My sister and I have worked out a division of labor, as far as childhood memories. I ask questions, and she provides answers. It’s assumed that she remembers it all correctly. But recently, as we were talking about our Arkansas memories, I made an assertion about the past that generated an actual snort of derision from her.
Let me explain.
In March of 1971, we moved to Arkansas so my dad could begin his career in the Forest Service. Booneville is up in the northwestern corner of the state, in a region that’s below sea level. I think. This is what I was told and I’ve never done any research to back it up. The hot soup of humidity we swam through was evidence enough for me.
It certainly felt like we were living underwater.
On arrival, we stayed in a motel; three kids in one room, my parents in another. I was just barely 11, my sister was 13, and my brother was 16. It was too hot to breathe without air conditioning, so we kids stayed in our dingy little motel room and started fights with each other while Mom and Dad went out each day to try to find us a place to live.
They couldn’t find one. That same spring, a small toy factory had opened, and it lured in workers from around the state. All the rentals had been taken.
We were used to moving at that point, I guess, but we’d always moved from one house to another house. Motels were never involved. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this was a motel in Booneville, Arkansas, pop. 3200 or something like that.
They finally drove us all out to see a tattered little farm in the country with a house on it: a one-story six-room rectangle that had sat empty for quite a while. It appeared to be right on the verge of falling over. There was no obvious sign of vandalism, but it was filthy. There was (biggish) poop in the kitchen sink, and invasive greenery growing around the window frames and into the rooms.
Six rooms, no hallway. This is not the house, but it reminds me of the house. Good times.
To give you an idea of how desperate my parents were to get out of that motel, they rented this place. They rented it despite the fact that it was miles out of town on a red dirt road. They rented it despite the rotting outbuildings that included an outhouse. And, most importantly, they rented this dump despite the fact that in just a few short months, they’d be welcoming a newborn baby.
The rent was delivered, the keys were ours, and we all pitched in to make the place habitable. Understand, my parents could transform anywhere into a home. Even this place. They weren’t ever going to buy it, so this was basically just a cover up job. Paint over the peeling plaster, lay down indoor/outdoor carpet in the kitchen and bathroom, deep-clean the linoleum floors in the rest of the house. What couldn’t be painted was papered. Somehow, they made this leaning, crumbling little wreck of a house into a place we could live.
Even though that house was tiny and terrible, I found interesting things to consider about it. I was fascinated by the idea of a home with no hallway. If you came in via the back door, you entered the kitchen and began your circuit. Counter clockwise, it went: kitchen to bathroom to first bedroom to second bedroom room to living room to dining room and back into the kitchen. Or you could go clockwise and go kitchen, dining room, living room, second bedroom, first bedroom, bathroom, kitchen.
And if you’re a kid, which I was, you can’t wait to make the circuit while running, even though running in the house was verboten.
The farm itself held places of additonal interest. There were the outbuildings, which we were forbidden to enter. I explored them at length. One shed was full of empty moonshine bottles and wasps’ nests. I picked up a lot of bottles in there, and kicked my way through rotten hay in a tiny building that was possibly a barn, and I avoided the outhouse.
There was a stock pond that I was forbidden to go near. I picked my way to it through fields of ancient cow pies, to stand at the bank and consider wading in. Those cow pies made me squeamish about what the bottom might be like. There was a clear creek, where I spent hours watching water bugs skate on its surface, and trying cross it by walking on fallen logs. It was shallow and swift. I could walk across it without getting very wet, but those logs were always beckoning me. I fell into that creek a lot, that first summer.
The photo below is not that creek, but it’s how I remember it.
It was these neighbors my sister and I were discussing the other day. We were remembering how, during a visit from her Minneapolis friend, Salle, we climbed out our bedroom window and walked across acres of pasture to a neighboring farm, where we picked up our friend Deena (who had also climbed out her bedroom window) to join us for a terrifying midnight walk.
I’ll save the full story of the midnight walk for another time, but my sister started talking about Deena’s family. “God, they were trashy,” she said. “Just utter trash. They had those milk cows, and they’d get into skunkweed, and I remember sitting at their table during dinner, dreading when I’d have to drink that horrible milk.”
I was puzzled. Yes, that milk was awful, but I remembered this family very differently. I started talking about what I remembered, like how their ranch house had three levels and two hallways, and a dining room where we were periodically invited for glasses of icky fresh milk. Their barn was huge, and full of cows. I watched the kids milk those cows and strain the buckets into big milk containers, to get the flies out. And there were horses, because the kids all rode.
And swimming! “They had that lake,” I said to my sister. “Don’t you remember that private lake they had?” It was small, and Arkansas green, but that water was cool enough to make the heat bearable.
I described the six kids; two (now nameless) older teenage boys who struck me as impossibly alluring and breathtaking. They barely said a word to us, but when they did, it was indulgent and kind. Deena, at age thirteen, had long dark hair and a perfect figure, though her legs were a little bowed because these kids were always on horseback.
Those were the original kids, and then there were three adopted kids; Stacey, Mark, and Donna. Stacey was 12, Mark was 11, and Donna was somewhere between eight and ten (too young to hang out with us). They were nice-looking kids on the cusp of looking like whatever they were going to look like; a trio of siblings who had found a home with our neighbors.
I remember the boys explaining that they’d been adopted fairly recently. We’d also been adopted recently by my mom’s third husband, but our mother had forbidden us to tell anyone. Mom didn’t need to put the fear of God into us about it. I never mentioned being adopted, not because Mom wanted it that way, but because I was ashamed. The pride that my new father wanted me was overshadowed by the fact that my other father hadn’t. I’d been given away, which left me feeling unwanted, defective, and deeply ashamed.
And here were these boys, proudly talking about how they’d been able to choose new names as part of their adoption.
I reminded my sister of all this. Well, I didn’t mention that shame part, because I assume she carries as much lifelong trauma as I do, but I did remind her about the neighbor kids picking out new names.
“And do you remember that even though we lived on neighboring farms, they went to school in some other town?” I asked her. “And in that town, wherever it was, the mom had a clothing store that she called ‘The DeenaDonna Boutique’? Don’t you remember that?”
“Oh my God, the DeenaDonna Boutique. I do remember.” My sister stopped laughing, and went a little quiet. “You remember more than I do,” she said. “That’s not how it usually is. I’m the one who usually…”
I interrupted her, “Of course I remember them. Stacey was my first boyfriend.”
My sister let out that previously mentioned snort of derision. “He was not your first boyfriend!”
“He sure was. Don’t you remember? I liked Mark at first, but Stacey was the one who asked me to be his girlfriend.” I went on to describe how that summer, Stacey and I would tie up the party line. Irritated older women would pick up and scold us to get off the phone.
My sister seemed to remember most of these details, but she still searched her memory for the idea that I’d had a boyfriend. She brought up the horses. “We rode horses with them all the time. You and I rode on the back, behind Deena.” Her voice was trailing off at this point. I could feel her remembering.
“No, you rode behind Deena, and I rode behind Mark or Stacey. Remember when I was alone on Mark’s horse, and it started for the barn and I slid right off the back?” He’d gotten down and left me sitting behind the saddle, and I couldn’t reach the reins and didn’t know to grab the saddle horn. I was so afraid of horses after that, and I still am. “And don’t you remember that Stacey would ride over on his horse, and we’d ride out together, just him and me?”
I could hear her voice change, as those memories were resurrected from wherever they’d been hiding. No one in the family could forget my falling off that horse. “Maybe they weren’t as trashy as I remember,” she said.
For me and Stacey, that was the extent of our young romance; a summer of swimming, horseback rides, and tying up the party line with awkward, giggling phone calls. We never so much as held hands. It was pretty perfect. When school started, I stopped hearing from him. He probably found a new girlfriend at his school in whichever little town that was.
Later that school year, we moved out of the farm and into Booneville proper, where we crammed the six of us into another absolutely stupid living set up. I’ll save that for another time. I had a new boyfriend that year, and another after that, but I’ll save those boys for another time, too.
For now, I just want to talk about yesterday, when my sister finally accepted that in this case, my memories were correct: My first boyfriend, at age 12, was a boy named Stacey, who lived on a neighboring farm with three brothers and two sisters. His father ran that farm, and his mother owned a clothing store. Their home was large enough to hold six kids. Their barn was huge and full of valuable livestock. They had five farm dogs, chickens, a private lake, and more wonders than I probably knew, because I was eleven years old and didn’t pay attention to campers and boats and the like.
My sister, who was my daily companion on that farm, didn’t remember Stacey or anything else about our neighbors besides their stinky milk. I think it was that milk that made her remember this family as trashy, even though at the time, they lived like they lived, while our family of six rented a decrepit two-bedroom farmhouse where my parents slept in the dining room with our new baby brother.
Memory is a strange, strange thing. I’m glad that between the two of us, my sister and I can patch together our shared past. But it definitely takes the both of us to sort through and figure out what really happened.
When my second husband and I first bought this house in 1998, we loved the pseudo-country setting. Our paved street turned to gravel after our block, and three blocks later, the gravel road deadended at an undeveloped seven-acre parcel of land.
I don’t live in the country, but it feels like I do. There were still horses in the neighborhood when I first moved here. And lots of domesticated rabbits that had gone feral. And so many possums. And skunks. And moles in the yard. And field rats and field mice.
The thing about mice is, they don’t stay outside if given an opportunity to move into a nice comfortable house. And as much as I enjoy artistic representations of mice, and detailed somewhere in the meandering mess of this blog post over here, I don’t like the real thing at all.
When we found mice turds in our lower cabinets, we adopted a stray dog and left the lower cabinet doors open a few nights in a row. She took care of it and I’ve never seen a trace of a mouse in here since.
I loved that dog. Her name was Holly. She hunted birds, rats, mice, and whatever else she could catch. She’s the only dog I’ve ever had who earned her keep.
As the millennium wound down and we approached the year 2000, I was sitting in my family room at my computer working on some writing when I heard a strange chewing sound. It sounded expensive, so I ignored it. Maybe it would go away if I ignored it.
It went on for some time, to be honest. Just a gentle undertone of mastication. It was quiet at night, when I was home and typing away at my novels or papers or chatting in my chat room. During the day, I was in school, so I could more easily pretend it wasn’t there, but if I was home, it was getting louder and louder and louder.
Yes, something was devouring my home, but I’d become skilled at ignoring things I didn’t want to deal with over the course of my second marriage (which had also gone away at that point, so sometimes this approach worked, yes?).
But then one overcast afternoon while I was typing, the light from one of the two globe light fixtures on the family room ceiling darkened.
I looked up to see if the bulb had gone out. It hadn’t.
The light was on, and full of wasps—wasps that filled the glass globe entirely, then slipped around the edges of the fixture mount and into the room. Wasps spilled through the ceiling like a soft, buzzing liquid, flying in sleepy spirals around and around the light fixture, more and more of them, hundreds and hundreds of wasps, gradually creating an entire layer of wasps in the upper reaches of my family room.
I quietly stepped out of the room and gently closed the door. “Girls,” I said in a very calm, firm voice. “The family room is full of wasps. Don’t go in there until I call an exterminator.”
They didn’t go in, though I think they all peeked and squeaked while I made the call. It was only a hundred dollars to have the insects removed. Years later, when my roof had to be torn off due to a house fire, the contractor saved a nest he found in the family room rafters and showed it to me.
It was over three feet across.
I’ve lived in this house since 1988, but my backyard was never fully fenced. There a nice fence across along one side and a crappy fence across the back, and a hedge on the other side. I closed things off with a dog fence eight years ago, but for 22 years the yard was a porous enclosure at best, and that meant animals traveled through it, especially at night.
There were raccoons aplenty, and possums until the coyotes cleaned those out of the neighborhood. Coyotes have been seen in my back yard. And for years, almost nightly, I saw a skunk or two, sometimes a mama skunk and her babies, traipsing on the diagonal through the yard from front to back, exiting somewhere under the cedar tree through the laurel hedge.
Before I took the dogs out, I’d sweep the yard with a flashlight. I still do that now, even though the yard is fenced. Coyotes go where they want to and my little dog fence won’t slow them down a bit. But that fence does stop the skunks. And the skunks don’t like it.
I sleep with a window open, a window that’s right over the new stretch of dog fence. And every week or so, I wake to the smell of skunk. Not an overwhelming amount, but when it comes to skunk spray, a little is a lot.
I imagine the skunk gets to the fence that blocks its familiar route, and lets out a little spray of irritation. The equivalent of the skunk saying, “Damn these detours.”
In the morning, the smell lingers inside the window, a reminder of who lived here first.
Like most houses, mine has vents under the roofline. So does the building that houses my garage and a little studio apartment. These vents are covered with heavy-duty mesh that’s supposed to keep the birds out. It doesn’t.
Years ago, one of my tenants came home and found a baby bird drowned in her toilet. After I sealed up a gap around her bathroom sink pipe, she had no more problems, but my next tenant let me know that he could hear baby birds cheeping, cheeping, cheeping over his ceiling. My tenant was a tenderhearted man, I’m a tenderhearted woman, and we both felt like we didn’t want to disturb the nests until the babies were out of there.
