Posts in Category: personal history

Twenty One Years In the Office

A decision looms.

Wooden desk, vintage manual typewriter. Image via pixabay.com
Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

That title probably sounds like I’m talking about retirement, but I’m not. Not yet, anyway. No, this is something else completely. I’m thinking of switching offices at work. Not jobs, not companies. Just my office.

This is a big decision. I’m considering it because I’m rarely in the office these days, and there is a woman who is younger, busier, and in need of the kind of space my current office can offer.

I love my current office. I’m also afraid I don’t need it anymore.

The other office is small. Tiny, in fact. I love it. But do I love it enough it to consider switching offices?

The fact is, the proposed new office is a former storage closet. It has a door and a window. Years ago, when I used to go into this space to get something or other, I would wish it were my office. It had a door. And a window. I’d occasionally suggest to my manager that he clear out the storage closet and let me have it. He would roll his eyes at the idea. “Too much work,” he would groan. And I would return to my terrible little office.

The worst office in the building.

At the time, I sat in perhaps the worst office in our building. It was a hemmed-in narrow strip of windowless space that held a PC, a Mac, a typewriter, and a printer. I sat in the middle of these oxygen depleting machines, and I used them all. The space was so small, I barely had to roll my chair to swap what I was doing.

On the counter at the end of my skinny space sat a huge metal spray booth. People from all over the building used it. They would stand six feet from my chair, opening the doors, flipping on the loud fan, spraying toxic fixative, usually talking to me about whatever they were doing because it was so incredibly awkward to do that in my office.

You can see why I wanted the storage closet, I bet.

When I was choking on the fumes from the booth and the dust attracted by all these various electrical things, I would look across the hall at my friend Sandee’s office, with her huge corner desk and two big windows and credenza topped with random items related to our company. I longed for Sandee’s office. It was visceral.

Better offices come at a price.

I switched jobs. I had a better title, more money, a troublesome manager, and a wonderful office. It had a full wall of windows that looked out onto Broadway Avenue, and a ¾ wall with no door. It was open, open, open.

My manager didn’t like that people would stop by and chat with me. I didn’t invite them, they just somehow needed to say hello. I got my work done, in fact I excelled in this position, but still, there was that friendliness, that chatting, and the fact that during the weekday, I smiled a lot. She didn’t like the smiling. Yes, this boss complained because I often had a smile on my face.

Is that not horrible? She was horrible. I don’t mean to imply that she was a horrible person. She was just a horrible manager.

The horrible manager moved me to a more enclosed office right next door to her. That was fine with me. This office was smaller, but it had spectacular windows and a door. That I would close. Whenever I could. To block out the sound of her strident voice, calling from her office because “everything turned to italics and I don’t know how to fix it!”

This manager was worried about how much time I spent on the phone. Our phones were connected, so when she saw that I had picked up mine, she would pop into my office, eyes wide and blinking, to make sure it wasn’t a personal call. It never was.

And yet, in she came.

I had two enormous black filing cabinets in my office where she filed useless and unimportant pieces of paper that she considered important. She would come into my office to retrieve something from one of them, then walk through the very narrow space behind my desk chair–where I was sitting, mind you–to my side desk. There, she would rummage through my desk drawer to get a pen or pencil, or make a phone call on my office phone while I sat there in disbelief, trying to work with her bumping around to my right.

Once, while attempting to do this, she stubbed her foot on the base of my desk chair and said “OUCH” loudly, right into my hair. I went to HR, where I was told this manager had “a good heart.” She most certainly did not have a good heart, she’d had a heart attack on the golf course, but whatever.

Shortly after this event, I came in on a Sunday and methodically stripped out every single personal thing I’d ever installed in this office; the blanket over the back of the chair where my visitors sat when they persisted in dropping by to say hi, every random scrap, clipping and Cristiano Ronaldo photo on the cork board, the framed photos of my dogs, the pottery unicorn my mother gave me for my seventeenth birthday. Even the plant.

The look on the horrible manager’s face when she popped in the next Monday was priceless. She stopped stumbling around behind my desk. For a while.

There is more to write about this particular period of my employment, but the most important part is this: it ended.

When an office makes you cry.

In the year that followed, I found myself switching offices a few times. I had two fairly crummy interim offices with no windows or doors. One of these offices was so terrible that I went to HR and cried over it. Real tears. This might be because I’m a big baby, and it might be because the office was really that terrible. Possibly both.

The HR manager was very kind, and she took notes. And though it sounds like I was always going to HR, I really wasn’t. I’ve gone there four times in 21 years, and three times were about that manager. The other one was about the bad office.

But here’s the thing about my crummy interim offices. They came with the most wonderful manager. You might wait your entire professional life to work for someone like this manager. And this manager eventually installed me in the window-filled office I’d coveted when it was Sandee’s.

I love this office. It is grand. On the day I moved in, I wheeled in my desk chair, pinned my various and sundry ephemera to the cork board, and covered the credenza with my own crap and a few plants. I hung a blanket on one wall and a huge map of the USA on the other. I filled the bookshelf with reference books I never use, and topped it with a vintage globe, two sock monkeys, a bunch of retro souvenirs from places I have and have not visited.

I also put up a framed company photo from the “Good Old Days” that includes the terrible manager. I haven’t even affixed a sticker over her face. I consider this proof that I am a kind and forgiving person.

Discovering that I’m a stop on the tour.

Last year, I was sitting in my office on one of my rare in-office days. A person from HR stepped into my office and then backed out, a new hire close behind her. That was weird enough, but then I could hear her whispering. “[Redacted]?” I called. “Why are you whispering out there?”

She came back in, embarrassed. “I was just explaining to [Redacted] here” (the new hire who had followed her in) “that some of the people who’ve worked here for, you know…” and she smiled, “some time, how you decorate your offices. And yours is just so cute.”

I smiled and said thank you! Wow! Gee! And thought about how much I hate being told that anything about my life, age, appearance, or taste is cute. It is one of the most condescending things you can say to an older person, no matter how cute she may be.

Working from home, like everyone else.

Since the shutdown of Spring 2020, I have rarely used my cute/grand office. But I miss it. I miss my team, chatting with my manager, lunching with my friends, and the give and take of office conversation. I even miss a couple of people I hadn’t really liked before the shut down. We were somewhat awkward with each other in the “before times,” but now we are all hearty with each other, practically slapping each other on the back in all our break room bonhomie.

I attribute this to the nearly forgotten pleasure human beings experience from random unplanned positive interactions. I make it a point to go in at least once a week, now.

That was how I discovered that the former-storage-closet-cum-office was vacant, due to a realignment of staff. The former occupant is on a different floor, and this tiny space, which has somehow housed two different visual managers over the years (don’t they need space?), is sitting empty.

When I broached the subject of switching offices with my manager, she gave me a look. “It’s a closet, Karen. I want you to go sit in there with the door closed for a while. You can be kind of…claustrophobic.” (It’s true, but how does she know this?)

I have, and it’s fine.

I think.

I’m not sure when, or even if I’ll be moving into the office that used to be a storage closet with a door and a window that I coveted so long ago. I’m not even sure why it calls to me. I know part of it is that I feel like my team member would make better use of my current space. I despise waste, and I feel like the space is wasted on me. I also feel like if I’m going to work mostly from home, keeping the big office is selfish of me.

I have a lot of feelings.

I’m not sure that the move will actually happen. I’m still considering this switching offices thing. If it does happen, I’m sure I’ll find a way to personalize this dinky little space.

I just hope no one tells me it’s cute.

Having Enough

Putting Away

bars of soap on an IKEA bar rag
Photo via Pixabay

The other evening, my husband and I were putting away groceries. When we do this, there’s always a small stack of HABA items (Health And Beauty A- what does the second A stand for, grocers of the world? Anyway…) I trotted off to our bathroom to settle in these items: a deodorant, my husband’s shampoo, eye makeup remover towelettes, a new blush.

Except for the blush, none of these items were going to be used any time soon. They went into the plastic bucket under the sink that holds the extras. I came out, pleased with myself. “We have at least two of everything,” I said in a calm and happy voice. He looked a bit puzzled. “Extras,” I said. “We have extras of everything under the bathroom sink.”

You have to have extras, in order to have enough.

Extras.

I was introduced to the concept of extras in my teen years. In my own home, we only ever had just enough, and sometimes not even that. There was usually more month than money in our household of six people. That seemed normal to me. But when I was fourteen, I had a boyfriend. I spent enough time at his house to get a closer look at how it was in someone else’s home. And it was so different there.

They had extras.

For one thing, they had a pantry. A full pantry. There was enough food in there to last his family of six for at least three months, maybe more. I was familiar with some of the contents, like commercially canned fruit, fruit cocktail, corn, peas, beans and the like. We bought those, too, but just enough for the week, and rarely fruit unless Mom was making her fruit salad for a special occasion. This pantry held at least twenty cans of fruit.

I was shocked to see how much canned protein was in there; Spam, yes we ate that too, and tuna, yes, we always had tuna, it was the one fish my mom would eat. But there were clams, oysters, and many cans of something I’d always been curious about called “Underwood Deviled Ham.” Do you remember those little paper-wrapped cans? We’d never tried this luxurious looking little delicacy.

There was also a can that held an entire cooked chicken. It couldn’t have been a very large chicken, but just the same, this can (about the size of a big chili can) purported to have a whole chicken in there. I was intrigued and repelled in equal measure.

The shelves held an array of soups, and not just the cooking soups stockpiled by Midwesterners (Campbell’s Cream of Whatever, I’m looking at you). There were all the lunch soups in there, and varieties of crackers we never had at our house. Saltines, sure, but Club crackers and oyster crackers and breadsticks and Rye Crisps, whatever those were.

There were olives and martini onions, pimientos and pickles. I’m sure there was canned chili, which my family liked but never ate, and Chef Boyardee. There was never any of that at our house. I remember opening, heating, tasting, and dumping some Spaghettios into their turquoise-colored kitchen sink.

