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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
There’s a woman like this on every floor I’ve worked on in my current office: the woman who makes it her business to engage me in conversations about how I should be eating. There I am, innocently putting something in the microwave, and here she comes, ready to let me know how to do better. She has ideas! And tips! She has observations and explanations! She has ANSWERS!
If only she realized how demotivating her little talks are, and how pointless, because I don’t diet.
I used to diet endlessly. My weight loss odyssey started when I was seven years old and my mother put me on a strict 600-calories-per-day program that involved twice-daily shots of a hormone in my thigh. Now, please keep in mind that I wasn’t even a fat child. But Mom put me on diets all the time as I was growing up, until I was fifteen and moved out. By that time, all the dieting and a year on the Pill had made me nice and plump.
I did have a good run at Weight Watchers throughout my twenties, but it only served to get me thin before each pregnancy, during which I’d get fat again and have to do it all over again. After I turned thirty, I very rarely dieted. The last time was in 2007, not counting a desperate run at losing weight before a daughter’s wedding (took off 22, gained it all back on the plane home, I think).
This left me as the Floor’s Official Fat Person. Yes, that’s me, the current female record holder. And the Floor Fatty always attracts the attention of the Floor Food Warden. She’s there, concerned and watching, having lots of opinions and offering advice. I guess she thinks she’s helping.
When I worked on the second floor, a kind and nurturing woman was always watching what I ate for me. She had so many questions, a gentle daily interview about collard greens, or cheese grits, or egg salad, whatever exotic fat person dish I was eating that day. I suppose she wondered just how it was that I ended up this way, and wanted specifics so she could guard against joining me in the plus size section of life.
She was succeeded as Food Warden by a sharp and tiny woman who loved to bark at me about my yogurt choices (“You have to eat Greek yogurt!”). She would trumpet “That’s full of sodium! Don’t eat that!” whenever I opened a can (even when it was fruit and I don’t think canned fruit has much sodium in it but whatever). And another refrain was, “You need to go to yoga!” (yoga makes me seasick).
I actually adored this person. To be fair, she bossed everyone around about everything, so I forgave her. She’s retired and we all miss her. But not in the break room!
Currently, I work on Floor Three, where the Food Warden is quite elegant and fit, around my age, and has a charming accent. She maintains a somewhat birdlike interest in what I’m heating up, preparatory to stuffing it in my fat face, I guess. And she expresses gentle surprise and dismay that I am not obviously gorging myself to maintain my voluptuous frame.
At breakfast time, I eat the tiny bagels, the small yogurts, the clementines, satsumas and cara caras, just like everyone else. At lunch, I usually have leftovers, just a regular size portion of whatever was left over from a dinner. Stir fried chicken and rice, or spaghetti, or tortilla soup, or whatever my guy and I ate the week before. These foods are not spectacularly caloric. They are just dinners.
I haven’t found a special fatten-me-up-version of anything, at least, not so far. But she’s peering at whatever I pull from the microwave while she’s dressing her spinach salad, shaking out her tablespoon of bleu cheese crumbles, talking about how she only eats a third of a croissant at a time. Great. Awesome. Thanks.
Trust me, NO ONE knows more about how to eat, what to eat, how much to eat than a fat person. We know EVERYTHING. We’ve done it ALL. Including yoga, which she has also mentioned. Which makes me seasick, as I have mentioned. By the time we hit our fifties, most fat people have tried everything, and succeeded, as well, but it’s only temporary. By the time we’re done with whatever plan we’ve been working, we’ve done additional damage to our metabolisms, meaning we can eat even less. And though some people are able to start rigorous exercise plans mid-life, some of us have no interest in that. We’d rather just be fat.
I really do. I wish I could just harden up and ignore it. And I do ignore it but I don’t seem to harden. I can’t tell you how wearying it is to have your food choices scrutinized by other people. It’s especially annoying because I realize that most of these people are motivated by concern and kindness. I’m sure my current food warden thinks I am a nice person, and she thinks nice people should be thin, like her. She is only trying to help, but of course she isn’t. She’s just making me tired.
And if you’re reading this and you get the idea to send me some helpful ideas, or statistics about obesity and heart disease, or any of that, please don’t. That will only make me more tired.
