Posts Tagged: personal history

The Cigarette

A lit cigarette sits in a crystal ashtray, its smoke curling seductively.

Photo courtesy Pixabay

Not smoking

I have always despised smoking and loved smokers. That’s where the action is, at a party. Outside with the smokers, even when you’re not smoking a cigarette, like me. In fact, my first stab at writing a memoir was titled “Not Smoking.”

My parents (one mom, an original father, an eventual dad) smoked with the abandon of people who took up the habit long before the surgeon general’s warning went on the packets. My childhood was spent choking my way through a hazy scrim of tobacco smoke, complaining and whining with every breath.

When I was eleven, I spent a year removing my parents’ cigarettes from the pack, drawing a red line round the midpoint of each cigarette with a red felt tip, and carefully returning them to the package. I did this to entire cartons of cigarettes for most of a year in order to keep my parents from smoking down into the dangerous second half of the cigarette (something I saw on a PSA, I’m sure). My dad smoked them down anyway, but Mom trained herself to only ever smoke half a cigarette in deference to my concerns.

It was inconceivable that I would ever smoke.

Things change.

We’d left Arkansas shortly before my thirteenth birthday and moved to a log cabin on a ranger station in Montana. It was almost as rustic as it sounds, aside from the electricity and indoor plumbing. The name “Gallatin” will be overly used in this forthcoming sentence, because we lived in the Gallatin Valley carved by the Gallatin River through the Gallatin Range, named after Albert Gallatin, who was the longest-serving Secretary of the Treasury, and let’s just top this all off with the fact that I went to school in Gallatin Gateway. My sister went to school in Bozeman.

I don’t quite understand what had happened to us in Montana. In Arkansas, we were academically gifted girls who sang in the choir and had boyfriends. At age twelve, I’d been attending high school in Booneville, because it started in seventh grade. I was an odd one who only ever had one friend at a time, and counted myself lucky to have that one. My sister actually ran in cliques. She’d always included me in Arkansas.

Montana was a social challenge for both of us, since we lived an hour’s bus ride from our respective schools. She went to the bus stop later than I did, and was dropped off earlier. I was the first stop, out there in the icy darkness before 7am, and also the last dropped off. I assumed this was because the bus driver, like almost everyone else at Gateway, hated me. I had left Booneville High behind for a K through 8 grade school, and I did not fit in.

My sister wasn’t having much more luck. After a little recon, it became clear to her that even though we were “good kids” with excellent grades and definite nerd-like qualities, the only social group we stood a chance with in Bozeman was the hoods. You know, the heads, the stoners, the greasers, whatever you called them in your hometown back in the olden days. They were the hoods in Bozeman, Montana.

To be a hood, you had to smoke.

That took practice.

My sister had run away for a short time (I was in eighth grade, she must have been in tenth). She hitchhiked to Minneapolis and stayed with a friend from her junior high years. She returned a smoker. I wasn’t, so we stole a pack of Benson & Hedges 100s from the refrigerator shelf where my parents stored their signature smokes and went down to crouch on the riverbank.

She coached me in the fine art of inhaling. I would draw deeply, filling my mouth with the foul, forbidden smoke. “Like this?”

“No, you have to inhale it in,” she’d say.

The smoke would come out of my mouth and make my eyes water. I’d give it another try. “Am I doing it now?”

She would study me and shake her head. “You have to breathe it.”

I had no idea how to do that, which makes no sense because it was just breathing. I knew how to breathe. I kept trying.

Eventually, it was too cold down by the river. But my sister could drive. My parents had graduated from the VW Microbus to a pair of VW Beetles. One was a bright orange Super Beetle, and that was our parents’ car. The other was older, with a dull red paint job, and that was the one we could drive the twenty miles to Bozeman whenever we wanted to.

Our unthinkable independence.

You might wonder why a pair of wayward sisters aged fourteen and sixteen were allowed to drive into a college town, basically at will. I can’t answer that for you. I wonder myself. There were absolutely no parameters put on our behavior by my parents, other than not bothering them.

