I’m busy as hell with preparations for the second Orcas book, getting ready for a literary festival in April, and working on another huge project that’s devouring hours of my time. But here’s a piece based on something “from the trunk”. It’s about grotesquerie; the worst part of any book.
I’ve been handed some grotesque things to read in my life. A writer gave me a story about a couple who mutilated each other as part of their sex lives. He had the good sense to say, ”You might not want anything to do with me after you read this.” After forty pages of necrophilia, torture, self-mutilation, incest, matricide and so forth, I understood why he was worried. I believe he’d scared himself. That one was eventually published.
Years ago, someone I met in a writer’s group sent out 76 copies of his manuscript to various members, hoping for response. And I after I started reading it, I knew I’d never give him a response he’d enjoy hearing. The writing was endless ”telling” from a great height, the narrator looking down and pontificating madly on the chaos of the story. There wasn’t a shred of likeability or humanity in most of the characters, and the rare few who displayed any humanity were punished in one sadistic twist after another. After a point I set aside the red pencil, realizing that since no publisher in the world would ever want to publish this, there was no need to offer editorial advice.
The author wrote me, saying he was disappointed that only three or four people seemed to have finished it. I didn’t tell him that a mutual friend had told me she’d ”set it aside and gone to throw up and take a shower.” I decided stunned silence was a merciful thing. If people had told him what they really thought, he might have gone on a homicidal rampage and acted out some of the more vicious tableaux in this book.
There are plenty of published books that contain cannibalism, which is where I draw the line. I can’t read about it. A few books that contain it have made it past my censors–John Dollar by Wiggins, Shallows by Tim Winton, and Ahab’s Wife by…somebody, which was an incredible disappointment because the first third of the book, before they stepped on that whaling ship, was so damn good. Actually, these were all good books that I wish I’d never read. I’m sure these writers are making a big fat metaphorical point, I just can’t stomach their metaphor, so the point is always lost on me. I wish all books that contain cannibalism had a big red warning ”C” on the cover.
The same thing with animal abuse. A friend loaned me two books that contained animal abuse. Like, just handed them to me casually with a “You’ll like these,” no warning, nothing. Thanks, Friend! The books were The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, and Wide Open by Nicola Barker. The first title is disturbing and extremely well-written. I had a glimpse of the hidden shocker, but only a glimpse. I’m good at figuring out the mysteries in the Gothic, but this time, the ending did surprise me. It all fit together beautifully. Wide Open was next. I liked it and wished I’d had the opportunity to discuss it, because beneath the plot shocks, sick humor and odd characters, there is a metaphysical twist that I haven’t quite figured out.
Because of the grotesque subject matter, I would never just hand these books off to a friend without a warning. Can you easily recommend a book that’s strength is its ability to illuminate the mindset of a character committing unthinkable, unforgivable acts, and to stir you to a horrified sympathy with that character? You have to loan these books carefully, but I have given Under the Skin, by Michel Faber, to more than one friend, and it’s one of the most disturbing novels I have ever read. I think it’s completely worth it.
This all brings me to my own experience with writing something unforgivably grotesque. Apparently, when describing some of the itchy ailments suffered by Asa Strug in Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park, I use the phrase “butt rust.” And my friend Alex was horrified by this. She said, “I can’t believe you made me read the words butt rust, Karen!” She was upset and disgusted. I didn’t even remember putting that in the book, to be honest. So I had to go find it.
IT WAS THURSDAY morning, and the most contented man in the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park was no longer content. He itched from head to toe. His hands rummaged through his locks as if they were sorting snakes, as if his torment could be shaken free like the louse that fell by the cracked nail of his largest toe.
“Lord, send relief.”
His hands moved to scratch at his bitten, scabby neck. He tore at the skin, tears in his eyes, his teeth grinding with frustration.
“I am bedeviled.”
He stood and reached for his back, his privates, his stomach. It was more than bugs. Years of not bathing had left him with crotch rot, butt rust, and between-the-toe fungus that made his toes appear webbed. His body was nothing more than a collection of maddening itches. He dug and writhed and came dangerously close to taking the name of the Lord in vain.
“Lord! I need vinegar!”
Look, that is really gross. I wrote it, and I own it. I had no choice but to submit to Alex’s disgust, because upon rereading, that passage is sick. Sick, but necessary, as Asa is trapped in a body as tormented as his mind.
So after Alex chastised me for a bit more, she asked me to read a book she loved. It was Cruddy, by Lynda Barry. I love Lynda Barry, I’ve met her and I’m a fan of her person and her work; but have you read this book? It’s good and tragic and funny, and it contains so much gross stuff, scabs and flakes and itches that are exponentially worse than the phrase “butt rust.” Cruddy even needs to have that big reg “C” on the cover, for cannibalism.
Alex had no trouble with anything in Cruddy. But she couldn’t handle “butt rust.”
Consider this a pledge: You will never read a book that contains cannibalism written by me. But I just might break out “butt rust” again. So be prepared.
I think I look all right, but people seem to think I’m on an eternal episode of What Not to Wear. I attract fashion advice, and I don’t really know why. Do I look that strange?
Sometimes, it’s entertaining. One friend who has given me a lot of fashion pointers over the years is a five-foot-tall New Yorker. The first piece of fashion advice she ever gave me was to wear boot cut jeans. This was in the nineties, and as a woman of 5’11”, I was at the mercy of tall jean manufacturers when it came to the arrival of the boot cuts. I promised her I’d give them a try just as soon as I could. Tall boot cuts arrived on the market, I put them on, my friend was right, and she earned lifetime rights to telling me how to dress. She’s a coach, so she tells a lot of people how they should be doing things. It’s almost cost her friends before (I am thinking of the Great Male Eyebrow Waxing Debacle), but it will never cost her my friendship because I understand that this is just how she is.
Over the years, she’s sent me links to some strange clothing choices for a woman who lives in the home city of Columbia Sportswear and Keens. “These would look great on you,” she said of sequin-and-embroidery embellished jeans with velvet tuxedo stripes down the legs. “I wear these, they are so fun,” she said of crotcheted beaded hip scarves. The height thing has never made sense to her. She has sent me links to tie-dyed maxis that would be midis on me, and shorter dresses that would be tunics. She can’t quite figure out the difference between the wardrobe of a Lilliputian New Yorker and Brobdinagian Portlander.
Things finally came to a head when we met in Vegas years ago. I will never fit in, in Vegas. I’ll always be that lady with the brown glasses and the clogs in Vegas, that lady from who looks like she’s from Oregon. I’m never going to have Vegas clothes. On that trip, she didn’t bug me about my heathered green v-neck tee or my Danskos, but she did keep pestering me to try on a Spanx bra that she loved. “You can sleep in it!” she told me. I don’t sleep in a bra. “But you could!” But I won’t.
She kept on, I kept demurring. The straps don’t adjust, I kept telling her. But she is 4’11” and I am 5’11” and she’d never had to consider the role of adjustable bra straps in the life of a woman my height. Finally, to make her stop, I did the wrong thing. I agreed to try it on. I went into the bathroom. “You have to put it on from the bottom up!” she called through the door, “Over your hips!” Nothing that fits around the top of me is going to slide up over the bottom of me, that’s just not how I’m built. So I put it on over my head and pulled it down. It fit nicely around my chest–right at armpit level.
