Part of speech: adjective
Origin: Yiddish, 1930s
Having a full, rounded figure; plump (typically used of a woman)
Dating while fat
Back when I was filling out those online dating profiles, I used to wonder what to call myself. My weight varied and I didn’t own a scale. I was fairly sure I wasn’t “a few extra pounds” because it was way more than a few. There was “curvy,” which was true—in those days I had a true hourglass with a flat stomach and admirable waist-to-hip ratio—but that didn’t take into account the exaggerated nature of the hourglass.
“Big and beautiful” seemed too much of a value judgment on my part. Big, yes, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A man I dated a few times confirmed my reluctance around that term when he said, “Just because you’re fat, doesn’t mean you’re pretty” (he did think I was pretty). He told me I was what his black friends in the military called “thick” (now “thicc” in the parlance of the day). To me, that term implies a certain firmness or muscularity I lack.
There was “full-figured.” I probably chose that the most, but it was a term that no one (including me) understood. My dear friend and dating guru, who is exactly what “curvy” should mean on those profiles, thought I should instead put “curvy.” She believed in casting a wide net. When the inevitable coffee date came, she thought my superior wit and charm would cancel out the fact that I hadn’t been honest.
I tried that a few times, but the disappointment in men’s eyes on meeting was more than I could take. So I always made it quite clear that I was not thin. I did this on purpose. If weight was an issue, I didn’t want to meet. I was being…efficient.
Even so, I’d be gently questioned by my correspondents, politely asking the equivalent of, “Just how fat are you?” Pretty damn fat, thanks for asking. This might be followed by a polite request for some specific data, as in, height, weight, measurements, dress size, and so on. Or better yet, a nude photo.
To which I replied, “Next.”
Other times, men would try to argue with me about my size. Something equivalent to, “I bet you’re not fat at all. I bet you’ve just bought into our society’s unrealistic weight standards for women.” The wishful thinking behind this was pretty obvious, and there was no point in stringing them along. “Nope,” I’d insist, “I’m actually overweight. I don’t hate myself, I’m not slamming myself, I’m just being honest so that neither of us wastes any time.”
Despite all my efforts to weed them out, some men who objected to my weight would be brave and meet me anyway. My guess is, they were taken enough by my face and wit that they thought they could get past it, and were disappointed that they couldn’t. A few asked me why I didn’t lose weight. “Oh, I don’t know,” I’d say. “I’ve gained and lost so much weight over the course of my life, and I want to take a break from all that.”
This was a revolutionary stance, back in the day. I wasn’t loud and proud about my self-acceptance, but I was firm in my quiet refusal to accept the idea that I had no worth or value in the world because I was fat. I also made it clear that this probably wasn’t going to change. This attitude actively antagonized some men. I guess I didn’t hate myself enough for them.
At any rate, the point of all this is that when I wanted to, I found men who admired and accepted me, and were proud to take me out and about. And even though I wrote an entire book about a very specific time in my dating years when I was laser focused on finding a man worthy of commitment, and how fruitless that particular search was, that was less than six months. Most of the time I did fine. I’m also glad to be married, and off the market.
As a side note (and to be fair), I think that combination of fat/devoid of self-hatred is rare out there in the dating arena. So many fat women cower in shame over taking up any space at all. I understand, because every six or eight months I slide into self-loathing over my weight. Usually this happens when I have to fly, because sometimes I have to ask for a seatbelt extender and sometimes I don’t. I have not completely reinvented contemporary womanhood, and that experience can melt me right down. I might even start a diet when this happens. The last thing I tried was intermittent fasting, which worked for a week, and then I boomed right back up to my starting weight, so forget that.
I have a life to live.
Living while fat
I was over at a friend’s house for dinner the other evening, and we talked about weight. My friend is healthy and slim, with a graceful, classically proportioned shape. Like, those elongated Venus on the half-shell proportions. But she was an overweight kid and teen. That will scar you. Even though she lost her weight forty+ years ago, it still haunts her. It’s hiding around the corner, a big pink blob waiting to jump back on her if she relaxes her vigilance. She weighs herself each morning, and carefully considers every bite of food that goes into her mouth. She doesn’t trust her thinness. She says she has body dysmorphia.
I told her that (like Ann Wilson of Heart) I have body promorphia. That I always think I look fine. I walk around here like I have a right to be here, thinking I look great most of the time. And occasionally I see a photo or a reflection that contradicts this, a self-view that makes me say “Yeesh, Karen. Seriously?” Those moments of reckoning (like the seatbelt extender) can trigger self-loathing, but I furiously beat it back.
The thing is, I wasn’t always this way. I used to feel extremely upset with any weight gain. Here’s a very old photo of me right after I had a baby, and was awash with self-loathing over how fat I was.
It is clear that I was not fat. It is also clear that I like myself more now than I did then, despite the enormous difference in my size.
I don’t care if anyone else understands or accepts my acceptance of being fat, but I realize this is an affront to people who fight hard not to be fat. I’ve likened it to religion. Some people find a religion and are gripped with apostolic fervor. They organize their life around it, and forego certain of life’s pleasures, and resist temptations and struggle through dark nights of the soul because they have found the answer, the one true way.
And there they are suffering for their beliefs, and here I am, shrugging, because as far as religion goes, I’m fine without it. I realize this is a slap in the face to true believers. My “whatever, no thanks” attitude about diet and fitness probably feels the same to those who have devoted their lives to it.
