But what if you don’t?
In writing about my own life, I’m terrified of pathos, or maybe bathos. I want to be honest when I (someday) write that memoir, but Jesus Christ, when I look back at the mess of my childhood and young adulthood and then maybe add in my 20s and don’t forget my 30s, it seems a daunting task to write honestly about everything I’ve lived through. So, despite the inherent OMG involved in this blog post title, I’m not going to write about how and why I decided to become sexually active. I’m going to write instead about learning to ride a bike.
The Normal Age for Riding a Bike
Let’s go back to me, at age five or so, in a tiny town called Claremont, South Dakota. My older brother and sister had both learned to ride a bike by the time a small blue bike was bequeathed to me. I assume they learned to ride a bike the usual way; my birth father put them on the bike, ran behind them holding the seat while they pedaled, and then let go. I don’t remember this happening to either of my older siblings, but they could both ride bikes just fine, so whatever wobbles or spills they endured didn’t throw them off the path of bike ridership.
Me? Not so much. I don’t have the daredevil gene. I guess that’s a real thing, the daredevil gene. It makes you a risk taker and an innovator. I was born without this gene, which means that I make cautious choices, like living in the same house for over 30 years, and shopping at thrift stores, and building up my 401K with steady contributions rather than playing the stock market like the goddamn casino game it actually is.
Casinos are not for me, folks. Ten years ago, I was in Vegas with a friend who informed me that I never win at games of chance because I don’t ever believe I will win. I tend to think that MOST people don’t win at games of chance—hence, Las Vegas itself—but maybe she has a point. Maybe if I bought into the whole idea of winning at gambling I’d enjoy it. Instead, I simply endure it until whatever puny stake I’ve decided to lose is gone, and then I can do something I actually enjoy in Vegas, like eating or looking at the crazy sights or going to a show or reading a book in my room or something like that.
My point with all this is to say, I don’t like risks. When my birth father let go of the little blue bike, I didn’t sail happily down the sidewalks of Claremont, South Dakota. I fell over. I scraped stuff. I cried. And soon after, before he could coax me back onto that bike, he and my mother divorced. My mom was a lot of cool things, but she wasn’t the kind of mother who was going to run up and down the block behind her timid six year-old, promising not to let go right up until she did.
So I never learned.
Yes, I felt left out in fifth grade when everyone in my Edina, Minnesota, neighborhood jumped on their bikes and pedaled off to the Southdale mall. But sometimes they would walk, so I could come along and shoplift to my heart’s content.
I also didn’t know how to whistle. I taught myself to whistle really badly when I was in fifth grade, and I still whistle very badly, but I really don’t care. And there were other childhood gaps that could be filled in with diligent solitary practice. Cat’s Cradle, jacks, hand-clap games, and every type of jump rope. Those were my kinds of activity. I don’t have a clue if anyone plays those games anymore, but they were the deal when I was growing up.
They were a big deal in Minnesota, and they were still a big deal in Arkansas, where we moved while I was in fifth grade. I was still playing “Say Say Old Playmate” at recess when I got my first boyfriend…and my period…and my second boyfriend. He went to my school and passed me passionate mash notes that told me I looked like Marcia on The Brady Bunch, which was high praise in those days.
Here’s me at 12.
Here’s Marcia and her TV sisters.
Look at their shining, smooth hair, tan legs, and adorable dresses. I could study this photo all day in complete admiration. I don’t think I looked like Marcia, but I certainly appreciated the compliment.
All the Brady kids could ride bikes. I still couldn’t.
It was less of a problem in Montana, where we moved after Arkansas. We lived up in the mountains on a ranger station. There were no sidewalks and no paved roads, aside from a narrow paved highway that snaked above the sheer banks of the icy Gallatin River. Kids in Gallatin Gateway, where I went to part of seventh grade and all of eighth, rode horses, not bikes.
When we moved into Bozeman, there were sidewalks, but the kids I hung around with (the boys at least) had cars. If you had a boyfriend, he was your source of transportation.
At 14, I lost my virginity. I still couldn’t ride a bike.
At 15, I got my driver’s license. I still couldn’t ride a bike.
Also, at 15, I moved out of my parent’s home and to another state (Washington) with my older boyfriend—yes, in tenth grade.
