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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Yes, that’s a new book cover, and it’s an anthology of hopeful stories (including one of mine).
Really, it couldn’t have come at a better time, could it? When a friend sent out a call for stories centered on hope, I scoffed. “Hope? I don’t write anything hopeful. I HAVE NO HOPE.” And then I remembered this little hopeful story I’d written, and I sent it in, and, well…
…it gave me some hope.
2020 wasn’t kind to any of us, was it? (And 2021 is off to a shaky start at best!) Pandemic, economic collapse, out-of-control wildfires the world ’round, ice storms, murder hornets…and that’s without even discussing politics. It’s time to send some good energy out there into the world. Good luck, good wishes, good magic, talismans and rituals and lucky charms–you name it, we’ve got it here.
BLACK-EYED PEAS ON NEW YEAR’S DAY is a multi-genre anthology focused on hope. Here you’ll find more than a double dozen tales–fantasy, science fiction, literary, even nonfiction–that will bring a smile to your face and some optimism to your heart. After all, we’re all in this together. (Except the murder hornets. They’re not welcome here.)
This is a wonderful, diverse, and extensive collection of short stories (and a few miscellany) based on the theme of Hope. Which is understandable, and in some ways mandated by the past year of Covid, racial injustice and tension, political divisiveness, conspiracy craziness, and simple mean-spiritedness that has permeated almost all levels of culture. Of course, there is another way to view the past year, and that is the unfettered creativity and triumph of the human spirit that emerged in front-line workers, parents, teachers, and a whole host of others. And this is where the Black-Eyed Peas Anthology is situated. On the positive side of the line. It is, quite simply, an antidote.
-Paul S. Piper, author of Dogs and Other Poems and The Wolves of Mirr
There’s Amazon: Black-Eyed Peas on New Year’s Day
And e-books can be ordered and downloaded directly from the publisher, Book View Cafe: Black-Eyed Peas on New Year’s Day
I’ve had my first shot, and I’m scheduled for my second. My one great big hope right now is that I’ll be able to SAFELY take my older grandson to the Dinosaurs exhibit at OMSI in May.
A long conversation between author Karen G. Berry and Susan Sabol, her dear friend of many decades, which is included in The Iris Files, and reprinted here for your enjoyment. And you WILL enjoy it.
Sue: Why did you write this book?
Karen: Iris was a character in a short story I wrote trying to get into a creative writing class. I didn’t get in, I don’t write good short stories. But I always wondered about her full story. One day, I decided to tell it.
Sue: You write as if you are intimately familiar with life in suburbia. Are you?
Karen: Absolutely. I moved out to the suburbs when I was 23 years old. I hated it at first, but I stayed out here. And the truth is, I have grown to absolutely love the suburbs. Tall trees and birds and open windows, a big yard for my dogs, and the sound of the train on a quiet night. I always have a place to park.
Sue: Talk about the ways in which you think Iris speaks for all mothers.
Karen: Wow. That’s a question. I think motherhood is a very messy, visceral job. Before you become a parent you’re fed this Pinterest ideal of cotton clothing and handmade wooden toys; co-sleeping and making your own baby food and four years of breastfeeding, all carried out at an aesthetically pleasing level. That’s something that’s gotten so much worse over the years. And how motherhood looks is not how motherhood is. It’s a battlefield, and Iris is a front-line soldier.
Sue: What makes Hart Bourne tick?
Karen: I’ve always seen him as a man who is desperately unhappy with himself, who externalizes his self-loathing on the people around him. If you have the misfortune of being married to a man like that, you’ll spend your entire existence trying to figure out what you’re doing wrong. And he’ll let you do that so he doesn’t have to face the source of his pain—himself. It’s so much easier for him to blame Iris, isn’t it?
Sue: Do you think that Hart is an archetype?
Karen: He’s such a personally constructed character. I hope he’s not a common archetype. But thank you for asking about him—I actually feel for Hart, and most people despise him too much to wonder what he’s made of.
Sue: Minah Bourne showed up first in Love and Mayhem. It’s nice to see her again. Will you continue to include connections between your books in work to come?
Karen: Absolutely. My books are influenced by writers who are very much better than me, but they do things I admire. The obvious connection in the trailer park book is Faulkner. Lots of Joad in there, and Fossetta Sweet is a Faulknerian character. Now, I know that I am NO Faulkner. But I read him and I love him and this interconnectedness is something I strive for. Another writer who does this brilliantly is Haven Kimmel. She writes the books I would write in my dreams. I’ve read every book she’s ever written, and we’re in a dry spell while she rewrites a new novel, so I went on Amazon and found her mother’s self-published stuff and bought all that on Kindle. I’m desperate. I love the way she weaves her characters together even in the most glancing ways. I feel so intelligent and so jubilant when I make the connections. I’m not Haven Kimmel, but I do want to do that for my readers.
Sue: So you’ll carry on with these characters?
Karen: Some of them. Not telling which ones.