I am a little shocked by how meekly I endure this stuff, to be honest. Why don’t I shut it down? I hate confrontation, but I could do it with coldness, by answering, “Wow, cool,” in a flat and dismissive voice. But I wouldn’t dream of it. I am a woman, and women are culturally inculcated to accept a long-running commentary on our looks. That commentary can be positive or negative, but it is constant from birth to death. We don’t question it. We participate in it, we endure it, we wouldn’t know how to feel about ourselves without it. But wouldn’t it be nice to try?
Some Nice Thin People
You know who never pisses me off? My office neighbors. We only comment on each other’s food when something smells really good, and the delicious aroma wafts into a neighboring workspace. “Oh my god what IS that?” They each wear a size two. They are TEENY. One of them is a naturally thin person who has actually tried to gain weight over the years. Yes, such unicorns exist. I hear her eating snacks all the damn time. The other is a naturally thin cyclist who eats like a horse to fuel her commute.
And you know what? Neither of them has ever given me a scrap of advice about my food, weight or health. But they have happily shared their snacks. And if there are donuts in the break room? The cyclist lets me know with happiness and glee, because we both love donuts.
I am so grateful for these women. They are younger than my concerned Food Wardens, and they give me hope that there’s been a generational shift away from that kind of monitoring.
Let’s hope, folks. Let’s just hope.
When I was a newly single mother of three, for some reason I decided to take my kids to Disneyland. By myself. Because I’m nuts. But I did it, and boy was I relieved when it was over.
Now, the relief didn’t settle in until the last day we were there, when we got up in the morning and took the shuttle to the Happiest Place on Earth in order to shop. I was breaking out the charge card and making my kids’ dreams come true. I’d told them that they could each have one thing, whatever they wanted, I didn’t care what it was or what it cost, but we’d have to get it on the last day. They would each have to remember where the thing was.
Though I’m a little fuzzy on the wheres, I actually remember what each of them got! My oldest got a Milne-style big Pooh, and my middle girl got some kind of anniversary Mickey in a satin jacket, and my youngest got the imperious pug from Pocahontas–the one with the ruff. He was larger than life-size.
We boarded the shuttle back to the hotel, and I felt myself relaxing. I hadn’t given much thought to how vigilant I’d had to be, but I had wrangled the kids through Disneyland for 3+ days. No one had been snatched or lost or damaged in any way. They were all decently fed, moderately rested, not sunburned, and not asthmatic. Best of all, they each had an enormous animal to clutch on the way home, in order to impress to our fellow flyers with the fact that we had just been to Disneyland.
I had done it.
I felt moderately triumphant as we rode the shuttle to the hotel. Tension I’d been unaware of carrying started to unlock itself from my shoulders and neck. Once we’d retrieved our bags and boarded the shuttle to the airport, I could actually feel the stress rolling out of my body. I’d been a hyper-aware mother hawk for days on end. It was almost over. We reached John Wayne International, and then our gate. By then, I felt intoxicated by my relief. Once we buckled up for the flight home, I was a jelly-like blob of relaxed motherhood. I didn’t need a cocktail. I was drunk on relief.
I’ve thought about that over the last month or so.
Since November of 2016, I’ve been at a high level of vigilance and a near constant state of outrage. It’s hard to function like that. The last year-plus has been so politically chaotic. It’s easy to forget the earliest days, when Bannon was running the show and each appointment was more catastrophic than the last. Like a scab, he eventually dried up and fell off, leaving us with less orchestrated trolling and more sheer chaos. Chaos that has become entertaining. At some point, I actually started laughing about how hideous this all is, because I laugh about everything.
I told my T about a month ago that something had changed. I wasn’t sure if I’d simply exhausted my capacity for outrage, and gone numb, or if there had been some shift in the atmosphere. I think it started, now that I consider it, with Roy Moore’s defeat. I wondered if I’d just normalized. This is how it’s going to be, I’d tell myself. There are rats in the basement and termites in the foundation, but we might be able to call in an exterminator at some point, if everything wasn’t ruined in the meantime.