Not good.

I just didn’t get it.

Elegant fixings and luxury items aside, there was a distinct bomb-shelter quality to this stockpile of supplies. There was such a bounty that when a group of us decided to take a weekend car trip to Lewiston, Idaho for the drag races, the boyfriend offered up the pantry contents to his less fortunate friends. They came over and loaded up bags of canned goods to eat for the weekend. If you’re wondering how he managed this, his parents were out of town. When they returned, they probably chalked up the dent in the stockpile to their teenage son’s appetite.

I wanted to interrogate this pantry, to understand the why of it, and more importantly, the how of it. How did a family of six accumulate that much food?

I’m sure they ate a lot. They had to, because there were four boys in that family, four tawny-skinned boys with wiry hair, and all of them were muscular and skinny and in constant motion with skiing and paper routes and hiking and just being flappy and fidgety because they were all a little autistic.

How was it that they hadn’t eaten up all this food? At my house we were a rather torpid and lumpen bunch by comparison, and we’d have cleaned that pantry out in a month.

Except for the Chef Boyardee.

But wait! There’s more!

I think toiletries were even more of an issue in my house than food. You name it, if it was in the bathroom, we ran out of it. We ran out of toothpaste on the regular. Hello, baking soda. And my mother was brand specific. We used Colgate toothpaste so if we ran out, we had to wait until we could afford the damn stuff. We even ran out of toilet paper and had to call in its more expensive stand-ins.

At the boyfriend’s house, which had three full bathrooms and one half bath, the cabinet under each bathroom sink was completely stuffed with a jumble of every soap, toothpaste, deodorant, and shampoo under the sun. Boxes and cans and bottles, all in a jumble, willy nilly.

There was barely any room for the multiple packages of TP. You’d look under there and find Mitchum and Arrid and Dial Roll-on and Right Guard spray, and Head and Shoulders and Prell and Breck and Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific, and Ivory and Dove and Irish Spring and Palmolive and Lifebuoy and Dial, and Colgate and Crest and Close Up and Pepsodent and Gleem and freaking Pearl Drops.

It blew my mind.

Whenever he visited his parent, the boyfriend would assemble a bag of this and bring it back to our apartment. I used it all, but objected to the Mitchum. It really did smell too manly. I decided roll-on deodorants were best, especially Dry Idea, and became a Close Up believer. All of these were brands I first found under the in-laws’ bathroom sinks.

I finally ask the question

I was with this boyfriend for six years, all told, including a year and a half of marriage. My future mother-in-law and I were never what you’d call close, but we did rech enough of a détente that I could ask her about her shopping habits when it came to toiletries. Leaving out the part where her son took home bags full of them, I just sort of, you know, perkily inquired as to how she came to have so many different brands on hand.

She smiled proudly. “When I shop, I always pick up a few of whatever’s on sale, whether we need it or not,” she told me.

That was it. She just walked down the aisle and threw a few of whatever was on sale into her grocery cart. Every week. All year long. And it didn’t bankrupt them.

Again, mind blown.

Now I understand.

All of this is to say, I am now in a similar position. I am no longer eking it out from paycheck to paycheck, but even when I was, my kids always had soap and toothpaste and shampoos of choice and whatever else they needed to be fresh and groomed. The pantry was full enough to make it through a lean month. Maybe two.

Today, there are only two people living in this house, but the pantry is still decently stocked. My husband does a pantry patrol to make sure the foodstuffs he requires, like Fritos, are at acceptable levels. He monitors the jars of spaghetti sauce very carefully. I don’t make spaghetti sauce-based things very often, but rest assured, I always have six jars in there, waiting to be called into marinara action.

We could live out of the pantry for a while, but probably not for a year, as I have no whole canned chickens. Not even one. Pantry protein is restricted to canned tuna. I pay close attention to food expiration dates. If I don’t, my microbiologist best friend will shame me (she’s only done that once, when I had the entire contents of the overstocked pantry spread out on the counters while battling ants, but once was enough). I’ll keep something a month after it expires, but not a year. A pantry is both a comfort and a responsibility.

I hate food waste, so every few months, I go on a tear and refuse to buy food until we’ve “eaten through” the pantry and freezer. It’s all very fine to feel stocked up and safe, but it is not my intention to curate a food museum. I don’t need to stockpile. If there’s a nuclear war I hope to go in the first strike, so I’m not prepping for that. But I want to have…enough.

Toiletries are where I can go a little overboard. I know which things I like and need, and I’ll buy them in almost any brand with a few exceptions. Under my three bathroom sinks, you won’t find mountains of extra stuff, but you will find at least two of everything I use on the daily. Maybe more, if I find a good deal or get paranoid, which I am right now about mint-flavored antacids. I can’t have too many bottles of mint-flavored antacids. For the last year or more, they’ve been hard to find, and I don’t think I am the problem. One lady in Oregon can’t create a shortage, can she?

Likewise with Cetaphil face wash. Did you know there was a Cetaphil face was shortage in 2020? Well, I knew, and now there are probably too many bottles of that under one or the other sink. But I’ll use them. Eventually. I will use it all up.

There is always enough. There are always extras.

The Hideabed: A ten-part personal history told through the pull-out couch, fold-out sofa, sofa-bed, or hideabed as it was known in my family.

One: A Boyfriend’s Hideabed.

A crocheted blanket on a red vinyl couch.
Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

When I was in ninth grade, my boyfriend was a senior in high school and a rebel in his family. He was the second son of four boys raised by educated, politically liberal but socially conservative parents in an upper middle class family. His father occupied a special chair in the history department at Montana State University, in Bozeman. His mother was a librarian at the university library.

Three of his four grandparents were Jewish, a fact his parents didn’t want known in Montana. So there was no religion in this family, but there were rules. He and his brothers wore dress slacks to school (in Montana), kept their hair cut short (in 1973), and went to bed (in pajamas) by 8PM on school nights. Owning a car was out of the question, but his parents did relent and allow him to work as a lot boy at the Fiat dealership. I have no idea why Bozeman had a Fiat dealership in the 1970s, but it did.

Anyway, he secretly saved his money, bought a car, and used it to run away with his girlfriend at age sixteen. By the time the police found them (somewhere in the Deep South) they had broken up, and both worked in a chicken processing plant. He was arrested and faced charges of statutory rape, but the liberal application of lawyers made all that go away.

Once his parents got him safely back home, the rules relaxed for my boyfriend. He grew his hair long, wore jeans and flannel shirts, openly smoked cigarettes, worked at a gas station, and bought a noisy Chrysler hot rod with a 440 engine. He also gave up the pajamas. Within the family’s tastefully appointed midcentury home, he further demonstrated his freedom from the rules that bound his brothers by vacating his childhood bedroom.

He moved to a spare room on the lower level that contained not much more than a hideabed and a large black and white TV. The room had sophistication, I would give him that. It was just down the hall from the little door he and his brothers had shimmied through to reach a dirt crawlspace, where they’d created a magnificent series of roads and excavations for their Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars. He opened the door to show me once, and let me tell you, I wanted nothing more than to go in there and play. But that was childhood, and he was grown.

I was grown, too, I guess. I was fourteen, on the Pill, and had been released into the wilds of unsupervised adolescence by my parents. Whenever his family traveled—he never went along, preferring to stay home and work—I spent nights on that hideabed, the first I’d ever slept in, with the bar across its middle pressing into my back, and him pressing into all the rest of me.

Two: A Parental Hideabed Appears.

I spent part of ninth grade and the summer after it living with my older brother in Bozeman, but Brother Steve moved back in with my parents late that summer. I stayed with my sister in Bozeman for as long as I could (she’d moved out at age sixteen and had a basement apartment off Main Street), but eventually I had to move to Missoula, too.  

My parents, in one of their stabs at reinvention (law school for my dad), lived in married student housing for the University of Montana. So that’s where I landed at the beginning of my sophomore year. My family’s first hideabed appeared here, a small fold-out loveseat for this apartment, a “really good” one, according to my mother. She was particular about furniture brands, something she bequeathed to me, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  

No one slept in the loveseat hideabed. I slept upstairs in a twin bed, displacing my older brother, who took my little brothers room/bed. Eric bunked in with my parents in a game of Musical Beds. It was a three bedroom with five of us and one bathroom. Then my boyfriend showed up. He’d put off enrolling in college because he was miserable and lonely without me, so he got a job in Missoula and moved into my twin bed.

The situation was untenable, but we’d lived in plenty of untenable situations before. This one proved too much for even my parents. They decided to clean house. They would keep Steve—my mom almost always kept my older brother—and my little brother was only three years old, so he wasn’t going anywhere. My parents decided that my boyfriend should return to his plan of enrolling in an auto mechanic program at the junior college in Yakima, Washington, and that I should go with him. So I did. At age fifteen. I moved to another state, where we pretended we were married so CPS wouldn’t put me in foster care.

Three: Sorry, I’m trying to stick to writing about hideabeds, but this other crap intrudes.

I hated Yakima. Hated being so far from my family. I ached and pined and had what I know now were anxiety attacks. I was so excited to go home for Christmas that year, but it was a disaster on more levels than I have the heart to recount. I’m not sure who slept in their miniscule living room on the miniscule hideabed that Christmas. My boyfriend–let’s call him “Phil,” because that was his actual name–Phil was with his family in Bozeman having his usual opulent Christmas, so I think it might have been me and my sister.

After that sad little Christmas when I was fifteen, Phil and I didn’t go back until the next summer. I was sixteen. We worked for my parents, whose miniatures business had really taken off. They still lived in the University’s student housing even though neither of them were taking classes. That summer wasn’t bad, really, aside from sleeping on that teeny hideabed. It was cramped and the bar pressed across our backs, but we fit. And I learned to ride a bike, finally.

