved our search to Etsy. I thought pulling those rings up on our aging laptops just to scoff at them was a WASTE OF MY TIME. Plus, if he wanted something handcrafted, we’d have to order it from a maker! We didn’t have time to scoff! I didn’t care if he liked having choices! I was impatient.
He could tell when I said in an icy voice, “I have looked at literally hundreds of rings with you, and I’m tired of looking at what you don’t want. Can you please just let me know what you DO want?”
I am lucky, at this point, that he still wanted to marry me, but he did. On his own, he made a list of five rings to look at with me. I could do five rings, just not another fifty. His final choice would be coming from Ireland. I ordered it in July. I thought that gave us plenty of time, yes?
But back to the planning.
People have to eat
Which was another issue. FOOD AND DRINK. He has specific food tastes, and I like everything. No, seriously, there is nothing I don’t like to eat besides maybe fried pork rinds. And we had to design a wedding menu that would give everyone something decent to eat. I remember looking up and saying, “Do we really want to spend 4,000 dollars to feed everyone roast beef or salmon?”
We decided not to.
We hired the top-rated caterer in town to design a “hearty hors d’oeuvres” spread for us. Now, because there were so many choices on the list of what we could order, we were back to the languid choice-making, the “I wonder if the sauce is they talk about on this one could be served on the side?” or “Do you suppose they could make this without the remoulade?” questions from him, with me barking back “DON’T ASK THE CHEF TO CHANGE SOMETHING, JUST PICK SOMETHING ELSE FOR GOD’S SAKE, THERE ARE A HUNDRED THINGS TO CHOOSE FROM, JUST MAKE A LIST OF WHAT YOU LIKE AND GO FROM THERE.”
I didn’t shout with my voice, but I was definitely shouting inside.
We got the choices made, and a contract signed, and there would be food.
Which took me to the next stressful purchase.
What to wear
Like every American bride, I had some vague idea that I’d have a new body in place before my wedding. Wedding planning didn’t exactly melt off the pounds, so I had to use the body I currently owned for the wedding. And that body needed a new dress.
I ordered one I liked from Nordstrom, and it came, and I was so excited. My youngest daughter came over to help me try it on, and then to help me get it off my body and back into the box with a minimum of comment because my god, that dress looked terrible on me. I sent it right back and thought that maybe no one should marry me because I looked so misshapen and horrid in that dress.
Then I went to Kiyonna.com, where the perfect (not white, though they have those) dress was easily found. And it came, and slipped on without so much as a zipper, and it was beautiful and elegant and comfortable and lined, and it was even long enough, and I loved it. When I shared a photo of it with family and friends, they all loved it too, except for one friend who started sending other choices in a panic, including something from David’s Bridal that would have needed sleeves to be added, but I ignored all that. I had my dress.
After watching the Shapermint ads on Facebook over and over and over again, I ordered one of those, too. In the Facebook ads, a size 14 or 16 woman stands before the camera with a pair of little elastic shorts pulled up right below her abdomen. She rolls the shorts up over her womanly rolls and bulges to just under her bra, and she has a completely different figure. It’s astonishing. I’d have liked to have given it a try, but I couldn’t even get the shorts up to my just-under-the-womanly-bulges part. So that Shapermint stayed in the drawer. But I still watch those commercials on Facebook.
My guy didn’t need to buy a suit, shirt or tie, because he’s a grown-up and has those, but he did need new black dress shoes. I was prepared for our trip to Nordstrom Rack, where we arrived shortly before they closed. I knew exactly what he needed, which was a quality pair of black men’s dress shoes that didn’t have a long, pointy toe-box. So I left him to be dazzled by the wall of men’s shoe choices. I ignored him while he was pulling out sequinned men’s loafers and lavender deck shoes to scoff at them. With steely precision, I located several quality pairs of black men’s dress shoes sans long, pointy toe-boxes. I brought them to him and refused to be distracted by the embroidered smoking slippers and two-tone patent lace-ups he was waving around in amusement. I was not there for a good time. I was there for black shoes and dammit, I saw nothing else.
We left there with a really nice pair of shoes for him.
Cake and cake and cake and more cake
Along the way, we were sending out save-the-dates and then invites, getting our license, trying and buying our prosecco, red wine, white wine and various other drinks, and ordering galvanized tubs to ice them, haunting Goodwills to find specific square low vases for the eventual flower arrangements, and and getting the final tally for the caterer.
I had an idea for the cakes that would be delicious and pretty, based on the cakes we’d eaten at a wedding over the summer. But my guy wanted to do cake tastings. He’d done cake tastings for his first wedding, and he was happily anticipating going to bakery after bakery to try little squares of cake with squirts of frosting on them. I told him I would happily go to as many cake tastings as he arranged. His eyebrows raised a bit, but he did it.
And it turned out that I enjoyed cake tastings, too, especially looking through books of cake designs, which ranged from opulent to decadent to rustic/woodsy, and all costing at least 600 dollars to feed 75 people a piece of cake. We didn’t order cakes, but we always got delicious treats at the bakeries to take home for later consumption. He was right, it was fun.
Then I took him to the Thriftway where my family has bought birthday cakes for thirty years. We bought five or six slices of cake, and took them home and had the best cake tasting of all. He had a chance to see how truly outstanding this bakery is, and though he liked the chocolate cake at Jaciva’s best, this one ran a close second. We went back, ordered four cakes (chocolate, banana, lemon [for my dad, who loved lemon desserts], poppy seed) and asked them to frost all but the chocolate in white cream cheese frosting, to make them as bridal and pretty as they could. Then we paid $98.00 and left, knowing they would be ready, on time, delicious and beautiful for our wedding day.
Hiccups and meltdowns
We were not without hiccups. Finding a good photographer we could afford was difficult, but with the help of one of my daughters, I did it. The red wine we wanted was sold out when we went to get it in quantity, but we found another. I’d ordered his ring in July, and by mid-October, it hadn’t arrived. After a series of panicked communications, the maker sent a replacement that got to us three days before the wedding. And flower day, where my daughter and sister-in-law were making table arrangements and a bouquet for me, didn’t go smoothly. It was the day before the wedding, and I was melting down over the music, and people were asking too many questions and having too many opinions and I burst into tears and told everyone to stop talking to me for a minute.
I texted my guy, “I suppose it’s too late to elope?”
He texted back, “I’m afraid so, honey.”
So I saddled up, and we finished the day, and everyone forgave me for yelling and crying.