I posted this on Facebook this morning:
A friend asked me, this morning, how I would write what’s going on in the head-spinning world of American politics. In my story, the appearance of Giuliani signals an exit strategy; that his wife has had enough, and is going to leave him unless he steps down and takes her back to Manhattan. So he brought in a trusted lawyer friend, and a more skilled lawyer to guard him legally, to help him navigate his way back to private life. But that’s what I would write if this were fiction. We are living in times so much stranger than fiction.
I realize now that I’m not numb. I’m calm. I feel a shift and a flicker of hope. I don’t exactly know what will happen next, to be honest. But something has changed, and the relief I feel is palpable. I’m not quite a blob–I’m still worried as hell–but there is some shift, something afoot.We’ll wait and see if I’m right.
It seems like I’ve been waiting for the clothes of the future for a long time. All my life, actually. And I’m getting impatient.
My idea of the clothes of the future was no doubt colored by my early watching of Star Trek. No, not the crew uniforms–those were absurd to me, even at age nine–but when the ship made a stop at the planet Vulcan when a tortured Spock went into season needed to go upstream and spawn or whatever? (Amok Time). I remembered those Vulcans were wearing the clothes of the future. However, having googled the clothes, they are not at all as I remember them–the clothes I’m thinking of came in the later movies.
So flowing. So easy. Long. Unisex. Caftanesque. Tastefully trimmed, carefully draped.
Wouldn’t we all, if given a chance, adopt these particular clothes of the future?
It turns out, probably not.
So imagine my surprise when I was out to lunch with three friends and I brought up this whole idea of futuristic clothing and what it would look like, and I got widely differing responses.
One friend said he thought the clothing of the future would be technical and responsive. If the weather changed, or you gained or lost weight, the clothing would simply adjust. This friend has lost weight this year and had to keep going “shopping” in his stored clothes to find things that fit him on the way down. So of course he liked the idea of something that would simply adjust itself to a slimmer frame.
Another friend loved the idea of reactive clothing, but he thought it would also be style-reactive. Which kind of blew my mind. I mean, here I am, imagining these lovely subdued flowy things, like Madame Gres with slightly less fabric, and and he’s imagining a world where we would easily sprout peacock feathers if we wanted to! And of COURSE people would want to. Not everyone wants to blend in with the walls. Garments would flame with embellishment and color as desired. Like we were all living in the Capitol.
All this gleeful frippery, these mods and makeups, not. I am not of the Capitol. I am a fan of the black and the charcoal and the neutral and the plain, enlivened by a shot of aubergine or teal now and then. On the day to day, I could wear black, grey and camel all the time and hardly miss colors at all. Which means I have a sort of a grimly dystopian idea of clothing of the future.
I remember being super impressed with Ripley’s Nostromo jumpsuit in Aliens.
At the time, it struck me as functional, customizable, unisex, practical. I was all over it. Now I’m wondering what all that lacing is for. Would we specifically want the fabric over our tummies to be tightened down, a la Scarlett O’Hara getting laced up before the ball? Would Spandex not work in outer space or something? And as functional as it seems, we always end up back at the primary question with jumpsuits–how do you go to the bathroom quickly? These are important questions, but man, did it ever seem “real” to me when that movie came out.
I also liked the clothing in The Giver, believe it or not.
Isn’t that depressing? it’s like, the Amish wardrobe of the future. All homespun and indigo.
I could so go for this!
The other woman at our lunch gathering had similar ideas to my original caftan ideas. Long, graceful, easy, and with hidden pockets. Weatherproof. Soil-proof. One and done, but she envisioned these garments as metallic. Metallic seems like a stretch for me. But I could do metallic if I needed to. If it were necessary. Especially if it looked like THIS.
I would so love that! That is a beautiful handling of color and metallic and style. But is it futuristic? Also, I wonder what would happen if I began sweeping around Portland dressed like this. People would probably think I was trying to start a religious cult.
If you had the opportunity to design a clothing sensibility for the future, what would it look like? Would it be implanted peacock feathers or unisex jumpsuits? I guess the mistake we make is that somehow, in the future, clothing will gather up under one unified umbrella and fashion will flow from a single source. I think the opposite will probably happen. We will all get to wear what we want.
It’s going to be fashion Babel.
Introverts seem to be having a moment lately.