The trying on of this bra marked a turning point in my life. I stood there with that bra in my armpits and realized that a big part of the problem was my own. I was a partner in this because I was always trying to find a polite way to turn away fashion suggestions, like pleading cost or lifestyle or length issues. I was tired of making my point that way. I should have just said that I like a bra with hooks and underwires and cups and stretchy adjustable straps, and so she should just leave me alone about any bra I could (shudder) sleep in.
I decided to stop ignoring and skirting fashion advice. I decided to start openly rejecting it.
This attitude helped me with another friend who really, really hated my hair. It’s long and I don’t color it. This friend, who works with me, found my hair horrifying. She started pestering me about it in my forties. She was devoted to getting me a smart, short, stylish haircut that I could keep properly dyed and, well, under control. She would say, quite firmly, “Don’t you want a cute short haircut? You’d look so much better with short hair, Karen.”
I am a tall, sturdy woman with strong facial features. I would look like kd lang if I had short hair. And though I admire kd and enjoy her music, I do not think her style conveys what I want to say about myself. I would express this. My friend wouldn’t let it die. She thought she was doing me a favor. I guess she thought that I didn’t know my hair was long, and I didn’t know it was going grey, so she had to keep telling me. Otherwise, you see, I wouldn’t be aware of what’s on my head. You know, like the people who tell you that you’re fat because the combined input of the scale, the mirror and the waistband of your jeans isn’t enough, you need helpful friends to let you know you’re getting to be quite a porker.
Discussions with this friend culminated in a heated coffee break discussion in which she said, “So, you have long grey hair that makes you look like a witch. Do you want to look like a witch?” I remember saying, quite emphatically, “Yes, yes I do. I want to look like a witch. That’s exactly what I’m going for, so please leave me alone about my hair.”
For the record, my New York friend wanted me to leave my hair long, but dye it dark brown while leaving two silver stripes at the front “like that chick on What Not to Wear.” This would have been a little too Elvira for me, and I told her that. Several times.
Everybody has opinions. No one seems to have considered that I look the way I look because I like it. I’m my own personal expert at handling the particular challenges of my chthonic proportions. I’m dressing pretty well within the bounds of good taste and poverty. I make missteps once in a while, but every single thing about my appearance is thought out and done on purpose. No one needs to tell me what to wear, or what not to wear.
I blame a lot of this on the show What Not to Wear. While it was on, everyone in America now considered him or herself an expert on what other people should wear because of that show, which I used to watch. It was initially hilarious to see the women on that show with their fashion missteps. We cringed at the breast-baring Ren Faire dresses, the quilted jackets made of hemp and misguided artistic intentions, the tiny club dresses that revealed personal grooming habits.
Yes, there were the overwhelmed moms who hated their post-pregnancy bodies so much that they were simply swathing themselves with whatever fabric was at hand, but they were not the majority on that show. Most of the women who were secretly filmed, humiliated at screenings, and bullied by their friends and families into going on the show, actually adored their clothes. They were wearing just what they wanted to, in just the way they wanted to wear it.
If you’re an astrophysicist and what you want to wear is a wolf t-shirt, a denim miniskirt and some bowling shoes, well, have at it, I say. Wear that, rather than the Clinton and Stacy Outfit They All Got. Which was this: a tailored jacket over a flowy blouse over wide leg trouser jeans, and heels. There were slight variations, but this was the look that Clinton and Stacy really believed in it, for every woman, all women, all shapes and sizes, this was IT.
Now, if you love this outfit, then have at it. Wear it every day. But I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to wear that outfit! You can wear what you want. Let your freak flag fly.
The funny thing is, Stacy herself has repudiated this whole wardrobe homogeny. Here’s an article called “How I Moved on From My What Not To Wear Style.” In it, she says:
When I look back, I realize the style I had while I was on What Not to Wear — the pencil skirts and sheath dresses, the floral and ruffled tops — does not reflect who I am now. It reflects the television persona I gave up a long time ago. It no longer “fits.” (Pun intended.) I dress much more androgynously than I did when I was younger. Frilly, girly clothes don’t have enough gravitas for me. I like suits and leather and jumpsuits, and I almost exclusively wear pants. I am pretty sure this change in my style happened quite naturally. But there have been times when I’ve worried this change won’t sit well with fans of my old look, that I’ve ostracized them, that I am no longer playing by the rules I prescribed to countless women over the course of the show. More than anything, I don’t want people who have believed in my advice over the years to feel I’ve betrayed them by no longer “looking the part.” The fact is, my public persona was only ever “part” of who I was to begin with. The Stacy I was in 2002 cannot possibly be the Stacy of 2016. Age is part of time, and does in fact change things.
So Stacy herself has turned over a fashion leaf, and now she looks like this.
Do you love it? I love it. It has nothing to do with me or my style, but I love it on her. If you don’t, well, go put on those wide leg jeans. Me, I’ll just be over here, brushing out my witch hair.
I live in a low-rent neighborhood in a high-end suburb. It shows in our Christmas lights, with holiday choochoo trains on the rooftops and candy canes making fences all up and down the lane. Other displays are so sad, I wonder why anyone bothers.
(This might be a slight exaggeration.)
Others are masses of bad taste. Tangles of Christmas lights hang from every eave and gutter. Yard after yard features inflated nylon Christmas figures, giant Santas and polar bears and occasionally a ScoobyDoo or the like. During the day, these lay in collapsed nylon heaps all over the neighborhood’s lawns. In the evening they billow and teeter, grinning and undulating and making me wish for a BB gun.
Not in my neighborhood, thankfully
My neighborhood can proudly claim the title of ”Most Lame Christmas Lights in the greater Portland Metro area.” People who are new to the neighborhood usually start out lighting their houses in a tasteful, restrained fashion, with crisp rows of white lights running along the gutters and a pleasing bounty of colored lights on the rhododendrons. Maybe a lighted wreath over the garage door.Here’s a beautifully lit home, in my opinion.
Also not actually in my neighborhood, but you get the idea of what I admire
But there’s some kind of taste drain at work here, so in a couple of years, their houses have gone native–green and red alternating lights on the house instead of white, odd bell-things made of lights showing up in the peaks of the dormers. Then those white lighted reindeer skeletons start cropping the grass and …
Must you, neighbor? Must you?
We have the standard offenses–the previously mentioned reindeer that look like illuminated reindeer skeletons, big lit crosses, the spiral trees that make me kind of dizzy to look at, the excessive use of hanging icicle lights, those weird light nets that you can put over a bush or a tree if you want it to look like it’s been covered in an illuminated fishnet. But we have some extra-special stuff that I only seem to see around here. Year after year. Honed to an illuminated art form, these displays.
First, there’s the Trunk Wrap. The Trunk Wrap is when lights are tightly wrapped around the trunk of a tree. In an ideal world, the trunk is wrapped, and then the branches, and then a bunch of colorful lights are hung randomly where the leaves of the tree used to be. That’s actually pretty. In our neighborhood, homeowners either run out of energy or lights or both, and so the wrapping goes partly up the trunk and then Joe Suburb says ‘fuckit.’ This results in a bunch of short, lighted trunks with no branches, like all the trees were blasted off in the middle.
