Monthly Archives: November 2022

Going Through the Garbage

Confessions.

I was listening to the radio in the early 2010s, and the hosts had asked people to call in with Oregon things they don’t like. Everyone in Oregon is supposed to always like certain Oregon things, except we don’t, so people were calling up with unthinkable confessions. “I hate coffee.” “I hate bicycles.” “I can’t stand hiking.” “I don’t eat salmon.” “I hate the ocean.” “I can’t stand hazelnuts.” “I won’t go camping.” The strongest radio host reaction was to this one: “I don’t like dogs.”

If I’d called in, I’d have told them that I hate recycling.

I do it badly. You know the type. We don’t flatten all the boxes. We have too much coated stock in there. We throw away the plastic peanut butter jars. We are crappy recyclers, resentfully going through the garbage, saving out what we can. But I do it, I rinse, sort, flatten, organize. It takes almost no effort but I actively resent it.

Going through the garbage.

A Child’s View of Trash

I never thought about garbage as a child. I never took out the trash, or paid attention to the garbage can, or wondered where its contents went once they left the alley. In my youngest life, garbage was invisible. Except, someone was dealing with it.

Garbage penetrated my youthful consciousness in Arkansas. I have lived at some questionable addresses, but my family’s rented farmhouse outside Booneville was the most rundown, ramshackle place I have ever called home in my life. When we arrived, the place was strewn with trash, inside and out.

Where was it supposed to go? If there were garbage trucks in Booneville, Arkansas, they certainly didn’t travel the red dirt roads out to our place. I’m sure there was some sort of decaying Southern midden somewhere on the property, and of course there was a dump somewhere. We weren’t going to seek it out. We burned our garbage.

It was a foul endeavor. A huge metal barrel on the other side of the abandoned garden collected the leavings of daily life, every food container, bathroom wad, the contents of my parents’ brimming ashtrays. It accumulated and festered until the barrel was full. Then it was dispatched to the skies with lighter fluid and wooden kitchen matches.

Our new father believed in giving children chores, and thanks to his Minnesota upbringing, he had a nicely gendered split for duties. My sister and I did the dishes, folded laundry, vacuumed, swept, helped with cooking, and took care of our little brother. Trash was a male endeavor.

Our older brother was sent out to the burn barrel. While the flames rose, he had to watch for sparks and stamp them out. This was possibly not a great use of his skills. My brilliant, artistic, musical brother was very overweight, tippy on his feet, and had terrible vision. He was soon excused from trash burning, as he lacked the visual acuity and physical nimbleness to track and stamp sparks.

Well, my sister and I were up to the challenge. We worked in tandem. Squirting the lethal-smelling lighter fluid all over the top, striking the wooden kitchen match, watching the wooooosh when it all went up. I’ve always been overly sensitive to smells, so I should have hated this duty, but I enjoyed it. Organics smelled terrible before they were burned, but plastics smelled the worst while burning. That was beside the point. The danger and heat of a fire absorbed us, no matter how toxic the flames. The sparks flew, we shrieked and chased. There were whoops of danger and triumph. If the blaze slowed, we’d give it a few more spurts of lighter fluid and get it going again. Now, that was a wooooosh.

Of course our father caught us doing this. He took over the garbage burning. And then we moved to town. As far as I know, there were garbage trucks ever after. But no one recycled. Not even my liberal parents.

There was no such thing as recycling.

My Overriding Question

Is this why I want to argue with recycling? To pick a fight with it? To demand of recycling whether or not it actually helps with the problem? The problem being us, humans, and how we are ruining everything, all the time, every day.

I want to know if recycling makes a difference. The answer appears to be, “It depends on who you ask.”