And then, my sister moved to Missoula. Yes, that same summer. So we were all jammed into that tiny student housing apartment, Mom, Dad, four kids plus Phil, very little money, no space. Phil and I returned to Yakima, dropping the kid tally to three, but even so, this was just too much for my parents. They’d been moving us out since my brother turned 18, and we all kept moving back in, over and over again. They couldn’t get rid of us, but they kept trying.

So after my father flunked out of law school, my parents left both my older siblings behind in Missoula and moved to California. I didn’t know they’d moved until I made a slightly panicked phone call to my sister when I was not able to reach our parents. “Oh, they moved,” she told me.

I know we gathered in Missoula that Christmas, in a mobile home my sister and brother rented while they both went to college. This was another miserable Christmas. My parents were desperately broke. We were all so desperately broke. And there we were, trying to gather like any other family and celebrate. No wonder my mother hated Christmas.

We all went home, sadder and not merry at all.

Four: A New Gigantic Hideabed

Before I return to the hideabed, I need to make it clear that I’m not very clear on how it was for my parents in California. I’m not sure where they lived or where Dad worked, or how it even came to be that they moved there. Communication arrived via letters. They continued to move around a bit, and had a terrible experience working for a residential school, and eventually settled in Redding.

Dad returned to work for either the Forest Service or the Army Corps of Engineers. Mom was home with my younger brother Eric. I think they were also on-site managers of their apartment complex.

It was the spring of my junior year when Phil and I drove to Redding from Yakima to visit. I had only seen them for that terrible Christmas in the preceding year, so this visit felt momentous and important. On our way down, we passed through Portland, Oregon. I’d always hated large cities, but as we drove through Portland I had a bone-deep sense of wonder and happiness. I told him, “I hate cities, but if I ever had to live in one, I think I could live here.”

Redding was fun. Mom bustled around, cheerful and excited. She baked challah bread, and made a “really good” French Stew in her Dutch oven. My little brother’s hair was bleached blonde and he was brown as a nut from swimming in the apartment complex’s swimming pool. It was April, so my mother took me to a small, artsy shopping mall and had me pick out my 17th birthday present. I chose a pottery unicorn that the shop owner said she’d bought on Telegraph Avenue in San Francisco. I still have it.

This is one of the few times in my memory when my mother seemed happy with her life. It’s possible that she was just happy to see us, but she seemed domestic and contented. That was rare, and I enjoyed it.

They had a new hideabed, a large one. In fact it was Queen-sized, and to Phil and I, who slept in a double bed in our furnished apartment, it seemed enormous. Mom claimed it had a “really good” mattress, and we would be comfortable. We only stayed a couple of days, and of course we slept with the bar pressing into our backs. But I was so happy to see my mom that I didn’t care. I would have slept there forever.

Five: The Enormous Hideabed Heads North.

Of course they couldn’t stay in Redding. When my parents moved to Portland, I was quietly thrilled. It was so much closer to Yakima, and there was only one mountain pass between me and Mom (satus Pass, near Goldendale). It felt like my parents had moved next door.  

Their first home was a rental in the Southwest part of the city, very near Alpenrose Dairy. It was a ranch with two bedrooms in the main part of the house and a back addition where my older brother had a room. He’d moved back in with my parents due to health problems, and took care of my little brother while both my parents worked for the Corps.

When Phil and I visited, which we did quite often, we slept on the enormous hideabed. I really hated it. It was a little older, and the mattress that my mother had insisted was “really good” had gotten softer. That made the bar even more of an issue. But it was worth it to see my parents, my brothers, and the wonders of Portland.

Ah, Portland in the seventies. We shopped at John’s Landing, where my favorite store was Talk to the Animals. The restaurants where we ate—Henry Thiele’s, Mazzi’s Pizza, Carrow’s, The Crab Bowl—are no more than quaint memories. But I loved Portland just as much as I thought I would when we drove through on our way to Redding.

I was in my senior year. Graduation loomed. I told Phil that I really wanted to move to Portland once I finished school. I pointed out that he’d chosen Yakima, so wasn’t it my turn to choose? And I wanted Portland. He’d exhausted employment opportunities in Yakima, which sounds strange, since he was an auto mechanic and there’s generally a great job market for mechanics. But the YVC auto program was the best in the region. Yakima was overly supplied with young men with good training in the art of auto maintenance.

Phil needed to change markets. Portland beckoned.

Phil moved in with my parents in the spring of 1978. He left me up north with no money and no phone. I’d walk up to a phone booth and call collect to check in. His job search was delayed by having his wisdom teeth out. That didn’t go well. Phil had zero tolerance for pain or illness, and when he experienced either, he completely collapsed. My parents lovingly tended him as he recovered on the enormous hideabed.

He eventually recovered enough to find a job at a brake shop that paid over $7.00 an hour. This was an hourly fortune. We had lived below the poverty level for three years. Come to think of it, my family seemed to always live below poverty level, one way or another. How would we spend all that money?

My head spun with thoughts of how we would live in Portland, and where, and what it would be like to live so near my parents for the first time since tenth grade. I couldn’t wait to get there, but first, I had to graduate.

Six:  A Terrible Hideabed Rented Month-to-Month.

I didn’t connect with Phil via the payphone for a few weeks. When I called collect to my parents’ house, he was never there. Mom sounded really brisk and nervous. No one had time to talk to me, it seemed. I was trying to finish up my senior year, subsisting on food from a friend’s father who merchandised groceries and gave us the stuff he culled from grocery shelves, and pervasive melancholy.

Where did the melancholy come in? Well, there had been trouble in my friend circle that year. The tight group of juniors had splintered, leaving me with fewer friends and a sense that graduation was imminent and we would all be scattering. I was also living alone (except for the cats) for the first time in my young life. I didn’t much like it.

Finally, I made a collect call to my sister in Missoula. I did that rarely because it was so expensive. She accepted the charges. She sounded terrible. “I’m so sick. I’m so sick, Karen. But guess who’s here?” Who. Hmm. Her boyfriend Dan? Nope. Her friend Lisa? Not her, either.

I couldn’t guess, so she handed the phone to someone else. I waited.

“Hi,” said Phil. “I didn’t like the job in Portland, so I quit and came to Missoula.” He had already found a job at a car dealership, but they were both sick with what we called the stomach flu back then, and probably what we call Norovirus now. They were so incapacitated that they were just laying together in my sister’s hideabed, suffering.

That’s why my mother had sounded so funny on the phone. When Phil hadn’t liked his job, she’d heartily encouraged him to go to Missoula, and not to tell me as I might object! I can imagine her waving her hands, exhorting him to Just go, Phil! Fly!

Well, it worked. My plans to move to Portland were successfully thwarted, my return to the parental home narrowly averted. Mom must have been so relieved.

I trudged through the remaining weeks of the school year. My parents drove north to Yakima to watch me graduate, and Phil drove east from Missoula to do the same. After the big day, it was time to pack up our meager belongings and the cats, and move back to Montana.

I did not want to move back to Montana. I associated Missoula with six weeks of misery in the tenth grade at Sentinel high school, two horrible Christmases, and the pervasive rotten broccoli smell from the pulp mill. I had no idea, none, why I was headed back. But at least my sister was there, right? I had her, didn’t I?

Except, I barely saw her. For the first weeks, my sister stayed with her boyfriend and Phil and I slept on her hideabed. This was an especially terrible hideabed, with an especially useless mattress. It came with her furnished apartment, and I hated it.

I hated everything. I was lonely for my Yakima friends, disappointed in my sister’s lack of interest in spending time with me, and expected to marry Phil because I’d finally turned eighteen. And to top it all off, there I lay on this lumpy hideabed with the bar in my back, night after night, while we saved for an apartment of our own.

When the apartment directly below my sister opened up, we put down the deposit and moved in. It was a crumbling, drafty, ramshackle one bedroom, but it had a bed. A thin, hard, crummy double bed, but a bed nonetheless.

I remember this apartment and the year I spent there as pretty terrible. We had zero money, the heat bills were horrendous, and my sister ignored me once the tiny patio wedding was over. She had her own friends, two jobs, and an extremely dramatic life in which there was little room for me. Once again, I was alone with Phil in a place I didn’t want to be. And to top it off, we were really married.

A trip to Portland the summer after I turned nineteen convinced me that I needed to move there as soon as possible. I came home and tried to convince Phil, but he was a skier, a hiker, and a mountain climber. He loved Montana. I started at the University of Montana the next fall. I was only there for two quarters, but I made friends, took classes from some wonderful professors, and endured an escalating level of physical violence from Phil because he sensed I was slipping away.

Here’s the thing about Phil. He was considered the sweetest guy in the world by almost everyone who knew him. Only a few people knew about his raging temper, and even fewer knew he hit me while he raged. But in 1979, no one I told, including my parents, thought this was a reason to leave him. Well, except maybe my sister. She knew, and she cared. But she was busy planning her own escape from Missoula. I was bereft when she moved to Oregon within a few months of my arrival.

I wanted to leave so badly. For months, I called my parents and asked if I could come home. They said no, they had no room for me. I reminded then that Phil hit me. My mother reiterated the advice she’d given me for years. “Try not to make him mad.” She also reiterated the fact that they had no room.

Finally I called and just told them I was coming. They didn’t have to have a room for me, I’d figure something out, I just needed a place to stay until I could get a job. I would stay in their basement if needs be.

“What about Phil?” my dad asked. “Are you just abandoning him?”

“Yes,” I said calmly. “Yes, I am.”

I should never have married Phil, but when I did, my parents bought us a “really good” bed. I took that bed with me when I finally moved to Portland in the spring of 1980. I took the bed, but not Phil. My sister drove out in her big van and rescued me. And the cats. Let’s not forget about the cats. I had my bed, my books, and two cats.

It was enough.

Seven: No More Hideabeds for Me. Because I Brought My Own Goddamn Bed.