The formerly fat fitness influencers I see on Instagram have gorgeously muscled bodies and post things like, “If I can do it, you can do it. You have to want it enough.” I agree, you do have to want it enough and I don’t. Whatever the cost is to being thin—eating 900 calories a day, time at the gym, all that damn sweating—I don’t want to pay it. I’ll just stay over here, putting half and half in my coffee, eating whatever the hell I want to, and being fat.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I have a life to live.
Eating while fat
Believe it or not, I don’t eat that much. I have something called lipedema, or lipoedema, or lipoeadema, depending on who you ask. You can fall down the rabbit hole of googling it, or you can look here: https://www.lipedema.org/ This condition has been recognized since the 1940s, but American doctors don’t diagnose it because isn’t it easier to tell your patients that they can lose weight if they just want it enough? Isn’t it more effective for the medical community to shame you for your weight? Isn’t this poorly understood medical condition just another excuse for women to be lazy and fat?
But the reason I don’t eat that much has nothing to do with lipidema. I went through a bunch of foregut testing six years ago. My mother died of small cell carcinoma of the esophagus (as opposed to the kind of throat cancer caused by HPV), and I wanted to understand my own risk factors. I’d had chronic heartburn for years and years, and treated it with OTC acid suppressors, but I was starting to have a lot of night regurgitation and thought it was time to get things straightened out.
So in addition to an endoscopy, I did all these tests. Like, they implanted a little capsule-sized sensor in my esophagus that measured every acid spike that rose into my throat. Every time I had a stab of heartburn, I clicked a thingie that then coordinated with the information gathered by the capsule. And yes, if you’re wondering, I could feel the capsule in there. I felt like I’d swallowed a pill that wouldn’t go down. It was supposed to fall out after three or four days and go through my digestive system, but it took two weeks to do that. Fun times.
But wait, there’s more!
Next, I had a tube snaked into one nostril and down into my stomach to measure something else. That was also uncomfortable. That was a swallowing reflex text. Then I sat in the office and drank something disgusting and had my swallowing reflex measured in another way.
We found out some interesting information during all that.
I had serious chronic heartburn, and yes, I could tell when I had acid spikes. Believe it or not, that’s good, because some people’s esophagi are so scarred, they don’t feel the pain anymore. Despite my huge nostrils, I have tiny sinus passages and a small esophagus that narrows at the bottom due to scar tissue from acid reflux.
I have a hiatal hernia that a nurse called “cute.” “You have a cute little hiatal hernia bobbing around in there.” I’ve always wondered about that. What makes a hernia cute?
My swallowing reflex is pathetic, which is the cause of my esophageal spasms (these are so painful that some people mistake them for heart attacks).
I have chronic heartburn because don’t have a valve at the top of my stomach. Oddly enough, my sister and younger brother are the same. My guess is, this is an anomaly inherited from our mother, and explains why her esophagus became cancerous.
There are surgeries that might help with some of this, but if they go wrong, they really go wrong. Like, goodbye to solid food wrong. So I have developed an entire protocol for how, when, and what I eat to try to deal with all this stuff. A big part of it is, I never want to be too full.
I don’t eat that much.
I’m a queen of the leftovers. I cook for two at home, but still save leftovers from most dinners and eat them for lunch. If we eat out, I always have to ask for a box.
I also eat early. This makes me a difficult dinner guest because I need two or three hours and a bunch of water before I go to bed, and if we start eating at 8 PM, I have to sit up and sip water until the wee hours before getting prone. I’ve been eating like a senior citizen for many years. There is a certain relief in actually reaching senior citizen age, because now my early eating habits seem less absurd.
So you’d think with all that, I’d just give up food and switch to protein shakes or something. But even though I’m fat, and I’m supposed to be ashamed and secretive about it, I actually do enjoy eating food, so I muddle through.
Growing up with fat
As previously mentioned, I haven’t reinvented womanhood. I do care about how I look, and it does get tiresome to be fat sometimes, but I’m determined to like myself because I was raised by a woman who didn’t. My mom also had lipidema, though we didn’t have a medical name for it. We just called it “Mom’s legs.” Mom’s legs were her lifelong shame, and I inherited those same legs—well, not exactly the same, but my fat-legged genetic destiny was inescapable. I accepted that, but I didn’t accept that my body should be a source of pain, anger and self-loathing, like it was for Mom. She inspired me to try to find a different path.
But first I had to get through my childhood.
There is so much I could write here about my mother, and my older brother, who was morbidly obese before he was a year old, and the diets my mother started subjecting me to at age seven, and my sister’s eating disorders, and my birth father’s very vocal hatred of fat women, and my own decades of up and down dieting. It would fill a book and at some point I might even write that book. I’m taking a memoir class with a friend this summer, and I assume we will be asked to pick a topic to write about, and maybe this will be mine.
I’m not sure I want to do that.
There’s a crew of people who have recently decided it’s okay to be fat because they watched some Lizzo videos or read Lindy West’s books or whatever. They’re trying to stop pitying and/or despising fat people, and are desperately trying to find them admirable.
“You go girl, look at you, over there being fat and everything! Whoohoo, chubby woman! I feel you! Team cellulite!”
Writing a book about my weight might feel too much like initiating a conversation I’m not quite ready to have, especially with those people. I dread the idea of offering up my fat reality to their new understanding that I’m a human being.
