Mister Rogers? I love you.

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

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

Mister Rogers & Me

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

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

No thank you, I was not having it.

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

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

I loved it.

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

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

Probably.

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

I probably scoffed. Mister Rogers?

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

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

She also taught me to watch Mister Rogers.

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

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

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

Guess what? He was.

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

But it would have been the best acceptance speech ever.

I have a coffee cup problem.

And I’m not sure I want to solve it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I still have too many mugs on this shelf.

Do any of you need any mugs?

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

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

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

I know a crazy lady who six to spare.

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

My company makes them.

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

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

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

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

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

No one can have any of my Christmas mugs.

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

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

The mugs go home with them.

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

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

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

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

(P.S.)

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

Thanks, Bill.

Parks & Points Anthology: I’m in it!

This one’s a beauty.

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

the cover of WAYFINDING, a poetry anthology

Praise for Wayfinding

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

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

Preordering information is here: WAYFINDING

How to Cure Yourself of eBay During a Pandemic

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

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

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

Yeah, right.

That lasted a month.

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

Fine, I’ll go make a count.

Fourteen.

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

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

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

It isn’t just clothing.

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

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

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

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

I have lost control in quarantine.

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

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

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

But finally, I went too far.

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

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

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

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

It. Is. Monstrous.

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

This thing is a nightmare.

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

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

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

I kept it.

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

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

(P.S.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m excited!

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

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

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

…it gave me some hope.

Here’s the introduction:

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

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

REVIEW:

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

How to get it

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

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

My own hopes

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

Fingers crossed.

Your Motherly Clipping Service

Minah Bourne

A row of mailboxes.
Image by Amber Avalona from Pixabay

The first book I ever published was Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park. But I actually wrote The Iris Files before I wrote the trailer park book. And those who’ve read them know that Minah Bourne is a character in both books.

If you read Iris first, then your first introduction to Minah was my first introduction to her. She came into my mind as Iris’s mother-in-law, and she was introduced via those envelopes full of clippings that arrived in Iris’s mailbox every so often.

Then, there are the Minah clippings. Minah is my mother in law, and she sends clippings at least once a week. Each thick envelope seemed to be organized along a theme. Sometimes, it’s medical. “The Seven Warning Signs of Cancer.” “Better Living Through Bran.” “Medical Miracles that could Change Your Life!” These are accompanied by a note in her slanting hand. “No one lives forever, Iris. Minah.”

She also sends articles on “Keeping Your Man by Keeping Him Happy,” and “Five Fast Relationship Quick Fixes!” Again, the note, “Iris, take a lesson, here.” She sends articles about raising kids, about watching too much TV and how to get your kids to clean their rooms. “Worth a try, don’t you think? Minah.” Clearly, Minah believes I can use all the help I can get.

Iris didn’t find these clippings helpful. She didn’t know her mother-in-law very well, and she didn’t know why she kept getting these fat envelopes full of clippings every month, and she really didn’t look forward to Minah’s arrival. She found the very idea of Minah to be, shall we say, a challenge.

We all know how that went, don’t we.

If you’ve read the Trailer Park book, you know where the clippings came from, and why they often had tack holes in the corner. There were reasons. Good ones. And Minah is a quiet hero, clippings and all.

Where that all came from

I try to skirt the issue of what might be autobiographical in my novels, but I freely admit that I based the clippings on events from my own life. For whatever reason, my mother saved and sent a lot of clippings. I mean, a lot. I’d open a letter, and find a wad of clippings with little pencil notations in my mother’s almost indecipherable handwriting, telling me who the clipping was for. It could be me, or it was just as likely to be for one of my (now ex) husbands, and later for my sister (who didn’t write letters much with my mother so I was supposed to save and deliver these to her for Mom) or much later, for my oldest daughter.

I think most of the clippings had to do with schemes. Please understand that my mother would have disliked how I call her ideas “schemes.” To her, they were perfectly reasonable “ideas.” Mostly they were ideas for how other people (who were not Mom) should live their lives.

Say, for instance, she read an article about Christmas tree farms in Oregon. She would think, “Karen and (ex) should do that.” So she would send that with her spidery pencil notations in the margin, “Think about this!” and then she’d eventually call me and ask if I’d read it, and had I been looking into opening a Christmas tree farm, and she’d found some listings for them, and she was sending them down so I could check them out with this realtor friend of hers.

I stood firm. “Mom, I don’t want a Christmas tree farm.”

Which would only strengthen her resolve that this was indeed the business venture that we should follow. She’d get very testy and defensive. She didn’t like being dismissed out of hand like that.

But I would hold my ground by stating the obvious. “Well, if you like the idea of owning a Christmas tree farm so much, why don’t you and Dad do it?”

This was a dangerous rejoinder. My parents spent years charging off in one direction or another, chasing their schemes, until finally settling down on Bainbridge Island. My parents loved it there, and shaking up their lives was then geographically limited, so it mostly involved local real estate as opposed to career changes.

This left my mother with a lot of pent up scheming energy, so she began working on getting other people to shake up their lives. My mother was so persuasive that she convinced a couple of friends to leave their jobs, sell everything they owned, and move into an RV and travel. And this couple DID IT. They lasted about a year before they sold the RV, bought a house, and went back to work. But that was my mom, an early #vanlife prophet who loathed RVs, but liked the idea, so she just urged the lifestyle onto someone else.

To be fair, my parents did charge off on a few financially ruinous schemes of their own during their Bainbridge years, including opening a pizza restaurant after they’d entered the years when they should have been consolidating their resources and planning for retirement.

Like I said, schemes.

Clippings from other people who are not my mom

My point is, I knew firsthand how annoying it was to receive a bunch of clippings. And the clippings weren’t limited to my own mother! When my second ex husband began his own lengthy and painful exit, his mother sent me the very clippings Iris receives about how to comport yourself around your children when your husband begins to pull a disappearing act.