This time, I didn’t land on a hideabed. I set up a room in the corner of my parents’ basement. No, it wasn’t a walkout or a finished basement. It was an actual basement, raw walls and concrete floor with no ceiling, just beams and joists above my head. I had a pull string light over the bed, and a dirty basement window that barely admitted any light. The washer and dryer were ten steps away, as were the cat boxes. Spiders. Dampness. Mold. I didn’t care. I was in Portland, and I had finally broken away from Phil. I was determined to make it work.

The big hideabed upstairs was occupied by my sister and her husband, who had also decided to move to Portland to live with my parents. This was a two-bedroom rental house with a sort-of finished attic. Before I knew it, it somehow held my parents, me, my older brother, my younger brother, my sister, her husband, and then my sister’s best friend Lisa arrived. Where did they all sleep? I had no idea. I went to work and out on dates and hung out in the basement, doing my best to avoid all the drama going on upstairs.

I’d lived in Missoula for a year and a half, and when I got to Portland, my parents were in a state of open marital warfare. Gone were the parents who had seemed so happy in Redding, so delighted by their first year in Portland. My sister’s eating disorders made every shared meal into a sort of black comedy with sound effects. My older brother’s blue plate combo of obsessiveness and passive aggression were absolutely out of control.

In all likelihood, these things had been going on for years. But at age 19, I had returned to the parental home as an adult. I could see how the life my parents led had affected my little brother, who was only eight. I was worried for him. My parents were both having affairs, and my mother kept raging at us kids for being born and my father for not giving her the life she deserved. We were all so broken, including me.

A person shouldn’t know this much about herself at age 19. I had no choice. I understood why I’d had such a hard time leaving Phil. I understood what he’d offered me. We’d built a strange and shabby little life together, but Phil provided the only security I had ever known.

It had taken a lot of courage to throw in my lot with my parents again. I did it because I’d thought their lives had finally changed in Portland. Both of them worked decent government jobs. They rented the little house because they were building a large house in the Portland suburbs. But they were terribly broke and it was somehow our fault. All us kids contributed rent but there was never a penny to spare, and for the life of me, even now, I still don’t understand why. I hadn’t taken a dime from them since I was fifteen, and my sister moved out to support herself at sixteen, but somehow it was all our fault that they were always, always broke.

There was no security to be found, financial or emotional, in my parents’ home.

Still, I didn’t regret my decision to leave Phil. I no doubt had PTSD, but I was toughing it out, working as a file clerk, establishing Oregon residency so I could get in-state tuition, trying my best to get on my feet and figure out my next move. I was trying.

Then, out of the blue, Mom announced that she and Dad were going to sell the house they were building and move to Taos. I wanted to cry but I laughed instead. Of course they were going to move. How else would they get rid of us? They didn’t move to Taos, and within a year, we had all exited, to return or not in the coming decades.

I understand now that my parents were trapped in a wretched cycle. They were ambivalent at best about parenting, so they offloaded us older kids as quickly as possible. But they sent us out into the world far too early, with no support. We kept returning, trying to force our way back in, as if we could be re-parented and then launched successfully. And of course, our parents did love us, so they let us return, only to shove us all out again. Who could blame them?

Maybe my mother blamed the hideabed. If she hadn’t always had a place for us to sleep, certainly we’d have stayed away, wouldn’t we? So she got rid of it.

Eight: The Enormous Hideabed Moves to My House.

In 1981, with the ink on my divorce from Phil barely dry, I married again. I married at 18 and again at 21 and I really needed to find a better way to mark momentous birthdays, but there I was, pregnant, so I married Kevin.

My mom and dad had given us the Big Hideabed with the worn out “really good” mattress a few months earlier. They’d bought new couches at the Meier and Frank warehouse sale and needed to offload it, and we didn’t have a couch. So moving that enormous beast of a sofa became our job.

In our first apartment, Kevin’s mother slept on it when she came down to help us with our newborn daughter. She was planning to stay for six weeks and lasted three days. I didn’t blame the hideabed. She left because she wasn’t allowed to smoke around the baby, but if the discomfort of that bar pressing into her back played any part at all in her decision to return home, then I owe that bar a debt of gratitude.

The next person to sleep on the hideabed was my mom. My father and younger brother had moved to Bainbridge Island, but Mom was still working in Portland for the Corps of Engineers. So she slept at our house during the week, and went up to Bainbridge on the weekends. She liked her job, and her independence, and the fact that I had dinner waiting for her every evening. And she got on like gangbusters with our daughter, who was less than two at the time. She adored her Grandma and it was mutual.

This is another time when I feel like my mom was happy with her life. Mom never once complained about that bar across her back.

When Kevin and I were finally flush enough to buy our own couch, we decided on one that didn’t fold out. The enormous hideabed had served us well through many of my parents’ homes and two of our apartments. It was time for it to retire to the Union Gospel Mission, the only place in town accepting used couches. They came and picked it up, all five hundred pounds of it or whatever it weighed. I was not sad to see it go.

Nine: The Final Hideabeds.

In 1988, Kevin and I bought our first home, and promptly bought another hideabed for our TV room. We both wanted a place for friends and family to sleep. I made no claims that the mattress was “really good,” but it wasn’t as bad as some I’d slept on. I knew it had a bar that pressed against people’s backs because we occasionally slept on it ourselves. But it was in a room with a door and a nearby half-bath. These were decent guest accommodations.

When Kevin left, I bought another loveseat-sized hideabed for the Great Room (the 1980s version of “Open Concept,” look it up). It was called into service fairly often. Kids would have friends over, or someone was sick and wanted to sleep in the living room with the big TV, and out came the bed. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was serviceable. Our dog Holly really liked sleeping on it so it got a little hairy and smelly, just like sweet old Holly.

Years passed. Holly died. The kids began leaving home. My two younger daughters went to college, and lived in dorms and shared houses. Once gone, they mostly stayed gone, though they both returned for short spells after graduating. I sent the big hideabed to the dump when I turned the TV room into my bedroom, and I lost the smaller hideabed in a house fire. But there was always room for the girls on a couch or in a spare room or even in my king-sized bed, along with me and all my snoring.

My oldest daughter, in pursuit of a creative career, took a bit longer to move out. But her room was always right there waiting for her. I kept it ready because she is an actor, and had breaks between show runs when she needed a place to stay. She also came home for a few months during the pandemic shutdown. The thing is, she’s married now, and a homeowner. I should probably face the fact that she no longer needs a place to land, and convert that room into an office.

Ten: Hideabed Free.

At present, it’s just me and my beloved husband here. We have zero hideabeds. We’re happy to host people in our guest rooms, which are a little cluttered, but really, they’re just fine. One has a double bed with a memory foam topper, and one has a “really good” queen-sized bed. The bathroom is right across the hall. I tell people, “Stay with us anytime. We have room.” I feel magnanimous, offering such easy hospitality. I want people to be comfortable while they’re here. That’s why we don’t have a hideabed.

If I have a point, it’s this. If you want to avoid children boomeranging back into your home, don’t get a hideabed. Instead, provide them a safe place to grow, and don’t shove them out until they’re ready. Let them know they can return if they need to, and save a place for them in case they do. Chances are, they’ll fly and stay flown.

Guests? That’s a different matter entirely. If you want to make sure your guests don’t stay too long, get a hideabed. There’s nothing like a bar across your back to make sure you don’t stay too long.

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 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

The Birds

Image via Pixabay

My mother had no common phobias that I knew of, growing up. She didn’t like mice or insects, but disposed of them with a minimum of fuss. We never encountered snakes. I don’t remember her having any reaction to my fears, which are heights and bridges. But she was wildly afraid of birds.

Birds. All of them. Even the tiny finches that populate my bushes in hopping swarms, hunting bugs on branches before they flutter off. She feared the bright-beaked chickadees and fat-bellied robins, the overbearing jays, the comical crows.

I love the songbirds and the corvids, but I can understand a healthy wariness of raptors. They have a focused and lethal beauty, but I am not a mouse, a shrew, or a field rat. I am completely beside the point for a raptor. And now that I no longer have to watch for owls when I let small dogs out at night, I can let myself admire the owls.

Talking birds are a little iffier for me. Very large tropical birds have talons and beaks. They speak. This is an uncanny combination, and unsettling even to me. But the smaller talking birds? The wee parrots, parakeets and budgies? Oh, I adore them.

Mom was terrified of them. All of them. Every single bird.

*

My parents were both educated, literate people. They were passionate about politics, art, music, literature. They raised us to be the same.

Our house was alive with conversation.

*

When they lived in Missoula, my parents rented office space in the Wilma Building. If you’ve never lived in Missoula, this means nothing to you. If you have lived in Missoula, you know what an adventure that was back in the 1970s, when Bob and Eddie presided over Missoula’s small gay culture from their lavish apartments on the Wilma’s upper stories.

One day, while waiting for a ride down, the elevator opened on Mom’s floor. Out stepped Bob (or maybe it was Eddie), a small green bird riding on his shoulder. My mother went white and flattened herself against the hallway wall. She let him pass without a word. Mom, I told her, that was a parakeet.

It didn’t matter. A bird indoors was her worst fear.

*

I need to make it clear how much I loved my mother. I longed to spend time with her. She was my favorite person in the world.

*

I believe most phobias have an origin. My own fear of bridges happened after Mom had a friend—I’d describe him as an arrogant jerk—who took us out on his huge sailboat. He had a daughter close to Lauren’s age who had grown up on this boat, and he laughed when I asked for life jackets for my two children. He accused me of not trusting his expertise.

I spent the entire sail around the Sound watching Lauren in an eagle-eyed panic, with one arm tightly wrapped around baby Rachel, and the other looped into the strap of a floatable cushion. I was sick with fear the entire outing, trying to figure out how to save two children if we went into the icy water. How long would we last? Would Lauren’s swimming lessons pay off? Dear God, would it never be over?