But whether or not I ever write at length about how deeply weight affected my earliest years of life, and what weight loss and weight gain meant to my personal happiness, at some point I decided to get on with life without worrying about my weight all the time. I had a life to live, and no matter what I weighed, I went ahead and lived it.
I’m starting to understand what a radical act that was.
Recent travel for reasons delightful
I’m recently back from Brooklyn, where my daughter and her wife have welcomed a new baby girl to the world. This is my first granddaughter, so I braved a plane ride and Omicron to visit them, to help with the baby, to enjoy my three year-old grandson, and to just spend some time with my far-flung girl, who left Oregon at age 22 and has been a Brooklynite ever since.
I was warned that my grandson had a cold. I’ve had lots of colds, so that was not going to deter me. I got on that plane and kept my elbows in for five hours and arrived at JFK fairly late. The long ride in was quiet. My Uber driver didn’t chat me up, so I was free to watch the neighborhoods unspool before my Oregon eyes; commercial strips that seemed like perfectly constructed movie sets with marginal businesses with their graffiti-sprayed pull-down doors. I honestly don’t know where I was, even thought I’ve taken this ride many times on my way around Prospect Park, and into Park Slope, where the kids live.
I love this area. I often visited one my best friends here from 1997 to 2014, when she moved away from Brooklyn. I can’t say that I know my way around Park Slope, because I really don’t. But I know the feeling of it. The brownstone streets soothe and delight me. When I walk down one of these streets—or even just look down one of them from a more commercial street—I’m instantly delighted and uplifted.
Here, my gut says, here is a place you could actually live in New York, Karen. You actually belong on one of these streets, with these fenced and tended trees, with these curving stoops constructed to last centuries. My entire body thrills to the idea. But I am hopelessly rooted in the Pacific Northwest. I count myself lucky to have visited this neighborhood, to have understood the beauty and allure of this part of the city.
After a 45 minute drive, I found my daughter waiting on the street for me. We shared the first hug in years, because the last time I saw her was pre-vaccine, and our visits were distanced. So we had a nice, long hug, me and my girl, there on the streets of Park Slope. And then, I went in to see her “new place.” It was close to 11pm, and I’d had hopes that the new baby might be awake. But she is what one calls “a good baby,” so she sleeps at night. All I had was a quick peek into a darkened room, to see her swaddled form in her bassinette.
The next morning, I got to meet her.
And oh, what a peach she is. Just a snuggly little armful of new baby girl, with bright eyes that open up so wide that the whites show over her irises! And so many things made her eyes open like that; the miracle of the front windows, some particular picture frames, and of course, our faces. She was seven weeks old, two weeks older than her brother was when I first met him. Smiling and occasionally giggling, interested in her baby books, prone to evening colic with a fierce, low, pissed-off squall, and occasionally catching sight of her own hands with bemused wonder.
There are not too many things to say about new babies, which is too bad, because they truly do function as the center of the universe. There is the baby’s appearance, which is, in the case of my granddaughter, absolute perfection. This baby is a beauty, with brown eyes and wavy, almost-black hair, and beautiful darkly golden skin. After a blonde, blue-eyed grandson, and a strawberry blonde, hazel-eyed grandson, it appears that the dominant genes have come into play. She looks like my first two daughters, and it’s pretty special, I tell you. She is a substantial, healthy baby. Her feet are tiny, with narrow heels, and her hands? Well, certainly no other hands have such intriguing wrinkles and perfectly shaped nail beds.
Every tiny piece and parcel of a new baby is fascinating, even though they don’t do that much besides the rudimentary functions of life. For these functions—nursing, burping, spitting up, peeing, pooping, sleeping, crying—they are endlessly praised. As they should be. I am here to report that my granddaughter is an absolute champion at all of these, just so you know.
Rolling and Back Sleeping
Her older brother rolled over for the first time while I was visiting him at five weeks, but she hasn’t. I hope she does soon, because she loves to sleep on her stomach. Did you know there are rules, now, about babies sleeping on their stomachs, and not having any blankets or bumpers in cribs or cradles? Babies sleep on their backs in swaddles, something I learned when my oldest grandson was born four years ago. It’s a wonder my kids survived their infancies, because they slept on their stomachs under baby blankets, surrounded by lethal bumpers and killer teddy bears.
Once my granddaughter can roll, she can safely sleep on her stomach, which was her favorite thing to do while I was there, to fill up at the breast and then sleep on her stomach on someone’s chest for hours, safe and warm and soothed by an adult heartbeat.
So that’s what I did.
I held her and rocked her, changed her diapers, and walked her fussies away. I entertained her with various black and white picture books and things that squeaked and jangled. I also became terribly sick with my grandson’s cold, and managed to live through a day when I couldn’t get out of bed. But I think, on the whole, I was a benefit to her moms.
I haven’t even talked about my grandson, who I was really able to get to know as a talkative three year-old. We had mountains of fun. Nothing entertains me more than kids. I want to observe their ways, and understand how they see the world, and cherish up all their funny little ways of saying things, like, for example.
Okay, like this one.
My daughter was looking forward to my cooking while I was there. One night she asked me to make my special pork chops, and to show her how to make them. My smothered pork chops are really easy to make, but the recipe is not mine. I actually learned how to make these from her great aunt on her father’s side, who used to sell dinners off her back porch in New Orleans. So there was a lot of talk about these chops, and how to make them. My grandson was intrigued, but he had already eaten by the time they were done.