Sue: Do you hide secrets in your books?
Karen: Absolutely every time.
Sue: Do you want to talk about that?
Karen: Well then they wouldn’t be secrets, Sue.
Sue: How do you come up with the names for your characters?
Karen: I’m actually terrible at names. I usually start out with some stupid name, and then at some point the name is so overwhelmingly wrong that I have to put some thought into it. So I have baby books, and then there’s the Internet. I also save lists of names I hear when I’m out and about. I worked at a business-to-business telemarketing company and I kept a big list of names, and I still use it. The first name on the list is important in a book I’m currently writing.
Sue: What’s your favorite childhood book?
Karen: When I was thirteen, I read The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, and The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. Those books were long and grotesque and wonderful and they probably warped my perception of life, but I loved them. I reread them all through my teens and twenties.
Sue: Do you still have them?
Karen: I still have the original copies. But thirteen is not childhood. Childhood was the Raggedy Ann and Andy books, and the Oz books, and the Black Cauldron books and the Narnia series. I loved a good series and always will. I did love some standalone books, like Linnets and Valerians, and The Wind in the Willows, and Journey Outside by Mary Q. Steele. Have you read that? It’s about a boy who lives in a community made of a series of rafts that travel an underground river. He realizes that they’re traveling a loop, so he jumps off and comes out into the world. It’s a fantastic quest story that involves a nasty sunburn and shorts made of fish skin. I highly recommend it.
(please note, after this conversation, Sue sent me a copy of this book, so now I have two.)
Another series that was important to me was the Whiteoaks of Jalna series by Mazo de la Roche. It’s a long historical romance series about a Canadian family, and it’s idiosyncratic and personal and hilarious and wonderful and flawed. When I was 19, I spent a summer feverishly checking the books out of the Missoula public library. They had the same pleasures that my favorite childhood books held, like recurring characters and the power of a place and fascinating buildings and long difficult family meals and even pets, things I loved long before I ever read Faulkner. That’s what I’ve always wanted to write.
Sue: What’s the first book that made you cry?
Karen: Books make me cry all the time, and I started reading early, so I probably can’t remember what it was. It might have been one of the Mother West Wind books. I was raised in part in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and L. Frank Baum is from there, so the Wizard of Oz books were all on the shelf at the library. I started walking to the library when I was seven, and I took them all out, so it might have been something in there. The glass cat with the ruby heart struck me as glamorous and tragic.
Sue: Are your characters ever based on real people?
Karen: Absolutely not. Everything is made up. EVERY SINGLE THING.
Sue: Is this book autobiographical in any way? Can’t you share something?
Karen: I’ll tell you the part about answering this question that’s difficult. Every horrible thing that Hart says to Iris was said to me in one of my marriages. Most of it was word for word. It’s painful when people read this book and say, “How could any self-respecting woman let her husband say these things to her without leaving him?” And those people have a point. It’s horrifying what you’ll tolerate when you’re trying to hold a family together. I hope readers extend some empathy to Iris for that. There are some other similarities, but Iris is her own character, and her marriage is her own marriage, and what happens in it is her own story.
Sue: I love that answer.
Karen: Did I successfully skirt the issue?
Sue: I think so. Talk about why this book needs a Nick.
Karen: Nick reminds us all that we have the capacity to accept life and be happy for it. We can roll with it. That’s something we lose as we get older and become more cynical. So I love his innocence.
Sue: That’s why I love Nick, too, Karen.
Karen: Wike it?
Sue: Wike it.
Karen: Atsa awesome.
Sue: What was the hardest scene in this book for you to write and why?
Karen: The hardest scene to write was Iris’s epiphany at the end. Because Iris is very much like I was, in that she doesn’t choose or plan what happens to her, she just copes with whatever comes at her, and she endures. And she finally reaches a point where she is going to have to make a choice, and it almost kills her. It was hard to write because I honestly didn’t know what Iris was going to do until I was writing the scene. I knew what I wanted her to do, I was cheering her on, but she could have gone either way. I’d have had to live with it.
Sue: What, if anything, did you edit out of this book?
Karen: Originally I had a deranged character who sort of floated around the edges of these women’s lives as a specter. She still makes some appearances when Jane and Iris are at the Goodwill. She’s frightening and prophetic, but I already had the dogs in there as a canine Greek chorus, so I didn’t need another suffering witness to the pain of Iris and her family. I also took out Raymond’s father’s story, because I didn’t like it. But I wanted Iris’s first pregnancy to be unplanned and outside her marriage. That much stayed in.
Sue: Iris certainly availed herself of many forms of birth control.
Karen: People love that part!
Sue: Now, we’re talking about many women not even having access to that kind of care.
Karen: Terrifying, isn’t it? And for women, our biology is very often our destiny. That is not a very popular viewpoint right now, because birth control is supposed to help us reshape that. But even with every barrier, conceptions happen, and children are the most overwhelming and irrevocable choice that most of us ever make. I guess having birth control not work for Iris was a way to examine how fertility can affect your life and your goals. You try to plan, and instead you just cope and endure. I think it’s important to remember how profoundly women’s lives are shaped by their fertility.
