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The Dune Deep Dive

Dune Week

Image by Greg Montani from Pixabay

So, we’ve been engaging in Dune Week here at my house. The conversations started a couple of months ago, when they set the official release date of the new movie.

Oh yes. There were “conversations.” However, these conversations were mostly one sided, and consisted of me saying, “I don’t care what’s going on with COVID, I want to see this one in the theater” (insert patient but noncommittal husband-nod here).

And a week later, I’d hear about another cast member, and say, “Oh my gosh, what a perfect Paul/Leo/Duncan he’ll make!” (insert another patient but only mildly interested nod from husband here). 

“Timothee Chalamet? Charlotte Rampling? Oscar Isaac? Zendaya? Jason Momoa? How could we not see this in the theater?” (insert additional patient husband nods, with occasional murmurs that might be assent or might simply be pleasant noises).

Are you getting the idea that this might not have been quite as important to my husband as it was to me? I’m glad you’re getting the idea, because I refused to. I sometimes fail to notice that my levels of enthusiasm, which can be quite high, are not shared with quite the same fervor by my husband, who has his own interests (Jerry Seinfeld, the MCU, and so on).

It was like my attempt to alert him to the very important fact that Norse raiders apparently came to Newfoundland 1,000 years ago! So important! Pay attention! He looked at me, mildly puzzled but polite, nodded, and went back to his own screen. Luckily, my sister called right that minute to tell me she’d just read some very important news about the Vikings, and I could stop bothering my husband and geek out with her.

My husband has never read Dune, he has no Dune connections or Dune interest, but he’s had to absorb all this Dune fervor. He’s fine with it.

My Dune History, Chapter One

I read Dune Messiah when I was in college the first time, so, 1979-80. I didn’t care that it was a sequel, I somehow had obtained a copy of book number two, so I read book number two. I will give out no spoilers, but suffice it to say, Paul was not my favorite character in Dune Messiah. Those of you who know, know.

I loved that book but I didn’t understand how radical it was. Herbert’s vision of a computerless future wasn’t exactly unthinkable back when computers were large things that took up entire rooms and computed formulae for going to the moon. We benefited from computers back then, but most of us were blissfully unaware. The idea of living without computers is much more radical now, when we spend our days looking at phones that would hold the contents of the Library of Congress, thanks to the Internet.

At the time, I did recognize how impossible intergalactic travel would be without computers, so I grasped the importance of Dune’s spice. This might be a book about feudal succession on a remote mining colony (as a recent reviewer pointed out), but the stakes are high. They’re not just extracting bauxite.

As much as I loved Dune Messiah, I never got around to reading Dune.  Many years later, I read one of the books written by (or with or under the direction of) Herbert’s son, in which many of the fantastic characters from his father’s books are cloned and brought back to life. The less said here, the better.

I finally read Dune last year. Well, part of it. It’s somewhere around the house. I’ll get to it.

My Dune History, Chapter Two

This starts a little further back, in high school. I had a friend, Steve, who auditioned for several plays at our school and was never cast. I have no idea if Steve was any good at acting, but that probably didn’t matter. Despite being very good-looking, deeply intelligent, and witty as hell, Steve was openly gay and came from the wrong side of the tracks. Those things mattered at our brutally classist high school.

Another key factor in Steve not getting any roles was that the important male parts at our high school were taken by a tall, handsome, gifted young actor who was a year ahead of us. He was generally nice and generally liked, and to add insult to injury, he had a decent singing voice. It infuriated Steve that if there was a role, and this other high school thespian wanted it, Steve was not going to get it.

So, sometime in 1983, I got a letter from Steve, because people used to write letters back in the olden days. He wrote to tell me that our former schoolmate who got all the good parts in high school was going to be playing Paul Atreides in the upcoming movie version of Dune. Steve’s letter crackled with rage and scathing epithets, including but not limited to “apple-cheeked,” “talentless,” and “schlub.”

I thought, Oh whatever, Steve, Kyle was great in My Fair Lady.

I settled in for the long wait between hearing about Dune, and actually seeing it. And then, of course, I saw it. Afterwards, I completely blanked it out of my memory. I couldn’t remember it, and I also couldn’t remember if I liked it or not. There were vague images of Sting in a padded, pointy Speedo, and the ever-present roses in Kyle MacLachlan’s cheeks. That was it.

Which brings us to now.

We just finished Dune Week. It started on Thursday.

On Thursday night, we watched the Jodorowsky’s Dune documentary. I wish you’d all watch this. It is fascinating, horrifying, hilarious. It was Jodorowsky’s goal to create a ten-hour movie that would affect a spiritual transformation of the world.

No, seriously.

It’s okay that he never brought his vision to life, because hearing him talk about what he wanted to do is more entertaining than whatever botched debacle he would have brought to the screen. Really.

Or who knows, if the funding had come through, maybe he would have done it, even though he would have taken obscene liberties with the source material, and almost totally excised women from one of the few 1970s science fiction epics that gave women extensive and critical roles. Who knows?

Husband and I listened and watched and gasped and howled with laughter. It was all INSANE. You think Terry Gilliam has loopy visions? Go watch this. He makes Gilliam look like Mr. Rogers.

I won’t give you any spoilers. I wouldn’t dream of depriving you of the moments when he reveals his jaw-dropping casting choices. But if you have any familiarity at all with Dune and its universe, or even any curiosity about it, please watch this. It’s 3.99 on Amazon, and it’s so worth it.

On Friday, I asked the husband, are you game for Lynch’s Dune? He’d never seen it. He said, sure, but the reviews are eeeech. I assured him that I didn’t remember it as howlingly terrible, I maybe even liked it, but I couldn’t remember because that was 40 years ago and my mind rarely holds on to movies and TV.

We started watching with open minds. It began with a voice over that was supposed to dispel confusion but somehow created it, and the guitar-heavy Toto score played over the opening credits, and there we were in a throne room straight out of Oz. A braid-bedecked emperor on the throne, a princess in a pretty gown with a bodice, royal retainers with odd little beards and places on their faces and ears that were mended with metal, like the Oz tinker had been working on them.

So far, so good.

The mood changed when some bald people wearing sleeping bags who spoke into vacuum cleaners wheeled in an enormous fish tank full of smoke, in which floated a gigantic tardigrade that spoke through a little puckering orifice and threatened the Emperor. Something about how he needed to start a war, or end a war, or keep the spice flowing, or something. I was too transfixed/repelled by the puckering orifice to pay attention to the words.

This whole scene looked like the most expensive episode of the old Flash Gordon serial ever filmed. Aesthetics change and old sets didn’t have the benefit of CGI, but this looked bad on purpose. Like Lynch, with his warped sense of humor, had actually said to his set designer, “Let’s make it look like the most expensive episode of the old Flash Gordon serial ever filmed.” And they did. And they laughed.

It was all too much for my husband. He responded by falling asleep, but no, he was not allowed that escape hatch, no sir, this was Dune Week and we were in this Dune Week together, so I woke him up.

We began to hate-watch in earnest. And there was so much to hate! Costumes assembled from materials not suitable for recycling and the contents of a great-grandmother’s sewing room. Pustules galore. Big thudding “oof” noises when blows landed during a fight, like in the 1960s Batman TV series, and oh my gosh, the space special effects? What about the space special effects?

Can anyone adequately explain the space special effects?

This movie was made AFTER the first Star Wars, do people realize that? It wasn’t made in the 1960s, no matter how much it looks like it. There were gifted special effects artists available for hire, and not all of them worked for George Lucas. So why does this movie look like it was made with electric razors, classroom overhead projectors, and a couple of flashlights?

Now, let’s talk about the acting.

I’d like to point out some of the fine actors in this movie, and my impressions of their performances.

  • Kyle MacLachlan is a youthful and earnest and convincing Paul, until Paul loses his emotions and becomes a very handsome coat rack. But remember, he is the coat rack that will save the planet!
  • Patrick Stewart shouts a lot at everyone in a Shakespearean manner. Very shouty, very Shakespearean. No one else is acting in this style. Was he perhaps in a different movie than the rest of the cast? Could I perhaps see that movie, instead?
  • Virginia Madsen isn’t given a thing to do besides look beautiful in her costume. Uness you count the confusing voiceover. She does do that.
  • Jurgen Prochnow is solidly, stolidly, robotically Teutonic until his death scene, in which he muffs a very important job while sweating. The end.
  • Oscar winner Linda Hunt skulks around on the steps, lurking at the edges of various rooms, squinting and hissing mysteriously, then dies.
  • Max von Sydow carries off his role with dash and flair, making me wonder if he was also in a different movie. Perhaps the same one as Patrick Stewart. And again, I’d like to see that movie.
  • Francesca Annis is not bad, really, but not good, either. I found her alternately too contained and then gaspingly over the top, though glowingly regal at all times.
  • Kenneth Macmillan is properly grotesque as the Baron, and I will never forgive him for some of the grossness I had to witness during his scenes.
  • Sting. He has a knife, a wild haircut, and three lines. His abs have more lines than he does, so how can I judge his performance?

