When did everyone start loving ranch homes? I remember when the battle cry for house hunting was “Anything but a ranch!” Ranches were plain, boxy, a capitulation to suburban living in all its mundane boredom.
I know, I know, it’s all because of Chip and Joanna Gaines. I like what they do so much that I can tell you the names of my favorite ranch home rehabs: Big Daddy’s House and the Worm Brick House. It’s not the décor so much–Joanna’s initial enthusiasm for flaking paint and patchy rust are not to my taste, nor are her more current themes of black metal and artificial flowers–but they take those houses apart and put them back together in such pleasing ways. When I watch House Hunters on HGTV (which I started to do a week after the last election, because MSNBC was making me lose my will to live) I am surprised at how many people go looking for ranches as their preferred style. Something has CHANGED, people.
As a house-hunter in the late 1980s, I was one of those people, of course. What I wanted more than anything was a Craftsman home with intact, unpainted woodwork. We (my ex-husband and I) even found one, but lacked the necessary fortitude to trust our guts and make an offer. That rundown Craftsman sat on a large lot, right next to a house we called “the Amway Dream Home.”
The Amway Dream Home was a new construction ranch that was landscaped with grass and red lava rock, like a military base. This house had been for sale forever for very good reasons. It was a yellowish tan shoe box with trim painted the color of the contents of a baby diaper. It had an oversized double-car garage with a room of some kind next to it (my ex would drawl, “that’s for the praw-duhct”). The front yard was dominated by an enormous satellite dish. This house was absolutely devoid of architectural detail or charm.
The complexities of how, why and from whom I bought the Amway Dream Home make a great story, but that’s a story for another day. Ranch homes have their charms, as EVERYONE SEEMS TO HAVE FIGURED OUT BY NOW. They generally have all the things missing in so many cuter, quainter styles, like entries, hallways, adequate bathrooms, laundry rooms, yards, storage, parking, and so on. It’s the sheer practicality of the ranch that won over a pragmatic person like me.
And have you ever been inside a really nice daylight ranch? These are also known as walk-outs and split backs, and that lower level is a goldmine of space and opportunity. As my family grew to two adults, three kids and a medium-sized dog, my one-level ranch felt increasingly cramped. I often longed for a walk-out. And eventually I got one, but not of the architectural variety–a marital walk-out is an entirely different matter, but at least the house was no longer so small, then.
Ranch home architecture features in the short passages that introduce the season changes in The Iris Files. These passages delight some readers, and baffle others. I call them them prose strophes, which is term I’ve coined to hide the fact that they are probably just indulgences. These poetic litanies have stayed in every version and draft of the book–even when a former literary agent asked me to remove them. “Are they really necessary?” she asked. Well, listen, is ANYTHING really necessary? If I were to hold up the filter of necessity to anything that is written today (by me or anyone else), it would all fade away. This leaves me with only one answer: these passages are necessary to me.
Here’s an example:
It’s a fall afternoon, in California.
California is the land of air conditioners. In the fall, California air conditioners work steadily, and the hot air of September is monitored, measured, drawn in, cooled off, pumped out, and re-circulated.
California women are all that, and waxed.
On a fall afternoon in California, the streets are full of the sons and daughters of the mighty hunters. These children are shuttled from school to practice to lesson to playgroup. Despite their busy schedules, these children occasionally find time to play.
When the shadows of the afternoon begin to lengthen, the women step out of their climate-controlled homes. They call their children in for dinner. And the women lift their expensively highlighted heads of hair, and wonder when and if their men will return home.
Ranch architecture is varied, but predictable. There are one-levels and tri-levels, walk-out basements and split entries. Everyone envies the tri-levels. Everyone despises the split entries. But people are divided on the walk-outs. No one knows if the walk-outs are a good thing, or a bad thing.
Nothing ever changes, in California.
I’m worshiping with words in these passages, and I’m worshiping the idea that each of these cookie-cutter homes is unique. If you were to step inside one of them, you’d see a thousand differences that tell the story of the lives lived within. Yes, there are bland and annoying people in every neighborhood, living in every kind of home. But I’m not convinced that any neighborhood in my city is more or less likely to hold annoying neighbors.
I have lived in my ranch home for thirty years, now. The bulk of my life has been spent at one address. For someone whose childhood was as fractured and nomadic as mine, this is a miracle. It’s also weird as hell to live in one house for thirty years these days. No one does it. Except–all around me, I have neighbors who have. We have lived here forever, side-by-side.
I used to feel the need to apologize for my determined rootedness. But then I found this sweet meme on Tumblr, and it made perfect sense to me.
I mean, if Simone Weil says so…
These days, my ranch home feels mighty spacious, as it holds only two tall people and two miniscule dogs. The dogs are old, but the man is sort of young. He’s younger than me, at least. We both feel the pull of other places, other ways of living once we retire. We talk about where we might buy next, send each other links to places we like that won’t even be for sale in ten years, but it doesn’t hurt to look, to plan, to speculate about where we might end up.
As it turns out, in addition to our many other areas of compatibility, we both have the same dream home–the aforementioned Craftsman with rooms full of intact dark brown woodwork, built-ins, you name it, we want it. I have no idea if we will ever live in a place like that. In all likelihood, we’ll get a boring condo that’s an excellent deal, because we’re both so practical.