During this sail, my mother was serene and joyful, as she was on a boat. When we docked, she alighted, refreshed and exuberant. My knees shook so hard that I almost couldn’t walk. I vowed to never back down on an issue of safety again, but the damage was done. For the next twenty years, I approached any bridge with hammering heart and prickling armpits, gripping the wheel, determined not to let this new phobia get the best of me. It has mostly abated.

Where did Mom’s bird phobia come from?

*

My mother’s mother, Grandma Lucille, had representations of birds throughout her home. There was a pair of large ceramic chickens on the side table in her breakfast room. There was a framed print of a nesting robin on her dining room wall. There was a ceramic cardinal, because she lived in South Dakota and my grandmother loved a cardinal. And there were two porcelain robins, a pretty one and a fat, grumpy one. I loved him.

But I discovered my favorite of Grandma’s birds in her dressing room. It was California pottery by an artist named Kay Finch, who specialized in figurines of birds and animals with signature curling eyelashes. This little bird was ivory colored and trimmed with green. He looked so happy to me with his fat cheeks and feminine eyelashes. One day, while admiring him, I turned him over. Written on the bottom in girlish script was a loving message to my grandmother from my mother, who at some point had bought this bird for Grandma Lucille and inscribed it.

Later in her life, my mother gave Grandma Lucille two Limoges plates with birds on them. They were different than Grandma’s usual birds, more elegant and stylized, and Mom had found them in France. She was a bit defensive about this expensive gift, as she was defensive about so many things. But Grandma seemed happy with them.  She displayed them in her hutch.

My mother grew up feeling unloved and unappreciated by her mother. According to my grandmother and aunt, Mom was furious most of the time. She was personally affronted by her sister’s slim beauty, and found her mother maddening. My grandmother was a deliberately oblique person, determinedly serene, who hid from life’s difficulties in Christian Science. She found her daughter exhausting.

They were an ill-matched pair, as far as a child’s needs and an adult’s capabilities. But I took comfort in these gifts from my mother to my grandmother, the plump bird, the elegant plates. My mother hated birds, but she gave them to her mother. This was physical evidence. They showed (to me, at least) a desire to love.

*

If I were to write a memoir about my parents, I would call it “Always Starting Over.”

*

My grandmother’s home was lovely. It was full of items my mother coveted. She spoke of it reverently, cataloguing the origins and perceived value of its contents. Grandma kept some items her entire life. My Aunt Elaine ended up with all of it when my grandmother died, and expected me to be upset about it.

I wasn’t. I have things from Grandma, I reassured her. I have a painting, bricabrac. I have some jewelry.

She still worried. When she and my uncle finally sold their home, my aunt specifically called to apologize for leaving behind Grandmother Lucille’s loveseat in her barn.

My mother had beautiful things, but she sold them because our constant moves would wreck them. Besides, we needed the money. So one by one, they went. A secretary desk here. A massive oak table there. Daybeds and chairs. Washstands. Headboards. All left behind in my childhood, shed like the sideboards and pianos discarded by early pioneers on the Oregon Trail.

*

Raptors know that a comfortable chick will never learn to kill. So as soon as chicks are ready to fledge, the eagles begin to remove whatever made them comfortable. This is called “stirring the nest.”

*

My mother had therapy at different times in her life. The longest stretch came in her mid-fifties. This coincided with menopause, which finally brought relief from her PMDS. She didn’t have a medical diagnosis for this, only my armchair diagnosis, based on witnessing her day-long tirades every four weeks for most of my early life. Mom could fly off the handle at any time, but these rages were perfectly timed with my own period. It didn’t take a genius to figure it out.

I imagine their cessation was a huge relief for her. Maybe that’s why she was ready to do some work. Once she reached her fifties, my mother’s life was fairly serene, at least by our family’s standards.

She learned a few things in therapy. She was fascinated by a new idea that all events are neutral. She’d always interpreted every upset as a personal attack on her. But she started to repeat this like a mantra. “All events are neutral.”

Another revelation was repeated less often. I remember when she told me that she had a narcissistic personality.  She wanted to share this information about herself, but she did it with an edge of her trademark defensiveness. “It means that I interpret every event in terms of how it affects me,” she explained. I’m sure it had not occurred to my mother that this was unusual, even pathological. She wanted me to understand that to her, it was only natural.

I listened, nodded. I treated the information as neutral.

*

My mother didn’t understand the anxiety that plagued all four of her children. We are riddled with it. It would shut down my older brother to the point where she and my dad would have to intervene at times. Pay his bills. Hold his hand. Even bring him to live with them for a bit, until he calmed down enough to take on life again.

But Steve was simply the most affected by anxiety. The rest of us dealt with it as best we could. Mom would shake her head, baffled. “I just don’t have that,” she would say. As if it were inconceivable that we would have something she didn’t. As if its very presence were a complete mystery. As if our anxieties could not be traced back to childhoods marked by her monthly tirades, her screaming arguments with our birth fathers, the divorces, constant moves, and social rejection brought on by always starting over. We always experienced financial insecurity, often to the degree of not having food in the house.

Those were our shared disasters, but we each had our own personal load to carry. My older brother lived with the torment of being extremely obese back when there were no fat kids. My sister was abused from a very early age by a trusted male relative. After the older kids left home, my younger brother was left alone repeatedly to fend for himself while my parents spent their evenings in coffee shops or bars. He was six years old.

And me? Well, in addition to what I shared with my siblings, there was the fallout from being put out at age fifteen to live in a different state with a physically abusive older boyfriend. That was terrible—with the first few months marked by profound loneliness and anxiety attacks that robbed me of my ability to breathe—but at least I could finish high school in one place. My parents lived in three states and six homes during my last two years of high school.

Besides, he didn’t hit me that often.

*

When I finally called my parents and told them what was happening, my mother said, “Just try not to make him mad, Honey.”

*

I have turned my own life over and over in my hands, trying to understand how it went so radically astray, trying to understand what it has done to me, what I did to myself. As hard as it was to be on my own at fifteen, I think it probably saved me. My worst misfortune was that I grew up in a house of volcanoes. I was the only calm person in a household of reactive, emotional personalities, screaming and crying and shaking and falling down in fits. This is its own kind of trauma. 

*

So, yeah, we had anxiety. And Mom didn’t get it.

*

I wondered if Mom told her therapist about any of this, our U-Haul odyssey of a life, daughters shoved out too early. I doubt it. It would have blown her hard-won cover.

She and Dad had reinvented themselves on Bainbridge Island. They both worked at Boeing as technical writers. They owned bed & breakfasts. They moved a lot—eight houses in twenty years—but they stayed on the island where they had a group of friends, daily coffee meet-ups, the opera. Bainbridge was the base from which they traveled internationally. They went to live in Turkey for a while but came back to finish out their lives on Bainbridge.

I want that to be true. But it isn’t.

There was one more major life disruption in the works. My parents were actively planning to divorce when my mother found out she had cancer. They didn’t get a divorce, obviously. They clung together for the duration of her very short decline.

My father was gutted by her death, as were we all.

*

As I’ve said, I don’t know all that Mom worked on in therapy. I do know that Mom talked about her bird phobia with her therapist. At first, she thought it had to do with her own mother, something about Grandma Lucille’s love of birds, some aspects of her demeanor that were supposedly bird-like. But in truth, Grandma’s birds were simply knickknacks. After much discussion, my mother and her therapist decided it was something else.

The movie.

Mom saw “The Birds” and never got over it.

*

During the Dust Bowl, crows built nests out of barbed wire. They built with what they had.

Once I learned that fact, I have never quite gotten over it.

*

I haven’t had a lot of therapy, but I have worked on a lot, mostly through writing. One thing I still work on is giving myself permission to write honestly about my life. This, of course, includes writing about my mother. It feels incredibly disloyal to tell the truth. It also feels incomplete.

I had a difficult mother, but I didn’t have a difficult relationship with her. I loved her. But more importantly, I always felt so loved by her. I never doubted her love for an instant, and her last words to me were, Oh, I love you. She feared being taken to task for the ways she had failed me, but I never had the heart to do it. I forgave her, completely, honestly, repeatedly.

I hope she felt my love flying from my heart to hers, constant and true to this day.

So, I had Covid again.

Yeah. How did that happen?

Flower

Supposedly, I’m a liberal person who is cloaked in the moral righteousness of taking Covid seriously.

Supposedly, I’m a very careful person who works remotely and always wears her mask in public spaces.

Supposedly, thanks to my vaccinations and boosters, I have some degree of protection, and if I were to get Covid again, it would be mild.

Ha, I tell you. Ha, and ha again.

A Quick Review

With the Omicron variants, you carry the virus for three or four days before you show any symptoms. This means that I was possibly contagious on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, before my symptoms showed up on Thursday. So let’s review those days.

My four year-old grandson had been with me all weekend. I must have picked up the virus while running around with him and my daughter before she flew to New York on Sunday morning. I dropped her at the airport and kept the grandson. I’d keep him all the time if I could, just saying, but I had stuff going on, so I had to share him.

My oldest daughter and her fiancé watched him Sunday evening so I could go to a little talk that was part of a class I’m taking. I picked him up, and he stayed with me Sunday night. But I also needed to work, so early Monday morning, I dropped him off at my middle daughter’s home. I didn’t go inside, just said hello to everyone on the front porch, where they enjoy their morning coffee. He spent the night there on Monday night.

On Monday and Tuesday, I worked from home. Late Tuesday afternoon, I went to a class with eight students and an instructor. We meet outside, and we’re careful, but is anyone really careful enough in the age of Omicron? I love this class, but sitting outside over the course of the summer has meant I’m roasting out there for three hours in 102 degree weather. Has it been worth it? Absolutely. But has it been easy? God, no.