Let’s do this thing
The day itself was beautiful. My middle daughter did my hair and makeup in San’s luxury condo, while downstairs in the club room, everything was picked up and delivered and set up by friends and family in the club room, invisible hands doing the impossible list of last-minute tasks that brought it all together. There were flowers everywhere, and tables of delicious food, and more wine than anyone could drink. My sister-in-law had developed delicious punches and made frozen ice rings with flowers and springs of lavender to float with them, and I’d found nut and mint dishes to set out on the cake table so I could have my 1940s vision of cake, punch, nuts and mints. The music played and people laughed and smiled and hugged each other, everyone was there and present including my dad, following along with a printed-out copy of the ceremony and vows, so he didn’t miss anything. We stood up in front of everyone and said the magic words. My guy became my husband, and I became his wife, and we all cried and laughed and celebrated the impossible wonder of that, together.
What worked and what worked better
So what would I have done differently? It’s easy to say “nothing,” because the day came together so beautifully. So here are thoughts and notes about what went right, and what could have been handled a little differently.
Timing: Based on my previous weddings (one of which came together from a Wednesday to a Sunday — yes, five days) I underestimated how much time it would take to put this all together. The time constraint was brutal, but my father was housebound soon after the wedding. This really was our only chance to have him there. I’m glad we did it when we did it, despite how compressed our planning and execution was.
Matron of honor: My best friend from high school was my maid-of-honor. I am glad she was and I wouldn’t have chosen a different one, but apparently, I never told her that she was going to stand up with me. She was as surprised as could be to get a corsage, to be in the wedding party photos, and then to be called up as an attendant! She says she’d have worn a dress, rather than wearing slacks! So, as a note, please let your attendants know several times that they are, indeed, attendants, removing any element of surprise from your wedding party.
Flowers: My daughters went to a wonderful florist and picked out special blooms for a bouquet for me, and my oldest daughter made the bouquet of my dreams. I really didn’t expect anything so amazing. The flower arrangements were also magnificent — white roses and greenery. These were done for me as a wedding gift from my daughter, and she was helped by my sister-in-law. There were also white orchids to set along the fireplace and here and there. When it was time to go, we invited people to take the table arrangements home. I got so many sweet photos texted to me with words like, “Still blooming” in the weeks to come. The orchids went home with our Orcas Island friends, who have a way with them. When we visit, we can count on seeing our wedding orchids blooming at their home.
Decor: My middle daughter took me on a Home Goods, Michael’s run. We found what I’d come for, which was pretty cake plates and napkins and silverware, but she pushed me beyond my comfort zone to a guest book, tablecloths and tablesquares, and these funny little coasters so people could write advice to us. “This is the fun stuff, Mom.” She bought most of it, too, and it enhanced the look of the room immensely. And it was, indeed, fun.
Cake: I thought four cakes was plenty. But after the wedding, when I asked people which cake they had, most said, “Oh, all four!” So if you do my nifty method of wedding cake provision, order more than you think you’ll need. Everyone will want to try everything.
Music: After a grueling, emotional assembly of a Spotify playlist that resulted in a tantrum and a request to elope, I didn’t remember to turn the music back on after the toasts. I advise that you do so.
Help: People wanted to help more than I let them. I should have let them. We hired a woman to keep the buffet tables straight, to organize the garbage and recycling, to just keep things going in the room of much food. She was worth twice what we paid for her services. She and San did the clean-up (San had volunteered and said she was paid in full for her own services with leftovers and have I mentioned that San is magnificent?).
Food: We ordered for fifty guests, and had 65. We could have fed twice that many people with what our caterers delivered. Everyone raved about the food, but I only ate a little because my new husband brought me a plate of what he knew I’d love; stuffed artichoke bottoms, pastry-wrapped artichoke spears, a short rib crostini with remoulade. There was so much food there. Have small to-go boxes handy so people can take food home with them, because food this delicious shouldn’t go to waste.
Favors: We overbought wine, sparkling cider and champagne on purpose, and each guest left with one or two bottles of something. I think this is a fine wedding favor/remembrance.
Nuts and mints: I loved having them out, but no one ate them. I didn’t care. I might not have had a suit, gloves and a hat, and it was too late in the day for a luncheon, but we did have cake and punch, nuts and mints.
And that’s that.
That’s what it’s like to get married when you’re older, I guess. With family and flowers, good friends and good food, with love and laughter and lots and lots of help from people who love you and wish you well. I recommend it. I recommend it with no reservations.
But my new husband and I agree. The next time we marry each other?
We are definitely eloping.
We don’t answer the phone anymore. At least, I don’t.
Now, if it’s my cellphone and one of my friends’ names pops up, or my kids’ faces, or my HUSBAND (SURPRISE! I HAVE ONE OF THOSE NOW), well of course I answer that. Because I know who it is. And if I’m at work and I can see that it’s a coworker calling me (names and extensions display), yes, of course I answer the phone. But any other number? No, never. I don’t answer the phone.
Answering the phone
I answered the phone religiously for sixteen years at the office, talking with costume designers and their assistants, magazines and the like. My job was to place my company’s products in print, on TV shows I loved (like True Blood), and movies I didn’t (like Twilight) (apologies to Twilight lovers everywhere, but I guess vampires have to fit in with my very specific tastes).Vampires aside, I was on that phone, jumping to whenever it rang, dropping everything to find out the particulars of what and when and colors and sizes, then back on the phone to track everything down and hustle it where it needed to be. Eventually I passed this set of duties off to someone who spent half her day on the phone with editors and costume people, and did it happily. I missed parts of that job–there is a true sense of triumph when you make a great placement–but I didn’t miss all that time on the phone.
It’s your friend calling.
I used to talk to friends on the phone quite a bit, back when I could use my cell phone in the car. I’d call Sue every morning on our commutes. She’d fill me in on her extraordinarily active dating life. I’d listen to her stories while trying not to run over the people who lived on the street and therefore thought they owned it, and could therefore walk in front of moving cars with impunity. I judged them for endangering their lives, but the truth is I was endangering my own with all that talking and driving. I have stopped that.
Phone calls with men
I used to talk to men on the phone, back in my earlier online dating days. The conversations were invariably awkward, but I realized I could save time and grief by talking on the phone with prospects before I met them, because 60% of them would be immediately disqualified. So I did that for awhile. Did you know you can tell if someone is on the spectrum almost immediately on the phone? Well, you can, don’t ask me exactly how, but I was always right. And then the general phone-avoidance attitude took hold, and it stopped being an option.
I always answer my kids, though.
The only people who can reliably count on me for phone conversations are my daughters–and very often, they do Face Time. Occasionally I plan a phone call with a friend, which has to be scheduled as carefully as a mammogram or a blood draw, and is approached with a similar level of apprehension. In the ten years I’ve known Shannon, I have called her exactly once out of the blue, because her mother was ill and I wanted to know how things were going. We were both so intensely uncomfortable that I vowed to always text first to give her warning. I AM GOING TO CALL YOU, SHANNON, I AM SO SORRY ABOUT THAT, PLEASE MENTALLY PREPARE YOURSELF OR MAYBE TAKE A BIT OF XANAX. (she doesn’t take Xanax) (that’s me) (just to be clear).
