I was on the phone with my sister the other day, trying to distract her from a painful medical situation, and we were discussing the fact that someone she briefly dated asked her to take his dog. The dog in question is a fine little gentleman of a chi mix. He’s old, but sturdy and well-behaved, especially for a chihuahua. But my sister lives on a fixed income, and she likes to spend lots of time at her little cabin at the beach, and she doesn’t want a dog. “Besides,” I told her, “dogs are expensive.” I added up how much my current dog is costing me, and I got a little dizzy.
This is the dog in question. I have had her for seven years, and she was around six when I got her, so that means when she goes to the vet, they talk about her as a “sweet old girl.” I fear my doctors talk about me the same way behind my back, now–there is new and unfamiliar level of solicitude extended my way by the cardiologist, the GP–so maybe I’m a little sensitive about aging.
I don’t see my girl as old, even though her spine is starting to emerge as her muscle tone goes, and her eyes are slightly cloudy. She’s my vital, expensive, adorable little rescue dog, a mix of Chihuahua, Lhasa Apso and Shih Tzu. She’s going to live forever, even though her special food, vet plan, and medications cost me close to a hundred dollars a month that could be going into my retirement fund.
She’s worth it. She’s worth it because I love her. She’s worth it because seven years ago, I saw her funny little face on Petfinder, and felt a pang in my heart that could only be cured if she came to live with me. I wanted her so much that I agreed to adopt a bonded pair, and the other dog was way too small. I’d zipped right past her photo on Petfinder, thinking, “That’s a cute little dog for someone who wants a dog that small.” I have never had a dog that small and I never intended to.
Just look at that little monster on the left, that adorable killer. Six pounds of territorial spite. Fiercest guardian of the front door, attacker of ankles, biter of children. She was 3/4 chihuahua, 1/4 unknown. She had the coat of a polar bear and feared no weather, and I don’t think she feared anything else, either. Or maybe she feared everything. She never, ever stopped barking at my neighbors, and bit every finger extended through the fence to make peace.
I couldn’t believe I had adopted a vicious dog. I tried for three months to cure her using every method I found on the internet.
I gave up.
She spent countless hours locked in the bedroom during family gatherings, books groups, potlucks, and more. She drew blood on at least five friends, and we won’t talk about my poor niece, who eventually became the only child she liked. And we put up with this. We put up with this because she was such a strange, sweet, comical mini-mutt, who intensely loved her people and kept us entertained with her stiff-legged little antics.
She was a spite pisser and a slipper killer, a fence racer and a cuddler who shed constantly, covering us with hair from an undercoat worthy of an Alaskan sled dog. She started each day by bounding up on our chests in bed, letting out a big sneeze to let us know she meant us no harm, and covering our faces with endless flicks of her oversized pink tongue. Kisses. Loves. Demands for breakfast. But so much joy and love.
When we walked in the door each day after work, she turned a few stiff little circles, then flopped on her back for belly rubs, crying with happiness. Or maybe that was more food demands. She was always hungry.
God, she was such a pisser. She was so loving to us and so terrible to everyone else. We loved her and forgave her. I had taken her on, and I lived around her ways, and she gave me back her fierce devotion.
She was also a remarkable fighter as far as her health went. In the time I had her, she had throat cancer (which went away, as cancer sometimes does in dogs), three different bouts of vestibular disease, which is supposed to last three days and in her case, lasted a month or more each time. She had two strokes that I witnessed, and recovered from both.
And there were seizures. She didn’t respond to the medication prescribed by the vet–it made her rear legs stop working, and the seizures actually increased. So we took her off, and she had maybe one seizure per week at night–screamers, as we called them.
My other dog would run to her, put a paw on her, watch her, and then when she came around, encourage her to lick her feet. This is a cooling mechanism, and since overheating is the biggest danger for dogs with seizures, I think it helped. And you might say, how could the other dog know what to do? She’s a special little dog, a canine nursemaid who takes care of everyone when they need it. And she took good care of Lita when the seizures happened.
Lita was probably eight or ten when I got her, so she was somewhere between fifteen and seventeen years old. She was failing, but in my heart, she was still the fat and happy little tyrant of our household. The thought of letting her go devastated me. She kept fighting. I kept letting her.
I remember one long night, holding my husband’s hand and crying in the dark, saying, “It’s just that I know I’ll never have another dog like her.” Because there was no other dog like her.
At that point, I’d had her for seven years. The last year was rough, particularly the last six months. When we came home for the quarantine, we understood that her seizures were not just happening at night. She had constant “gum chewing” seizures, small events that were fairly quiet. But the grand mals were happening while she slept during the day, too.
We would be quietly working away. One or the other of us would say, “There she goes.” We would watch her little body spasm, wondering if it was time. Of course it was time. But I couldn’t face it. So we treated her with massive doses of CBD, which made the seizures less intense, but they still happened.
Then the food issues started. Her love for food was always strong. When she was being fostered, they fed her so much that she went up to ten pounds. She would take her plastic bowl and throw it across the room at them when she was hungry.
I switched her to a heavier ceramic food bowl. She broke two of them. I kept her at six pounds for the seven years I had her, which meant waking up to her crying for food every morning at 5:30 or 6 AM. This dog loved her kibbles.
But one day about six months ago, feeding became incredibly difficult. She barked over her food bowl for ten or fifteen minutes, then walked away without taking a bite. I tried canned food, tuna oil. Nothing worked. She would go for a day or two between meals.
But when my oldest daughter had to move home due to pandemic-related unemployment and brought her dog, spite became Lita’s favorite sauce. She started guarding her food so viciously that she’d kick it all over the room. The only time her tail came up was when she assumed her guarding stance, by her bowl. But she still wouldn’t eat.
We tried many different ways to get her to eat. The most obvious one was the least successful–isolating her. She had no interest in food unless the other dogs were there. She flatly refused. Our days were measured by if she ate, and how much she took in. She’d only eat if one of us sat with her, scooping out small amounts of food by hand, keeping the other dogs in sight, but back.
So that’s what we did.
This photo makes me cry. Look at that skinny little girl. Her hunched back, her lowered tail, her hollow tummy. And yet we kept her going like that for three months, because I didn’t want to let her go. Because I remembered this little girl.
When you have a dog, this day arrives. And you kiss that stubborn little head for the last time, and you make yourself say goodbye. You let her go.
She’s buried in the front yard, next to the magnolia tree that we planted over the first dog we buried at this address. Mylo was a sleek little dachshund who was only two years old when she slipped the fence and got hit by a car. Mylo’s been joined by Holly, Zoe, Tessie, and the ashes of my dad’s dog, Rupert. And now my little Lita.
I miss her every day. And so does my other dog, who has bonded nicely with my daughter’s dog. But between the time they were fostered and the time she was with me, she spent close to ten years like this, cuddled close to her Lita. I know she is sad.
So when you total up the cost of having a dog, you do the math. You add up vet visits, dog licenses, vaccinations, health plans, prescriptions and food. You figure in the baths and grooming, dog sitting so you can travel, having to be home right after work so you can give the dogs their dinners and let them out. You factor in poop in the yard and pee in your shoes (Lita did that when she was mad). You consider the constant annoyance of dog hair on your clothes, in your mouth, on your bed.
But that is not the real cost of a dog.
The real cost is, you have to say goodbye.
A long conversation between author Karen G. Berry and Susan Sabol, her dear friend of many decades, which is included in The Iris Files, and reprinted here for your enjoyment. And you WILL enjoy it.
Sue: Why did you write this book?
Karen: Iris was a character in a short story I wrote trying to get into a creative writing class. I didn’t get in, I don’t write good short stories. But I always wondered about her full story. One day, I decided to tell it.
Sue: You write as if you are intimately familiar with life in suburbia. Are you?
Karen: Absolutely. I moved out to the suburbs when I was 23 years old. I hated it at first, but I stayed out here. And the truth is, I have grown to absolutely love the suburbs. Tall trees and birds and open windows, a big yard for my dogs, and the sound of the train on a quiet night. I always have a place to park.
Sue: Talk about the ways in which you think Iris speaks for all mothers.
Karen: Wow. That’s a question. I think motherhood is a very messy, visceral job. Before you become a parent you’re fed this Pinterest ideal of cotton clothing and handmade wooden toys; co-sleeping and making your own baby food and four years of breastfeeding, all carried out at an aesthetically pleasing level. That’s something that’s gotten so much worse over the years. And how motherhood looks is not how motherhood is. It’s a battlefield, and Iris is a front-line soldier.
Sue: What makes Hart Bourne tick?