Our father might try to be stern with us at our mother’s behest—in fact, that was why my sister ran away, because he’d yelled at her for something. Her running away ended his attempts to restore some order to our adolescence. So, it was my mother who made the rules. And her rule was, there were no rules. We could wear what we wanted, eat what we wanted, read what we wanted, go where we wanted. Or not! Mom didn’t care, as long as we didn’t involve her.

If we drove to Bozeman and came home at three in the morning, she did not care. If we received terrible grades, she did not care. If we skipped school but were clever enough to forge our own attendance excuses, she did not care. Even if I misbehaved at school badly enough to involve a call home, she didn’t care, unless it somehow embarrassed her, in which case I heard about it. But if we argued, and the noise from that impinged on our mother’s mental airspace, then all holy hell would rain down. We learned to argue in whispers.

Pin money.

My sister drove us to Bozeman often. My family was broke as usual, but we would always have a little babysitting money. We knew how to make that last.

We dragged Main, because even with the gas crisis, we were in a VW Bug and it basically ran on air. We went to Sambo’s for coffee (“Ask Me About The Tiger Club!”) because coffee cost a dime. We sat there for hours, taking up a four-top for a twenty cent tab. We went to midnight movies, even though I often fell asleep because I was a growing child. We sat at the Western Café so she could ogle her crush, who worked there as a busboy (his name was Bob, he had a sheepskin coat and a gurgling laugh, and when he pierced her ears with a needle and dental floss, she fainted).

And we went to the Student Union Building (the SUB we called it) at Montana State University. The SUB was in a basement. It held pool tables, bowling lanes, and an enormous commons that had a fantastic jukebox. It was the jukebox we loved. We only played two songs, “Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder, and “Reeling in the Years” by Steely Dan. There must have been a serious sound system involved, because you could hear the two glorious guitars dueling their way from speaker to speaker in the latter.

(put in your earbuds and crank the volume for maximum enjoyment and hearing damage)

The perfect setting.

Here, finally, I finally smoked my first cigarette. The pilfered Benson & Hedges 100. It went down easy. I was instantly cool. Inhaling was just breathing, after all. I laughed, I gestured, I casually tapped off my ash. When I’d smoked a respectable amount, I stubbed it out like a pro. I felt unbelievably sophisticated.

And then, I became incredibly sick.

This was floor-tilting-vertigo, stomach-roiling, green-at-the-gills-nauseated sick. I was definitely going to throw up. Soon. I lurched up from the table and off to the bathroom, where I opened the door on a nightmarish scene of diarrhea overflow that sent me reeling back out. I staggered to the bathrooms by the bowling lanes, barely making it to a toilet to avoid creating my own nightmarish bathroom scene.

I returned to the table, pale and trembling. My sister was concerned. She got me a Coke, I think. After an hour of sipping and shaking I was fine, but it was a difficult hour. After that, my sister and I understood that I would have to earn my hood status another way. Smoking was off the table. Thankfully, my ability to drink an entire Colt 45 40-ouncer in one night did the trick.

It wasn’t smoking, but it would have to do.

Drama Camp and High Drama

Summer sloth.

(Today’s post is from a prompt, “The Class.”)

In 1970, we’d left South Dakota for Minneapolis, and we were expected to adjust. My sister made friends, but it was hot outside. I don’t do hot, not now, not then.

I was perfectly happy to stay indoors watching “Dark Shadows” and playing a cutthroat version of gin rummy with my older brother. Darkened rooms, vampires, intense card games–there was no such thing yet, but we might have been Goth forerunners.

You’d think our contented happiness would have counted for something, but Mom was not a fan of our housebound state. She announced that she’d signed me up for a children’s theater day camp at a local school.

I was aghast.

For one thing, this day camp was at a school and I hated schools. And this was an activity, and I didn’t do activities.

Also, I thought my mother liked me.

Furthermore, my mother had never in my short life signed me up for a thing besides swimming lessons at the YMCA in Aberdeen, and we had to wear swim caps and mine gave me my very first migraine at age seven so I was excused from further classes after I vomited in the pool gutter, sobbing and blinded by auras.

I’d hoped that debacle was enough to excuse me from any further activities that weren’t mandated by law, but Mom was firm. “You’ll enjoy it,” she told me. That was less of a reassurance and more of a command.

Whether or not I wanted to go, I would.