So the next night he kept asking about “Nonna’s peshul foe charts” which sounded to us like he wanted my special flow charts, and then his mom figured out he was asking about “Nonna’s special pork chops.” We’d saved him one, he ate it right up for dinner, and all was well. But I giggle over the idea of my special flow charts, every time. He also helped me make tuna casserole, but when I served him some, he didn’t like it at all. “It’s not tasty to me! Why it’s not tasty!” Hey, you can’t please everyone, even an omnivorous, adventurous eater like this grandson.
We definitely built a nice rapport while I was there. I could type in about a hundred different times when he chose me for reading night time stories, playing magna tiles, holding his hand, doing the post-potty paperwork, painting pictures, watching the paleontology episode of Sesame Street, and so on. He was a delightful guy to hang out with.
When it was time to go, we were both sad. When I left him in Brooklyn three years ago, I cried all the way across America, wondering when I’d see him again. And you’d think that this time, since I was leaving two grandchildren behind, I’d have cried twice as much. But I didn’t.
You know why? In August, they are moving back to Oregon.
Okay, by now you’ve probably heard me complain about the 250+ people who have my name, and therefore sign up for things using my email address. Right now, I’m wishing the Karen Berry (I’m guess in North Carolina or Florida) who signed me up for the Epoch News would have her Internet privileges revoked permanently. You should see my spam folder, it’s a right-wing parade of requests for money from Don Junior and Tucker Carlson and the like. “Stop the Radical Left NOW!” they demand, while demanding my money, which of course they will never get because apparently I am the radical left, even though there’s nothing remotely radical about me.
But now, I’m concerned about the UK KBs.
It all started with the appearance of ads for online slots gambling games on my Instagram account. Now, you know, sometimes you get some strange ads on Facebook and Instagram, like I was bombarded with ads for palletizing equipment for about a month. What is palletizing, you might ask? I’m not sure, but I imagine it has to do with preparing pallets for shipping. I promise you that I am not now, nor have I been in the past, in any way involved with palletizing, but those ads were all over my feeds.
So when I started to be constantly bombarded with ads for casino-type games, i wondered what the heck was going on. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I don’t enjoy gambling. I find it dull and pointless. When in Vegas, my loss limit for the whole trip is either 20 dollars or 40 dollars, depending on how long we’re staying. If I’m lucky, I can get those losses out of the way within the first fifteen minutes in a casino, freeing up my Vegas time for things I actually enjoy doing, like sightseeing, going to shows, reading in the room, and eating. And it’s been quite a while since we went to Vegas, due to the pandemic. So when these ads started appearing, I knew something was up.
After the ads came the emails.
SO MANY emails, because someone in the UK with my name has signed up for at least ten different UK gambling sites, most of which don’t require a verification of the email address. Every day, I get emails from a new one, offering free spins and so forth. So some Karen Berry in the UK has completely gone down the rabbit hole of online gambling, and she’s taken me with her!
The emails are not a big deal, really. I either write to them and tell them to take me off their rolls (if I can find a contact email) or I unsubscribe. But my email address is associated with these sites, and that’s why I’m getting all these damn ads. I’m also on the dark web with the wrong email password, and I assume it’s because she’s signed into some shady site. I really don’t like that at all. What’s worse, I’ve started to receive “Do you have a gambling addiction?” emails from the UK gaming commission, offering resources for people who have gotten themselves into financial trouble with gambling.
So, this is where the writer in me kicks in, and starts making up stories.
Is it you, New Zealand KB?
I know there is at least one KB in New Zealand, because she tries to sign up for health club appointments, spa appointments, training sessions and the like with my email. Now, if you know me, you also know that I enjoy fitness endeavors just about as much as I enjoy gambling. But this KB is just living her best life. So even though I’ve had to correct senders now and then, she appears to have learned her own email address. But in my story, this type A fitness buff has experienced a sport-related injury, and turned to online gambling during her convalescence. She’s stopped registering for 5K runs and started registering for Slots-O-Mania, instead. Her carefully maintained body falls to hell, as does her type-A lifestyle, as she sinks further into online gambling.
I like this idea, but is it interesting? Is the fall of the Type-A an overdone trope? And perhaps more importantly, am I the person who could convincingly write from the perspective of a person who is fiercely devoted to physical fitness?
That’s a serious question, by the way.
Or maybe it’s you, Ireland KB.
There’s also the KB in Dublin, Ireland, who signed up for PlentyOfFish with my email. Since I’m married, I really don’t want my email address associated with any dating sites. So I signed in, changed her password, and tried to cancel the account. PoF wouldn’t let me! If you sign up there, you have to let the account ride for a while until you can make it go away. Well, because I was irritated as hell about this, I edited her profile to reflect the carelessness of a person who doesn’t know her own email address. I said something like, “Hi, I’m a idiot who doesn’t know her own email address, so now a stranger is getting my emails!”
After about ten “reset your password” emails arrived, I signed in again and added some more choice words about intelligence. Then I wrote to PoF and told them what happened. They finally took the profile down. That’s great, but there is something about PlentyOfFish–a dating site that is well-stocked with bottom feeders–and an online slots addiction that go together in my mind.
But this is too messy and too tidy at the same time. It’s just not as interesting to me.
Please don’t have it be you, Wales KB.