I still couldn’t ride a bike.
Pathos? Bathos? You decide!
So now, those of you still reading understand that my life had really gone off the rails at this point. I’ve taken you from South Dakota to Minnesota to Arkansas to Montana and finally to Washington, with multiple moves and schools in each of those locations. My early life was unsettled, but at this point it veered into somewhat tragic territory. And of the various tragedies around my 14th and 15th years (let’s just extend this tragedy time on up to age 19), not being able to ride a bike was the least of them. However, that particular tragedy could be rectified.
What To Say About Him.
I have a strong need to contextualize people in order to understand and eventually forgive them. The boyfriend with whom I lived in my teens has a really interesting life of his own that lends context to what was wrong with him. I’m not ready to write about him in any detail. But I think it’s safe to talk about the fact that he was a gearhead. He loved anything wheeled, especially if it was motorized or had an engine. He worked on cars constantly. But before he could drive, he poured all that gearhead passion into his bikes.
He had two. This was the era of the ten speed, and I’m not sure his “good” bike was one of those, but it was complex and had gears. He’d modified and tinkered with it so much, it was a miracle that he could still ride it. And then he’d held on to his childhood Schwinn with the banana seat, on which he’d delivered papers for years in all kinds of Montana weather.
Pay attention, these bikes are important in a paragraph or two.
During the school year, we both went to school. He went to YVC, and I went to high school, where I managed not to drop out despite just hating it. In the summer, we did various things to earn money. My parents were living in Missoula, where my father was busy flunking out of law school and my mother was running a small, successful miniatures business.
So my boyfriend and I packed up the cats and went to Missoula to make miniature furniture for the summer. We slept on the hideabed in the tiny living room of my parents’ married student housing apartment.
We assembled tiny chairs and sofas and table,s and we made more money doing that than picking fruit, our other summer employment endeavor. And at some point early on, my boyfriend drove back to Bozeman and retrieved both of his bikes from his parents’ garage, and brought them to Missoula.
He taught me to drive before he taught me to ride a bike.
I started on that little Schwinn. I think it looked a lot like this one, which is for sale for over 2K on eBay:
I’m a tall person, so I probably looked ridiculous on this boy’s bike, but the banana seat was comfortable and the handlebars were tall, so I could sit up, instead of that hunching over you had to do on a ten speed. I got on that bike, and he held onto the back of the seat, and he ran behind me while I pedaled down the sidewalk, and eventually, he let go.
Guess what? I rode just fine. This bike was fast and easy to maneuver. The only problem was, one of the pedals was incomplete, so every so often, my foot would slip off and my ankle would bang into the end of the pedal peg. That hurt.
Ankle bruises aside, I was finally riding a bike. Each evening, we rode all over the University of Montana campus; him on his age-appropriate adult-sized bike, and me on that little Schwinn. I remember a boy we passed calling, “You look funny on that bike!” I yelled back, “I know!” I knew, and I didn’t care. It was so fun to finally know how to ride a bike. And the campus, back then, was empty in the summer, so we could whiz all over the paved paths and brick courtyards, riding recklessly in circles around the bear sculpture.
I fell in love with this campus that summer, thanks to that bike. Eventually, we moved to Missoula and I attended my first two quarters of college at the University of Montana. I made wonderful friends and came into my own and finally started to question the path my life had taken. I started to wonder if that path could change. I decided it could, and forged a new one.
I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like had I stayed at the U of M after I ended things with the boyfriend, who had become my first husband. If I’d left him but stayed in Missoula, I could have applied for financial aid, and I would have been helped in that because I was in the honors program and had a 4.0 GPA. That used to matter to schools. I could have moved into the dorm, which was actually a cheap place to live back then, and finished my studies, and…and then…and then I peter out. Because I’d have eventually ended up in the hospital, or worse, if I’d stayed in the same city where he lived. Because he wouldn’t have let me go, if I’d stayed in Missoula. And because my real life, with all that it holds, has taken place in Portland, where I moved at age 19.
Portland, Oregon, is the most bike-friendly city in America.
Everyone rides a bike in Portland.
Everyone except me.
I wish I could tell you that my hard-won teen mastery of bike riding had inspired a lifelong love of biking. That this was the start of something important. But that small bike with its comfortable banana seat and busted pedal went back to my boyfriend’s parents’ garage in Bozeman, and it took my love of biking with it.