Minah express-mailed me an emergency packet of clippings about divorced women who had been beaten, cheated on, financially devastated and abandoned by their husbands, but these women had NEVER said ONE word against their husbands to their children. They suffered in saintly silence, so their kids could have a high opinion of their fathers.

Scribbled in the margin, “Iris, take a lesson.”

Iris received that advice with more grace than I did.

Another clipping received came after my first child was born with a physical condition that came as a true surprise to everyone. Several well-meaning people sent me the Dear Abby Holland/Italy column. It starts with:

Welcome to Holland

I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability-to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this . . .

‘When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, `Welcome to Holland.’

‘HOLLAND?!?’ you say. ‘What do you mean, Holland? I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.’

But there`s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.

If you’d like to read the rest of this thing, it’s here: That Holland/Italy Dear Abby column people send to new parents who are grappling with the reality of having a child who is going to face a lot of heartbreaking challenges in her life and maybe this will help, I guess.

There’s another advice column from one of the Ann/Abby sisters about God choosing atheists to raise disabled kids. Apparently we are divinely chosen for this special task because we’re going to be so good at it. I don’t have the heart to track that one down. Nothing about that column brings an atheist any closer to the idea of God.

And if you’re reading this, and a friend has a child with a challenge, spare them these columns. You might have the very best of intentions, but a lot of people do brutal things with the very best of intentions. Don’t do it.

A Sea Change

At some point, my mother got angry about the clippings. She let me know that it was taking up a large portion of each day to read things, clip them out, sort them into piles (because my brothers and some of her friends were getting them, too) and get them sent off with proper postage. I remember the hurt in her voice when she said, “I don’t even think you’re reading most of them.”

I replied, “Mom, did I ever ask you to be my clipping service? Did anyone ask you to do that?”

Mom kind of huffed up and gathered her dignity, then. Like most of us, she hated to find out she’d been doing something unnecessary, even annoying, as opposed to helpful. No one likes to feel ridiculous, especially not my mom. But I like to imagine that after her hurt feelings subsided, she started to read her papers and magazines for herself, rather than reading them for other people. I imagine it was a relief.

A Confession

Here’s the rub. I do this, or a version of it. I send links to poems and essays to my friends. Just a select few friends, and I try to keep it under control. But I get daily poems from Rattle magazine and Poem-a-Day, so I send poems off now and then. I even sent this one to my husband, because we watch so many of these (and please read it slowly, and all the way to the end, because it’s magnificent in how it builds):

I am Tired of the Movie about Sentimentalized Male Failure

And I loved this trailer park poem so much, I posted it on my Facebook page (it’s heartbreaking and full of courage):

Torch

I recently sent this amazing NYer essay by Ann Padgett to four of my dearest friends.

How to Practice

And really, isn’t this what a Facebook feed is? A curation of links and memes and photos we think our friends will enjoy? An endless online clipping service?

So, am I just my own mother, now, as we are all our own mothers? I wonder. I also wonder if I would have loved getting envelopes from Mom if they had been full of poems and essays and stories, instead of schemes for changing my life. But Mom read mostly nonfiction, and she actively disliked poetry. She said she never “got it,” and felt stupid and angry when she tried to read it. She would never have sent me poems.

It’s Always About Your Mother

I recently read The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich. It’s fantastic, but there’s one passage that stood out to me. Here it is:

It is difficult for a woman to admit that she gets along with her own mother–sometimes it seems a form of betrayal, at least, it used to be among women in my generation. To join in the company of women, to be adults, we go through a period of proudly boasting of having survived our own mother’s indifference, anger, overpowering love, the burden of her pain, her tendency to drink or teetotal, her warmth or coldness, praise or criticism, sexual confusions or clarity. It isn’t enough that she sweat, labored, bore her daughters howling or under total anesthesia or both. No. She must be responsible for our psychic weakness for the rest of her life. It is all right to feel kinship with your father, to forgive. We all know that. But your mother is held to a standard so exacting that is has no principles. She simply must be to blame.

“She simply must be to blame.” I sighed in recognition when I read this, because I am a mother and I am a daughter, just as my own mother was. We only really forgive our mothers when we become mothers ourselves.

I loved my mother so much. She sent what she sent. She sent it with love. And of course, even though I love the life I’ve crafted, and I guard it from intrusion and meddling with everything I have, I’d give anything to open my mailbox and find one of those fat envelopes from my mom full of clippings on how to best change my life, annotated with her penciled notes in the margins.

Creepy Valentines—the Cannibal Edition

Call Me By Your Name

I watched “Call Me By Your Name” recently. This is one of those movies I kept putting off because I had to rent it. I think kind of forgot about it after I read the book in preparation for seeing the movie, because there was this pandemic thing going on that made me seek out lighter fare, like, for instance, “The Good Place” (we won’t speak of “Tiger King”).

But for reasons I don’t like knowing about, Armie Hammer has been in the news lately. And that made me remember that I’d never seen the movie. I wanted to watch it before my perception of Armie Hammer’s performance could be clouded by any more creepy stuff about him–and I just know that more creepy stuff is going to come out about him. Don’t you feel it lurking in the wings, waiting to settle over his pretty face like a big, murky cloud of privilege and perversion? Or is that just me?

Anyway, I decided it was time to watch “Call Me By Your Name.” I had to rent it for $3.99, which was fine, because I’m cheap, but I’m not THAT cheap. The movie, like the book, is thoughtful, beautiful, and wrenching. It required patience to read the book. It requires patience to watch the movie. I feel that my patience was repaid, but your experience may vary. It’s a sad and romantic movie, and hey, speaking of romance, it’s almost Valentine’s Day.

Which brings us to…creepy Valentines!

So in honor of Armie Hammer, here are some vintage creepy Valentines with overt references to acts of cannibalism.

 

I have omitted the racially offensive cannibalism valentines. YOU’RE WELCOME.

Hoping your Valentine’s Day includes romance, hearts and flowers, and absolutely no cauldrons.