My thoughts have turned a Welsh KB who was approaching retirement. This past year, I was contacted by a financial counselor with all kinds of personal documents attached, as well as an email trail in which KB in Wales requested that her on-file email address be changed to MY email address. It’s not often that I actually have my hands on the real email address belonging to one of my many email offenders, so of course I wrote to her, and asking in caps to “PLEASE STOP USING MY EMAIL ADDRESS NOW, THANK YOU.”
A week later, I got an email back from her denying that she’d ever done such a thing, and telling me that my use of caps was uncalled for and most upsetting. I guess they are very tender and sensitive in Wales regarding the use of caps. Who knew. But this KB does provide fictional potential; a story about a woman who has longed for her retirement only to find that when it arrives, she needs some thrills, chills and spills–the kind that can only be provided by online slots machines.
Which should I use?
That’s three story ideas, with three different KB main characters. Should I use the fitness buff, the online dater, or the new retiree? I can’t decide. But don’t worry. Whichever one I use, I’m absolutely going to change her name.
What got me started today
I enjoyed this GAWKER essay by Tom Whyman about Really Long Books:
Especially this part:
A book is Really Long because there is something essentially stupid about it, something broken: its length is the product of the writer having no ultimate clue how to say what they want to be saying. Its length is often glorious – but it is also an admission of failure.
I don’t even know if that’s true, but I like the idea so much that I don’t care if it’s true.
My Book Stack
The Really Long Book is on my mind lately, because I have a stack of Really/Fairly Long Books to read. Seven of them, to be exact. Well, no, six, because I’ve already made my way through Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, which isn’t actually that long–480 pages. But it FELT long. It felt insanely long, and here’s why.
This book is so overwhelmingly clever that every third or fourth sentence, I had to stand back and marvel at how hilariously clever it was. Just one satiric thrust after another, right into the belly of society. It has its flaws, but I doubt at the time of its writing these were seen as flaws. They were more likely seen as allowable stereotypes that we now see (at worst) as offensive, or (at best) as lazy characterizations. But they are cleverly done, there is no denying it. And all these cleverly satirical people do very clever things in a world that is oh-so-cleverly constructed. And every time I had to stand back and think, Ho-ho-ho, Mr. Stephenson, what a brilliantly clever man you are, it yanked me out of the story. That could happen multiple times per paragraph. This made the <500 pages more like >2000 pages, as far as reading time.
I also have Seveneves and Cryptomicon to read there on the stack. I’m assured by my friend James that these are mature works of a master of his craft. I’m hoping he’s right. I think he might be, simply because my favorite parts of Snowcrash were the info-dump conversations between Hiro the Protagonist and the Librarian, in which I learned about Sumerian language, ancient myth, the Babel Event, and so on. I ate that stuff up, as opposed to the various battles and vehicle chases and harpoonings and so on, which bored me.
So, three of the seven Fairly (as opposed to Really) Long Books are by Stephenson.
The Daunting Book
The fourth one on my list is an actual Really Long Book; The Fall of Babel, the final book in the Babel series by Josiah Bancroft. This book is 638 pages, minus addendums. And it’s in a TINY type with narrow margins, or maybe it’s not, maybe I am just so daunted by this tome that I’m exaggerating to myself about the formatting. But I have a hunch that if this book were formatted in more standard way, it would be over 1K pages.
I can’t figure out why I haven’t read it. I waited impatiently for this book, I preordered it and tracked when it would arrive, and it finally did, and now it’s just sitting here, daunting me. Maybe it’s that the book sort of spoils itself with that title, doesn’t it? I mean, you write about a multilayered city state in a tower called Babel, and then you give me this title, The Fall of Babel? Gosh I wonder what happens to that Tower of Babel I’ve been reading about for three previous (enormous, brilliant, absorbing, fascinating) novels. I am completely absorbed and absolutely stressed out by reading these books. It has to do with the anxiety level created by the premise, and by the skill of the writing. Maybe I’m not ready to immerse myself in 600+ pages worth of high-stakes anxiety right now, even though it will be worth it. I don’t know.
Let’s move on to some others.
Another Fairly Long Book is Purity by Jonathan Franzen, which I’ll get to and no doubt enjoy. Franzen writes lavishly about characters he seems to despise but secretly loves. I find it personally satisfying. There, my heart says, this is exactly how one should see the world, clearly and without mercy, in many pages that crackle with whip-smart humor that verges on cruelty! Yes! His books are long, but the time they take is time well spent. Still, I can’t make myself crack the cover because I have all these other big books to read.
Also in the stack is an actual Really Long Book; Maia by Richard Adams. Remember him? Watership Downs and The Plague Dogs? Well, Maia is 1223 pages in mass-market-paperback! Holy crap, what did it look like in hardback? Could you even lift it? Did you have to put it on one of those wooden OED stands? At some point I’m going to find out, as it comes highly recommended by a friend over cocktails.
Have you noticed something?
At this point, if you’ve scanned the essay and read this blog post, you may have noticed something about all the books mentioned. Yes. It’s true. Every Really Long Book mentioned by Tom Whyman, and all of the Fairly Long Books and Really Long Books mentioned by me, are written by…men.
Is anyone surprised by this? I know I’m not.
Rather than launching into the whys of that, I’d rather point out the only Really Long Book by a woman in my stack, Marguerite Young’s Miss Mackintosh, My Darling. It is thought to be the longest novel ever published (correct me at will, I don’t care if I’m wrong so you won’t offend me). I ordered a used copy (a boxed set of two volumes) about a year ago. I got about 40 pages in before realizing I’d have to get back to it once I’m retired. There are too many books to read in this world, and I’m going to have to do this one in deep dive.