Back then, in my extended single years, my dad often helped me out with home maintenance and repairs. When I told him about the birds cheeping, he happily volunteered to take care of it once the nests had emptied. We all agreed, then; me, the tenant, my dad. We’d let the nesting run its course.
One day I came home from work, and my dad had sealed off all the roof vents with stronger metal grates. “I took care of it!” he announced. “I didn’t hear any birds.” I was so grateful. But here’s the deal. My dad was almost completely deaf. He didn’t know he’d sealed off active nests.
My tenant had to listen to the baby birds die.
I have a sign up on my front window that I made at work. It’s a stern warning about NO SOLICITATION OF ANY KIND, including religious, political or sales. It’s trimmed in red white and blue, because I want it to look like the work of a hateful reactionary who probably owns guns and wouldn’t possibly contribute any money to Greenpeace and OSPIRG, because those people were taking up too much of my softhearted liberal time and I want them to leave me alone forever.
If anyone ever does knock on the door, I generally don’t answer it. I don’t roll down my car window when panhandlers knock on it downtown, so why would I open the door of my home, simply to tell someone to go away?
This is my home. My sanctuary. I don’t want to hear your Good News or learn about about your run for city council or buy your magazine subscriptions. I want you to leave me alone.
But three years ago, my neighborhood was overrun with ants. I don’t know what kind of ants they were and I don’t care. They were tiny and dark and smelled odd when I popped them under my fingertips.
They streamed in through invisible cracks and made long ant caravans across my floors. They gathered for huge ant parties on any scrap of food or drip of grease they found in the kitchen, and ruined the butter and took over the sugar bowl and hid in my houseplants. They walked across my arms while I was trying to sleep. They bubbled up out of the bathroom sink drains and found the toothpaste. They were on the dogs, for chrissakes.
We tried all the tricks and traps and baits and sprays. If someone suggested it, I tried it. Nothing worked. The ants were the topic of many over-the-fence and across-the-driveway conversations with my neighbors. We all had them, and we were all going nuts.
One evening, a young man in a uniform with a clipboard braved the warnings of my sternly pseudo-patriotic “GO AWAY, YOU” sign, stepped up to my door, and knocked.
What a brave young man.
I looked out and scowled, but he smiled. “Your neighbors suggested I stopped by.” He was with a pest control company, and he spent that entire day signing up my neighborhood up for “green” ant control.
I don’t know how “green” this ant control really is. I don’t care. Every three months, someone comes over here and makes sure those ants have their parties elsewhere. It also keeps away the carpenter ants, which I’m not going to bother writing about because even i can’t pretend that carpenter ants are interesting.
When it comes to ants, I am a total NIMBY.
Two years ago, in the spring, I started seeing a pair of wild bunnies in my back yard every morning. They were quite small, and extremely cute, and apparently living under one of my patios in a hole dug by my first dachshund, a sleek little demon named Mylo.
I thought the bunnies had moved into whatever Mylo dug all those years ago, but I didn’t know for certain. I didn’t know much about these bunnies. I didn’t know where they came from, or their genders, or if they were going to mate and fill the space under my patio with tiny bunny kittens that would in turn enlarge the warren and invade my crawlspace and tunnel up into the walls of my home and take it over like I saw on this terrifying episode of Hoarders in which a man let his pet bunnies eat a rented home from the inside out.
I only knew they were cute.
Well, I also knew that despite how cute they were, I should probably do something about them. But I didn’t. I ignored them and hoped they would go away.
This past spring, during the pandemic shutdown, I started working from home at my dining room table, which has a nice view of my backyard. I soon realized that there was only one bunny left in my yard. I saw this bunny almost every single day.
I enjoyed watching him nibble away at the greenery. He would eat for a while, then disappear through the back fence to the neighbor’s garden. Eventually, he’d hop back towards the house along the dog fence to…the patio? I wasn’t sure.
What did I do about this bunny? Well, let’s see. I showed him to my grandkids. I talked about him in group texts. I tried to take photos of him. I called him, “my bunny.” “Oh, my bunny is out in the yard.” “Here, let me show you my bunny.” “Ooops! There goes my bunny!”
But I’m not a moron. I know I can’t ignore rabbits forever, no matter how adorable they are. I’ve seen that episode of Hoarders, after all.
My husband and I had a talk. One morning, after we’d seen the rabbit go through the back fence and we knew we wouldn’t be trapping him, my husband filled in the presumed bunny hole at the side of the patio. He then arranged logs and pavers over the area, to really block it off.
After that, whenever I saw the bunny in the back corner of the yard, I let the dogs out. They would charge across the lawn, barking at top volume. My bunny was no moron, either. Long before they could reach him, he popped through the fence into the yard next door. I was sad to see him go, but it was time. I haven’t seen him in weeks.
I hope the neighbor likes his new bunny.
So, those vents around the roof line. Every vent needs to be covered with a heavier metal grate whether it looks like it’s been pecked through or not, because once you block one vent, the birds move their attentions to another. They want in.
They want in, and they get in.
After they could no longer nest in the garage/apartment building, the birds moved to the main house. At first I thought it was raccoons up in the attic, because it was so noisy. There’s all the scratching while they build the nest. And then, there’s the endless peeping of the hungry hatchlings. This peeping is more like screaming. Baby birds are hungry. We all got to hear about it. All the damn time.
The parent birds are protective, and they do a lot of swooping at you as you approach your home. You’re just walking up to your door, of your own house, where you live, and your new uninvited tenant comes swooping out at you. Clearly, the bird knows its nest and babies are a giant pain in the ass, and it needs to scare you away from evicting it.
You know exactly where these new bird neighbors live, because the entrance to their nesting place (a roof vent above a window) is soon streaked with bird poop. That means the siding, and the screen, and the glass, and the ground directly below are covered with droppings. Lots of droppings. Kind of a decorative fan shape of droppings.
I can tell you where the birds nested at my house. One site was directly over my oldest daughter’s former bedroom. The other was over the family room window. The poop fans made interesting additions to the front of the house.
And of course, me being me, I ignored it. The nests were active for (at least) two full springs and summers. Okay, maybe three. But this year, we were home all the time, and the peeping and the scratching and the swooping and the pooping were impossible to ignore.
It was time to evict the birds.
I ordered a bunch of metal grates from Amazon. My husband laid in spare drill bits and screws. He also got a taller ladder. We listened. We waited for silence, because that would mean the nests were empty.
The peeping and cheeping and rustling and scratching went on and on.
Had we missed our opportunity? Had the spring babies flown, was this actually a second nesting? Were we always going to have decorative poop fans on the front of our house? Or were we going to be terrible people, and nail up the grates, and kill the fledglings? We didn’t have the heart to do that.
So I ignored it, and hope it would go away.
Guess what? It did.
One day, we realized that we heard nothing. My husband went out with his electric drill and new ladder and got to work with those metal grates. After he had the grates up, he scrubbed the siding. We worked together on cleaning screens and windows and windowsills, and restored the house façade to respectability.
I don’t know. It’s not a jungle out there, but it’s a field and a forest and a meadow disguised as a backyard. Squirrels bury their nuts in my flowerpots, raccoons eat my flowers, geese occasionally fly over and drop massive curtains of crap on my cars, and a ground-nesting wasp nest boiled up and stung the crap out of me one day while I was working in the yard. The aforementioned coyotes are hard at work keeping the outdoor cat and chihuahua populations in check. Nature is out there and at times, it tries to get in or under or through my house. I’m going to continue ignoring that fact, right up until I can’t.
Also, I saw my bunny again this morning…
I’ve committed a few instances of physical assault in my life, but just a precious few. Here’s one of those instances.
I’ve written before about my years in Montana, specifically those spent living on the Squaw Creek Ranger Station. I have to (again) point out that this is no longer the name of a ranger station, and for this, we can all be grateful. But that’s what it was called in 1973 when I lived there. As recently as when this article was published, people still remembered “Squaw Creek Station,” but when I visited in the spring of 2011, I found a deserted accumulation of log buildings and some other name on the sign.
The station was 20 miles from Bozeman. It was only eight miles to the closest town of Gallatin Gateway, where I went to school. I had to ride a bus to get there, and I was the first picked up and the last dropped off on a route that took us from one farm or ranch to another. I rode that bus for an hour each way, each day, and met the bus at 6:50 AM in all kinds of weather. They don’t close for storms in rural Montana. Storms just come with the territory. But I had a down jacket and a wool hat, so I never got frostbite.
We were isolated on the ranger station. In particular, I was isolated. I didn’t exactly fit in at Gallatin Gateway Elementary, a place where I became very, very mean in retaliation for the bullying I endured on the daily. There was no place for me in the social order of that tiny town. My parents were educated liberals, and I freely (loudly, repeatedly) espoused the beliefs they’d instilled in me, so even my teacher loathed me. In that school of 80 kids (K through 8), I was the foreign body that did not belong. I felt it keenly.
My sister was less isolated by virtue of being older. She went to high school in Bozeman, which is only 12 miles away from Gateway, but maybe 20 years ahead in attitudes and thinking. That meant my sister had town friends who lived in ranch homes with multiple bedrooms and multiple bathrooms. My sister’s friends’ parents taught at the university, or owned car dealerships, or drove long distance truck routes. Her friends often skied on the weekends, so they might have gone past the ranger station on their way to the Big Sky ski resort. When they rode home with her on the bus to spend the night, they brought little patterned suitcases full of cute pajamas, Bonnie Bell 10.0.6 facial scrub, sometimes a favored bed pillow.
I found my sister’s friends to be irresistibly glamorous.
My sister’s friend Jenna was coming over for the weekend. Jenna had a few remarkable attributes. She was even meaner than I was. Her house was huge (I think her dad was a trucker). Her hair, which appeared to be naturally white blonde, was close cropped, even shorter than a pixie. It was almost a crew cut.
This was a remarkably badass hairstyle to be rocking in 1973. Most of us were growing our hair as long as we possibly could and parting it down the middle, which was a difficult style for me to wear because I have an asymmetrical face and a long, very prominent nose, so I hacked away with cuticle scissors to create some bangs to lessen the starkness and called it good.
Jenna’s hair was professionally cut at a salon (I think we still called them beauty parlors back then). Along with her remarkabe hairstyle, she had a sense of humor that was almost as mean as mine. I’m sure when we got together, it was a battle of teenaged wits, like the Sharks vs the Jets but with verbal knives. As a ferociously unhappy adolescent, I always looked forward to Jenna’s visits. On this particular weekend, we had something else to anticipate.
Todd Rundgren was going to be on Midnight Special that week.
Now, for those of you who don’t know, Midnight Special was a big deal in the early seventies. Appearing on it was a badge of honor that meant you’d arrived, so I’m sure it was something special for the performers. But for the television audience, it was a chance to see performances by bands that might never come through your area (though a surprising amount of bands did come through, because Bozeman is a college town).
The week’s lineup would be announced in my brother’s Rolling Stone, which was another highlight for us rural kids living out in the middle of nowhere. And if the band or the performer was exciting enough, I would make the effort to stay up until midnight, which was HUGE for me because I loved to sleep. Sleep has always been one of my favorite pastimes, seriously, because I could escape whatever social hellhole I was living in and dream of something better.
So I’m saying, it had to be a big deal for me to make it until 1 AM, even on a weekend.
Todd Rundgren was a big deal.
I’ve written about this before. My older brother, sister and I were odd kids in our own special ways. I was just too tall and weird and had far too large a nose for Montana. I mean, I understand that now, due to visiting Pendleton, Oregon. There is a way women are supposed to be in cowboy country, which is trim and perky and small in body, facial features, and attitude. Think of barrel racers. There is just nothing trim or perky or small about me, and I doubt there ever has been. I’m built more along the lushly overgrown model. There’s not a lot of demand for pre-Raphaelite women in the world of rodeos and stock auctions.
I didn’t understand this at 12 and 13. In Arkansas I’d been considered smart, pretty, and talented, but when we moved to Montana I was moved over into the category of aberrant freak. Same me, same nose, same build, different surroundings. I leaned into it hard. They wanted a freak, they got one.
But I was just part of the problem. My brother was extremely obese by the standards of the day, though he was not at all near the weights I see on TV these days. People just weren’t fat back then, they simply were not fat. So Montana was hell for him, too. My sister appeared the most normal, but she was fighting an internal war on a hellscape that’s not my place to write about. She might have looked fine, but she really wasn’t. So we escaped our lives as best we could. One of those ways was music.
We were an extremely musical family. Steve could play the guitar, and we could all sing, and boy did we. We listened to albums until they wore out, singing along with all the lyrics, guitar solos, horn parts, even the violins. If there was a note to hit, we hit it. We learned record after record verbatim, and some of them still sit in my hind brain, a full library of songs ready to be triggered by two opening notes.