But until pragmatism rears its head to ruin everything, it’s fun to dream together.
Photo by @macro_sighted
The Gentry books are here! Yes, that’s right, the first three volumes of the Gentry books are available for purchase (paperback) the e-books are delivering, and readers are checking in with positive, encouraging feedback.
The Gentry books are thinly disguised autobiographical novels about my life as a young male orphaned Catholic alcoholic school teacher on the Oregon coast. That’s supposed to be a joke, but it’s one I’ve told so many times that I have no idea whether or not it’s funny.
One of the main characters in this book, Gentry, is young, male, orphaned, alcoholic, and intensely religious. Most of my friends have noted that I am none of these. But that’s okay, because these are novels, not memoirs. Do you remember the golden age of the memoir? When the only books publishers were interested in were memoirs, or highly autobiographical novels? That’s how James Frey got into trouble. My adored Augusten Burroughs even caught some flack because apparently his therapist’s family didn’t have an electroshock machine hidden under their stairs (that was one of my favorite parts of Running With Scissors). I believe it was a malfunctioning vacuum cleaner.
My point, in so much as I ever have one, is that the Gentry books are not memoir in any way.
The ideas and characters for this story have been kicking around in my psyche for a long, long time. The first novel’s genesis was a vivid dream I had when I was nineteen. You’d be hard-pressed to see the similarities, aside from the coastal setting, between what my fevered mind spit out that night, and what’s between the covers of the Gentry books. Somewhere, the original dream is written down. Somewhere else, there’s a long, laugably awful short story, written out on lined notebook paper. My children must find and burn these upon my death, but I hope that first, they will have a long read and a good laugh before striking the match.
False starts, bad first drafts and endless edits later, the book is one I’m proud of. Gentry is not the only central character in the first book, The Tempation of Gentry. The book explores the relationships between a mother and her daughters, and the relationship between two sisters. I think those are fascinating and important relationships. They merit as many novels as can be written about them.
Now, I did have a relationship with my mother, and I do have a relationship with my sister. But the relationships portrayed in my books are not those relationships. Everything I’ve ever experienced in my own life ends up in a book, in one way or another, but it’s put through a blender with all the other things I’ve observed. The result is quite a mixture.
Think of it in terms of the Big Bang. All the matter and energy in the universe was present at that moment, and will be present until the end of time. We are all just recombinations of it. That’s how I write fiction, with a big bang.
So someone is going to read about a hidden yellow doll in this book, and remember hiding her sister’s yellow doll. But the girl who owned that doll, and the girl who hid that doll? They are not the sisters in this book. There are houses in this book that are very like houses where I’ve spent time, but those are not the houses featured in this book. My book’s houses are fictional, as are my book’s characters.
I am a woman who was quite bitter after her divorce, and I have a mother who was quite bitter after her divorce, and I have friends who were also quite bitter after their divorces. I know so many women who are some combination of bitter and divorced. But the divorced mother in this book is not any of those women, though of course she is the result of observing all of them.
My main question with Kathryn was, what would happen if you never got over your anger? I had a lot of bile drainage to accomplish after my divorce and it wasn’t a pretty process, but it was a necessary process. What would have happened if I’d never done it? I became a little obsessed with this question, and Kathryn is one of the results. What would it feel like and look like to devote your life to how you’ve been hurt? What shape would that twist your life into? Where does bitterness go if you don’t let it leave you? And what would make you want to do better?
The Gentry books can be found here: CLICK ME
These three books will make you laugh and they will make you cry–big snotty gasping sobs, I hope. I mean, isn’t that the dream, to reduce your reader to a fountain of tears? You have to have a goal in life, and I guess that’s mine. I HOPE YOU LOVE THEM.
In my book Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park, I have a character named Rhondalee LaCour who is absolutely insufferable. She’s a frustrated busybody who gossips and spies. She rains down storms of accusation and judgment on her husband. She pulls her granddaughter around by the arm, and possibly by the hair when no one is looking. She’s TERRIBLE. I can’t even describe how fun she was to write.
Now, not everyone can enjoy Rhondalee as much as her creator does, I understand that. But everyone who reads her identifies with one part of Rhondalee. And that is…
The Invisible Committee is a board that sits in judgment of Rhondalee’s actions, appearance, words, ambitions and marriage. Its existence is established during a very early scene in the book, while Rhondalee is vaccuming the courtyard of the trailer park’s clubhouse (it is covered with indoor/outdoor carpeting). “She ran the Kirby with ferocity, sucking up every trace of dust while laying our her thoughts to an Invisible Committee she’d mentally convened to hear her evidence and render a judgment as to her fitness as a wife and Tender’s failure as a husband.” The Committee hears her complaints, but stays silent as it becomes clear that Tender LaCour is indisputably in love with another woman.
I’ve been asked over and over who Rhondalee is based on, and the answer is, no one and everyone. She is a creation of my twisted sense of humor, written to satisfy the unadulterated glee I take in women behaving badly. But as distasteful as she is to so many readers, everyone seems to identify with her Invisible Committee. And why is that? Do we all believe there is some committee in the sky, watching and judging and issuing pronouncements on our lives?