As far as plastic, according to the Atlantic: No. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/05/single-use-plastic-chemical-recycling-disposal/661141/

Paper is a different story. https://www.afandpa.org/priorities/recycling/does-paper-actually-get-recycled

Glass is a natural for recycling, but we don’t do well with it as a nation. https://cen.acs.org/materials/inorganic-chemistry/glass-recycling-US-broken/97/i6

I read all this. I think on it. I honestly don’t know if we are doing any good with all this sorting through of our garbage. At times, I think recycling is a scam designed to make us feel less guilty as we ruin the Earth. I imagine all the piously sorted recycling that isn’t actually recycled, loaded onto barges and towed out to sea, where it will be dumped to float in enormous archipelagoes until it reaches the Wide Sargasso Sea.

I’m always tempted to throw my plastic away to keep it out of the ocean. Am I the only one?

Taking Charge of Trash

Like my Minnesota father, I think of garbage and its tertiary duties as male. This was a problem in a post-divorce household consisting of me and my three daughters. None of us were interested in cracking gender binaries when it came to taking out the garbage, but it had to be done.

Often, when the can filled, I’d just set the full bag on the front porch. The idea was, the next person to go outside (on the way to the school bus stop, for instance) would pick up that bag and pitch it in the trashcan down by the garage.

That person was always me. Always. Unless I nagged, which I sometimes did, I nagged and yelled repeatedly to spare myself a trip to the can, and hated how I sounded, and decided at some point I’d rather just take out the trash than hear myself berating the girls for not doing it.

Almost always, then. Almost always me. I think two of my daughters enjoyed the pitching, slinging that bag up and into the container, slamming the lid. They liked it, but not enough to do it very often.

*

I forgive myself for not recycling when the kids were young. I had enough to deal with, didn’t I? So I threw it all away, right up until I began sorting my garbage like a good Oregonian.  The trouble is, I can’t remember when I started doing that.

I dated a man for three years who recycled so thoroughly that he didn’t have trash service. Every once in a while, he’d put a small, smelly bag of non-recyclable stuff in my garbage can. Did I start recycling because of him, I wonder? Did his modest little bi-weekly bag put me to such shame that I finally set up a system and started acting like a responsible human being?

But no, it was before that. Maybe I started recycling because of the house fire.

Burning UP

My house burned in April of 2006, an event of such trauma and dislocation that I don’t talk much about it. I talk around the edges of it. I reminisce, say, about the unreality of living in a rental house, where every single thing—every garbage can and spatula—was also rented. I talk about our strange landlord, and how to this day I cringe when I drive past her house on Lower Boones Ferry because she has campaign signs up for various election deniers.

I talk about how Zoe the Tiniest Dachshund killed a mole in the backyard. I can talk about how it felt to endure the months while the insurance companies duked it out and the house waited, torn back to the studs, to be reconstructed.  I can talk about how I couldn’t find my way around right after the fire, how I had to drive over to my house from the motel where I stayed for a few weeks, and plot my course from there.

But the fire? Ah, that’s hard.

Many of my most-treasured possessions made it through without being touched by flames. Accordingly, they were packed into smallish cardboard boxes and ozoned and returned to me six months later. Seventy boxes of papers alone, seventy-six actually, full of a tossed-together assortment of important papers, junk mail, keepsakes, photos, scrapbooks, drafts of novels, letters, all of it jumbled and random and nearly impossible to sort.  Now, add in the books. Have you seen my books? Well, there are a few. And it was all in boxes.

When I moved back into my newly rebuilt house that November, I had empty boxes stacked to the ceiling in in kitchen area. My then-boyfriend (now-husband) came over to break down boxes and take them to the curb. Then came Christmas, with its own load of recycling. It took diligent effort to get it all handled, but we did it, week by week.

I’d finally gotten it all hauled away in January. February was so much cleaner down at the curb. Until that one day when I lost it.

Yes, I lost it over recycling.

*

I live next to a fourplex, an older building that was a commercial chicken house until it was converted into apartments. With its shingles and white trim, it’s actually quite cute as an apartment building. And that February, someone in that apartment building brought a huge mess of wet, mildewed cardboard boxes, we are talking about the size of two cords of wood, and put them in my driveway.