Karen: I’ve always seen him as a man who is desperately unhappy with himself, who externalizes his self-loathing on the people around him. If you have the misfortune of being married to a man like that, you’ll spend your entire existence trying to figure out what you’re doing wrong. And he’ll let you do that so he doesn’t have to face the source of his pain—himself. It’s so much easier for him to blame Iris, isn’t it?
Sue: Do you think that Hart is an archetype?
Karen: He’s such a personally constructed character. I hope he’s not a common archetype. But thank you for asking about him—I actually feel for Hart, and most people despise him too much to wonder what he’s made of.
Sue: Minah Bourne showed up first in Love and Mayhem. It’s nice to see her again. Will you continue to include connections between your books in work to come?
Karen: Absolutely. My books are influenced by writers who are very much better than me, but they do things I admire. The obvious connection in the trailer park book is Faulkner. Lots of Joad in there, and Fossetta Sweet is a Faulknerian character. Now, I know that I am NO Faulkner. But I read him and I love him and this interconnectedness is something I strive for. Another writer who does this brilliantly is Haven Kimmel. She writes the books I would write in my dreams. I’ve read every book she’s ever written, and we’re in a dry spell while she rewrites a new novel, so I went on Amazon and found her mother’s self-published stuff and bought all that on Kindle. I’m desperate. I love the way she weaves her characters together even in the most glancing ways. I feel so intelligent and so jubilant when I make the connections. I’m not Haven Kimmel, but I do want to do that for my readers.
Sue: So you’ll carry on with these characters?
Karen: Some of them. Not telling which ones.
Sue: Do you hide secrets in your books?
Karen: Absolutely every time.
Sue: Do you want to talk about that?
Karen: Well then they wouldn’t be secrets, Sue.
Sue: How do you come up with the names for your characters?
Karen: I’m actually terrible at names. I usually start out with some stupid name, and then at some point the name is so overwhelmingly wrong that I have to put some thought into it. So I have baby books, and then there’s the Internet. I also save lists of names I hear when I’m out and about. I worked at a business-to-business telemarketing company and I kept a big list of names, and I still use it. The first name on the list is important in a book I’m currently writing.
Sue: What’s your favorite childhood book?
Karen: When I was thirteen, I read The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, and The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. Those books were long and grotesque and wonderful and they probably warped my perception of life, but I loved them. I reread them all through my teens and twenties.
Sue: Do you still have them?
Karen: I still have the original copies. But thirteen is not childhood. Childhood was the Raggedy Ann and Andy books, and the Oz books, and the Black Cauldron books and the Narnia series. I loved a good series and always will. I did love some standalone books, like Linnets and Valerians, and The Wind in the Willows, and Journey Outside by Mary Q. Steele. Have you read that? It’s about a boy who lives in a community made of a series of rafts that travel an underground river. He realizes that they’re traveling a loop, so he jumps off and comes out into the world. It’s a fantastic quest story that involves a nasty sunburn and shorts made of fish skin. I highly recommend it.
(please note, after this conversation, Sue sent me a copy of this book, so now I have two.)
Another series that was important to me was the Whiteoaks of Jalna series by Mazo de la Roche. It’s a long historical romance series about a Canadian family, and it’s idiosyncratic and personal and hilarious and wonderful and flawed. When I was 19, I spent a summer feverishly checking the books out of the Missoula public library. They had the same pleasures that my favorite childhood books held, like recurring characters and the power of a place and fascinating buildings and long difficult family meals and even pets, things I loved long before I ever read Faulkner. That’s what I’ve always wanted to write.
Sue: What’s the first book that made you cry?
Karen: Books make me cry all the time, and I started reading early, so I probably can’t remember what it was. It might have been one of the Mother West Wind books. I was raised in part in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and L. Frank Baum is from there, so the Wizard of Oz books were all on the shelf at the library. I started walking to the library when I was seven, and I took them all out, so it might have been something in there. The glass cat with the ruby heart struck me as glamorous and tragic.
Sue: Are your characters ever based on real people?
Karen: Absolutely not. Everything is made up. EVERY SINGLE THING.
Sue: Is this book autobiographical in any way? Can’t you share something?
Karen: I’ll tell you the part about answering this question that’s difficult. Every horrible thing that Hart says to Iris was said to me in one of my marriages. Most of it was word for word. It’s painful when people read this book and say, “How could any self-respecting woman let her husband say these things to her without leaving him?” And those people have a point. It’s horrifying what you’ll tolerate when you’re trying to hold a family together. I hope readers extend some empathy to Iris for that. There are some other similarities, but Iris is her own character, and her marriage is her own marriage, and what happens in it is her own story.
Sue: I love that answer.
Karen: Did I successfully skirt the issue?
Sue: I think so. Talk about why this book needs a Nick.
Karen: Nick reminds us all that we have the capacity to accept life and be happy for it. We can roll with it. That’s something we lose as we get older and become more cynical. So I love his innocence.
Sue: That’s why I love Nick, too, Karen.
Karen: Wike it?
Sue: Wike it.
Karen: Atsa awesome.
Sue: What was the hardest scene in this book for you to write and why?
Karen: The hardest scene to write was Iris’s epiphany at the end. Because Iris is very much like I was, in that she doesn’t choose or plan what happens to her, she just copes with whatever comes at her, and she endures. And she finally reaches a point where she is going to have to make a choice, and it almost kills her. It was hard to write because I honestly didn’t know what Iris was going to do until I was writing the scene. I knew what I wanted her to do, I was cheering her on, but she could have gone either way. I’d have had to live with it.
Sue: What, if anything, did you edit out of this book?
Karen: Originally I had a deranged character who sort of floated around the edges of these women’s lives as a specter. She still makes some appearances when Jane and Iris are at the Goodwill. She’s frightening and prophetic, but I already had the dogs in there as a canine Greek chorus, so I didn’t need another suffering witness to the pain of Iris and her family. I also took out Raymond’s father’s story, because I didn’t like it. But I wanted Iris’s first pregnancy to be unplanned and outside her marriage. That much stayed in.
Sue: Iris certainly availed herself of many forms of birth control.
Karen: People love that part!
Sue: Now, we’re talking about many women not even having access to that kind of care.
Karen: Terrifying, isn’t it? And for women, our biology is very often our destiny. That is not a very popular viewpoint right now, because birth control is supposed to help us reshape that. But even with every barrier, conceptions happen, and children are the most overwhelming and irrevocable choice that most of us ever make. I guess having birth control not work for Iris was a way to examine how fertility can affect your life and your goals. You try to plan, and instead you just cope and endure. I think it’s important to remember how profoundly women’s lives are shaped by their fertility.
Sue: Are marriages supposed to be happy?
Karen: I’m not sure. We take our cues from our parents’ marriages, and we can repeat some terrible patterns. I think you have to have seen a good relationship to appreciate what one is supposed to be. Most early marriages are based on what you already know. That’s why I believe we should marry a lot of times until we get it right! But seriously, I’m at the point in my life where I only want to have a relationship if it’s predominantly happy and pleasing. And I envy people whose marriages were like that from the get-go, but mine certainly were not. I keep learning and changing and trying. I’d like to get this right at least once.
(another note: I believe I have finally gotten this one right.)
Sue: What do you think about divorce?
Karen: Divorce is so terrible, right until it’s not. Breaking up a marriage is hideous and painful and awful, and you’re dying inside and hopeless and crying all the time and looking for bridges, then—one day—there’s a moment when you realize that you’re surviving. More time passes, and then you’re thriving. Then, you go on a nice long honeymoon with yourself, and it’s the best relationship you’ve ever had. Eventually you decide to see other people, and life gets stupid and complicated again, but in the beginning when it’s just you and yourself on that honeymoon? It’s magical.
It’s astonishing to think you can survive something that wretched, and have life get better. I always compare it to a really bad pruning job on a sick tree. You hack it back and you think it has to be dead. And the next spring it’s the prettiest and healthiest tree in the neighborhood.
Sue: Like Arno’s tree.
Karen: Exactly like Arno’s tree.
Sue: So are you pro-divorce?
Karen: Oh, no. I’m not pro-divorce. I am pro surviving divorce. At heart, I have a really traditional view of marriage and commitment and fidelity, which surprises me because I remember being so angry when I was married. I knew I was diminished in some basic ways. And you know, I don’t think it’s men who expect women to diminish themselves in marriage. I think we do it to ourselves, probably because of some big blanket of perceived societal expectations. We carve off big hunks of ourselves to be safe and available. I did, at least. And the husbands are baffled by these safe, selfless creatures, these wives. They’re left wondering where those funny, interesting women they married have gone to. Men would probably prefer to be married to independent, interesting women, don’t you think?