We also have a lot of the Hedge Drippers. This is when someone drapes colored lights up and down and up and down on a hedge or a bank of arborvitae, somewhat in the manner of how I put mustard on a hotdog when I have a squeeze bottle and I want to be fancy. It looks terrible. Especially when it forms the backdrop for a bunch of Trunk Wrapped trees.
This year, we have, of course, the newest lighting craze; a laser projector that shines dancing little squares of lights and eerie floating Christmas tree decorations onto the sides of home and garages. There is one across the street, and it’s always on at 7 AM, when I stand in the dark waiting for T to pick me up and take me downtown. I stand there and watch, repulsed and hypnotized, wondering if I would have liked this thirty years ago, when I was new here, back when I was so painfully excited by any holiday displays.
I do admire people who do something unique, like the peace sign wreaths that are popping up around here. My parents made one in 1971, so it’s not exactly a new idea, but it’s a nice one. My favorite guy in the neighborhood throws all his white plastic deck chairs up on top of one of his trees and drapes them with a bunch of lights. I have no idea why or how he does this. All I know is, every year there’s a big tangle of white plastic chairs and Christmas lights at the top of his oak trees.
So I hope you’re all lit up and ready for the holiday. And it’s pretty.
A first person account of a day spent thrift shopping–written probably ten years ago. I’m putting it up because, aside from being alone as much as i want these days, it’s still that same feeling to go to a thrift store.
I’ve spent today doing what I like to, instead of what I have to. This is because I am alone. Me, alone. I am never alone. Imagine me, alone. Just imagine you’re me, and you wake up and you know you’re going to be alone.
I start the day by dropping off Oldest at a long rehearsal, and then get myself some coffee and go to the Union Gospel Thrift Store. It’s always been a waste of time to go to Union Gospel. They have the worst crap ever. I go for sociological reasons, I tell myself, I go to see the abandoned detritus of every pointless garage sale in my neighborhood, arranged and priced as if anyone anywhere would ever buy it, and the secret hope that any thrifter has, which is that she will find treasure.
First, there’s the building. I believe at one point this was a waterbed store. Do any of you remember waterbed stores? Well, I do, I remember the waterbed as you will all remember the futon when everyone abandons those. At least waterbeds were comfortable. The building is concrete-floored and hangar-sized, with high, bright florescent lights that buzz unmercifully and a back loft reached by two staircases made out of what looks like heavily bolted waterbed wood. This is one sturdy building, which makes sense when you think that at one point they probably had a hundred full waterbeds on display.
I love to think of those days, the heyday of the waterbed, all burnt-edged and mirror-hutched. I spent them drinking too much and finishing high school, completely unaware of what my life was going to be. I lived in the moment. But those days are over, along with feathered hair and perms and aviator-shaped wire rim glasses and A Smile and Gelato pants and disco dancing. We are back to the present, we are not in a waterbed emporium, we are at the Union Gospel Thrift Store, facing life after the End of Waterbeds. And I am the only customer in this enormous building.
Contemporary Christian music blares out over the junk, and the walls are hung with Praise banners. There is also a big sign telling me that there is a sale going on, in which everything over the price of five dollars is half price. Wow. I look around, and realize it won’t make a lick of difference. No one is going to buy anything. Union Gospel is one of the few thrift stores that will take old sofas, and so they always have lots of those, sagging, flattened, faded, filthy sofas with price signs that say “10.00 Flat!” on them. What is “flat”? Even the books are bad, because they won’t sell anything supernatural or racy, due to the overwhelming religious sensibilities of the Union Gospel Mission. For this same reason they will not sell anything Halloween-related.
I carefully, slowly, langorously inspect the offerings, which are too pathetic to describe in any detail. It is a graveyard of ugly clothing, spotted mattresses, rejected dinettes, early American wood veneer hutches, and wall art that is too dated to grace the bathroom wall of a Grocery Outlet. But I look at it, because, you know, there might be treasure. I inspect the television cabinets, hoping one will be right for my personal papers, but of course they are all wretched. I even look at the luggage, looking for an old piece of Samsonite, you know the kind, with the satin pouches and grogain ties inside. But no luck. No treasure.
Under one set of stairs, I see a painted booth erected for trying on clothes. It has a latch and a mirror and a sign about not bringing merchandise other than clothing in, while trying on. Since the stairs are just treads, not risers, it has a ceiling on it. I cannot imagine trying on clothing in it, even on the off chance that I found something worth trying on in the racks. It looks like an outhouse. But I never look at clothes at thrift stores, so it’s only an object of passing interest.
I walk up one of the wide, sturdy waterbed furniture staircases, and I look at the books, which are as bad as usual, though I note with interest that they have separated the “Man authors” from the “Woman authors” and alphabetized accordingly. Is this a new thing, the sexual segregation of reading material? Whose idea was this, I want to ask? But the ragged man slamming videos into the table that is already stuffed with videos (Uncle Buck, Curly Sue) doesn’t invite conversation about the sorting methods utilized there at the Union Gospel Mission Thrift Store.
I can’t even find the housewares, which I am only trying to find because I’m hoping there will be a super-heavy vintage Revere soup pot, the big size. Oldest ruined mine a couple of years ago and I still haven’t gotten over it. I finally find what appears to be the kitchenwares corner, but it’s predominantly filled with airpots for hot beverages. I count 14 of them there in the corner. 14 airpots, and not one vintage Revere soup pot.
I go back down the other massive wooden stairs, and make my way to the front of the store, where the woman who works the cashier desk is making the popcorn while singing along to the song on the PA system, which I have never heard before. This music is as meaningless to me as the buzzing of the lighting. “Bye,” I say to her, and “Have a good day,” she replies. Which she seems to mean, so it makes me smile.
I make my way down the highway to Value Village, because I have no treasure. None. And perhaps I’ll find some there.
Value Village used to be a Safeway, and it is large, clean, well-lit, with nice booths for trying on clothing and a clean bathroom. They used to sell popcorn, but they don’t anymore, which is fine. Popcorn breaks my teeth. I have a definite circuit in Value Village, which is: dishes, housewares, furniture, books. They never have any books. Value Village (or “Savers,” if you live in another state) buys their stuff by the ton from Goodwill, and I think Goodwill is not letting them buy books anymore, so I never find anything there. But I find two glasses that match my glasses, which is great because my glasses are always disappearing, so I snag those, and then I find a pretty throw pillow for my pretty bed (my bed is really pretty, if I haven’t already mentioned this ten times, it’s very pretty), so I snag that.
And then while perusing lamps, I see a vintage typewriter and it’s really cool, and it makes me think about a lovely chat friend turned blog friend who adores typewriters, but the truth is it weighs a ton and I have nowhere to put it and if I move this fall, I’ll have to move this. But it’s a good price, and a cool thing, so I make myself a deal. I will advance it until I have to use the return lever, and if it dings, I’ll buy it. The dinger does not ding. So I leave it there for someone like my friend to find, someone who really loves it and wants it and will know how to fix the dinger, as opposed to someone like me who recognizes that it’s wonderful but does not really want to own it.