I want to make it clear, these nowhere near the street. Not down at the curb, where the recyclers could take them away (thought they probably wouldn’t, because they were wet and mildewed, in addition to not being broken down). And not on the grassy strip between the two properties, a sort of no-man’s land where their cans sat next to mine on collection day. These boxes were on my driveway, on the other side of a huge laurel hedge that divides the properties, and up about twenty feet from the curb.

Whoever did it had to walk around that hedge, carrying this grossness. It would have taken a few trips. They’d gone to some effort to put the boxes on my driveway and I have never been able to figure out what that person was thinking.

I am absurdly slow to anger, but when it hits, watch out. My fury bordered on derangement. I walked over and coldly enquired of the tenant in Apartment #1 if he had any idea who did it. He directed me to Apartment #4 at the back, where no one answered my knock.

Okay, fine.

I went back to my driveway and pitched the whole mess across their driveway. Not close to the curb to where the recyclers might have taken it, if they were feeling generous. Yes, with less effort, I could have done that. But I didn’t. I made sure to take up their precious parking spaces, a madwoman in sweatpants flinging around mildewed cardboard and swearing under her breath.

It felt good.

My spell of madness did not last. I gathered my wits, regained my composure, and rolled down my own garbage can. Right next to it, I placed my tidy container of recycling, with boxes broken down and flattened, unwanted catalogs in their own paper bag. I wanted to make it VERY CLEAR to the garbage people and all the people driving by that this wet mess of cardboard had nothing to do with me.

Except for the part where I flung it all over the neighbors’ parking area.

*

As I write this, I realize that this wasn’t the first time I completely lost it over recycling, or rather, with recycling.

Just a few months earlier, while we were still in the rental, I’d been kept up until 4 AM by my college-aged daughter and her friend, who were sitting in the kitchen of our rental house—the super shitty rental home where we lived while our own house was being rebuilt—laughing and drinking and playing music, even though I asked them several times to quiet down.

I responded by getting up at 6 AM and slamming around the recycling to sort it, waking them up on purpose, slamming and huffing like a crazy woman.

Would you all just take a look at that crazy woman?

*

I can be kind to this version of myself in retrospect. Her house had burned down. And that wasn’t all. Her mother died in October of 2004. She had two relationships flame out in 2005. In 2005 she also had a hysterectomy. In April of 2006, her house burned down. That woman held it together, she held it all together. She finally lost her shit over some cardboard.

Let’s be kind to her.

But the story about my daughter and her friend reminds me that there was a pile of recycling in the kitchen of that rental house. So, this means I was recycling before I dated the recycling man, and before the house fire. So when did I start to recycle? I have no idea.

Today’s Trash

Whenever it happened, however it happened, I took out the garbage for twenty-five years, and that eventually included the recycling. I rolled the cans to the curb, arranged the recycling appropriately so that the collectors wouldn’t leave me a note explaining how I was out of sorts (if they only knew). I even (usually) rolled up the cans before the neighbors got mad at me.

I did it all, and then I got married. My husband takes out the garbage now. He likes a full can liner, one that sometimes requires two people to shimmy it out of the can. He wants that trashcan liner to be so stuffed and heavy that it might break the drawstrings.

I, of course, hate this. What a pain in the ass, a bag that wants to split, those straining red drawstrings that want to amputate your fingers. Why would you do that to yourself?

And with my nose, there’s the issue of smell. I will ask him to remove a stinking but not-full bag full of meat wrappers and onion peels (I do not compost, there is a limit). He is slightly resistant, but does it when asked. First, he gives me a look. Maybe he hates being told what to do (he does hate being told what to do, and even though it’s phrased as a question, I am telling him what to do). But it’s more than that. I think he feels like taking a not-full bag out is wasteful. He’s right. But I don’t want to smell garbage.