You Should Learn to Ride a Bike Before you Lose Your Virginity

But what if you don’t?

In writing about my own life, I’m terrified of pathos, or maybe bathos. I want to be honest when I (someday) write that memoir, but Jesus Christ, when I look back at the mess of my childhood and young adulthood and then maybe add in my 20s and don’t forget my 30s, it seems a daunting task to write honestly about everything I’ve lived through. So, despite the inherent OMG involved in this blog post title, I’m not going to write about how and why I decided to become sexually active. I’m going to write instead about learning to ride a bike.

The Normal Age for Riding a Bike

Let’s go back to me, at age five or so, in a tiny town called Claremont, South Dakota. My older brother and sister had both learned to ride a bike by the time a small blue bike was bequeathed to me. I assume they learned to ride a bike the usual way; my birth father put them on the bike, ran behind them holding the seat while they pedaled, and then let go. I don’t remember this happening to either of my older siblings, but they could both ride bikes just fine, so whatever wobbles or spills they endured didn’t throw them off the path of bike ridership.

Me? Not so much. I don’t have the daredevil gene. I guess that’s a real thing, the daredevil gene. It makes you a risk taker and an innovator. I was born without this gene, which means that I make cautious choices, like living in the same house for over 30 years, and shopping at thrift stores, and building up my 401K with steady contributions rather than playing the stock market like the goddamn casino game it actually is.

Casinos are not for me, folks. Ten years ago, I was in Vegas with a friend who informed me that I never win at games of chance because I don’t ever believe I will win. I tend to think that MOST people don’t win at games of chance—hence, Las Vegas itself—but maybe she has a point. Maybe if I bought into the whole idea of winning at gambling I’d enjoy it. Instead, I simply endure it until whatever puny stake I’ve decided to lose is gone, and then I can do something I actually enjoy in Vegas, like eating or looking at the crazy sights or going to a show or reading a book in my room or something like that.

My point with all this is to say, I don’t like risks. When my birth father let go of the little blue bike, I didn’t sail happily down the sidewalks of Claremont, South Dakota. I fell over. I scraped stuff. I cried. And soon after, before he could coax me back onto that bike, he and my mother divorced. My mom was a lot of cool things, but she wasn’t the kind of mother who was going to run up and down the block behind her timid six year-old, promising not to let go right up until she did.

So I never learned.

Yes, I felt left out in fifth grade when everyone in my Edina, Minnesota, neighborhood jumped on their bikes and pedaled off to the Southdale mall. But sometimes they would walk, so I could come along and shoplift to my heart’s content.

I also didn’t know how to whistle. I taught myself to whistle really badly when I was in fifth grade, and I still whistle very badly, but I really don’t care. And there were other childhood gaps that could be filled in with diligent solitary practice. Cat’s Cradle, jacks, hand-clap games, and every type of jump rope. Those were my kinds of activity. I don’t have a clue if anyone plays those games anymore, but they were the deal when I was growing up.

They were a big deal in Minnesota, and they were still a big deal in Arkansas, where we moved while I was in fifth grade. I was still playing “Say Say Old Playmate” at recess when I got my first boyfriend…and my period…and my second boyfriend. He went to my school and passed me passionate mash notes that told me I looked like Marcia on The Brady Bunch, which was high praise in those days.

Here’s me at 12.

Here’s Marcia and her TV sisters.

Look at their shining, smooth hair, tan legs, and adorable dresses. I could study this photo all day in complete admiration. I don’t think I looked like Marcia, but I certainly appreciated the compliment.

All the Brady kids could ride bikes. I still couldn’t.

It was less of a problem in Montana, where we moved after Arkansas. We lived up in the mountains on a ranger station. There were no sidewalks and no paved roads, aside from a narrow paved highway that snaked above the sheer banks of the icy Gallatin River. Kids in Gallatin Gateway, where I went to part of seventh grade and all of eighth, rode horses, not bikes.

When we moved into Bozeman, there were sidewalks, but the kids I hung around with (the boys at least) had cars. If you had a boyfriend, he was your source of transportation.

At 14, I lost my virginity. I still couldn’t ride a bike.

At 15, I got my driver’s license. I still couldn’t ride a bike.

Also, at 15, I moved out of my parent’s home and to another state (Washington) with my older boyfriend—yes, in tenth grade.

I still couldn’t ride a bike.

Pathos? Bathos? You decide!

So now, those of you still reading understand that my life had really gone off the rails at this point. I’ve taken you from South Dakota to Minnesota to Arkansas to Montana and finally to Washington, with multiple moves and schools in each of those locations. My early life was unsettled, but at this point it veered into somewhat tragic territory. And of the various tragedies around my 14th and 15th years (let’s just extend this tragedy time on up to age 19), not being able to ride a bike was the least of them. However, that particular tragedy could be rectified.

What To Say About Him.

I have a strong need to contextualize people in order to understand and eventually forgive them. The boyfriend with whom I lived in my teens has a really interesting life of his own that lends context to what was wrong with him. I’m not ready to write about him in any detail. But I think it’s safe to talk about the fact that he was a gearhead. He loved anything wheeled, especially if it was motorized or had an engine. He worked on cars constantly. But before he could drive, he poured all that gearhead passion into his bikes.

He had two. This was the era of the ten speed, and I’m not sure his “good” bike was one of those, but it was complex and had gears. He’d modified and tinkered with it so much, it was a miracle that he could still ride it. And then he’d held on to his childhood Schwinn with the banana seat, on which he’d delivered papers for years in all kinds of Montana weather. 

Pay attention, these bikes are important in a paragraph or two.

During the school year, we both went to school. He went to YVC, and I went to high school, where I managed not to drop out despite just hating it. In the summer, we did various things to earn money. My parents were living in Missoula, where my father was busy flunking out of law school and my mother was running a small, successful miniatures business.

