Books four and five are finally here!
I’m excited to announce that books four and five are here.
The Devotion of Tristan
This book is the absolute favorite of a few of my first readers. They love seeing where everything went after book three. Did Gentry actually get married? Is it possible to be married to someone as messed up as Gentry and not run screaming into the night? This book continues with the alternating first person narration that was a hit in book three, and of course, a new voice speaks: Tristan, as an adult navigating his way through the difficulties of his own life.
You can order it here: The Devotion of Tristan
The Instruction of Gentry
This book, number five in Gentry’s novels, is my favorite. It’s surpassed my affection for The Confession of Gentry, which is such a hilarious and tragic book that I wondered if I’d ever write anything I liked quite as much.
But here it is, with the story of someone you’ve probably wondered about. Who is Gentry’s mother? Where has she been? And what would happen if she came back?
Find out here: The Instruction of Gentry
A Note About the Covers
My original cover designer was not available for these two books, so I decided to work with Andrea Capp of Andrea Capp Design on new covers for all five books.
You can see more of her work here: Andrea Capp Design
It was fun to talk about these novels with someone who has never read them. We took time to isolate colors and visual elements that expressed character, setting, and events in a very simple and cohesive way. I’m in love with the new look. If you’ve read them, do you see why we chose these elements?
I’m planning a Zoom reading, and invitations for that will go out soon. Until then, I hope you enjoy diving in.
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.
2020 is half over.
I’m sure we will all look back at 2020 with varying degrees of horror, dismay, grief. I’m lucky enough not to have lost anyone—yet. I’m also lucky enough to have lived through COVID-19, which my husband had in January and I had in February, before either of us understood what it was. And no, if you’re going to ask, neither of us has been able to take an antibody test, and from what I hear that’s probably just fine. I’d like it confirmed that we’ve had it, but no one knows how much protection those antibodies confer, or for how long. So we’re working from home for…the duration?
I have mysterious lung damage, and my husband has borderline anemia. We both had seriously compromised senses of taste and smell, but his seems to have returned. Mine goes in and out. I have never been so grateful to taste as when mine started to come back. And to smell petrichor, and my grandson’s hair? I am never taking such small daily miracles for granted again.
I know I have it easy.
Please understand that I am writing to complain about this from the lap of white privilege. Like I said, I am able to work from home. So is my husband. We socialize with our friends over Zoom, or occasional front porch shouting matches with friends who stand in our driveway. Our small in-person pod includes my youngest daughter’s family, who also had the strange flu we all had in January and February. Everyone recovered from it. Everyone involved has health insurance, which also means we all have jobs. My other two daughters are healthy, and one is employed, and one isn’t, so she needs to move back home for a while. How long? No one knows. But we will work it out.
My daily quarantine environment is a long dining room table. I sit at one end and my husband sits at the other. I look out on a huge yard that’s ringed by trees, which are full of birds each morning. One ignored corner of the yard is now home to some small dark grey rabbits that hop fetchingly across the yard now and then, to my utter delight. The butterflies are thick this year, mostly some big yellow variety, swooping and dipping through their short, graceful lives. And a huge planter of flowering purple sage has drawn many honeybees, and a few hummingbirds to sip at its blooms. So, bunnies, butterflies, honeybees and hummingbirds.
I’m really suffering, here, right?
Except, I am suffering. This feels like the year that wasn’t. We were sick in January and February, and then my youngest daughter had emergency surgery, and I was over at her house four or five hours a day after work to help while she mended, and then we went into quarantine. Everything closed in a way that I have never experienced in my lifetime. A complete lack of federal leadership left the entire country reeling and scrambling, with no unified, coordinated plan for containing this awful disease, which has turned out to be so much worse than a flu. The economic consequences are disastrous on every level. And that idiot keeps flapping his jaws in long, self-serving improvisational attempts to cover his own dementia. And now it’s nearly the end of June. Where did this year go? When will we have our lives back?