Sue: Are marriages supposed to be happy?
Karen: I’m not sure. We take our cues from our parents’ marriages, and we can repeat some terrible patterns. I think you have to have seen a good relationship to appreciate what one is supposed to be. Most early marriages are based on what you already know. That’s why I believe we should marry a lot of times until we get it right! But seriously, I’m at the point in my life where I only want to have a relationship if it’s predominantly happy and pleasing. And I envy people whose marriages were like that from the get-go, but mine certainly were not. I keep learning and changing and trying. I’d like to get this right at least once.
(another note: I believe I have finally gotten this one right.)
Sue: What do you think about divorce?
Karen: Divorce is so terrible, right until it’s not. Breaking up a marriage is hideous and painful and awful, and you’re dying inside and hopeless and crying all the time and looking for bridges, then—one day—there’s a moment when you realize that you’re surviving. More time passes, and then you’re thriving. Then, you go on a nice long honeymoon with yourself, and it’s the best relationship you’ve ever had. Eventually you decide to see other people, and life gets stupid and complicated again, but in the beginning when it’s just you and yourself on that honeymoon? It’s magical.
It’s astonishing to think you can survive something that wretched, and have life get better. I always compare it to a really bad pruning job on a sick tree. You hack it back and you think it has to be dead. And the next spring it’s the prettiest and healthiest tree in the neighborhood.
Sue: Like Arno’s tree.
Karen: Exactly like Arno’s tree.
Sue: So are you pro-divorce?
Karen: Oh, no. I’m not pro-divorce. I am pro surviving divorce. At heart, I have a really traditional view of marriage and commitment and fidelity, which surprises me because I remember being so angry when I was married. I knew I was diminished in some basic ways. And you know, I don’t think it’s men who expect women to diminish themselves in marriage. I think we do it to ourselves, probably because of some big blanket of perceived societal expectations. We carve off big hunks of ourselves to be safe and available. I did, at least. And the husbands are baffled by these safe, selfless creatures, these wives. They’re left wondering where those funny, interesting women they married have gone to. Men would probably prefer to be married to independent, interesting women, don’t you think?
Sue: What do you wish you could tell Iris?
Karen: Iris has no perspective on the fact that parenthood at the level she’s doing it is a temporary state. I have the advantage now of having moved through that part of parenting. But when you’re in it, you’re in the trenches and you have no idea that it’s ever going to be over, or how you’re going to survive it. I wish I could tell her, “If you just hold on, it gets better!” I think her mother gently tries to tell her that. Her mother is quietly determined to enjoy her life. She loves being a grandmother and she loves the kids, but she isn’t going to take it on again.
Karen: It’s a necessary selfishness. One of my kids has thanked me for what she used to see as selfishness on my part. She says it showed her that women have the right to pursue creative goals, and to have pursuits in their lives that have nothing to do with their children. She thinks that’s a valuable lesson.
For me, I was selfish about writing and relationships. I barely dated anyone, I wasn’t dragging men through here or anything, but I’d go away for a weekend now and then. I had a life. So I think Iris needs to be more selfish from here on out. More determined to have some scrap of something that belongs to just her.
Sue: Why does Iris act so out of character in Hawaii?
Karen: She takes an exquisite revenge. I think if you don’t violently cheer on Iris for that evening, then you probably won’t like anything I write, ever.
Sue: Sonny’s story is a difficult one, because when the book ends, you have no idea how it will come out for him.
Karen: Well, this world of gender and identity is a difficult one. I want to love and respect and support what everyone is going through in the world, and in society, and in my family. I believe that people have genders that don’t match their sex organs, 100% I believe that is true. But frankly, it’s confusing to me, and it’s difficult for me in ways that surprise me. I need to grow, and growth is never comfortable. Writing about it is one way to deal with that.
All right, now I want to ask you a question.
Sue: Cool. All right.
Karen: When you and I were young moms together, how did we help each other survive?
Sue: Oh. We had an alternate reality where for like, four hours at a time, we pretended that we were normal twenty-somethings. Watching videos and drinking beer and cracking each other up.
Karen: And eating M&Ms. Beer and M&Ms sounds terrible, but it worked.
Sue: Sometimes we got to go out. Rarely.
Karen: I remember when we went to Gaffer’s Pub and there were all those Jimmy Buffet fans, and we kept interrupting their Parrothead songs on the jukebox with Al Green and Terence Trent D’Arby and Prince.
Sue: They kept coming over to talk to us. And buying us drinks. And showing us their watches.
Karen: Yes! They all had big fancy watches! And when they asked for our numbers, you chastely demurred that you were married, but I gave them the attendance hotline number at the grade school. That was one of the few numbers I knew by heart.
Sue: You created that feeling perfectly with Iris’s friends, their little enclave on the deck.