I knew every note, skip, intake of breath on Something/Anything. Even when I didn’t like a song (Black Mariah) I learned it. I studied the lyrics sheets, read and reread the liner notes, and looked carefully at the two photos of Todd on the covers. I felt I knew Todd Rundgren, and I was thrilled to finally see him perform.
The anticipation was high. I’m sure I preplayed my favorite tracks for Jenna, monopolizing her in the way of a socially starved younger sister. She probably got the whole tour of my favorite Todd songs.
We also had pops that night. Not sodas or Cokes or soft drinks (did anyone anywhere ever actually call them soft drinks?) We had pops.
That was a special treat laid in for the overnight visitor to the ranger station.
It was a big deal to have pop in my household, growing up, because it was considered a treat. My mother carefully rationed all treats including our pop consumption, and really made an occasion of getting a pop.
I have sense memories of hot weather, my brother and sister and I in the back seat of a large car, the glare of a prairie summer. We went somewhere in the tiny town of Claremont, South Dakota, and there was an old cooler-type machine where I put in my nickel, and lifted the lid, and wrested out one bottle of pop. The bottles were reused, so sometimes my bottle showed a lot of wear, but occasionally it was pristine. I got a strawberry Crush, and those bottles were quite textured. As I popped off the cap on a built-in bottle opener on the side of the cooler, I loved that satisfying plink. My brother and sister did the same, and I have no idea what they drank, only that it wasn’t Crush.
This was pop (not soda, never soda) in my childhood. A big treat. A special trip. Destination, selection, and anticipation.
So we’d all have our pops, yes? And then I would take a sip, and the double blast of carbonation and chemical flavors would swarm up into my palate and drill right up into my brain. I’d think I was going to die. My brother and sister watched patiently while I tried to drink it, knowing I’d hand it off after a few sips because I literally could not make myself finish this weird explosion of sugar, metal, and fizz.
The truth is, I hate pop. I hated it then, and I hate it now. But there were years when I tried to enjoy what everyone else was enjoying, and that evening in Montana was one of those occasions.
For the watching of Midnight Special, I had a can of cheap orange pop.
So there we were in front of the television, in a state of high anticipation. Me, my sister, and Jenna, and whatever pop Mom had let us purchase. I was practically levitating with anticipation.
And here came Todd at the piano, with his sweet long face, crooked teeth, and feathers artistically arranged around his eyes and shoulders and, well, everywhere.
Jenna’s reaction was immediate. “Oh my God,” she said while laughing at me. “Look at him. He’s a faggot. He’s such a faggot. I can’t believe what a faggot he is. Look at that faggot.”
She might have said more, but she was cut short because as soon as she started in on my feather-festooned idol, I put my thumb over the opening of my pop can and started shaking. A stark wall of fury slammed down inside me. Yes, I was furious at her insults, because one, he looked beautiful, and two, I loved David Bowie and Marc Bolan and a whole crew of gender benders, but anger was beside the point.
This was Todd Rundgren.
I removed my thumb and sprayed her top to bottom with sticky orange pop. The look on her face.
It was wonderful.
What came after was perhaps less wonderful. There was pop all over everywhere, not just on Jenna, and my sister was upset, and Jenna was absolutely stunned. I of course had to apologize and clean up all that pop. She took a shower and put on her pajamas. We probably washed her clothes. I’m sure it was a long night.
But I have never enjoyed another pop quite as much as I enjoyed that one.
Here’s another performance by Todd. It’s supposed to be the first one of the evening, but I don’t think it was. I sure didn’t see it that night. Maybe my mother made us turn off the TV after my pop assault of Jenna, or maybe this was a different episode of Midnight Special. I just saw it last week, 48 years later at this link in (of course) Rolling Stone.
Enjoy. Todd on Midnight Special
I’ve written before about stuff; how much I have vs. how much I need to have. My house is very organized but it’s FULL, and no one wants any of this stuff when I die, so I need to get rid of it. I’m working on this attachment to material possessions problem, I really am.
There is a two-door/three-shelf cabinet in my kitchen where, I suppose, a more NORMAL person would store her dishes. All of her dishes. In my house, all three shelves hold coffee cups.
The first shelf holds single mugs, many of them English. The English, with their love of tea, make a damn fine mug; lightweight, medium-sized, fired almost to a porcelain state, and capable of holding the hottest beverages. They also look adorable and quaint and jolly. I have English mugs that date back to the 1970s, and they last forever. People know this about English mugs. In fact, some of mine (the Hornsea mugs) are worth $50 a piece, according to Etsy and eBay. Which just gives me more of an excuse to hang on to more mugs than I can ever drink out of in my life.
I don’t use my Hornsea mugs. In fact, I have them stashed in another cabinet in the dining room so they don’t get chipped. But we’re not going to discuss those other mugs that have been deemed collectible. We’re just going to talk about the mugs in the kitchen cabinet.
Not all of the single mugs are English. One is a “Write like a m0therfucker” mug (some of you recognize that from Dear Sugar) that used to be my day job coffee mug. But at some point I carried coffee into a big meeting with our very conservative company president and realized I was drinking out of a mug that said “m0therfucker” on it, so I brought it home. It sits with others I’ve deemed sentimentally important. Mugs are emotional, I tell you. I made myself get rid of ten mugs earlier this year, just ten, mind you. I was restocking my father’s estate sale and I certainly had enough mugs to spare, but you’d have thought it was Sophie’s Choice there in the kitchen.
I still have too many mugs on this shelf.
Because above the shelf with all those single mugs, there are mugs in sets. I have three pairs of matched mugs, which seems very cozy but is silly because my husband is not a coffee drinker. When he drinks hot tea, he has his own mugs he brought into the marriage. I consider these mugs acceptable but not exceptional, and they sit on the first shelf with all of my superior mugs. I mean, he only has two mugs. Some people who live in my house are sane.
There’s a set of six Japanese stoneware mugs I break out for book group, because one of my book groups has a lot of tea drinkers. So apparently I think it’s nice for them to all be confused by which mug might be theirs.
Does anyone need a set of nice mid-century stoneware mugs?
Next to the mug sets, there’s a special category of mugs that are gorgeous, gigantic, gleaming vessels of great beauty. These mugs are far too large for hot drinks. They are so large, your coffee is cold by the time you finish filling the thing. These mugs only work for drinking water all day at your desk.
My company makes them.
Every few years, I buy a new one at the employee store because it’s so damn beautiful, and it sits on my desk for water, until a new one comes out that is also so damn beautiful, and then the old mug joins its brethren in my kitchen cabinet. I sometimes find these at thrift stores and I can’t leave them languishing in their gigantic gorgeousness. So there is an actual half-a-shelf of these monstrous beauties in my cabinet.
Do any of you want one of these? They also work great for soup.
The top shelf in my coffee cup cabinet is hard to reach. One side of the shelf is mostly empty, except for two fine English porcelain tea mugs that are beautiful and useless, in that they get too hot to touch when they are full. One has a cat sitting in a rainbow garden, and one has inchworms inching greenly and cutely around the bottom. Both of these mugs are lovely and fine and utterly useless.
Do any of you want them? I need to get rid of them.
The other side of the cabinet has Christmas mugs. Yes, it does. No, I’m not kidding. There are maybe eight in there. I have no idea why, since they are only applicable for like three weeks per year. Some years, I forget to take them down, so they sit up there, unused, for two years.
No one can have any of my Christmas mugs.
About once a month, I find a mug I can’t resist. It might be perfect for my sister, who doesn’t need any mugs, either. I also find mugs for my daughters, who don’t want or need any more mugs. I know this. They know this. But I say, “I found a mug you might like,” and they protest, they have enough mugs, and I nod, because they are absolutely right. And then I get it out and I see a familiar expression of appreciation and longing flit across their faces.
The mugs go home with them.
I’m going to tell you the worst part of this whole thing. I only drink coffee out of one mug, and one mug only. It’s handmade, from Orcas Island Pottery, one of the most magical places on that magical island. I paid quite a bit for this (worth every dollar) and consider it to be the One True Mug. And it’s the only one I ever use for my morning coffee.
I was thinking, could anyone care about this coffee cup problem of mine? And then, in a meeting at work, one of my coworkers brought up the box of mugs she has out in her garage, waiting for one of her cabinet mugs to break so she can call them into use. And my manager chimed in about her special mugs made by her artist friends, and how she is going to put up a shelf to display the most “important” of the mugs! So I realized that I am not alone! We are all weird about mugs!
Pssst. Wanna mug? I can make you a deal….
I went looking for this blog post because I wanted to link to it from this other blog post, and I couldn’t find it. And I looked high, and I looked low, and I even emailed my friend who runs the blogging platform I use, because my blog post had up and disappeared, and he looked for it and he couldn’t find it either. But of course, I then remembered that I’d posted this on Medium, and not here on my blog, so I had to sheepishly apologize for wasting his time. He forgave me, and I decided to add this post to my blog so that I never lose it again.
Am I the only one? I can’t be the only one. But I cured myself, and I’m going to tell you how I did that. But first, let me tell you how things got out of control.
It started with clothes. I began working from home last year with a strong commitment to sitting down at my computer at 7:30 AM each morning, showered, dressed, and wearing makeup, shoes, and accessories.
Jeans were tossed aside early on. The one outfit I could consistently coax myself into was leggings and a knit Old Navy swing dress. I had a couple, but thanks to eBay, I soon had…many. Probably too many. I could go in there (there being my closet) and count, but that might be really disheartening. There are more than a few, thank you. Isn’t that enough?
Fine, I’ll go make a count.
Okay? Are you happy, now? There are fourteen Old Navy knit swing dresses in my closet (well, one of them is currently on my body), and when this all started, there were two. I gave another two away because the stripes weren’t flattering, but I refuse to count those. So, fourteen.
And you know, with my Mary Jane-type Dansko clogs (of which I have four pair because I like to overbuy whatever works for my feet), I really have a look going on. I put on a scarf and earrings and I look so kicky and middle-aged and also sort of like a chubby toddler who has gotten into Grandma’s accessories.
Will I change my style when I go back to the office full time? Jesus, I sure hope so. But I so rarely wear anything else. When I do mix it up with, say, jeans and a not-long top? A stranger looks back at me from the mirror.
I collect things. Many things, but I go wide in collecting, not deep. There’s some axiom that “Three things is a collection,” and if that’s the case, then I have quite a few collections sitting together in my home.
I have four glass paperweights on a windowsill. One was inherited, one was a gift, one was a souvenir, and one was thrifted. That’s all I have and all I probably ever will have, as far as glass paperweights go. But I like them, so I keep them.
It gets weird on my hutch, but not because I’ve gone deep into one thing or another. Still, going wide adds up. Three pieces of Marcrest pottery. Some eight or so various pieces of froth/drip pottery from Hull and Pfaltzgraff. Some Denby plates. Three Howard Pierce ceramic animals. A little of this, a little of that.
But I have FIFTEEN vintage honeypots on that hutch. I don’t want to count how many small, poorly painted, ridiculously cute made-in-occupied-Japan ceramic dogs are scattered around the house. So I can go too far.
I blame eBay for allowing me to go off on strange purchasing jags, including a particular style of Fitz & Floyd figurines from the 1980s (they are really neat in a Lisa Larsson knockoff way). I have picked them off with steely precision when they came up for bid. They are cute, but they are also cutesy.
What did my husband think, watching me liberate all these gewgaws from their protective bubble wrappings? Did he think I was nuts? Or was he just happy that I was happy?
I was happy until I bought two that didn’t quite fit with the general aesthetic. They were too blue, and they ruined everything, so I donated them and called myself done. And so far I’ve stuck to that, but I’ve bought other things. Just a couple. I’m trying to keep myself in check.
I like handmade coffee mugs. I have…a few now, as opposed to when I wrote a Medium piece about my mug problem. I buy the mugs at thrift stores, though my “one true mug” was purchased at the pottery place on Orcas Island.
I also like mice and rats. To be clear, I don’t like mice and rats themselves, so much as I like representations of them. I love me some Hunca Munca, and Brambly Hedge books, and that kind of nonsense. I was born in the Year of the Rat, so, I have a lot of rat netsuke (Oh, I forgot to talk about my netsuke collection, didn’t I. That one is kind of deep).
So when a certain item showed up on eBay, I thought, “Wow, that looks interesting! This item combines my love of artistic representations of rats with my love of handmade pottery coffee cups! I should bid on that! This will be cute!”
Guess what. It isn’t cute. Not at all.
It’s three times the size I thought it would be, and horribly realistic. It’s huge, and detailed, with inset glass eyes and a gross, bumpy tail for a handle. The head of the thing is easily six times the size of a real rat’s head (and I know this because of course we have had pet rats over the years). Real rats have disturbing pink tails, but aside from that they are very smart, and sweet.
This thing is a nightmare.