My husband is a better recycler than I am. He diplomatically pretends not to notice when I throw away a peanut butter jar because I hate scrubbing those out. He manages our laundry room system for the recycling, which isn’t a big hassle, so I don’t know why I’m a big resistant baby about it.

Unlike me, my husband knows the collection schedule. He knows exactly when the recycling and the lawn waste will be picked up, and puts it all out as necessary. He takes care to leave the returnable cans where they can be picked up by the man who comes down the street after dark on Monday nights, gathering the neighborhood empties before the recycling truck comes on Tuesday.

I welcome my husband’s attention to all this. I appreciate that he does it. Because I hate doing it.

Please don’t come for me. I have toed the line. I recycle. I might wonder if it’s doing any good at all. That doesn’t matter. I do it even though I doubt it. I do it even though I didn’t grow up with it. I do it even though I hate it.

I do it even though I watched this video.

We might have already have passed the point of no return, but we have to try.

The last chapter of the Chameleon Chronicles – Cam Solves it All.

It’s here, and you’ll love it.

book cover for Orcas Intermission

Camille Tate is ready to be seen…but is her world ready to see her?

Camille is working both sides, now, and she’s stunned by the avalanche of secrets she’s uncovering. Old mysteries are unlocked as new puzzles emerge. Is anyone who they seem to be on Orcas Island? One revelation leads to another, and it becomes more and more impossible for Cam to concentrate on her newest assignment: steering her play through the process of casting, rehearsal, and staging. As she digs deeply into the mysteries that have surrounded her since she arrived, Cam learns the truth about her closest friends and most feared enemies. It all comes together on an unforgettable opening night…when Cam finally understands everything, including herself.

Yes, it’s finally here. And was this ever a fun book to write. Cam and her crew answer the last of the questions from deep in the heart of a…theater company? Folks, it was there from the very first book. We just had to do it. And oh my gosh, was it fun to write.

Preorder the e-book here: ORCAS INTERMISSION BY LAURA GAYLE

I don’t want to spoil a dang thing. Just trust me, this book will have you laughing, and maybe even tearing up a bit. Mysteries are revealed, prices are paid, and friendships change forever. I hope all that passive voice has preserved the mystery.

Changes afoot

It is also a little emotional for me. This is where I duck out of Laura Gayle, at least for now. Laura Gayle has exciting future plans, don’t worry, she’s not going anywhere, but she will have to carry on without me. Solo projects are calling my name.

Shannon and I have had so much fun with this project, which we started before I even visited the island. I’ve never written collaboratively before (which I talked about here: The Joy of Collaboration) and I wasn’t sure how much I would like it. I loved it. Shannon has been a perfect partner and I know we will work together again in the future.

It has been awesome to be the official Orcas Island Bestseller. Long may we reign! Thanks our readers, our editors, and to Mark for his wonderful covers. I want to give special thanks to the staff of Darvill’s Bookstore for all their support over the years.

Now, go read how it all comes out!

The Puberty Contraption

A fascinating article

I recently read this feature in the New Yorker about how there was a huge drop in the ages at which girls all over the world went into puberty during the pandemic.

https://www.newyorker.com/science/annals-of-medicine/why-more-and-more-girls-are-hitting-puberty-early

This is a deep dive into the science of puberty, with an equally deep consideration of the emotional and social consequences of entering it early. It got me thinking about my own entrance into puberty. I knew I came to womanhood early in far too many ways, but I never actually thought about the biological side of it. I have tracked how I was pushed into premature adulthood by family pressures, but Nature had a hand in it, too.

Thanks, Puberty.

Karen at age eight in Rapid City, South Dakota
Me at age eight, before all this started. Orange loafers, pink sunglasses, and a romper. I was stylin’.

In my childhood experience, boys were not interested in girls. They were interested in boy things, boy pastimes, boy games. Girls were beside the point. When boys started to notice girls, it was because of our parts.

I didn’t like being noticed for my parts.