Still, we are okay, I tell myself. We are alive, we have jobs, and should those fail, we have savings. Lots of savings. My daughter’s career kind of evaporated out from under her, but it will return. And she has a place to come to, and she has savings.
I was texting with my aunt the other evening. This can be kind of an adventure, because my intelligent and artistic aunt has always been an oblique communicator. For as long as we have been directly communicating, I’ve had the feeling that my aunt is extremely uncomfortable with direct questions, even about inane, mundane topics, so I don’t even ask them anymore. It’s frustrating, and there have been gaps in our communication.
But my uncle died ten weeks ago, and she’s in assisted living, and of course I worry about her survival in exactly the kind of petri dish for contagion we all need to avoid. But this is where she lives now, and she assures me that every precaution is being taken. And she asked me, “What’s the best thing that you can think of about being sequestered? (I’m workin’ on positive thinkin’, here)”
So here is what I told her. One, My husband and I are relative newlyweds, but we spend 24/7 together in equanimity. We share this “office,” and meet up for lunch in the “break room,” which is the kitchen counter. All day, we listen to jazz or classical music on the radio. We do small, kind things for each other, and share the chores, and make each other laugh. I appear to have married the right person. So that’s the first thing, and it’s a big thing.
Two, my dogs are old. I mean, they are such a pair of old ladies. They were fully mature when I got them almost seven years ago, and I think they are maybe 13 and 16 years old, now. One of them is just fine, but the littler one is having a lot of problems. She’s completely deaf and has a serious seizure disorder. But she limps along, fierce and mostly happy, and we are both grateful to be spending these months with her, because I’m not sure how many months she has left.
And of course, the third thing is, I have two more books almost ready to publish of my own, and a new Orcas Island mystery in the works with Shannon. All this time in the house has to be good for something, right?
Right now, it’s 7:39 AM on a Saturday. The air is cool and my coffee is hot. I’m at the dining table, working on my own words, rather than work words. My husband is happily sleeping in, as he does on weekends, giving me this precious time alone. My French doors and windows are thrown open to my tree-hung yard. This morning is full of birdsong, all the sweet chirps and peeps, and the caws. The crows are having their usual arguments. I smell cool air and freshly cut grass. My ancient dogs have gotten tired of waiting for their breakfast and have gone back to sleep. It’s all so beautiful, I think I can be forgiven for forgetting about the state of the world for an hour, just to revel in this gorgeousness.
Be well, friends. Be well.
I’m about to text my husband…
…to ask him if he’s sending me flowers at work this Valentine’s Day. Why? Because the pleasures of displaying my big beautiful bouquet in my office are not matched by the idea of carrying it home on my lap in the car. He sometimes includes lilies in my arrangements, and I’m so sick this week, and so I see myself riding home with my congested nose inhaling lily pollen and I just want to die.
But my husband plans ahead. Flowers-at-the-office may already be in the works. I will just wait and see, and be sweet about whatever happens.
I started getting flowers at work after my divorce and reentry into dating in about 2004. It meant a lot to get flowers at work, regardless of whether it was a couple of dyed carnations in a budget vase, or two dozen long stemmed red roses. I seemed to attract a lot of flowers in those days. In fact, a friend said to her husband, “Why don’t you ever send me flowers at work, like Karen gets?” He said, “Maybe you’d better find out what Karen does, to get all those flowers. Then we’ll see.” And he winked at her.
I laughed for about five minutes when she told me this. And then I said I’d write a book about it. “How To Get Flowers At Work, by Karen Berry.” Maybe, I said, maybe it would be a really short book.
But I DO care.
The reality is, getting flowers at work meant quite a bit to me, especially on Valentine’s Day. I’d made the mistake of getting married on Valentine’s Day, which I have written about before. Valentine’s Day carried so much emotional baggage that I was in danger of having to pay overage fees. So when the flowers started to arrive on Valentine’s Day itself, I found it healing. I had proof. See? I was cared for.