Karen: I’m so glad I captured it. Those times were perfect. I think our friends keep us sane. I think we’re probably supposed to live in little groups of maybe six women and one man, helping each other raise the kids and keeping each other sane. These polygamy people probably have it right. I’m not ready to be a sister wife, but one husband would probably be adequate for six women. And if he wasn’t, well, there would be roofers.
Sue: By the way, have you ever gawked at real roofers?
Karen: Sue, you’ve known me since I was 26 years old. You know how much “vague lustful speculation” I’ve engaged in over the years. Not particularly for roofers, but do you remember?
Sue: I remember everything!
Karen: Oh dear. Let’s talk about something else.
Sue: Okay. Do you think Iris has the right to write about her life?
Karen: That’s an important question. He says, “You can’t write about us,” and she says, “But you’re all I’ve got.” The question is more important now than ever. So many women are turning their families into businesses. These curated, blogged-about, Instagrammed families are monetized, but it’s not really a new thing. Joyce Maynard wrote about her family, and before that Erma Bombeck wrote about her family, and before them Shirley Jackson wrote about her family in Life Among the Savages. Jackson was a premier American horror writer and she also wrote these beautiful, hilarious books about raising her family in upstate New York.
So this is a tradition for women writers, and it’s still a big question. For many of us, the domestic realm is our subject matter, this is where we live, where we fight our battles and have our triumphs. And if we deny ourselves the right to write about those, what do we have? It’s a personal issue for me. I used to keep an anonymous blog, and one of my kids found it, and she felt so invaded when she’d pop up in it. And I see her point. That’s why this book, where it’s autobiographical, it’s really buried deeply. I don’t want to be accused of writing about my family and violating their privacy.
Sue: Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Karen: Energizes me.
Sue: I knew you were going to say that. What’s your writing Kryptonite?
Karen: Is Kryptonite what kills you? Because I’m not dead yet.
Sue: Kryptonite takes away your power.
Karen: Okay. A lack of solitude and privacy and uninterrupted time. Without those I can’t write. That’s why writing is a selfish endeavor.
Sue: Has publishing your books changed anything about how you write?
Karen: It didn’t change how I write—it gave me permission continue to writing what I want to write, the way I want to write it, period. It is enormously freeing to self-publish. There is so much advice out there about finding your commercial niche, and that has nothing to do with my goals for my writing.
The writers I love are all firmly mid-list. And they’re all assistant chairs of the creative writing departments at small colleges or something like that. None of the writers I adore are making a lucrative living with their brilliant books. Realizing that I can publish my books, sell my modest amount of copies and not have to worry about changing them to be more commercial so one of the houses will take a chance on me—it’s just changed everything for me, Sue, it’s made me so happy.
Sue: What does literary success look like to you?
Karen: Literary success is when you write work that deeply affects the people who read it. And it has nothing to do with how many copies you sell. If anyone is affected by anything I write, I count myself as a success.
When did everyone start loving ranch homes? I remember when the battle cry for house hunting was “Anything but a ranch!” Ranches were plain, boxy, a capitulation to suburban living in all its mundane boredom.
I know, I know, it’s all because of Chip and Joanna Gaines. I like what they do so much that I can tell you the names of my favorite ranch home rehabs: Big Daddy’s House and the Worm Brick House. It’s not the décor so much–Joanna’s initial enthusiasm for flaking paint and patchy rust are not to my taste, nor are her more current themes of black metal and artificial flowers–but they take those houses apart and put them back together in such pleasing ways. When I watch House Hunters on HGTV (which I started to do a week after the last election, because MSNBC was making me lose my will to live) I am surprised at how many people go looking for ranches as their preferred style. Something has CHANGED, people.
As a house-hunter in the late 1980s, I was one of those people, of course. What I wanted more than anything was a Craftsman home with intact, unpainted woodwork. We (my ex-husband and I) even found one, but lacked the necessary fortitude to trust our guts and make an offer. That rundown Craftsman sat on a large lot, right next to a house we called “the Amway Dream Home.”
The Amway Dream Home was a new construction ranch that was landscaped with grass and red lava rock, like a military base. This house had been for sale forever for very good reasons. It was a yellowish tan shoe box with trim painted the color of the contents of a baby diaper. It had an oversized double-car garage with a room of some kind next to it (my ex would drawl, “that’s for the praw-duhct”). The front yard was dominated by an enormous satellite dish. This house was absolutely devoid of architectural detail or charm.
The complexities of how, why and from whom I bought the Amway Dream Home make a great story, but that’s a story for another day. Ranch homes have their charms, as EVERYONE SEEMS TO HAVE FIGURED OUT BY NOW. They generally have all the things missing in so many cuter, quainter styles, like entries, hallways, adequate bathrooms, laundry rooms, yards, storage, parking, and so on. It’s the sheer practicality of the ranch that won over a pragmatic person like me.