We are posting memes about introversion, where showing us talking to a cat at a party will help the world to better understand how weird we are. Since so many writers are introverts, and introverts love the internet, we are writing listicles about introverts for Buzzfeed, and going into depth about our special introverted ways on Medium, and generally feeling misunderstood and special.
I think we’d probably better get over ourselves.
My coworker heard a quick phone call between me and my daughter today. In it, I figured out how many people are coming over for Easter, so my daughter can appropriately size the Family Mac-n-Cheese® she’s bringing to dinner. My coworker sounded so sweetly excited when she called over the wall. “Karen! You’re having a big gathering! Are you excited?”
“No.” I said to her. “I’m never excited.”
I never want to go to anything. Ever. It all sounds terrible. Book group? Oh god no. Hosting my family for the holidays? Too many people. Dinner at a restaurant? Jesus Christ, you have to be kidding. A cruise to Bermuda? Just kill me now.
What do you do when your knee jerk reaction is to hide from all social contact? You do what I do. Which is, I dread everything, but I go to everything. Because I know I’m going to have a wonderful time. We are going to have the best discussion about the book I loved (or hated, sometimes the best discussions are about books I hate), and the food is going to be amazing and the company is going to be sparkling and Bermuda is going to be everything I ever dreamed of and more; pink sand, turquoise water, sunshine and mild ocean air. But my baseline expectation remains that I will hate ALL of it, even though experience should lead me to believe the exact opposite.
When I was younger, I would listen to my inner misanthrope. She was a grump. She insisted I keep clear of all merrymaking. She convinced me that no one wanted me there anyway, not really, so I’d just spare everyone the horror of my attendance. I stayed home a lot. Then I sat around and wondered why everyone was having a better life than I was.
I didn’t make the connection until I was in my thirties, at which point I learned to get up and go places, where I would have fun because I’m actually great at parties. As long as I can leave whenever I want to. I must be able to do the Irish Good-Bye in order to have fun. As long as I can bounce without a word at leave-taking, I tend to stay and have fun.
There are other strategies for dealing with the self-imposed isolation of introversion. One is to marry an extrovert. I have had relationships with extroverts, and survived them. I understand that some people find this marriage-of-opposites to be helpful because the extrovert (some guy) is always dragging the introvert (me) out and about. The rallying cry is always the same. “Come on, it’ll be fun!” This mindless insistence on activity paired with my mulish social withdrawal doesn’t sound fun at all to me. It reminds me of a cheerful child wearing a huge lead boot.
I am the lead boot.
I’m happiest with another introvert, like the man I’m with now. He might even be more introverted than I am. We always make plans, but we often have things we need to do first. Like, pay a bill online. Or take an antacid. Or move the laundry around. Or let the dogs out. If we are lucky, we can aggregate enough small, easily postpone-able activities to avoid the going-out plan altogether, in favor of just staying home and watching something on Netflix.
I wonder, sometimes, how we avoid spending our entire lives slumped on the couch, making fun of Flip or Flop VEGAS. But we don’t. We get out, and go to parties and plays and dinners with friends and a lot of movies. We go talk with people and smile, even if it kills us. We plan getaways and live (for the most part) like normal people. And then we come home and decompress, quietly recharging until we have to go out and do it again.
Because we’re introverts, don’t you know. And we’re special.
SO MANY valentines reference hotdogs that I hardly know where to start. I have left off the examples that have people carrying around hotdogs, leaving those in the strange meat valentine category. These are hotdogs without people. Just hotdog after hotdog. Self-slicing hotdogs. Amorous hotdogs. Married hotdogs. And there are the lonely hotdogs, and the pairs of hotdogs, and the hotdogs seeking buns. Hmm. There seem to be so many plays on the word “relish,” which has fallen out of favor these days except as a condiment, and on the word “frank,” which is likewise not used much anymore.
Why are there so many of these? I have no idea.
I don’t know how these tie in with the idea of romance, either. Cannibalism and butchery shouldn’t be part of the romance plan, should it? Were all the designers of vintage valentines secretly serial killers?
My intention is to do a future post devoted to hotdog valentines, which figure prominently in the vintage valentine lexicon of love. But I’ve included the ones with people and hotdogs here, because, well, meat. However, we have steaks, baloney, wurst and hotdogs, and…veal. But let’s start with a lovingly rendered slice of marbled beef, because I know that says romance to so many.