So my boyfriend and I packed up the cats and went to Missoula to make miniature furniture for the summer. We slept on the hideabed in the tiny living room of my parents’ married student housing apartment.

Small hideabed where we slept, along with an adorable little brother, an antique doll and basket that are now in my possession, and a very sad, miserable, lost teenage me.

We assembled tiny chairs and sofas and table,s and we made more money doing that than picking fruit, our other summer employment endeavor. And at some point early on, my boyfriend drove back to Bozeman and retrieved both of his bikes from his parents’ garage, and brought them to Missoula.

He taught me to drive before he taught me to ride a bike.

I started on that little Schwinn. I think it looked a lot like this one, which is for sale for over 2K on eBay:

see it here: Schwinn

I’m a tall person, so I probably looked ridiculous on this boy’s bike, but the banana seat was comfortable and the handlebars were tall, so I could sit up, instead of that hunching over you had to do on a ten speed. I got on that bike, and he held onto the back of the seat, and he ran behind me while I pedaled down the sidewalk, and eventually, he let go.

Guess what? I rode just fine. This bike was fast and easy to maneuver. The only problem was, one of the pedals was incomplete, so every so often, my foot would slip off and my ankle would bang into the end of the pedal peg. That hurt.

Ankle bruises aside, I was finally riding a bike. Each evening, we rode all over the University of Montana campus; him on his age-appropriate adult-sized bike, and me on that little Schwinn. I remember a boy we passed calling, “You look funny on that bike!” I yelled back, “I know!” I knew, and I didn’t care. It was so fun to finally know how to ride a bike. And the campus, back then, was empty in the summer, so we could whiz all over the paved paths and brick courtyards, riding recklessly in circles around the bear sculpture.

This image of the Grizz shows the winding paths around this pretty campus, the “M”, and the dun-colored hills around Missoula.

I fell in love with this campus that summer, thanks to that bike. Eventually, we moved to Missoula and I attended my first two quarters of college at the University of Montana. I made wonderful friends and came into my own and finally started to question the path my life had taken. I started to wonder if that path could change. I decided it could, and forged a new one.

I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like had I stayed at the U of M after I ended things with the boyfriend, who had become my first husband. If I’d left him but stayed in Missoula, I could have applied for financial aid, and I would have been helped in that because I was in the honors program and had a 4.0 GPA. That used to matter to schools. I could have moved into the dorm, which was actually a cheap place to live back then, and finished my studies, and…and then…and then I peter out. Because I’d have eventually ended up in the hospital, or worse, if I’d stayed in the same city where he lived. Because he wouldn’t have let me go, if I’d stayed in Missoula. And because my real life, with all that it holds, has taken place in Portland, where I moved at age 19.

Portland, Oregon, is the most bike-friendly city in America.

Everyone rides a bike in Portland.

Everyone except me. 

I wish I could tell you that my hard-won teen mastery of bike riding had inspired a lifelong love of biking. That this was the start of something important. But that small bike with its comfortable banana seat and busted pedal went back to my boyfriend’s parents’ garage in Bozeman, and it took my love of biking with it.

I know that I had a big brown three-speed of my own at some point while we lived in Yakima, but I never took to it. It was so BIG compared to the swift little Schwinn. I rode it a few times and found it heavy and tiring, nothing like zipping around on the wee bike. Eventually that big bike went to my older brother, who did ride it around Portland for a while. And then I suppose it was sold.

I haven’t been on a bike since I was 17 years old. But I like to think that riding a bike is just like…riding a bike. That I’ve never forgotten what it took me so long to learn. That it’s back there, deep in my muscle memory.

That even now, I could get on and go. 

Did I have Covid-19?

The Timeline

January 20, 2020 was Martin Luther King Day. My husband had the day off and I didn’t. So he dropped me at work, and then picked up his friend Parry, and they spent MLK day playing cards up in Washington at a card room. For the record, he won money because my husband always wins money when he plays cards. He was back in Portland in time to pick me up outside my office at 4:30 PM.

I got in the car and he looked terrible. Just exhausted. And what followed was some kind of puzzled conversation about how he’d felt fine all day, but as he sat in the car waiting for me, something extreme had absolutely flattened him. I remember asking, “It came on that fast?” It had, and it was severe enough that he wasn’t sure if he’d be going to work the next day. I asked my husband if he wanted me to drive, but he said he’d be okay to drive us home.

We weren’t surprised that he’d caught something. He works with a woman we refer to as “Patient Zero” because she always comes to work when she’s sick. All month, her cough had been echoing around his office. The week before, she left the office on a stretcher because she was coughing so hard that she couldn’t breathe. We thought he’d probably caught this from her.

But my husband didn’t cough that much, only every half hour or so. He didn’t think he had a fever, just that dry cough and extreme fatigue. So, because this is how we do it in America, he went to work on Tuesday. In fact, he worked all week. Some days, he found himself staring at the computer in utter bafflement, but he endured. He didn’t bother me at night with his coughing, probably because he took Nyquil. He ate a lot of chicken noodle soup for dinner.

We both thought he was better that next Saturday when we went out for our usual errands; a tank of gas for our daily shared commute, the bulk of our groceries at one store, the remainder at another, and a mad dash through the Goodwill if we felt like it. I think we did most if not all of these stops, but after each one, I’d ask him, “Are you up for…?” And he would stop, and seriously assess. I mean, he had to think about it. And then he’s say, “I think I can do that.”

This is not like my husband. He’s one of those long, rangy men who never run out of energy. So I knew that he really had to be sick.

I didn’t look forward to getting whatever he had, but I assumed that I would. At the office, I stopped helping myself to snacks in the break room, aware that I might be contagious before I was symptomatic. As a rule at work, I don’t touch elevator buttons with my hand, preferring to use the corner of my shirt. I put my hand in my cardigan pocket and run that along the stairway bannister, I open and close the bathroom door with paper towels, things like that. It looks strange but I don’t really care. Laugh if you want to, but I rarely get colds because of my weird little ways.