BUT.

  • Richard Jordan. Oh, Richard Jordan. Listen, Duncan Idaho’s part is trimmed down in this version to where it’s almost gone. All he has time to do is show up and make us believe that Paul loves him and wants to be him. That is Duncan Idaho. And in his brief, shining moments on the screen, Richard Jordan gives us that Duncan Idaho. I have nothing snarky to say about this performance or the actor who gives it.

Let me make it clear. These are talented actors, and there are MORE sprinkled over and stirred into this movie, like Brad Dourif and Sean Young and Jose Ferrer. And when a movie has this many fine actors delivering uniformly dreadful performances, there is only one person to blame.

Looking at you, David Lynch.

You, with all the things I don’t like about your work. The strange, aimless, disconnected young women characters you create, composed of seductive makeup and secret lives and sexual violence. Your insistence on using physical difference and homosexuality as signifiers for evil. Your taste for macabre humor that is so bizarre and unsettling that your audiences never know if it’s all right to laugh.

I left you alone long ago, and watching this movie made me remember why.

Saturday

At this point it must be clear that if I made my husband sit through a long documentary about a creative madman, and a longer movie made by a creative madman, we were definitely going mask up and go to the noon showing of Villeneuve’s Dune in some deserted suburban theater.

And we did.

I had hopes with this movie, based on Villeneuve’s skill in bringing one of my favorite short stories, Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life, to screen as Arrival. This is difficult source material about how learning a new way to communicate can alter your life and make you live it all at once. I mean, I think that’s what this story is about, so how do you put that on a screen and call it a movie? If he could do that, I trusted Villeneuve would be able to translate Dune into a comprehensible movie.

Plus “Timothee Chalamet? Charlotte Rampling? Oscar Isaac? Zendaya? Jason Momoa?” I mean, come on!

Yes, as previously mentioned, this is a movie about feudal succession on a remote mining colony. It is not an allegory about colonialism, it is an actual story about colonialism. It’s a big old White Savior mega-movie that is always sweeping and sometimes ponderous. But even for someone who has read (some of) the book, it can be electrifying and suspenseful. Just ask my husband’s right hand, which I clawed to death while climbing out of my skin at key moments.

You’ve heard about the special effects, which are unparalleled, and the score, which is wild and weird and unsettling. This movie throws you off balance and overwhelms you, it slings you over its shoulder and transports you through the vastness of space, to different worlds that feel so real, you can smell them.

That being said, it also absolutely nails the domestic details: worn edges of beloved books, a well-laid breakfast table, dust on an ancient knickknack Paul studies, trying to understand his heritage.

Against this visual and aural backdrop, the actors do what actors do, which is to make us forget they are actors. Excellent casting helps. Timothee Chalamet was born for this role. He’s a strong, whip-thin boy who fights, then accepts his destiny. I’d be worried about what he could do after this—where do you go after playing the Messiah?—but I just heard he’s going to play Prince Hal, and that might be even better casting.

Everyone is good to great. Everyone. Even Mr. Momoa (good, and that’s great).

But Lady Jessica is the standout. In a story about family bonds, it’s hard to imagine a more crucial character than the mother. She is mother all the way through; passionately devoted to her son’s father, but ferociously guarding the life of her son Paul, for so many reasons besides biology. I think Rebecca Ferguson deserves an Oscar.

I declare this movie the winner.

So, that wraps up Dune Week. Thank you for coming to my TED talk. And thanks to my husband for enduring my terrified writhing at the theater yesterday. Let’s hope that in a couple of years, there’s a Part Two, so he can go through it all again. Maybe for that one, we’ll watch the miniseries.

Mean Girls

I was never a mean girl.

But I have known a few mean girls in my life.

As a child I was shy, and then, when people got to know me, I was goofy and overly loving. This wasn’t a formula for social success, but that didn’t matter much in the tiny town of Claremont, South Dakota, where my memories of life begin. You only had a few choices as far as children your age to play with. I always had friends. I remember running up to one of them on the playground at Claremont’s tiny school and hugging her and saying, “I just love you so much!”

This is near Claremont, and I will fight anyone who says SD isn’t beautiful.

I’m still this way about friendship. Puppyish and delighted. I find myself thinking, “Dial it back, Karen, don’t be so effusive!” But no matter how much I try to be cool about it, I haven’t changed much in the intervening years, despite my interactions with some…

Really. Mean. Girls.

Surviving Edina

This story starts in December of 1970, when we moved from Rapid City, SD, to Edina, Minnesota. At the time, Edina was the most prosperous suburb of Minneapolis, and my prosperous uncle lived there, so of course that’s where we absolutely had to live according to my mother.

Edina, Minnesota is a bad place to be poor.

At first we rented the parsonage of my uncle’s church, which wasn’t an auspicious debut to Edina society, but there we were, the poor relations from South Dakota. My sister and I were enrolled in the same grade school, where the social hierarchy seemed to be centered on a playground slide called the “barn door.”

Let me describe this thing to you, please.

The barn door was a huge piece of metal set at an angle, like a 12-foot wide slide. There were ladders at each end, and a thick pole attached across the top. The idea was, you’d climb a ladder and shinny out on that pole, then slide down, landing I-don’t-know-how because it was really steep. The other side was just an empty drop to the playground.

I’m not making this up and I’m not describing it very well, but I ran it by my sister and she confirmed that this was real. Before I asked her, I spent ten minutes Googling “dangerous old playground slides.” I’m properly horrified, but I didn’t find an example.

So, back to the barn door.

No one actually used this as a slide. It was more like a set for a grade school production of Lord of the Flies. Kids would edge out onto the pole and straddle it like birds on a wire, clinging to their perch, crowing and jeering while the kids beside them tried to shove them down the slide. Other kids scrambled up the face of the slide and dragged the pole sitters down, something like the zombies swarming the wall in World War Z.

I was a retiring child, but I did love a challenge. That spring I’d gotten myself up there, which was nearly impossible to do because this playground feature was always mobbed. An older girl yanked on my coat to drag me down and I told her she was a ding-dong. So that’s what they called me. They were three nameless, faceless older girls who bullied me. I’d be walking down the hall minding my own business and one of them would see me and shout out “DIIIIIIIING-DOOOOOONG” and the others would join in.

There went my day.

I never made friends at this school and was desperately lonely. When summer came, I played with my sister and her friend Susan, or hung out in the basement where my brother’s room was, and we played Matchbox and Hot Wheels for hours. I was basically fine. That’s how it always was, right? Three weird kids moving somewhere new, enduring their time of being social pariahs by retreating into imaginative play. That was us.

A Fresh Start.

That summer, my parents bought a little Craftsman house in what felt like (to me) a neighborhood of sprawling contemporary fantasy castles. We were still in Edina, but our new home was in a better school district and a fancier neighborhood. I know the prevailing wisdom was to “buy the worst house in the best neighborhood.” But that means you’re always going to be the poorest people in the neighborhood.

That’s what we were, there in our tiny house with 1940s bark cloth wallpaper we couldn’t afford to replace, because my (then) stepdad immediately got laid off or fired, and my mother was newly pregnant and she certainly wasn’t going to go back to work. In contrast, our neighbor had an indoor swimming pool. And a sauna. And five kids who each had their own room.

I’d never understood how poor we were until we moved to this second house in Edina, but I figured it out quickly. Edina was the beginning of my education in the particulars of the American class system, which fascinates and angers me. That’s another blog post entirely, or you can read the Gentry books, because his struggles with it echo my own.

But back to fifth grade. When it came time to start school, I didn’t have any shoes; the heel had broken off my summer sandals, and my other shoes had a big hole in the sole. Mom took me to Southdale mall in my socks to get a pair of shoes.

Strangely enough, I was not a social pariah in this new school. I was immediately befriended by two girls; Nancy and Mary Ann.

Nancy, the Queen Bee

Nancy was short and blonde, with a pinched face and small, sharp teeth. She lived in a large multi-level ranch home on a cul de sac within walking distance of my house. She had a teenage sister who was blonde, plump and mean, and a middle-school-age brother who was also blond and mean. These three kids dealt with each other in a spiteful, cutting way that baffled me. Yes, my sister and I fought, and sometimes we ganged up on our older brother just to be creeps, but we were essentially calm with each other.