I was a tall girl with subcutaneous body fat, so I began to develop in the fourth grade. So I was nine. I remember exactly where I was, what I was doing, and what I was wearing when this was pointed out to me. I was playing outside with two neighborhood boys. I had on a navy blue sweater dress with a tan striped collar, a hand-me-down from my sister.

It was complicated playing with boys and climbing trees in a dress, but this was after school, and in those days, in the Midwest at least, girls were not allowed to wear pants of any kind to school. So while playing, I did what I could to observe the forms of modesty, which was (I assume) the entire point of making girls wear dresses; to make us be careful and modest.

That day, one of the boys said to me with a little sneer in his voice, “You need a bra.” I looked down to see what he was talking about. Yes, there was something there, on my chest. Possibly those bumps were breasts. I didn’t want them, I didn’t need them, so I ignored them. But boys didn’t. That day of play was ruined, and I went home feeling shame and confusion.

Time to Train

I immediately told my mother what had happened, because I told her everything. She took me to be fitted for a training bra. From what I can tell, this particular garment has passed into the ether of outdated ideas, replaced by the bralette or the sports bra, so let me describe it for you.

The training bra was a flimsy little apparatus built along the lines of an actual bra, but without a support function. It was intended to get a girl used to the idea of a bra. She would learn to fasten the hooks, adjust the straps, and live with the protrusion of a small rosette trim between her nonexistent breasts.

In the literature of the training bra, there are two kinds of girls. One longs for the training bra. She thinks it is the prettiest thing in the world. She can’t wait for her dainty bra straps to show. She knows if the rosette shows, her top is too tight. Her bra is a rite of passage, a lacy privilege. She feels celebrated.

And then, there are girls like me, as illustrated by the New Yorker piece.

In Judy Blume’s 1970 young-adult novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” which has served as a puberty handbook of sorts for generations of girls, a character named Laura Danker looms awkwardly on the periphery. Laura is studious, very shy, and very tall. When the eleven-year-old narrator of the book, Margaret Simon, sees Laura on the first day of school, she mistakes her for a teacher, not a fellow sixth grader. “You could see the outline of her bra through her blouse and you could also tell from the front that it wasn’t the smallest size,” Margaret observes. “She sat down alone and didn’t talk to anyone.” … Laura’s body commands a chaotic attention from her peers: by turns affronted and leering, repelled and keenly envious. Her body provokes their imagination, then serves to corroborate whatever they might imagine. Laura belongs nowhere: a head taller than all the boys, arms crossed over her chest, feeling the shame and confusion of the eleven-year-old she is but does not look like.

As I recall, Margaret liked getting her training bra. My own appointment in the lingerie department of a large store was a humiliating debacle, because you’re not supposed to spill out of a training bra. I was already past the training stage. My mother, unsure of what to do, simply left without buying me anything.

That was fine with me. I wanted nothing to do with such a confining contraption. I went back to ignoring the entire issue of breasts, even though the boys didn’t.

Bodily Privacy

Coming of age is tricky and difficult. Some children seem to sprint gracefully into it like gazelles, but those are outward appearances. Internal realities are probably different.

My own experience was not graceful. I became the focus of unwanted attention and there was no taking it off me. My bodily privacy had been violated by early development. This wasn’t fair. I was a child, surrounded by other children. They were allowed to live their lives as kids, unencumbered in a particular way I was not. I felt confusion and shame. Shame, because that’s the backbone of how girls are socialized, and confusion, because even then, I knew I hadn’t chosen early puberty or the assumption of maturity it thrust upon me.

This bit of the New Yorker article spoke to me, even though it is specific to Black girls, who tend to go into puberty early.

A 2017 report from the Georgetown Law School’s Center on Poverty and Inequality studied the impact of “adultification,” a phenomenon in which children are socialized to act older than they are, and in which Black kids, specifically, are perceived as “less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers”—less in need, or less deserving, of the kinds of protections that childhood confers.