Eventually, I started having a strange drippy trickle at the back of my throat. That must be it, I thought. It must be coming. On the way home from work, I’d say, “I bet it’s coming on, I bet I won’t be going to work tomorrow.” But it didn’t.

On Sunday, February 2, 2020, it finally arrived. We had matinee theater tickets, and I had a wet, chesty cough. I thought I was okay, though, because the cough was occasional. I loaded up on unwrapped cough drops, and we went to that afternoon’s play.

I timed my coughing for applause and scene changes. I was worried about hampering other patrons’ theater experience, not their health. It was just a cold, right? And the cough was really not that bad. I covered my mouth, I didn’t touch things, I was considerate. We saw, and enjoyed, the play.

But that evening? I stood up from the couch and had a dizzy spell so bad I nearly fainted. And just like that, the cough became wracking, a full body experience that left me gasping for air. Nothing like my husband’s cough, which was dry. I didn’t have a fever, but I felt completely disoriented.

So now, let me backtrack.

Around the time my husband got sick, my 2 year-old grandson had three days of high fever, pinkeye, and a mysterious, hive-like rash. He didn’t get any cold symptoms.  The doctor had no explanation, just a recommendation of Tylenol and rest.

There’s this: Children and Covid-19

My daughter (his mom) had a physical around the same time, and she had an elevated white count. The doctor was worried about that, and so was she. Then, maybe a week later, right about the time I became symptomatic, she came down with what appeared to be the same thing I had, with a horrible, deep cough. We commiserated about the horror of it on the phone. She recommended a Mucinex day/night twin pack, and my husband went to the store and got one for me. That helped tremendously.

I stayed home from work on Monday and Tuesday. Because this is America, on Wednesday I went in. It was soon clear to me that I had no business being at work. I wouldn’t let anyone come into my office and I didn’t touch anything. I gathered materials to work from home on Thursday and Friday, and I went home. “No one should get this,” I told my manager. She completely agreed. She’s good that way. In a company where you show your commitment by coming to work and thumping a bottle of Dayquil down on your desk and working a full day even though you feel like death, my manager is the rare person in charge who says, “I don’t want whatever you have, so stay home.”

I stayed home.

This is what it felt like.

I didn’t have a fever or a headache, just this awful strangling cough, followed by gasping for air and dizziness. I felt like I’d been drowned and brought back to life, which happened to me when I was very young, but that’s another blog post.

I sat on the couch for most of the week, staring ahead, feeling lost and disoriented. The TV was on, but I hardly noticed. I felt no connection to any person, place, thing, or task. To add insult to injury, I got pinkeye. Oh, pinkeye? My husband had some medicine for it, and it went away without much effort, but really? Pinkeye?

Maybe this had something to do with it: COVID-19 and Pinkeye

Here’s the thing. I couldn’t figure out what it WAS. I’ve had the flu a few times, including the Swine Flu. This was not the flu, but that was all I could imagine it to be. I was especially baffled because I’d had my flu shot the previous fall, and it was supposed to be an effective one. And why were my symptoms so different from my husband’s? We decided I had to have something completely different, because he’d been sick, but not like this. I was a mess.

By Saturday, I was just recovered enough to babysit for my daughter, who felt well enough to have dinner with friends. I still felt terrible, but she was in far better shape than I was, and she really wanted to go, so I held down the fort that evening for two grandkids. This was a monumental effort. I was relieved to go home and continue recovering on Sunday.

Then, because certainly my company couldn’t survive for more than a week without my crackerjack copy writing skills, I went back to work on Monday. I wasn’t in great shape, but I could work, so I worked. I worked with a constantly running nose and the occasional cough. I was definitely short of breath and quick to tire.  

The news was all about a dangerous virus out of China. I said to my manager, “Do you think?” She said, It’s not here yet, so…” But she kept her distance.

My nose wouldn’t stop running, which I took to be the source of my lingering cough. I have to be careful what I take to dry myself out, and I’d had enough of what I shouldn’t take in the Mucinex day formula, so I let it run. That week, in addition to working, and babysitting again, I called and cancelled our Valentine’s Day dinner reservations. I remember telling the woman I talked to, “I can’t smell or taste a thing, so we’ll reschedule when I can.” I blamed my runny nose for that.

Another Crisis.

That next Sunday, my daughter called me at 6 AM in terrible pain. I jumped out of bed and took her to the ER. She had her gall bladder out that next day. But that meant that while I was there with her in the ER, and then in the surgery waiting room, and then back in her hospital room, I was still blowing my nose and coughing. Constantly. And I kept worrying that it was more than a cold, more than a flu. I kept thinking about that awful virus out of China, which now had a name: “the coronavirus.”

I kept wondering—knowing, on some level—that I might have this horrible coronavirus while I was in a hospital around sick and vulnerable people. I coughed into my elbow. I washed my hands. I used my shirt to touch the elevator call buttons.  I washed and sanitized my hands over and over. I worried.

This is when I started to become frustrated with my friends. I was becoming terrified that I had it. When I expressed my concerns, “It can’t be the coronavirus, Karen. It’s not here.” Even though it was here. Even after people in nursing homes started to show up with the virus. Even though my former brother-in-law, a healthy man of 62, died in his sleep, stunning my family and devastating my sister and nephew. That was his heart, supposedly. But I asked for details—a week of horrible coughing and shortness of breath—and I had dark suspicions.

I’d try to talk about it, and be told no, nope, never. Not possible. I know it was a terrifying prospect, a deadly virus being present in the general population. No one wanted to even hear about the idea, I’m sure partly because no one wanted to have been exposed, no one wanted to be at risk. And to be fair, some of the people who refused to hear the idea that I’d had it really love me. Maybe they were afraid to admit they might have lost me.

Even after we had a confirmed case in the US, backdated to January 20th, I was told over and over again that I couldn’t have had it. It had somehow gotten here to the US and made just that one person sick, a person who hadn’t been traveling in any of the areas where it was rampant. That’s called community spread, but no one was ready to admit it yet.