Still, I liked going over to Nancy’s house because it had the first family room I’d ever encountered, with wood paneling and special casual furniture and a big color TV. And they had snacks. We never had snacks at my house. Ever. The likely reason was my brother, who mercilessly ate through anything like that. But they had snacks at Nancy’s, and every so often, she’d ask me “Do you want a snack?” and I’d sheepishly say yes. And then she’d regale me with a wonderland of choices, from ice cream sandwiches to chips to Pudding Cups and so on.

I don’t remember ever seeing Nancy’s father, though he lived there. Her mother was a short, stocky, scowling presence with a brunette beehive. My only clear memory of her is from that Christmas. One afternoon that winter, I came over and Nancy let me in the front door and we walked past their formal living room. Nancy’s mother was in there sitting on the couch, cocktail in hand, staring at the lights of her flocked white tree, decorated with green and blue and gold glass ball ornaments. She didn’t even look at us.

I was disturbed by Nancy’s mother that day. She seemed palpably miserable in her sophisticated living room; silent, brooding, and drunk. To be fair, maybe she was simply having a drink and enjoying her fancy tree.

But I don’t think so.

Southdale decorated for Christmas
A Christmas postcard from Southdale Center, where my mother shoplifted all our Christmas presents in 1971, but that’s another blog post.

Mary Ann, the worker bee

The other part of our trio, Mary Ann, was going to be gorgeous, but at age 11 she was overly coltish; tall and thick in that athletic, muscular way that signals Scandinavian heritage and athletic ease. She had a huge smile with big straight white teeth, and tawny skin and wavy golden brown hair that was always done up in two childish braids.

Her hair and clothes were oddly juvenile, for a fifth grader. This was 1971, so there were cute, mod choices out there for girls, but Mary Ann always had on a plaid Polly Flinders smocked dress and those braids. The effect was very Cindy Brady. She was the youngest of many girls–she had four or five older sisters–so there must have been a sizable pile of hand-me-downs.

I only went to Mary Ann’s home a few times, but her many sisters were amazing. Tall and toothy and fashionable, laughing and joking, radiating intelligence and vigor, like healthy, strapping versions of the sisters in The Virgin Suicides. Someone was always getting ready to go skiing.

So, that’s Nancy and Mary Ann. I’d gone from friendless to having two best friends. They apparently didn’t mind my poverty, and the fact that I had very few clothes, and there were no snacks at my house. But I soon discovered that I’d been ushered into this trio for one reason, and one reason only.

They invited me in so they could leave me out.

To be part of a clique felt wonderful, at first. That sense of inclusion was intoxicating. But my lack of experience meant that I didn’t understand that along with inclusion came exclusion. I was clueless as to their social dynamics. I had no defenses when they’d not speak to me for a day or two, or do things secretly without me and then let me know “accidentally” so I’d be sure to feel left out. At least once a week they’d “ditch” me. Ditching was new to me, and humiliating. We’d all go to the girls’ room, and I’d come out of my stall, and they were gone.

Exclusion was devastating. And constant. One day, I was so upset by them that I came home and cried to my mother about it. That was a mistake. Without my knowing, she called each of their mothers and basically told these women that their daughters were rotten little brats who should have been drowned at birth. Mom maybe even used those words, I don’t know, she had a temper.

And of course both Mary Ann and Nancy sneered at me the next day, accusing me of “having your mom call our moms.” I had no idea Mom had done that, and was humiliated beyond words. Also, Nancy sneered at me for “eating all our snacks.” I was angry about that, because I’d had maybe a snack a month over there. Did my delight show that much? (probably). Then, miraculously, they decided to bring me back into the fold.

This went on for just a few months. Occasionally, they’d fight with each other, and each vie for my friendship. I found this triangulation excruciating. I was always relieved when they’d make up and I could go back to my role as third wheel, in spite of the fact that sooner or later, I’d be on the outs myself.

Listen, I had options.

When I was home, I played with my neighbor, Marcy, who lived in the house with the pool. I went to slumber parties for my other classmates, even though I despised sleepovers. There was a girl named Robin—a smart girl, but she was an only child, which was unheard of back then, so she could be a little intense. She invited me over to play, and lobbied hard for me to be her best friend. She even wrote some desperate notes to me about it. I didn’t know how to handle her ardent girl crush, so eventually, I ignored her (I’m sorry, Robin, I should have been friends with you, I really should have).

I could have made other friends, but there was an allure to the roller coaster of friendship with Mary Ann and Nancy. It was so awful when they were being awful, and then so fun when they were being fun. I couldn’t break free, but I was increasingly miserable. My stomach hurt all the time. I was missing school because of it.

Events come to a head.

That January, bronchitis kept me out of school for two weeks. I probably could have come back sooner, but it was a relief not to participate in the drama, and my stomach needed a rest. Of course, when I finally had to come back to class, it knotted right up again because they weren’t speaking to me.

At that point, it was almost normal. I got busy on my makeup assignments and waited for my time in exclusion hell to be over. But that wasn’t going to happen. Another girl, Renee, stopped by my desk and let me know with a smile that one day at recess, Nancy and Mary Ann had held a mock trial in my absence, to decide whether or not they still had to be friends with me.

The verdict was no.

I remember what that felt like, to hear about that trial, to imagine something like this taking place in front of (and with, there had to be a jury, right?) my classmates. I felt the scald of shame and humiliation under my skin, but I didn’t cry. I turned to steel. I resolved to never speak to either of them again.

Of course, those two were annoyed that I’d moved on, and within days they tried to get back in my good graces. I remember sitting in a lunchroom, eating from a tray by myself. They sat down at my table and had a long, loud conversation about how sad they were that “Karen won’t talk to us anymore.” “Even though we’re sorry.” “I really miss Karen, don’t you?” On and on in that vein.

I finished my lunch and picked up my tray and left them sitting there. They were dead to me.

Edina wasn’t all bad.

I try to remember other parts of this school year that had nothing to do with those awful girls. The school was a good one, with fine teachers, which isn’t surprising because this was Edina, Minnesota. I made excellent grades in everything, and won a penmanship award (which will amuse anyone who has to read my handwriting today).

I had my first crush on a real boy (as opposed to Ringo Starr, Davy Jones, and Jack Wild). His name was John. Instead of a short British man with dark hair and a heavy accent, I fell for a tall redheaded boy with chubby cheeks and a great sense of humor. Sadly, he had a crush of his own on a girl named Jane (more on Jane later).

For my classroom’s Minnesota history fair, I wrote a play about pioneers for me and my classmates to perform, and I played the father because we decided we didn’t want any boys to be in it. We brought down the house. For that same fair, one of the girls brought in an electric skillet and made frybread for us all. Does this seem minor to you? It wasn’t. It was a revelation, and I’ve loved frybread ever since.

Since this was Minnesota, we sledded at recess. I smashed into a tree on my (imitation) Flexible Flyer and rode in an ambulance to have my knee checked out (I was fine, and this remains the only time in my life I’ve ridden in an ambulance).

A prim school librarian quietly introduced me to the Narnia and Black Cauldron books at this school. She so had my number. I remember bringing her a plate of Christmas cookies in gratitude.

This period of my life lasted most of a school year, with other classmates and teachers and projects and and recesses full of jumping rope, and jacks competitions, and teaching each other cat’s cradle, and all those sing-song-hand-clap games I could still play if I just had a partner. Why aren’t these memories stronger than my memories of the Mean Girls?

I wish I knew.

A Happier Ending

Within a week, I’d made better friends. I finished the remainder of my time in Edina with Jane and Sarah. Jane had long wavy dark hair and sparkling eyes. There might have even been some freckles involved. She was fresh and steady and smart and funny, like a main character in a middle-reader book. Plucky, cute, smart Jane, a born leader and a fierce ally.

Sarah was kind and diligent, and the most beautiful girl I’d ever met; her honey-colored hair was long, her bangs trimmed with mathematical precision. I remember the gentle, methodical way she’d button her coat, draw on her mittens, and tie her hat before we went out for recess, like she was a loving adult dressing a cherished child for cold weather, only Sarah was the adult and the child, both.

These girls and their sincere, good natured friendship were an antidote to the spiteful machinations of Nancy and Mary Ann. We spent our recesses happily and without incident, until my parents decided to move to Arkansas in early April of that year, 1972. I had a week of popularity before I left, because it was glamorous to be moving. And during that week, Jane and Sarah and I let Nancy and Mary Ann play with us.

I could be merciful, thanks to my elevated status as the girl who was moving away.

Once I moved, I exchanged letters with my former friends, including Mary Ann, who wrote a very concerned letter after I wrote to her about falling off Mark’s horse. Or maybe Sarah wrote that, she was probably more likely to be frightened by something like that.