I sent photos of it to my sister. Once she stopped bawling with horrified laughter, she said (diplomatically), “I guess I’m having some trouble seeing why you thought this might be cute, no matter how big it was.” I told her I had somehow conflated it with the first netsuke I ever bought in 1978, a round rat which fits nicely in the palm of my hand and brings me joy.
I thought this gigantic rat mug would bring me similar joy. It doesn’t. It brings me horror, and a degree of shame and self-loathing. How could I have bought such a thing? Any sane person would banish it from her home immediately.
I have it prominently displayed on my hutch. It’s over there right now, leering at me over its left shoulder (imagine, a coffee mug with shoulders) with its glass-eyed, whiskered smile. It is doing some important work, there on my hutch. Every time I go to eBay, and I get the urge to bid on something, I make myself look at this monstrosity, instead.
And that’s how you cure yourself of eBay, during a pandemic.
In case you were wondering about my netsuke rats, here they are. Yes, I know some of these are reproductions. Additionally, I know that some of these things are not netsuke.
This is but a fraction of the netsuke, but every netsuke and netsuke-adjacent item I own fits in this card box, with my glasses for scale. I can live with it.
Wait. You’re saying, that’s it? We read all this garbage about all your garbage, and we don’t even get to see the hideous rat mug in question?
Okay. Fine. Here it is. Just imagine sipping your tea from this thing. Keep in mind that it is fully nine inches from stem to stern.
The first book I ever published was Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park. But I actually wrote The Iris Files before I wrote the trailer park book. And those who’ve read them know that Minah Bourne is a character in both books.
If you read Iris first, then your first introduction to Minah was my first introduction to her. She came into my mind as Iris’s mother-in-law, and she was introduced via those envelopes full of clippings that arrived in Iris’s mailbox every so often.
Then, there are the Minah clippings. Minah is my mother in law, and she sends clippings at least once a week. Each thick envelope seemed to be organized along a theme. Sometimes, it’s medical. “The Seven Warning Signs of Cancer.” “Better Living Through Bran.” “Medical Miracles that could Change Your Life!” These are accompanied by a note in her slanting hand. “No one lives forever, Iris. Minah.”
She also sends articles on “Keeping Your Man by Keeping Him Happy,” and “Five Fast Relationship Quick Fixes!” Again, the note, “Iris, take a lesson, here.” She sends articles about raising kids, about watching too much TV and how to get your kids to clean their rooms. “Worth a try, don’t you think? Minah.” Clearly, Minah believes I can use all the help I can get.
Iris didn’t find these clippings helpful. She didn’t know her mother-in-law very well, and she didn’t know why she kept getting these fat envelopes full of clippings every month, and she really didn’t look forward to Minah’s arrival. She found the very idea of Minah to be, shall we say, a challenge.
We all know how that went, don’t we.
If you’ve read the Trailer Park book, you know where the clippings came from, and why they often had tack holes in the corner. There were reasons. Good ones. And Minah is a quiet hero, clippings and all.
I try to skirt the issue of what might be autobiographical in my novels, but I freely admit that I based the clippings on events from my own life. For whatever reason, my mother saved and sent a lot of clippings. I mean, a lot. I’d open a letter, and find a wad of clippings with little pencil notations in my mother’s almost indecipherable handwriting, telling me who the clipping was for. It could be me, or it was just as likely to be for one of my (now ex) husbands, and later for my sister (who didn’t write letters much with my mother so I was supposed to save and deliver these to her for Mom) or much later, for my oldest daughter.
I think most of the clippings had to do with schemes. Please understand that my mother would have disliked how I call her ideas “schemes.” To her, they were perfectly reasonable “ideas.” Mostly they were ideas for how other people (who were not Mom) should live their lives.
Say, for instance, she read an article about Christmas tree farms in Oregon. She would think, “Karen and (ex) should do that.” So she would send that with her spidery pencil notations in the margin, “Think about this!” and then she’d eventually call me and ask if I’d read it, and had I been looking into opening a Christmas tree farm, and she’d found some listings for them, and she was sending them down so I could check them out with this realtor friend of hers.
I stood firm. “Mom, I don’t want a Christmas tree farm.”
Which would only strengthen her resolve that this was indeed the business venture that we should follow. She’d get very testy and defensive. She didn’t like being dismissed out of hand like that.
But I would hold my ground by stating the obvious. “Well, if you like the idea of owning a Christmas tree farm so much, why don’t you and Dad do it?”
This was a dangerous rejoinder. My parents spent years charging off in one direction or another, chasing their schemes, until finally settling down on Bainbridge Island. My parents loved it there, and shaking up their lives was then geographically limited, so it mostly involved local real estate as opposed to career changes.
This left my mother with a lot of pent up scheming energy, so she began working on getting other people to shake up their lives. My mother was so persuasive that she convinced a couple of friends to leave their jobs, sell everything they owned, and move into an RV and travel. And this couple DID IT. They lasted about a year before they sold the RV, bought a house, and went back to work. But that was my mom, an early #vanlife prophet who loathed RVs, but liked the idea, so she just urged the lifestyle onto someone else.
To be fair, my parents did charge off on a few financially ruinous schemes of their own during their Bainbridge years, including opening a pizza restaurant after they’d entered the years when they should have been consolidating their resources and planning for retirement.
Like I said, schemes.
My point is, I knew firsthand how annoying it was to receive a bunch of clippings. And the clippings weren’t limited to my own mother! When my second ex husband began his own lengthy and painful exit, his mother sent me the very clippings Iris receives about how to comport yourself around your children when your husband begins to pull a disappearing act.
Minah express-mailed me an emergency packet of clippings about divorced women who had been beaten, cheated on, financially devastated and abandoned by their husbands, but these women had NEVER said ONE word against their husbands to their children. They suffered in saintly silence, so their kids could have a high opinion of their fathers.
Scribbled in the margin, “Iris, take a lesson.”
Iris received that advice with more grace than I did.
Another clipping received came after my first child was born with a physical condition that came as a true surprise to everyone. Several well-meaning people sent me the Dear Abby Holland/Italy column. It starts with:
Welcome to Holland
I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability-to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this . . .
‘When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.
After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, `Welcome to Holland.’
‘HOLLAND?!?’ you say. ‘What do you mean, Holland? I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.’
But there`s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.
If you’d like to read the rest of this thing, it’s here: That Holland/Italy Dear Abby column people send to new parents who are grappling with the reality of having a child who is going to face a lot of heartbreaking challenges in her life and maybe this will help, I guess.
There’s another advice column from one of the Ann/Abby sisters about God choosing atheists to raise disabled kids. Apparently we are divinely chosen for this special task because we’re going to be so good at it. I don’t have the heart to track that one down. Nothing about that column brings an atheist any closer to the idea of God.
And if you’re reading this, and a friend has a child with a challenge, spare them these columns. You might have the very best of intentions, but a lot of people do brutal things with the very best of intentions. Don’t do it.
At some point, my mother got angry about the clippings. She let me know that it was taking up a large portion of each day to read things, clip them out, sort them into piles (because my brothers and some of her friends were getting them, too) and get them sent off with proper postage. I remember the hurt in her voice when she said, “I don’t even think you’re reading most of them.”
I replied, “Mom, did I ever ask you to be my clipping service? Did anyone ask you to do that?”
Mom kind of huffed up and gathered her dignity, then. Like most of us, she hated to find out she’d been doing something unnecessary, even annoying, as opposed to helpful. No one likes to feel ridiculous, especially not my mom. But I like to imagine that after her hurt feelings subsided, she started to read her papers and magazines for herself, rather than reading them for other people. I imagine it was a relief.
Here’s the rub. I do this, or a version of it. I send links to poems and essays to my friends. Just a select few friends, and I try to keep it under control. But I get daily poems from Rattle magazine and Poem-a-Day, so I send poems off now and then. I even sent this one to my husband, because we watch so many of these (and please read it slowly, and all the way to the end, because it’s magnificent in how it builds):
And I loved this trailer park poem so much, I posted it on my Facebook page (it’s heartbreaking and full of courage):
I recently sent this amazing NYer essay by Ann Padgett to four of my dearest friends.
And really, isn’t this what a Facebook feed is? A curation of links and memes and photos we think our friends will enjoy? An endless online clipping service?
So, am I just my own mother, now, as we are all our own mothers? I wonder. I also wonder if I would have loved getting envelopes from Mom if they had been full of poems and essays and stories, instead of schemes for changing my life. But Mom read mostly nonfiction, and she actively disliked poetry. She said she never “got it,” and felt stupid and angry when she tried to read it. She would never have sent me poems.
I recently read The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich. It’s fantastic, but there’s one passage that stood out to me. Here it is:
It is difficult for a woman to admit that she gets along with her own mother–sometimes it seems a form of betrayal, at least, it used to be among women in my generation. To join in the company of women, to be adults, we go through a period of proudly boasting of having survived our own mother’s indifference, anger, overpowering love, the burden of her pain, her tendency to drink or teetotal, her warmth or coldness, praise or criticism, sexual confusions or clarity. It isn’t enough that she sweat, labored, bore her daughters howling or under total anesthesia or both. No. She must be responsible for our psychic weakness for the rest of her life. It is all right to feel kinship with your father, to forgive. We all know that. But your mother is held to a standard so exacting that is has no principles. She simply must be to blame.
“She simply must be to blame.” I sighed in recognition when I read this, because I am a mother and I am a daughter, just as my own mother was. We only really forgive our mothers when we become mothers ourselves.
I loved my mother so much. She sent what she sent. She sent it with love. And of course, even though I love the life I’ve crafted, and I guard it from intrusion and meddling with everything I have, I’d give anything to open my mailbox and find one of those fat envelopes from my mom full of clippings on how to best change my life, annotated with her penciled notes in the margins.
In writing about my own life, I’m terrified of pathos, or maybe bathos. I want to be honest when I (someday) write that memoir, but Jesus Christ, when I look back at the mess of my childhood and young adulthood and then maybe add in my 20s and don’t forget my 30s, it seems a daunting task to write honestly about everything I’ve lived through. So, despite the inherent OMG involved in this blog post title, I’m not going to write about how and why I decided to become sexually active. I’m going to write instead about learning to ride a bike.
Let’s go back to me, at age five or so, in a tiny town called Claremont, South Dakota. My older brother and sister had both learned to ride a bike by the time a small blue bike was bequeathed to me. I assume they learned to ride a bike the usual way; my birth father put them on the bike, ran behind them holding the seat while they pedaled, and then let go. I don’t remember this happening to either of my older siblings, but they could both ride bikes just fine, so whatever wobbles or spills they endured didn’t throw them off the path of bike ridership.
Me? Not so much. I don’t have the daredevil gene. I guess that’s a real thing, the daredevil gene. It makes you a risk taker and an innovator. I was born without this gene, which means that I make cautious choices, like living in the same house for over 30 years, and shopping at thrift stores, and building up my 401K with steady contributions rather than playing the stock market like the goddamn casino game it actually is.
Casinos are not for me, folks. Ten years ago, I was in Vegas with a friend who informed me that I never win at games of chance because I don’t ever believe I will win. I tend to think that MOST people don’t win at games of chance—hence, Las Vegas itself—but maybe she has a point. Maybe if I bought into the whole idea of winning at gambling I’d enjoy it. Instead, I simply endure it until whatever puny stake I’ve decided to lose is gone, and then I can do something I actually enjoy in Vegas, like eating or looking at the crazy sights or going to a show or reading a book in my room or something like that.
My point with all this is to say, I don’t like risks. When my birth father let go of the little blue bike, I didn’t sail happily down the sidewalks of Claremont, South Dakota. I fell over. I scraped stuff. I cried. And soon after, before he could coax me back onto that bike, he and my mother divorced. My mom was a lot of cool things, but she wasn’t the kind of mother who was going to run up and down the block behind her timid six year-old, promising not to let go right up until she did.
Yes, I felt left out in fifth grade when everyone in my Edina, Minnesota, neighborhood jumped on their bikes and pedaled off to the Southdale mall. But sometimes they would walk, so I could come along and shoplift to my heart’s content.
I also didn’t know how to whistle. I taught myself to whistle really badly when I was in fifth grade, and I still whistle very badly, but I really don’t care. And there were other childhood gaps that could be filled in with diligent solitary practice. Cat’s Cradle, jacks, hand-clap games, and every type of jump rope. Those were my kinds of activity. I don’t have a clue if anyone plays those games anymore, but they were the deal when I was growing up.
They were a big deal in Minnesota, and they were still a big deal in Arkansas, where we moved while I was in fifth grade. I was still playing “Say Say Old Playmate” at recess when I got my first boyfriend…and my period…and my second boyfriend. He went to my school and passed me passionate mash notes that told me I looked like Marcia on The Brady Bunch, which was high praise in those days.
Here’s me at 12.
Here’s Marcia and her TV sisters.
Look at their shining, smooth hair, tan legs, and adorable dresses. I could study this photo all day in complete admiration. I don’t think I looked like Marcia, but I certainly appreciated the compliment.