The story continues with a trip to Urgent Care

After a few days of post-surgery recovery, my daughter was coming home from the hospital. Her boyfriend worked swing shift, so my ex-husband and I figured out a schedule for helping her with the kids until she healed. He would do afternoons, and I would cover evenings. But I’d started coughing again, so I went to Urgent Care on March 12th to make sure I didn’t have bronchitis. It had been over four weeks of being sick at this point, and I couldn’t kick it.

At the Urgent Care, they listened to my symptoms and asked me to wear a surgical mask. This is the first time in my life I’d ever had one on my face, and I didn’t like it. I was told there were no tests available for the new virus, the county had a few but they were reserved for…people who were not me. So they couldn’t help me with that.

I was examined and had a chest X-ray. The radiologist looked at my X-rays and said I had a pattern of lung damage that suggested COPD, and I needed to follow up with a pulmonologist. I think the chances of my having COPD are pretty slim, since I’ve never been a smoker. I know it could happen with secondhand smoke, but I haven’t been around that for over forty years.

You know how you just know? I just knew. I knew what I’d had, even though no one around me would admit it.

My history, my risk factors, and why I think I lived. 

I am not a medical alarmist. I’m more the opposite. I expect everything that’s wrong with me to just go away; colds, flus, bone spurs, high blood pressure, a hemorrhaging uterus, heartburn so scorching they thought I had Barrett’s Esophagus–you name it, I ignored it until I absolutely couldn’t.

So, my heart. I guess since mine did, I assumed everyone’s hearts stopped beating now and then. Sure, it’s an alarming feeling to have your heart stop beating, but I was used to it. You know how you’re sitting there and then you can feel your heart stop and you think, wow, come on now, let’s have a beat! Yes? No? Doesn’t your heart do that? Well, mine did, and I ignored it for a long time. Years. Maybe ten, before I did bring it up to the doctor.

She was the perfect doctor for me, because she told me to calm down, nothing was wrong with my heart, and to buck up. She shamed me for imagining something was wrong! “What do you do for a living? That is NOT a high stress job.” (She didn’t know my manager back then. That was a terribly high-stress position due to that manager). But I was more than happy to buy into that and continue ignoring my symptoms. And maybe six months more went by before I almost passed out in the break room at work, so I went back to her, because even I know that passing out in the break room because your heart is out of rhythm is not normal.

To humor me, she ordered a Holter monitor for me. She did it to set my mind at ease and to get me to calm down, I’m sure. So I went to the heart lab and got everything attached, and wore that weird little box on my chest for a few days. I dropped it off on a Monday morning, fully expecting to be shamed for even thinking something was wrong.

My doctor had to call me after the heart lab looked at my results. “Karen, you need to go to the cardiologist at 1 PM today to discuss your Holter monitor results. Please be aware that you might be admitted directly to the hospital after your appointment.” Well, after an echocardiogram, and a stress test, and a lot of sobering instruction, I was allowed to go home. Two times a day, I take a potentially lethal medication for ventricular arrhythmia. My prescription has one side effect—sudden death—but that usually happens during the first week, and I’m obviously still here. My medication works great for me and I’m so glad to be on it.

My point is, I had that heartbeat irregularity for at least ten years before I became concerned enough to take it seriously. Also, if you’re wondering why someone with a serious heart condition didn’t die from having COVID, I take Losartan for my blood pressure. Read this: Losartan and COVID-19

Enough of that digression.

Let’s go back to my timeline. What happened next?

Well, we all figured out this was serious, and here, and it wasn’t going away or evaporating. The world was shutting down. We’d started working from home. I finally stopped coughing, but my nose was still running. And as more information came out about the virus, the huge variance in our symptoms and severity made complete sense to my husband and me.

We knew we’d already had the thing, which now had a name, COVID-19. My husband and I wondered, if we’d had it, were we immune? Did that matter? We masked up, washed our hands, stayed home. But we wondered. Oh my god, did we wonder.

I heard about an antibody test. In the spring of 2020, there was no way to get one, at least not in Oregon. Still, I asked. I asked quite a bit. When Zoom Care started offering the antibody tests, I thought seriously about taking one. My doctors said they were so inaccurate that they were basically useless. So I didn’t take one, and in retrospect, I wish I had.

On April 3rd, I made a pot roast. I make a good pot roast, and I thought this was going to be a good one. The dogs were going nuts at the smell, and I could smell it, too. But the only thing I could taste was the sweetness of the onions. The whole thing tasted sweet. Even the gravy! I wondered if I’d somehow used sugar instead of flour to dredge the roast and thicken the gravy, but nope. I’d used flour. It was inexplicable.

Later that month, I was turning 60 with no party, no trip, no celebration at all. This was not how I’d envisioned turning 60. I was disappointed. On the day itself, my husband brought me one of my favorite comfort-food meals: turkey dinner from Banning’s Restaurant. I’ve eaten this turkey dinner more than a few times in the 36 years I’ve lived in this neighborhood, and it’s always just right. But I started eating, and the food had no flavor. None. I was dismayed and felt betrayed. What had happened to Banning’s? Why did their takeout have no flavor at all?

My husband had a similar experience while eating his beloved meatball sandwich from Subway. He said, “They’ve done something to the sauce. I don’t know what it is, but this is terrible. It’s just wrong.” This was unnerving.

Then, I realized that I couldn’t smell unpleasant smells. Plenty of these were around the dogs, because dogs are basically composed of bad smells. I couldn’t smell their dog food when I fed them. And in the morning when I stepped out with them after breakfast so they could do their business, the odors of their pee and poop usually wafted over the smell of wet grass. No more. My dogs are old, and if one of them used the pee pad during the night, I couldn’t smell the urine.