After my roasty class, sweaty and heat-exhausted, I picked up my grandson at my middle daughter’s house. I went inside and saw her, her wife, their two kids before we left.

On Wednesday, I worked from home while my grandson amused himself. I had a great “carrot” for him: If he would let me concentrate, we’d go see the new Minions movie. He kept himself busy.

A former coworker dropped by the house at noon and we had a nice chat at my dining room table/office.

Then at 5:30, I took my grandson to experience to his first movie at a movie theater. It was great. We shared some popcorn and a Pepsi slushy (his choice and I dislike soda but I had to admit it was tasty). He did a fine job of paying attention. There were only five other people in the auditorium besides us, so when he got a little antsy and began to clamber about on the seat backs, no one was bothered. (An aside, I have loved every Despicable Me/Minions movie. There is something hilarious every minute, and I don’t know who writes these or how much cocaine it takes to be this funny, but Bravo.)

Anyway. On Thursday, other than a mad dash to the store for juice boxes, we were once again at my house all day. My exiting tenant dropped by to leave a key and a forwarding address. In the early evening, my middle daughter came over with my younger grandson. My daughter and I talked, but mostly we just enjoyed watching the boys thunder through the house between the guest room and the TV room, echoing down the hallway, thrilled because you can run inside at Nonna’s house.

And then, I coughed.

Just that. A dry little cough. And then I coughed again.

That’s all. Just a couple of dry coughs.

They went home and I put my happy grandson to bed in the guest room, where he’d been sleeping happily and alone for days. But Thursday night was special, because he knew when he woke up, his mom would be there.

Late that night, my ex-husband picked up my youngest daughter at the airport and drove her to my house, where she slipped in the door and went to sleep next to my grandson, just as she’d promised him on the phone.

All was right with the world.

On Friday morning, I woke up before everyone else feeling a little stuffy, coughing now and then, no big deal. But just to be on the safe side, I tested.

Negative. Excellent. I had a summer cold of some sort. I worked all day, and I’m working from home so my mild cold wouldn’t factor in, but how reassuring to know It wasn’t covid.

That same morning, my daughter’s boyfriend arrived from Eugene with my sweet bonus granddaughter. We had a hugs and hellos and nice chat, hello! The trip! Presents from NYC! My granddaughter went in and played with my old dollhouse for a while, which is her favorite thing to do at my house. And we heard all about my daughter’s exciting trip to NY, where she modeled for a Big Company’s marketing efforts.

Eventually, everyone got packed up and ready. I gave them drinks and snacks for the road, and then they left for that two-hour drive home which never takes anyone two hours, because it’s I5 South.

I worked like hell for the rest of the day. My husband came home after work and brought us teriyaki for dinner. I could taste everything, so I felt reassured.

Saturday morning plans involved my brother, his wife, coffee and donuts. But I woke up feeling really snuffly, so I decided to test again, “Just to be on the safe side.” I swabbed and swirled and squeezed and dripped the drops in the little reservoir and watched as the entire test strip lit up pink before the control and positive bars settled in, clear as beacons.

“Oh Honey,” I said to my husband. “I’ve got it. I’m positive.”

Coffee and donuts were cancelled.

So let’s do the math.

Four days before I got sick, I might not have been contagious. It depends on who you ask. On that day, I was around:

Youngest daughter, grandson the first (inside, outside, upside down)

Nine or ten people at the informational talk (outside)

Oldest daughter and her fiancé (inside)

Three days before that first dry cough, I was around:

Middle daughter, Daughter-in-law, Grandson the second, Granddaughter (outside)

Two days before that first dry cough, I was around:

My entire Tuesday class (outside)

Middle daughter, Daughter-in-law, Grandson the second, Granddaughter (inside)

and of course my older grandson (inside and outside)

One day before that first dry cough, I was around:

My grandson (inside)

Former coworker (inside)

Five strangers in the movie auditorium (inside)

Day of:

Grandson (inside)

Former tenant (inside)

Middle daughter and younger grandson (inside)

Every single day:

My husband

That’s so many possible exposures, and I work from home. But I also ran in to the store to get juice boxes and a few other things, right? And I bought gas, and tickets and snacks at the theater. This is how it happens, and how it keeps happening.

Being sick

I had to make quite a few calls and texts, but I felt fine enough to do that.

My husband tested negative, so we instituted some halfassed isolation measures that we assumed wouldn’t work, but we had to at least try. I wasn’t feeling that bad, really. Along about midday Saturday, I called my doctor’s office and let them know that I had Covid, and because I have some risk factors (weight, heart, age) I wanted to know if I should take Paxlovid.

They called back and said they’d made a remote appointment for me with their Paxlovid clinic on Sunday at 3:15. So all I had to do was survive until then. That seemed entirely possible on Saturday morning. But by Saturday afternoon, I was having some doubts.

Do you remember hearing that if you got vaccinated, you’d have a mild case? Remember that? I’m vaccinated and boosted, so I was going along under the assumption that my case would be mild.

Silly me.

I realized how sick I was while trying to participate in an online book group at 4 PM. I was coughing and sneezing, and my eyes watered. Painful, burning fatigue settled on my shoulders, making it hard to remain upright. So I signed off and went to bed, where I rolled around in a fever all that evening and night, blowing my nose and coughing. That cough, deep, painful and smothering, felt like the cough I remembered from February of 2020.

I woke up the next morning horrifically nauseated. I won’t go into it, just trust me, it was terrible. By Sunday afternoon I was a wreck.

Getting myself mentally organized for the telehealth appointment felt impossible. How did Zoom work, again? I really had to think about it, and I’ve been Zooming for how long?

Sitting in a chair also seemed impossible. I was supposed to sit there and hold my head up? How did people do that, anyway? I’d forgotten. But I managed, and met with the doctor, and he gave me the prescription.

My husband (still testing negative) masked up and went to the store, where he procured the Paxlovid, some anti-nausea pills, two magical Mucinex elixirs that helped last time, and a six-pack of soft Kleenex.

As soon as he got home, I took the anti-nausea pill and a dose of Paxlovid, and rolled up in a quilt on our bed, waiting for death or a miracle, whichever came first.

After an hour, my husband peeked in. “Are you feeling any better, sweetie?”

“They said it would take 24 hours,” I replied. “It’s been one.”

The Miracle

But the truth is, I did feel better. The horrible smothering cough improved rapidly. To have that lift felt like a miracle. And after another night of breaking fevers and weird obsessive thoughts where I mentally played my Wordcrossy game (quite brilliantly, I might add), I woke up on Monday morning feeling human again. Weak, dizzy, coughing and spewing snot, but human. So I’ll say it.

Paxlovid is a miracle.

And yes, the taste in your mouth is horrific. If you’ve heard someone complain and thought, how bad could it be? Trust me, it’s worse.

Okay, here are my best descriptions. If you haven’t had your gall bladder out, imagine some dried moldy grapefruit peels, and then light them on fire. In your mouth. Or, if you have had your gall bladder out, once in a while you get something called bile reflux, which is when your stomach fills with bile from your small intestine. It’s painful and horrible and yes, you throw up, and that’s what Paxlovid tastes like. And it’s absolutely worth every wretched moment of that sickening taste, because it helps so much.

Everyone tested again on Sunday. Everyone was negative. Including my husband.

And then, Monday came.

My husband tested negative, so according to his employer’s guidelines, he could go to work masked. But Youngest daughter tested positive and became rapidly, horribly sick, shivering and bed-bound. She was able to get the Paxlovid that same day. It fixed her up enough that she could get out of bed and sit on the sofa, and believe me, that’s a tremendous accomplishment when you have a tough case. She improved steadily and tested negative on the fourth day and has tested negative since.

Grandson the first tested positive on Tuesday. Sick, coughing, feverish for two days, then right as rain. He tested negative on the fourth day. His father tested positive on Wednesday, and tested negative after three days, that young and healthy brute (I am so envious).

I’d managed to expose so many people. No one else in the family got it. My former tenant and former coworker never got it. No one in my class got it. My husband never got it. But still.

Oh, My Guilt

I was devastated when the Eugene branch went down. My family insisted that I get down from the cross because really, they were more worried about me. I’m older and the only mom they have and I have an errant ticker, and I was sick, sick, sick. But I made it through.

After a week, I went back to work (from home, of course). I tested negative on that Friday, and have done a test every day or two since to make sure I don’t have a rebound case, because there’s something going on with my sinuses on left side. It took six weeks for my sinuses to dry out last time, and I’m prepared for it to take that long again.

So, how did this compare to the original Covid?

Well, the fatigue was just as awful, as was the cough: violent, overwhelming, like I was going to suffocate. The nasal congestion has been just as spectacular, and I had vertigo again, and the same general sense of unreality and disorientation.

But the first time around, I didn’t have fevers. I also didn’t have any nausea. So this time was actually worse, except for the fact that I didn’t lose my sense of taste and smell. I am extremely relieved about that.

So aside from the fever and the nausea, the main difference is, the first time around I had no warning, no idea how to prevent this, and no treatment for it. I was a hapless victim of a new illness that everyone kept insisting I couldn’t have because it wasn’t present in the US when my husband and I got it. Except, it was here, and there was nothing I could do about it. But that was last time.

This time, I was just a moron who didn’t mask up at some point. I’m not even sure when. I have become haphazard, but no more. I’ve been a diligent masker after the fact. For one thing, my daughter is getting married in a week. What if I’d gotten it this week? The thought gives me chills, and I’ve had enough of those lately.

So don’t be an idiot, and don’t get sick. Take it from me, who was both.

Living While Fat

Zaftig

Sculpture of a fat woman with a big, happy hiney.
Image via Pixabay

ZAHF-tig

Part of speech: adjective

Origin: Yiddish, 1930s

Having a full, rounded figure; plump (typically used of a woman)

Dating while fat

Back when I was filling out those online dating profiles, I used to wonder what to call myself. My weight varied and I didn’t own a scale. I was fairly sure I wasn’t “a few extra pounds” because it was way more than a few. There was “curvy,” which was true—in those days I had a true hourglass with a flat stomach and admirable waist-to-hip ratio—but that didn’t take into account the exaggerated nature of the hourglass.