I know that I had a big brown three-speed of my own at some point while we lived in Yakima, but I never took to it. It was so BIG compared to the swift little Schwinn. I rode it a few times and found it heavy and tiring, nothing like zipping around on the wee bike. Eventually that big bike went to my older brother, who did ride it around Portland for a while. And then I suppose it was sold.
I haven’t been on a bike since I was 17 years old. But I like to think that riding a bike is just like…riding a bike. That I’ve never forgotten what it took me so long to learn. That it’s back there, deep in my muscle memory.
That even now, I could get on and go.
January 20, 2020 was Martin Luther King Day. My husband had the day off and I didn’t. So he dropped me at work, and then picked up his friend Parry, and they spent MLK day playing cards up in Washington at a card room. For the record, he won money because my husband always wins money when he plays cards. He was back in Portland in time to pick me up outside my office at 4:30 PM.
I got in the car and he looked terrible. Just exhausted. And what followed was some kind of puzzled conversation about how he’d felt fine all day, but as he sat in the car waiting for me, something extreme had absolutely flattened him. I remember asking, “It came on that fast?” It had, and it was severe enough that he wasn’t sure if he’d be going to work the next day. I asked my husband if he wanted me to drive, but he said he’d be okay to drive us home.
We weren’t surprised that he’d caught something. He works with a woman we refer to as “Patient Zero” because she always comes to work when she’s sick. All month, her cough had been echoing around his office. The week before, she left the office on a stretcher because she was coughing so hard that she couldn’t breathe. We thought he’d probably caught this from her.
But my husband didn’t cough that much, only every half hour or so. He didn’t think he had a fever, just that dry cough and extreme fatigue. So, because this is how we do it in America, he went to work on Tuesday. In fact, he worked all week. Some days, he found himself staring at the computer in utter bafflement, but he endured. He didn’t bother me at night with his coughing, probably because he took Nyquil. He ate a lot of chicken noodle soup for dinner.
We both thought he was better that next Saturday when we went out for our usual errands; a tank of gas for our daily shared commute, the bulk of our groceries at one store, the remainder at another, and a mad dash through the Goodwill if we felt like it. I think we did most if not all of these stops, but after each one, I’d ask him, “Are you up for…?” And he would stop, and seriously assess. I mean, he had to think about it. And then he’s say, “I think I can do that.”
This is not like my husband. He’s one of those long, rangy men who never run out of energy. So I knew that he really had to be sick.
I didn’t look forward to getting whatever he had, but I assumed that I would. At the office, I stopped helping myself to snacks in the break room, aware that I might be contagious before I was symptomatic. As a rule at work, I don’t touch elevator buttons with my hand, preferring to use the corner of my shirt. I put my hand in my cardigan pocket and run that along the stairway bannister, I open and close the bathroom door with paper towels, things like that. It looks strange but I don’t really care. Laugh if you want to, but I rarely get colds because of my weird little ways.
Eventually, I started having a strange drippy trickle at the back of my throat. That must be it, I thought. It must be coming. On the way home from work, I’d say, “I bet it’s coming on, I bet I won’t be going to work tomorrow.” But it didn’t.
On Sunday, February 2, 2020, it finally arrived. We had matinee theater tickets, and I had a wet, chesty cough. I thought I was okay, though, because the cough was occasional. I loaded up on unwrapped cough drops, and we went to that afternoon’s play.
I timed my coughing for applause and scene changes. I was worried about hampering other patrons’ theater experience, not their health. It was just a cold, right? And the cough was really not that bad. I covered my mouth, I didn’t touch things, I was considerate. We saw, and enjoyed, the play.
But that evening? I stood up from the couch and had a dizzy spell so bad I nearly fainted. And just like that, the cough became wracking, a full body experience that left me gasping for air. Nothing like my husband’s cough, which was dry. I didn’t have a fever, but I felt completely disoriented.
So now, let me backtrack.
Around the time my husband got sick, my 2 year-old grandson had three days of high fever, pinkeye, and a mysterious, hive-like rash. He didn’t get any cold symptoms. The doctor had no explanation, just a recommendation of Tylenol and rest.