As far as humans, I couldn’t smell anything bodily, ever, from myself, or my husband. I couldn’t even smell morning breath. Now, none of this seems like something you’d miss, yes? But the ability to perceive unpleasant odors is probably important, even if it’s not pleasurable. An entire range of smell perception was gone.

A June 23rd follow-up visit with a pulmonologist got my “damaged” lungs an all clear. By that time, I’d heard that there was a pattern of lung damage associated with COVID. I don’t know what the radiologist was seeing, but the pulmonologist thought my lungs looked just fine. I accepted the good news of healthy lungs with massive relief and went on with my life.

Antibody tests

The summer arrived in Portland. My baby grandson, who was actually a toddler at this point, a walking, talking, toddler, had also arrived in Portland with his moms, who were working remotely to avoid the COVID hotspot that was Brooklyn, NY. His other grandma was going to help with daycare, and she was doing the necessary isolation and quarantining in order to do that safely. Being able to see him mask-free and hands-on would involve a lot of quarantining and isolation from my other grandkids, one of whom is technically a “step,” so she comes and goes from another household with a lot of unknowns as far as infection vectors. But if I had antibodies, this wouldn’t be an issue, right?

In the summer of 2020, in Oregon, there was only one way to get an antibody test, and that was to give blood. So on July 23rd, my husband and I went to donate. I was so hopeful. Yes, it had been six months since he had the virus, and five since I had. But I was sure I’d had it and this would give me proof.

Guess what. Neither of us showed antibodies in our blood, which isn’t surprising because apparently they only show up for three or four months after you’re infected. I was crushed. I wanted proof, not so I could wave it in the face of people who doubted me (okay, that would have been nice), but so I could see all my grandkids, even if they couldn’t see each other.

Well, I had no antibodies, and it was hard not to see my other grandkids, but I did it. I took days off work to help his moms with daycare while they worked from home. It was idyllic—hanging with this little guy who usually lived across the country me, getting to see him and know him, learning all his charming, funny ways. But then, on top of the pandemic, we had wildfires. To escape the smoke, my younger grandson’s family spent time out of town, either at the coast, or at his other grandparents’ in McMinnville.

And then, my youngest daughter and her boyfriend decided to move to Eugene. I wanted some quality time with the other grandkids, and with my daughter before she left, so I broke quarantine. In mid-September, we really broke quarantine to help the kids move to Eugene, including a meal inside a truck stop on moving day. My husband and I were exhausted from the move, the drive, the chokingly thick wildfire smoke. It was just too darn smoky to eat in the car. My gosh, it was strange to sit in a restaurant and eat.

I haven’t been back in the bubble with my younger grandson ever since. But I can have masked porch visits with him until the end of next month, when he returns to New York. He knows me, knows my name, and he likes me. We have some jokes, and we’ve discovered that we share a deep affection for dogs (or “woof-woofs” as he calls them), and Santa Claus (who says “ho-ho-ho!” and has a hat and a beard). We might not have discovered these deep and meaningful commonalities without the pandemic.

It’s been terrible. It’s been fine.

We’re lucky, and we know it. Both my husband and I are employed. Our companies are financially stable, so we don’t spend time worrying about that, and we’re able to work from home. We’re especially glad that he can work from home, as my husband works with people who have to travel internationally as part of the business, with plenty of trips to Asia. His office has had several confirmed cases, and one person in another part of the company passed away. I’m relieved that my husband hasn’t had to go in once.

We also have more money. I haven’t analyzed why, but my husband has. He told me last week that he thought we were in better shape financially because we spend so much less on gas, car maintenance, lunches out, entertainment, movies, theater, concerts, dinners with friends, and all the activities that were such an important part of our lives before this pandemic. I’d talk about how hard that is, except we’re all in the same boat, and we all know how narrow life has become.

The State of Me Today

No matter how sure I am that I’ve had COVID-19, I’ve never had proof of that, or been convinced that it made me immune. I’m smack in the middle of a high-risk group because of my age, weight, high blood pressure, and bad heart. So I’ve socially distanced, washed and sanitized my hands, and worn my mask (cloth, with a kickass filter) from the time it was recommended.

As we get closer to the mythical wonders of vaccination, I’m buckling down on my safety measures. With my risk factors, I’m damn lucky to have survived this once. I don’t want to take a chance on twice.

My nose is still runny. The lymph nodes in my neck are still swollen. I went in for a physical, and my doctor wanted an ultrasound of the lymph nodes, and the verdict was that I have unknown allergies or I’m getting over something. Well, I haven’t had a cold since early 2019, unless what I’ve so painstakingly described here was a common cold. Even so, I was sick in February and March of last year. We’re coming up on a year.

My stamina is shot. I’m not a particularly active person, but I used to be able to walk FOREVER on level ground. That’s just not the case anymore. I’m sure sitting around working from home isn’t helping, but I do have a lingering shortness of breath that I find more embarrassing than debilitating. It could be related to my heart, or to post-COVID. I don’t know what to do about it.

And then, there’s the pain. Occasionally, maybe once a week, I’m overtaken by a burning pain right under my skin that can only be helped by lying down for fifteen minutes. It’s especially terrible through my neck and shoulders. It BURNS. I don’t know what this is, or if it’s related to COVID, but I’m hopeful that it will go away. That’s been steady all year.

But the worst part is the degradation of my taste and smell. I think I only realized how much I’d lost when it started to come back to me. I can taste most flavors again, but not all. I was one of those people to whom cilantro tasted like dirt, but it was so omnipresent in food that I started to like it, and then came to love it. I’m completely back to square one on cilantro; it tastes like dirt. Garlic is back after being completely absent. I’m still waiting on basil. I think it will come, I hope it will since that’s one of my favorite herbs. It’s so refreshingly pungent. Meat odors are iffy. I can sometimes smell red meat as it cooks. I can’t smell salmon.