There are many, many Fairly Long Books written by women, like Joyce Carol Oates’ Bellefleur, and her A Bloodsmoor Romance (both of which I love). And, you know, Middlemarch, and The Man Who Loved Children, and…so on. So, just because no long books by women are on my current to-read pile (which is part of a larger to-read pile that fills an entire bookcase in my TV room), still, they exist. Women write long books, too.
What’s your favorite Really Long Book?
I am open to observations, corrections, ruminations, and ideas. Who knows, maybe I can add more titles of daunting length to the stacks of books I haven’t read yet, but will someday, absolutely, for sure, at that mythical point in the future when I have unlimited reading time. Perhaps in the afterlife.
I’m not dead, I’m languishing.
Languishing is that in-between place, where you’re not one thing or another. You just are. And we all are, right now. Is it over? is it not? Where do we stand with opening up, here in my rigorously liberal city where we have been dutifully masking and distancing and vaccinating and boostering? Are we going to throw away our masks or just wait for the next wave? Will we start eating in restaurants? Are there any restaurants left? Will my book groups start up again?
Can I have a goddamned dinner party already?
I’m not dead, I’m sleeping.
Sort of. I’m tossing and turning my way through some nights, unsure what time it is, if it can be over, if I can get up and get on with the day, if my husband is asleep or not, if I’m asleep or not. Last night I slept eight full hours, and would have slept more but woke up to the sound of a horn giving one loud honk. I started awake, wondering what in the world that was. Was it a foghorn? Unlikely, since I live almost 100 miles inland. Was it a car? Also unlikely because I knew the honk originated within my own head. Yes, it was me. I honked. I honk when I’m falling asleep.
I woke myself up, and who can I blame for that?
I’m not dead, I’m waiting.
I’m waiting for…something. Well, one thing for certain, another grandchild arriving this month. This is the third time I’ve awaited the birth of a grandchild, and the first time was an agony. Now, three times in, it’s more like this. Imagine a woman and her three daughters, who made it through so much together, waiting for one of them to give birth. Three of the four focus on the pregnant woman with keen intensity, watching and waiting and worrying and fussing over every scrap of information as if we are the pregnant ones, not her. She’s merely incubating the baby for us. We will take ownership immediately, as a grandmother and as aunts.
We will all have our new baby soon.
I’m not dead, I’m writing.
Yup. A project that was an idea, then a germ, and then a sprout, is now 60K+ of words. Good words. It’s not quite enough words to send out to my carefully selected first readers, but it’s there and it’s real and I am so delighted and baffled with this project because it’s nothing like Iris or the Gentry books. It’s more like the Trailer Park book. I’m not trying to unravel the knots in anyone’s soul through suffering and humor, well, maybe I am, but it’s a work of pure imagination in a version of America that has never existed. I believe that’s called alt-history in the lexicon of terms I don’t give a shit about when it comes to writing.
Look, this place isn’t real, but my hope is you’ll enjoy the visit.
I’m not dead, I’m bingeing.
I’ve been really miserable this week with the state of my aging, leaky gut, and my husband has been in rehearsals every evening, so I’m watching my streaming channels with an unlikely intensity. Here’s what I can tell you. If you don’t have HBO Max, you should get it in order to watch Somebody Somewhere. If you’re in Schitt’s Creek withdrawal, watch Somebody Somewhere. If you’re languishing, and waiting, and sleeping, watch Somebody Somewhere.
Are you getting the message? Good.
I guess what I’m trying to say is this:
I’m not dead. I’m just here. And I’m glad that you are, too.
So, we’ve been engaging in Dune Week here at my house. The conversations started a couple of months ago, when they set the official release date of the new movie.
Oh yes. There were “conversations.” However, these conversations were mostly one sided, and consisted of me saying, “I don’t care what’s going on with COVID, I want to see this one in the theater” (insert patient but noncommittal husband-nod here).
And a week later, I’d hear about another cast member, and say, “Oh my gosh, what a perfect Paul/Leo/Duncan he’ll make!” (insert another patient but only mildly interested nod from husband here).
“Timothee Chalamet? Charlotte Rampling? Oscar Isaac? Zendaya? Jason Momoa? How could we not see this in the theater?” (insert additional patient husband nods, with occasional murmurs that might be assent or might simply be pleasant noises).
Are you getting the idea that this might not have been quite as important to my husband as it was to me? I’m glad you’re getting the idea, because I refused to. I sometimes fail to notice that my levels of enthusiasm, which can be quite high, are not shared with quite the same fervor by my husband, who has his own interests (Jerry Seinfeld, the MCU, and so on).
It was like my attempt to alert him to the very important fact that Norse raiders apparently came to Newfoundland 1,000 years ago! So important! Pay attention! He looked at me, mildly puzzled but polite, nodded, and went back to his own screen. Luckily, my sister called right that minute to tell me she’d just read some very important news about the Vikings, and I could stop bothering my husband and geek out with her.
My husband has never read Dune, he has no Dune connections or Dune interest, but he’s had to absorb all this Dune fervor. He’s fine with it.
My Dune History, Chapter One
I read Dune Messiah when I was in college the first time, so, 1979-80. I didn’t care that it was a sequel, I somehow had obtained a copy of book number two, so I read book number two. I will give out no spoilers, but suffice it to say, Paul was not my favorite character in Dune Messiah. Those of you who know, know.