“Big and beautiful” seemed too much of a value judgment on my part. Big, yes, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A man I dated a few times confirmed my reluctance around that term when he said, “Just because you’re fat, doesn’t mean you’re pretty” (he did think I was pretty). He told me I was what his black friends in the military called “thick” (now “thicc” in the parlance of the day). To me, that term implies a certain firmness or muscularity I lack.

There was “full-figured.” I probably chose that the most, but it was a term that no one (including me) understood. My dear friend and dating guru, who is exactly what “curvy” should mean on those profiles, thought I should instead put “curvy.” She believed in casting a wide net. When the inevitable coffee date came, she thought my superior wit and charm would cancel out the fact that I hadn’t been honest.

I tried that a few times, but the disappointment in men’s eyes on meeting was more than I could take. So I always made it quite clear that I was not thin. I did this on purpose. If weight was an issue, I didn’t want to meet. I was being…efficient.

Even so, I’d be gently questioned by my correspondents, politely asking the equivalent of, “Just how fat are you?” Pretty damn fat, thanks for asking. This might be followed by a polite request for some specific data, as in, height, weight, measurements, dress size, and so on. Or better yet, a nude photo.

To which I replied, “Next.”

Other times, men would try to argue with me about my size. Something equivalent to, “I bet you’re not fat at all. I bet you’ve just bought into our society’s unrealistic weight standards for women.” The wishful thinking behind this was pretty obvious, and there was no point in stringing them along. “Nope,” I’d insist, “I’m actually overweight. I don’t hate myself, I’m not slamming myself, I’m just being honest so that neither of us wastes any time.”

Despite all my efforts to weed them out, some men who objected to my weight would be brave and meet me anyway. My guess is, they were taken enough by my face and wit that they thought they could get past it, and were disappointed that they couldn’t. A few asked me why I didn’t lose weight. “Oh, I don’t know,” I’d say. “I’ve gained and lost so much weight over the course of my life, and I want to take a break from all that.”

This was a revolutionary stance, back in the day. I wasn’t loud and proud about my self-acceptance, but I was firm in my quiet refusal to accept the idea that I had no worth or value in the world because I was fat. I also made it clear that this probably wasn’t going to change. This attitude actively antagonized some men. I guess I didn’t hate myself enough for them.

At any rate, the point of all this is that when I wanted to, I found men who admired and accepted me, and were proud to take me out and about. And even though I wrote an entire book about a very specific time in my dating years when I was laser focused on finding a man worthy of commitment, and how fruitless that particular search was, that was less than six months. Most of the time I did fine. I’m also glad to be married, and off the market.

As a side note (and to be fair), I think that combination of fat/devoid of self-hatred is rare out there in the dating arena. So many fat women cower in shame over taking up any space at all. I understand, because every six or eight months I slide into self-loathing over my weight. Usually this happens when I have to fly, because sometimes I have to ask for a seatbelt extender and sometimes I don’t. I have not completely reinvented contemporary womanhood, and that experience can melt me right down. I might even start a diet when this happens. The last thing I tried was intermittent fasting, which worked for a week, and then I boomed right back up to my starting weight, so forget that.

I have a life to live.

Living while fat

I was over at a friend’s house for dinner the other evening, and we talked about weight. My friend is healthy and slim, with a graceful, classically proportioned shape. Like, those elongated Venus on the half-shell proportions. But she was an overweight kid and teen. That will scar you. Even though she lost her weight forty+ years ago, it still haunts her. It’s hiding around the corner, a big pink blob waiting to jump back on her if she relaxes her vigilance. She weighs herself each morning, and carefully considers every bite of food that goes into her mouth. She doesn’t trust her thinness. She says she has body dysmorphia.

I told her that (like Ann Wilson of Heart) I have body promorphia. That I always think I look fine. I walk around here like I have a right to be here, thinking I look great most of the time. And occasionally I see a photo or a reflection that contradicts this, a self-view that makes me say “Yeesh, Karen. Seriously?” Those moments of reckoning (like the seatbelt extender) can trigger self-loathing, but I furiously beat it back.

The thing is, I wasn’t always this way. I used to feel extremely upset with any weight gain. Here’s a very old photo of me right after I had a baby, and was awash with self-loathing over how fat I was.

It is clear that I was not fat. It is also clear that I like myself more now than I did then, despite the enormous difference in my size.

I don’t care if anyone else understands or accepts my acceptance of being fat, but I realize this is an affront to people who fight hard not to be fat. I’ve likened it to religion. Some people find a religion and are gripped with apostolic fervor. They organize their life around it, and forego certain of life’s pleasures, and resist temptations and struggle through dark nights of the soul because they have found the answer, the one true way.

And there they are suffering for their beliefs, and here I am, shrugging, because as far as religion goes, I’m fine without it. I realize this is a slap in the face to true believers. My “whatever, no thanks” attitude about diet and fitness probably feels the same to those who have devoted their lives to it.

The formerly fat fitness influencers I see on Instagram have gorgeously muscled bodies and post things like, “If I can do it, you can do it. You have to want it enough.” I agree, you do have to want it enough and I don’t. Whatever the cost is to being thin—eating 900 calories a day, time at the gym, all that damn sweating—I don’t want to pay it. I’ll just stay over here, putting half and half in my coffee, eating whatever the hell I want to, and being fat.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I have a life to live.   

Eating while fat

Believe it or not, I don’t eat that much. I have something called lipedema, or lipoedema, or lipoeadema, depending on who you ask. You can fall down the rabbit hole of googling it, or you can look here: https://www.lipedema.org/  This condition has been recognized since the 1940s, but American doctors don’t diagnose it because isn’t it easier to tell your patients that they can lose weight if they just want it enough? Isn’t it more effective for the medical community to shame you for your weight? Isn’t this poorly understood medical condition just another excuse for women to be lazy and fat?

But the reason I don’t eat that much has nothing to do with lipidema. I went through a bunch of foregut testing six years ago. My mother died of small cell carcinoma of the esophagus (as opposed to the kind of throat cancer caused by HPV), and I wanted to understand my own risk factors. I’d had chronic heartburn for years and years, and treated it with OTC acid suppressors, but I was starting to have a lot of night regurgitation and thought it was time to get things straightened out.

So in addition to an endoscopy, I did all these tests. Like, they implanted a little capsule-sized sensor in my esophagus that measured every acid spike that rose into my throat. Every time I had a stab of heartburn, I clicked a thingie that then coordinated with the information gathered by the capsule. And yes, if you’re wondering, I could feel the capsule in there. I felt like I’d swallowed a pill that wouldn’t go down. It was supposed to fall out after three or four days and go through my digestive system, but it took two weeks to do that. Fun times.

But wait, there’s more!

Next, I had a tube snaked into one nostril and down into my stomach to measure something else. That was also uncomfortable. That was a swallowing reflex text. Then I sat in the office and drank something disgusting and had my swallowing reflex measured in another way.

We found out some interesting information during all that.

I had serious chronic heartburn, and yes, I could tell when I had acid spikes. Believe it or not, that’s good, because some people’s esophagi are so scarred, they don’t feel the pain anymore. Despite my huge nostrils, I have tiny sinus passages and a small esophagus that narrows at the bottom due to scar tissue from acid reflux.

I have a hiatal hernia that a nurse called “cute.” “You have a cute little hiatal hernia bobbing around in there.” I’ve always wondered about that. What makes a hernia cute?

My swallowing reflex is pathetic, which is the cause of my esophageal spasms (these are so painful that some people mistake them for heart attacks).

I have chronic heartburn because don’t have a valve at the top of my stomach. Oddly enough, my sister and younger brother are the same. My guess is, this is an anomaly inherited from our mother, and explains why her esophagus became cancerous.

There are surgeries that might help with some of this, but if they go wrong, they really go wrong. Like, goodbye to solid food wrong. So I have developed an entire protocol for how, when, and what I eat to try to deal with all this stuff. A big part of it is, I never want to be too full.

I don’t eat that much.

I’m a queen of the leftovers. I cook for two at home, but still save leftovers from most dinners and eat them for lunch. If we eat out, I always have to ask for a box.

I also eat early. This makes me a difficult dinner guest because I need two or three hours and a bunch of water before I go to bed, and if we start eating at 8 PM, I have to sit up and sip water until the wee hours before getting prone. I’ve been eating like a senior citizen for many years. There is a certain relief in actually reaching senior citizen age, because now my early eating habits seem less absurd.

So you’d think with all that, I’d just give up food and switch to protein shakes or something. But even though I’m fat, and I’m supposed to be ashamed and secretive about it, I actually do enjoy eating food, so I muddle through.

Growing up with fat

As previously mentioned, I haven’t reinvented womanhood. I do care about how I look, and it does get tiresome to be fat sometimes, but I’m determined to like myself because I was raised by a woman who didn’t. My mom also had lipidema, though we didn’t have a medical name for it. We just called it “Mom’s legs.” Mom’s legs were her lifelong shame, and I inherited those same legs—well, not exactly the same, but my fat-legged genetic destiny was inescapable. I accepted that, but I didn’t accept that my body should be a source of pain, anger and self-loathing, like it was for Mom. She inspired me to try to find a different path.

But first I had to get through my childhood.

There is so much I could write here about my mother, and my older brother, who was morbidly obese before he was a year old, and the diets my mother started subjecting me to at age seven, and my sister’s eating disorders, and my birth father’s very vocal hatred of fat women, and my own decades of up and down dieting. It would fill a book and at some point I might even write that book. I’m taking a memoir class with a friend this summer, and I assume we will be asked to pick a topic to write about, and maybe this will be mine.