And then I cruise past the luggage, always hoping because well, you never know, and yes, there it is. The treasure. It’s a large mottled ivory piece of real Samsonite. I set down my glasses and my throw pillow and I swing the suitcase up on a pile of mattresses to pop the shiny brass latches, you know the kind, they are pointed at each end and you pull the lower point towards you and they pop out and up, and they both work. There is a Samsonite shield near the lock, and the initials of the original owner, AFC, as well. The interior is intact, all the taffeta lining, the ruched divider, the side pockets with their ruffles and elastic, the plastic bar to hold things down. It’s perfect and lovely and it’s marked at 6.99.
SIX NINETY NINE!!!!
A find like this can keep a woman thrifting for hours. A find like this is what drew me out to the thrift stores, to be honest, because I’d stopped by the Salvation Army “Boutique” after work last night, hoping to find a vintage jewelry box for my sister. I didn’t, but I found an old frame for an old photo I already have of a towheaded child with a Prince Valiant haircut dressed in white lawn and kid maryjanes (the first name is written across the bottom of the photo–“Cleo” something–I still can’t tell if Cleo is a boy or a girl, but I love the photo), and then I found another framed sepia photo of a small graduating class in 1920-something, three rows of somber boys and girls holding rolled (I think grade school) diplomas, and then I found three old wind-up alarm clocks, three, all ivory painted metal and faded brown dials with a million keys and levers on the backs, for 3.99 each, and I bought all three and brought them home and it’s the lingering memory of last night’s finds that has brought me out today, and it could keep me thrifting all day, it’s what keeps the slots-player plugging in the coins after the jackpot has been hit, the card player meeting the ante after a spectacular hand, it’s the desire for another hit, and I could circle thrift stores all day hoping for another find like this suitcase or that Big Ben and its two lovely wind-up companions, and never find one more thing worth buying.
But I am saved from this fruitlessness by a call from Youngest. She’s awake and where am I and would I please bring her a biscuit? Of course. And so I leave the treasure hunting for the day, and return home to give her a hug and a biscuit, and listen to her make fun of her hair and hear about a very lame party she went to the night before, and then I watch her leave, leaving me alone in my home, alone, alone. I am blissfully alone to listen to music, sort out my jewelry box, work some more on my new short story, listen to CDs at any volume I like, eat Brussells sprouts for lunch, mend the broken legs on a horse netsuke, and prepare two big quiche for Sunday dinner tomorrow.
Oh, it’s a nice day. When it rains I feel cozy, and then the sun breaks through, I feel euphoric. I have listened to Brandi Carlile, and William Topley, and Mindy Smith’s newest, and now with the Ryan Adams. And you should see the suitcase.
It’s treasure, I tell you, treasure.
Introverts are rarely bored when they are alone, and often bored when in the company of other people. What interests an introvert are the contents of her own head; ideas, memories, mildly obsessional interests and crooked musings. This is why introverts all have blogs.
Introverts invented blogging. Extroverts ruined it.
The introvert has grown up hearing that she is ”aloof,” ”uncaring,” ”self-absorbed.” She is none of these and all of these. She probably bridles at being called self-absorbed, because she doesn’t think of herself as all that interesting. She doesn’t think anyone else is all that interesting, either.
Introverts greet the friendship advances of emotional extroverts, who initially bring a lot of caring and fun to the table, with confusion and some relief. These friendships can feel to the introvert like inclusion in a private, wonderful club.
The lack of emotional displays on the part of the introvert are too often interpreted by the emotional extrovert as an “all-clear” to stage some histrionics. The first time this happens, the introvert will probably fuss around and try to help. This is, after all, human nature, and polite. This gives the impression that the introvert is a good listener. The introvert actually is a good listener. She is listening to everything you say. She is also, unfortunately, listening to everything you don’t say.
Introverts are not nearly as patient as they have to be.
Eventually, if you talk about the same problem too often, the introvert will start a slight emotional withdrawal, marked by practical statements concerning your situation. The extrovert wants supportive statements. She is always confused by the emotional pragmatism of the introvert. The introvert is always confused by the conversion of friendship from spending time together based on mutual interests and enjoyment into a completely different kind of arrangement based on the introvert’s always “being there” for the extrovert.
There is possibly no one on the planet less interested in your pain than a bored introvert.
When an emotional extrovert feels inadequately heard, she might be spurred on to greater levels of agony in order to elicit a proper emotional response. This is a tactical error. While the tantrum takes place, the introvert quietly moves herself out of range. The extrovert’s pain become something happening elsewhere, an overemotional puppet show on a faraway stage.
Introverts are very good at being quiet.
What does it mean when an introvert is quiet? It depends on the introvert. Most of the time, when an introvert is quiet, it means she’s thinking. If she were interested in sharing what she was thinking, she’d probably have told you.
Occasionally, a quiet introvert is wondering what your deal is. This doesn’t mean she’s angry. If an introvert is mad at you, you’ll know. In fact, it might be scary, it will be so clear. Do not interpret silence or preoccupation as anger, unless it is also accompanied by a visible exercise of self-control. An introvert in this state is a ticking bomb and best avoided at all costs. Whatever you do, don’t try to ”talk about it.” Do not expect her to ”share,” do NOT ask what you’ve done wrong. Why? Because she will tell you.
Sometimes, when an introvert is being quiet, she’s simply thinking about how much she wishes you would be quiet. At other times, a quiet introvert is quietly studying all the exits. She is studying them in a metaphorical and a literal sense. She is also considering a tunnel. Whatever it takes.
If you are an extrovert and you notice a certain silence or wandering setting in with an introverted friend, you might think the answer is to amp up your emotional needs. I can tell you this with 100 percent conviction: whatever the answer is, it does not involve amping up your emotional needs.
Introverts enjoy quiet spaces. Extroverts fill those spaces.
Sometimes, while an emotional extrovert is rehashing an emotional event in which she perceives herself as the victim, the introvert will say something that seems uncaring. Do not ask for clarification. The explanation is bound to be even more harsh than the original comment.
Withdrawal signals what those in the introversion trade call a “sea change.” That means the introvert’s desire to be polite has been overridden by the introvert’s desire to not hear any more about the situation under scrutiny. Since the extrovert has never doubted that her emotional distress is top number one priority for the introvert, this withdrawal can occasion feelings of betrayal. Please do not take this withdrawal personally. It is simply that the introvert can no longer stand you and doesn’t know how to politely say so.
The introvert likes hugs when she’s happy, not when she’s sad.
Because the introvert is so emotionally self-contained, she is often mistaken for a person who has no emotional needs of her own. This is a misconception. The introvert has many emotional needs of her own, most of which involve you not bothering her with your emotional needs.
When an extrovert needs emotional tending, she will burst into hysterical tears and hyperventilate. When an introvert needs emotional attention, she will ask if you have any antacid. Other signs an introvert is in deep emotional distress include arriving with a bottle of wine and stressing over a misplaced back issue of the New Yorker that had a feature she wanted you to read.