It was less of a problem in Montana, where we moved after Arkansas. We lived up in the mountains on a ranger station. There were no sidewalks and no paved roads, aside from a narrow paved highway that snaked above the sheer banks of the icy Gallatin River. Kids in Gallatin Gateway, where I went to part of seventh grade and all of eighth, rode horses, not bikes.
When we moved into Bozeman, there were sidewalks, but the kids I hung around with (the boys at least) had cars. If you had a boyfriend, he was your source of transportation.
At 14, I lost my virginity. I still couldn’t ride a bike.
At 15, I got my driver’s license. I still couldn’t ride a bike.
Also, at 15, I moved out of my parent’s home and to another state (Washington) with my older boyfriend—yes, in tenth grade.
I still couldn’t ride a bike.
So now, those of you still reading understand that my life had really gone off the rails at this point. I’ve taken you from South Dakota to Minnesota to Arkansas to Montana and finally to Washington, with multiple moves and schools in each of those locations. My early life was unsettled, but at this point it veered into somewhat tragic territory. And of the various tragedies around my 14th and 15th years (let’s just extend this tragedy time on up to age 19), not being able to ride a bike was the least of them. However, that particular tragedy could be rectified.
I have a strong need to contextualize people in order to understand and eventually forgive them. The boyfriend with whom I lived in my teens has a really interesting life of his own that lends context to what was wrong with him. I’m not ready to write about him in any detail. But I think it’s safe to talk about the fact that he was a gearhead. He loved anything wheeled, especially if it was motorized or had an engine. He worked on cars constantly. But before he could drive, he poured all that gearhead passion into his bikes.
He had two. This was the era of the ten speed, and I’m not sure his “good” bike was one of those, but it was complex and had gears. He’d modified and tinkered with it so much, it was a miracle that he could still ride it. And then he’d held on to his childhood Schwinn with the banana seat, on which he’d delivered papers for years in all kinds of Montana weather.
Pay attention, these bikes are important in a paragraph or two.
During the school year, we both went to school. He went to YVC, and I went to high school, where I managed not to drop out despite just hating it. In the summer, we did various things to earn money. My parents were living in Missoula, where my father was busy flunking out of law school and my mother was running a small, successful miniatures business.
So my boyfriend and I packed up the cats and went to Missoula to make miniature furniture for the summer. We slept on the hideabed in the tiny living room of my parents’ married student housing apartment.
We assembled tiny chairs and sofas and table,s and we made more money doing that than picking fruit, our other summer employment endeavor. And at some point early on, my boyfriend drove back to Bozeman and retrieved both of his bikes from his parents’ garage, and brought them to Missoula.
I started on that little Schwinn. I think it looked a lot like this one, which is for sale for over 2K on eBay:
I’m a tall person, so I probably looked ridiculous on this boy’s bike, but the banana seat was comfortable and the handlebars were tall, so I could sit up, instead of that hunching over you had to do on a ten speed. I got on that bike, and he held onto the back of the seat, and he ran behind me while I pedaled down the sidewalk, and eventually, he let go.
Guess what? I rode just fine. This bike was fast and easy to maneuver. The only problem was, one of the pedals was incomplete, so every so often, my foot would slip off and my ankle would bang into the end of the pedal peg. That hurt.
Ankle bruises aside, I was finally riding a bike. Each evening, we rode all over the University of Montana campus; him on his age-appropriate adult-sized bike, and me on that little Schwinn. I remember a boy we passed calling, “You look funny on that bike!” I yelled back, “I know!” I knew, and I didn’t care. It was so fun to finally know how to ride a bike. And the campus, back then, was empty in the summer, so we could whiz all over the paved paths and brick courtyards, riding recklessly in circles around the bear sculpture.
I fell in love with this campus that summer, thanks to that bike. Eventually, we moved to Missoula and I attended my first two quarters of college at the University of Montana. I made wonderful friends and came into my own and finally started to question the path my life had taken. I started to wonder if that path could change. I decided it could, and forged a new one.
I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like had I stayed at the U of M after I ended things with the boyfriend, who had become my first husband. If I’d left him but stayed in Missoula, I could have applied for financial aid, and I would have been helped in that because I was in the honors program and had a 4.0 GPA. That used to matter to schools. I could have moved into the dorm, which was actually a cheap place to live back then, and finished my studies, and…and then…and then I peter out. Because I’d have eventually ended up in the hospital, or worse, if I’d stayed in the same city where he lived. Because he wouldn’t have let me go, if I’d stayed in Missoula. And because my real life, with all that it holds, has taken place in Portland, where I moved at age 19.
Portland, Oregon, is the most bike-friendly city in America.
Everyone rides a bike in Portland.
I wish I could tell you that my hard-won teen mastery of bike riding had inspired a lifelong love of biking. That this was the start of something important. But that small bike with its comfortable banana seat and busted pedal went back to my boyfriend’s parents’ garage in Bozeman, and it took my love of biking with it.
I know that I had a big brown three-speed of my own at some point while we lived in Yakima, but I never took to it. It was so BIG compared to the swift little Schwinn. I rode it a few times and found it heavy and tiring, nothing like zipping around on the wee bike. Eventually that big bike went to my older brother, who did ride it around Portland for a while. And then I suppose it was sold.
I haven’t been on a bike since I was 17 years old. But I like to think that riding a bike is just like…riding a bike. That I’ve never forgotten what it took me so long to learn. That it’s back there, deep in my muscle memory.
That even now, I could get on and go.
January 20, 2020 was Martin Luther King Day. My husband had the day off and I didn’t. So he dropped me at work, and then picked up his friend Parry, and they spent MLK day playing cards up in Washington at a card room. For the record, he won money because my husband always wins money when he plays cards. He was back in Portland in time to pick me up outside my office at 4:30 PM.
I got in the car and he looked terrible. Just exhausted. And what followed was some kind of puzzled conversation about how he’d felt fine all day, but as he sat in the car waiting for me, something extreme had absolutely flattened him. I remember asking, “It came on that fast?” It had, and it was severe enough that he wasn’t sure if he’d be going to work the next day. I asked my husband if he wanted me to drive, but he said he’d be okay to drive us home.
We weren’t surprised that he’d caught something. He works with a woman we refer to as “Patient Zero” because she always comes to work when she’s sick. All month, her cough had been echoing around his office. The week before, she left the office on a stretcher because she was coughing so hard that she couldn’t breathe. We thought he’d probably caught this from her.
But my husband didn’t cough that much, only every half hour or so. He didn’t think he had a fever, just that dry cough and extreme fatigue. So, because this is how we do it in America, he went to work on Tuesday. In fact, he worked all week. Some days, he found himself staring at the computer in utter bafflement, but he endured. He didn’t bother me at night with his coughing, probably because he took Nyquil. He ate a lot of chicken noodle soup for dinner.
We both thought he was better that next Saturday when we went out for our usual errands; a tank of gas for our daily shared commute, the bulk of our groceries at one store, the remainder at another, and a mad dash through the Goodwill if we felt like it. I think we did most if not all of these stops, but after each one, I’d ask him, “Are you up for…?” And he would stop, and seriously assess. I mean, he had to think about it. And then he’s say, “I think I can do that.”
This is not like my husband. He’s one of those long, rangy men who never run out of energy. So I knew that he really had to be sick.
I didn’t look forward to getting whatever he had, but I assumed that I would. At the office, I stopped helping myself to snacks in the break room, aware that I might be contagious before I was symptomatic. As a rule at work, I don’t touch elevator buttons with my hand, preferring to use the corner of my shirt. I put my hand in my cardigan pocket and run that along the stairway bannister, I open and close the bathroom door with paper towels, things like that. It looks strange but I don’t really care. Laugh if you want to, but I rarely get colds because of my weird little ways.
Eventually, I started having a strange drippy trickle at the back of my throat. That must be it, I thought. It must be coming. On the way home from work, I’d say, “I bet it’s coming on, I bet I won’t be going to work tomorrow.” But it didn’t.
On Sunday, February 2, 2020, it finally arrived. We had matinee theater tickets, and I had a wet, chesty cough. I thought I was okay, though, because the cough was occasional. I loaded up on unwrapped cough drops, and we went to that afternoon’s play.
I timed my coughing for applause and scene changes. I was worried about hampering other patrons’ theater experience, not their health. It was just a cold, right? And the cough was really not that bad. I covered my mouth, I didn’t touch things, I was considerate. We saw, and enjoyed, the play.
But that evening? I stood up from the couch and had a dizzy spell so bad I nearly fainted. And just like that, the cough became wracking, a full body experience that left me gasping for air. Nothing like my husband’s cough, which was dry. I didn’t have a fever, but I felt completely disoriented.
Around the time my husband got sick, my 2 year-old grandson had three days of high fever, pinkeye, and a mysterious, hive-like rash. He didn’t get any cold symptoms. The doctor had no explanation, just a recommendation of Tylenol and rest.
There’s this: Children and Covid-19
My daughter (his mom) had a physical around the same time, and she had an elevated white count. The doctor was worried about that, and so was she. Then, maybe a week later, right about the time I became symptomatic, she came down with what appeared to be the same thing I had, with a horrible, deep cough. We commiserated about the horror of it on the phone. She recommended a Mucinex day/night twin pack, and my husband went to the store and got one for me. That helped tremendously.
I stayed home from work on Monday and Tuesday. Because this is America, on Wednesday I went in. It was soon clear to me that I had no business being at work. I wouldn’t let anyone come into my office and I didn’t touch anything. I gathered materials to work from home on Thursday and Friday, and I went home. “No one should get this,” I told my manager. She completely agreed. She’s good that way. In a company where you show your commitment by coming to work and thumping a bottle of Dayquil down on your desk and working a full day even though you feel like death, my manager is the rare person in charge who says, “I don’t want whatever you have, so stay home.”
I stayed home.
I didn’t have a fever or a headache, just this awful strangling cough, followed by gasping for air and dizziness. I felt like I’d been drowned and brought back to life, which happened to me when I was very young, but that’s another blog post.
I sat on the couch for most of the week, staring ahead, feeling lost and disoriented. The TV was on, but I hardly noticed. I felt no connection to any person, place, thing, or task. To add insult to injury, I got pinkeye. Oh, pinkeye? My husband had some medicine for it, and it went away without much effort, but really? Pinkeye?
Maybe this had something to do with it: COVID-19 and Pinkeye
Here’s the thing. I couldn’t figure out what it WAS. I’ve had the flu a few times, including the Swine Flu. This was not the flu, but that was all I could imagine it to be. I was especially baffled because I’d had my flu shot the previous fall, and it was supposed to be an effective one. And why were my symptoms so different from my husband’s? We decided I had to have something completely different, because he’d been sick, but not like this. I was a mess.
By Saturday, I was just recovered enough to babysit for my daughter, who felt well enough to have dinner with friends. I still felt terrible, but she was in far better shape than I was, and she really wanted to go, so I held down the fort that evening for two grandkids. This was a monumental effort. I was relieved to go home and continue recovering on Sunday.
Then, because certainly my company couldn’t survive for more than a week without my crackerjack copy writing skills, I went back to work on Monday. I wasn’t in great shape, but I could work, so I worked. I worked with a constantly running nose and the occasional cough. I was definitely short of breath and quick to tire.
The news was all about a dangerous virus out of China. I said to my manager, “Do you think?” She said, It’s not here yet, so…” But she kept her distance.
My nose wouldn’t stop running, which I took to be the source of my lingering cough. I have to be careful what I take to dry myself out, and I’d had enough of what I shouldn’t take in the Mucinex day formula, so I let it run. That week, in addition to working, and babysitting again, I called and cancelled our Valentine’s Day dinner reservations. I remember telling the woman I talked to, “I can’t smell or taste a thing, so we’ll reschedule when I can.” I blamed my runny nose for that.
That next Sunday, my daughter called me at 6 AM in terrible pain. I jumped out of bed and took her to the ER. She had her gall bladder out that next day. But that meant that while I was there with her in the ER, and then in the surgery waiting room, and then back in her hospital room, I was still blowing my nose and coughing. Constantly. And I kept worrying that it was more than a cold, more than a flu. I kept thinking about that awful virus out of China, which now had a name: “the coronavirus.”
I kept wondering—knowing, on some level—that I might have this horrible coronavirus while I was in a hospital around sick and vulnerable people. I coughed into my elbow. I washed my hands. I used my shirt to touch the elevator call buttons. I washed and sanitized my hands over and over. I worried.
This is when I started to become frustrated with my friends. I was becoming terrified that I had it. When I expressed my concerns, “It can’t be the coronavirus, Karen. It’s not here.” Even though it was here. Even after people in nursing homes started to show up with the virus. Even though my former brother-in-law, a healthy man of 62, died in his sleep, stunning my family and devastating my sister and nephew. That was his heart, supposedly. But I asked for details—a week of horrible coughing and shortness of breath—and I had dark suspicions.