I’m not sure I want to do that.

There’s a crew of people who have recently decided it’s okay to be fat because they watched some Lizzo videos or read Lindy West’s books or whatever.  They’re trying to stop pitying and/or despising fat people, and are desperately trying to find them admirable.

“You go girl, look at you, over there being fat and everything! Whoohoo, chubby woman! I feel you! Team cellulite!”

Writing a book about my weight might feel too much like initiating a conversation I’m not quite ready to have, especially with those people. I dread the idea of offering up my fat reality to their new understanding that I’m a human being.

But whether or not I ever write at length about how deeply weight affected my earliest years of life, and what weight loss and weight gain meant to my personal happiness, at some point I decided to get on with life without worrying about my weight all the time. I had a life to live, and no matter what I weighed, I went ahead and lived it.

I’m starting to understand what a radical act that was.

A New One Arrives

Recent travel for reasons delightful

A baby girl whose name is Pearl.

I’m recently back from Brooklyn, where my daughter and her wife have welcomed a new baby girl to the world. This is my first granddaughter, so I braved a plane ride and Omicron to visit them, to help with the baby, to enjoy my three year-old grandson, and to just spend some time with my far-flung girl, who left Oregon at age 22 and has been a Brooklynite ever since.

I was warned that my grandson had a cold. I’ve had lots of colds, so that was not going to deter me. I got on that plane and kept my elbows in for five hours and arrived at JFK fairly late. The long ride in was quiet. My Uber driver didn’t chat me up, so I was free to watch the neighborhoods unspool before my Oregon eyes; commercial strips that seemed like perfectly constructed movie sets with marginal businesses with their graffiti-sprayed pull-down doors. I honestly don’t know where I was, even thought I’ve taken this ride many times on my way around Prospect Park, and into Park Slope, where the kids live.

Park Slope

I love this area. I often visited one my best friends here from 1997 to 2014, when she moved away from Brooklyn. I can’t say that I know my way around Park Slope, because I really don’t. But I know the feeling of it. The brownstone streets soothe and delight me. When I walk down one of these streets—or even just look down one of them from a more commercial street—I’m instantly delighted and uplifted.

Here, my gut says, here is a place you could actually live in New York, Karen. You actually belong on one of these streets, with these fenced and tended trees, with these curving stoops constructed to last centuries. My entire body thrills to the idea. But I am hopelessly rooted in the Pacific Northwest. I count myself lucky to have visited this neighborhood, to have understood the beauty and allure of this part of the city.

After a 45 minute drive, I found my daughter waiting on the street for me. We shared the first hug in years, because the last time I saw her was pre-vaccine, and our visits were distanced. So we had a nice, long hug, me and my girl, there on the streets of Park Slope. And then, I went in to see her “new place.” It was close to 11pm, and I’d had hopes that the new baby might be awake. But she is what one calls “a good baby,” so she sleeps at night. All I had was a quick peek into a darkened room, to see her swaddled form in her bassinette.

The next morning, I got to meet her.

And oh, what a peach she is. Just a snuggly little armful of new baby girl, with bright eyes that open up so wide that the whites show over her irises! And so many things made her eyes open like that; the miracle of the front windows, some particular picture frames, and of course, our faces. She was seven weeks old, two weeks older than her brother was when I first met him. Smiling and occasionally giggling, interested in her baby books, prone to evening colic with a fierce, low, pissed-off squall, and occasionally catching sight of her own hands with bemused wonder.

There are not too many things to say about new babies, which is too bad, because they truly do function as the center of the universe. There is the baby’s appearance, which is, in the case of my granddaughter, absolute perfection. This baby is a beauty, with brown eyes and wavy, almost-black hair, and beautiful darkly golden skin. After a blonde, blue-eyed grandson, and a strawberry blonde, hazel-eyed grandson, it appears that the dominant genes have come into play. She looks like my first two daughters, and it’s pretty special, I tell you. She is a substantial, healthy baby. Her feet are tiny, with narrow heels, and her hands? Well, certainly no other hands have such intriguing wrinkles and perfectly shaped nail beds.

Every tiny piece and parcel of a new baby is fascinating, even though they don’t do that much besides the rudimentary functions of life. For these functions—nursing, burping, spitting up, peeing, pooping, sleeping, crying—they are endlessly praised. As they should be. I am here to report that my granddaughter is an absolute champion at all of these, just so you know.

Rolling and Back Sleeping

Her older brother rolled over for the first time while I was visiting him at five weeks, but she hasn’t. I hope she does soon, because she loves to sleep on her stomach.  Did you know there are rules, now, about babies sleeping on their stomachs, and not having any blankets or bumpers in cribs or cradles? Babies sleep on their backs in swaddles, something I learned when my oldest grandson was born four years ago. It’s a wonder my kids survived their infancies, because they slept on their stomachs under baby blankets, surrounded by lethal bumpers and killer teddy bears.

Once my granddaughter can roll, she can safely sleep on her stomach, which was her favorite thing to do while I was there, to fill up at the breast and then sleep on her stomach on someone’s chest for hours, safe and warm and soothed by an adult heartbeat.

So that’s what I did.

I held her and rocked her, changed her diapers, and walked her fussies away. I entertained her with various black and white picture books and things that squeaked and jangled. I also became terribly sick with my grandson’s cold, and managed to live through a day when I couldn’t get out of bed. But I think, on the whole, I was a benefit to her moms.

I haven’t even talked about my grandson, who I was really able to get to know as a talkative three year-old. We had mountains of fun. Nothing entertains me more than kids. I want to observe their ways, and understand how they see the world, and cherish up all their funny little ways of saying things, like, for example.

Okay, like this one.

My daughter was looking forward to my cooking while I was there. One night she asked me to make my special pork chops, and to show her how to make them. My smothered pork chops are really easy to make, but the recipe is not mine. I actually learned how to make these from her great aunt on her father’s side, who used to sell dinners off her back porch in New Orleans. So there was a lot of talk about these chops, and how to make them. My grandson was intrigued, but he had already eaten by the time they were done.

So the next night he kept asking about “Nonna’s peshul foe charts” which sounded to us like he wanted my special flow charts, and then his mom figured out he was asking about “Nonna’s special pork chops.” We’d saved him one, he ate it right up for dinner, and all was well. But I giggle over the idea of my special flow charts, every time. He also helped me make tuna casserole, but when I served him some, he didn’t like it at all. “It’s not tasty to me! Why it’s not tasty!” Hey, you can’t please everyone, even an omnivorous, adventurous eater like this grandson.

Becoming Nonna

We definitely built a nice rapport while I was there. I could type in about a hundred different times when he chose me for reading night time stories, playing magna tiles, holding his hand, doing the post-potty paperwork, painting pictures, watching the paleontology episode of Sesame Street, and so on. He was a delightful guy to hang out with.

When it was time to go, we were both sad. When I left him in Brooklyn three years ago, I cried all the way across America, wondering when I’d see him again. And you’d think that this time, since I was leaving two grandchildren behind, I’d have cried twice as much. But I didn’t.

You know why? In August, they are moving back to Oregon.

I’m not dead.

I’m not dead, I’m languishing.

Languishing is that in-between place, where you’re not one thing or another. You just are. And we all are, right now. Is it over? is it not? Where do we stand with opening up, here in my rigorously liberal city where we have been dutifully masking and distancing and vaccinating and boostering? Are we going to throw away our masks or just wait for the next wave? Will we start eating in restaurants? Are there any restaurants left? Will my book groups start up again?

Can I have a goddamned dinner party already?

I’m not dead, I’m sleeping.

Sort of. I’m tossing and turning my way through some nights, unsure what time it is, if it can be over, if I can get up and get on with the day, if my husband is asleep or not, if I’m asleep or not. Last night I slept eight full hours, and would have slept more but woke up to the sound of a horn giving one loud honk. I started awake, wondering what in the world that was. Was it a foghorn? Unlikely, since I live almost 100 miles inland. Was it a car? Also unlikely because I knew the honk originated within my own head. Yes, it was me. I honked. I honk when I’m falling asleep.

I woke myself up, and who can I blame for that?

I’m not dead, I’m waiting.

I’m waiting for…something. Well, one thing for certain, another grandchild arriving this month. This is the third time I’ve awaited the birth of a grandchild, and the first time was an agony. Now, three times in, it’s more like this. Imagine a woman and her three daughters, who made it through so much together, waiting for one of them to give birth. Three of the four focus on the pregnant woman with keen intensity, watching and waiting and worrying and fussing over every scrap of information as if we are the pregnant ones, not her. She’s merely incubating the baby for us. We will take ownership immediately, as a grandmother and as aunts.

We will all have our new baby soon.

I’m not dead, I’m writing.

Yup. A project that was an idea, then a germ, and then a sprout, is now 60K+ of words. Good words. It’s not quite enough words to send out to my carefully selected first readers, but it’s there and it’s real and I am so delighted and baffled with this project because it’s nothing like Iris or the Gentry books. It’s more like the Trailer Park book. I’m not trying to unravel the knots in anyone’s soul through suffering and humor, well, maybe I am, but it’s a work of pure imagination in a version of America that has never existed. I believe that’s called alt-history in the lexicon of terms I don’t give a shit about when it comes to writing.

Look, this place isn’t real, but my hope is you’ll enjoy the visit.

I’m not dead, I’m bingeing.

I’ve been really miserable this week with the state of my aging, leaky gut, and my husband has been in rehearsals every evening, so I’m watching my streaming channels with an unlikely intensity. Here’s what I can tell you. If you don’t have HBO Max, you should get it in order to watch Somebody Somewhere. If you’re in Schitt’s Creek withdrawal, watch Somebody Somewhere. If you’re languishing, and waiting, and sleeping, watch Somebody Somewhere.

Are you getting the message? Good.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this:

I’m not dead. I’m just here. And I’m glad that you are, too.