Gaps in communication were just fine.
For twenty years, April and I would reliably talk on the phone somewhere around the holidays. She lived in Oklahoma, and I lived in Oregon, and we were both busy with life, husbands, kids and (in her case) a meaningful career (I didn’t do that). But we found time for at least one phone call per year. Once she called in later January and asked what I was doing. I said, “Oh, just laying on my bed with my newborn baby daughter.” She said, “Oh, how sweet.” That’s how sparse our talks were, that I could have conceived and birthed an entire child without her knowing. Now she lives in Oregon, and we are in contact much more often. We get to see each other! But when I call her, she says, “Hello?” with dread. She is AFRAID when I call, thinking it’s bad news about a family member or one of my dogs.Do I only call when there’s bad news? Or is it just that we usually text, so it’s got to be something awful driving me to dial the phone? (not that anyone dials the phone, or hangs up, but you know what I mean)
I am supposed to have a theory, here. And I’m working my way to one, and it has to do with the ubiquity of communication.
When I was young, a long distance phone call was a BIG DEAL. I usually received one per year from my maternal grandparents on my birthday. That was it. When I was 19 and got my first phone (I lived without one from age 15 to 19), I could afford one long distance phone call per month. I had to plan that call and make a decision and stick to it, because at 35 cents a minute, that was an expensive call.
And then something happened, all tied up with cellular communication. Cell phones went from being expensive luxuries with roaming charges and charge-by-the-text plans, to what they are now–a replacement for landlines that have no roaming costs and free long distance and unlimited calls and data and texting. It’s free and constant and we have choices on just which way we want to talk–by text, email, instant message, facetime or Skype, or actually putting a phone to our ears and speaking (though most of us put it on speaker, but anyway). And this is supposed to be great, yes? But why, then, are we ducking each other?
We are inundated with opportunities for communication. It’s too much. We have overloaded ourselves. We can’t stand it. So we don’t answer the phone anymore, and I am not sure there is a fix for this. I wish there were, because I loved talking on the phone–but I can’t stand to do it anymore.
When did everyone start loving ranch homes? I remember when the battle cry for house hunting was “Anything but a ranch!” Ranches were plain, boxy, a capitulation to suburban living in all its mundane boredom.
I know, I know, it’s all because of Chip and Joanna Gaines. I like what they do so much that I can tell you the names of my favorite ranch home rehabs: Big Daddy’s House and the Worm Brick House. It’s not the décor so much–Joanna’s initial enthusiasm for flaking paint and patchy rust are not to my taste, nor are her more current themes of black metal and artificial flowers–but they take those houses apart and put them back together in such pleasing ways. When I watch House Hunters on HGTV (which I started to do a week after the last election, because MSNBC was making me lose my will to live) I am surprised at how many people go looking for ranches as their preferred style. Something has CHANGED, people.
Amway Dream Home
As a house-hunter in the late 1980s, I was one of those people, of course. What I wanted more than anything was a Craftsman home with intact, unpainted woodwork. We (my ex-husband and I) even found one, but lacked the necessary fortitude to trust our guts and make an offer. That rundown Craftsman sat on a large lot, right next to a house we called “the Amway Dream Home.”
The Amway Dream Home was a new construction ranch that was landscaped with grass and red lava rock, like a military base. This house had been for sale forever for very good reasons. It was a yellowish tan shoe box with trim painted the color of the contents of a baby diaper. It had an oversized double-car garage with a room of some kind next to it (my ex would drawl, “that’s for the praw-duhct”). The front yard was dominated by an enormous satellite dish. This house was absolutely devoid of architectural detail or charm.
Reader, guess who bought it.
The complexities of how, why and from whom I bought the Amway Dream Home make a great story, but that’s a story for another day. Ranch homes have their charms, as EVERYONE SEEMS TO HAVE FIGURED OUT BY NOW. They generally have all the things missing in so many cuter, quainter styles, like entries, hallways, adequate bathrooms, laundry rooms, yards, storage, parking, and so on. It’s the sheer practicality of the ranch that won over a pragmatic person like me.
And have you ever been inside a really nice daylight ranch? These are also known as walk-outs and split backs, and that lower level is a goldmine of space and opportunity. As my family grew to two adults, three kids and a medium-sized dog, my one-level ranch felt increasingly cramped. I often longed for a walk-out. And eventually I got one, but not of the architectural variety–a marital walk-out is an entirely different matter, but at least the house was no longer so small, then.
Ranch home architecture features in the short passages that introduce the season changes in The Iris Files. These passages delight some readers, and baffle others. I call them them prose strophes, which is term I’ve coined to hide the fact that they are probably just indulgences. These poetic litanies have stayed in every version and draft of the book–even when a former literary agent asked me to remove them. “Are they really necessary?” she asked. Well, listen, is ANYTHING really necessary? If I were to hold up the filter of necessity to anything that is written today (by me or anyone else), it would all fade away. This leaves me with only one answer: these passages are necessary to me.
Here’s an example:
It’s a fall afternoon, in California.
California is the land of air conditioners. In the fall, California air conditioners work steadily, and the hot air of September is monitored, measured, drawn in, cooled off, pumped out, and re-circulated.
California women are all that, and waxed.
On a fall afternoon in California, the streets are full of the sons and daughters of the mighty hunters. These children are shuttled from school to practice to lesson to playgroup. Despite their busy schedules, these children occasionally find time to play.
When the shadows of the afternoon begin to lengthen, the women step out of their climate-controlled homes. They call their children in for dinner. And the women lift their expensively highlighted heads of hair, and wonder when and if their men will return home.
Ranch architecture is varied, but predictable. There are one-levels and tri-levels, walk-out basements and split entries. Everyone envies the tri-levels. Everyone despises the split entries. But people are divided on the walk-outs. No one knows if the walk-outs are a good thing, or a bad thing.
Nothing ever changes, in California.
I’m worshiping with words in these passages, and I’m worshiping the idea that each of these cookie-cutter homes is unique. If you were to step inside one of them, you’d see a thousand differences that tell the story of the lives lived within. Yes, there are bland and annoying people in every neighborhood, living in every kind of home. But I’m not convinced that any neighborhood in my city is more or less likely to hold annoying neighbors.
Over at the Ranch
I have lived in my ranch home for thirty years, now. The bulk of my life has been spent at one address. For someone whose childhood was as fractured and nomadic as mine, this is a miracle. It’s also weird as hell to live in one house for thirty years these days. No one does it. Except–all around me, I have neighbors who have. We have lived here forever, side-by-side.