At any rate, all was forgiven. As it should be. We are all fifth graders at some point in our lives, and we all have lessons to learn about how to be, and how not to be.

Even mean girls.

Looking back

I like to imagine that Mary Ann outgrew her attachment to Nancy, along with those Polly Flinders dresses, and became more like her dazzling older sisters. I’m sure that sweet Robin found a best friend to whom she could pledge her starry-eyed devotion. I’ll bet Jane and Sarah grew from smart, happy girls into capable Minnesota women who live pleasant, educated, liberal lives in the Edina way. But I think Nancy was just a miserable person, period, and that probably didn’t change.

I don’t know. These are conjectures.

I do know from raising three daughters, that every girl seem to go through a year of social pain like my fifth grade. I’ve told each of my daughters the Ballad of Nancy and Mary Ann, my tragic tale of being ditched in the bathroom and put on mock trial to end the friendship. I wanted my daughters to understand that social humiliation is an inescapable part of growing up for girls. I wonder why, though. I wonder why we’re like this, and if it will ever change.

But that’s not my point. I do have one, you know. And mine is this: I’ve never found myself in a situation like this again in my life. Not even in high school, where Mean Girls thrive.

Oh, I’ve had some lopsided friendships, and friendships that ended in anger, and friends who faded away due to geography or inattention or the reality of how much of myself I can realistically share with other people before there’s nothing left. I’ve been dropped cold by two of my nearest and dearest, both of whom were men, by the way. I’ve even been friends with mean women, but that toxic stuff hasn’t taken hold in my life. They might still play these games, but I barely notice that part of them, and I certainly never engage with it.

So I guess I owe those two fifth graders a debt of gratitude, don’t I? Thanks, Nancy and Mary Ann. You inoculated me against your kind, and the immunity has lasted for fifty years.

No boosters needed.

Some other reading

Why does everyone hate on Edina?: Also linked above, but here it is again, in case you skipped it

A post about Polly Flinders dresses by a funny blogger, with photos: How Polly Flinders Ruined My Life

An academic paper on the Mean Girl Phenomenon: Queen Bees

A photo essay on America’s first indoor shopping mall, where I learned to shoplift: The History of Southdale Center, with photos

Arkansas and the Vagaries of Memory

A Snort of Derision

My sister and I have worked out a division of labor, as far as childhood memories. I ask questions, and she provides answers. It’s assumed that she remembers it all correctly. But recently, as we were talking about our Arkansas memories, I made an assertion about the past that generated an actual snort of derision from her.

Let me explain.

In March of 1971, we moved to Arkansas so my dad could begin his career in the Forest Service. Booneville is up in the northwestern corner of the state, in a region that’s below sea level. I think. This is what I was told and I’ve never done any research to back it up. The hot soup of humidity we swam through was evidence enough for me.

It certainly felt like we were living underwater.

On arrival, we stayed in a motel; three kids in one room, my parents in another. I was just barely 11, my sister was 13, and my brother was 16. It was too hot to breathe without air conditioning, so we kids stayed in our dingy little motel room and started fights with each other while Mom and Dad went out each day to try to find us a place to live.

They couldn’t find one. That same spring, a small toy factory had opened, and it lured in workers from around the state. All the rentals had been taken.

We were used to moving at that point, I guess, but we’d always moved from one house to another house. Motels were never involved. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this was a motel in Booneville, Arkansas, pop. 3200 or something like that.

My parents were desperate.

They finally drove us all out to see a tattered little farm in the country with a house on it: a one-story six-room rectangle that had sat empty for quite a while. It appeared to be right on the verge of falling over. There was no obvious sign of vandalism, but it was filthy. There was (biggish) poop in the kitchen sink, and invasive greenery growing around the window frames and into the rooms.

Six rooms, no hallway. This is not the house, but it reminds me of the house. Good times.

Image by SEspider from Pixabay

To give you an idea of how desperate my parents were to get out of that motel, they rented this place. They rented it despite the fact that it was miles out of town on a red dirt road. They rented it despite the rotting outbuildings that included an outhouse. And, most importantly, they rented this dump despite the fact that in just a few short months, they’d be welcoming a newborn baby.

The rent was delivered, the keys were ours, and we all pitched in to make the place habitable. Understand, my parents could transform anywhere into a home. Even this place. They weren’t ever going to buy it, so this was basically just a cover up job. Paint over the peeling plaster, lay down indoor/outdoor carpet in the kitchen and bathroom, deep-clean the linoleum floors in the rest of the house. What couldn’t be painted was papered. Somehow, they made this leaning, crumbling little wreck of a house into a place we could live.

My explorations

Even though that house was tiny and terrible, I found interesting things to consider about it. I was fascinated by the idea of a home with no hallway. If you came in via the back door, you entered the kitchen and began your circuit. Counter clockwise, it went: kitchen to bathroom to first bedroom to second bedroom room to living room to dining room and back into the kitchen. Or you could go clockwise and go kitchen, dining room, living room, second bedroom, first bedroom, bathroom, kitchen.

And if you’re a kid, which I was, you can’t wait to make the circuit while running, even though running in the house was verboten.

The farm itself held places of additonal interest. There were the outbuildings, which we were forbidden to enter. I explored them at length. One shed was full of empty moonshine bottles and wasps’ nests. I picked up a lot of bottles in there, and kicked my way through rotten hay in a tiny building that was possibly a barn, and I avoided the outhouse.

There was a stock pond that I was forbidden to go near. I picked my way to it through fields of ancient cow pies, to stand at the bank and consider wading in. Those cow pies made me squeamish about what the bottom might be like. There was a clear creek, where I spent hours watching water bugs skate on its surface, and trying cross it by walking on fallen logs. It was shallow and swift. I could walk across it without getting very wet, but those logs were always beckoning me. I fell into that creek a lot, that first summer.

The photo below is not that creek, but it’s how I remember it.

Image by G Johansen from Pixabay

We also had neighbors.

It was these neighbors my sister and I were discussing the other day. We were remembering how, during a visit from her Minneapolis friend, Salle, we climbed out our bedroom window and walked across acres of pasture to a neighboring farm, where we picked up our friend Deena (who had also climbed out her bedroom window) to join us for a terrifying midnight walk.

I’ll save the full story of the midnight walk for another time, but my sister started talking about Deena’s family. “God, they were trashy,” she said. “Just utter trash. They had those milk cows, and they’d get into skunkweed, and I remember sitting at their table during dinner, dreading when I’d have to drink that horrible milk.”

I was puzzled. Yes, that milk was awful, but I remembered this family very differently. I started talking about what I remembered, like how their ranch house had three levels and two hallways, and a dining room where we were periodically invited for glasses of icky fresh milk. Their barn was huge, and full of cows. I watched the kids milk those cows and strain the buckets into big milk containers, to get the flies out. And there were horses, because the kids all rode.

And swimming! “They had that lake,” I said to my sister. “Don’t you remember that private lake they had?” It was small, and Arkansas green, but that water was cool enough to make the heat bearable.

I described the six kids; two (now nameless) older teenage boys who struck me as impossibly alluring and breathtaking. They barely said a word to us, but when they did, it was indulgent and kind. Deena, at age thirteen, had long dark hair and a perfect figure, though her legs were a little bowed because these kids were always on horseback.

Those were the original kids, and then there were three adopted kids; Stacey, Mark, and Donna. Stacey was 12, Mark was 11, and Donna was somewhere between eight and ten (too young to hang out with us). They were nice-looking kids on the cusp of looking like whatever they were going to look like; a trio of siblings who had found a home with our neighbors.

I remember the boys explaining that they’d been adopted fairly recently. We’d also been adopted recently by my mom’s third husband, but our mother had forbidden us to tell anyone. Mom didn’t need to put the fear of God into us about it. I never mentioned being adopted, not because Mom wanted it that way, but because I was ashamed. The pride that my new father wanted me was overshadowed by the fact that my other father hadn’t. I’d been given away, which left me feeling unwanted, defective, and deeply ashamed.

And here were these boys, proudly talking about how they’d been able to choose new names as part of their adoption.

I try again.

I reminded my sister of all this. Well, I didn’t mention that shame part, because I assume she carries as much lifelong trauma as I do, but I did remind her about the neighbor kids picking out new names.

“And do you remember that even though we lived on neighboring farms, they went to school in some other town?” I asked her. “And in that town, wherever it was, the mom had a clothing store that she called ‘The DeenaDonna Boutique’? Don’t you remember that?”

“Oh my God, the DeenaDonna Boutique. I do remember.” My sister stopped laughing, and went a little quiet. “You remember more than I do,” she said. “That’s not how it usually is. I’m the one who usually…”

I interrupted her, “Of course I remember them. Stacey was my first boyfriend.”