Introverts almost always respond to life’s biggest blows with silent, stoic endurance. And they really, really wonder why extroverts don’t react the same way.
Once in a while, a friendship between an introvert and an extrovert survives their mutual disillusionment. It helps to live in different states. If you are an emotional extrovert who somehow has managed to remain friends with an introvert and she’s been through hell and she finally does want to talk, she does not want what she says about her life to make you cry. She also does not want you to hug her. She wishes you would knock that off and just listen. This is not about you.
Introverts can get lonely, believe it or not. This happens partly because introverts are often quietly slipping out of friendships with needy people as soon as possible, and partly because introverts are sometimes so self-contained that they forget to make friends in the first place.
Introverts have a built-in breed recognition. They are like wolves. Their packs are invisible.
Watching two introverts make friends is kind of sweet. It is a very quiet, gradual process, marked by awkwardness and the equivalent of parallel play in toddlers. When these friendship bonds finally cement, they are generally unbreakable.
A confirmed friendship between two introverts has the constancy of pi. Neither asks for much, but both would give anything. These friendships endure geographical separation and long periods of no contact. They generally take up right where they left off.
If an introvert asks you to return a book, you are dead to her.
I’m just home from traveling to Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was a WONDERFUL trip. And that got me thinking about how traveling has changed for me over the years. I remembered when a friend wrote me the following email about travel plans:
My husband has this habit of trying to sew up ALL loose ends in life before going on vacation. He goes into hyper-responsible mode. His anxiety about traveling results in him cleaning the freezer, going to the Salvation Army with old clothes, you name it. It completely sucks out one of my favorite things pre-vacation, which is anticipating reckless abandon. Last night as I was lying in bed he asked me what electronics I could get ready to recycle before we leave on Thursday. I mean REALLY? Are you kidding me?
This made me smile, and it made me think about traveling with men.
My first husband was an uber-planner. We started taking trips together in the mid-seventies, back when our travels were a violation of the Mann Act. Our planning methods seem quaint and archaic to me now. He would stop in at the AAA office and get little plastic-bound triptych maps, very detailed flip-books with all routes traced out for you. He traced our actual route with a red pen.
In a small notebook, we recorded all gas purchases (amount, price per gallon, total charges) and odometer readings for eventual gas mileage reckoning. He was happy to be the planner, and I was happy to learn how the hell to read a map, estimate distances with the rule, figure out how to backtrack when he’d charged off on a wrong turn.
Wrong turns happened because he was an aggressive driver, passing and jockeying and speeding along to get past every single vehicle he possibly could, and then I’d announce I wanted to stop, and then we’d get back on the road and he’d find all those cars and get ahead of them again. This annoying, aggressive driving style seemed to contradict the cheerful ease with which he would stop at any and every wayside, overlook, local museum, you name it, he’d stop and look at it. We’d snap photos with our Instamatic and get back in the Duster and keep going.
We traveled a great deal and on the cheap, staying at Motel 6 when we could afford it, camping or sleeping in the car when we couldn’t. We grew up and outgrew each other, but the boxes of Instamatic photos remain. In the hazy, soft tones of those old square photos, I see a chronicle of my strange and rootless teenage years, my only security the young man with the wild hair at my side.
My second husband and I jumped feet-first into parenthood within months of getting married, so we didn’t do much traveling the first years of our marriage. It took six years for us to get up the nerve and the money to start traveling, and I’d missed it. It was also quite a different undertaking, traveling with a man AND children.
For this, I had three jobs. The first job was every speck of the planning, reserving, deciding, purchasing. The second job was all the packing for myself and three kids. To do this, I kind of took a note from my first husband’s obsession with gas mileage. I would make comprehensive lists of each day’s activities and decide on outfits for each, making sure that each (somewhat matchy) group of three outfits had shoes and hair doodads to match. Outlining a novel has nothing on this.
My third job was all the child-wrangling. For the actual plane/train/automobile part of it, that meant packing special trip backpacks with books, art supplies, games, toys and snacks. All that was done to convince myself that they would be entertained on the plane, that it was actually possible to divert your children adequately so that they didn’t whine, kick, bicker,complain, cry, knock over the coffee of the person beside them, throw their dolls over the back of the seat to land in the lunch of the person behind them, wet their pants and generally make the trip into a living hell (they really weren’t that bad) (most of the time). Managing that hell was my job, as was taking care of all three kids for every minute we were at the actual vacation destination.
My second husband also had three jobs, as far as traveling. His first job was to pack his own stuff the morning of our departure, generally using as many suitcases for himself as I had used for myself and the girls combined. His second job was to haughtily and continuously complain about every single decision I had made concerning airlines, flight times, hotel reservations, and clothing worn by anyone but himself. And his third job was to take lots of breaks. Breaks for conversation with other adults, shopping, Scotch in the hotel bar, cigars by the pool, and whatever else he needed to do in order to take care of himself and make sure he had a good time, because he found traveling so stressful.
After divorcing my second husband, I discovered the joys of traveling alone.
Going solo was completely effortless, like entering a no-gravity zone. I packed light, knowing that if I forgot something, I could buy it somewhere. I drifted weightless as a cloud into airports, on and off planes, out to cabs or shuttles. If I missed a connection, I bought a cup of coffee and read a book. If I forgot to bring something, I bought it. I went to whatever restaurants I chose, and the tabs were tiny. I dawdled in museums. I slept in, stayed out late. I had forgotten that it was possible to relax on vacation, but like riding a bike, it all came back to me. Buying one theater ticket instead of four, bypassing the American Girl store entirely, spending the afternoon in bed if I was too tired to sight-see. What a luxury it was. Eventually, I actually missed my girls. That might have been the greatest luxury of all.
I also learned how to travel with my daughters. Not long after the divorce, I took the girls to Disneyland, and we had a blast. Then, they got older and could pack for themselves. If one of them didn’t bring the right thing, she could borrow it from a sister. The girls usually slept all the way wherever we were going–something magical that happens in the teen years–and they exercised autonomy and free will as far as activities once we arrived at the destination (which tended to be a lake, so, they could just go to the dock and do whatever it is teenagers do at the lake) (I didn’t need to know really) (no one ever drowned so it was fine).
And I could, as a last resort, level one of my stony gazes at whichever of my children was complaining about boredom or a sibling or the lack of a can opener and say, “You know, this is my vacation too.”
As I age, I find that sitting jammed into a plane seat for six hours is pure torture. The occasional offer of a glass of ginger ale and a bag of “savory snack mix” does nothing to alleviate the pain of enforced, cramped immobility, and any man who travels with me must endure my shifting, stretching, groaning.
I’m aware that I’m a sissy.
I prefer to travel in a car. Stopping at clean motels with soft beds. Listening to music I like. Enjoying the peace of the road. Conversation should be minimal and pleasant. And I will not stay in motel rooms that are creepy or gross. Don’t ask me to define “creepy and gross.” I know them when I see them. I will draw myself up with the horrified snobbery of the Dowager Countess if expected to stay in a room that is either. And the BED, what about the BED, what if the BED is HARD. A HARD BED is my worst nightmare.