I would be summoned to Reception and there it would be, proof that some man, somewhere, thought I was worthy enough to deserve flowers. I’d prance back to my office, carrying my arrangement, and set it somewhere visible enough that passers by would say, “Oooooh, those are pretty, who are those from?” and the entire world would see that, yes, even though my husband had left me for someone else, leaving me broken, toxic and full of grief, I was once again in the land of the beloved.
The flowers said so.
I’m not saying this was the most emotionally healthy attitude in the world. It seems petty to me in retrospect, petty and pathetic. I’m embarrassed for myself. But it’s where I was at the time. And I understand how important it can be to display that public statement of value and regard. To be honest? It meant everything to me at the time.
As years passed, I got used to flowers on Valentine’s Day. I even got a little picky. One suitor sent my flowers the week before Valentine’s Day, so the flowers were all dead by the time the day itself arrived. You can read about the ensuing debacle in my book, Shopping at the Used Man Store. I’m pretty sure this one wasn’t my fault, but he might see things differently.
Another gentleman suitor sent me an arrangement of pink roses from…Costco. The roses came with these stickpin things you were supposed to insert into the buds, with little plastic faux diamonds. This was too much for me. I didn’t want pink roses with fake diamonds in them, so I left them off. But when I sent a photo to the gentleman in question, I could tell he was puzzled. He’d ordered something with bling.
So the next year, when I received the same exact arrangement from him, again from Costco, I inserted the stickpins into the roses and sent him a photo. He was so pleased to see them there, sparkling away, COSTCO ROSES WITH PLASTIC BLING.
I knew we were probably doomed.
My husband doesn’t just send flowers on Valentine’s Day. He sweeps in the door now and then with a bunch of roses — usually red, but sometimes not — and he trims off the bottoms and puts them in a vase (I have a lot of vases because of all these years of getting flowers) and gives them to me with his crooked smile and hopeful blue eyes. And I just melt. I don’t need the flowers to arrive publicly anymore. I don’t need it affirmed that I am loved.
But if you’re reading this because you’re not sure whether or not to send her flowers at the office?
Do it. Because nothing is more fun than getting flowers at the office.
I’m not talking about ending relationships, or facing death. I’m just talking about leaving the room.
How it began.
Last night, at about ten PM, my husband got up from the couch and said, “I’m going to go start getting ready.”
I looked around, confused. It was 10 PM. He was getting ready to go somewhere? I was just sitting there, waiting for the kitchen reveal on “Christina on the Coast” (would the decision-phobic homeowner be happy with her backsplash tile choice? I had to know). Were we going somewhere? Did we have 10 PM plans?
Finally I got it. “You mean, get ready for bed?”
“Yes.” And that’s what he did.
The plot thickens
On the way to work this morning, my husband and I had one of those conversations in which we learned something about each other. My husband is reading a David Sedaris book, and he told me about one of the essays that talks about how his father would just get up and leave a room. No explanation, no apology, no farewell. He’d just stand up and leave the room to go do something else.
My husband thought this was strange and hilarious. I thought it was…normal. That’s what I do. At work, I am often the first person to leave meetings. I do not excuse or explain myself when I walk out of a room.
I just go.
So this morning, after he told me about David Sedaris’s father, my husband and I talked about our own leave-taking styles.
I am impatient. I’ll just leave when it’s time to go. I never linger. My favorite way to leave a large party is with the Irish Goodbye. Not even a wave to my host, I just bounce. At smaller gatherings, I often watch for other people’s exits. I quickly grab my coat and slide out the door on their slipstream.
Within the walls of my own home, I do not let anyone around me know if I am going to go in the kitchen and do the dishes, or take the dogs out, or go to the bathroom. I just do those things. I have been known to get ready for bed early and tuck myself in with a book, and not say a word about it until my husband wanders in to find me.