I loved that book but I didn’t understand how radical it was. Herbert’s vision of a computerless future wasn’t exactly unthinkable back when computers were large things that took up entire rooms and computed formulae for going to the moon. We benefited from computers back then, but most of us were blissfully unaware. The idea of living without computers is much more radical now, when we spend our days looking at phones that would hold the contents of the Library of Congress, thanks to the Internet.
At the time, I did recognize how impossible intergalactic travel would be without computers, so I grasped the importance of Dune’s spice. This might be a book about feudal succession on a remote mining colony (as a recent reviewer pointed out), but the stakes are high. They’re not just extracting bauxite.
As much as I loved Dune Messiah, I never got around to reading Dune. Many years later, I read one of the books written by (or with or under the direction of) Herbert’s son, in which many of the fantastic characters from his father’s books are cloned and brought back to life. The less said here, the better.
I finally read Dune last year. Well, part of it. It’s somewhere around the house. I’ll get to it.
My Dune History, Chapter Two
This starts a little further back, in high school. I had a friend, Steve, who auditioned for several plays at our school and was never cast. I have no idea if Steve was any good at acting, but that probably didn’t matter. Despite being very good-looking, deeply intelligent, and witty as hell, Steve was openly gay and came from the wrong side of the tracks. Those things mattered at our brutally classist high school.
Another key factor in Steve not getting any roles was that the important male parts at our high school were taken by a tall, handsome, gifted young actor who was a year ahead of us. He was generally nice and generally liked, and to add insult to injury, he had a decent singing voice. It infuriated Steve that if there was a role, and this other high school thespian wanted it, Steve was not going to get it.
So, sometime in 1983, I got a letter from Steve, because people used to write letters back in the olden days. He wrote to tell me that our former schoolmate who got all the good parts in high school was going to be playing Paul Atreides in the upcoming movie version of Dune. Steve’s letter crackled with rage and scathing epithets, including but not limited to “apple-cheeked,” “talentless,” and “schlub.”
I thought, Oh whatever, Steve, Kyle was great in My Fair Lady.
I settled in for the long wait between hearing about Dune, and actually seeing it. And then, of course, I saw it. Afterwards, I completely blanked it out of my memory. I couldn’t remember it, and I also couldn’t remember if I liked it or not. There were vague images of Sting in a padded, pointy Speedo, and the ever-present roses in Kyle MacLachlan’s cheeks. That was it.
Which brings us to now.
We just finished Dune Week. It started on Thursday.
On Thursday night, we watched the Jodorowsky’s Dune documentary. I wish you’d all watch this. It is fascinating, horrifying, hilarious. It was Jodorowsky’s goal to create a ten-hour movie that would affect a spiritual transformation of the world.
It’s okay that he never brought his vision to life, because hearing him talk about what he wanted to do is more entertaining than whatever botched debacle he would have brought to the screen. Really.
Or who knows, if the funding had come through, maybe he would have done it, even though he would have taken obscene liberties with the source material, and almost totally excised women from one of the few 1970s science fiction epics that gave women extensive and critical roles. Who knows?
Husband and I listened and watched and gasped and howled with laughter. It was all INSANE. You think Terry Gilliam has loopy visions? Go watch this. He makes Gilliam look like Mr. Rogers.
I won’t give you any spoilers. I wouldn’t dream of depriving you of the moments when he reveals his jaw-dropping casting choices. But if you have any familiarity at all with Dune and its universe, or even any curiosity about it, please watch this. It’s 3.99 on Amazon, and it’s so worth it.
On Friday, I asked the husband, are you game for Lynch’s Dune? He’d never seen it. He said, sure, but the reviews are eeeech. I assured him that I didn’t remember it as howlingly terrible, I maybe even liked it, but I couldn’t remember because that was 40 years ago and my mind rarely holds on to movies and TV.
We started watching with open minds. It began with a voice over that was supposed to dispel confusion but somehow created it, and the guitar-heavy Toto score played over the opening credits, and there we were in a throne room straight out of Oz. A braid-bedecked emperor on the throne, a princess in a pretty gown with a bodice, royal retainers with odd little beards and places on their faces and ears that were mended with metal, like the Oz tinker had been working on them.
So far, so good.
The mood changed when some bald people wearing sleeping bags who spoke into vacuum cleaners wheeled in an enormous fish tank full of smoke, in which floated a gigantic tardigrade that spoke through a little puckering orifice and threatened the Emperor. Something about how he needed to start a war, or end a war, or keep the spice flowing, or something. I was too transfixed/repelled by the puckering orifice to pay attention to the words.
This whole scene looked like the most expensive episode of the old Flash Gordon serial ever filmed. Aesthetics change and old sets didn’t have the benefit of CGI, but this looked bad on purpose. Like Lynch, with his warped sense of humor, had actually said to his set designer, “Let’s make it look like the most expensive episode of the old Flash Gordon serial ever filmed.” And they did. And they laughed.
It was all too much for my husband. He responded by falling asleep, but no, he was not allowed that escape hatch, no sir, this was Dune Week and we were in this Dune Week together, so I woke him up.
We began to hate-watch in earnest. And there was so much to hate! Costumes assembled from materials not suitable for recycling and the contents of a great-grandmother’s sewing room. Pustules galore. Big thudding “oof” noises when blows landed during a fight, like in the 1960s Batman TV series, and oh my gosh, the space special effects? What about the space special effects?