And have you ever been inside a really nice daylight ranch? These are also known as walk-outs and split backs, and that lower level is a goldmine of space and opportunity. As my family grew to two adults, three kids and a medium-sized dog, my one-level ranch felt increasingly cramped. I often longed for a walk-out. And eventually I got one, but not of the architectural variety–a marital walk-out is an entirely different matter, but at least the house was no longer so small, then.
Ranch home architecture features in the short passages that introduce the season changes in The Iris Files. These passages delight some readers, and baffle others. I call them them prose strophes, which is term I’ve coined to hide the fact that they are probably just indulgences. These poetic litanies have stayed in every version and draft of the book–even when a former literary agent asked me to remove them. “Are they really necessary?” she asked. Well, listen, is ANYTHING really necessary? If I were to hold up the filter of necessity to anything that is written today (by me or anyone else), it would all fade away. This leaves me with only one answer: these passages are necessary to me.
Here’s an example:
It’s a fall afternoon, in California.
California is the land of air conditioners. In the fall, California air conditioners work steadily, and the hot air of September is monitored, measured, drawn in, cooled off, pumped out, and re-circulated.
California women are all that, and waxed.
On a fall afternoon in California, the streets are full of the sons and daughters of the mighty hunters. These children are shuttled from school to practice to lesson to playgroup. Despite their busy schedules, these children occasionally find time to play.
When the shadows of the afternoon begin to lengthen, the women step out of their climate-controlled homes. They call their children in for dinner. And the women lift their expensively highlighted heads of hair, and wonder when and if their men will return home.
Ranch architecture is varied, but predictable. There are one-levels and tri-levels, walk-out basements and split entries. Everyone envies the tri-levels. Everyone despises the split entries. But people are divided on the walk-outs. No one knows if the walk-outs are a good thing, or a bad thing.
Nothing ever changes, in California.
I’m worshiping with words in these passages, and I’m worshiping the idea that each of these cookie-cutter homes is unique. If you were to step inside one of them, you’d see a thousand differences that tell the story of the lives lived within. Yes, there are bland and annoying people in every neighborhood, living in every kind of home. But I’m not convinced that any neighborhood in my city is more or less likely to hold annoying neighbors.
I have lived in my ranch home for thirty years, now. The bulk of my life has been spent at one address. For someone whose childhood was as fractured and nomadic as mine, this is a miracle. It’s also weird as hell to live in one house for thirty years these days. No one does it. Except–all around me, I have neighbors who have. We have lived here forever, side-by-side.
I used to feel the need to apologize for my determined rootedness. But then I found this sweet meme on Tumblr, and it made perfect sense to me.
I mean, if Simone Weil says so…
These days, my ranch home feels mighty spacious, as it holds only two tall people and two miniscule dogs. The dogs are old, but the man is sort of young. He’s younger than me, at least. We both feel the pull of other places, other ways of living once we retire. We talk about where we might buy next, send each other links to places we like that won’t even be for sale in ten years, but it doesn’t hurt to look, to plan, to speculate about where we might end up.
As it turns out, in addition to our many other areas of compatibility, we both have the same dream home–the aforementioned Craftsman with rooms full of intact dark brown woodwork, built-ins, you name it, we want it. I have no idea if we will ever live in a place like that. In all likelihood, we’ll get a boring condo that’s an excellent deal, because we’re both so practical.
But until pragmatism rears its head to ruin everything, it’s fun to dream together.
It’s time for a cover reveal for that book I was going on about; here it is! Well, a draft of it, anyway. This beautiful cover (featuring Reba, the Dachshund matriarch) was designed by the fantastic Mark Ferrari. The cover has me so excited!
The book will be live soon. Here is the synopsis, so you know what’s in store:
“I have five kids. I don’t have time to be happy.”
Each day, Iris Bourne runs a gauntlet in the California suburbs: dealing out meals with the ease of a professional card shark, scaling mountains of laundry, acting as judge and jury for sibling battles, negotiating bedtime with the skill of a career diplomat.
Iris has time for exactly one hobby—entering contests—and she’s just won a trip for two to Hawaii. She’s ready for a taste of Paradise, but her husband, Hart, keeps spoiling the mood by asking her if she’s happy. Happy? Iris has no time to be happy. When Hart announces that he is not, her life becomes even more complicated.
With nonstop humor and heartbreaking honesty, Iris navigates parenthood, loss, new romance and the burdens of caregiving. Most importantly, she learns the lessons and limits of forgiveness. Readers will laugh, cry, and cheer as Iris rallies friends and family to defend her glorious, messy, beautiful suburban life.
I’ll have an ordering link soon. Watch this space for further developments.
My children are United States citizens, born and raised here. They are the children and grandchildren of US citizens. And this is how they got here.
On my side, my children’s ancestors are relatively fresh arrivals in the early 20th century.
My birth father’s grandparents arrived from Bohemia and Germany, though the family tree holds Prussian and Belgian ancestry as well. It’s hard to track my birth name as it seems to be an Americanized name. All the people who have it in the world (625 of them) live in America. My paternal grandmother was born in America, but had a German accent all her life. Her tiny community was so German that school was conducted in that language.