To me, this is simply the natural way of things. One thing ends, another begins. Let’s move on.
My husband usually lets me know where he’s going within the house. He also told me that he’s always been known for his long goodbyes, and his reluctance to draw phone calls to a close. When he goes out to eat with his friends, they often stand in the parking lot continuing the conversation for some time after they finish eating.
This would literally kill me, I think.
A little history
One of his high school girlfriends told him that when they were dating, she learned to be gentle and gradual in saying goodbye both on the phone and in the driveway (where all teenage goodbyes happen). She would forecast the parting for quite a while before she’d actually do it. She’d let the younger version of my husband get used to the idea, warm up to separation before it finally happened.
She went on to date his best friend after she and my husband broke up. The first time she pulled into his driveway to drop him off and said, gently, “Well, I think I’d better be going,” he said, “Okay, bye,” and got out of the car and went to his front door without a backward glance. She was shocked.
I love this story.
In my husband’s family, he says leave-taking was always an extended process. I am reminded of this when we visit my wonderful mother-in-law. She’s my third mother-in-law, and I lucked out this time. We always have a delightful time when we visit, and then, there is the leave-taking.
This seems to be organized into three parts. There is the goodbye in the main part of the house, followed by some extended conversational goodbyes in the kitchen while she gets us water for the drive back to Portland. Then, there is the by-the-back-door leave-taking in her utility room. If the weather is nice, there can also some goodbyeing done in the driveway. It is all very warm and fond, and no one hurries through it.
My husband says that when he was a child, saying goodbye after visiting relatives was a similar process, but that each part of it took even longer. Sometimes, part of the family farewell happened after the family was in the car. Windows were rolled down and extensive conversing would occur while his father was behind the wheel. Waiting to leave.
Apparently that was fine with all parties involved.
As we talked, I came to understand that to my husband, an abrupt leave-taking implies, “I’ve had enough of you!” In fact, he said this twice while talking about Sedaris’s essay. Because to leave like that, quickly and without explanation, implies a swift rejection of the present company.
I tried to explain that for me, there’s no rejection implied, just a readiness to turn to the next thing on the list. A drive home. Brushing my teeth. A clean kitchen. Whatever is next, I am ready to put my attention on that, and I don’t feel the need to reassure or disentangle myself before I move on to it.
I am wrapping my mind around the idea that I am abrupt.
My husband is not abrupt. He sometimes sidles up to topics in conversation, with extensive preambles that can go on to the point where I demand to know what he’s talking about before we go any further (see: me, abrupt). He is romantic and caring, and though I’d like to see myself as both of those things, I think in these areas, he probably wins, hands-down. So he handles separations with a degree of sensitivity that I don’t bother with.
The thing is, neither of us is right, and neither is wrong. No one has to change.
We both just have to understand.
Last year, I was sitting on the couch with my husband, and I said, “Oh my god, I have book group tonight!”
I jumped up and ran for the coat closet and was finding my keys when he appeared and said, “Hey!” in this way that makes the word three syllables long. I love how he does this, how he says “Hey” in this certain way, how that communicates that he is not done with me yet. It stops me in my tracks and makes me focus on the man I love.
On this night, I stopped long enough to see that he looked a little hurt. “You didn’t say goodbye.” So I did. I barked out, “Goodbye!” I was in a hurry, and I was confused. He gave me a kiss and a few squeezes and let me walk out the door.
Being married involves compromise. I will probably never clarify where I’m going within the walls of our home, but since that night, I have been careful to always say goodbye to my husband when I leave the house, and to say it with care.
Being married is strange.
I like it.
My first foray into nonfiction is here. Are you ready to jump into computer dating? This book tells you everything you need to know about all the men you could ever hope not to date while shopping at the used man store.