There’s this: Children and Covid-19
My daughter (his mom) had a physical around the same time, and she had an elevated white count. The doctor was worried about that, and so was she. Then, maybe a week later, right about the time I became symptomatic, she came down with what appeared to be the same thing I had, with a horrible, deep cough. We commiserated about the horror of it on the phone. She recommended a Mucinex day/night twin pack, and my husband went to the store and got one for me. That helped tremendously.
I stayed home from work on Monday and Tuesday. Because this is America, on Wednesday I went in. It was soon clear to me that I had no business being at work. I wouldn’t let anyone come into my office and I didn’t touch anything. I gathered materials to work from home on Thursday and Friday, and I went home. “No one should get this,” I told my manager. She completely agreed. She’s good that way. In a company where you show your commitment by coming to work and thumping a bottle of Dayquil down on your desk and working a full day even though you feel like death, my manager is the rare person in charge who says, “I don’t want whatever you have, so stay home.”
I stayed home.
This is what it felt like.
I didn’t have a fever or a headache, just this awful strangling cough, followed by gasping for air and dizziness. I felt like I’d been drowned and brought back to life, which happened to me when I was very young, but that’s another blog post.
I sat on the couch for most of the week, staring ahead, feeling lost and disoriented. The TV was on, but I hardly noticed. I felt no connection to any person, place, thing, or task. To add insult to injury, I got pinkeye. Oh, pinkeye? My husband had some medicine for it, and it went away without much effort, but really? Pinkeye?
Maybe this had something to do with it: COVID-19 and Pinkeye
Here’s the thing. I couldn’t figure out what it WAS. I’ve had the flu a few times, including the Swine Flu. This was not the flu, but that was all I could imagine it to be. I was especially baffled because I’d had my flu shot the previous fall, and it was supposed to be an effective one. And why were my symptoms so different from my husband’s? We decided I had to have something completely different, because he’d been sick, but not like this. I was a mess.
By Saturday, I was just recovered enough to babysit for my daughter, who felt well enough to have dinner with friends. I still felt terrible, but she was in far better shape than I was, and she really wanted to go, so I held down the fort that evening for two grandkids. This was a monumental effort. I was relieved to go home and continue recovering on Sunday.
Then, because certainly my company couldn’t survive for more than a week without my crackerjack copy writing skills, I went back to work on Monday. I wasn’t in great shape, but I could work, so I worked. I worked with a constantly running nose and the occasional cough. I was definitely short of breath and quick to tire.
The news was all about a dangerous virus out of China. I said to my manager, “Do you think?” She said, It’s not here yet, so…” But she kept her distance.
My nose wouldn’t stop running, which I took to be the source of my lingering cough. I have to be careful what I take to dry myself out, and I’d had enough of what I shouldn’t take in the Mucinex day formula, so I let it run. That week, in addition to working, and babysitting again, I called and cancelled our Valentine’s Day dinner reservations. I remember telling the woman I talked to, “I can’t smell or taste a thing, so we’ll reschedule when I can.” I blamed my runny nose for that.
That next Sunday, my daughter called me at 6 AM in terrible pain. I jumped out of bed and took her to the ER. She had her gall bladder out that next day. But that meant that while I was there with her in the ER, and then in the surgery waiting room, and then back in her hospital room, I was still blowing my nose and coughing. Constantly. And I kept worrying that it was more than a cold, more than a flu. I kept thinking about that awful virus out of China, which now had a name: “the coronavirus.”
I kept wondering—knowing, on some level—that I might have this horrible coronavirus while I was in a hospital around sick and vulnerable people. I coughed into my elbow. I washed my hands. I used my shirt to touch the elevator call buttons. I washed and sanitized my hands over and over. I worried.
This is when I started to become frustrated with my friends. I was becoming terrified that I had it. When I expressed my concerns, “It can’t be the coronavirus, Karen. It’s not here.” Even though it was here. Even after people in nursing homes started to show up with the virus. Even though my former brother-in-law, a healthy man of 62, died in his sleep, stunning my family and devastating my sister and nephew. That was his heart, supposedly. But I asked for details—a week of horrible coughing and shortness of breath—and I had dark suspicions.