My mother’s father was a first generation child of Norwegian immigrants, or maybe second generation. My aunt could confirm this. On my maternal grandmother’s side, we go right back to England, with forebears who came over on the second sailing of the Mayflower. I believe this entitles my daughters to membership in the DAR. My mother always identified with her English heritage, and my aunt always identified with her Norwegian.
So that’s me. German, Czech, Norwegian, English, with a Czech face and a Norwegian build; tall and broad, heavy-legged and ready to carry children and work the fields like a horse. I am so clearly a Northern European.
My children’s father’s people came to the USA earlier than my people did. His father’s father’s people came to Louisiana in the 1790s or early 1800s, a full hundred years before my ancestors. The exact date of arrival is hard to place, though, as his family has no record of when they were sold at market.
The girls’ grandmother’s people are based in Texas, but were an import to the area. Slavery flourished in east Texas from 1850 on, but that’s not a date of arrival or a place of origin. It’s just where cotton was growing. At some point, people were rounded up from wherever they’d been living, taken to Texas, put on the block and sold. Again, there are no sales records to consult.
Eventually, the war came. They were free. Her people stayed in Texas, and his people stayed in Louisiana. But when the girls’ grandparents came along and grew up, they didn’t stay. During WWII, my girls’ grandmother traveled to Seattle, became a CNA, and met the man who would become their grandfather. He’d come up from Louisiana to join the Merchant Marines after his heart disqualified him from the military, and traveled the world cooking on a ship. They married in their thirties, and stayed in Seattle for the rest of their lives, raising three children, welcoming four granddaughters, three of whom are mine.
Through DNA testing, my middle daughter has learned more about the genetic heritage she shares with her sisters, a history that has to replace the kind of history I have; recorded, researchable, anecdotal. On her father’s side, she seems to be almost purely Central and West African, with a tiny bit of Malaysian. The Malay Peninsula was a stop on the route of many slave ships, so that Malaysian blood makes quiet, horrible sense.
Because of how DNA testing works, there are probably white ancestors on her father’s side hiding in the general totals of this or that, bits of white that don’t actually belong to my side of the equation. That makes its own horrible sense, too. But my sober Midwestern family tree hides its own horrors. No heritage is exempt from that.
What we did discover is that there is zero Native American ancestry in my girls. Anecdotally, they’d been told they were Blackfoot and Cherokee through their great grandmother, a tall woman of severe cheekbones who still had smooth coppery skin in her nineties, when I met her. But the DNA test didn’t bear that out.
So it’s safe to say that my children, citizens of this United States, are strictly the progeny of immigrants. And if you live in the USA, and unless you are Native American, so are you.
So let’s raise a glass, Immigrants of America. Let’s toast the fact that we are all johnny-come-latelys. Those of us who were brought here against our will are the least guilty in this country of land-grabbing interlopers with no real right to be here. Those of us who are newer to the game should be welcome to join. That’s what America is built on, after all. Taking what doesn’t belong to us.
Let’s enjoy our Thanksgiving.
Note: This really is a ten year-old piece of writing about my favorite microwave and my second-favorite microwave. Seriously. Apparently nothing is too mundane for me to write about. And for the record, I still have that second microwave.
I just dropped off my microwave at a repair shop over here. Now, I know you all say, what? Karen G. Berry, are you nuts? how much does a new microwave cost, anyway? Why not just buy a new one?!
Well, for a couple of reasons. I like the way this one looks, and I like the way this one works.
I dislike programming things. I have a hard time figuring out just which information the microwave requires. When I select defrost, why does it wait? Why doesn’t it just get to the defrosting? But no, it wants some weight and some power levels entered, and every microwave is different. When I try to make a frozen dinner, sometimes it wants to know how many. Like, cooking a frozen dinner in the microwave may be one of the most pathetic “I am single and on a diet” statements a person can make, and it feels like the microwave is mocking a person, asking if perhaps she wants to put two frozen dinners in to cook. Which she doesn’t. Same with cups of “beverage.” No, the microwave is the single person’s appliance of choice, and it should be built for one.
Of course, my first microwave was large enough to hold a small turkey.
When I was 19, my mom won a $1000.00 certificate, to be redeemed for something energy-saving. She went to a microwave dealership and negotiated three Amana Radaranges, one for her, one for me, one for my sister. These usually cost $450.00. Back in 1979, $450.00 was a lot of money, and these machines were built like tanks. Moving it was a disc-rupturing event, but move it I did, because I loved that machine. (click here to see exactly what it looked like: Perfect Microwave)
It was brown, heavy gauge metal, like the cladding of a refrigerator. It had a big chrome door with a handle, and the glass in that door was thick like the glass in a real oven door. It pulled out and down like an oven door, and closed with a satisfying thunk and latch, like the door on an ancient Buick, the kind my sister’s friends were bought back in high school because parents believed those Buicks would keep their kids safe in an auto crash (my parents bought us VW Bugs…hm).