Sue: What do you wish you could tell Iris?
Karen: Iris has no perspective on the fact that parenthood at the level she’s doing it is a temporary state. I have the advantage now of having moved through that part of parenting. But when you’re in it, you’re in the trenches and you have no idea that it’s ever going to be over, or how you’re going to survive it. I wish I could tell her, “If you just hold on, it gets better!” I think her mother gently tries to tell her that. Her mother is quietly determined to enjoy her life. She loves being a grandmother and she loves the kids, but she isn’t going to take it on again.
Karen: It’s a necessary selfishness. One of my kids has thanked me for what she used to see as selfishness on my part. She says it showed her that women have the right to pursue creative goals, and to have pursuits in their lives that have nothing to do with their children. She thinks that’s a valuable lesson.
For me, I was selfish about writing and relationships. I barely dated anyone, I wasn’t dragging men through here or anything, but I’d go away for a weekend now and then. I had a life. So I think Iris needs to be more selfish from here on out. More determined to have some scrap of something that belongs to just her.
Sue: Why does Iris act so out of character in Hawaii?
Karen: She takes an exquisite revenge. I think if you don’t violently cheer on Iris for that evening, then you probably won’t like anything I write, ever.
Sue: Sonny’s story is a difficult one, because when the book ends, you have no idea how it will come out for him.
Karen: Well, this world of gender and identity is a difficult one. I want to love and respect and support what everyone is going through in the world, and in society, and in my family. I believe that people have genders that don’t match their sex organs, 100% I believe that is true. But frankly, it’s confusing to me, and it’s difficult for me in ways that surprise me. I need to grow, and growth is never comfortable. Writing about it is one way to deal with that.
All right, now I want to ask you a question.
Sue: Cool. All right.
Karen: When you and I were young moms together, how did we help each other survive?
Sue: Oh. We had an alternate reality where for like, four hours at a time, we pretended that we were normal twenty-somethings. Watching videos and drinking beer and cracking each other up.
Karen: And eating M&Ms. Beer and M&Ms sounds terrible, but it worked.
Sue: Sometimes we got to go out. Rarely.
Karen: I remember when we went to Gaffer’s Pub and there were all those Jimmy Buffet fans, and we kept interrupting their Parrothead songs on the jukebox with Al Green and Terence Trent D’Arby and Prince.
Sue: They kept coming over to talk to us. And buying us drinks. And showing us their watches.
Karen: Yes! They all had big fancy watches! And when they asked for our numbers, you chastely demurred that you were married, but I gave them the attendance hotline number at the grade school. That was one of the few numbers I knew by heart.
Sue: You created that feeling perfectly with Iris’s friends, their little enclave on the deck.
Karen: I’m so glad I captured it. Those times were perfect. I think our friends keep us sane. I think we’re probably supposed to live in little groups of maybe six women and one man, helping each other raise the kids and keeping each other sane. These polygamy people probably have it right. I’m not ready to be a sister wife, but one husband would probably be adequate for six women. And if he wasn’t, well, there would be roofers.
Sue: By the way, have you ever gawked at real roofers?
Karen: Sue, you’ve known me since I was 26 years old. You know how much “vague lustful speculation” I’ve engaged in over the years. Not particularly for roofers, but do you remember?
Sue: I remember everything!
Karen: Oh dear. Let’s talk about something else.
Sue: Okay. Do you think Iris has the right to write about her life?
Karen: That’s an important question. He says, “You can’t write about us,” and she says, “But you’re all I’ve got.” The question is more important now than ever. So many women are turning their families into businesses. These curated, blogged-about, Instagrammed families are monetized, but it’s not really a new thing. Joyce Maynard wrote about her family, and before that Erma Bombeck wrote about her family, and before them Shirley Jackson wrote about her family in Life Among the Savages. Jackson was a premier American horror writer and she also wrote these beautiful, hilarious books about raising her family in upstate New York.
So this is a tradition for women writers, and it’s still a big question. For many of us, the domestic realm is our subject matter, this is where we live, where we fight our battles and have our triumphs. And if we deny ourselves the right to write about those, what do we have? It’s a personal issue for me. I used to keep an anonymous blog, and one of my kids found it, and she felt so invaded when she’d pop up in it. And I see her point. That’s why this book, where it’s autobiographical, it’s really buried deeply. I don’t want to be accused of writing about my family and violating their privacy.
Sue: Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Karen: Energizes me.
Sue: I knew you were going to say that. What’s your writing Kryptonite?
Karen: Is Kryptonite what kills you? Because I’m not dead yet.
Sue: Kryptonite takes away your power.
Karen: Okay. A lack of solitude and privacy and uninterrupted time. Without those I can’t write. That’s why writing is a selfish endeavor.
Sue: Has publishing your books changed anything about how you write?
Karen: It didn’t change how I write—it gave me permission continue to writing what I want to write, the way I want to write it, period. It is enormously freeing to self-publish. There is so much advice out there about finding your commercial niche, and that has nothing to do with my goals for my writing.
The writers I love are all firmly mid-list. And they’re all assistant chairs of the creative writing departments at small colleges or something like that. None of the writers I adore are making a lucrative living with their brilliant books. Realizing that I can publish my books, sell my modest amount of copies and not have to worry about changing them to be more commercial so one of the houses will take a chance on me—it’s just changed everything for me, Sue, it’s made me so happy.
Sue: What does literary success look like to you?
Karen: Literary success is when you write work that deeply affects the people who read it. And it has nothing to do with how many copies you sell. If anyone is affected by anything I write, I count myself as a success.
2020 is half over.
I’m sure we will all look back at 2020 with varying degrees of horror, dismay, grief. I’m lucky enough not to have lost anyone—yet. I’m also lucky enough to have lived through COVID-19, which my husband had in January and I had in February, before either of us understood what it was. And no, if you’re going to ask, neither of us has been able to take an antibody test, and from what I hear that’s probably just fine. I’d like it confirmed that we’ve had it, but no one knows how much protection those antibodies confer, or for how long. So we’re working from home for…the duration?
I have mysterious lung damage, and my husband has borderline anemia. We both had seriously compromised senses of taste and smell, but his seems to have returned. Mine goes in and out. I have never been so grateful to taste as when mine started to come back. And to smell petrichor, and my grandson’s hair? I am never taking such small daily miracles for granted again.
I know I have it easy.
Please understand that I am writing to complain about this from the lap of white privilege. Like I said, I am able to work from home. So is my husband. We socialize with our friends over Zoom, or occasional front porch shouting matches with friends who stand in our driveway. Our small in-person pod includes my youngest daughter’s family, who also had the strange flu we all had in January and February. Everyone recovered from it. Everyone involved has health insurance, which also means we all have jobs. My other two daughters are healthy, and one is employed, and one isn’t, so she needs to move back home for a while. How long? No one knows. But we will work it out.
My daily quarantine environment is a long dining room table. I sit at one end and my husband sits at the other. I look out on a huge yard that’s ringed by trees, which are full of birds each morning. One ignored corner of the yard is now home to some small dark grey rabbits that hop fetchingly across the yard now and then, to my utter delight. The butterflies are thick this year, mostly some big yellow variety, swooping and dipping through their short, graceful lives. And a huge planter of flowering purple sage has drawn many honeybees, and a few hummingbirds to sip at its blooms. So, bunnies, butterflies, honeybees and hummingbirds.
I’m really suffering, here, right?
Except, I am suffering. This feels like the year that wasn’t. We were sick in January and February, and then my youngest daughter had emergency surgery, and I was over at her house four or five hours a day after work to help while she mended, and then we went into quarantine. Everything closed in a way that I have never experienced in my lifetime. A complete lack of federal leadership left the entire country reeling and scrambling, with no unified, coordinated plan for containing this awful disease, which has turned out to be so much worse than a flu. The economic consequences are disastrous on every level. And that idiot keeps flapping his jaws in long, self-serving improvisational attempts to cover his own dementia. And now it’s nearly the end of June. Where did this year go? When will we have our lives back?
Still, we are okay, I tell myself. We are alive, we have jobs, and should those fail, we have savings. Lots of savings. My daughter’s career kind of evaporated out from under her, but it will return. And she has a place to come to, and she has savings.
I was texting with my aunt the other evening. This can be kind of an adventure, because my intelligent and artistic aunt has always been an oblique communicator. For as long as we have been directly communicating, I’ve had the feeling that my aunt is extremely uncomfortable with direct questions, even about inane, mundane topics, so I don’t even ask them anymore. It’s frustrating, and there have been gaps in our communication.