I’d try to talk about it, and be told no, nope, never. Not possible. I know it was a terrifying prospect, a deadly virus being present in the general population. No one wanted to even hear about the idea, I’m sure partly because no one wanted to have been exposed, no one wanted to be at risk. And to be fair, some of the people who refused to hear the idea that I’d had it really love me. Maybe they were afraid to admit they might have lost me.
Even after we had a confirmed case in the US, backdated to January 20th, I was told over and over again that I couldn’t have had it. It had somehow gotten here to the US and made just that one person sick, a person who hadn’t been traveling in any of the areas where it was rampant. That’s called community spread, but no one was ready to admit it yet.
The story continues with a trip to Urgent Care
After a few days of post-surgery recovery, my daughter was coming home from the hospital. Her boyfriend worked swing shift, so my ex-husband and I figured out a schedule for helping her with the kids until she healed. He would do afternoons, and I would cover evenings. But I’d started coughing again, so I went to Urgent Care on March 12th to make sure I didn’t have bronchitis. It had been over four weeks of being sick at this point, and I couldn’t kick it.
At the Urgent Care, they listened to my symptoms and asked me to wear a surgical mask. This is the first time in my life I’d ever had one on my face, and I didn’t like it. I was told there were no tests available for the new virus, the county had a few but they were reserved for…people who were not me. So they couldn’t help me with that.
I was examined and had a chest X-ray. The radiologist looked at my X-rays and said I had a pattern of lung damage that suggested COPD, and I needed to follow up with a pulmonologist. I think the chances of my having COPD are pretty slim, since I’ve never been a smoker. I know it could happen with secondhand smoke, but I haven’t been around that for over forty years.
You know how you just know? I just knew. I knew what I’d had, even though no one around me would admit it.
My history, my risk factors, and why I think I lived.
I am not a medical alarmist. I’m more the opposite. I expect everything that’s wrong with me to just go away; colds, flus, bone spurs, high blood pressure, a hemorrhaging uterus, heartburn so scorching they thought I had Barrett’s Esophagus–you name it, I ignored it until I absolutely couldn’t.
So, my heart. I guess since mine did, I assumed everyone’s hearts stopped beating now and then. Sure, it’s an alarming feeling to have your heart stop beating, but I was used to it. You know how you’re sitting there and then you can feel your heart stop and you think, wow, come on now, let’s have a beat! Yes? No? Doesn’t your heart do that? Well, mine did, and I ignored it for a long time. Years. Maybe ten, before I did bring it up to the doctor.
She was the perfect doctor for me, because she told me to calm down, nothing was wrong with my heart, and to buck up. She shamed me for imagining something was wrong! “What do you do for a living? That is NOT a high stress job.” (She didn’t know my manager back then. That was a terribly high-stress position due to that manager). But I was more than happy to buy into that and continue ignoring my symptoms. And maybe six months more went by before I almost passed out in the break room at work, so I went back to her, because even I know that passing out in the break room because your heart is out of rhythm is not normal.
To humor me, she ordered a Holter monitor for me. She did it to set my mind at ease and to get me to calm down, I’m sure. So I went to the heart lab and got everything attached, and wore that weird little box on my chest for a few days. I dropped it off on a Monday morning, fully expecting to be shamed for even thinking something was wrong.
My doctor had to call me after the heart lab looked at my results. “Karen, you need to go to the cardiologist at 1 PM today to discuss your Holter monitor results. Please be aware that you might be admitted directly to the hospital after your appointment.” Well, after an echocardiogram, and a stress test, and a lot of sobering instruction, I was allowed to go home. Two times a day, I take a potentially lethal medication for ventricular arrhythmia. My prescription has one side effect—sudden death—but that usually happens during the first week, and I’m obviously still here. My medication works great for me and I’m so glad to be on it.
My point is, I had that heartbeat irregularity for at least ten years before I became concerned enough to take it seriously. Also, if you’re wondering why someone with a serious heart condition didn’t die from having COVID, I take Losartan for my blood pressure. Read this: Losartan and COVID-19
Enough of that digression.
Let’s go back to my timeline. What happened next?
Well, we all figured out this was serious, and here, and it wasn’t going away or evaporating. The world was shutting down. We’d started working from home. I finally stopped coughing, but my nose was still running. And as more information came out about the virus, the huge variance in our symptoms and severity made complete sense to my husband and me.