I’d try to talk about it, and be told no, nope, never. Not possible. I know it was a terrifying prospect, a deadly virus being present in the general population. No one wanted to even hear about the idea, I’m sure partly because no one wanted to have been exposed, no one wanted to be at risk. And to be fair, some of the people who refused to hear the idea that I’d had it really love me. Maybe they were afraid to admit they might have lost me.
Even after we had a confirmed case in the US, backdated to January 20th, I was told over and over again that I couldn’t have had it. It had somehow gotten here to the US and made just that one person sick, a person who hadn’t been traveling in any of the areas where it was rampant. That’s called community spread, but no one was ready to admit it yet.
After a few days of post-surgery recovery, my daughter was coming home from the hospital. Her boyfriend worked swing shift, so my ex-husband and I figured out a schedule for helping her with the kids until she healed. He would do afternoons, and I would cover evenings. But I’d started coughing again, so I went to Urgent Care on March 12th to make sure I didn’t have bronchitis. It had been over four weeks of being sick at this point, and I couldn’t kick it.
At the Urgent Care, they listened to my symptoms and asked me to wear a surgical mask. This is the first time in my life I’d ever had one on my face, and I didn’t like it. I was told there were no tests available for the new virus, the county had a few but they were reserved for…people who were not me. So they couldn’t help me with that.
I was examined and had a chest X-ray. The radiologist looked at my X-rays and said I had a pattern of lung damage that suggested COPD, and I needed to follow up with a pulmonologist. I think the chances of my having COPD are pretty slim, since I’ve never been a smoker. I know it could happen with secondhand smoke, but I haven’t been around that for over forty years.
You know how you just know? I just knew. I knew what I’d had, even though no one around me would admit it.
I am not a medical alarmist. I’m more the opposite. I expect everything that’s wrong with me to just go away; colds, flus, bone spurs, high blood pressure, a hemorrhaging uterus, heartburn so scorching they thought I had Barrett’s Esophagus–you name it, I ignored it until I absolutely couldn’t.
So, my heart. I guess since mine did, I assumed everyone’s hearts stopped beating now and then. Sure, it’s an alarming feeling to have your heart stop beating, but I was used to it. You know how you’re sitting there and then you can feel your heart stop and you think, wow, come on now, let’s have a beat! Yes? No? Doesn’t your heart do that? Well, mine did, and I ignored it for a long time. Years. Maybe ten, before I did bring it up to the doctor.
She was the perfect doctor for me, because she told me to calm down, nothing was wrong with my heart, and to buck up. She shamed me for imagining something was wrong! “What do you do for a living? That is NOT a high stress job.” (She didn’t know my manager back then. That was a terribly high-stress position due to that manager). But I was more than happy to buy into that and continue ignoring my symptoms. And maybe six months more went by before I almost passed out in the break room at work, so I went back to her, because even I know that passing out in the break room because your heart is out of rhythm is not normal.
To humor me, she ordered a Holter monitor for me. She did it to set my mind at ease and to get me to calm down, I’m sure. So I went to the heart lab and got everything attached, and wore that weird little box on my chest for a few days. I dropped it off on a Monday morning, fully expecting to be shamed for even thinking something was wrong.
My doctor had to call me after the heart lab looked at my results. “Karen, you need to go to the cardiologist at 1 PM today to discuss your Holter monitor results. Please be aware that you might be admitted directly to the hospital after your appointment.” Well, after an echocardiogram, and a stress test, and a lot of sobering instruction, I was allowed to go home. Two times a day, I take a potentially lethal medication for ventricular arrhythmia. My prescription has one side effect—sudden death—but that usually happens during the first week, and I’m obviously still here. My medication works great for me and I’m so glad to be on it.
My point is, I had that heartbeat irregularity for at least ten years before I became concerned enough to take it seriously. Also, if you’re wondering why someone with a serious heart condition didn’t die from having COVID, I take Losartan for my blood pressure. Read this: Losartan and COVID-19
Let’s go back to my timeline. What happened next?
Well, we all figured out this was serious, and here, and it wasn’t going away or evaporating. The world was shutting down. We’d started working from home. I finally stopped coughing, but my nose was still running. And as more information came out about the virus, the huge variance in our symptoms and severity made complete sense to my husband and me.
We knew we’d already had the thing, which now had a name, COVID-19. My husband and I wondered, if we’d had it, were we immune? Did that matter? We masked up, washed our hands, stayed home. But we wondered. Oh my god, did we wonder.
I heard about an antibody test. In the spring of 2020, there was no way to get one, at least not in Oregon. Still, I asked. I asked quite a bit. When Zoom Care started offering the antibody tests, I thought seriously about taking one. My doctors said they were so inaccurate that they were basically useless. So I didn’t take one, and in retrospect, I wish I had.
On April 3rd, I made a pot roast. I make a good pot roast, and I thought this was going to be a good one. The dogs were going nuts at the smell, and I could smell it, too. But the only thing I could taste was the sweetness of the onions. The whole thing tasted sweet. Even the gravy! I wondered if I’d somehow used sugar instead of flour to dredge the roast and thicken the gravy, but nope. I’d used flour. It was inexplicable.
Later that month, I was turning 60 with no party, no trip, no celebration at all. This was not how I’d envisioned turning 60. I was disappointed. On the day itself, my husband brought me one of my favorite comfort-food meals: turkey dinner from Banning’s Restaurant. I’ve eaten this turkey dinner more than a few times in the 36 years I’ve lived in this neighborhood, and it’s always just right. But I started eating, and the food had no flavor. None. I was dismayed and felt betrayed. What had happened to Banning’s? Why did their takeout have no flavor at all?
My husband had a similar experience while eating his beloved meatball sandwich from Subway. He said, “They’ve done something to the sauce. I don’t know what it is, but this is terrible. It’s just wrong.” This was unnerving.
Then, I realized that I couldn’t smell unpleasant smells. Plenty of these were around the dogs, because dogs are basically composed of bad smells. I couldn’t smell their dog food when I fed them. And in the morning when I stepped out with them after breakfast so they could do their business, the odors of their pee and poop usually wafted over the smell of wet grass. No more. My dogs are old, and if one of them used the pee pad during the night, I couldn’t smell the urine.
As far as humans, I couldn’t smell anything bodily, ever, from myself, or my husband. I couldn’t even smell morning breath. Now, none of this seems like something you’d miss, yes? But the ability to perceive unpleasant odors is probably important, even if it’s not pleasurable. An entire range of smell perception was gone.
A June 23rd follow-up visit with a pulmonologist got my “damaged” lungs an all clear. By that time, I’d heard that there was a pattern of lung damage associated with COVID. I don’t know what the radiologist was seeing, but the pulmonologist thought my lungs looked just fine. I accepted the good news of healthy lungs with massive relief and went on with my life.
The summer arrived in Portland. My baby grandson, who was actually a toddler at this point, a walking, talking, toddler, had also arrived in Portland with his moms, who were working remotely to avoid the COVID hotspot that was Brooklyn, NY. His other grandma was going to help with daycare, and she was doing the necessary isolation and quarantining in order to do that safely. Being able to see him mask-free and hands-on would involve a lot of quarantining and isolation from my other grandkids, one of whom is technically a “step,” so she comes and goes from another household with a lot of unknowns as far as infection vectors. But if I had antibodies, this wouldn’t be an issue, right?
In the summer of 2020, in Oregon, there was only one way to get an antibody test, and that was to give blood. So on July 23rd, my husband and I went to donate. I was so hopeful. Yes, it had been six months since he had the virus, and five since I had. But I was sure I’d had it and this would give me proof.
Guess what. Neither of us showed antibodies in our blood, which isn’t surprising because apparently they only show up for three or four months after you’re infected. I was crushed. I wanted proof, not so I could wave it in the face of people who doubted me (okay, that would have been nice), but so I could see all my grandkids, even if they couldn’t see each other.
Well, I had no antibodies, and it was hard not to see my other grandkids, but I did it. I took days off work to help his moms with daycare while they worked from home. It was idyllic—hanging with this little guy who usually lived across the country me, getting to see him and know him, learning all his charming, funny ways. But then, on top of the pandemic, we had wildfires. To escape the smoke, my younger grandson’s family spent time out of town, either at the coast, or at his other grandparents’ in McMinnville.
And then, my youngest daughter and her boyfriend decided to move to Eugene. I wanted some quality time with the other grandkids, and with my daughter before she left, so I broke quarantine. In mid-September, we really broke quarantine to help the kids move to Eugene, including a meal inside a truck stop on moving day. My husband and I were exhausted from the move, the drive, the chokingly thick wildfire smoke. It was just too darn smoky to eat in the car. My gosh, it was strange to sit in a restaurant and eat.
I haven’t been back in the bubble with my younger grandson ever since. But I can have masked porch visits with him until the end of next month, when he returns to New York. He knows me, knows my name, and he likes me. We have some jokes, and we’ve discovered that we share a deep affection for dogs (or “woof-woofs” as he calls them), and Santa Claus (who says “ho-ho-ho!” and has a hat and a beard). We might not have discovered these deep and meaningful commonalities without the pandemic.
We’re lucky, and we know it. Both my husband and I are employed. Our companies are financially stable, so we don’t spend time worrying about that, and we’re able to work from home. We’re especially glad that he can work from home, as my husband works with people who have to travel internationally as part of the business, with plenty of trips to Asia. His office has had several confirmed cases, and one person in another part of the company passed away. I’m relieved that my husband hasn’t had to go in once.
We also have more money. I haven’t analyzed why, but my husband has. He told me last week that he thought we were in better shape financially because we spend so much less on gas, car maintenance, lunches out, entertainment, movies, theater, concerts, dinners with friends, and all the activities that were such an important part of our lives before this pandemic. I’d talk about how hard that is, except we’re all in the same boat, and we all know how narrow life has become.
No matter how sure I am that I’ve had COVID-19, I’ve never had proof of that, or been convinced that it made me immune. I’m smack in the middle of a high-risk group because of my age, weight, high blood pressure, and bad heart. So I’ve socially distanced, washed and sanitized my hands, and worn my mask (cloth, with a kickass filter) from the time it was recommended.
As we get closer to the mythical wonders of vaccination, I’m buckling down on my safety measures. With my risk factors, I’m damn lucky to have survived this once. I don’t want to take a chance on twice.
My nose is still runny. The lymph nodes in my neck are still swollen. I went in for a physical, and my doctor wanted an ultrasound of the lymph nodes, and the verdict was that I have unknown allergies or I’m getting over something. Well, I haven’t had a cold since early 2019, unless what I’ve so painstakingly described here was a common cold. Even so, I was sick in February and March of last year. We’re coming up on a year.
My stamina is shot. I’m not a particularly active person, but I used to be able to walk FOREVER on level ground. That’s just not the case anymore. I’m sure sitting around working from home isn’t helping, but I do have a lingering shortness of breath that I find more embarrassing than debilitating. It could be related to my heart, or to post-COVID. I don’t know what to do about it.
And then, there’s the pain. Occasionally, maybe once a week, I’m overtaken by a burning pain right under my skin that can only be helped by lying down for fifteen minutes. It’s especially terrible through my neck and shoulders. It BURNS. I don’t know what this is, or if it’s related to COVID, but I’m hopeful that it will go away. That’s been steady all year.
But the worst part is the degradation of my taste and smell. I think I only realized how much I’d lost when it started to come back to me. I can taste most flavors again, but not all. I was one of those people to whom cilantro tasted like dirt, but it was so omnipresent in food that I started to like it, and then came to love it. I’m completely back to square one on cilantro; it tastes like dirt. Garlic is back after being completely absent. I’m still waiting on basil. I think it will come, I hope it will since that’s one of my favorite herbs. It’s so refreshingly pungent. Meat odors are iffy. I can sometimes smell red meat as it cooks. I can’t smell salmon.
Maybe this explains it: COVID-19 and the senses
Food is one thing, but people don’t smell right. I can’t find those warm and comforting smells I associate with my kids and grandkids; their hair, mostly, you know how everyone’s hair smells different? And sometimes I smell strange to myself, like I’m in a state of decay. That’s alarming. But like I said, it seems to be getting better day-by-day. I can smell all the dog smells again, which is gross but reassuring.
I’m actually excited when I smell something bad. It means my nose is working. But then, there’s the brain fog.
Last spring, after we got over the whatever-it-was, my husband and I seemed to take turns saying, “You know…” or “Hey, um…” or “Oh!” Then we’d just sit there, waiting, because whatever it was would vanish. This would happen three or four times a DAY to each of us. We were good-natured about it. We thought maybe it was related to age, or the lack of input in our new home-bound lives, in which there was nowhere to go and nothing to do besides work, watch TV, or sit on the back patio.
As we hit the year anniversary of him getting sick, I’m happy to say that he no longer does this. I still do it, but very rarely. But sometimes, more often than I want to admit, I have to stop and wait for specific words.