Can anyone adequately explain the space special effects?
This movie was made AFTER the first Star Wars, do people realize that? It wasn’t made in the 1960s, no matter how much it looks like it. There were gifted special effects artists available for hire, and not all of them worked for George Lucas. So why does this movie look like it was made with electric razors, classroom overhead projectors, and a couple of flashlights?
Now, let’s talk about the acting.
I’d like to point out some of the fine actors in this movie, and my impressions of their performances.
- Kyle MacLachlan is a youthful and earnest and convincing Paul, until Paul loses his emotions and becomes a very handsome coat rack. But remember, he is the coat rack that will save the planet!
- Patrick Stewart shouts a lot at everyone in a Shakespearean manner. Very shouty, very Shakespearean. No one else is acting in this style. Was he perhaps in a different movie than the rest of the cast? Could I perhaps see that movie, instead?
- Virginia Madsen isn’t given a thing to do besides look beautiful in her costume. Uness you count the confusing voiceover. She does do that.
- Jurgen Prochnow is solidly, stolidly, robotically Teutonic until his death scene, in which he muffs a very important job while sweating. The end.
- Oscar winner Linda Hunt skulks around on the steps, lurking at the edges of various rooms, squinting and hissing mysteriously, then dies.
- Max von Sydow carries off his role with dash and flair, making me wonder if he was also in a different movie. Perhaps the same one as Patrick Stewart. And again, I’d like to see that movie.
- Francesca Annis is not bad, really, but not good, either. I found her alternately too contained and then gaspingly over the top, though glowingly regal at all times.
- Kenneth Macmillan is properly grotesque as the Baron, and I will never forgive him for some of the grossness I had to witness during his scenes.
- Sting. He has a knife, a wild haircut, and three lines. His abs have more lines than he does, so how can I judge his performance?
- Richard Jordan. Oh, Richard Jordan. Listen, Duncan Idaho’s part is trimmed down in this version to where it’s almost gone. All he has time to do is show up and make us believe that Paul loves him and wants to be him. That is Duncan Idaho. And in his brief, shining moments on the screen, Richard Jordan gives us that Duncan Idaho. I have nothing snarky to say about this performance or the actor who gives it.
Let me make it clear. These are talented actors, and there are MORE sprinkled over and stirred into this movie, like Brad Dourif and Sean Young and Jose Ferrer. And when a movie has this many fine actors delivering uniformly dreadful performances, there is only one person to blame.
Looking at you, David Lynch.
You, with all the things I don’t like about your work. The strange, aimless, disconnected young women characters you create, composed of seductive makeup and secret lives and sexual violence. Your insistence on using physical difference and homosexuality as signifiers for evil. Your taste for macabre humor that is so bizarre and unsettling that your audiences never know if it’s all right to laugh.
I left you alone long ago, and watching this movie made me remember why.
At this point it must be clear that if I made my husband sit through a long documentary about a creative madman, and a longer movie made by a creative madman, we were definitely going mask up and go to the noon showing of Villeneuve’s Dune in some deserted suburban theater.
And we did.
I had hopes with this movie, based on Villeneuve’s skill in bringing one of my favorite short stories, Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life, to screen as Arrival. This is difficult source material about how learning a new way to communicate can alter your life and make you live it all at once. I mean, I think that’s what this story is about, so how do you put that on a screen and call it a movie? If he could do that, I trusted Villeneuve would be able to translate Dune into a comprehensible movie.
Plus “Timothee Chalamet? Charlotte Rampling? Oscar Isaac? Zendaya? Jason Momoa?” I mean, come on!
Yes, as previously mentioned, this is a movie about feudal succession on a remote mining colony. It is not an allegory about colonialism, it is an actual story about colonialism. It’s a big old White Savior mega-movie that is always sweeping and sometimes ponderous. But even for someone who has read (some of) the book, it can be electrifying and suspenseful. Just ask my husband’s right hand, which I clawed to death while climbing out of my skin at key moments.
You’ve heard about the special effects, which are unparalleled, and the score, which is wild and weird and unsettling. This movie throws you off balance and overwhelms you, it slings you over its shoulder and transports you through the vastness of space, to different worlds that feel so real, you can smell them.
That being said, it also absolutely nails the domestic details: worn edges of beloved books, a well-laid breakfast table, dust on an ancient knickknack Paul studies, trying to understand his heritage.
Against this visual and aural backdrop, the actors do what actors do, which is to make us forget they are actors. Excellent casting helps. Timothee Chalamet was born for this role. He’s a strong, whip-thin boy who fights, then accepts his destiny. I’d be worried about what he could do after this—where do you go after playing the Messiah?—but I just heard he’s going to play Prince Hal, and that might be even better casting.
Everyone is good to great. Everyone. Even Mr. Momoa (good, and that’s great).
But Lady Jessica is the standout. In a story about family bonds, it’s hard to imagine a more crucial character than the mother. She is mother all the way through; passionately devoted to her son’s father, but ferociously guarding the life of her son Paul, for so many reasons besides biology. I think Rebecca Ferguson deserves an Oscar.
I declare this movie the winner.
So, that wraps up Dune Week. Thank you for coming to my TED talk. And thanks to my husband for enduring my terrified writhing at the theater yesterday. Let’s hope that in a couple of years, there’s a Part Two, so he can go through it all again. Maybe for that one, we’ll watch the miniseries.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
Movie IN A THEATER
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!