We knew we’d already had the thing, which now had a name, COVID-19. My husband and I wondered, if we’d had it, were we immune? Did that matter? We masked up, washed our hands, stayed home. But we wondered. Oh my god, did we wonder.
I heard about an antibody test. In the spring of 2020, there was no way to get one, at least not in Oregon. Still, I asked. I asked quite a bit. When Zoom Care started offering the antibody tests, I thought seriously about taking one. My doctors said they were so inaccurate that they were basically useless. So I didn’t take one, and in retrospect, I wish I had.
On April 3rd, I made a pot roast. I make a good pot roast, and I thought this was going to be a good one. The dogs were going nuts at the smell, and I could smell it, too. But the only thing I could taste was the sweetness of the onions. The whole thing tasted sweet. Even the gravy! I wondered if I’d somehow used sugar instead of flour to dredge the roast and thicken the gravy, but nope. I’d used flour. It was inexplicable.
Later that month, I was turning 60 with no party, no trip, no celebration at all. This was not how I’d envisioned turning 60. I was disappointed. On the day itself, my husband brought me one of my favorite comfort-food meals: turkey dinner from Banning’s Restaurant. I’ve eaten this turkey dinner more than a few times in the 36 years I’ve lived in this neighborhood, and it’s always just right. But I started eating, and the food had no flavor. None. I was dismayed and felt betrayed. What had happened to Banning’s? Why did their takeout have no flavor at all?
My husband had a similar experience while eating his beloved meatball sandwich from Subway. He said, “They’ve done something to the sauce. I don’t know what it is, but this is terrible. It’s just wrong.” This was unnerving.
Then, I realized that I couldn’t smell unpleasant smells. Plenty of these were around the dogs, because dogs are basically composed of bad smells. I couldn’t smell their dog food when I fed them. And in the morning when I stepped out with them after breakfast so they could do their business, the odors of their pee and poop usually wafted over the smell of wet grass. No more. My dogs are old, and if one of them used the pee pad during the night, I couldn’t smell the urine.
As far as humans, I couldn’t smell anything bodily, ever, from myself, or my husband. I couldn’t even smell morning breath. Now, none of this seems like something you’d miss, yes? But the ability to perceive unpleasant odors is probably important, even if it’s not pleasurable. An entire range of smell perception was gone.
A June 23rd follow-up visit with a pulmonologist got my “damaged” lungs an all clear. By that time, I’d heard that there was a pattern of lung damage associated with COVID. I don’t know what the radiologist was seeing, but the pulmonologist thought my lungs looked just fine. I accepted the good news of healthy lungs with massive relief and went on with my life.
The summer arrived in Portland. My baby grandson, who was actually a toddler at this point, a walking, talking, toddler, had also arrived in Portland with his moms, who were working remotely to avoid the COVID hotspot that was Brooklyn, NY. His other grandma was going to help with daycare, and she was doing the necessary isolation and quarantining in order to do that safely. Being able to see him mask-free and hands-on would involve a lot of quarantining and isolation from my other grandkids, one of whom is technically a “step,” so she comes and goes from another household with a lot of unknowns as far as infection vectors. But if I had antibodies, this wouldn’t be an issue, right?
In the summer of 2020, in Oregon, there was only one way to get an antibody test, and that was to give blood. So on July 23rd, my husband and I went to donate. I was so hopeful. Yes, it had been six months since he had the virus, and five since I had. But I was sure I’d had it and this would give me proof.
Guess what. Neither of us showed antibodies in our blood, which isn’t surprising because apparently they only show up for three or four months after you’re infected. I was crushed. I wanted proof, not so I could wave it in the face of people who doubted me (okay, that would have been nice), but so I could see all my grandkids, even if they couldn’t see each other.
Well, I had no antibodies, and it was hard not to see my other grandkids, but I did it. I took days off work to help his moms with daycare while they worked from home. It was idyllic—hanging with this little guy who usually lived across the country me, getting to see him and know him, learning all his charming, funny ways. But then, on top of the pandemic, we had wildfires. To escape the smoke, my younger grandson’s family spent time out of town, either at the coast, or at his other grandparents’ in McMinnville.