I know some of this comes with age and with menopause. During the worst of menopause, six to eight years ago, I lost a lot of basic vocabulary. For two years, I was reduced to saying things like, “The stuff you put in the washing machine to get your clothes clean,” or “The thing you put toilet paper on in the bathroom.” But that was temporary. It’s been five years since I had anything like that going on.
Guess what. It’s back.
The other morning, I spent two minutes trying to remember the word “cantaloupe.” I could only come up with “cauliflower.” But I was patient, lying in the dark before I got up, thinking, come on, Karen. It’s right next to honeydew, or muskmelon, or orange flesh melons, all of which you love, but you don’t like the one that makes the inside of your mouth itch, and that’s…cauliflower. Cauliflower? It’s not cauliflower. Its something else.
Finally, cantaloupe appeared. I felt such triumph. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. Cantaloupe! Which I don’t like to eat because it makes my mouth itch! But I’m so glad to have the word for it!
I’ve never been good with names, ever. But I can generally remember the names of people related to me, and the names of my friends and coworkers. Over the last year, I’ve had to reach and wait for the names of people I know very well. I lost my friend Guy’s last name. I love his artwork, and hadn’t seen it in my Instagram feed. I was wondering if the algorithm just hadn’t shown it to me, or if he’d stopped posting, so I needed to look him up. But I couldn’t remember his last name. I knew his sister’s last name, but that’s a married name. Guy’s was a blank. Finally, I got out my phone to scan my contacts, and thought, “Will it be under Guy? Or Edwards?” There you have it, his name was back.
And here’s his art, if you’re curious: Guy the brilliant Edwards
This is lessening, thank god. I think my brain is healing itself. Distant memories will come flooding back out of the blue. Especially first thing in the morning, I’ll be overwhelmed by the feel, smell, angle of light, birdsong of a childhood backyard. Song lyrics I’d thought were lost to time will bathe my brain. I’m once again able to sing the entirety of “Free Man in Paris” (and most other Joni Mitchell songs) without a gap. My theory is, parts of my memory were disconnected somehow by COVID, and it’s all returning. I’d like to believe I will get it all back; my memory, my sense of taste, my sense of smell, my stamina.
We shall see.
Currently, the CDC estimates there are three undiagnosed cases for every confirmed case in the US. My guess, rooted not in science but in my gut instinct, is that there are probably ten unconfirmed cases for every confirmed positive. Our testing ranged from unavailable to unreliable during the times it was most crucial to know our numbers. I also think massive amounts of people tested negative when they were positive. How else to explain people like a coworker of mine who quarantined with his COVID-positive 12 year old child. He was alone with his asymptomatic kid for two weeks, and he got deathly ill, and he tested negative (he has recovered, though he can’t run up the stairs easily right now).
I’m not a scientist. I don’t know everything. But I’m pretty sure my coworker had it. As did I. As did my husband, and my daughter, and another daughter I haven’t even talked about here who might have had it in December of 2019.
But I still have friends who don’t believe I had it, because I have no positive test for the virus or its antibodies to prove it. Some of them have grudgingly accepted that the virus might have been here in February, but when it comes to me having it, the most I’ll get from them is a “maybe.”
Except, there’s this news: It appears that COVID antibodies were present in the Red Cross donation samples in Oregon last fall. You can read about it here: COVID-19 antibodies in donated blood Blood donors on the West coast (including Oregon) had COVID-19 antibodies last fall, which means, of course, that they were sick with up to four months earlier.
COVID-19 was very definitely present in Oregon in January and February of 2020.
When I couldn’t possibly have had it.
I was on the phone with my sister the other day, trying to distract her from a painful medical situation, and we were discussing the fact that someone she briefly dated asked her to take his dog. The dog in question is a fine little gentleman of a chi mix. He’s old, but sturdy and well-behaved, especially for a chihuahua. But my sister lives on a fixed income, and she likes to spend lots of time at her little cabin at the beach, and she doesn’t want a dog. “Besides,” I told her, “dogs are expensive.” I added up how much my current dog is costing me, and I got a little dizzy.
This is the dog in question. I have had her for seven years, and she was around six when I got her, so that means when she goes to the vet, they talk about her as a “sweet old girl.” I fear my doctors talk about me the same way behind my back, now–there is new and unfamiliar level of solicitude extended my way by the cardiologist, the GP–so maybe I’m a little sensitive about aging.
I don’t see my girl as old, even though her spine is starting to emerge as her muscle tone goes, and her eyes are slightly cloudy. She’s my vital, expensive, adorable little rescue dog, a mix of Chihuahua, Lhasa Apso and Shih Tzu. She’s going to live forever, even though her special food, vet plan, and medications cost me close to a hundred dollars a month that could be going into my retirement fund.
She’s worth it. She’s worth it because I love her. She’s worth it because seven years ago, I saw her funny little face on Petfinder, and felt a pang in my heart that could only be cured if she came to live with me. I wanted her so much that I agreed to adopt a bonded pair, and the other dog was way too small. I’d zipped right past her photo on Petfinder, thinking, “That’s a cute little dog for someone who wants a dog that small.” I have never had a dog that small and I never intended to.
Just look at that little monster on the left, that adorable killer. Six pounds of territorial spite. Fiercest guardian of the front door, attacker of ankles, biter of children. She was 3/4 chihuahua, 1/4 unknown. She had the coat of a polar bear and feared no weather, and I don’t think she feared anything else, either. Or maybe she feared everything. She never, ever stopped barking at my neighbors, and bit every finger extended through the fence to make peace.
I couldn’t believe I had adopted a vicious dog. I tried for three months to cure her using every method I found on the internet.
I gave up.
She spent countless hours locked in the bedroom during family gatherings, books groups, potlucks, and more. She drew blood on at least five friends, and we won’t talk about my poor niece, who eventually became the only child she liked. And we put up with this. We put up with this because she was such a strange, sweet, comical mini-mutt, who intensely loved her people and kept us entertained with her stiff-legged little antics.
She was a spite pisser and a slipper killer, a fence racer and a cuddler who shed constantly, covering us with hair from an undercoat worthy of an Alaskan sled dog. She started each day by bounding up on our chests in bed, letting out a big sneeze to let us know she meant us no harm, and covering our faces with endless flicks of her oversized pink tongue. Kisses. Loves. Demands for breakfast. But so much joy and love.
When we walked in the door each day after work, she turned a few stiff little circles, then flopped on her back for belly rubs, crying with happiness. Or maybe that was more food demands. She was always hungry.
God, she was such a pisser. She was so loving to us and so terrible to everyone else. We loved her and forgave her. I had taken her on, and I lived around her ways, and she gave me back her fierce devotion.
She was also a remarkable fighter as far as her health went. In the time I had her, she had throat cancer (which went away, as cancer sometimes does in dogs), three different bouts of vestibular disease, which is supposed to last three days and in her case, lasted a month or more each time. She had two strokes that I witnessed, and recovered from both.
And there were seizures. She didn’t respond to the medication prescribed by the vet–it made her rear legs stop working, and the seizures actually increased. So we took her off, and she had maybe one seizure per week at night–screamers, as we called them.
My other dog would run to her, put a paw on her, watch her, and then when she came around, encourage her to lick her feet. This is a cooling mechanism, and since overheating is the biggest danger for dogs with seizures, I think it helped. And you might say, how could the other dog know what to do? She’s a special little dog, a canine nursemaid who takes care of everyone when they need it. And she took good care of Lita when the seizures happened.
Lita was probably eight or ten when I got her, so she was somewhere between fifteen and seventeen years old. She was failing, but in my heart, she was still the fat and happy little tyrant of our household. The thought of letting her go devastated me. She kept fighting. I kept letting her.
I remember one long night, holding my husband’s hand and crying in the dark, saying, “It’s just that I know I’ll never have another dog like her.” Because there was no other dog like her.
At that point, I’d had her for seven years. The last year was rough, particularly the last six months. When we came home for the quarantine, we understood that her seizures were not just happening at night. She had constant “gum chewing” seizures, small events that were fairly quiet. But the grand mals were happening while she slept during the day, too.
We would be quietly working away. One or the other of us would say, “There she goes.” We would watch her little body spasm, wondering if it was time. Of course it was time. But I couldn’t face it. So we treated her with massive doses of CBD, which made the seizures less intense, but they still happened.
Then the food issues started. Her love for food was always strong. When she was being fostered, they fed her so much that she went up to ten pounds. She would take her plastic bowl and throw it across the room at them when she was hungry.
I switched her to a heavier ceramic food bowl. She broke two of them. I kept her at six pounds for the seven years I had her, which meant waking up to her crying for food every morning at 5:30 or 6 AM. This dog loved her kibbles.
But one day about six months ago, feeding became incredibly difficult. She barked over her food bowl for ten or fifteen minutes, then walked away without taking a bite. I tried canned food, tuna oil. Nothing worked. She would go for a day or two between meals.
But when my oldest daughter had to move home due to pandemic-related unemployment and brought her dog, spite became Lita’s favorite sauce. She started guarding her food so viciously that she’d kick it all over the room. The only time her tail came up was when she assumed her guarding stance, by her bowl. But she still wouldn’t eat.
We tried many different ways to get her to eat. The most obvious one was the least successful–isolating her. She had no interest in food unless the other dogs were there. She flatly refused. Our days were measured by if she ate, and how much she took in. She’d only eat if one of us sat with her, scooping out small amounts of food by hand, keeping the other dogs in sight, but back.
So that’s what we did.
This photo makes me cry. Look at that skinny little girl. Her hunched back, her lowered tail, her hollow tummy. And yet we kept her going like that for three months, because I didn’t want to let her go. Because I remembered this little girl.
When you have a dog, this day arrives. And you kiss that stubborn little head for the last time, and you make yourself say goodbye. You let her go.
She’s buried in the front yard, next to the magnolia tree that we planted over the first dog we buried at this address. Mylo was a sleek little dachshund who was only two years old when she slipped the fence and got hit by a car. Mylo’s been joined by Holly, Zoe, Tessie, and the ashes of my dad’s dog, Rupert. And now my little Lita.
I miss her every day. And so does my other dog, who has bonded nicely with my daughter’s dog. But between the time they were fostered and the time she was with me, she spent close to ten years like this, cuddled close to her Lita. I know she is sad.
So when you total up the cost of having a dog, you do the math. You add up vet visits, dog licenses, vaccinations, health plans, prescriptions and food. You figure in the baths and grooming, dog sitting so you can travel, having to be home right after work so you can give the dogs their dinners and let them out. You factor in poop in the yard and pee in your shoes (Lita did that when she was mad). You consider the constant annoyance of dog hair on your clothes, in your mouth, on your bed.
But that is not the real cost of a dog.
The real cost is, you have to say goodbye.
A long conversation between author Karen G. Berry and Susan Sabol, her dear friend of many decades, which is included in The Iris Files, and reprinted here for your enjoyment. And you WILL enjoy it.
Sue: Why did you write this book?
Karen: Iris was a character in a short story I wrote trying to get into a creative writing class. I didn’t get in, I don’t write good short stories. But I always wondered about her full story. One day, I decided to tell it.
Sue: You write as if you are intimately familiar with life in suburbia. Are you?
Karen: Absolutely. I moved out to the suburbs when I was 23 years old. I hated it at first, but I stayed out here. And the truth is, I have grown to absolutely love the suburbs. Tall trees and birds and open windows, a big yard for my dogs, and the sound of the train on a quiet night. I always have a place to park.
Sue: Talk about the ways in which you think Iris speaks for all mothers.
Karen: Wow. That’s a question. I think motherhood is a very messy, visceral job. Before you become a parent you’re fed this Pinterest ideal of cotton clothing and handmade wooden toys; co-sleeping and making your own baby food and four years of breastfeeding, all carried out at an aesthetically pleasing level. That’s something that’s gotten so much worse over the years. And how motherhood looks is not how motherhood is. It’s a battlefield, and Iris is a front-line soldier.
Sue: What makes Hart Bourne tick?
Karen: I’ve always seen him as a man who is desperately unhappy with himself, who externalizes his self-loathing on the people around him. If you have the misfortune of being married to a man like that, you’ll spend your entire existence trying to figure out what you’re doing wrong. And he’ll let you do that so he doesn’t have to face the source of his pain—himself. It’s so much easier for him to blame Iris, isn’t it?
Sue: Do you think that Hart is an archetype?
Karen: He’s such a personally constructed character. I hope he’s not a common archetype. But thank you for asking about him—I actually feel for Hart, and most people despise him too much to wonder what he’s made of.
Sue: Minah Bourne showed up first in Love and Mayhem. It’s nice to see her again. Will you continue to include connections between your books in work to come?
Karen: Absolutely. My books are influenced by writers who are very much better than me, but they do things I admire. The obvious connection in the trailer park book is Faulkner. Lots of Joad in there, and Fossetta Sweet is a Faulknerian character. Now, I know that I am NO Faulkner. But I read him and I love him and this interconnectedness is something I strive for. Another writer who does this brilliantly is Haven Kimmel. She writes the books I would write in my dreams. I’ve read every book she’s ever written, and we’re in a dry spell while she rewrites a new novel, so I went on Amazon and found her mother’s self-published stuff and bought all that on Kindle. I’m desperate. I love the way she weaves her characters together even in the most glancing ways. I feel so intelligent and so jubilant when I make the connections. I’m not Haven Kimmel, but I do want to do that for my readers.