After listening to my friends talk about it, I’ve decided that we do. It’s just located in different places.
Please understand, I was raised without the concept of Heaven and Hell. I was pretty creeped out when I found out about the idea at age eight. I remember sitting in a basement rec room, wood-panelling and all, with some Catholic friends explaining the lake of fire, and the Devil, and sin in great detail. I kept saying, “You really believe this stuff?” and shaking my head. You can’t imagine how absurd it sounded. The Devil was a Halloween costume, nothing more. And sin? The whole idea of sin? I went to church and Sunday school each week, I learned my Bible verses and sang my hymns, but I had never even HEARD of sin. But to my Catholic friends, this was all part of an invisible world, inhabited by unseen beings that included an utterly unfamiliar God; one who sat up in Heaven on a throne, watching and judging and somehow controlling the world with his judgment.
I am aware that a lot of people–a LOT–believe this way. I never could.
There is a modern, spiritual-not-religious alternative to the big man in the sky, which is the Universe. People need to listen to the Universe and these same people believe that the Universe speaks to them. The Universe is always trying to tell these people something, mostly around how important they are and how needful their endeavors are, be that a line of handmade stained-glass earrings or a CD of drumming and chanting or the like. The Universe isn’t as judge-y as some of our invisible committees, but it’s still out there–vast, concerned, instructive.
The Universe is infinite. I have a limited ability to comprehend infinity, but I know it’s BIG. I have a hard time believing that the cosmos is personally invested in my self-publishing endeavors. I remember watching The Tree of Life, a brilliant, baffling film that features the endless stream of prayer and supplication that pours from humanity into this cosmic infinity; all the guilt and hope and supplication and anguish we send up as a species, alternating with gorgeous shots of nebulae and stardust.
That’s the universe. I don’t think it cares whether or not I leave my e-books on Kindle Unlimited or not. But some believe the Universe is ALL OVER IT.
You don’t have to go into the Cosmos or up to Heaven to find invisible judgment. There are much more localized sources. In the olden days, in the fifties and sixties, the question was, “What would the neighbors think?” This concern seemed to spring up after the uproar of what Great Depression and WWII, when so many expectations were set aside in the name of survival. Women donned coveralls and made decisions and worked in factories and men were–gone. At war. Scarce.
When the men came home, America embraced conventionality like a religion. We invented the nuclear family–a great failed social experiment, in my opinion–and created suburbia. With suburbia came that old saw of a line, “What would the neighbors think?” Those neighbors didn’t have names or faces or any kind of distinct identity to add value to their judgment. But streets full of those invisible neighbors observed everything. Everyone was SURE of it.
I’ve read some beautiful, difficult books that deal with the judgment and oppression of early Suburbia.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates – The suburbs can be lethal.
The Weedkiller’s Daughter by Harriet Simpson Arnow – This novel is a perhaps overwrought and cliche-ridden, but it’s trying to convey something about the smothering sterility of suburban life. I like the author more when she’s writing about Appalachia, but I still feel this one is worth a read because it took on the burbs fairly early, and from the viewpoint of alienation from Nature.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham – This heartbreaking book is about several women through the generations, but the runaway suburban mother just grabbed me by the throat.
The Ice Storm by Rick Moody – A depressing look at WASPy alienation.
Three of these novels have been made into excellent movies. Then, there’s TV, specifically Mad Men. Who could forget the moment when Betty Draper went outside with the shotgun and started picking off ducks? Betty was such a casualty of suburbia. I waited through the entirety of the shown for her awakening, which never, ever came.
“What would the neighbors think?” was already more of a punchline than a true concern when I entered my teens. If you watch the movies of the era, there’s a general mockery of the idea. Some Bohemian young woman is always turning to her mother, to say, “Oh MOTHER, I KNOW, WHAT WOULD THE NEIGHBORS THINK?!?!?” Because this young woman with her center part and her miniskirt is liberated, and her dotty, repressed mother still cares, which makes her quaint at best and ridiculous at worst.
I always wondered who those neighbors were. I’m fairly certain that none of our many neighbors gave a damn what my family did when I was a kid, and if they did, we moved so often that we didn’t provide much interest for long. People my age would like to think that the women’s movement, the Watergate era and general consciousness-raising resulted in dismissal of conventional standards. And in some ways, things have changed. Though my novel The Iris Files is set in suburbia, nothing’s been the same out here since the 70s, and that’s a good thing, especially for Iris.
But our need to assume judgment never really went away. Because, now we have…
Welcome to our current social media parade, in which we are obsessed with how our lives come across to others: how they appear visually on Instagram, how eventful they seem when we check in on Facebook, how well our thoughts read on Twitter feeds. Why, some people even have BLOGS.
And for the first time, we have actual feedback, by way of likes or comments or replies. But we don’t know most of those people. They are not our neighbors, our coworkers. They are for the most part, invisible in our daily lives. All over the world, people are curating and preaching to and performing life for the eyes and ears of unseen, unknown strangers. The larger the following, the larger the performance.
It’s obvious to me that we crave the judgment of invisible others. If not God, then the Universe. If not the Universe, then the neighbors. If not neighbors, then the Internet.