At age ten, grown men began flirting with me. I remember one in particular. I was sitting on the dryer in our sunny utility porch in Rapid City, holding court during an afternoon potluck. I thought it was my superior wit engaging the attention of this man in his twenties. I was a sharp, sarcastic kid, there is no doubt about it. But more likely, it was the allure of a very tall, very young girl with pretty eyes and the clear beginnings of a womanly body.

Karen, age 11.
This was taken a little later, in Arkansas, when I was eleven. If you’re wondering where my nose is, it was clearly visible from the other side, but this was always my favorite photo because it sort of disappeared in this shot.

At the end of fifth grade, we moved to Arkansas. The South declares open season on girls at an early age. We lived way out of town on a farm, and my neighboring-farm boyfriend was a perfect gentleman, but puberty had arrived. My father finally made my mother understand that she had to do something about the bra issue.

Of course, she told me that. “Your dad told me you needed to start wearing a bra.” There was a note of derision in how she said it. Again, I felt the shame.

I’ve thought about this too much. There was nothing creepy about him saying this. He was pointing out the very obvious facts of the situation my mother and I were ignoring. But he’d only been my dad since I was nine. In certain ways, my new father was much better at parenting than my mother. He had a Midwestern Minnesota handle on what childhood should include for children, and the stages we would be going through as we left it. But I was eleven, and scalded by embarrassment.

Why did my mom even tell me it was Dad, anyway? Wasn’t that the creepy part of it? Her telling me? Maybe she knew how resistant I was to the contraption, and she wanted backup.

At any rate, she brought home what she thought would fit, and I wore it.

Karen, age 11
Look at me, a little red-eyed devil at age 11, absolutely loving myself, despite the fact that I was growing up. But then, Ophelia started drowning.

I also started my period that year at age eleven. I understood the first morning I woke up in a bloody bed that childhood was over for me.

On with Adulthood

I started high school at age 12, because you started high school in seventh grade in Booneville. I was sent to the principal’s office for wearing shorts under my skirts. I thought this was a solution to the problems caused by not being able to wear pants to school, but it was explained to me that it made me less modest.

As a young lady, it was my job to keep my knees together. I was threatened with a “whupping” should it happen again. Yes, you still got whupped by the principal in 1972. And of course, I kept wearing shorts under my skirts because I found this all absolutely ridiculous.

This was the South. Boys came knocking, but I was not as mature as my body. This attention was disconcerting, sometimes even frightening because it did not come from boys my age. The boys I liked in my class (Melvin, Todd, Bruce) were way shorter than me. In the sixth grade, I was 5’5” and they were nowhere near that. Especially Todd, the class clown, who was hilarious but really short. And that was okay, because it was easier for me to garner no attention, than to garner the kind of attention I was too young to want.

This is an excerpt from the article, quoting a woman named Megan Gray, who went into puberty at age eight. “When you’re shamed at a young age for a sexuality that you don’t even have, I think it inhibits you from developing a sexuality. I began to associate people seeing me in a sexual way, or even as attractive, as a negative. At the same time, when you’re entering that age, you do want people to like you. And you want to like other people. There was that constant tension of, you know, liking is good, but attraction is bad, even if, on a rational level, I understood that wasn’t true. That contradiction started very young.”

Cat and I, ages 12 and (just barely by one day) 15.
I was twelve here. Adolescence was fully upon me. This was the Christmas Eve my mom was in the hospital, so it was very calm at our house for a change. I’ll write about that another time.

The best word to describe my feelings for boys at this time was, longing. I was longing for boys. I enjoyed this feeling, but preferred that the boys in question not be real. Teen idols fit in nicely, because you could long for them without any complications or expectations. You could practice safely. This also coincided with the growth of deeply imaginative play for me and my sister, in which my characters were always male. I felt safer when I pretended to be male. My own precipitous puberty and unwelcome sexuality were held at bay while playing at being a boy. Somehow, this allowed me to recover my bodily privacy.

But sometimes, I longed for real boys.