My suspicions

This honestly was not like my mother. I think she’d been unduly influenced by my (then) stepfather (soon to be adoptive father). As I’ve mentioned before, he had a good, solid, Minnesota upbringing, replete with standard childhood activities, which he had enjoyed.

I blame him. He must have told my mother I needed to get out of the house more.

At any rate, I’m not sure how she heard about this program. I’m even less sure how she thought it would apply to me. As a child, I was either silent in social situations, or funny. Like, really funny. This “really funny” side was an elaborate coping mechanism for crippling shyness. I hadn’t perfected its construction at age nine or ten. I tended more towards silent, with my mute introversion misinterpreted as either standoffishness or stupidity.

Children’s theater didn’t seem promising.

But, Mom said, so off I went. My expectations were as low as my mood.

The actual class

We met in the gym. I hated schools in part because they contained gyms.

Anyway, on the first day, the teacher passed out a script and explained that we would be building sets, making costumes, and putting on this play. I don’t remember the title. I’ve done a little googling, and turned up nothing. Maybe this play is lost to the mists of time. Maybe she wrote it, because the gender ratio was just right. There were many more girls than boys in that class.

The plot was simple. A King and Queen decide that the Prince has to get married. The Prince enlists the help of a wily Wizard to find him a bride. The Wizard interviews a bunch of princesses, who present themselves for inspection/rejection based on attributes contained in their royal titles.

I don’t remember their actual names, and I don’t remember how many there were, but the idea was straightforward. There was a vain princess, something like Princess Always-Looks-In-the-Mirror. Another was clumsy, so her name was something like Princess Falls-Down. Various attributes, like silliness and greed and gossip, would be mined for the hearty laughs Midwesterners reserve for character flaws. I looked through the roles and knew I was destined for one role.

I remember her royal title very clearly.

Princess Too-Lazy-to-Move.

Oh, how the doom enveloped me.

I wasn’t lazy (well kinda) but I was tall, taller than all the boys and a few of the teachers at age ten. I’m sure sitting in the house had left me more than a little stocky, too.

I knew my fate. I’d be the large, slow, sleepy princess who would be just one more reject as the Prince made his way to Princess Perfect-And-Definitely-Not-Me.

The teacher retrieved the scripts, and that was that.

The Midwestern Size Penalty

This is an aside. I’m not sure why–perhaps the plenitude of strapping Norwegian women in the Dakotas–but there is a marked preference for petite women in the Midwest. If a girl is small, she is exclaimed over in a sort of low-key way that alludes to her not being any bigger than a minute, and oh my she can’t be any bigger than a four year-old, even though she’s eight, and she’s never going to outgrow that little bike, and so on. There is general admiration for being small.

I mentioned this in front of a South Dakotan cousin recently, and she confirmed that being petite (she is, quite) had been a bonus growing up. Conversely, being out-sized carried a penalty. Large is embarrassing and unwelcome. I was treated as a mentally challenged adult from about second grade onward, slow but certainly capable, forever left in charge when teachers left the room. I was also awarded every out-sized role (The Tallest Christmas Tree!) in any skit or play.

So yeah. Big and Lazy was in my future.

I didn’t quit.

Mom wouldn’t have let me.

The first week, we did various acting class exercises, and worked on set design and construction (surprise! we made a CASTLE). We didn’t start learning the script, because no one knew their roles. We wouldn’t be auditioning. Our teacher would assign the parts, so I’m sure she took that first week to learn who we were, and which roles we would be right for.

To my own surprise, I was having enough fun that I could ignore the looming specter of Princess Too-Lazy-to-Move and immerse myself in the process of putting together a show. I came out from behind my wall of silent shyness, and let my campmates in on my sense of humor.

Mom had been right after all.

I was enjoying myself. Really. Despite the fact that I was in a school gym, and despite the fact that I knew what role I’d get, I had fun.

The fateful day arrived when the teacher would announce our parts. I sat there, that sick resignation settling in my stomach, enduring the wait until my stupid part was called. I was determined to live through the humiliation, carry on, and have fun anyway.

I didn’t have long to wait, because mine was the first name called.

She’d assigned me the Wizard.