I used to feel the need to apologize for my determined rootedness. But then I found this sweet meme on Tumblr, and it made perfect sense to me.
I mean, if Simone Weil says so…
The future of the ranch
These days, my ranch home feels mighty spacious, as it holds only two tall people and two miniscule dogs. The dogs are old, but the man is sort of young. He’s younger than me, at least. We both feel the pull of other places, other ways of living once we retire. We talk about where we might buy next, send each other links to places we like that won’t even be for sale in ten years, but it doesn’t hurt to look, to plan, to speculate about where we might end up.
As it turns out, in addition to our many other areas of compatibility, we both have the same dream home–the aforementioned Craftsman with rooms full of intact dark brown woodwork, built-ins, you name it, we want it. I have no idea if we will ever live in a place like that. In all likelihood, we’ll get a boring condo that’s an excellent deal, because we’re both so practical.
But until pragmatism rears its head to ruin everything, it’s fun to dream together.
Let’s talk about Elizabeth Strout. Maybe it’s my Midwestern upbringing, but I’m more comfortable talking about anything rather than my own work. So let’s go talk some Strout.
Photo by Leonard Cendamo (source) – Have you ever seen a more open and inviting gaze in your freaking life than this?
I came to Elizabeth Strout a bit later than many readers. She had already published Amy and Isabelle and Abide with Me before my book group read Olive Kitteridge. My daughter had loved Amy and Isabelle, but there was something keeping me away. Sometimes that’s nothing more than professional envy. Someone writes the kind of book I want to write, and she’s published and acclaimed and I peer at the title through a haze of spite and decide to sit this one out. Very often, the book in question turns out to be fantastic and completely worthy of all praises heaped upon it, like, for instance, Angela’s Ashes. At other times, (and my apologies to those of you who love it) it’s more like The English Patient, which I didn’t love when I finally read it.
Amy and Isabelle was everywhere, all bookstores, all my friends’ bookshelves, even at Fred Meyer and Target. I kept not reading it. I also didn’t read her second novel, Abide with Me, but this is okay because apparently no one else did, either.
And then came Olive, which is a collection of linked short stories that function as a novel, which seemed bold and daring and wonderful before everyone else started doing it. Everyone in my book group loved the book, everyone who read this book loved it, and we all recommended it to everyone we knew, and a big web of love for Olive Kitteridge spread across the country. It couldn’t have happened to a better book.
Things happen in the book–even some shocking stuff, heart-hammering events. There is a plot, but this is a novel of character, and that character is Olive. Olive in some ways reminds me of my mother–her largeness and her sensitivity, her love of flowers and her care with/masking of her own physical presence. It is difficult to be a large women, it’s something of an indignity, and my mother felt that quite strongly, as does Olive. In other ways, of course, she is nothing like my mother. Olive is not particularly likable or socially adept, and everyone loved my mother, who was a brilliant conversationalist. But they could both be so spiteful. I loved Olive’s spitefulness. That one passage where she is having a lie-down after her son’s wedding, and hears someone mocking her mother-of-the-groom dress, a dress Olive loves because she has this secret love of colors and flowers, and the dress has a lot of both–well, it just breaks my heart. I cheered her on as she took her small and spiteful revenge.
If you were wondering, I did watch the HBO series of Olive Kitteridge. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it like I loved the book, because I felt Olive was miscast. Frances McDormand is brilliant–her performance in Three Billboards is magnificent–but Olive is an ocean liner of a woman, and FM is not. Size is such an integral part of who Olive is.
The Burgess Boys Lead to Amy and Isabelle
I wanted to love The Burgess Boys but I only liked it, and I don’t remember much about it. Since it was the follow-up to Olive, I was disappointed and had to go looking. That’s when I read Amy and Isabelle, and of course I loved it. If you were to ask me what I think Strout’s main underlying theme is, I would say it’s women trying to get out from under their mothers; trying to be someone besides your mother, trying to understand that your mother is a person, flawed, a mortal human failure. Ridiculous at times. Frustrated. But loveable. And you can hurt her deeply.
Mothers are still objects of puzzlement and resentment after they die. They never make sense, because, of course, they are just people. And people mess up. But of course, as children, we have no idea that our moms aren’t superhuman and infallible. As a child, I didn’t question my mother’s words or her choices. As a young woman, I decided with brutal finality that my mother had never taken my needs into account once while making those choices. But as a young mother, I understood that I’d be messing up every single day, myself, and I’d better forgive my mom, because one day I would have to humbly ask forgiveness of my own children. Those are the terms of endearment.
So when friend loaned me My Name is Lucy Barton, I read it swiftly. And I have to say that it’s such a slip of a book that I read it, then gave it back, then borrowed it again a year later and reread it, and was two chapters in before I remembered that I’d read it before. I don’t think it’s a flaw in the book; I think it’s the style of it. Lucy is so glancing, so evasive as a narrator. She is simply not going to say things out loud. She’s given slip to a past of poverty and humiliation and community scorn. Rather than being embittered, she finds her new life wonderful. She is a true innocent who Is determined to stay that way, and a lovely Candide quality colors all her perceptions. But you feel an undercurrent of tremendous darkness, and you are left needing more.
It’s like–living your entire life as a poem by Emily Dickinson. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” I have a family member like this. She is the most oblique person I have ever known, other than my maternal grandmother, who was determined to see life as “lovely” even when there were horrors opening under her feet. But my grandmother’s denial kept her stepping so lightly that she never fell in. It was a complex balance of choosing where to look and where to step and what not to see. Life, to my grandmother, was a wonderful thing, and she simply chose not to deal with anything that contradicted this view. This can be supremely frustrating to the people around you, people with pain, questions and complaints, but for the most part we all choose what we deal with, and in the case of my grandmother and my unnamed female relative, they probably chose wisely.
So did Lucy. Elizabeth Strout wrote Lucy Barton with such luminous kindness that I read this book twice, and I still didn’t know the deepest, darkest truths of her life. And I think, in truth, Lucy didn’t know them either. But I was sitting around with my book group friends in June, and one of them had brought both Abide with Me and Anything is Possible to loan me, and she told me that Lucy’s story is revealed more in this book (yes, after reading Anything is Possible, Lucy and I are on a first-name basis, just like me and Olive).