Real Boys

My family lived in Booneville, and Tommy and Floyd Daphren, or maybe it was Daffron, I don’t remember, lived in a neighboring town. They both had very wavy blonde hair down to their shoulders. I think Floyd was fifteen and Tommy was seventeen. My sister and I encountered them at the lake.

Tommy was tall and silent and stunningly handsome to my 12 year-old eyes. Just looking at him struck me dumb. I mean, he wore his hair parted down the middle. Floyd was smaller and funnier and should therefore have been my type, but my heart longed for Tommy. I was possessed with the idea of wearing his FFA jacket (dark blue corduroy trucker style with a big FFA emblem on the back and his name embroidered over the left chest pocket, if you’ve never seen one).

I did manage to chat him up at a dance. I found myself standing next to him, and cracked his stunning but rather blank façade of beauty with wisecracks. Humor was a start, but I already understood that if I wanted a boy like this, an older boy, some sort of physical contact would be involved. I was only twelve, but if we hadn’t left Arkansas, I might have been able to land him.

My parents hated Arkansas. As kids, we were happy there, academically successful, socially accepted. My older brother was possibly less enamored of the place than my sister and me, but he’d won a scholarship to art school in Minneapolis, so he went back first. My liberal parents were desperate to go back North, so we left Arkansas for Montana. Was that supposed to be an improvement? Rural Montana? Was that a hotbed of liberal thought in 1973?

Karen and a trash can at the corner of Booneville High where I hung out with my sister and her friends.
Me, age 12. I would never have dared wear a skirt this short (my sister and I wore this as a top with jeans on the weekend), but it was my last day at Booneville High and I felt immune from whuppings. The shoes were also a bold statement. They were called N-word shoes whenever I wore them.

We stopped in Minneapolis to see my father’s family on the way. My great-grandfather Otto took one look at me and exclaimed, “What? You’re not married yet?” I said, “Grandpa! I’m twelve!” The house erupted in laughter. As my adoptive great-grandfather, he could be forgiven for not keeping track of my age.

I finished coming of age in Montana, a gorgeous, isolated combination of natural paradise and traumatic hellhole where my young life went completely off track.

Taken by a friend of my mother's named Ron on a visit to Albequerque, NM. Age just turned 14.
Taken shortly before I graduated eighth grade, when I was the hippie-girl scandal of Gallatin Gateway Elementary.

To quote the New Yorker:

The stigma of early development in girls is particularly painful because, in some cases, it may perpetuate a vicious cycle. An article published in the Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, in May, found that early puberty put girls at higher risk for obesity, type-2 diabetes, breast cancer, and heart disease along with “depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and antisocial behaviors,” “earlier onset of sexual activity, higher number of sexual partners, and higher likelihood of substance use, delinquency, and low academic achievement.” The journal Hormones and Behavior, in 2013, argued that “early maturing girls are at unique risk for psychopathology.” A Pediatrics article titled “Early Puberty, Negative Peer Influence, and Problem Behaviors in Adolescent Girls,” from 2013, stated, “Early timing of puberty and affiliation with deviant friends are associated with higher levels of delinquent and aggressive behavior. Early-maturing adolescents tend to affiliate with more-deviant peers and appear more susceptible to negative peer influences.”

This photo was taken five or six years after the first photo in this post.

Karen, Eric, Kittycat. Squaw Creek Ranger Station, 1973 or 1974.
At the ranger station with my baby brother, who was no longer a baby but I still call him that, and he’s fifty. Biologically, I was year shy of being able to give birth when he was conceived.

At fourteen, I was drinking heavily and sexually active. At fifteen, I left home.

1974, Karen
The disembodied hand and my plaid shirt belong to the boyfriend who would become my first husband. He had staked his claim with that seagull ring on the third finger of my left hand. 1974, taken at Faculty Court, married student housing, Bozeman MT – this was a three bedroom unit in the “Monopoly Houses,” now torn down.