I wrote this book during a period in my life when I was seriously trying to find a serious prospect for some serious dating (seriously) and these were my serious results. The book comes from my not-so-serious attitude about my adventures, because you have to laugh, or you’ll cry. No crying allowed. So grab a cart, and get ready to join me on an extended metaphor!
Did you date me, and are you curious as to how I remember you? Be prepared, I am not nearly as nice as I appeared to be over that drink!
Are you single, and hoping to read about dates that are even worse than the ones you’ve been going on lately? I guarantee you, I win at bad dates!
Are you married, and want to rub it into your single friends’ faces by giving this book to them along with the words, “If something happens to (spouse), I am NEVER dating again!” My book is absolutely perfect for that.
Or are you single, and do you want to give this to your fellow single friends, so they don’t completely lose hope in the dating process? If they can take reading it until the end, this book just might give them some hope. Or, it might just make them wet their pants, who knows.
Anyway, here it is. I hope you laugh.
Oh, and there are other writings included–a few essays about my adventures with men outside the “serious prospect” dating period, including the worst Valentine date ever–and, a runner up. Also, exactly how to kill a relationship by traveling together. And, just a note, please don’t feel sorry for me when you read this, because I swear, I am just FINE.
Available in paperback here: SHOPPING AT THE USED MAN STORE
And Kindle (including Kindle Unlimited) here: SHOPPING AT THE USED MAN STORE
The third book in the Chameleon Chronicles is ready for preorder (just for you Kindle readers), with the paperback not far behind. Yes, Camille Tate is back, dealing with the boredom of winter on Orcas Island. Her isolation is worsened by the departure of friends for work, romance and (in Kip’s case) job incompetence. Cam is supposed to be working on her play, but she finds herself swept into island intrigue of a completely different sort.
You’ll meet a few new characters, have more fun with JoJo Brixton, learn more about Cam’s childhood and…maybe even get a glimpse into the origin of her strange supernatural power.
Plus, what is Lisa Cannon really up to?
Click here to pre-order the Kindle version of Book Three!
My family is weird about stuff, and I wish I weren’t.
I used to love to watch AMC Hoarders. I was repulsed and amused as a woman said a blessing over a rotted squash before she could let the clean-up crew carry it out of her house. This same woman had kept a dozen eggs for over a year because they were pretty and her sister gave them to her. I couldn’t believe it.
Did you see the rabbit episode? This man let his pet rabbits run wild and free, and they totally destroyed the home he was renting. I am not exaggerating. They ate through the wall board, wiring and insulation, they made burrows through all the walls, and they filled rooms with dung. When the landlord stopped by during cleanup, he almost fainted.
I used to find all this fascinating and amusing.
I’d watch until a big ball of anxiety built up in my gut, and then I’d jump up and go sort through a junk drawer and do some laundry. I’d dust. I’d feel better. Then, I read a book called “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.” It takes a deep dive into the relationship between the hoarder, memories, and the actual objects a person hoards. I identified with what the case studies were saying. Things were special. Things had feelings. Things were devalued when they were used. Things connected the present with the past, and to let things go would let the memories go.
And I realized that I have a very organized, well-stored hoard in my house. My house is spacious, tidy, airy, even. But it’s there. You just can’t see it (aside from the books).
These are some of the things I have carefully packed up and hidden away in my home:
My very best teddy bears and vintage stuffed animals.
I know exactly which bears and so on are in these boxes, but I haven’t looked at any of it in 14 years, and the only reason I looked at it back then was that I had a house fire, and I had to mourn all the Steiffs that didn’t make it through. The reason they didn’t make it through? They were declared “smoke damaged,” and kept by the guy who did the restoration. This still burns me up, even though i have not touched one of these stuffed animals in FOURTEEN YEARS.
Enough Christmas decorations to adorn at least three houses.
This is a great improvement from when my Christmas decor filled the entire over-sized linen closet. I could have done ten houses at one time, but I gave 80% of it away two years before the fire, and lost about half of what was left in the fire, including all the darling vintage stuff I’d picked up over the years.