But my uncle died ten weeks ago, and she’s in assisted living, and of course I worry about her survival in exactly the kind of petri dish for contagion we all need to avoid. But this is where she lives now, and she assures me that every precaution is being taken. And she asked me, “What’s the best thing that you can think of about being sequestered? (I’m workin’ on positive thinkin’, here)”
So here is what I told her. One, My husband and I are relative newlyweds, but we spend 24/7 together in equanimity. We share this “office,” and meet up for lunch in the “break room,” which is the kitchen counter. All day, we listen to jazz or classical music on the radio. We do small, kind things for each other, and share the chores, and make each other laugh. I appear to have married the right person. So that’s the first thing, and it’s a big thing.
Two, my dogs are old. I mean, they are such a pair of old ladies. They were fully mature when I got them almost seven years ago, and I think they are maybe 13 and 16 years old, now. One of them is just fine, but the littler one is having a lot of problems. She’s completely deaf and has a serious seizure disorder. But she limps along, fierce and mostly happy, and we are both grateful to be spending these months with her, because I’m not sure how many months she has left.
And of course, the third thing is, I have two more books almost ready to publish of my own, and a new Orcas Island mystery in the works with Shannon. All this time in the house has to be good for something, right?
Right now, it’s 7:39 AM on a Saturday. The air is cool and my coffee is hot. I’m at the dining table, working on my own words, rather than work words. My husband is happily sleeping in, as he does on weekends, giving me this precious time alone. My French doors and windows are thrown open to my tree-hung yard. This morning is full of birdsong, all the sweet chirps and peeps, and the caws. The crows are having their usual arguments. I smell cool air and freshly cut grass. My ancient dogs have gotten tired of waiting for their breakfast and have gone back to sleep. It’s all so beautiful, I think I can be forgiven for forgetting about the state of the world for an hour, just to revel in this gorgeousness.
Be well, friends. Be well.
My first foray into nonfiction is here. Are you ready to jump into computer dating? This book tells you everything you need to know about all the men you could ever hope not to date while shopping at the used man store.
I wrote this book during a period in my life when I was seriously trying to find a serious prospect for some serious dating (seriously) and these were my serious results. The book comes from my not-so-serious attitude about my adventures, because you have to laugh, or you’ll cry. No crying allowed. So grab a cart, and get ready to join me on an extended metaphor!
Did you date me, and are you curious as to how I remember you? Be prepared, I am not nearly as nice as I appeared to be over that drink!
Are you single, and hoping to read about dates that are even worse than the ones you’ve been going on lately? I guarantee you, I win at bad dates!
Are you married, and want to rub it into your single friends’ faces by giving this book to them along with the words, “If something happens to (spouse), I am NEVER dating again!” My book is absolutely perfect for that.
Or are you single, and do you want to give this to your fellow single friends, so they don’t completely lose hope in the dating process? If they can take reading it until the end, this book just might give them some hope. Or, it might just make them wet their pants, who knows.
Anyway, here it is. I hope you laugh.
Oh, and there are other writings included–a few essays about my adventures with men outside the “serious prospect” dating period, including the worst Valentine date ever–and, a runner up. Also, exactly how to kill a relationship by traveling together. And, just a note, please don’t feel sorry for me when you read this, because I swear, I am just FINE.
Available in paperback here: SHOPPING AT THE USED MAN STORE
And Kindle (including Kindle Unlimited) here: SHOPPING AT THE USED MAN STORE
The third book in the Chameleon Chronicles is ready for preorder (just for you Kindle readers), with the paperback not far behind. Yes, Camille Tate is back, dealing with the boredom of winter on Orcas Island. Her isolation is worsened by the departure of friends for work, romance and (in Kip’s case) job incompetence. Cam is supposed to be working on her play, but she finds herself swept into island intrigue of a completely different sort.
You’ll meet a few new characters, have more fun with JoJo Brixton, learn more about Cam’s childhood and…maybe even get a glimpse into the origin of her strange supernatural power.
Plus, what is Lisa Cannon really up to?
Click here to pre-order the Kindle version of Book Three!
Other Karen Berry who was planning a vacation in North Carolina – Your reservations agent sent me a lovely email. I wrote back telling her I had no idea what she was talking about. I hope you left your phone number with her, so she has an alternate way to contact you. I have been known to cancel reservations that come to my email address, which could be quite a shock if you went somewhere thinking your plans were in place, so please don’t do this anymore.
Other Karen Berry who booked a cab ride to the airport in New Zealand – Please see above. Hope your refund came through.
Other Karen Berry who is a horse trainer – I have seen some very nice photos of your horses performing well post-training by you, other Karen Berry. Wouldn’t you like to see them, too? Perhaps, other Karen Berry, you might consider giving your correct email address to your clients, so that this can happen.
Other Karen Berry who applied for a customer service job with the Reed Gas Company – You were not selected for this position. I am sure, other Karen Berry, that you were a qualified candidate, but at this point, if I were an employer and my potential hire didn’t even know her own email address, I wouldn’t hire her, either.
Other Karen Berry who is taking surveys for cash – You apparently have some money waiting for you. However, other Karen berry, since your notifications for this money keep coming to my email address, I wonder if you will ever be able to get it. Think about it, other Karen Berry. There you are, answering stupid questions about lawn fertilizer and Starbucks coffee, and you’re not ever going to get paid. Unless, of course, you actually sign up with the correct email address, other Karen Berry.
Other Karen Berry who wants to work as an escort – PLEASE get your email address right. This site keeps emailing me to finish setting up my profile to get escort work, and my unsubscribes don’t seem to be unsubscribing me. And, other Karen Berry who wants to be an escort, not to get all judgmental on you, but I am a mom. And like so many moms, I feel tremendous sadness when young women turn to sex work to support themselves. I wonder if you have possible employment options that you haven’t considered, other Karen Berry. In fact, I hear the gas company is hiring.
Other Karen Berry whose son Ryan plays soccer – Ryan is still welcome at an abundance of soccer camps for the coming year. Is it possible that you might consider giving these camps and coaches your correct email address, so that Ryan can build his skills and stop wondering why no coaches want him? Think of Ryan, other Karen Berry. Learn your own email address, other Karen Berry.
Other Karen Berry who is a realtor – You, other Karen Berry, were on my shit list because you actually put my email address on a website. I had to call the realtor who manages this website on the phone (I don’t do that) to get the email address changed. I wasn’t exactly swamped with requests for your services, other Karen Berry, but I got enough mail that it was annoying. And later, when your coworker sent me a long job description for a social media manager for your company, I was confused, seeing as how I am a social media manager and all. But we got that straightened out in short order and all is well, and your coworker is really nice, by the way, but still. It’s time to stop with the incorrect email address.
And last, other Karen Berry whose friend sent me these photos:
Well, other Karen Berry – you don’t have to do a thing. Not one damn thing. In fact, your friend can send me kitten photos all day long, and I’ll just say thank you, other Karen Berry.
This story begins on April 13th, 2018, when I was reading a book in the living room of some friends’ house up on Orcas Island. My one true love came in and put his hand on my shoulder. He said, “Do you want to get married?” and I said “Yes!” Of course I wanted to get married! To him! Absolutely! But a moment later, I said, “To you, right?” because there was always a chance it was just a general query, sort of a survey question, and not an actual proposal. He said, “Yes. To me.”
We’d both said yes to love. Love is hard to find, and rare. Love deserves a celebration. That means a wedding. I didn’t want a wedding, but I was marrying a very romantic man. He wanted a wedding.
So I said yes to that, too.
A wedding? Kill me now.
Now, I should clarify that I don’t like big weddings, especially not where I’m concerned. I was married at age 18 and again at age 21, and what those weddings had in common (besides my youth and idiocy at thinking I should marry that young) was that they were tiny events. Miniscule. Which was nice, because when the marriages ended, at least I didn’t have to apologize to my parents for spending a fortune on my bad ideas.
I liked the sound of those old weddings in the forties, when the couple went to the judge’s chamber, wearing their nicest suits. She probably wore a neat little hat and gloves, and carried a nosegay. After the ceremony, one of the relatives hosted a luncheon with things like cold meats and aspics and finger sandwiches, and cake, nuts, mints and punch. After which the couple headed out on a sweet, rustic honeymoon.
Oh, how I longed for a sweet wedding luncheon and a trip to Niagara Falls.
Alternatives examined and discarded
Why, you might ask, didn’t we just elope? Well, for a few reasons. He’d eloped to Vegas before, so that carried all kinds of associations for him, none of them happy. I talked about doing it at the courthouse, but with both our families, the have-to-be-there list was lengthy, and we’d be having some kind of a party after, so why not let everyone come to the ceremony? We both had important friends with whom we wanted to share this day.