There was no digital programming. There was no such thing as digital programming in 1979. It was a big dial that you set to the time, and spring buttons you pushed to start, like an old car radio or a push-button transmission. The glass tray inside was half an inch thick. The microwave itself took up about half my available counter space in any given apartment, and sometimes had to live on top of the fridge, due to space constraints or concerns that it was so heavy that it would go crashing through the floor to the apartment below mine.
It was a beauty. It lasted forever.
Okay, obviously it didn’t last forever. If it had lasted forever, I wouldn’t be hauling in some piece of crap machine I got a year and a half ago for repair, would I? But the old microwave was a tank. In about 1987, when it was eight years old and the lightweight models were flooding the market, my former husband wrenched it open while it was running. “Oops.” That was pretty much impossible to do.
Only a man with the massive muscles of this former husband could have managed this, as it was LATCHED while it ran. These were the days when people were terrified of radiation and the thing cooked with it, but he managed to do it. It was part of his plan (I was sure) to break everything we owned that I liked, which is what he started doing after he accomplished his first plan, which was to lose every nice thing I ever gave him (his first wedding ring, his expensive leather wallet, his tank watch, and his leather attache).
Anyway. Back to the microwave.
We had a repairman out who fixed it and went it over with a Geiger counter. “Keep this,” he said. “The new ones don’t even compare.” We did. I kept it in the divorce, and I know my former husband missed it. He missed it much more than he missed me, as it always heated right up and I was more iffy.
One day after school, Oldest and Middle were fighting. This must have been in 1998 or 99. And Middle Daughter took a plastic plate and hurled it at Oldest. It hit the microwave. It cracked the glass in the door. It was not fixable.
Middle: “Mom, I’m sorry!”
Me: “You broke the microwave?”
Oldest: “She was trying to hit ME with a plate!”
Me: “And she broke the microwave?”
Oldest: “Don’t you even care if she was trying to hit me with a plate?”
Me: “She broke the microwave!”
The girls still talk about this. It’s okay. It’s listed in the Big Book of Motherly Sins, listed under Bad Parental Priorities. “Caring more about microwave than inter-child acts of violence.” My picture is there, too, staring at a 20 year-old brown microwave, my face stunned and grieving. But that’s fine. It’s labeled “Bad Mother.” Whatever. I still couldn’t believe she’d broken the microwave.
So then I had to start using regular cheap-ass microwaves, like all you other people out there. You little people with your inferior little microwaves. Plebeian microwaves. Predictable microwaves. Pedestrian microwaves.
I scorned you. And then I was one of you.
I had lost my Buick Regal microwave and I had to use the stupid little white plastic microwaves that were designed to pop corn in dorm rooms, the kind that sprung open when you pushed a plastic button, the kind that had all the little choices on plastic film on the other buttons, no dials, just weird buttons that you pushed, hoping the microwave knew that your cocoa was merely tepid and only needed thirty seconds but the beverage was set permanently at 45 seconds so it was always TOO HOT when you got it out of there.
Stupid, shabby, cheap, plastic, stupid microwaves. I’ve had several over the years. And some required programming, and I don’t even have a programmable alarm clock, that’s too complex for me, all right? My new kitchen stove is programmable and I have learned to use it, but only under duress because otherwise I’d have to ask the kids to turn on the stove for me like I did the first three months we were back in the house, and after a while they refused and made me learn to do it myself.
So, after years of grieving the old microwave, complaining about the parade of shoddy, crummy microwaves that worked for ten months and then died, comparing them to the lost splendor of the gigantic Amana Radarange, the mechanical superiority of the One Perfect Microwave, finally one day my dad brought me a microwave from Costco. And he opened it up and we looked at it and you know what it had?
It had a DIAL.
That’s right. A dial. It’s digital, but I can turn this dial to the right and it dials up the amount of time I want, and then I hit start. Oh, the display is digital, and I do have to program it to get certain things done, so it is not exactly like the old Buick microwave. But it’s enough like it that when this one stopped working, I wanted to take it in and have it repaired, rather than replacing it.
I’ve been carting the microwave around in my car for about a month, now, waiting to get to the repair shop. Everyone who has ridden in my van has remarked on the presence of the microwave, generally with a snickered little aside about why would I have it repaired when a new one costs how much? And I’ve had to explain the knob thing to all of them, how I like knobs, not really good with digital programming, and this one is nice-looking, it has a HANDLE, even, rather than some spring button you push to open it. And they all scoff but people are generally kind when they realize how simple I am, so they leave me alone.
It took sort of a harmonic convergence to get it there, a special moment when the shop was open, I was near the shop, and my memory functioned enough to jog me into stopping there.
That happened today.