Like, 150 of them. Don’t even ask. Or if you must ask, ask something specific, and I’ll try to answer.
Of all my undisplayed collections, this one bothers me the least, because the entire lot fits in an old Christmas card box. I love them, but I don’t know how the heck you display them, so I don’t.
Vintage ceramic pins.
I have an sizable collection of realy cute and fun 1980s ceramic pins (inspired by a love of Mork-era Robin Williams) stashed in a jewelry chest. I have a glass box of metal and celluloid pins on my dresser, but that is a displayed collection, not a hidden-away collection, so it doesn’t count.
I have a pink plastic carrying case full of the ragtag survivors of my childhood obsession with these funny little dolls. They are not in good shape, since I played with them. A lot. I have no idea what to do with them. They are all shot.
American Girl Dolls.
No, I don’t have a Molly, but I do have an Addy, a Samantha, and a baby. My daughters don’t want them, and I don’t want to let go of them, so they are in a box in my closet.
There are only three (Stacey, Twiggy and Malibu Barbie), but I have them and all their clothes from the 1970s.
There is probably more stuff, carefully packed and stashed here and there. And this doesn’t count what’s actually out on display, or the two sets of dishes stashed in the breakfront, or the vintage purses on my closet shelf, or the hats in the vintage hatbox, and all the damn detritus that accumulates when you live in the same house for over thirty years.
It’s all “good stuff.” I don’t need any of it.
So, believe me when I say that once I read “Stuff,” I could no longer watch Hoarders. I felt compassion for these people who were climbing through piles of junk. I had too much in common with them.
Why am I so weird about stuff? I don’t know, but I do know it’s a family thing.
For as long as I can remember, my mother rhapsodized about my grandmother’s possessions. I wrote a long blog post about this here, which you are free to read, but the point is, things were kind of a religion in my family as I grew up. The more storied a thing was, the more precious it became.
Since we lived in South Dakota, there was an abundance of farm auctions and antique stores full items that came with imagined stories about pioneers built right in. That crumbling iron rake might have arrived in a Conestoga wagon! It might have been part of a fire line in a prairie wildfire! Or it might have just been, you know, a rake, but we were expected to mythologize right along with my mother, her parents and her sister.
I realized how deeply ingrained this is in my family when my aunt called me after she sold her home, where she’d lived since the 1960s. She wanted to apologize to me for the fact that, when she moved, she left behind a loveseat that had belonged to my grandmother. That loveseat was fifty years old.
Facing up to stuff
I thought about this quite a bit when my father died after a long battle with COPD. His home showed his infirmity — the gigantic oxygen compressor and all the spare bottles were cleared out, but the adjustable bed, bath chair, walker, wheelchair, and comfortable lift chair where he spent most of the last weeks of his life. His priorities showed in his state of the art TV and sound system, his curated wall of books and his carefully stocked cabinets.
As Dad aged, I felt like he’d done an admirable job of paring down and keeping things minimal, with some help from us. My brother had cleaned and sold all the family’s Turkish rugs years ago, and I’d dumped a 1967 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica that my mother left with me “for the kids.” We’d done our part.
But Dad did have a lot of Mom’s precious stuff — things that were kept (and occasionally passed to us kids) with the warning, “This is worth money, you know.” We didn’t want it, but we knew she’d kill us if we dumped it. After Mom’s death 15 years ago, it mostly found its way back to my dad.
Stuff. Good stuff. Restored cast iron pieces from my grandfather, including miniature salesmen sample stoves, toy vehicles, cornbread molds and pots with seams that peg them as pioneer material. A family clock from my grandparents’ home that is broken. A working antique spinning wheel. Various stoneware crocks, also ancient. An enormous unfinished dollhouse that has been in the family (and in the way) since the 1970s, and boxes of miniatures from the years when my parents ran a miniatures business. Mom’s pink and white Johnson Brothers transferware. Blown glass cocktail glasses. The Polish ceramics she took a shine to later in life. A set of vintage blue Canton dishes that had been tested for lead, Mom pointed out repeatedly, which did nothing to make us want it.