And once we find a room that is to my liking, I will insist on keeping it ultra-tidy for the duration of our stay. I will talk in my sleep. I will snore. And in the morning, I will get up waaaaay too early.
I am aware that I’m impossible.
I believe that traveling together is a test, a crucible.
Some years ago, I went out with a man who lived up in Washington. He rode a Gold Wing, and he was incredibly funny in an entirely inappropriate way. Every weekend, we found somewhere to go. These trips flowed like long shots in movies, smooth and unbroken and entertaining. We saw each other for an entire summer of jaunts, and the ease with which we traveled together disguised the fact that we had almost nothing in common. We were both funny and tall, and that was the sum of what you could call compatibility. In case you think I exaggerate, he ripped the sleeves off his shirts, chain-smoked, enjoyed Larry the Cable Guy, and collected coffee mugs from all the events he attended for his sobriety program.
But the travel was fantastic.
I’ve had relationships cement themselves into serious, and I’ve had relationships completely fall apart on trips. The close quarters, the sheer duration of contact. It’s a killer. It’s not just men who are under examination during travel. I’m being tested, and failing.
A friend of mine took a girlfriend somewhere exotic, like Bora Bora, where they slept in open tiki huts on the beach. In HAMMOCKS. I don’t actually remember where they went, just the horrifying details, like communal meals, questionable bathroom accommodations, no WALLS, what the holy hell? He was so excited about a trip that sounded absolutely awful to me, and I kept ribbing him about it. They had a blast. He came home shouting his love for this woman to the stars. And they got married. And they are still married. Years and years later.
Whatever future travel test I have to pass, I only hope it does not involve sleeping in a hut.
Note: This really is a ten year-old piece of writing about my favorite microwave and my second-favorite microwave. Seriously. Apparently nothing is too mundane for me to write about. And for the record, I still have that second microwave.
I just dropped off my microwave at a repair shop over here. Now, I know you all say, what? Karen G. Berry, are you nuts? how much does a new microwave cost, anyway? Why not just buy a new one?!
Well, for a couple of reasons. I like the way this one looks, and I like the way this one works.
I dislike programming things. I have a hard time figuring out just which information the microwave requires. When I select defrost, why does it wait? Why doesn’t it just get to the defrosting? But no, it wants some weight and some power levels entered, and every microwave is different. When I try to make a frozen dinner, sometimes it wants to know how many. Like, cooking a frozen dinner in the microwave may be one of the most pathetic “I am single and on a diet” statements a person can make, and it feels like the microwave is mocking a person, asking if perhaps she wants to put two frozen dinners in to cook. Which she doesn’t. Same with cups of “beverage.” No, the microwave is the single person’s appliance of choice, and it should be built for one.
Of course, my first microwave was large enough to hold a small turkey.
When I was 19, my mom won a $1000.00 certificate, to be redeemed for something energy-saving. She went to a microwave dealership and negotiated three Amana Radaranges, one for her, one for me, one for my sister. These usually cost $450.00. Back in 1979, $450.00 was a lot of money, and these machines were built like tanks. Moving it was a disc-rupturing event, but move it I did, because I loved that machine. (click here to see exactly what it looked like: Perfect Microwave)
It was brown, heavy gauge metal, like the cladding of a refrigerator. It had a big chrome door with a handle, and the glass in that door was thick like the glass in a real oven door. It pulled out and down like an oven door, and closed with a satisfying thunk and latch, like the door on an ancient Buick, the kind my sister’s friends were bought back in high school because parents believed those Buicks would keep their kids safe in an auto crash (my parents bought us VW Bugs…hm).
There was no digital programming. There was no such thing as digital programming in 1979. It was a big dial that you set to the time, and spring buttons you pushed to start, like an old car radio or a push-button transmission. The glass tray inside was half an inch thick. The microwave itself took up about half my available counter space in any given apartment, and sometimes had to live on top of the fridge, due to space constraints or concerns that it was so heavy that it would go crashing through the floor to the apartment below mine.
It was a beauty. It lasted forever.
Okay, obviously it didn’t last forever. If it had lasted forever, I wouldn’t be hauling in some piece of crap machine I got a year and a half ago for repair, would I? But the old microwave was a tank. In about 1987, when it was eight years old and the lightweight models were flooding the market, my former husband wrenched it open while it was running. “Oops.” That was pretty much impossible to do.
Only a man with the massive muscles of this former husband could have managed this, as it was LATCHED while it ran. These were the days when people were terrified of radiation and the thing cooked with it, but he managed to do it. It was part of his plan (I was sure) to break everything we owned that I liked, which is what he started doing after he accomplished his first plan, which was to lose every nice thing I ever gave him (his first wedding ring, his expensive leather wallet, his tank watch, and his leather attache).
Anyway. Back to the microwave.
We had a repairman out who fixed it and went it over with a Geiger counter. “Keep this,” he said. “The new ones don’t even compare.” We did. I kept it in the divorce, and I know my former husband missed it. He missed it much more than he missed me, as it always heated right up and I was more iffy.
One day after school, Oldest and Middle were fighting. This must have been in 1998 or 99. And Middle Daughter took a plastic plate and hurled it at Oldest. It hit the microwave. It cracked the glass in the door. It was not fixable.
Middle: “Mom, I’m sorry!”
Me: “You broke the microwave?”
Oldest: “She was trying to hit ME with a plate!”
Me: “And she broke the microwave?”
Oldest: “Don’t you even care if she was trying to hit me with a plate?”
Me: “She broke the microwave!”
The girls still talk about this. It’s okay. It’s listed in the Big Book of Motherly Sins, listed under Bad Parental Priorities. “Caring more about microwave than inter-child acts of violence.” My picture is there, too, staring at a 20 year-old brown microwave, my face stunned and grieving. But that’s fine. It’s labeled “Bad Mother.” Whatever. I still couldn’t believe she’d broken the microwave.
So then I had to start using regular cheap-ass microwaves, like all you other people out there. You little people with your inferior little microwaves. Plebeian microwaves. Predictable microwaves. Pedestrian microwaves.
I scorned you. And then I was one of you.
I had lost my Buick Regal microwave and I had to use the stupid little white plastic microwaves that were designed to pop corn in dorm rooms, the kind that sprung open when you pushed a plastic button, the kind that had all the little choices on plastic film on the other buttons, no dials, just weird buttons that you pushed, hoping the microwave knew that your cocoa was merely tepid and only needed thirty seconds but the beverage was set permanently at 45 seconds so it was always TOO HOT when you got it out of there.
Stupid, shabby, cheap, plastic, stupid microwaves. I’ve had several over the years. And some required programming, and I don’t even have a programmable alarm clock, that’s too complex for me, all right? My new kitchen stove is programmable and I have learned to use it, but only under duress because otherwise I’d have to ask the kids to turn on the stove for me like I did the first three months we were back in the house, and after a while they refused and made me learn to do it myself.
So, after years of grieving the old microwave, complaining about the parade of shoddy, crummy microwaves that worked for ten months and then died, comparing them to the lost splendor of the gigantic Amana Radarange, the mechanical superiority of the One Perfect Microwave, finally one day my dad brought me a microwave from Costco. And he opened it up and we looked at it and you know what it had?