Anything is Possible
I don’t want to ruin anything about the stories in Anything is Possible. Just–read Lucy Barton first, and then know that you’re going to get the skinny on all the people that Lucy and her mother gossip about while Lucy is recovering in the hospital. Lucy is present in many of the stories in Anything, as her memoir has hit the shelves in her home town’s bookstore, prompting reveries and regrets on the part of people who treated her with kindness, scorn, or as if she were invisible. She is not the main character, as some reviews have stated. The town is the main character. The book really lifts up a rock on its secrets, and you should be prepared for the exposure of a lot of squirming, grey, unattractive things. It is a FASCINATING look at small town living, and fills in the blanks of Lucy’s story in a heartbreaking chapter that left me cheering her on with however she chooses to deal with a past so ugly.
Abide With Me
So then, of course, I had to read Abide with Me. Which is wonderful, by the way. It’s set in 1959, and it also peels back the lid on a small town. The book didn’t do well, though it appears to be doing okay, now. Kirkus Reviews said,”most of the characters in this novel are fundamentally bewildered, and many of them are quite bitter as well. The narrator’s folksy tone does nothing to enliven this dispiriting story; the overall effect is rather like listening to a slightly cantankerous maiden aunt dispensing local gossip.” I fear this reviewer doesn’t see anything valiant, universal or worthy in the struggles of small town people. I do. I also love books about religious men, like Gilead (which sold a gajillion copies) and Leaving Ruin (which didn’t, but should have–it’s an older book, shoved over into the Christian section and it deserves a wider readership). Abide with Me is the story of a small town pastor, and it’s a big story about self-forgiveness and frustration. It’s moving and a nicely seamy between the religious ruminations.
Elizabeth Strout books connect–this innkeeper is Lucy Barton’s cousin, and this actress was probably molested by a character who shows up as a father-in-law in another book, and on and on in ways small and large that I wasn’t tracking in the first three titles I read. This is my absolute favorite thing for writers to do, this interconnectedness. I’d like to read Elizabeth Strout’s books from beginning to end in sequence and make a spreadsheet that links the who and where and what in each book, but that would take a lot of time and energy. I have other books to read and other books to write.
Also, here I go, urging you toward books not by me. So I will plug mine: RANDOM AND CLUMSY PLUG
Also, I could use some Amazon reviews if you can take the time!
Also, the next time I do this, it will probably be Haven Kimmel.
There’s a woman like this on every floor I’ve worked on in my current office: the woman who makes it her business to engage me in conversations about how I should be eating. There I am, innocently putting something in the microwave, and here she comes, ready to let me know how to do better. She has ideas! And tips! She has observations and explanations! She has ANSWERS!
If only she realized how demotivating her little talks are, and how pointless, because I don’t diet.
I. Don’t. Diet.
I used to diet endlessly. My weight loss odyssey started when I was seven years old and my mother put me on a strict 600-calories-per-day program that involved twice-daily shots of a hormone in my thigh. Now, please keep in mind that I wasn’t even a fat child. But Mom put me on diets all the time as I was growing up, until I was fifteen and moved out. By that time, all the dieting and a year on the Pill had made me nice and plump.
I did have a good run at Weight Watchers throughout my twenties, but it only served to get me thin before each pregnancy, during which I’d get fat again and have to do it all over again. After I turned thirty, I very rarely dieted. The last time was in 2007, not counting a desperate run at losing weight before a daughter’s wedding (took off 22, gained it all back on the plane home, I think).
I’m just not doing it anymore.
This left me as the Floor’s Official Fat Person. Yes, that’s me, the current female record holder. And the Floor Fatty always attracts the attention of the Floor Food Warden. She’s there, concerned and watching, having lots of opinions and offering advice. I guess she thinks she’s helping.
When I worked on the second floor, a kind and nurturing woman was always watching what I ate for me. She had so many questions, a gentle daily interview about collard greens, or cheese grits, or egg salad, whatever exotic fat person dish I was eating that day. I suppose she wondered just how it was that I ended up this way, and wanted specifics so she could guard against joining me in the plus size section of life.
She was succeeded as Food Warden by a sharp and tiny woman who loved to bark at me about my yogurt choices (“You have to eat Greek yogurt!”). She would trumpet “That’s full of sodium! Don’t eat that!” whenever I opened a can (even when it was fruit and I don’t think canned fruit has much sodium in it but whatever). And another refrain was, “You need to go to yoga!” (yoga makes me seasick).
I actually adored this person. To be fair, she bossed everyone around about everything, so I forgave her. She’s retired and we all miss her. But not in the break room!
My Newest Food Friend
Currently, I work on Floor Three, where the Food Warden is quite elegant and fit, around my age, and has a charming accent. She maintains a somewhat birdlike interest in what I’m heating up, preparatory to stuffing it in my fat face, I guess. And she expresses gentle surprise and dismay that I am not obviously gorging myself to maintain my voluptuous frame.
At breakfast time, I eat the tiny bagels, the small yogurts, the clementines, satsumas and cara caras, just like everyone else. At lunch, I usually have leftovers, just a regular size portion of whatever was left over from a dinner. Stir fried chicken and rice, or spaghetti, or tortilla soup, or whatever my guy and I ate the week before. These foods are not spectacularly caloric. They are just dinners.
I haven’t found a special fatten-me-up-version of anything, at least, not so far. But she’s peering at whatever I pull from the microwave while she’s dressing her spinach salad, shaking out her tablespoon of bleu cheese crumbles, talking about how she only eats a third of a croissant at a time. Great. Awesome. Thanks.
I know already, okay?
Trust me, NO ONE knows more about how to eat, what to eat, how much to eat than a fat person. We know EVERYTHING. We’ve done it ALL. Including yoga, which she has also mentioned. Which makes me seasick, as I have mentioned. By the time we hit our fifties, most fat people have tried everything, and succeeded, as well, but it’s only temporary. By the time we’re done with whatever plan we’ve been working, we’ve done additional damage to our metabolisms, meaning we can eat even less. And though some people are able to start rigorous exercise plans mid-life, some of us have no interest in that. We’d rather just be fat.
I wish I didn’t care.
I really do. I wish I could just harden up and ignore it. And I do ignore it but I don’t seem to harden. I can’t tell you how wearying it is to have your food choices scrutinized by other people. It’s especially annoying because I realize that most of these people are motivated by concern and kindness. I’m sure my current food warden thinks I am a nice person, and she thinks nice people should be thin, like her. She is only trying to help, but of course she isn’t. She’s just making me tired.
And if you’re reading this and you get the idea to send me some helpful ideas, or statistics about obesity and heart disease, or any of that, please don’t. That will only make me more tired.
I am a little shocked by how meekly I endure this stuff, to be honest. Why don’t I shut it down? I hate confrontation, but I could do it with coldness, by answering, “Wow, cool,” in a flat and dismissive voice. But I wouldn’t dream of it. I am a woman, and women are culturally inculcated to accept a long-running commentary on our looks. That commentary can be positive or negative, but it is constant from birth to death. We don’t question it. We participate in it, we endure it, we wouldn’t know how to feel about ourselves without it. But wouldn’t it be nice to try?