Rhondalee is a middle-aged woman who manages a trailer park in the middle of nowhere. She has had her dreams crushed. Her life is tiny. It only matters to Rhondalee if her marriage falters, or her daughter never goes back onstage, or her community newsletter column goes unread. But when the Invisible Committee is watching, Rhondalee feels important. Her anger is forceful, her rage impactful. Her struggles matter.
I think so many people come up with the equivalent of an Invisible Committee because the alternative is humbling. The alternative to invisible judgment is your own invisibility. No one is watching you. No one has much of an opinion about how you live or who you love or where you shop or what you wear or drive or eat or consume for entertainment. No one outside your immediate family cares whether or not you have children. No one worries about when you’re going to finish your novel or make a success of your career or travel to New Zealand, or whatever metric you’ve set up to judge yourself against. No one is watching, no one is judging, and you are free to live your life just as large or as small as you choose to.
To some people, I imagine this feels terribly small and lonely. It’s just them, dancing for their dinners, trying to convince each other that their actions and opinions are terribly important to someone, somewhere. But to me? It is a calm, liberated place to be.
So if you have an invisible Committee, consider shutting it down. I am not sure what Rhondalee is going to do with hers, to be honest. She’s experiencing something like personal growth in book two. The days of her Invisible Committee might be numbered.
On December 6th, I lost my older brother to an array of medical woes that have been changing the shape of his life for the last ten years.
If I were to list for you what he endured, you wouldn’t believe anyone could. At birth, my brother got a bum ticket when it came to his body and health. But he lived life as large as he could within the bounds of his earthly container, and he fought long and hard for each day, no matter how much pain and discomfort it held.
Steve promised me that he wasn’t actually going to die. His specific promise was “Keith Richards, the cockroaches, and me.” Despite this promise, he’d been trying to die for a long time. Many times in the last ten years, we’ve been summoned as a family to make the hardest decisions, the final decisions. We’ve been asked to come to terms with his end and to prepare ourselves and wait. Every single time, he’d rallied in what was no less than a medical miracle.
After each of these events, Steve expressed, with some huffiness, his disbelief that the doctors expected him to die. He found it unthinkable and a little personally insulting. “They thought I was going to die.”
So in early December, when he came to the point where he was done fighting, none of us could believe it. We sat with him and waited, but at some point, he turned to the love of his life, Elaine, and whispered, “I wish we could just be alone. Just the two of us.” And though what he probably wanted was their life at home, with the cats and their favorite music and her gently preparing the simple meals he could eat, he also meant that he wanted to be alone with her as he struggled his way out of here. They did so much living that way. He loved his life with her.
Brother Steve died on the sixth of December. He died during my busiest month at work, the peak of deadlines and sales meetings and project coordination. And there’s that little thing called Christmas, which brings far-flung girls home to roost, and family gatherings, presents and parties and concerts. If you’re trying to avoid sitting alone with your grief, I recommend December. You can careen from distraction to distraction, especially if you can add the anxiety of writing an obituary and planning a memorial service on top of everything else. You can do so much to avoid your grief in December.
There are no good words for losing your brother. There just aren’t any. And I know it’s this “time of life” and all that, I’m in my late fifties and I know this is the season of loss, that all around me my friends are facing the same thing. As I said to my friend Kim years ago, we are designed to outlive our parents. That loss is survivable. But siblings? My big brother? Brother Steve? Even though I have been staring down the barrel of this for a decade, I still can’t stand it. So I planned him a pretty little memorial service with friends and family and a slideshow, my brother’s life projected on a wall, from his beginnings in California to his death in Portland. I had mostly my own photos to draw from, so there are many shots of my brother and I side-by-side, with our long hair and big noses and big smiles. Eventually, we both had big glasses.
You could always tell that Steve and I were related.
I dislike the sainting we do of people after they die. The polishing up and perfecting. My brother Steve, like any human being, was deeply flawed. He had sustained grievous injuries to his psyche, along with the life-long difficulties of his health. He was perhaps the most passive-aggressive person I have ever known, but as he said to me once, “Isn’t passive-aggressive better than outright aggressive?” Which made me laugh, even as it exasperated me.
He did things that drove me a little nuts, like ascribing long, complex motivations and desires to pets. He also had a unique mindset about the past that I can best explain this way; if it happened once to Steve, he saw it as always going on. So an isolated event loomed larger for Steve than it should have—having been followed home from school by a bully one afternoon, he remembered this as if he were followed home from school every single day. He extrapolated long, murky motivations from awkward social interactions, and had his feelings hurt accordingly. There was a tangle in there around his great big heart, mostly made of insecurity about whether or not people really loved him.
Trust me. People really loved my brother.
Steve had gifts that far outshone his flaws; a curious, brilliant, lively mind. Artistic and writing gifts of staggering proportion. A delightful sense of humor—playful and a little sharp, with a gleeful sense of mischief. And oh my gosh, could he converse. Steve focused on you when he was with you, and that gift of singular attention made him one of the finest conversationalists you would ever have the good fortune to know. I think he got both of these from our mother. Their conversations were epic. But if you really wanted to know Steve’s genius, you would find it in his relationship with music.