Maybe this explains it: COVID-19 and the senses

Food is one thing, but people don’t smell right. I can’t find those warm and comforting smells I associate with my kids and grandkids; their hair, mostly, you know how everyone’s hair smells different? And sometimes I smell strange to myself, like I’m in a state of decay. That’s alarming. But like I said, it seems to be getting better day-by-day. I can smell all the dog smells again, which is gross but reassuring.

I’m actually excited when I smell something bad. It means my nose is working. But then, there’s the brain fog.

Last spring, after we got over the whatever-it-was, my husband and I seemed to take turns saying, “You know…” or “Hey, um…” or “Oh!” Then we’d just sit there, waiting, because whatever it was would vanish. This would happen three or four times a DAY to each of us. We were good-natured about it. We thought maybe it was related to age, or the lack of input in our new home-bound lives, in which there was nowhere to go and nothing to do besides work, watch TV, or sit on the back patio.

As we hit the year anniversary of him getting sick, I’m happy to say that he no longer does this. I still do it, but very rarely. But sometimes, more often than I want to admit, I have to stop and wait for specific words.

I know some of this comes with age and with menopause. During the worst of menopause, six to eight years ago, I lost a lot of basic vocabulary. For two years, I was reduced to saying things like, “The stuff you put in the washing machine to get your clothes clean,” or “The thing you put toilet paper on in the bathroom.” But that was temporary. It’s been five years since I had anything like that going on.

Guess what. It’s back.

The other morning, I spent two minutes trying to remember the word “cantaloupe.” I could only come up with “cauliflower.” But I was patient, lying in the dark before I got up, thinking, come on, Karen. It’s right next to honeydew, or muskmelon, or orange flesh melons, all of which you love, but you don’t like the one that makes the inside of your mouth itch, and that’s…cauliflower. Cauliflower? It’s not cauliflower. Its something else.

Finally, cantaloupe appeared. I felt such triumph. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. Cantaloupe! Which I don’t like to eat because it makes my mouth itch! But I’m so glad to have the word for it!

I’ve never been good with names, ever. But I can generally remember the names of people related to me, and the names of my friends and coworkers. Over the last year, I’ve had to reach and wait for the names of people I know very well. I lost my friend Guy’s last name. I love his artwork, and hadn’t seen it in my Instagram feed. I was wondering if the algorithm just hadn’t shown it to me, or if he’d stopped posting, so I needed to look him up. But I couldn’t remember his last name. I knew his sister’s last name, but that’s a married name. Guy’s was a blank. Finally, I got out my phone to scan my contacts, and thought, “Will it be under Guy? Or Edwards?” There you have it, his name was back.

And here’s his art, if you’re curious: Guy the brilliant Edwards

This is lessening, thank god. I think my brain is healing itself. Distant memories will come flooding back out of the blue. Especially first thing in the morning, I’ll be overwhelmed by the feel, smell, angle of light, birdsong of a childhood backyard. Song lyrics I’d thought were lost to time will bathe my brain. I’m once again able to sing the entirety of “Free Man in Paris” (and most other Joni Mitchell songs) without a gap. My theory is, parts of my memory were disconnected somehow by COVID, and it’s all returning. I’d like to believe I will get it all back; my memory, my sense of taste, my sense of smell, my stamina.

We shall see.

My Last Point in this endless argument with nameless, faceless friends

Currently, the CDC estimates there are three undiagnosed cases for every confirmed case in the US. My guess, rooted not in science but in my gut instinct, is that there are probably ten unconfirmed cases for every confirmed positive. Our testing ranged from unavailable to unreliable during the times it was most crucial to know our numbers. I also think massive amounts of people tested negative when they were positive. How else to explain people like a coworker of mine who quarantined with his COVID-positive 12 year old child. He was alone with his asymptomatic kid for two weeks, and he got deathly ill, and he tested negative (he has recovered, though he can’t run up the stairs easily right now).

I’m not a scientist. I don’t know everything. But I’m pretty sure my coworker had it. As did I. As did my husband, and my daughter, and another daughter I haven’t even talked about here who might have had it in December of 2019.

But I still have friends who don’t believe I had it, because I have no positive test for the virus or its antibodies to prove it. Some of them have grudgingly accepted that the virus might have been here in February, but when it comes to me having it, the most I’ll get from them is a “maybe.”

Except, there’s this news: It appears that COVID antibodies were present in the Red Cross donation samples in Oregon last fall. You can read about it here: COVID-19 antibodies in donated blood Blood donors on the West coast (including Oregon) had COVID-19 antibodies last fall, which means, of course, that they were sick with up to four months earlier.

COVID-19 was very definitely present in Oregon in January and February of 2020.

When I couldn’t possibly have had it.

Right?

New Books, New Covers

Books four and five are finally here!

I’m excited to announce that books four and five are here.

The Devotion of Tristan

This book is the absolute favorite of a few of my first readers. They love seeing where everything went after book three. Did Gentry actually get married? Is it possible to be married to someone as messed up as Gentry and not run screaming into the night? This book continues with the alternating first person narration that was a hit in book three, and of course, a new voice speaks: Tristan, as an adult navigating his way through the difficulties of his own life.

You can order it here: The Devotion of Tristan

The Instruction of Gentry

This book, number five in Gentry’s novels, is my favorite. It’s surpassed my affection for The Confession of Gentry, which is such a hilarious and tragic book that I wondered if I’d ever write anything I liked quite as much.

But here it is, with the story of someone you’ve probably wondered about. Who is Gentry’s mother? Where has she been? And what would happen if she came back?

Find out here: The Instruction of Gentry

A Note About the Covers

My original cover designer was not available for these two books, so I decided to work with Andrea Capp of Andrea Capp Design on new covers for all five books.

You can see more of her work here: Andrea Capp Design

It was fun to talk about these novels with someone who has never read them. We took time to isolate colors and visual elements that expressed character, setting, and events in a very simple and cohesive way. I’m in love with the new look. If you’ve read them, do you see why we chose these elements?

I’m planning a Zoom reading, and invitations for that will go out soon. Until then, I hope you enjoy diving in.

–Karen