It had a DIAL.
That’s right. A dial. It’s digital, but I can turn this dial to the right and it dials up the amount of time I want, and then I hit start. Oh, the display is digital, and I do have to program it to get certain things done, so it is not exactly like the old Buick microwave. But it’s enough like it that when this one stopped working, I wanted to take it in and have it repaired, rather than replacing it.
I’ve been carting the microwave around in my car for about a month, now, waiting to get to the repair shop. Everyone who has ridden in my van has remarked on the presence of the microwave, generally with a snickered little aside about why would I have it repaired when a new one costs how much? And I’ve had to explain the knob thing to all of them, how I like knobs, not really good with digital programming, and this one is nice-looking, it has a HANDLE, even, rather than some spring button you push to open it. And they all scoff but people are generally kind when they realize how simple I am, so they leave me alone.
It took sort of a harmonic convergence to get it there, a special moment when the shop was open, I was near the shop, and my memory functioned enough to jog me into stopping there.
That happened today.
So first, the door opened and a nice looking young man with his name stitched on a tag on his shirt came out and I told him I wanted to drop off a microwave and he smiled and said he didn’t work there but he’d help me carry it in. So that was embarrassing because apparently I have turned into my mother, but then this woman came out of the repair shop and said “I’ll help her!” And my, what an extraordinary creature she was.
She was statuesque, not in the euphemistic sense, but in the tall and strongly built way, strong arms and shoulders, slimmer legs, good shape but plenty of curves. Tanning booth tan. She had long fluffy bleached blonde hair, all layered and curled and with bangs, even. Lots of eye makeup, all of it black, maroon lipstick, teeth were kind of badly spaced. She had on a black knit tank dress with slits up the sides, a very elegant dress to be wearing to check appliances in at a small repair shop, and she had on strappy black high heeled sandals, as well. Manicure, pedicure.
And then she had on the most amazing array of strange costume jewelry. It was like, big fake square rhinestones, and rings that had the plating worn off to the base metal, and all of it clearly, obviously false and very worn.
She was all business, checking me in. I looked around as she did so, looking at the machines for sale, answering the information questions, and when it got to where I needed to tell her what was going on, I started on my “I know it’s not a deluxe model, it’s just that it has a dial and I…”
“You don’t have to explain that to me,” she said with a smile. And I realized that she was right. I was talking to perhaps the only person in the greater Portland Metro area who understood why I wanted to keep this microwave, rather than getting a new one. Not only did she understand me, she supported me in this, as it meant business for her and the man who actually does the repair.
I felt validated.
And so, now, it’s just waiting. Waiting to find out if the machine is able to be repaired, waiting to see how much it will cost, waiting for the Goddess of the Microwave to call me and tell me that my microwave-with-the knob is ready to come home.
I wonder what she’ll be wearing when I pick it up.
Note: Summer is drawing to a close, so please take a chance on something from the trunk: a piece about Lilith Fair from 1999. I’ll be finding and sharing old writing on here from time to time. Let me know what you think about that…
I took the girls to Lilith Fair this weekend. Lilith was the first wife of Adam. She was composed of filth, and she refused to take the submissive position in sex, so God gave Adam a different wife. Lilith went to live by the Lake of Fire, where she copulated with demons and gave birth to monsters. I think Lilith is the first wife archetype, and Eve is the trophy wife archetype, and you can see that Eve brought Adam nothing but grief, and Lilith had all the fun, just like in real life.
Anyway, I had envisioned attending the fair with my girls as sort of a female bonding, Goddess affirming, Earth motherly archetype sort of experience. Me, my three daughters, the strains of folkie girl music, natural fiber clothing, minimal eye makeup, bare feet … you get the idea. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to grow out my body hair before we went. I was a little concerned. What if Paula Cole were there, with her underarm pelt, and all I could muster was a bit of stubble? But I went anyway, because I was having my period and I thought that menstruation would demonstrate my personal oneness with the feminine vibe.
Because I am a first wife of the traded-in variety, like Lilith, I am chronically short of money. My dear older brother, Steve, bought our tickets. When his girlfriend decided she didn’t want to go, he had a spare one. He said that my fifteen year-old could invite a friend. So, we left Portland, five females ready to Lilith. I like to think my girls were feeling pretty smug about their cool mom, the one who knew all the words to the Lilith performer songs that flooded the radio waves as we drove from Portland to Bainbridge Island on Friday evening in my magical minivan.
We had to drive 200 miles north to Bainbridge Island on Friday night, and we got there late. I needed sleep for the driving on Saturday, so I embarrassed my daughters by being firm and motherly in front of the guest and putting every one to bed by midnight. I was supposed to be a cool mom, but I was just a tired mom. We slept.
On Saturday morning, we loaded up Brother Steve, our token male, and boarded the ferry to Seattle. It was a beautiful day, and the ferry ride into Seattle is always breathtaking, as are all the tourists who exclaim over the view, the gulls, the icy breeze, and the high cost of french fries in the ferry galley. After disembarkation, we crossed Lake Washington on the floating bridge, hit 1-90 East, and began one of the prettier drives a person can make in our part of the country. We climbed through the mountains along the Snoqualmie river.
Brother Steve and I embarrassed the kids in several ways. One was to remark repeatedly upon the gorgeous views. This is apparently not a cool topic of conversation. Another source of embarrassment was my insistence on frequent potty stops. “Now, EVERYONE go, please.” Much eye rolling, at that. I even made Brother Steve go, to be fair. Then, I mentioned to Brother Steve that I had not washed my hair that morning. He said that he hadn’t either. I said, “Yeah, I knew it would get all sweaty when I started to dance at the concert.” He said, “Oh yeah, I always get sweaty when I rock out.” The looks of horror I saw in my rear view mirror were indescribable. “Mom? You’re going to DANCE?”
We made it to the Gorge amphitheater. This is an outdoor venue, a series of grassy steppes that cover a hillside overlooking the Columbia River. The river has cut cliffs into high desert country, and this vista makes a backdrop for the performers. It’s like having a concert overlooking the Grand Canyon, for visual impact. I stood there for a moment and let awe wash over me, and then I got busy figuring out where to sit. The teenagers announced that they would not be sitting with us under any circumstances (the threat of parental dancing, you see),so I handed them some money and told us where to meet us to catch the shuttle back to the car. That was the last I saw of them for the day.
We laid out our jackets and took off our shoes and began the application of sunscreen, water, snacks. This is the motherly mantra for all outdoor activities… Sunscreen, Water, Snacks. We had dressed appropriately, I was relieved to see, and not just for the weather. Wardrobing issues are crucial at anything where there will be a lot of other women. I’d worn overalls and a white tank top and big brown sandals. So had the two children who elected to remain with me. We were the matching outfit/Joan Crawford/ mother/daughter Lilith Fair attendees, I decided.