What were we supposed to do with it?
We sold it. At an estate sale. We sold it in waves, in boxes and bags. We sold it to delighted, happy people, we sold it to hagglers, we sold it to newlyweds and drug addicts and collectors and neighbors. I’m sure we sold it for pennies on the dollar. And it was liberating in the extreme. If I could sell my mother’s cast iron miniature cookstoves, I could dispose of anything.
So this has launched me on a mission: to clear my stuff. I exempt myself from getting rid of books, which would be the first place to start, but I just can’t do it. I took eight bags of books to the Goodwill this past weekend, but that’s a mere fraction of what I have shelved. The books can stay, to be gone through at my leisure, if ever.
Everything else has to go, before the rabbits move into my walls.
Other Karen Berry who was planning a vacation in North Carolina – Your reservations agent sent me a lovely email. I wrote back telling her I had no idea what she was talking about. I hope you left your phone number with her, so she has an alternate way to contact you. I have been known to cancel reservations that come to my email address, which could be quite a shock if you went somewhere thinking your plans were in place, so please don’t do this anymore.
Other Karen Berry who booked a cab ride to the airport in New Zealand – Please see above. Hope your refund came through.
Other Karen Berry who is a horse trainer – I have seen some very nice photos of your horses performing well post-training by you, other Karen Berry. Wouldn’t you like to see them, too? Perhaps, other Karen Berry, you might consider giving your correct email address to your clients, so that this can happen.
Other Karen Berry who applied for a customer service job with the Reed Gas Company – You were not selected for this position. I am sure, other Karen Berry, that you were a qualified candidate, but at this point, if I were an employer and my potential hire didn’t even know her own email address, I wouldn’t hire her, either.
Other Karen Berry who is taking surveys for cash – You apparently have some money waiting for you. However, other Karen berry, since your notifications for this money keep coming to my email address, I wonder if you will ever be able to get it. Think about it, other Karen Berry. There you are, answering stupid questions about lawn fertilizer and Starbucks coffee, and you’re not ever going to get paid. Unless, of course, you actually sign up with the correct email address, other Karen Berry.
Other Karen Berry who wants to work as an escort – PLEASE get your email address right. This site keeps emailing me to finish setting up my profile to get escort work, and my unsubscribes don’t seem to be unsubscribing me. And, other Karen Berry who wants to be an escort, not to get all judgmental on you, but I am a mom. And like so many moms, I feel tremendous sadness when young women turn to sex work to support themselves. I wonder if you have possible employment options that you haven’t considered, other Karen Berry. In fact, I hear the gas company is hiring.
Other Karen Berry whose son Ryan plays soccer – Ryan is still welcome at an abundance of soccer camps for the coming year. Is it possible that you might consider giving these camps and coaches your correct email address, so that Ryan can build his skills and stop wondering why no coaches want him? Think of Ryan, other Karen Berry. Learn your own email address, other Karen Berry.
Other Karen Berry who is a realtor – You, other Karen Berry, were on my shit list because you actually put my email address on a website. I had to call the realtor who manages this website on the phone (I don’t do that) to get the email address changed. I wasn’t exactly swamped with requests for your services, other Karen Berry, but I got enough mail that it was annoying. And later, when your coworker sent me a long job description for a social media manager for your company, I was confused, seeing as how I am a social media manager and all. But we got that straightened out in short order and all is well, and your coworker is really nice, by the way, but still. It’s time to stop with the incorrect email address.
And last, other Karen Berry whose friend sent me these photos:
Well, other Karen Berry – you don’t have to do a thing. Not one damn thing. In fact, your friend can send me kitten photos all day long, and I’ll just say thank you, other Karen Berry.