But then we had to plan a wedding.
Getting married should be simple. All you really need to get married is a couple, an officiant, at least one ring and some expensive pieces of paper for the legal part. And a pen, I guess, to sign those papers.
But getting married is not the same as having a wedding. Weddings are all about choices and money. When. Where. Who. How much. Nothing is simple or easy. This time, our parents wouldn’t be paying for any part of this event, since (1) this would be the third marriage for each of us, (2) we are both gainfully employed, and (3) we are old, really, for getting married.
Okay, we are not quite old yet, but we are certainly not young. We are not even middle-aged, unless we’re planning to live to 106 and 118 years of age, respectively. But we’re old enough that when we hold hands or kiss in public, people assume we’re cute older people who have been together forever and still manage to be romantic. Teenage ticket sellers squint at us through the glass of the ticket booth, asking if we want senior rates. I am even able to order from the senior menu at my neighborhood pie house, a fact I like to rub in the face of anyone under 55.
Envy me. I get the bacon and eggs for seven dollars.
But back to the wedding
Timing was an issue. Some of his important relatives (sister, niece, great-nephew) had to fly in, so they needed time to book flights and plan a trip to the PNW. One of my daughters is pregnant and lives across the country, and wouldn’t be able to fly past a certain point. Another daughter lives five hours away, and would be working every single weekend with no exceptions and no choice about it until a break that started on November 1st.
The largest issue, though, was that my father was terminally ill and quite fragile. We had to decide first thing if we wanted time to plan, or to have him at the wedding. That choice was easy to make. We both wanted him there. So we chose a date seven months out, started talking about what we wanted, and hoped for the best.
I made a spread sheet, of course. It had a scheduled to-do list, a tab for guests and their addresses and responses, and a tab for expenses. We’d given ourselves a small budget so that we could pay as we went, because I refused to go into debt for any of this. The budget talk was something like this: “I’d like to do it for 4K, but it’s going to be 5K.” “We can do it for 4K!” “Oh, just you wait.”
I asked my younger brother to officiate, and we chose a date to get the license, and then we got down to the hard stuff. Where would we get married? What would we eat? What would we wear, and say, and listen to, and put on our fingers? Would there be aspics, cake, nuts, mints and punch? Would there be nosegays?
A banquet of choices
Now, here’s something I know about my man. He enjoys having lots of choices. Like, a banquet of choices. He will take the buffet any time we are in Vegas, because he likes an expanse of items to consider, inspect, and reject before he finally makes his choice. It’s one of his great joys in life. It’s one reason (I think) that he tolerated online dating better than I did. He liked that there were so many women to choose from. Me? I prefer not so many choices. I want to develop a set of criteria, drill down and get busy.
I found that this variance in our personalities was not helpful in a few areas of wedding planning. Like choosing a venue. I wanted to choose a venue. He wanted to see venues. Plenty of venues, because he loves choices. He took me to a few that summer, and they were all outdoors. He’d stand by the set-up for a summer wedding that was happening later that afternoon or that evening, and smile at how nice it all was, with the decorations and dance floor and the DIY table settings and all. The guy is so romantic.
And what would I do? I’d tap my foot and scowl and say, “Why are we wasting time looking at outdoor venues when we’re getting married in November in Oregon? What is the point?” The point, of course, was choices. Options. And being romantic. And I just poured my salty pickle juice all over his sweet, spoony enthusiasm.
I was horribly pragmatic. I would quote costs to him for a dance floor and band, for seated dinners and rented tableware and the like, all of which would drive our costs up and waaaaay over our budget of 5K. I tried not to be crabby about it, but we only had a few months to put it all together and why were we wasting time at places that wouldn’t work for our wedding?
So we go indoors
We started pricing indoor places, and were dismayed by, well, everything. Venues are expensive, and not necessarily accessible when one of the guests is in a wheelchair. Meal choices are limited, and cost a fortune per plate. A nice place makes its money through the food and drink, and gross places were, well, gross. Not acceptable. We even looked at the tiny Oaks Pioneer Church, which is adorable and nondenominational, but you can’t have a reception there. We’d have had to wheel my fragile father to two places. Nothing was right, everything was absurdly costly, and I felt discouraged.
I can’t remember what we’d looked at when I said, “Don’t any of our friends live in a really big house, or maybe a condo with a big club room?”
Lightning bolt. Yes.
We had friends who lived in a lovely downtown condo, and they had a beautiful club room with a fireplace and a wall of windows that looked out on an elegant courtyard. The room was full of sofas and tables and chairs, with a battalion of portable tables and chairs just waiting to be requested. And bathrooms. And a full kitchen with punch bowls and serving utensils and spare silverware. And another big room where we could set up all the food and drink. This room also came with a security guard, to keep the riffraff from wandering out of the event space into the luxury condos, I’m sure, and the capable event-planning assistance of my dear friend San, who was absolutely delighted to share her lovely space with us.
We had a time, a place, an officiant, and San. We were getting closer.
Put a ring on it
We also had a terrible time picking out rings. I picked mine first, being “engaged” and all. And despite my idea of myself as decisive, I was terribly indecisive. I’d get something all picked out, show my guy, he’d get out his wallet to order and and I’d say “Not yet!” A week later, I’d have a completely different choice in mind. and of course I chose an artisan ring, which made choosing the band that much more difficult. I want to point out that I was a complete pain in the ass, here.
My guy wanted to look at choices for his ring with me, and he wanted to look at all the rings in the entire world. We went to several jewelry stores, and he’d ask to see rings, and I’d say, “Is that something you’d like?” and he’d say, “No, I just wanted to see what it looked like.” That choices thing, again. He ke[t asking to see rings, and then saying, “Weird.” Part of the fun, for him, was laughing at rings that looked like engine parts or car tires or the like.
We moved our search to Etsy. I thought pulling those rings up on our aging laptops just to scoff at them was a WASTE OF MY TIME. Plus, if he wanted something handcrafted, we’d have to order it from a maker! We didn’t have time to scoff! I didn’t care if he liked having choices! I was impatient.
He could tell when I said in an icy voice, “I have looked at literally hundreds of rings with you, and I’m tired of looking at what you don’t want. Can you please just let me know what you DO want?”
I am lucky, at this point, that he still wanted to marry me, but he did. On his own, he made a list of five rings to look at with me. I could do five rings, just not another fifty. His final choice would be coming from Ireland. I ordered it in July. I thought that gave us plenty of time, yes?
But back to the planning.
People have to eat
Which was another issue. FOOD AND DRINK. He has specific food tastes, and I like everything. No, seriously, there is nothing I don’t like to eat besides maybe fried pork rinds. And we had to design a wedding menu that would give everyone something decent to eat. I remember looking up and saying, “Do we really want to spend 4,000 dollars to feed everyone roast beef or salmon?”
We decided not to.
We hired the top-rated caterer in town to design a “hearty hors d’oeuvres” spread for us. Now, because there were so many choices on the list of what we could order, we were back to the languid choice-making, the “I wonder if the sauce is they talk about on this one could be served on the side?” or “Do you suppose they could make this without the remoulade?” questions from him, with me barking back “DON’T ASK THE CHEF TO CHANGE SOMETHING, JUST PICK SOMETHING ELSE FOR GOD’S SAKE, THERE ARE A HUNDRED THINGS TO CHOOSE FROM, JUST MAKE A LIST OF WHAT YOU LIKE AND GO FROM THERE.”
I didn’t shout with my voice, but I was definitely shouting inside.
We got the choices made, and a contract signed, and there would be food.
Which took me to the next stressful purchase.
What to wear
Like every American bride, I had some vague idea that I’d have a new body in place before my wedding. Wedding planning didn’t exactly melt off the pounds, so I had to use the body I currently owned for the wedding. And that body needed a new dress.
I ordered one I liked from Nordstrom, and it came, and I was so excited. My youngest daughter came over to help me try it on, and then to help me get it off my body and back into the box with a minimum of comment because my god, that dress looked terrible on me. I sent it right back and thought that maybe no one should marry me because I looked so misshapen and horrid in that dress.
Then I went to Kiyonna.com, where the perfect (not white, though they have those) dress was easily found. And it came, and slipped on without so much as a zipper, and it was beautiful and elegant and comfortable and lined, and it was even long enough, and I loved it. When I shared a photo of it with family and friends, they all loved it too, except for one friend who started sending other choices in a panic, including something from David’s Bridal that would have needed sleeves to be added, but I ignored all that. I had my dress.