Brother Steve was also acceptably attired. He had on Mariners regalia. Being a guy, he had on a baseball cap, and he decided that I needed one, so he bought me a Lilith baseball cap made of unbleached, brushed cotton. My cap bore the official Lilith logo. This is a naked lady with a plant growing out of her head. I wore it proudly, deciding it was nearly as much a statement of womanly unity as armpit hair! My Lilith cap announced my oneness with the goddess AND saved my eyes from the glare of the sun, so there you go.
There were two hours to wait until show time, so I began to people watch. There were not that many men there. This cut drastically into my people viewing pleasure, in all honesty. The average fair goer seemed to be a teenaged girl with long hair. She wore light khaki shorts, a tiny tank top, and big brown sandals. She traveled with friends. My daughter and her friend certainly matched the description. I decided that if I lost my daughter and her friend somehow, I could easily recruit replacements from the crowd to take home, and I wondered if our guest’s parent would notice.
There were many lesbian couples. Most were of the short haircut/Birkenstock variety, but my favorite pair were a couple of tall, skinny, overly tanned babes who roared in on a Harley. The woman who rode in the back strode around wearing black leather chaps and tousling her blonde, permed, long hair after she took off her helmet. The woman who rode in front was a ropey stud in black leather pants and vest and a big swinging wallet chain. Her waist length dark hair was braided, her face lined with muscle cuts from lifting, and her defined biceps were ringed with barbed wire tattoos. They were wonderful.
My girls were anxious for the show to start, and I could only buy them off with roasted corn and caramel apples for so long before the sun and the waiting caused a massive whine attack that made me wonder why I thought this would be a good idea. They were not charmed by the view or the people watching, they were hot and bored and the only thing that would placate them was to spend money, and I refused to buy them 30 dollar t-shirts, because I was not THAT cool of a mom. “You won’t wear anything that has a naked lady on it, I KNOW you.” “But Moooooooom, the halters are sooooo cute, and they just have a floooooooower on them.”
Suddenly, the entire success of the journey could only be measured by the ownership of a tshirt. I stood firm. No way. They eyed my hat with jealous contempt. The sun moved, and the heat and glare were merciless. The eight year-old wrote furiously in her diary. I peeked over her shoulder as “my mom won’t buy me an official Lilith fair halter top” anger grew. “I hate my mom. I hate my mom and my life and my sisters and my dogs and my car.” Wow. But then, just as all appeared to be lost, the sun went behind a cloud, and a breeze kicked up off the river, and we all perked right up, and the music began.
First, Michelle-someone-that-sounded-like-“My got a cello” came on and funked the place up. None of us had ever heard of her, but we liked her. There was a little confusion on the part of my kids as to whether she was male or female but I assured the girls she was female, because this was Lilith Fair, and all the performers were women, dang it. Eventually, Michelle MyGotaCello took her black leather vest off, and they could see that I had been telling the truth.
Then Erakah Badu came on, with her towering headwrap and African clothing and her neat little arm motions and her dead-on sense of humor. She held up her cypher, an African symbol for reproduction. She explained all the parts of the symbol, telling how they fit in with the female elements of anatomy. She asked us all to put our hands on our wombs. My girls solemnly did it. Then Erakah showed us the part of the cypher-symbol that corresponded with “the male principle.” She asked all the men in the audience to put their hands on their male principles, and there was a collective roar of laughter. My kids were bewitched. I liked her jazzy, unhurried musicianship and her explanation of Badu-ism. This seems to involve incense, candles, jazz, and a high self esteem. Hey, I am a convert, now.
The Indigo girls were next. They looked like a couple of soccer moms, actually. The Indigo girls are a favorite with my 12 year-old, who sang along with all the songs. She noticed when the row of women in front of us began to exchange emotional couple kisses during “Cross Over,” an anthem to finding true love. I felt proud that her response was ‘aw’ and not ‘ew.’ The Indigo Girls were incredible. Their musicianship was impeccable, their harmonies true, and though I could see that one is a rocker and one is a banjo plucker, somehow, it all works.
At one point, some longhaired girl came on stage and did a whirling dance with her back to the audience out of shyness, and her moves had the crowd cheering in delight. I realized, as she left the stage, that she was Natalie Merchant. There was a rowdy rendition of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and the Girls were joined by an indie band called “Kay’s Choice'” for that. All the performers came out and sang together for their last song, “Closer to Find.” That was shivery.
Then, it was time for Natalie Merchant’s performance. Now, I have a sort of love/hate thing with Natalie Merchant. I love her songs, at least the ones I hear on the radio. But I just know too many short, dark, curvy, Grateful Dead loving, patchouli-smelling, eccentricity-layering, pierced-nose-having, hair-tossing young women, and she is their patron saint or goddess or whatever. But she won me over, partly with her odd voice that misses more than it hits, but hits so hard when it does land, and partly with her extraordinarily high level of self-consciousness. She charmed me with her utter lack of stage confidence. She tried different stage businesses, and none of them worked just right, and she laughed at herself, and she made herself cry with her own songs.
The girls loved her. My little Liliths sang their hearts out. They sat on each side of me and we did Four Tops type line moves. That was the extent of my parental dancing. During Natalie’s song, “Thank You,” I was overcome with sisterly emotion and gave my brother a big hug and a few sobs of gratitude that he had given us the tickets. He is a true angel.
Somewhere in here, I smelled pot smoke. I thought about the concerts I have gone to over the years and realized that this was the most tranquil audience I had ever been a part of. We were appreciative, but we were mellow. Young women danced quietly, some wearing their free Biore pore-cleaning strip samples on their noses. There was no alcohol whatsoever outside the beer gardens, which seemed to be mostly empty. So when the sweetish smell of cannabis tickled my nose, I thought, “What the heck. It’s just a little pot. I can’t complain. It IS a concert.”
Then came the act that I was waiting for. I love Sarah McLachlan. I own every note she has ever recorded.
Either you get the Sarah thing or you do not. To explain is fruitless, because if you are not a devotee, then you could never understand my excitement and delight when she took the stage and began her set with “Adia.” She hopped around barefoot in a fetching, winsome way, and played almost all my favorites. She invited us to sing along, and I did, of course. My kids knew how important that part of the show was to me. They watched me as much as they watched her.
I didn’t cry, but I was transported. Her haunting voice makes me ache. In this day of studio engineering, there is no wonder equal to seeing a singer who carries the beauty of a perfect voice into a live performance. Brother Steve, unfamiliar with Sarah, was blown away. I was so proud to have him see her, as if somehow I were making a personal introduction. And then, we joined the orderly movement of exit, and found the shuttle station, where my happy teenagers waited. They were jubilant, and they were in great shape, loaded down as they were with free samples and good feelings.
We laughed and sang on the way home, and then the kids pooped out, and I drove along and thought about the last number of the night. It was a group effort. All the performers came onstage and sang “What’s Goin’ On.” I thought about something that Natalie Merchant announced, the fact that $19,000 dollars from the gate for the night was going to a battered woman’s shelter.
I had a small moment of epiphany, remembering the words of the Marvin Gaye song, looking at my little incipient women where they slept sprawled on each other in happy exhaustion. I hoped that they never need to understand why we have to do that for each other, raise money to help the battered.
I sent up a prayer to the little naked lady on my cap with the plant growing out of her head that they never will.