My sister let out that previously mentioned snort of derision. “He was not your first boyfriend!”

“He sure was. Don’t you remember? I liked Mark at first, but Stacey was the one who asked me to be his girlfriend.” I went on to describe how that summer, Stacey and I would tie up the party line. Irritated older women would pick up and scold us to get off the phone.

My sister seemed to remember most of these details, but she still searched her memory for the idea that I’d had a boyfriend. She brought up the horses. “We rode horses with them all the time. You and I rode on the back, behind Deena.” Her voice was trailing off at this point. I could feel her remembering.

“No, you rode behind Deena, and I rode behind Mark or Stacey. Remember when I was alone on Mark’s horse, and it started for the barn and I slid right off the back?” He’d gotten down and left me sitting behind the saddle, and I couldn’t reach the reins and didn’t know to grab the saddle horn. I was so afraid of horses after that, and I still am. “And don’t you remember that Stacey would ride over on his horse, and we’d ride out together, just him and me?”

I could hear her voice change, as those memories were resurrected from wherever they’d been hiding. No one in the family could forget my falling off that horse. “Maybe they weren’t as trashy as I remember,” she said.

I don’t think they were trashy at all.

For me and Stacey, that was the extent of our young romance; a summer of swimming, horseback rides, and tying up the party line with awkward, giggling phone calls. We never so much as held hands. It was pretty perfect. When school started, I stopped hearing from him. He probably found a new girlfriend at his school in whichever little town that was.

Later that school year, we moved out of the farm and into Booneville proper, where we crammed the six of us into another absolutely stupid living set up. I’ll save that for another time. I had a new boyfriend that year, and another after that, but I’ll save those boys for another time, too.

For now, I just want to talk about yesterday, when my sister finally accepted that in this case, my memories were correct: My first boyfriend, at age 12, was a boy named Stacey, who lived on a neighboring farm with three brothers and two sisters. His father ran that farm, and his mother owned a clothing store. Their home was large enough to hold six kids. Their barn was huge and full of valuable livestock. They had five farm dogs, chickens, a private lake, and more wonders than I probably knew, because I was eleven years old and didn’t pay attention to campers and boats and the like.

My sister, who was my daily companion on that farm, didn’t remember Stacey or anything else about our neighbors besides their stinky milk. I think it was that milk that made her remember this family as trashy, even though at the time, they lived like they lived, while our family of six rented a decrepit two-bedroom farmhouse where my parents slept in the dining room with our new baby brother.

Here I am with that baby brother, who turns fifty today. Happy Birthday, E.

Memory is a strange, strange thing. I’m glad that between the two of us, my sister and I can patch together our shared past. But it definitely takes the both of us to sort through and figure out what really happened.

Nature Wants In: A Suburban Wildlife Safari

Mice

A mouse
Image by Here and now, unfortunately, ends my journey on Pixabay from Pixabay

When my second husband and I first bought this house in 1998, we loved the pseudo-country setting. Our paved street turned to gravel after our block, and three blocks later, the gravel road deadended at an undeveloped seven-acre parcel of land.

I don’t live in the country, but it feels like I do. There were still horses in the neighborhood when I first moved here. And lots of domesticated rabbits that had gone feral. And so many possums. And skunks. And moles in the yard. And field rats and field mice.

The thing about mice is, they don’t stay outside if given an opportunity to move into a nice comfortable house. And as much as I enjoy artistic representations of mice, and detailed somewhere in the meandering mess of this blog post over here, I don’t like the real thing at all.

When we found mice turds in our lower cabinets, we adopted a stray dog and left the lower cabinet doors open a few nights in a row. She took care of it and I’ve never seen a trace of a mouse in here since.

I loved that dog. Her name was Holly. She hunted birds, rats, mice, and whatever else she could catch. She’s the only dog I’ve ever had who earned her keep.

Wasps

A wasp
Image by wpoeschl from Pixabay

As the millennium wound down and we approached the year 2000, I was sitting in my family room at my computer working on some writing when I heard a strange chewing sound. It sounded expensive, so I ignored it. Maybe it would go away if I ignored it.

It went on for some time, to be honest. Just a gentle undertone of mastication. It was quiet at night, when I was home and typing away at my novels or papers or chatting in my chat room. During the day, I was in school, so I could more easily pretend it wasn’t there, but if I was home, it was getting louder and louder and louder.

Yes, something was devouring my home, but I’d become skilled at ignoring things I didn’t want to deal with over the course of my second marriage (which had also gone away at that point, so sometimes this approach worked, yes?).

But then one overcast afternoon while I was typing, the light from one of the two globe light fixtures on the family room ceiling darkened.

I looked up to see if the bulb had gone out. It hadn’t.

The light was on, and full of wasps—wasps that filled the glass globe entirely, then slipped around the edges of the fixture mount and into the room. Wasps spilled through the ceiling like a soft, buzzing liquid, flying in sleepy spirals around and around the light fixture, more and more of them, hundreds and hundreds of wasps, gradually creating an entire layer of wasps in the upper reaches of my family room.

I quietly stepped out of the room and gently closed the door. “Girls,” I said in a very calm, firm voice. “The family room is full of wasps. Don’t go in there until I call an exterminator.”

They didn’t go in, though I think they all peeked and squeaked while I made the call. It was only a hundred dollars to have the insects removed. Years later, when my roof had to be torn off due to a house fire, the contractor saved a nest he found in the family room rafters and showed it to me.

It was over three feet across.

Skunks

A skunk
Image by Christel SAGNIEZ from Pixabay

I’ve lived in this house since 1988, but my backyard was never fully fenced. There a nice fence across along one side and a crappy fence across the back, and a hedge on the other side. I closed things off with a dog fence eight years ago, but for 22 years the yard was a porous enclosure at best, and that meant animals traveled through it, especially at night.

There were raccoons aplenty, and possums until the coyotes cleaned those out of the neighborhood. Coyotes have been seen in my back yard. And for years, almost nightly, I saw a skunk or two, sometimes a mama skunk and her babies, traipsing on the diagonal through the yard from front to back, exiting somewhere under the cedar tree through the laurel hedge.

Before I took the dogs out, I’d sweep the yard with a flashlight. I still do that now, even though the yard is fenced. Coyotes go where they want to and my little dog fence won’t slow them down a bit. But that fence does stop the skunks. And the skunks don’t like it.  

I sleep with a window open, a window that’s right over the new stretch of dog fence.  And every week or so, I wake to the smell of skunk. Not an overwhelming amount, but when it comes to skunk spray, a little is a lot.

I imagine the skunk gets to the fence that blocks its familiar route, and lets out a little spray of irritation. The equivalent of the skunk saying, “Damn these detours.”

In the morning, the smell lingers inside the window, a reminder of who lived here first.

Birds

four sparrow chicks
Image by Monika Helmecke from Pixabay

Like most houses, mine has vents under the roofline. So does the building that houses my garage and a little studio apartment. These vents are covered with heavy-duty mesh that’s supposed to keep the birds out. It doesn’t.

Years ago, one of my tenants came home and found a baby bird drowned in her toilet. After I sealed up a gap around her bathroom sink pipe, she had no more problems, but my next tenant let me know that he could hear baby birds cheeping, cheeping, cheeping over his ceiling. My tenant was a tenderhearted man, I’m a tenderhearted woman, and we both felt like we didn’t want to disturb the nests until the babies were out of there.

Back then, in my extended single years, my dad often helped me out with home maintenance and repairs. When I told him about the birds cheeping, he happily volunteered to take care of it once the nests had emptied. We all agreed, then; me, the tenant, my dad. We’d let the nesting run its course.

One day I came home from work, and my dad had sealed off all the roof vents with stronger metal grates. “I took care of it!” he announced. “I didn’t hear any birds.” I was so grateful. But here’s the deal. My dad was almost completely deaf. He didn’t know he’d sealed off active nests.

My tenant had to listen to the baby birds die.

Ants

three ants on a peony bud
Image by Here and now, unfortunately, ends my journey on Pixabay from Pixabay

I have a sign up on my front window that I made at work. It’s a stern warning about NO SOLICITATION OF ANY KIND, including religious, political or sales. It’s trimmed in red white and blue, because I want it to look like the work of a hateful reactionary who probably owns guns and wouldn’t possibly contribute any money to Greenpeace and OSPIRG, because those people were taking up too much of my softhearted liberal time and I want them to leave me alone forever.

If anyone ever does knock on the door, I generally don’t answer it. I don’t roll down my car window when panhandlers knock on it downtown, so why would I open the door of my home, simply to tell someone to go away?