Steve’s involvement with music went so much further than just his own personal gifts. Yes, Steve had a voice like an angel from his earliest years. My aunt remembers him at age three, hearing things on the radio and then going over to my mother’s piano and picking out the tune by ear. He had a perfect soprano, she says. I remember when my mother was teaching him to play the guitar. Mom played the piano and the guitar, which she learned so she could play classical style, like Segovia. And it wasn’t easy for Mom to teach Steve—I have a distinct memory of her stern face, her cat eye glasses somewhat askew, as she worked and worked with him—but once Steve learned, he blew right past her in skill and devotion. Nothing made my mother more proud than when Steve surpassed her on the guitar.
So I remember my brother playing the guitar and singing. His voice, people, my brother’s voice. So high and clear and strong and beautiful. Singing at talent shows and in choir and in school assemblies and at his high school commencement, where he sang “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I was an adult before I understood the relationship between Steve’s weight and his incredible voice. All I knew was that when he was twenty, and he had the bariatric surgery to lose weight, his voice changed. He loved it, Steve enjoyed that his voice got a little lower, a little grittier, but I always missed that high tenor that rang like a bell.
Steve wrote songs, played in bands, picked up other instruments and learned them easily—banjo, mandolin, ukelele. Music formed the basis of his social life and it brought him Elaine, who he met on an Americana music board. You know how some people shut down and stop listening to any new music at some point in life, and there they are, back with Huey Lewis or whatever? That never happened to Steve. For his entire life, he was alive and curious and omnivorous in his musical tastes, and he shared them all with me. I’ve already written about how he brought home music that has always played a key role in my life and creativity.
But Steve was also my singing partner. Because of arthritis and illness, it’s been years since Steve could sing or play, but it always felt like, as long as he was alive, it might happen. We could still lift up our voices together on “Grievous Angel,” “Love Hurts,” “Six Blocks Away,” “Blackbird.” We sang together constantly. My voice is loud, so he often did harmonies while I took the lead. And Steve and I are both musical omnivores. The earliest songs I remember singing with him? The Beatles. We were always planning a CD, our CD that we would cut together and share with family and friends.
That CD won’t be made, now. I can’t believe I will never sing with my brother again. I can’t hold this in my heart.
I thought I could choose the music easily. Just start with the Beatles and come forward. But Steve loved so many styles of music, jazz and classical included. And like, Bjork. EVERYTHING. He listened like I eat—happily, with great curiosity and interest and openness to anything new. As a result, the thought of choosing music for his memorial service made my head spin.
Listen, I had figured out all the rest of it. Where to have it, and when, and who to include, and which photos to put on the board, and what should be on the table, and which flowers to bring, and food, and format. But the most important part of it was the MUSIC, and yesterday morning, I was sitting in my armchair crying because the day had arrived, and this was the most important part of the entire event and I hadn’t figured it out. How could I not have figured out the music for my brother’s memorial service?
I have always turned to Steve for music. We swapped songs like marbles. Have you heard—let me play—listen to this—you might like—All our LIVES we have done this. And Steve had curated a series of CDs for me that he called “Sweet Harmony.” There is a Sweet Harmony 1, 2, 3 and 4. These were the songs Steve wanted to sing with me on that mythic record that we were going to cut together, and never did. So I loaded those CDs into my shelf stereo, unplugged it, put it in a Winco bag and carried it to Nordia House. Steve chose the music for his own memorial service, after all. Gram Parsons, Lucinda Williams, Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, and the Beatles, too.
The other CD I chose was a compilation of two records by an obscure artist that Steve and I loved to distraction in 1974. She was a heroin addict and a hold-up artist who spent time in prison and found God and music and made something magical of all these ingredients. I believe she was the first artist ever signed by David Geffen. She made two records that were not commercial successes, and died poor and alone. Her music is haunting, sacred, and strange. She has that singular musical sensibility of Dennis Wilson—swooping and eerie and deeply personal. It makes the hairs on my arms stand up.
So I had that playing while people arrived. We were going to have some light catering by Broder Soder, and as Casey from Broder was setting out the food, he lifted his head and said, “Are you playing Judee Sill?”
We find our consolations where we can. Despite these times when I am left alone with my grief, my tears, and these songs my brother left me, and this emptiness where he should be. This has to be survivable, too.
When I was 11, and my brother was 16, and our sister was 13, the three of us were sitting around a kitchen table in a ratty little house on a rundown farm outside Booneville, Arkansas. We were strange kids, all too smart for our own good, exhausted by the burdens of being outsiders, but strangely proud of it. Our childhood honed us, made us sharp and keen. And I said, “I don’t want to go to Heaven, and I don’t want to go to Hell. I want to start my own place.” My brother and sister loved this idea. After some discussion, we decided we’d name it “Joe’s Bar & Grill.”
So, Brother Steve, I will see you there, at Joe’s Bar and Grill. Please stock the jukebox with all my favorites.
Please bring your guitar.
My novel is up at Amazon, and I’m THRILLED with my final cover.
Yes, the desperate housewife is out and ready to make you laugh. And, maybe, cry a little. I’m excited to have an author interview in here, and book group discussion questions, and I love my beautiful cover that shows Reba, the matriarch of Iris’s little clan of wiener dogs.