After watching the Shapermint ads on Facebook over and over and over again, I ordered one of those, too. In the Facebook ads, a size 14 or 16 woman stands before the camera with a pair of little elastic shorts pulled up right below her abdomen. She rolls the shorts up over her womanly rolls and bulges to just under her bra, and she has a completely different figure. It’s astonishing. I’d have liked to have given it a try, but I couldn’t even get the shorts up to my just-under-the-womanly-bulges part. So that Shapermint stayed in the drawer. But I still watch those commercials on Facebook.
My guy didn’t need to buy a suit, shirt or tie, because he’s a grown-up and has those, but he did need new black dress shoes. I was prepared for our trip to Nordstrom Rack, where we arrived shortly before they closed. I knew exactly what he needed, which was a quality pair of black men’s dress shoes that didn’t have a long, pointy toe-box. So I left him to be dazzled by the wall of men’s shoe choices. I ignored him while he was pulling out sequinned men’s loafers and lavender deck shoes to scoff at them. With steely precision, I located several quality pairs of black men’s dress shoes sans long, pointy toe-boxes. I brought them to him and refused to be distracted by the embroidered smoking slippers and two-tone patent lace-ups he was waving around in amusement. I was not there for a good time. I was there for black shoes and dammit, I saw nothing else.
We left there with a really nice pair of shoes for him.
Cake and cake and cake and more cake
Along the way, we were sending out save-the-dates and then invites, getting our license, trying and buying our prosecco, red wine, white wine and various other drinks, and ordering galvanized tubs to ice them, haunting Goodwills to find specific square low vases for the eventual flower arrangements, and and getting the final tally for the caterer.
I had an idea for the cakes that would be delicious and pretty, based on the cakes we’d eaten at a wedding over the summer. But my guy wanted to do cake tastings. He’d done cake tastings for his first wedding, and he was happily anticipating going to bakery after bakery to try little squares of cake with squirts of frosting on them. I told him I would happily go to as many cake tastings as he arranged. His eyebrows raised a bit, but he did it.
And it turned out that I enjoyed cake tastings, too, especially looking through books of cake designs, which ranged from opulent to decadent to rustic/woodsy, and all costing at least 600 dollars to feed 75 people a piece of cake. We didn’t order cakes, but we always got delicious treats at the bakeries to take home for later consumption. He was right, it was fun.
Then I took him to the Thriftway where my family has bought birthday cakes for thirty years. We bought five or six slices of cake, and took them home and had the best cake tasting of all. He had a chance to see how truly outstanding this bakery is, and though he liked the chocolate cake at Jaciva’s best, this one ran a close second. We went back, ordered four cakes (chocolate, banana, lemon [for my dad, who loved lemon desserts], poppy seed) and asked them to frost all but the chocolate in white cream cheese frosting, to make them as bridal and pretty as they could. Then we paid $98.00 and left, knowing they would be ready, on time, delicious and beautiful for our wedding day.
Hiccups and meltdowns
We were not without hiccups. Finding a good photographer we could afford was difficult, but with the help of one of my daughters, I did it. The red wine we wanted was sold out when we went to get it in quantity, but we found another. I’d ordered his ring in July, and by mid-October, it hadn’t arrived. After a series of panicked communications, the maker sent a replacement that got to us three days before the wedding. And flower day, where my daughter and sister-in-law were making table arrangements and a bouquet for me, didn’t go smoothly. It was the day before the wedding, and I was melting down over the music, and people were asking too many questions and having too many opinions and I burst into tears and told everyone to stop talking to me for a minute.
I texted my guy, “I suppose it’s too late to elope?”
He texted back, “I’m afraid so, honey.”
So I saddled up, and we finished the day, and everyone forgave me for yelling and crying.
Let’s do this thing
The day itself was beautiful. My middle daughter did my hair and makeup in San’s luxury condo, while downstairs in the club room, everything was picked up and delivered and set up by friends and family in the club room, invisible hands doing the impossible list of last-minute tasks that brought it all together. There were flowers everywhere, and tables of delicious food, and more wine than anyone could drink. My sister-in-law had developed delicious punches and made frozen ice rings with flowers and springs of lavender to float with them, and I’d found nut and mint dishes to set out on the cake table so I could have my 1940s vision of cake, punch, nuts and mints. The music played and people laughed and smiled and hugged each other, everyone was there and present including my dad, following along with a printed-out copy of the ceremony and vows, so he didn’t miss anything. We stood up in front of everyone and said the magic words. My guy became my husband, and I became his wife, and we all cried and laughed and celebrated the impossible wonder of that, together.
What worked and what worked better
So what would I have done differently? It’s easy to say “nothing,” because the day came together so beautifully. So here are thoughts and notes about what went right, and what could have been handled a little differently.
Timing: Based on my previous weddings (one of which came together from a Wednesday to a Sunday — yes, five days) I underestimated how much time it would take to put this all together. The time constraint was brutal, but my father was housebound soon after the wedding. This really was our only chance to have him there. I’m glad we did it when we did it, despite how compressed our planning and execution was.
Matron of honor: My best friend from high school was my maid-of-honor. I am glad she was and I wouldn’t have chosen a different one, but apparently, I never told her that she was going to stand up with me. She was as surprised as could be to get a corsage, to be in the wedding party photos, and then to be called up as an attendant! She says she’d have worn a dress, rather than wearing slacks! So, as a note, please let your attendants know several times that they are, indeed, attendants, removing any element of surprise from your wedding party.
Flowers: My daughters went to a wonderful florist and picked out special blooms for a bouquet for me, and my oldest daughter made the bouquet of my dreams. I really didn’t expect anything so amazing. The flower arrangements were also magnificent — white roses and greenery. These were done for me as a wedding gift from my daughter, and she was helped by my sister-in-law. There were also white orchids to set along the fireplace and here and there. When it was time to go, we invited people to take the table arrangements home. I got so many sweet photos texted to me with words like, “Still blooming” in the weeks to come. The orchids went home with our Orcas Island friends, who have a way with them. When we visit, we can count on seeing our wedding orchids blooming at their home.
Decor: My middle daughter took me on a Home Goods, Michael’s run. We found what I’d come for, which was pretty cake plates and napkins and silverware, but she pushed me beyond my comfort zone to a guest book, tablecloths and tablesquares, and these funny little coasters so people could write advice to us. “This is the fun stuff, Mom.” She bought most of it, too, and it enhanced the look of the room immensely. And it was, indeed, fun.
Cake: I thought four cakes was plenty. But after the wedding, when I asked people which cake they had, most said, “Oh, all four!” So if you do my nifty method of wedding cake provision, order more than you think you’ll need. Everyone will want to try everything.
Music: After a grueling, emotional assembly of a Spotify playlist that resulted in a tantrum and a request to elope, I didn’t remember to turn the music back on after the toasts. I advise that you do so.
Help: People wanted to help more than I let them. I should have let them. We hired a woman to keep the buffet tables straight, to organize the garbage and recycling, to just keep things going in the room of much food. She was worth twice what we paid for her services. She and San did the clean-up (San had volunteered and said she was paid in full for her own services with leftovers and have I mentioned that San is magnificent?).
Food: We ordered for fifty guests, and had 65. We could have fed twice that many people with what our caterers delivered. Everyone raved about the food, but I only ate a little because my new husband brought me a plate of what he knew I’d love; stuffed artichoke bottoms, pastry-wrapped artichoke spears, a short rib crostini with remoulade. There was so much food there. Have small to-go boxes handy so people can take food home with them, because food this delicious shouldn’t go to waste.
Favors: We overbought wine, sparkling cider and champagne on purpose, and each guest left with one or two bottles of something. I think this is a fine wedding favor/remembrance.
Nuts and mints: I loved having them out, but no one ate them. I didn’t care. I might not have had a suit, gloves and a hat, and it was too late in the day for a luncheon, but we did have cake and punch, nuts and mints.
And that’s that.
That’s what it’s like to get married when you’re older, I guess. With family and flowers, good friends and good food, with love and laughter and lots and lots of help from people who love you and wish you well. I recommend it. I recommend it with no reservations.
But my new husband and I agree. The next time we marry each other?
We are definitely eloping.
We don’t answer the phone anymore. At least, I don’t.
Now, if it’s my cellphone and one of my friends’ names pops up, or my kids’ faces, or my HUSBAND (SURPRISE! I HAVE ONE OF THOSE NOW), well of course I answer that. Because I know who it is. And if I’m at work and I can see that it’s a coworker calling me (names and extensions display), yes, of course I answer the phone. But any other number? No, never. I don’t answer the phone.