Some Nice Thin People
You know who never pisses me off? My office neighbors. We only comment on each other’s food when something smells really good, and the delicious aroma wafts into a neighboring workspace. “Oh my god what IS that?” They each wear a size two. They are TEENY. One of them is a naturally thin person who has actually tried to gain weight over the years. Yes, such unicorns exist. I hear her eating snacks all the damn time. The other is a naturally thin cyclist who eats like a horse to fuel her commute.
And you know what? Neither of them has ever given me a scrap of advice about my food, weight or health. But they have happily shared their snacks. And if there are donuts in the break room? The cyclist lets me know with happiness and glee, because we both love donuts.
I am so grateful for these women. They are younger than my concerned Food Wardens, and they give me hope that there’s been a generational shift away from that kind of monitoring.
Let’s hope, folks. Let’s just hope.
Photo by @macro_sighted
The Gentry books are here! Yes, that’s right, the first three volumes of the Gentry books are available for purchase (paperback) the e-books are delivering, and readers are checking in with positive, encouraging feedback.
What’s it all about, Karen?
The Gentry books are thinly disguised autobiographical novels about my life as a young male orphaned Catholic alcoholic school teacher on the Oregon coast. That’s supposed to be a joke, but it’s one I’ve told so many times that I have no idea whether or not it’s funny.
One of the main characters in this book, Gentry, is young, male, orphaned, alcoholic, and intensely religious. Most of my friends have noted that I am none of these. But that’s okay, because these are novels, not memoirs. Do you remember the golden age of the memoir? When the only books publishers were interested in were memoirs, or highly autobiographical novels? That’s how James Frey got into trouble. My adored Augusten Burroughs even caught some flack because apparently his therapist’s family didn’t have an electroshock machine hidden under their stairs (that was one of my favorite parts of Running With Scissors). I believe it was a malfunctioning vacuum cleaner.
My point, in so much as I ever have one, is that the Gentry books are not memoir in any way.
The Gentry books are fiction.
The ideas and characters for this story have been kicking around in my psyche for a long, long time. The first novel’s genesis was a vivid dream I had when I was nineteen. You’d be hard-pressed to see the similarities, aside from the coastal setting, between what my fevered mind spit out that night, and what’s between the covers of the Gentry books. Somewhere, the original dream is written down. Somewhere else, there’s a long, laugably awful short story, written out on lined notebook paper. My children must find and burn these upon my death, but I hope that first, they will have a long read and a good laugh before striking the match.
False starts, bad first drafts and endless edits later, the book is one I’m proud of. Gentry is not the only central character in the first book, The Tempation of Gentry. The book explores the relationships between a mother and her daughters, and the relationship between two sisters. I think those are fascinating and important relationships. They merit as many novels as can be written about them.
Not my mom, not my life.
Now, I did have a relationship with my mother, and I do have a relationship with my sister. But the relationships portrayed in my books are not those relationships. Everything I’ve ever experienced in my own life ends up in a book, in one way or another, but it’s put through a blender with all the other things I’ve observed. The result is quite a mixture.
Think of it in terms of the Big Bang. All the matter and energy in the universe was present at that moment, and will be present until the end of time. We are all just recombinations of it. That’s how I write fiction, with a big bang.
So someone is going to read about a hidden yellow doll in this book, and remember hiding her sister’s yellow doll. But the girl who owned that doll, and the girl who hid that doll? They are not the sisters in this book. There are houses in this book that are very like houses where I’ve spent time, but those are not the houses featured in this book. My book’s houses are fictional, as are my book’s characters.
Case in point? Bitter divorces!
I am a woman who was quite bitter after her divorce, and I have a mother who was quite bitter after her divorce, and I have friends who were also quite bitter after their divorces. I know so many women who are some combination of bitter and divorced. But the divorced mother in this book is not any of those women, though of course she is the result of observing all of them.
My main question with Kathryn was, what would happen if you never got over your anger? I had a lot of bile drainage to accomplish after my divorce and it wasn’t a pretty process, but it was a necessary process. What would have happened if I’d never done it? I became a little obsessed with this question, and Kathryn is one of the results. What would it feel like and look like to devote your life to how you’ve been hurt? What shape would that twist your life into? Where does bitterness go if you don’t let it leave you? And what would make you want to do better?
Please go check them out.
The Gentry books can be found here: CLICK ME
These three books will make you laugh and they will make you cry–big snotty gasping sobs, I hope. I mean, isn’t that the dream, to reduce your reader to a fountain of tears? You have to have a goal in life, and I guess that’s mine. I HOPE YOU LOVE THEM.
When I was a newly single mother of three, for some reason I decided to take my kids to Disneyland. By myself. Because I’m nuts. But I did it, and boy was I relieved when it was over.
The last, easy day
Now, the relief didn’t settle in until the last day we were there, when we got up in the morning and took the shuttle to the Happiest Place on Earth in order to shop. I was breaking out the charge card and making my kids’ dreams come true. I’d told them that they could each have one thing, whatever they wanted, I didn’t care what it was or what it cost, but we’d have to get it on the last day. They would each have to remember where the thing was.
Though I’m a little fuzzy on the wheres, I actually remember what each of them got! My oldest got a Milne-style big Pooh, and my middle girl got some kind of anniversary Mickey in a satin jacket, and my youngest got the imperious pug from Pocahontas–the one with the ruff. He was larger than life-size.
We boarded the shuttle back to the hotel, and I felt myself relaxing. I hadn’t given much thought to how vigilant I’d had to be, but I had wrangled the kids through Disneyland for 3+ days. No one had been snatched or lost or damaged in any way. They were all decently fed, moderately rested, not sunburned, and not asthmatic. Best of all, they each had an enormous animal to clutch on the way home, in order to impress to our fellow flyers with the fact that we had just been to Disneyland.
I had done it.
When moms relax
I felt moderately triumphant as we rode the shuttle to the hotel. Tension I’d been unaware of carrying started to unlock itself from my shoulders and neck. Once we’d retrieved our bags and boarded the shuttle to the airport, I could actually feel the stress rolling out of my body. I’d been a hyper-aware mother hawk for days on end. It was almost over. We reached John Wayne International, and then our gate. By then, I felt intoxicated by my relief. Once we buckled up for the flight home, I was a jelly-like blob of relaxed motherhood. I didn’t need a cocktail. I was drunk on relief.
I’ve thought about that over the last month or so.