And then, my youngest daughter and her boyfriend decided to move to Eugene. I wanted some quality time with the other grandkids, and with my daughter before she left, so I broke quarantine. In mid-September, we really broke quarantine to help the kids move to Eugene, including a meal inside a truck stop on moving day. My husband and I were exhausted from the move, the drive, the chokingly thick wildfire smoke. It was just too darn smoky to eat in the car. My gosh, it was strange to sit in a restaurant and eat.
I haven’t been back in the bubble with my younger grandson ever since. But I can have masked porch visits with him until the end of next month, when he returns to New York. He knows me, knows my name, and he likes me. We have some jokes, and we’ve discovered that we share a deep affection for dogs (or “woof-woofs” as he calls them), and Santa Claus (who says “ho-ho-ho!” and has a hat and a beard). We might not have discovered these deep and meaningful commonalities without the pandemic.
It’s been terrible. It’s been fine.
We’re lucky, and we know it. Both my husband and I are employed. Our companies are financially stable, so we don’t spend time worrying about that, and we’re able to work from home. We’re especially glad that he can work from home, as my husband works with people who have to travel internationally as part of the business, with plenty of trips to Asia. His office has had several confirmed cases, and one person in another part of the company passed away. I’m relieved that my husband hasn’t had to go in once.
We also have more money. I haven’t analyzed why, but my husband has. He told me last week that he thought we were in better shape financially because we spend so much less on gas, car maintenance, lunches out, entertainment, movies, theater, concerts, dinners with friends, and all the activities that were such an important part of our lives before this pandemic. I’d talk about how hard that is, except we’re all in the same boat, and we all know how narrow life has become.
The State of Me Today
No matter how sure I am that I’ve had COVID-19, I’ve never had proof of that, or been convinced that it made me immune. I’m smack in the middle of a high-risk group because of my age, weight, high blood pressure, and bad heart. So I’ve socially distanced, washed and sanitized my hands, and worn my mask (cloth, with a kickass filter) from the time it was recommended.
As we get closer to the mythical wonders of vaccination, I’m buckling down on my safety measures. With my risk factors, I’m damn lucky to have survived this once. I don’t want to take a chance on twice.
My nose is still runny. The lymph nodes in my neck are still swollen. I went in for a physical, and my doctor wanted an ultrasound of the lymph nodes, and the verdict was that I have unknown allergies or I’m getting over something. Well, I haven’t had a cold since early 2019, unless what I’ve so painstakingly described here was a common cold. Even so, I was sick in February and March of last year. We’re coming up on a year.
My stamina is shot. I’m not a particularly active person, but I used to be able to walk FOREVER on level ground. That’s just not the case anymore. I’m sure sitting around working from home isn’t helping, but I do have a lingering shortness of breath that I find more embarrassing than debilitating. It could be related to my heart, or to post-COVID. I don’t know what to do about it.
And then, there’s the pain. Occasionally, maybe once a week, I’m overtaken by a burning pain right under my skin that can only be helped by lying down for fifteen minutes. It’s especially terrible through my neck and shoulders. It BURNS. I don’t know what this is, or if it’s related to COVID, but I’m hopeful that it will go away. That’s been steady all year.
But the worst part is the degradation of my taste and smell. I think I only realized how much I’d lost when it started to come back to me. I can taste most flavors again, but not all. I was one of those people to whom cilantro tasted like dirt, but it was so omnipresent in food that I started to like it, and then came to love it. I’m completely back to square one on cilantro; it tastes like dirt. Garlic is back after being completely absent. I’m still waiting on basil. I think it will come, I hope it will since that’s one of my favorite herbs. It’s so refreshingly pungent. Meat odors are iffy. I can sometimes smell red meat as it cooks. I can’t smell salmon.
Maybe this explains it: COVID-19 and the senses
Food is one thing, but people don’t smell right. I can’t find those warm and comforting smells I associate with my kids and grandkids; their hair, mostly, you know how everyone’s hair smells different? And sometimes I smell strange to myself, like I’m in a state of decay. That’s alarming. But like I said, it seems to be getting better day-by-day. I can smell all the dog smells again, which is gross but reassuring.
I’m actually excited when I smell something bad. It means my nose is working. But then, there’s the brain fog.