Answering the phone
I answered the phone religiously for sixteen years at the office, talking with costume designers and their assistants, magazines and the like. My job was to place my company’s products in print, on TV shows I loved (like True Blood), and movies I didn’t (like Twilight) (apologies to Twilight lovers everywhere, but I guess vampires have to fit in with my very specific tastes).Vampires aside, I was on that phone, jumping to whenever it rang, dropping everything to find out the particulars of what and when and colors and sizes, then back on the phone to track everything down and hustle it where it needed to be. Eventually I passed this set of duties off to someone who spent half her day on the phone with editors and costume people, and did it happily. I missed parts of that job–there is a true sense of triumph when you make a great placement–but I didn’t miss all that time on the phone.
It’s your friend calling.
I used to talk to friends on the phone quite a bit, back when I could use my cell phone in the car. I’d call Sue every morning on our commutes. She’d fill me in on her extraordinarily active dating life. I’d listen to her stories while trying not to run over the people who lived on the street and therefore thought they owned it, and could therefore walk in front of moving cars with impunity. I judged them for endangering their lives, but the truth is I was endangering my own with all that talking and driving. I have stopped that.
Phone calls with men
I used to talk to men on the phone, back in my earlier online dating days. The conversations were invariably awkward, but I realized I could save time and grief by talking on the phone with prospects before I met them, because 60% of them would be immediately disqualified. So I did that for awhile. Did you know you can tell if someone is on the spectrum almost immediately on the phone? Well, you can, don’t ask me exactly how, but I was always right. And then the general phone-avoidance attitude took hold, and it stopped being an option.
I always answer my kids, though.
The only people who can reliably count on me for phone conversations are my daughters–and very often, they do Face Time. Occasionally I plan a phone call with a friend, which has to be scheduled as carefully as a mammogram or a blood draw, and is approached with a similar level of apprehension. In the ten years I’ve known Shannon, I have called her exactly once out of the blue, because her mother was ill and I wanted to know how things were going. We were both so intensely uncomfortable that I vowed to always text first to give her warning. I AM GOING TO CALL YOU, SHANNON, I AM SO SORRY ABOUT THAT, PLEASE MENTALLY PREPARE YOURSELF OR MAYBE TAKE A BIT OF XANAX. (she doesn’t take Xanax) (that’s me) (just to be clear).
Gaps in communication were just fine.
For twenty years, April and I would reliably talk on the phone somewhere around the holidays. She lived in Oklahoma, and I lived in Oregon, and we were both busy with life, husbands, kids and (in her case) a meaningful career (I didn’t do that). But we found time for at least one phone call per year. Once she called in later January and asked what I was doing. I said, “Oh, just laying on my bed with my newborn baby daughter.” She said, “Oh, how sweet.” That’s how sparse our talks were, that I could have conceived and birthed an entire child without her knowing. Now she lives in Oregon, and we are in contact much more often. We get to see each other! But when I call her, she says, “Hello?” with dread. She is AFRAID when I call, thinking it’s bad news about a family member or one of my dogs.Do I only call when there’s bad news? Or is it just that we usually text, so it’s got to be something awful driving me to dial the phone? (not that anyone dials the phone, or hangs up, but you know what I mean)
I am supposed to have a theory, here. And I’m working my way to one, and it has to do with the ubiquity of communication.
When I was young, a long distance phone call was a BIG DEAL. I usually received one per year from my maternal grandparents on my birthday. That was it. When I was 19 and got my first phone (I lived without one from age 15 to 19), I could afford one long distance phone call per month. I had to plan that call and make a decision and stick to it, because at 35 cents a minute, that was an expensive call.
And then something happened, all tied up with cellular communication. Cell phones went from being expensive luxuries with roaming charges and charge-by-the-text plans, to what they are now–a replacement for landlines that have no roaming costs and free long distance and unlimited calls and data and texting. It’s free and constant and we have choices on just which way we want to talk–by text, email, instant message, facetime or Skype, or actually putting a phone to our ears and speaking (though most of us put it on speaker, but anyway). And this is supposed to be great, yes? But why, then, are we ducking each other?
We are inundated with opportunities for communication. It’s too much. We have overloaded ourselves. We can’t stand it. So we don’t answer the phone anymore, and I am not sure there is a fix for this. I wish there were, because I loved talking on the phone–but I can’t stand to do it anymore.
When did everyone start loving ranch homes? I remember when the battle cry for house hunting was “Anything but a ranch!” Ranches were plain, boxy, a capitulation to suburban living in all its mundane boredom.
I know, I know, it’s all because of Chip and Joanna Gaines. I like what they do so much that I can tell you the names of my favorite ranch home rehabs: Big Daddy’s House and the Worm Brick House. It’s not the décor so much–Joanna’s initial enthusiasm for flaking paint and patchy rust are not to my taste, nor are her more current themes of black metal and artificial flowers–but they take those houses apart and put them back together in such pleasing ways. When I watch House Hunters on HGTV (which I started to do a week after the last election, because MSNBC was making me lose my will to live) I am surprised at how many people go looking for ranches as their preferred style. Something has CHANGED, people.
Amway Dream Home
As a house-hunter in the late 1980s, I was one of those people, of course. What I wanted more than anything was a Craftsman home with intact, unpainted woodwork. We (my ex-husband and I) even found one, but lacked the necessary fortitude to trust our guts and make an offer. That rundown Craftsman sat on a large lot, right next to a house we called “the Amway Dream Home.”
The Amway Dream Home was a new construction ranch that was landscaped with grass and red lava rock, like a military base. This house had been for sale forever for very good reasons. It was a yellowish tan shoe box with trim painted the color of the contents of a baby diaper. It had an oversized double-car garage with a room of some kind next to it (my ex would drawl, “that’s for the praw-duhct”). The front yard was dominated by an enormous satellite dish. This house was absolutely devoid of architectural detail or charm.
Reader, guess who bought it.
The complexities of how, why and from whom I bought the Amway Dream Home make a great story, but that’s a story for another day. Ranch homes have their charms, as EVERYONE SEEMS TO HAVE FIGURED OUT BY NOW. They generally have all the things missing in so many cuter, quainter styles, like entries, hallways, adequate bathrooms, laundry rooms, yards, storage, parking, and so on. It’s the sheer practicality of the ranch that won over a pragmatic person like me.
And have you ever been inside a really nice daylight ranch? These are also known as walk-outs and split backs, and that lower level is a goldmine of space and opportunity. As my family grew to two adults, three kids and a medium-sized dog, my one-level ranch felt increasingly cramped. I often longed for a walk-out. And eventually I got one, but not of the architectural variety–a marital walk-out is an entirely different matter, but at least the house was no longer so small, then.
Ranch home architecture features in the short passages that introduce the season changes in The Iris Files. These passages delight some readers, and baffle others. I call them them prose strophes, which is term I’ve coined to hide the fact that they are probably just indulgences. These poetic litanies have stayed in every version and draft of the book–even when a former literary agent asked me to remove them. “Are they really necessary?” she asked. Well, listen, is ANYTHING really necessary? If I were to hold up the filter of necessity to anything that is written today (by me or anyone else), it would all fade away. This leaves me with only one answer: these passages are necessary to me.
Here’s an example:
It’s a fall afternoon, in California.
California is the land of air conditioners. In the fall, California air conditioners work steadily, and the hot air of September is monitored, measured, drawn in, cooled off, pumped out, and re-circulated.
California women are all that, and waxed.
On a fall afternoon in California, the streets are full of the sons and daughters of the mighty hunters. These children are shuttled from school to practice to lesson to playgroup. Despite their busy schedules, these children occasionally find time to play.
When the shadows of the afternoon begin to lengthen, the women step out of their climate-controlled homes. They call their children in for dinner. And the women lift their expensively highlighted heads of hair, and wonder when and if their men will return home.
Ranch architecture is varied, but predictable. There are one-levels and tri-levels, walk-out basements and split entries. Everyone envies the tri-levels. Everyone despises the split entries. But people are divided on the walk-outs. No one knows if the walk-outs are a good thing, or a bad thing.
Nothing ever changes, in California.
I’m worshiping with words in these passages, and I’m worshiping the idea that each of these cookie-cutter homes is unique. If you were to step inside one of them, you’d see a thousand differences that tell the story of the lives lived within. Yes, there are bland and annoying people in every neighborhood, living in every kind of home. But I’m not convinced that any neighborhood in my city is more or less likely to hold annoying neighbors.
Over at the Ranch
I have lived in my ranch home for thirty years, now. The bulk of my life has been spent at one address. For someone whose childhood was as fractured and nomadic as mine, this is a miracle. It’s also weird as hell to live in one house for thirty years these days. No one does it. Except–all around me, I have neighbors who have. We have lived here forever, side-by-side.