Kinda grooving on the baloney slicer, I won’t lie. I’m sure the true bonds of love are formed with sausage links when, for instance, you cook breakfast for someone. Okay, maybe not. However I do love this one. Especially that little dog. The rubber gloves, the cleaver, the deranged grin, the oddly clean apron–Boy, I bet that guy gets a lot of dates.
A VEAL THEMED VALENTINE?? That one just makes me sad.
In my book Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park, I have a character named Rhondalee LaCour who is absolutely insufferable. She’s a frustrated busybody who gossips and spies. She rains down storms of accusation and judgment on her husband. She pulls her granddaughter around by the arm, and possibly by the hair when no one is looking. She’s TERRIBLE. I can’t even describe how fun she was to write.
Now, not everyone can enjoy Rhondalee as much as her creator does, I understand that. But everyone who reads her identifies with one part of Rhondalee. And that is…
The Invisible Committee is a board that sits in judgment of Rhondalee’s actions, appearance, words, ambitions and marriage. Its existence is established during a very early scene in the book, while Rhondalee is vaccuming the courtyard of the trailer park’s clubhouse (it is covered with indoor/outdoor carpeting). “She ran the Kirby with ferocity, sucking up every trace of dust while laying our her thoughts to an Invisible Committee she’d mentally convened to hear her evidence and render a judgment as to her fitness as a wife and Tender’s failure as a husband.” The Committee hears her complaints, but stays silent as it becomes clear that Tender LaCour is indisputably in love with another woman.
I’ve been asked over and over who Rhondalee is based on, and the answer is, no one and everyone. She is a creation of my twisted sense of humor, written to satisfy the unadulterated glee I take in women behaving badly. But as distasteful as she is to so many readers, everyone seems to identify with her Invisible Committee. And why is that? Do we all believe there is some committee in the sky, watching and judging and issuing pronouncements on our lives?
After listening to my friends talk about it, I’ve decided that we do. It’s just located in different places.
Please understand, I was raised without the concept of Heaven and Hell. I was pretty creeped out when I found out about the idea at age eight. I remember sitting in a basement rec room, wood-panelling and all, with some Catholic friends explaining the lake of fire, and the Devil, and sin in great detail. I kept saying, “You really believe this stuff?” and shaking my head. You can’t imagine how absurd it sounded. The Devil was a Halloween costume, nothing more. And sin? The whole idea of sin? I went to church and Sunday school each week, I learned my Bible verses and sang my hymns, but I had never even HEARD of sin. But to my Catholic friends, this was all part of an invisible world, inhabited by unseen beings that included an utterly unfamiliar God; one who sat up in Heaven on a throne, watching and judging and somehow controlling the world with his judgment.
I am aware that a lot of people–a LOT–believe this way. I never could.
There is a modern, spiritual-not-religious alternative to the big man in the sky, which is the Universe. People need to listen to the Universe and these same people believe that the Universe speaks to them. The Universe is always trying to tell these people something, mostly around how important they are and how needful their endeavors are, be that a line of handmade stained-glass earrings or a CD of drumming and chanting or the like. The Universe isn’t as judge-y as some of our invisible committees, but it’s still out there–vast, concerned, instructive.
The Universe is infinite. I have a limited ability to comprehend infinity, but I know it’s BIG. I have a hard time believing that the cosmos is personally invested in my self-publishing endeavors. I remember watching The Tree of Life, a brilliant, baffling film that features the endless stream of prayer and supplication that pours from humanity into this cosmic infinity; all the guilt and hope and supplication and anguish we send up as a species, alternating with gorgeous shots of nebulae and stardust.
That’s the universe. I don’t think it cares whether or not I leave my e-books on Kindle Unlimited or not. But some believe the Universe is ALL OVER IT.
You don’t have to go into the Cosmos or up to Heaven to find invisible judgment. There are much more localized sources. In the olden days, in the fifties and sixties, the question was, “What would the neighbors think?” This concern seemed to spring up after the uproar of what Great Depression and WWII, when so many expectations were set aside in the name of survival. Women donned coveralls and made decisions and worked in factories and men were–gone. At war. Scarce.