This is my home. My sanctuary. I don’t want to hear your Good News or learn about about your run for city council or buy your magazine subscriptions. I want you to leave me alone.

But three years ago, my neighborhood was overrun with ants. I don’t know what kind of ants they were and I don’t care. They were tiny and dark and smelled odd when I popped them under my fingertips.

They streamed in through invisible cracks and made long ant caravans across my floors. They gathered for huge ant parties on any scrap of food or drip of grease they found in the kitchen, and ruined the butter and took over the sugar bowl and hid in my houseplants. They walked across my arms while I was trying to sleep. They bubbled up out of the bathroom sink drains and found the toothpaste. They were on the dogs, for chrissakes.

We tried all the tricks and traps and baits and sprays. If someone suggested it, I tried it. Nothing worked. The ants were the topic of many over-the-fence and across-the-driveway conversations with my neighbors. We all had them, and we were all going nuts.

One evening, a young man in a uniform with a clipboard braved the warnings of my sternly pseudo-patriotic “GO AWAY, YOU” sign, stepped up to my door, and knocked.

What a brave young man.

I looked out and scowled, but he smiled. “Your neighbors suggested I stopped by.” He was with a pest control company, and he spent that entire day signing up my neighborhood up for “green” ant control.

I don’t know how “green” this ant control really is. I don’t care. Every three months, someone comes over here and makes sure those ants have their parties elsewhere. It also keeps away the carpenter ants, which I’m not going to bother writing about because even i can’t pretend that carpenter ants are interesting.

When it comes to ants, I am a total NIMBY.

Rabbits

a rabbit on high alert
Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Two years ago, in the spring, I started seeing a pair of wild bunnies in my back yard every morning. They were quite small, and extremely cute, and apparently living under one of my patios in a hole dug by my first dachshund, a sleek little demon named Mylo.

I thought the bunnies had moved into whatever Mylo dug all those years ago, but I didn’t know for certain. I didn’t know much about these bunnies. I didn’t know where they came from, or their genders, or if they were going to mate and fill the space under my patio with tiny bunny kittens that would in turn enlarge the warren and invade my crawlspace and tunnel up into the walls of my home and take it over like I saw on this terrifying episode of Hoarders in which a man let his pet bunnies eat a rented home from the inside out.

I only knew they were cute.

Well, I also knew that despite how cute they were, I should probably do something about them. But I didn’t. I ignored them and hoped they would go away.

This past spring, during the pandemic shutdown, I started working from home at my dining room table, which has a nice view of my backyard. I soon realized that there was only one bunny left in my yard. I saw this bunny almost every single day.

I enjoyed watching him nibble away at the greenery. He would eat for a while, then disappear through the back fence to the neighbor’s garden. Eventually, he’d hop back towards the house along the dog fence to…the patio? I wasn’t sure.

What did I do about this bunny? Well, let’s see. I showed him to my grandkids. I talked about him in group texts. I tried to take photos of him. I called him, “my bunny.” “Oh, my bunny is out in the yard.” “Here, let me show you my bunny.” “Ooops! There goes my bunny!”

But I’m not a moron. I know I can’t ignore rabbits forever, no matter how adorable they are. I’ve seen that episode of Hoarders, after all.

My husband and I had a talk. One morning, after we’d seen the rabbit go through the back fence and we knew we wouldn’t be trapping him, my husband filled in the presumed bunny hole at the side of the patio. He then arranged logs and pavers over the area, to really block it off.

After that, whenever I saw the bunny in the back corner of the yard, I let the dogs out. They would charge across the lawn, barking at top volume. My bunny was no moron, either. Long before they could reach him, he popped through the fence into the yard next door. I was sad to see him go, but it was time. I haven’t seen him in weeks.

I hope the neighbor likes his new bunny.

More Birds

Sparrow chicks
Image by Veronika Tóth-Péter from Pixabay

So, those vents around the roof line. Every vent needs to be covered with a heavier metal grate whether it looks like it’s been pecked through or not, because once you block one vent, the birds move their attentions to another. They want in.

They want in, and they get in.

After they could no longer nest in the garage/apartment building, the birds moved to the main house. At first I thought it was raccoons up in the attic, because it was so noisy. There’s all the scratching while they build the nest. And then, there’s the endless peeping of the hungry hatchlings. This peeping is more like screaming. Baby birds are hungry. We all got to hear about it. All the damn time.

The parent birds are protective, and they do a lot of swooping at you as you approach your home. You’re just walking up to your door, of your own house, where you live, and your new uninvited tenant comes swooping out at you. Clearly, the bird knows its nest and babies are a giant pain in the ass, and it needs to scare you away from evicting it.

You know exactly where these new bird neighbors live, because the entrance to their nesting place (a roof vent above a window) is soon streaked with bird poop. That means the siding, and the screen, and the glass, and the ground directly below are covered with droppings. Lots of droppings. Kind of a decorative fan shape of droppings.

I can tell you where the birds nested at my house. One site was directly over my oldest daughter’s former bedroom. The other was over the family room window. The poop fans made interesting additions to the front of the house.

And of course, me being me, I ignored it. The nests were active for (at least) two full springs and summers. Okay, maybe three. But this year, we were home all the time, and the peeping and the scratching and the swooping and the pooping were impossible to ignore.

It was time to evict the birds.

I ordered a bunch of metal grates from Amazon. My husband laid in spare drill bits and screws. He also got a taller ladder. We listened. We waited for silence, because that would mean the nests were empty.

The peeping and cheeping and rustling and scratching went on and on.

Had we missed our opportunity? Had the spring babies flown, was this actually a second nesting? Were we always going to have decorative poop fans on the front of our house? Or were we going to be terrible people, and nail up the grates, and kill the fledglings? We didn’t have the heart to do that.

So I ignored it, and hope it would go away.

Guess what? It did.

One day, we realized that we heard nothing. My husband went out with his electric drill and new ladder and got to work with those metal grates. After he had the grates up, he scrubbed the siding. We worked together on cleaning screens and windows and windowsills, and restored the house façade to respectability.

What’s next?

I don’t know. It’s not a jungle out there, but it’s a field and a forest and a meadow disguised as a backyard. Squirrels bury their nuts in my flowerpots, raccoons eat my flowers, geese occasionally fly over and drop massive curtains of crap on my cars, and a ground-nesting wasp nest boiled up and stung the crap out of me one day while I was working in the yard. The aforementioned coyotes are hard at work keeping the outdoor cat and chihuahua populations in check. Nature is out there and at times, it tries to get in or under or through my house. I’m going to continue ignoring that fact, right up until I can’t.

Also, I saw my bunny again this morning…

Planning a wedding when you’re old(er).

The proposal

This story begins on April 13th, 2018, when I was reading a book in the living room of some friends’ house up on Orcas Island. My one true love came in and put his hand on my shoulder. He said, “Do you want to get married?” and I said “Yes!” Of course I wanted to get married! To him! Absolutely! But a moment later, I said, “To you, right?” because there was always a chance it was just a general query, sort of a survey question, and not an actual proposal. He said, “Yes. To me.”

We’d both said yes to love. Love is hard to find, and rare. Love deserves a celebration. That means a wedding. I didn’t want a wedding, but I was marrying a very romantic man. He wanted a wedding.

So I said yes to that, too.

A wedding? Kill me now.

Now, I should clarify that I don’t like big weddings, especially not where I’m concerned. I was married at age 18 and again at age 21, and what those weddings had in common (besides my youth and idiocy at thinking I should marry that young) was that they were tiny events. Miniscule. Which was nice, because when the marriages ended, at least I didn’t have to apologize to my parents for spending a fortune on my bad ideas.

I liked the sound of those old weddings in the forties, when the couple went to the judge’s chamber, wearing their nicest suits. She probably wore a neat little hat and gloves, and carried a nosegay. After the ceremony, one of the relatives hosted a luncheon with things like cold meats and aspics and finger sandwiches, and cake, nuts, mints and punch. After which the couple headed out on a sweet, rustic honeymoon.

Oh, how I longed for a sweet wedding luncheon and a trip to Niagara Falls.

Alternatives examined and discarded

Why, you might ask, didn’t we just elope? Well, for a few reasons. He’d eloped to Vegas before, so that carried all kinds of associations for him, none of them happy. I talked about doing it at the courthouse, but with both our families, the have-to-be-there list was lengthy, and we’d be having some kind of a party after, so why not let everyone come to the ceremony? We both had important friends with whom we wanted to share this day.

But then we had to plan a wedding.

Getting married should be simple. All you really need to get married is a couple, an officiant, at least one ring and some expensive pieces of paper for the legal part. And a pen, I guess, to sign those papers.