See it here: The Iris Files: Notes from a Desperate Housewife
I have a poem up at Panorama, the Journal of Intelligent Travel. That’s an excellent place to place a poem that draws on travels with my mother.
I was only 32 when I went to Italy with Mom. She would only be 55, then, in this photo taken by me on that trip.
Mom loved expensive handbags and good haircuts. This photo shows both, as well as the length and grace of her arms, and her beautiful smile. She’s standing outside the door of the Tempietto Longobardi in Cividale, Friuli, Udine.
This was taken before the Temple of the Longbeards became a UNESCO world heritage site. Mom and I were able to go in and look around in a way that you just can’t, now.
The temple was built in about the eight century, very soon after they left paganism and became Christians. It may be the only remaining Longobardi (Scandinavian) church. It was built on the site of an old Roman house with scavenged Roman columns, but the choir stalls are purely Scandinavian looking, which thrilled me. I have breed recognition for anything Scandinavian.
While we were there, I rented an audio tour, a lovely recording by a woman with a cool British accent. In describing the frieze, the narration said that they were “suave and mysterious.” No one really knows who these figures are supposed to be, but the commentary referred to them as them as “six virgin martyrs, bearing the gift of their lives to Christ.” Accurate or not, I loved that description so much, it made the hair rise on my neck.
This trip with my mother wasn’t easy at times. I’d recently found and started contact with my birth father, and she had so much anger over it. There were times on this trip when she descended into harangue, trying to leverage my love for her into hatred for him. Irresistible force, meet immovable object. No one on earth is as stubborn as I am.
But those harangues were spaced out over the course of three weeks. In between stretched days of Italy’s wonders, the sweet smoker’s voice of my history teacher mother in my ear, gently explaining what was noteworthy, special and important about whatever we were seeing with her trademark intelligence, wit, and barely perceptible lisp. Today is the anniversary of Mom’s death. I’d give just about anything to hear her voice again.
Read the poem here: Directions to the Six Virgins
I’m going to start out by saying that my daughter has given me permission to write about the delivery and birth of my first grandson.
So, my daughter was overdue. She sailed through her pregnancy with perfect blood pressure, minimal weight gain, healthy habits and (mostly) good humor, interspersed with what she called her “hormone flares,” when lightning bolts shot out of her eyes and she hated everything and everyone. Aside from those, she was doing great, even when she went past her due date by a week. She was due on Friday, and the next Friday, at her doctor’s behest, she arrived at the hospital at midnight to begin the process of having labor induced. When she checked in, her blood pressure was at stroke/seizure level. The dreaded gestational diabetes had arrived.
I didn’t know this. The plan was that I’d sleep as usual on Thursday night, and hop up to the hospital with a paperback book and my phone charger in my purse. There, I would join my daughter and her boyfriend for the birth, which I assumed my tall, athletic daughter would handle with no trouble at all. The best-laid plans, yes?
So I arrived, and heard about the blood pressure, which I could see on a little screen that monitored her erratic, weak contractions, and the beating of my grandson’s heart. This blood pressure was scary. The nurse assured me that an epidural would bring it way down, but before that she needed to move into real labor. She just wasn’t there yet.
As a veteran of one completely natural birth and two predominantly natural births, I am under the impression that I know what I’m doing. And maybe I do, but I only know what I’m doing in non-medicalized births. My first labor was a rough walk—and I mean a literal walk, because at some point I got up and began to walk around and they really had to convince me to get back into bed—and my second and third deliveries were induced in hospital to avoid precipitous delivery. That’s how we do things on my side of the family after the first one comes. We go fast and hard. I know this from family lore.
My mother, a second child, was born in the front seat of a truck. During a freak snowstorm in June, my grandparents’ car went into the ditch on the way to the hospital. They were picked up by a bachelor farmer, and at some point my grandmother reached down, pulled her coat up between her knees and caught my mom. Grandma was embarrassed but I suppose that farmer was, too. I’ll tell the story of my grandmother’s third child another time—it’s great. A generation later, my brother took a reasonable time to appear, but my sister and I were born quickly. And I took the usual amount of time to have my oldest, but my second was a three-hour affair. Labor with my youngest daughter took 44 minutes.
So this was the legacy I thought I’d have passed on to my daughter. And apparently I couldn’t have been more blithely mistaken. When I arrived up at the hospital, she’d been taking Misoprostol for eight hours, without much progress. And they didn’t want to start Pitocin yet. So we spent some hours watching her progress, and talking, and laughing, but really being scared each time that BP cuff inflated and gave us scary numbers. Finally, they offered her some Fentanyl. She took it, knowing it would help with BP and anxiety and pain, but she haaaaated how it made her feel. Sorry, all you opiate lovers out there, but there are people who despise that rush and I am one of them. So is my daughter. But it relaxed her.
We did some walking around the ward. Walking is a good thing to get contractions going, and she had been training for this for months before she and her C started trying for a baby, so we walked a good half a mile or so. This got the contractions started, and we returned to the room and did the breathing that you do, that natural childbirth stuff I remembered from 27 years earlier, because you really can’t forget it. The contractions were really hurting her.