So first, the door opened and a nice looking young man with his name stitched on a tag on his shirt came out and I told him I wanted to drop off a microwave and he smiled and said he didn’t work there but he’d help me carry it in. So that was embarrassing because apparently I have turned into my mother, but then this woman came out of the repair shop and said “I’ll help her!” And my, what an extraordinary creature she was.
She was statuesque, not in the euphemistic sense, but in the tall and strongly built way, strong arms and shoulders, slimmer legs, good shape but plenty of curves. Tanning booth tan. She had long fluffy bleached blonde hair, all layered and curled and with bangs, even. Lots of eye makeup, all of it black, maroon lipstick, teeth were kind of badly spaced. She had on a black knit tank dress with slits up the sides, a very elegant dress to be wearing to check appliances in at a small repair shop, and she had on strappy black high heeled sandals, as well. Manicure, pedicure.
And then she had on the most amazing array of strange costume jewelry. It was like, big fake square rhinestones, and rings that had the plating worn off to the base metal, and all of it clearly, obviously false and very worn.
She was all business, checking me in. I looked around as she did so, looking at the machines for sale, answering the information questions, and when it got to where I needed to tell her what was going on, I started on my “I know it’s not a deluxe model, it’s just that it has a dial and I…”
“You don’t have to explain that to me,” she said with a smile. And I realized that she was right. I was talking to perhaps the only person in the greater Portland Metro area who understood why I wanted to keep this microwave, rather than getting a new one. Not only did she understand me, she supported me in this, as it meant business for her and the man who actually does the repair.
I felt validated.
And so, now, it’s just waiting. Waiting to find out if the machine is able to be repaired, waiting to see how much it will cost, waiting for the Goddess of the Microwave to call me and tell me that my microwave-with-the knob is ready to come home.
I wonder what she’ll be wearing when I pick it up.
I am Karen Berry. And, oh, all you other Karen Berrys, there are so many of you. I mean, just do a google image search for Karen Berry. I don’t even pop up until the fifth or sixth row, where a slightly distorted photo of me announces my inclusion in the Impractical Cats anthology (a tiny book I absolutely love, where all the poetry is in the shape of cats–mine is called “Murder”). I pop up again a few rows down in my glasses, linked to MyWriting.network. But in between are all the other Karen Berrys of the world, with all their different ages and hair lengths and smiles and professions. And guess what?
Oh yes, Karen Berrys of the world, I get your email. I get your purchase receipts from New Seasons. I get your notes from worried committee members who need to find out about community service options. I get your worship leader schedules and your prayer chain reminders. I get your sternly instructive letters from your Doms. I get your heartfelt letters from long-lost fathers, and four different letters from one mother, who, when I write her back to tell she’s not writing to her daughter, she writes me again to tell me about the funny lady who keeps writing back to her. I get reminders from your dentist.
I get lists of Florida events from Ticketmaster, and no matter how many times I go in there and change my preferences to Portland, the opera and indie-folk concerts, I continue to get notifications about Florida, monster truck rallies and Toby Keith concerts. Karen Berry in Florida, you have the WORST TASTE in entertainment events.
I get an impressive amount of soccer-related email meant for a Karen Berry in Virginia, who has a son named Ryan. Four or five emails a day, inviting me to enroll my son Ryan in camps where he can be seen by the best college soccer coaches in the country. I wonder, sometimes, if Ryan is disappointed not to be contacted by any of these coaches. I bet Ryan wonders why no one sends him any notifications about soccer camps when he so diligently signed up using his mother’s email.
These are some of the professions of the other Karen Berrys: lawyer, nurse, eye doctor, coffee shop proprietor, nun, private investigator, student, nurse, horse trainer, college professor, college student, summer camp administrator. Those other Karen Berrys belong to gyms that want to talk about membership cards, and they sign up for marathon training clubs, and they purchase extended appliance warranties that are on the verge of expiring right now unless immediate action is taken. One of them is looking to buy a home somewhere in England and there are realtors who send listings in Bristol with the price listed in pounds, using a cool symbol that I don’t even have on my computer keyboard.
One Karen Berry has a son that periodically needs payday loans, resulting in a sporadic barrage of email from shysters who want to loan me money at exorbitant rates. I have received banking documents, employment documents, documents that contain names, birthdates and social security numbers. When this happens, I send them right back, letting the sender know that he or she has just sent this sensitive information to an absolute stranger. Then I delete, delete. It’s gone. Someone else might not be so careful.
I will never know, other Karen Berrys, if you are the problem here. I will never know if it is you who enters my email instead of your own while paying for your organic pork chops, or if it’s an error on the part of the person who is entering your email from a form. I don’t know who to blame. Back when it first happened, and I had more time to screw off in my life, I would occasionally write back and pretend to be a different Karen Berry. I admit it, I was a prankster. But there are simply too many of you to prank at this point. I only very occasionally reply, and it’s to tell someone they didn’t reach the Karen Berry they wanted. Usually, I unsubscribe, I filter, I block.
But there are so many of you other Karen Berrys. And I’m glad beat you all to the punch with Gmail.