But getting married is not the same as having a wedding. Weddings are all about choices and money. When. Where. Who. How much. Nothing is simple or easy. This time, our parents wouldn’t be paying for any part of this event, since (1) this would be the third marriage for each of us, (2) we are both gainfully employed, and (3) we are old, really, for getting married.

Okay, we are not quite old yet, but we are certainly not young. We are not even middle-aged, unless we’re planning to live to 106 and 118 years of age, respectively. But we’re old enough that when we hold hands or kiss in public, people assume we’re cute older people who have been together forever and still manage to be romantic. Teenage ticket sellers squint at us through the glass of the ticket booth, asking if we want senior rates. I am even able to order from the senior menu at my neighborhood pie house, a fact I like to rub in the face of anyone under 55.

Envy me. I get the bacon and eggs for seven dollars.

But back to the wedding

Timing was an issue. Some of his important relatives (sister, niece, great-nephew) had to fly in, so they needed time to book flights and plan a trip to the PNW. One of my daughters is pregnant and lives across the country, and wouldn’t be able to fly past a certain point. Another daughter lives five hours away, and would be working every single weekend with no exceptions and no choice about it until a break that started on November 1st.

The largest issue, though, was that my father was terminally ill and quite fragile. We had to decide first thing if we wanted time to plan, or to have him at the wedding. That choice was easy to make. We both wanted him there. So we chose a date seven months out, started talking about what we wanted, and hoped for the best.

I made a spread sheet, of course. It had a scheduled to-do list, a tab for guests and their addresses and responses, and a tab for expenses. We’d given ourselves a small budget so that we could pay as we went, because I refused to go into debt for any of this. The budget talk was something like this: “I’d like to do it for 4K, but it’s going to be 5K.” “We can do it for 4K!” “Oh, just you wait.”

I asked my younger brother to officiate, and we chose a date to get the license, and then we got down to the hard stuff. Where would we get married? What would we eat? What would we wear, and say, and listen to, and put on our fingers? Would there be aspics, cake, nuts, mints and punch? Would there be nosegays?

A banquet of choices

Now, here’s something I know about my man. He enjoys having lots of choices. Like, a banquet of choices. He will take the buffet any time we are in Vegas, because he likes an expanse of items to consider, inspect, and reject before he finally makes his choice. It’s one of his great joys in life. It’s one reason (I think) that he tolerated online dating better than I did. He liked that there were so many women to choose from. Me? I prefer not so many choices. I want to develop a set of criteria, drill down and get busy.

I found that this variance in our personalities was not helpful in a few areas of wedding planning. Like choosing a venue. I wanted to choose a venue. He wanted to see venues. Plenty of venues, because he loves choices. He took me to a few that summer, and they were all outdoors. He’d stand by the set-up for a summer wedding that was happening later that afternoon or that evening, and smile at how nice it all was, with the decorations and dance floor and the DIY table settings and all. The guy is so romantic.

And what would I do? I’d tap my foot and scowl and say, “Why are we wasting time looking at outdoor venues when we’re getting married in November in Oregon? What is the point?” The point, of course, was choices. Options. And being romantic. And I just poured my salty pickle juice all over his sweet, spoony enthusiasm.

I was horribly pragmatic. I would quote costs to him for a dance floor and band, for seated dinners and rented tableware and the like, all of which would drive our costs up and waaaaay over our budget of 5K. I tried not to be crabby about it, but we only had a few months to put it all together and why were we wasting time at places that wouldn’t work for our wedding?

So we go indoors

We started pricing indoor places, and were dismayed by, well, everything. Venues are expensive, and not necessarily accessible when one of the guests is in a wheelchair. Meal choices are limited, and cost a fortune per plate. A nice place makes its money through the food and drink, and gross places were, well, gross. Not acceptable. We even looked at the tiny Oaks Pioneer Church, which is adorable and nondenominational, but you can’t have a reception there. We’d have had to wheel my fragile father to two places. Nothing was right, everything was absurdly costly, and I felt discouraged.

I can’t remember what we’d looked at when I said, “Don’t any of our friends live in a really big house, or maybe a condo with a big club room?”

Lightning bolt. Yes.

We had friends who lived in a lovely downtown condo, and they had a beautiful club room with a fireplace and a wall of windows that looked out on an elegant courtyard. The room was full of sofas and tables and chairs, with a battalion of portable tables and chairs just waiting to be requested. And bathrooms. And a full kitchen with punch bowls and serving utensils and spare silverware. And another big room where we could set up all the food and drink. This room also came with a security guard, to keep the riffraff from wandering out of the event space into the luxury condos, I’m sure, and the capable event-planning assistance of my dear friend San, who was absolutely delighted to share her lovely space with us.

We had a time, a place, an officiant, and San. We were getting closer.

Put a ring on it

We also had a terrible time picking out rings. I picked mine first, being “engaged” and all. And despite my idea of myself as decisive, I was terribly indecisive. I’d get something all picked out, show my guy, he’d get out his wallet to order and and I’d say “Not yet!” A week later, I’d have a completely different choice in mind. and of course I chose an artisan ring, which made choosing the band that much more difficult. I want to point out that I was a complete pain in the ass, here.

My guy wanted to look at choices for his ring with me, and he wanted to look at all the rings in the entire world. We went to several jewelry stores, and he’d ask to see rings, and I’d say, “Is that something you’d like?” and he’d say, “No, I just wanted to see what it looked like.” That choices thing, again. He ke[t asking to see rings, and then saying, “Weird.” Part of the fun, for him, was laughing at rings that looked like engine parts or car tires or the like.

We moved our search to Etsy. I thought pulling those rings up on our aging laptops just to scoff at them was a WASTE OF MY TIME. Plus, if he wanted something handcrafted, we’d have to order it from a maker! We didn’t have time to scoff! I didn’t care if he liked having choices! I was impatient.

He could tell when I said in an icy voice, “I have looked at literally hundreds of rings with you, and I’m tired of looking at what you don’t want. Can you please just let me know what you DO want?”

I am lucky, at this point, that he still wanted to marry me, but he did. On his own, he made a list of five rings to look at with me. I could do five rings, just not another fifty. His final choice would be coming from Ireland. I ordered it in July. I thought that gave us plenty of time, yes?

But back to the planning.

People have to eat

Which was another issue. FOOD AND DRINK. He has specific food tastes, and I like everything. No, seriously, there is nothing I don’t like to eat besides maybe fried pork rinds. And we had to design a wedding menu that would give everyone something decent to eat. I remember looking up and saying, “Do we really want to spend 4,000 dollars to feed everyone roast beef or salmon?”

We decided not to.

We hired the top-rated caterer in town to design a “hearty hors d’oeuvres” spread for us. Now, because there were so many choices on the list of what we could order, we were back to the languid choice-making, the “I wonder if the sauce is they talk about on this one could be served on the side?” or “Do you suppose they could make this without the remoulade?” questions from him, with me barking back “DON’T ASK THE CHEF TO CHANGE SOMETHING, JUST PICK SOMETHING ELSE FOR GOD’S SAKE, THERE ARE A HUNDRED THINGS TO CHOOSE FROM, JUST MAKE A LIST OF WHAT YOU LIKE AND GO FROM THERE.”

I didn’t shout with my voice, but I was definitely shouting inside.

We got the choices made, and a contract signed, and there would be food.

Which took me to the next stressful purchase.

What to wear

Like every American bride, I had some vague idea that I’d have a new body in place before my wedding. Wedding planning didn’t exactly melt off the pounds, so I had to use the body I currently owned for the wedding. And that body needed a new dress.

I ordered one I liked from Nordstrom, and it came, and I was so excited. My youngest daughter came over to help me try it on, and then to help me get it off my body and back into the box with a minimum of comment because my god, that dress looked terrible on me. I sent it right back and thought that maybe no one should marry me because I looked so misshapen and horrid in that dress.

Then I went to Kiyonna.com, where the perfect (not white, though they have those) dress was easily found. And it came, and slipped on without so much as a zipper, and it was beautiful and elegant and comfortable and lined, and it was even long enough, and I loved it. When I shared a photo of it with family and friends, they all loved it too, except for one friend who started sending other choices in a panic, including something from David’s Bridal that would have needed sleeves to be added, but I ignored all that. I had my dress.

After watching the Shapermint ads on Facebook over and over and over again, I ordered one of those, too. In the Facebook ads, a size 14 or 16 woman stands before the camera with a pair of little elastic shorts pulled up right below her abdomen. She rolls the shorts up over her womanly rolls and bulges to just under her bra, and she has a completely different figure. It’s astonishing. I’d have liked to have given it a try, but I couldn’t even get the shorts up to my just-under-the-womanly-bulges part. So that Shapermint stayed in the drawer. But I still watch those commercials on Facebook.