Since November of 2016, I’ve been at a high level of vigilance and a near constant state of outrage. It’s hard to function like that. The last year-plus has been so politically chaotic. It’s easy to forget the earliest days, when Bannon was running the show and each appointment was more catastrophic than the last. Like a scab, he eventually dried up and fell off, leaving us with less orchestrated trolling and more sheer chaos. Chaos that has become entertaining. At some point, I actually started laughing about how hideous this all is, because I laugh about everything.
It’s still hideous.
I told my T about a month ago that something had changed. I wasn’t sure if I’d simply exhausted my capacity for outrage, and gone numb, or if there had been some shift in the atmosphere. I think it started, now that I consider it, with Roy Moore’s defeat. I wondered if I’d just normalized. This is how it’s going to be, I’d tell myself. There are rats in the basement and termites in the foundation, but we might be able to call in an exterminator at some point, if everything wasn’t ruined in the meantime.
I posted this on Facebook this morning:
A friend asked me, this morning, how I would write what’s going on in the head-spinning world of American politics. In my story, the appearance of Giuliani signals an exit strategy; that his wife has had enough, and is going to leave him unless he steps down and takes her back to Manhattan. So he brought in a trusted lawyer friend, and a more skilled lawyer to guard him legally, to help him navigate his way back to private life. But that’s what I would write if this were fiction. We are living in times so much stranger than fiction.
I realize now that I’m not numb. I’m calm. I feel a shift and a flicker of hope. I don’t exactly know what will happen next, to be honest. But something has changed, and the relief I feel is palpable. I’m not quite a blob–I’m still worried as hell–but there is some shift, something afoot.We’ll wait and see if I’m right.
It seems like I’ve been waiting for the clothes of the future for a long time. All my life, actually. And I’m getting impatient.
My idea of the clothes of the future was no doubt colored by my early watching of Star Trek. No, not the crew uniforms–those were absurd to me, even at age nine–but when the ship made a stop at the planet Vulcan when a tortured Spock went into season needed to go upstream and spawn or whatever? (Amok Time). I remembered those Vulcans were wearing the clothes of the future. However, having googled the clothes, they are not at all as I remember them–the clothes I’m thinking of came in the later movies.
So flowing. So easy. Long. Unisex. Caftanesque. Tastefully trimmed, carefully draped.
Wouldn’t we all, if given a chance, adopt these particular clothes of the future?
It turns out, probably not.
Friends weigh in
So imagine my surprise when I was out to lunch with three friends and I brought up this whole idea of futuristic clothing and what it would look like, and I got widely differing responses.
One friend said he thought the clothing of the future would be technical and responsive. If the weather changed, or you gained or lost weight, the clothing would simply adjust. This friend has lost weight this year and had to keep going “shopping” in his stored clothes to find things that fit him on the way down. So of course he liked the idea of something that would simply adjust itself to a slimmer frame.
Another friend loved the idea of reactive clothing, but he thought it would also be style-reactive. Which kind of blew my mind. I mean, here I am, imagining these lovely subdued flowy things, like Madame Gres with slightly less fabric, and and he’s imagining a world where we would easily sprout peacock feathers if we wanted to! And of COURSE people would want to. Not everyone wants to blend in with the walls. Garments would flame with embellishment and color as desired. Like we were all living in the Capitol.
All this gleeful frippery, these mods and makeups, not. I am not of the Capitol. I am a fan of the black and the charcoal and the neutral and the plain, enlivened by a shot of aubergine or teal now and then. On the day to day, I could wear black, grey and camel all the time and hardly miss colors at all. Which means I have a sort of a grimly dystopian idea of clothing of the future.
I remember being super impressed with Ripley’s Nostromo jumpsuit in Aliens.
At the time, it struck me as functional, customizable, unisex, practical. I was all over it. Now I’m wondering what all that lacing is for. Would we specifically want the fabric over our tummies to be tightened down, a la Scarlett O’Hara getting laced up before the ball? Would Spandex not work in outer space or something? And as functional as it seems, we always end up back at the primary question with jumpsuits–how do you go to the bathroom quickly? These are important questions, but man, did it ever seem “real” to me when that movie came out.
Plain and simple
I also liked the clothing in The Giver, believe it or not.
Isn’t that depressing? it’s like, the Amish wardrobe of the future. All homespun and indigo.
I could so go for this!
Another woman weighs in
The other woman at our lunch gathering had similar ideas to my original caftan ideas. Long, graceful, easy, and with hidden pockets. Weatherproof. Soil-proof. One and done, but she envisioned these garments as metallic. Metallic seems like a stretch for me. But I could do metallic if I needed to. If it were necessary. Especially if it looked like THIS.
I would so love that! That is a beautiful handling of color and metallic and style. But is it futuristic? Also, I wonder what would happen if I began sweeping around Portland dressed like this. People would probably think I was trying to start a religious cult.
If you had the opportunity to design a clothing sensibility for the future, what would it look like? Would it be implanted peacock feathers or unisex jumpsuits? I guess the mistake we make is that somehow, in the future, clothing will gather up under one unified umbrella and fashion will flow from a single source. I think the opposite will probably happen. We will all get to wear what we want.
It’s going to be fashion Babel.
Introverts seem to be having a moment lately.
We are posting memes about introversion, where showing us talking to a cat at a party will help the world to better understand how weird we are. Since so many writers are introverts, and introverts love the internet, we are writing listicles about introverts for Buzzfeed, and going into depth about our special introverted ways on Medium, and generally feeling misunderstood and special.
I think we’d probably better get over ourselves.
The reality of Introversion
My coworker heard a quick phone call between me and my daughter today. In it, I figured out how many people are coming over for Easter, so my daughter can appropriately size the Family Mac-n-Cheese® she’s bringing to dinner. My coworker sounded so sweetly excited when she called over the wall. “Karen! You’re having a big gathering! Are you excited?”
“No.” I said to her. “I’m never excited.”
I never want to go to anything. Ever. It all sounds terrible. Book group? Oh god no. Hosting my family for the holidays? Too many people. Dinner at a restaurant? Jesus Christ, you have to be kidding. A cruise to Bermuda? Just kill me now.
What do you do when your knee jerk reaction is to hide from all social contact? You do what I do. Which is, I dread everything, but I go to everything. Because I know I’m going to have a wonderful time. We are going to have the best discussion about the book I loved (or hated, sometimes the best discussions are about books I hate), and the food is going to be amazing and the company is going to be sparkling and Bermuda is going to be everything I ever dreamed of and more; pink sand, turquoise water, sunshine and mild ocean air. But my baseline expectation remains that I will hate ALL of it, even though experience should lead me to believe the exact opposite.
And so, I always go.
When I was younger, I would listen to my inner misanthrope. She was a grump. She insisted I keep clear of all merrymaking. She convinced me that no one wanted me there anyway, not really, so I’d just spare everyone the horror of my attendance. I stayed home a lot. Then I sat around and wondered why everyone was having a better life than I was.