When she asked for her epidural, we all were relieved, knowing it would bring down her blood pressure. But here’s the thing. It also slowed her progress. I remember watching the monitor that showed baby’s heartbeat and my daughter’s contractions. It’s interesting that the monitor showed her lines, and then the lines of the woman laboring in the room directly next to her. It was pretty easy to tell when her neighbor was delivering–the contractions do something dramatic at that point, they go from modest, regular hills to Grand Tetons to the Swiss Alps, a big jagged mountain range that drops off suddenly–and I said, “Looks like your neighbor beat you.” My daughter said, “Remarks like that don’t help, Mom.” At that point, I guess I thought I could still be flip.
It was so cold in there, but she didn’t mind, so I dealt with it. When I say cold, I mean freezing. When I say freezing, I mean Arctic. And they kept hooking her up to stuff, and running monitors and lines and so on, and she bravely, stoically consented to all of this because how else do you get that baby out? I stopped being flip and became concerned. I would go out into the lobby occasionally to warm up, and I called T at one point and just softly poured out my concerns. He listened, and he would definitely have patted my hand had he been there, but it was enough just to let out my worries. I was okay. The morning turned into an afternoon, and the afternoon into an evening. I spent that night with them, sleeping in a chair while C slept on a bench/bed that was positioned under the window and under the air duct that kept pushing up a relentless stream of icy air on our heads all day and night.
I dozed, then would wake up and watch her contractions, which evened out as she slept (I thought they had stopped, but the monitor was in the wrong place). I didn’t remark on the appearance of a new neighbor, whose contractions didn’t look very impressive, either. I was so cold that night. And so worried. At some point, C woke up and went to take a shower (I am assuming to WARM UP) and he steered me to the bench, where I slept for two hours under that damn icy air. I apparently kept myself from waking up with a form of lucid dreaming–I kept dreaming cold dreams, like I was asleep in a chest freezer, or I was tied to the wings of a bi-plane with icy air current flowing over me, and the like. This allowed me to sleep instead of waking up to shiver.
Morning was a relief. Except of course the neighbor’s contractions did the towering peaks thing they were supposed to do, and my daughter’s stayed as gentle and rolling as hills. She was starting to feel like she was doing something wrong, because she just wasn’t dilating. All the loving support from her C, all my motherly ministrations wouldn’t hurry along the process. At 5:30 AM, they broke her water, warning her that she might get an infection. And we waited for that to make a difference. But each thing they did to her seemed like it pushed away the possibility of a regular birth, until the idea of her pushing out a baby was a tiny ship on the horizon, so far away from whatever was happening in that room.
Later in the morning, T brought me a bag with my heart medicine, toiletries and a Pendleton blanket. I sat with him in the blissfully warm lobby, telling him everything while he listened with love and care, then returned to the deep freeze labor room where I cleaned up, BRUSHED MY TEETH THANK GOODNESS, and wrapped myself in the blanket. I wasn’t sure if it gave me the gunslinger air of the Man With No Name, or maybe it gave me and air of some hippie doula lady who was wearing the blanket to usher in the birth with the help of the Universe and its blessings. I kept that blanket wrapped around me tightly. It saved me from frostbite, I think. And my daughter and C stayed calm and brave as she began gently, finally, to make some progress.
Is there any worse feeling than being in hard labor for over 24 hours, and being told you haven’t made any progress? I don’t know. I could have given birth in a field while chewing on a leather strap, then gotten up and gone back to work. I had no idea what to say, what to do, how to help. I just stayed calm and held her hand and watched that monitor, watching for peaks. C had gone out into the hallway to ask the nurses what they thought, and heard one saying something to the effect of, “You know what I’m afraid of? I’m afraid that after all this, she’ll push for two hours and we’ll have to section her anyway.”
After all that work? Worry? Waiting? No. Not fair. But that little ship seemed even farther away. I could almost see the sailors waving at us, wishing us well with the Caesarean. Maybe next time, they said. And my kids would have done it, their goal was a healthy, whole baby, not a natural delivery. But she’d worked so hard. They both had. Was major surgery the only option?
To their credit, not one of the nurses, the doctor, or the midwife ever mentioned a C-section. But it was out there. I knew that if she didn’t have the baby by 5:30 am the next morning, they would take him 24 hours after they broke her water. The staff encouraged her to keep trying, and she did. I wish I’d taken notes, I really do. Because it was such an ordeal, amplified by fear, multiplied by the sheer hours we’d been there. But then, finally, after another day had turned to another night, after she’d gotten a temperature and had to start on two IV antibiotics, after an hour when C had ducked out to try to find something to eat and the epidural failed her, my daughter and I sat quietly, doing the breathing while the terrible contractions of active labor overtook her.
I knew she was making progress, because this is how my own first labor had progressed. Hours of labor. Nothing, nothing, nothing, and boom. A lot of progress in a short time. When C returned and the midwife checked her again, she was almost there. And after a very kind and sweet anesthesiologist came in and re-relieved her pain (I cannot be thankful enough for how carefully he listened to her, how gently she advised her, how sweetly he encouraged her), after the table full of draped birth supplies was rolled in, our matter-of-fact and encouraging midwife said she could push a little.