A Pattern Repeated

When I consider my life, my misspent youth, I have failed to consider biology and generational trauma. I have thought too much about the emotional factors involved in this (see my last blog post), and not enough about the other factors.

I inherited much of my biology from my mother. It’s more than just the look of our bodies, so similar that you’d be forgiven for mistaking us for each other from behind. It’s more than the lipedema, it’s more than our wonky foreguts. If you just looked at us together, you would see it.

Me and my lovely mom in 1979, Christmas in Eugene, OR at my sister's house.
Me and my lovely mom in our matching robes. Taken in 1979, Christmas in Eugene, OR at my sister’s house. I was actually taller than her but I was barefoot and she had on her Famolares.

Mom hurtled into life. She grew up very fast, but to me, she seemed happy about it. According to family lore, she actually wanted to grow up faster than she did. She wanted to marry a sailor named Red at age fifteen, but was forbidden to do so by her parents. He was banished from the premises, so my mother married another sailor named Burl and had my older brother at seventeen.

Gaye Elva Odland marrying Burl Fain in 1957, North Hollywood, CA.
I found this photo in my brother’s papers after he died. My mom and Steve’s dad look so radiantly happy and young. 1957

The seeds for this were planted by her early development. She was four years younger than her sister, but taller than her by age twelve. This was exceedingly rare in the 1950s, a child who looked like a grown woman. My mother tagged along with the older kids like I did, but my sister is only two years older than me. What did it mean to my mother, to be running with the sixteen year-olds when she was twelve? Why was she allowed to go at life so early? And how could she let me do the same, when she knew where it could lead?

Oh Mom, I am trying so hard to understand.

Maybe the New Yorker can help.

A tall, developed ten-year-old who has reached menarche may not be chronologically older than a petite, flat-chested ten-year-old who has not—but she is, in a real sense, physically and even experientially older. Adults and other children will almost inevitably relate to the girl differently—and not necessarily even in a sexualized way, although that is of grave concern; but intellectually, socially, emotionally. They may have advanced expectations of her, and she may strive to meet those expectations or fail to, and, either way, that cycle of stimulus and response is determining her place in her social milieu, conjuring a mirror in which she sees herself, and wiring her brain in configurations that subtly differ from those of her average-developing peers. Nature begets nurture. For this girl, the hands of the clock simply go faster.

I tried to shield my own girls from this fate. I tried too hard. I wanted my girls to be children, not women. I hid my beautiful, bountiful mixed-race daughters out here in a White suburb, where they went untouched by the pencil-necked White boys. As a result, my girls didn’t understand their own beauty. I hope they can forgive me for that. For the most part, I think they have.

Three beautiful mixed race girls.
My youngest hates this photo, but I wanted one where they were all a little awkward. Sorry, kid. Besides, you know how beautiful you are.

My daughters and I were texting the other day, as we do most days, on and off, all day long. I told them I was doing a deep dive into the music of our past. I texted, “I only have one question. How did we all survive the Fiona Apple “Tidal” CD? It’s like stepping onto a loopy dangerous adolescent carousel ride. Brilliant, but Jesus.”

This led to a declaration that “Being virgins in adolescence saved us,” from one daughter. Then, of sex in your teens, I said, “It is an unnecessary complication.” The girls tapped their little “HaHa” icons onto the corner of this text, because of course a mother would say this. But I stand by it. It is too much, too soon.

Biology is inevitable. I couldn’t stop it for my daughters, but I could extend the protections of childhood to their young selves while their minds and emotions caught up with their bodies. Or maybe I overprotected them.

Maybe I hurt them in other ways. Maybe I always did everything wrong.

I’m sure of only one thing.

I tried.

*

All quotes are from Annals of Medicine – Why More and More Girls Are Hitting Puberty Early: A pandemic-era rise in early puberty may help physicians to better understand its causes. By Jessica Winter, published October 27, 2022, © 2022 Condé Nast, all rights reserved