I used to feel the need to apologize for my determined rootedness. But then I found this sweet meme on Tumblr, and it made perfect sense to me.
I mean, if Simone Weil says so…
The future of the ranch
These days, my ranch home feels mighty spacious, as it holds only two tall people and two miniscule dogs. The dogs are old, but the man is sort of young. He’s younger than me, at least. We both feel the pull of other places, other ways of living once we retire. We talk about where we might buy next, send each other links to places we like that won’t even be for sale in ten years, but it doesn’t hurt to look, to plan, to speculate about where we might end up.
As it turns out, in addition to our many other areas of compatibility, we both have the same dream home–the aforementioned Craftsman with rooms full of intact dark brown woodwork, built-ins, you name it, we want it. I have no idea if we will ever live in a place like that. In all likelihood, we’ll get a boring condo that’s an excellent deal, because we’re both so practical.
But until pragmatism rears its head to ruin everything, it’s fun to dream together.
Let’s talk about Elizabeth Strout. Maybe it’s my Midwestern upbringing, but I’m more comfortable talking about anything rather than my own work. So let’s go talk some Strout.
Photo by Leonard Cendamo (source) – Have you ever seen a more open and inviting gaze in your freaking life than this?
I came to Elizabeth Strout a bit later than many readers. She had already published Amy and Isabelle and Abide with Me before my book group read Olive Kitteridge. My daughter had loved Amy and Isabelle, but there was something keeping me away. Sometimes that’s nothing more than professional envy. Someone writes the kind of book I want to write, and she’s published and acclaimed and I peer at the title through a haze of spite and decide to sit this one out. Very often, the book in question turns out to be fantastic and completely worthy of all praises heaped upon it, like, for instance, Angela’s Ashes. At other times, (and my apologies to those of you who love it) it’s more like The English Patient, which I didn’t love when I finally read it.
Amy and Isabelle was everywhere, all bookstores, all my friends’ bookshelves, even at Fred Meyer and Target. I kept not reading it. I also didn’t read her second novel, Abide with Me, but this is okay because apparently no one else did, either.
And then came Olive, which is a collection of linked short stories that function as a novel, which seemed bold and daring and wonderful before everyone else started doing it. Everyone in my book group loved the book, everyone who read this book loved it, and we all recommended it to everyone we knew, and a big web of love for Olive Kitteridge spread across the country. It couldn’t have happened to a better book.
Things happen in the book–even some shocking stuff, heart-hammering events. There is a plot, but this is a novel of character, and that character is Olive. Olive in some ways reminds me of my mother–her largeness and her sensitivity, her love of flowers and her care with/masking of her own physical presence. It is difficult to be a large women, it’s something of an indignity, and my mother felt that quite strongly, as does Olive. In other ways, of course, she is nothing like my mother. Olive is not particularly likable or socially adept, and everyone loved my mother, who was a brilliant conversationalist. But they could both be so spiteful. I loved Olive’s spitefulness. That one passage where she is having a lie-down after her son’s wedding, and hears someone mocking her mother-of-the-groom dress, a dress Olive loves because she has this secret love of colors and flowers, and the dress has a lot of both–well, it just breaks my heart. I cheered her on as she took her small and spiteful revenge.
If you were wondering, I did watch the HBO series of Olive Kitteridge. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it like I loved the book, because I felt Olive was miscast. Frances McDormand is brilliant–her performance in Three Billboards is magnificent–but Olive is an ocean liner of a woman, and FM is not. Size is such an integral part of who Olive is.
The Burgess Boys Lead to Amy and Isabelle
I wanted to love The Burgess Boys but I only liked it, and I don’t remember much about it. Since it was the follow-up to Olive, I was disappointed and had to go looking. That’s when I read Amy and Isabelle, and of course I loved it. If you were to ask me what I think Strout’s main underlying theme is, I would say it’s women trying to get out from under their mothers; trying to be someone besides your mother, trying to understand that your mother is a person, flawed, a mortal human failure. Ridiculous at times. Frustrated. But loveable. And you can hurt her deeply.
Mothers are still objects of puzzlement and resentment after they die. They never make sense, because, of course, they are just people. And people mess up. But of course, as children, we have no idea that our moms aren’t superhuman and infallible. As a child, I didn’t question my mother’s words or her choices. As a young woman, I decided with brutal finality that my mother had never taken my needs into account once while making those choices. But as a young mother, I understood that I’d be messing up every single day, myself, and I’d better forgive my mom, because one day I would have to humbly ask forgiveness of my own children. Those are the terms of endearment.
So when friend loaned me My Name is Lucy Barton, I read it swiftly. And I have to say that it’s such a slip of a book that I read it, then gave it back, then borrowed it again a year later and reread it, and was two chapters in before I remembered that I’d read it before. I don’t think it’s a flaw in the book; I think it’s the style of it. Lucy is so glancing, so evasive as a narrator. She is simply not going to say things out loud. She’s given slip to a past of poverty and humiliation and community scorn. Rather than being embittered, she finds her new life wonderful. She is a true innocent who Is determined to stay that way, and a lovely Candide quality colors all her perceptions. But you feel an undercurrent of tremendous darkness, and you are left needing more.
It’s like–living your entire life as a poem by Emily Dickinson. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” I have a family member like this. She is the most oblique person I have ever known, other than my maternal grandmother, who was determined to see life as “lovely” even when there were horrors opening under her feet. But my grandmother’s denial kept her stepping so lightly that she never fell in. It was a complex balance of choosing where to look and where to step and what not to see. Life, to my grandmother, was a wonderful thing, and she simply chose not to deal with anything that contradicted this view. This can be supremely frustrating to the people around you, people with pain, questions and complaints, but for the most part we all choose what we deal with, and in the case of my grandmother and my unnamed female relative, they probably chose wisely.
So did Lucy. Elizabeth Strout wrote Lucy Barton with such luminous kindness that I read this book twice, and I still didn’t know the deepest, darkest truths of her life. And I think, in truth, Lucy didn’t know them either. But I was sitting around with my book group friends in June, and one of them had brought both Abide with Me and Anything is Possible to loan me, and she told me that Lucy’s story is revealed more in this book (yes, after reading Anything is Possible, Lucy and I are on a first-name basis, just like me and Olive).
Anything is Possible
I don’t want to ruin anything about the stories in Anything is Possible. Just–read Lucy Barton first, and then know that you’re going to get the skinny on all the people that Lucy and her mother gossip about while Lucy is recovering in the hospital. Lucy is present in many of the stories in Anything, as her memoir has hit the shelves in her home town’s bookstore, prompting reveries and regrets on the part of people who treated her with kindness, scorn, or as if she were invisible. She is not the main character, as some reviews have stated. The town is the main character. The book really lifts up a rock on its secrets, and you should be prepared for the exposure of a lot of squirming, grey, unattractive things. It is a FASCINATING look at small town living, and fills in the blanks of Lucy’s story in a heartbreaking chapter that left me cheering her on with however she chooses to deal with a past so ugly.
Abide With Me
So then, of course, I had to read Abide with Me. Which is wonderful, by the way. It’s set in 1959, and it also peels back the lid on a small town. The book didn’t do well, though it appears to be doing okay, now. Kirkus Reviews said,”most of the characters in this novel are fundamentally bewildered, and many of them are quite bitter as well. The narrator’s folksy tone does nothing to enliven this dispiriting story; the overall effect is rather like listening to a slightly cantankerous maiden aunt dispensing local gossip.” I fear this reviewer doesn’t see anything valiant, universal or worthy in the struggles of small town people. I do. I also love books about religious men, like Gilead (which sold a gajillion copies) and Leaving Ruin (which didn’t, but should have–it’s an older book, shoved over into the Christian section and it deserves a wider readership). Abide with Me is the story of a small town pastor, and it’s a big story about self-forgiveness and frustration. It’s moving and a nicely seamy between the religious ruminations.
Elizabeth Strout books connect–this innkeeper is Lucy Barton’s cousin, and this actress was probably molested by a character who shows up as a father-in-law in another book, and on and on in ways small and large that I wasn’t tracking in the first three titles I read. This is my absolute favorite thing for writers to do, this interconnectedness. I’d like to read Elizabeth Strout’s books from beginning to end in sequence and make a spreadsheet that links the who and where and what in each book, but that would take a lot of time and energy. I have other books to read and other books to write.
Also, here I go, urging you toward books not by me. So I will plug mine: RANDOM AND CLUMSY PLUG
Also, I could use some Amazon reviews if you can take the time!
Also, the next time I do this, it will probably be Haven Kimmel.