I didn’t make the connection until I was in my thirties, at which point I learned to get up and go places, where I would have fun because I’m actually great at parties. As long as I can leave whenever I want to. I must be able to do the Irish Good-Bye in order to have fun. As long as I can bounce without a word at leave-taking, I tend to stay and have fun.
There are other strategies for dealing with the self-imposed isolation of introversion. One is to marry an extrovert. I have had relationships with extroverts, and survived them. I understand that some people find this marriage-of-opposites to be helpful because the extrovert (some guy) is always dragging the introvert (me) out and about. The rallying cry is always the same. “Come on, it’ll be fun!” This mindless insistence on activity paired with my mulish social withdrawal doesn’t sound fun at all to me. It reminds me of a cheerful child wearing a huge lead boot.
I am the lead boot.
I’m happiest with another introvert, like the man I’m with now. He might even be more introverted than I am. We always make plans, but we often have things we need to do first. Like, pay a bill online. Or take an antacid. Or move the laundry around. Or let the dogs out. If we are lucky, we can aggregate enough small, easily postpone-able activities to avoid the going-out plan altogether, in favor of just staying home and watching something on Netflix.
I wonder, sometimes, how we avoid spending our entire lives slumped on the couch, making fun of Flip or Flop VEGAS. But we don’t. We get out, and go to parties and plays and dinners with friends and a lot of movies. We go talk with people and smile, even if it kills us. We plan getaways and live (for the most part) like normal people. And then we come home and decompress, quietly recharging until we have to go out and do it again.
Because we’re introverts, don’t you know. And we’re special.
I’m busy as hell with preparations for the second Orcas book, getting ready for a literary festival in April, and working on another huge project that’s devouring hours of my time. But here’s a piece based on something “from the trunk”. It’s about grotesquerie; the worst part of any book.
Grotesquerie in rough draft
I’ve been handed some grotesque things to read in my life. A writer gave me a story about a couple who mutilated each other as part of their sex lives. He had the good sense to say, ”You might not want anything to do with me after you read this.” After forty pages of necrophilia, torture, self-mutilation, incest, matricide and so forth, I understood why he was worried. I believe he’d scared himself. That one was eventually published.
Years ago, someone I met in a writer’s group sent out 76 copies of his manuscript to various members, hoping for response. And I after I started reading it, I knew I’d never give him a response he’d enjoy hearing. The writing was endless ”telling” from a great height, the narrator looking down and pontificating madly on the chaos of the story. There wasn’t a shred of likeability or humanity in most of the characters, and the rare few who displayed any humanity were punished in one sadistic twist after another. After a point I set aside the red pencil, realizing that since no publisher in the world would ever want to publish this, there was no need to offer editorial advice.
The author wrote me, saying he was disappointed that only three or four people seemed to have finished it. I didn’t tell him that a mutual friend had told me she’d ”set it aside and gone to throw up and take a shower.” I decided stunned silence was a merciful thing. If people had told him what they really thought, he might have gone on a homicidal rampage and acted out some of the more vicious tableaux in this book.
Grotesquerie in print
There are plenty of published books that contain cannibalism, which is where I draw the line. I can’t read about it. A few books that contain it have made it past my censors–John Dollar by Wiggins, Shallows by Tim Winton, and Ahab’s Wife by…somebody, which was an incredible disappointment because the first third of the book, before they stepped on that whaling ship, was so damn good. Actually, these were all good books that I wish I’d never read. I’m sure these writers are making a big fat metaphorical point, I just can’t stomach their metaphor, so the point is always lost on me. I wish all books that contain cannibalism had a big red warning ”C” on the cover.
Maybe even worse
The same thing with animal abuse. A friend loaned me two books that contained animal abuse. Like, just handed them to me casually with a “You’ll like these,” no warning, nothing. Thanks, Friend! The books were The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, and Wide Open by Nicola Barker. The first title is disturbing and extremely well-written. I had a glimpse of the hidden shocker, but only a glimpse. I’m good at figuring out the mysteries in the Gothic, but this time, the ending did surprise me. It all fit together beautifully. Wide Open was next. I liked it and wished I’d had the opportunity to discuss it, because beneath the plot shocks, sick humor and odd characters, there is a metaphysical twist that I haven’t quite figured out.
Because of the grotesque subject matter, I would never just hand these books off to a friend without a warning. Can you easily recommend a book that’s strength is its ability to illuminate the mindset of a character committing unthinkable, unforgivable acts, and to stir you to a horrified sympathy with that character? You have to loan these books carefully, but I have given Under the Skin, by Michel Faber, to more than one friend, and it’s one of the most disturbing novels I have ever read. I think it’s completely worth it.
Which brings us to me
This all brings me to my own experience with writing something unforgivably grotesque. Apparently, when describing some of the itchy ailments suffered by Asa Strug in Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park, I use the phrase “butt rust.” And my friend Alex was horrified by this. She said, “I can’t believe you made me read the words butt rust, Karen!” She was upset and disgusted. I didn’t even remember putting that in the book, to be honest. So I had to go find it.
IT WAS THURSDAY morning, and the most contented man in the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park was no longer content. He itched from head to toe. His hands rummaged through his locks as if they were sorting snakes, as if his torment could be shaken free like the louse that fell by the cracked nail of his largest toe.
“Lord, send relief.”
His hands moved to scratch at his bitten, scabby neck. He tore at the skin, tears in his eyes, his teeth grinding with frustration.
“I am bedeviled.”
He stood and reached for his back, his privates, his stomach. It was more than bugs. Years of not bathing had left him with crotch rot, butt rust, and between-the-toe fungus that made his toes appear webbed. His body was nothing more than a collection of maddening itches. He dug and writhed and came dangerously close to taking the name of the Lord in vain.
“Lord! I need vinegar!”
Yes, I really wrote that
Look, that is really gross. I wrote it, and I own it. I had no choice but to submit to Alex’s disgust, because upon rereading, that passage is sick. Sick, but necessary, as Asa is trapped in a body as tormented as his mind.
So after Alex chastised me for a bit more, she asked me to read a book she loved. It was Cruddy, by Lynda Barry. I love Lynda Barry, I’ve met her and I’m a fan of her person and her work; but have you read this book? It’s good and tragic and funny, and it contains so much gross stuff, scabs and flakes and itches that are exponentially worse than the phrase “butt rust.” Cruddy even needs to have that big reg “C” on the cover, for cannibalism.
Alex had no trouble with anything in Cruddy. But she couldn’t handle “butt rust.”
Consider this a pledge: You will never read a book that contains cannibalism written by me. But I just might break out “butt rust” again. So be prepared.