Last spring, after we got over the whatever-it-was, my husband and I seemed to take turns saying, “You know…” or “Hey, um…” or “Oh!” Then we’d just sit there, waiting, because whatever it was would vanish. This would happen three or four times a DAY to each of us. We were good-natured about it. We thought maybe it was related to age, or the lack of input in our new home-bound lives, in which there was nowhere to go and nothing to do besides work, watch TV, or sit on the back patio.
As we hit the year anniversary of him getting sick, I’m happy to say that he no longer does this. I still do it, but very rarely. But sometimes, more often than I want to admit, I have to stop and wait for specific words.
I know some of this comes with age and with menopause. During the worst of menopause, six to eight years ago, I lost a lot of basic vocabulary. For two years, I was reduced to saying things like, “The stuff you put in the washing machine to get your clothes clean,” or “The thing you put toilet paper on in the bathroom.” But that was temporary. It’s been five years since I had anything like that going on.
Guess what. It’s back.
The other morning, I spent two minutes trying to remember the word “cantaloupe.” I could only come up with “cauliflower.” But I was patient, lying in the dark before I got up, thinking, come on, Karen. It’s right next to honeydew, or muskmelon, or orange flesh melons, all of which you love, but you don’t like the one that makes the inside of your mouth itch, and that’s…cauliflower. Cauliflower? It’s not cauliflower. Its something else.
Finally, cantaloupe appeared. I felt such triumph. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. Cantaloupe! Which I don’t like to eat because it makes my mouth itch! But I’m so glad to have the word for it!
I’ve never been good with names, ever. But I can generally remember the names of people related to me, and the names of my friends and coworkers. Over the last year, I’ve had to reach and wait for the names of people I know very well. I lost my friend Guy’s last name. I love his artwork, and hadn’t seen it in my Instagram feed. I was wondering if the algorithm just hadn’t shown it to me, or if he’d stopped posting, so I needed to look him up. But I couldn’t remember his last name. I knew his sister’s last name, but that’s a married name. Guy’s was a blank. Finally, I got out my phone to scan my contacts, and thought, “Will it be under Guy? Or Edwards?” There you have it, his name was back.
And here’s his art, if you’re curious: Guy the brilliant Edwards
This is lessening, thank god. I think my brain is healing itself. Distant memories will come flooding back out of the blue. Especially first thing in the morning, I’ll be overwhelmed by the feel, smell, angle of light, birdsong of a childhood backyard. Song lyrics I’d thought were lost to time will bathe my brain. I’m once again able to sing the entirety of “Free Man in Paris” (and most other Joni Mitchell songs) without a gap. My theory is, parts of my memory were disconnected somehow by COVID, and it’s all returning. I’d like to believe I will get it all back; my memory, my sense of taste, my sense of smell, my stamina.
We shall see.
My Last Point in this endless argument with nameless, faceless friends
Currently, the CDC estimates there are three undiagnosed cases for every confirmed case in the US. My guess, rooted not in science but in my gut instinct, is that there are probably ten unconfirmed cases for every confirmed positive. Our testing ranged from unavailable to unreliable during the times it was most crucial to know our numbers. I also think massive amounts of people tested negative when they were positive. How else to explain people like a coworker of mine who quarantined with his COVID-positive 12 year old child. He was alone with his asymptomatic kid for two weeks, and he got deathly ill, and he tested negative (he has recovered, though he can’t run up the stairs easily right now).
I’m not a scientist. I don’t know everything. But I’m pretty sure my coworker had it. As did I. As did my husband, and my daughter, and another daughter I haven’t even talked about here who might have had it in December of 2019.
But I still have friends who don’t believe I had it, because I have no positive test for the virus or its antibodies to prove it. Some of them have grudgingly accepted that the virus might have been here in February, but when it comes to me having it, the most I’ll get from them is a “maybe.”
Except, there’s this news: It appears that COVID antibodies were present in the Red Cross donation samples in Oregon last fall. You can read about it here: COVID-19 antibodies in donated blood Blood donors on the West coast (including Oregon) had COVID-19 antibodies last fall, which means, of course, that they were sick with up to four months earlier.
COVID-19 was very definitely present in Oregon in January and February of 2020.
When I couldn’t possibly have had it.
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!