When the men came home, America embraced conventionality like a religion. We invented the nuclear family–a great failed social experiment, in my opinion–and created suburbia. With suburbia came that old saw of a line, “What would the neighbors think?” Those neighbors didn’t have names or faces or any kind of distinct identity to add value to their judgment. But streets full of those invisible neighbors observed everything. Everyone was SURE of it.
I’ve read some beautiful, difficult books that deal with the judgment and oppression of early Suburbia.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates – The suburbs can be lethal.
The Weedkiller’s Daughter by Harriet Simpson Arnow – This novel is a perhaps overwrought and cliche-ridden, but it’s trying to convey something about the smothering sterility of suburban life. I like the author more when she’s writing about Appalachia, but I still feel this one is worth a read because it took on the burbs fairly early, and from the viewpoint of alienation from Nature.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham – This heartbreaking book is about several women through the generations, but the runaway suburban mother just grabbed me by the throat.
The Ice Storm by Rick Moody – A depressing look at WASPy alienation.
Three of these novels have been made into excellent movies. Then, there’s TV, specifically Mad Men. Who could forget the moment when Betty Draper went outside with the shotgun and started picking off ducks? Betty was such a casualty of suburbia. I waited through the entirety of the shown for her awakening, which never, ever came.
“What would the neighbors think?” was already more of a punchline than a true concern when I entered my teens. If you watch the movies of the era, there’s a general mockery of the idea. Some Bohemian young woman is always turning to her mother, to say, “Oh MOTHER, I KNOW, WHAT WOULD THE NEIGHBORS THINK?!?!?” Because this young woman with her center part and her miniskirt is liberated, and her dotty, repressed mother still cares, which makes her quaint at best and ridiculous at worst.
I always wondered who those neighbors were. I’m fairly certain that none of our many neighbors gave a damn what my family did when I was a kid, and if they did, we moved so often that we didn’t provide much interest for long. People my age would like to think that the women’s movement, the Watergate era and general consciousness-raising resulted in dismissal of conventional standards. And in some ways, things have changed. Though my novel The Iris Files is set in suburbia, nothing’s been the same out here since the 70s, and that’s a good thing, especially for Iris.
But our need to assume judgment never really went away. Because, now we have…
Welcome to our current social media parade, in which we are obsessed with how our lives come across to others: how they appear visually on Instagram, how eventful they seem when we check in on Facebook, how well our thoughts read on Twitter feeds. Why, some people even have BLOGS.
And for the first time, we have actual feedback, by way of likes or comments or replies. But we don’t know most of those people. They are not our neighbors, our coworkers. They are for the most part, invisible in our daily lives. All over the world, people are curating and preaching to and performing life for the eyes and ears of unseen, unknown strangers. The larger the following, the larger the performance.
It’s obvious to me that we crave the judgment of invisible others. If not God, then the Universe. If not the Universe, then the neighbors. If not neighbors, then the Internet.
Rhondalee is a middle-aged woman who manages a trailer park in the middle of nowhere. She has had her dreams crushed. Her life is tiny. It only matters to Rhondalee if her marriage falters, or her daughter never goes back onstage, or her community newsletter column goes unread. But when the Invisible Committee is watching, Rhondalee feels important. Her anger is forceful, her rage impactful. Her struggles matter.
I think so many people come up with the equivalent of an Invisible Committee because the alternative is humbling. The alternative to invisible judgment is your own invisibility. No one is watching you. No one has much of an opinion about how you live or who you love or where you shop or what you wear or drive or eat or consume for entertainment. No one outside your immediate family cares whether or not you have children. No one worries about when you’re going to finish your novel or make a success of your career or travel to New Zealand, or whatever metric you’ve set up to judge yourself against. No one is watching, no one is judging, and you are free to live your life just as large or as small as you choose to.
To some people, I imagine this feels terribly small and lonely. It’s just them, dancing for their dinners, trying to convince each other that their actions and opinions are terribly important to someone, somewhere. But to me? It is a calm, liberated place to be.
So if you have an invisible Committee, consider shutting it down. I am not sure what Rhondalee is going to do with hers, to be honest. She’s experiencing something like personal growth in book two. The days of her Invisible Committee might be numbered.