Sue: So you’ll carry on with these characters?
Karen: Some of them. Not telling which ones.
Sue: Do you hide secrets in your books?
Karen: Absolutely every time.
Sue: Do you want to talk about that?
Karen: Well then they wouldn’t be secrets, Sue.
Sue: How do you come up with the names for your characters?
Karen: I’m actually terrible at names. I usually start out with some stupid name, and then at some point the name is so overwhelmingly wrong that I have to put some thought into it. So I have baby books, and then there’s the Internet. I also save lists of names I hear when I’m out and about. I worked at a business-to-business telemarketing company and I kept a big list of names, and I still use it. The first name on the list is important in a book I’m currently writing.
Sue: What’s your favorite childhood book?
Karen: When I was thirteen, I read The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, and The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. Those books were long and grotesque and wonderful and they probably warped my perception of life, but I loved them. I reread them all through my teens and twenties.
Sue: Do you still have them?
Karen: I still have the original copies. But thirteen is not childhood. Childhood was the Raggedy Ann and Andy books, and the Oz books, and the Black Cauldron books and the Narnia series. I loved a good series and always will. I did love some standalone books, like Linnets and Valerians, and The Wind in the Willows, and Journey Outside by Mary Q. Steele. Have you read that? It’s about a boy who lives in a community made of a series of rafts that travel an underground river. He realizes that they’re traveling a loop, so he jumps off and comes out into the world. It’s a fantastic quest story that involves a nasty sunburn and shorts made of fish skin. I highly recommend it.
(please note, after this conversation, Sue sent me a copy of this book, so now I have two.)
Another series that was important to me was the Whiteoaks of Jalna series by Mazo de la Roche. It’s a long historical romance series about a Canadian family, and it’s idiosyncratic and personal and hilarious and wonderful and flawed. When I was 19, I spent a summer feverishly checking the books out of the Missoula public library. They had the same pleasures that my favorite childhood books held, like recurring characters and the power of a place and fascinating buildings and long difficult family meals and even pets, things I loved long before I ever read Faulkner. That’s what I’ve always wanted to write.
Sue: What’s the first book that made you cry?
Karen: Books make me cry all the time, and I started reading early, so I probably can’t remember what it was. It might have been one of the Mother West Wind books. I was raised in part in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and L. Frank Baum is from there, so the Wizard of Oz books were all on the shelf at the library. I started walking to the library when I was seven, and I took them all out, so it might have been something in there. The glass cat with the ruby heart struck me as glamorous and tragic.
Sue: Are your characters ever based on real people?
Karen: Absolutely not. Everything is made up. EVERY SINGLE THING.
Sue: Is this book autobiographical in any way? Can’t you share something?
Karen: I’ll tell you the part about answering this question that’s difficult. Every horrible thing that Hart says to Iris was said to me in one of my marriages. Most of it was word for word. It’s painful when people read this book and say, “How could any self-respecting woman let her husband say these things to her without leaving him?” And those people have a point. It’s horrifying what you’ll tolerate when you’re trying to hold a family together. I hope readers extend some empathy to Iris for that. There are some other similarities, but Iris is her own character, and her marriage is her own marriage, and what happens in it is her own story.
Sue: I love that answer.
Karen: Did I successfully skirt the issue?
Sue: I think so. Talk about why this book needs a Nick.
Karen: Nick reminds us all that we have the capacity to accept life and be happy for it. We can roll with it. That’s something we lose as we get older and become more cynical. So I love his innocence.
Sue: That’s why I love Nick, too, Karen.
Karen: Wike it?
Sue: Wike it.
Karen: Atsa awesome.
Sue: What was the hardest scene in this book for you to write and why?
Karen: The hardest scene to write was Iris’s epiphany at the end. Because Iris is very much like I was, in that she doesn’t choose or plan what happens to her, she just copes with whatever comes at her, and she endures. And she finally reaches a point where she is going to have to make a choice, and it almost kills her. It was hard to write because I honestly didn’t know what Iris was going to do until I was writing the scene. I knew what I wanted her to do, I was cheering her on, but she could have gone either way. I’d have had to live with it.
Sue: What, if anything, did you edit out of this book?
Karen: Originally I had a deranged character who sort of floated around the edges of these women’s lives as a specter. She still makes some appearances when Jane and Iris are at the Goodwill. She’s frightening and prophetic, but I already had the dogs in there as a canine Greek chorus, so I didn’t need another suffering witness to the pain of Iris and her family. I also took out Raymond’s father’s story, because I didn’t like it. But I wanted Iris’s first pregnancy to be unplanned and outside her marriage. That much stayed in.
Sue: Iris certainly availed herself of many forms of birth control.
Karen: People love that part!
Sue: Now, we’re talking about many women not even having access to that kind of care.
Karen: Terrifying, isn’t it? And for women, our biology is very often our destiny. That is not a very popular viewpoint right now, because birth control is supposed to help us reshape that. But even with every barrier, conceptions happen, and children are the most overwhelming and irrevocable choice that most of us ever make. I guess having birth control not work for Iris was a way to examine how fertility can affect your life and your goals. You try to plan, and instead you just cope and endure. I think it’s important to remember how profoundly women’s lives are shaped by their fertility.
Sue: Are marriages supposed to be happy?
Karen: I’m not sure. We take our cues from our parents’ marriages, and we can repeat some terrible patterns. I think you have to have seen a good relationship to appreciate what one is supposed to be. Most early marriages are based on what you already know. That’s why I believe we should marry a lot of times until we get it right! But seriously, I’m at the point in my life where I only want to have a relationship if it’s predominantly happy and pleasing. And I envy people whose marriages were like that from the get-go, but mine certainly were not. I keep learning and changing and trying. I’d like to get this right at least once.
(another note: I believe I have finally gotten this one right.)
Sue: What do you think about divorce?
Karen: Divorce is so terrible, right until it’s not. Breaking up a marriage is hideous and painful and awful, and you’re dying inside and hopeless and crying all the time and looking for bridges, then—one day—there’s a moment when you realize that you’re surviving. More time passes, and then you’re thriving. Then, you go on a nice long honeymoon with yourself, and it’s the best relationship you’ve ever had. Eventually you decide to see other people, and life gets stupid and complicated again, but in the beginning when it’s just you and yourself on that honeymoon? It’s magical.
It’s astonishing to think you can survive something that wretched, and have life get better. I always compare it to a really bad pruning job on a sick tree. You hack it back and you think it has to be dead. And the next spring it’s the prettiest and healthiest tree in the neighborhood.
Sue: Like Arno’s tree.
Karen: Exactly like Arno’s tree.
Sue: So are you pro-divorce?
Karen: Oh, no. I’m not pro-divorce. I am pro surviving divorce. At heart, I have a really traditional view of marriage and commitment and fidelity, which surprises me because I remember being so angry when I was married. I knew I was diminished in some basic ways. And you know, I don’t think it’s men who expect women to diminish themselves in marriage. I think we do it to ourselves, probably because of some big blanket of perceived societal expectations. We carve off big hunks of ourselves to be safe and available. I did, at least. And the husbands are baffled by these safe, selfless creatures, these wives. They’re left wondering where those funny, interesting women they married have gone to. Men would probably prefer to be married to independent, interesting women, don’t you think?
Sue: What do you wish you could tell Iris?
Karen: Iris has no perspective on the fact that parenthood at the level she’s doing it is a temporary state. I have the advantage now of having moved through that part of parenting. But when you’re in it, you’re in the trenches and you have no idea that it’s ever going to be over, or how you’re going to survive it. I wish I could tell her, “If you just hold on, it gets better!” I think her mother gently tries to tell her that. Her mother is quietly determined to enjoy her life. She loves being a grandmother and she loves the kids, but she isn’t going to take it on again.
Karen: It’s a necessary selfishness. One of my kids has thanked me for what she used to see as selfishness on my part. She says it showed her that women have the right to pursue creative goals, and to have pursuits in their lives that have nothing to do with their children. She thinks that’s a valuable lesson.
For me, I was selfish about writing and relationships. I barely dated anyone, I wasn’t dragging men through here or anything, but I’d go away for a weekend now and then. I had a life. So I think Iris needs to be more selfish from here on out. More determined to have some scrap of something that belongs to just her.
Sue: Why does Iris act so out of character in Hawaii?
Karen: She takes an exquisite revenge. I think if you don’t violently cheer on Iris for that evening, then you probably won’t like anything I write, ever.
Sue: Sonny’s story is a difficult one, because when the book ends, you have no idea how it will come out for him.
Karen: Well, this world of gender and identity is a difficult one. I want to love and respect and support what everyone is going through in the world, and in society, and in my family. I believe that people have genders that don’t match their sex organs, 100% I believe that is true. But frankly, it’s confusing to me, and it’s difficult for me in ways that surprise me. I need to grow, and growth is never comfortable. Writing about it is one way to deal with that.
All right, now I want to ask you a question.
Sue: Cool. All right.
Karen: When you and I were young moms together, how did we help each other survive?
Sue: Oh. We had an alternate reality where for like, four hours at a time, we pretended that we were normal twenty-somethings. Watching videos and drinking beer and cracking each other up.
Karen: And eating M&Ms. Beer and M&Ms sounds terrible, but it worked.
Sue: Sometimes we got to go out. Rarely.
Karen: I remember when we went to Gaffer’s Pub and there were all those Jimmy Buffet fans, and we kept interrupting their Parrothead songs on the jukebox with Al Green and Terence Trent D’Arby and Prince.
Sue: They kept coming over to talk to us. And buying us drinks. And showing us their watches.
Karen: Yes! They all had big fancy watches! And when they asked for our numbers, you chastely demurred that you were married, but I gave them the attendance hotline number at the grade school. That was one of the few numbers I knew by heart.
Sue: You created that feeling perfectly with Iris’s friends, their little enclave on the deck.
Karen: I’m so glad I captured it. Those times were perfect. I think our friends keep us sane. I think we’re probably supposed to live in little groups of maybe six women and one man, helping each other raise the kids and keeping each other sane. These polygamy people probably have it right. I’m not ready to be a sister wife, but one husband would probably be adequate for six women. And if he wasn’t, well, there would be roofers.
Sue: By the way, have you ever gawked at real roofers?
Karen: Sue, you’ve known me since I was 26 years old. You know how much “vague lustful speculation” I’ve engaged in over the years. Not particularly for roofers, but do you remember?
Sue: I remember everything!
Karen: Oh dear. Let’s talk about something else.
Sue: Okay. Do you think Iris has the right to write about her life?
Karen: That’s an important question. He says, “You can’t write about us,” and she says, “But you’re all I’ve got.” The question is more important now than ever. So many women are turning their families into businesses. These curated, blogged-about, Instagrammed families are monetized, but it’s not really a new thing. Joyce Maynard wrote about her family, and before that Erma Bombeck wrote about her family, and before them Shirley Jackson wrote about her family in Life Among the Savages. Jackson was a premier American horror writer and she also wrote these beautiful, hilarious books about raising her family in upstate New York.
So this is a tradition for women writers, and it’s still a big question. For many of us, the domestic realm is our subject matter, this is where we live, where we fight our battles and have our triumphs. And if we deny ourselves the right to write about those, what do we have? It’s a personal issue for me. I used to keep an anonymous blog, and one of my kids found it, and she felt so invaded when she’d pop up in it. And I see her point. That’s why this book, where it’s autobiographical, it’s really buried deeply. I don’t want to be accused of writing about my family and violating their privacy.
Sue: Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Karen: Energizes me.
Sue: I knew you were going to say that. What’s your writing Kryptonite?
Karen: Is Kryptonite what kills you? Because I’m not dead yet.
Sue: Kryptonite takes away your power.
Karen: Okay. A lack of solitude and privacy and uninterrupted time. Without those I can’t write. That’s why writing is a selfish endeavor.
Sue: Has publishing your books changed anything about how you write?
Karen: It didn’t change how I write—it gave me permission continue to writing what I want to write, the way I want to write it, period. It is enormously freeing to self-publish. There is so much advice out there about finding your commercial niche, and that has nothing to do with my goals for my writing.
The writers I love are all firmly mid-list. And they’re all assistant chairs of the creative writing departments at small colleges or something like that. None of the writers I adore are making a lucrative living with their brilliant books. Realizing that I can publish my books, sell my modest amount of copies and not have to worry about changing them to be more commercial so one of the houses will take a chance on me—it’s just changed everything for me, Sue, it’s made me so happy.
Sue: What does literary success look like to you?
Karen: Literary success is when you write work that deeply affects the people who read it. And it has nothing to do with how many copies you sell. If anyone is affected by anything I write, I count myself as a success.