My guy didn’t need to buy a suit, shirt or tie, because he’s a grown-up and has those, but he did need new black dress shoes. I was prepared for our trip to Nordstrom Rack, where we arrived shortly before they closed. I knew exactly what he needed, which was a quality pair of black men’s dress shoes that didn’t have a long, pointy toe-box. So I left him to be dazzled by the wall of men’s shoe choices. I ignored him while he was pulling out sequinned men’s loafers and lavender deck shoes to scoff at them. With steely precision, I located several quality pairs of black men’s dress shoes sans long, pointy toe-boxes. I brought them to him and refused to be distracted by the embroidered smoking slippers and two-tone patent lace-ups he was waving around in amusement. I was not there for a good time. I was there for black shoes and dammit, I saw nothing else.

We left there with a really nice pair of shoes for him.

Cake and cake and cake and more cake

Along the way, we were sending out save-the-dates and then invites, getting our license, trying and buying our prosecco, red wine, white wine and various other drinks, and ordering galvanized tubs to ice them, haunting Goodwills to find specific square low vases for the eventual flower arrangements, and and getting the final tally for the caterer.

I had an idea for the cakes that would be delicious and pretty, based on the cakes we’d eaten at a wedding over the summer. But my guy wanted to do cake tastings. He’d done cake tastings for his first wedding, and he was happily anticipating going to bakery after bakery to try little squares of cake with squirts of frosting on them. I told him I would happily go to as many cake tastings as he arranged. His eyebrows raised a bit, but he did it.

And it turned out that I enjoyed cake tastings, too, especially looking through books of cake designs, which ranged from opulent to decadent to rustic/woodsy, and all costing at least 600 dollars to feed 75 people a piece of cake. We didn’t order cakes, but we always got delicious treats at the bakeries to take home for later consumption. He was right, it was fun.

Then I took him to the Thriftway where my family has bought birthday cakes for thirty years. We bought five or six slices of cake, and took them home and had the best cake tasting of all. He had a chance to see how truly outstanding this bakery is, and though he liked the chocolate cake at Jaciva’s best, this one ran a close second. We went back, ordered four cakes (chocolate, banana, lemon [for my dad, who loved lemon desserts], poppy seed) and asked them to frost all but the chocolate in white cream cheese frosting, to make them as bridal and pretty as they could. Then we paid $98.00 and left, knowing they would be ready, on time, delicious and beautiful for our wedding day.

Hiccups and meltdowns

We were not without hiccups. Finding a good photographer we could afford was difficult, but with the help of one of my daughters, I did it. The red wine we wanted was sold out when we went to get it in quantity, but we found another. I’d ordered his ring in July, and by mid-October, it hadn’t arrived. After a series of panicked communications, the maker sent a replacement that got to us three days before the wedding. And flower day, where my daughter and sister-in-law were making table arrangements and a bouquet for me, didn’t go smoothly. It was the day before the wedding, and I was melting down over the music, and people were asking too many questions and having too many opinions and I burst into tears and told everyone to stop talking to me for a minute.

I texted my guy, “I suppose it’s too late to elope?”

He texted back, “I’m afraid so, honey.”

So I saddled up, and we finished the day, and everyone forgave me for yelling and crying.

Let’s do this thing

The day itself was beautiful. My middle daughter did my hair and makeup in San’s luxury condo, while downstairs in the club room, everything was picked up and delivered and set up by friends and family in the club room, invisible hands doing the impossible list of last-minute tasks that brought it all together. There were flowers everywhere, and tables of delicious food, and more wine than anyone could drink. My sister-in-law had developed delicious punches and made frozen ice rings with flowers and springs of lavender to float with them, and I’d found nut and mint dishes to set out on the cake table so I could have my 1940s vision of cake, punch, nuts and mints. The music played and people laughed and smiled and hugged each other, everyone was there and present including my dad, following along with a printed-out copy of the ceremony and vows, so he didn’t miss anything. We stood up in front of everyone and said the magic words. My guy became my husband, and I became his wife, and we all cried and laughed and celebrated the impossible wonder of that, together.

What worked and what worked better

So what would I have done differently? It’s easy to say “nothing,” because the day came together so beautifully. So here are thoughts and notes about what went right, and what could have been handled a little differently.

Timing: Based on my previous weddings (one of which came together from a Wednesday to a Sunday — yes, five days) I underestimated how much time it would take to put this all together. The time constraint was brutal, but my father was housebound soon after the wedding. This really was our only chance to have him there. I’m glad we did it when we did it, despite how compressed our planning and execution was.

Matron of honor: My best friend from high school was my maid-of-honor. I am glad she was and I wouldn’t have chosen a different one, but apparently, I never told her that she was going to stand up with me. She was as surprised as could be to get a corsage, to be in the wedding party photos, and then to be called up as an attendant! She says she’d have worn a dress, rather than wearing slacks! So, as a note, please let your attendants know several times that they are, indeed, attendants, removing any element of surprise from your wedding party.

Flowers: My daughters went to a wonderful florist and picked out special blooms for a bouquet for me, and my oldest daughter made the bouquet of my dreams. I really didn’t expect anything so amazing. The flower arrangements were also magnificent — white roses and greenery. These were done for me as a wedding gift from my daughter, and she was helped by my sister-in-law. There were also white orchids to set along the fireplace and here and there. When it was time to go, we invited people to take the table arrangements home. I got so many sweet photos texted to me with words like, “Still blooming” in the weeks to come. The orchids went home with our Orcas Island friends, who have a way with them. When we visit, we can count on seeing our wedding orchids blooming at their home.

Decor: My middle daughter took me on a Home Goods, Michael’s run. We found what I’d come for, which was pretty cake plates and napkins and silverware, but she pushed me beyond my comfort zone to a guest book, tablecloths and tablesquares, and these funny little coasters so people could write advice to us. “This is the fun stuff, Mom.” She bought most of it, too, and it enhanced the look of the room immensely. And it was, indeed, fun.

Cake: I thought four cakes was plenty. But after the wedding, when I asked people which cake they had, most said, “Oh, all four!” So if you do my nifty method of wedding cake provision, order more than you think you’ll need. Everyone will want to try everything.

Music: After a grueling, emotional assembly of a Spotify playlist that resulted in a tantrum and a request to elope, I didn’t remember to turn the music back on after the toasts. I advise that you do so.

Help: People wanted to help more than I let them. I should have let them. We hired a woman to keep the buffet tables straight, to organize the garbage and recycling, to just keep things going in the room of much food. She was worth twice what we paid for her services. She and San did the clean-up (San had volunteered and said she was paid in full for her own services with leftovers and have I mentioned that San is magnificent?).

Food: We ordered for fifty guests, and had 65. We could have fed twice that many people with what our caterers delivered. Everyone raved about the food, but I only ate a little because my new husband brought me a plate of what he knew I’d love; stuffed artichoke bottoms, pastry-wrapped artichoke spears, a short rib crostini with remoulade. There was so much food there. Have small to-go boxes handy so people can take food home with them, because food this delicious shouldn’t go to waste.

Favors: We overbought wine, sparkling cider and champagne on purpose, and each guest left with one or two bottles of something. I think this is a fine wedding favor/remembrance.

Nuts and mints: I loved having them out, but no one ate them. I didn’t care. I might not have had a suit, gloves and a hat, and it was too late in the day for a luncheon, but we did have cake and punch, nuts and mints.

And that’s that.

That’s what it’s like to get married when you’re older, I guess. With family and flowers, good friends and good food, with love and laughter and lots and lots of help from people who love you and wish you well. I recommend it. I recommend it with no reservations.

But my new husband and I agree. The next time we marry each other?

We are definitely eloping.

On ranch homes and roots.

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.

Amway Dream Home

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.

Reader, guess who bought it.

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 Strophes

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:

FALL

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.

Over at the Ranch

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…

The future of the ranch

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.

 

 

 

The Gentry Books are here. That’s almost like Christmas.

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.

YES.

What’s it all about, Karen?

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 Gentry books are fiction.

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.

Not my mom, not my life.

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.

Case in point? Bitter divorces!

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?

Please go check them out.

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.

 

Invisible Committees and the Judgment of Others

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

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.

God is Watching Us

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.

The Universe

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.

Neighbors

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.

Post-Burbs

“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…

Social Media

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.

But why?

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.

Soldier of the Heart: Saying Goodbye to Brother Steve

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.

Promises

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.

Realities

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.

Saints and sinners

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.

My Brilliant 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.

His voice

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.

The memorial

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.

Destinations

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.

The Iris Files is Live!

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