C hadn’t told me about what he’d overheard in the hall, but I believe it steeled him to be the best, strongest coach he could be for the pushing. He held one of her hands and pulled back one of her legs, and I took the other. It was just us and a nurse at that point. And after she did push a little, it was clear the baby was descending. I mean, he was arriving. C said, “We need some more people in here.” I thought it might take longer, but somehow, he just knew his son was imminent.
The midwife came back in, in they took the drape off the birth supplies and took the bed apart and made it into a delivery table and ushered in the NICU staff (there because my daughter gave birth in the high-risk area). And she pushed and we cheered and she pushed and the baby began his descent into the world, he was coming and it was happening, slowly but surely and irrevocably, all of us cheering and watching and hoping and that little head appeared and retreated and appeared a little more, and when I got too tired to pull on that leg another doctor took hold, and after fifty minutes of effort and encouragement, my daughter curled up like a potato bug one last time and pushed and then he was there, this long jumble of baby and cord and limbs and head and shoulders, his head a cone and his forehead scratched from battle, but she did it, all that work and he was finally there, 11:11 PM, just 49 minutes short of 48 hours after they got the hospital.
My grandson is the most amazing little thing in the universe to me right now. Beloved, precious and perfect. 8 lb 7 oz and 22 inches, for those of you who would like to know the dimensions. Eye color is still a mystery, hair is soft, silky, blond/brown. He looks like my daughter and C both, and he has the longest legs and squarest shoulders. Everyone is settled in and doing fine, especially since her milk came in. This is a new venture for me, this grandparent thing.
I really can’t wait to watch my grandson grow.
It’s time for a cover reveal for that book I was going on about; here it is! Well, a draft of it, anyway. This beautiful cover (featuring Reba, the Dachshund matriarch) was designed by the fantastic Mark Ferrari. The cover has me so excited!
The book will be live soon. Here is the synopsis, so you know what’s in store:
“I have five kids. I don’t have time to be happy.”
Each day, Iris Bourne runs a gauntlet in the California suburbs: dealing out meals with the ease of a professional card shark, scaling mountains of laundry, acting as judge and jury for sibling battles, negotiating bedtime with the skill of a career diplomat.
Iris has time for exactly one hobby—entering contests—and she’s just won a trip for two to Hawaii. She’s ready for a taste of Paradise, but her husband, Hart, keeps spoiling the mood by asking her if she’s happy. Happy? Iris has no time to be happy. When Hart announces that he is not, her life becomes even more complicated.
With nonstop humor and heartbreaking honesty, Iris navigates parenthood, loss, new romance and the burdens of caregiving. Most importantly, she learns the lessons and limits of forgiveness. Readers will laugh, cry, and cheer as Iris rallies friends and family to defend her glorious, messy, beautiful suburban life.
I’ll have an ordering link soon. Watch this space for further developments.
Yes, I’m going to make a book announcement about The Iris Files. Yes, it’s actually going to be called The Iris Files: Notes from a Desperate Housewife. Yes, I’ll talk more about that book in a minute. But first, I want to talk about…
I never wanted a yard, but I have one. I wanted a big house on a small lot, but my ex-husband wanted the reverse and he won. But then he left, and here I am on this junior acre, twenty years later. My yard is TERRIBLE. Various broken stragglers lean here and there like emaciated beggars in a third world city, begging to be pruned or moved or just dug up and put out of their misery. I’m not a yardwork person, and so this is just how it’s going to be until I give up and buy a condo.
As I mentioned, I still live in the house I bought with my ex-husband. He was my second husband, and I have this tendency to call him my ex-husband, instead of my second ex-husband. It’s embarrassing to have two of those, and since he is the father of my children, he’s the ex-husband who counts. So he is heretofore referred to as my ex-husband.
Back when we bought this house, it had minimal landscaping. It was basically Kentucky Bluegrass (a terrible choice for Oregon) bordered by long channels of red lava rock. Like a military base. The only flowers were bearded irises. MASSES of bearded irises, rising in a long line up the walkway. Yellow, purple, maroon, with a few of the purple and white, blooming madly and emitting their toothpaste smell as I went to my front door. They were not my kind of flower—I prefer the more delicate wild iris—but the bearded blooms have a certain acromegalic majesty. Our iris display was dramatic enough to draw commentary from passers by.
Over the six years that my ex and I shared this home, we tried valiantly to find plants and flowers that would thrive in the horrible clay soil of our yard. We added some rhodies, which still wither in the reflective heart of the driveway to this day. We tried roses, which have somehow survived the heinous neglect I have subjected them to. Neighbors gave us gorgeous white calla lily bulbs, which did fine for years. But of course, like irises, lilies must be unearthed and divided now and then. Guess who didn’t do that after her husband moved out? That’s right. The death of the irises is all my fault.
But not all the Irises have died!
Some years after my divorce, I wrote a book about a woman named Iris. It’s about a failing marriage, and I probably thought it was too personal to publish. No, my name is not Iris. I do not have five children, nor do I have four dogs. But in too many ways, it is the most personal book I will ever write. And it is going live soon.
The Iris Files is coming out for these reasons:
I will soon have a cover and a link for preorder and all the things one must have in order to make a book real. Until then, read something else and pray for my yard. Thanks.