I was shocked. Okay, he was male, that wasn’t ideal, but he was the Wizard. He was in every scene. He conducted every interview with every Princess, and he announced the winner. He was the lead, and every boy in that class had announced his intention to play him.

I had no choice but to slay.

We made his hat and wand in the class, but I was in charge of my own robes. I commandeered my mother’s royal blue velour hostess robe and attached stars and moons cut from aluminum foil around the hem. I learned my lines, practicing day and night, possibly adding an ad-lib here and there.

On the day of our performance, my family watched from the audience as I brought down the house as the Wizard.

Why I wrote this.

This is not a story about how acting broke me out of my childhood shell to become a happy, popular child in a new city. My time in Edina was fairly rotten in most regards.

This is also not a story about how a drama camp launched me into acting. I did take acting classes in college and loved them, but I was not drawn to being onstage.

I gave birth to an actor, but I’m not one.

This is just a story about how once in a while, the very best thing happens, instead of the very worst.

Cobwebs

The good old days

Photo by Nuno Alberto on Unsplash

(Prompts: My friend Katrina sent me writing prompts every weekday in October, and I wrote a lot of stuff, some of it great and some of it not. But I thought I’d share a few of them with my sweet readers. This prompt was “The Cobweb.”)

I used to chat in an AOL chat room for writers, but you couldn’t tell based on the screen names. I don’t know what I was expecting. A Proust or two? SusanSontag777? KerouacLives? No, I was surrounded by chatters who had names with “Vixen,” “Gypsy,” “Diva,” and “Princess” in them.

My own chat name was gender neutral and non-informative. It wasn’t chosen to attract male attention, or any attention for that matter. I went to that chatroom to banter. I was a bored single mother of three young kids who worked from home, and most of my friends had moved out of state or evaporated with my divorce. My ex never took the kids and I desperately needed a social outlet.

Chat let me trade barbs and quips with other intelligent chatters. It was like going to a bar without leaving my home (or drinking, because I don’t drink much). Harmless, right?

But other chatters had other goals.

I remember a chatter with a Russian screen name—something like Anastasia—who would sit in the room and talk about her life, which involved seven children and a husband. You’d think a woman who’d given birth to seven living children would be of strong and hardy stock, but noooo. Nothing about her could be considered hardy.

How did I know? Because she went on about it. When Anastasia wasn’t describing the extreme lengths she went to in preparing elaborate European meals for her children and making them historically correct Halloween costumes based on medieval royalty, she spoke of her own extreme fragility.

This lady was dainty.

She sounded like The Princess and the Pea. “I bruise so easily,” she said. “My husband has to be gentle with me.” After seven children? Really? Her feet were extraordinarily narrow, and her shoes had to be special-ordered, perhaps from a fairy cobbler, I don’t know. Her ring size? Three, but threatening to slip off her twig-like fingers.

Her hair was bountiful, but she couldn’t wash it too often because her natural ringlets were so fine and breakable. “I have to just let it fall free,” she said, because to restrain this massive cascade of curls might cause it to, I don’t know, shatter? Does hair do that?

Anastasia’s methods were successful.

She would bat her virtual eyelashes and the men would swoon, especially when they heard that her delicacy extended to her undergarments. She announced in chat, “My panties are like cobwebs. I couldn’t bear to wear anything else.”

I had several women friends in that chat room, and we all were amused by this extraordinarily dainty mother of seven. We wondered just how her slender frame had tolerated the conception of that many infants, let alone their delivery. But the cobweb underwear was the last straw.

My friends and I began to make pronouncements in the room about how we couldn’t take a step without shattering an ankle due to extreme delicacy, how one of us cracked her pelvis by sitting down on a park bench, how breathing itself exhausted us and left us with blue lips and racing pulse. We thought we were hilarious, but we were written off as “just jealous.”

And maybe we were.

I mean, many of my chat friends were conducting their own online flirtations. Maybe they resented the successful wiles of this fecund but gossamer creature. She might have been cutting in on their action. Or maybe I was envious. I’m almost offensively sturdy. Nothing about me seems particularly fragile. I could have assumed a gauzy, misty online self, but what would be the fun in that? It was more fun to be a wiseass.

My goal was to disturb the balance in that room with my frankness. My joke was, “I’m crafting an exotic online persona in which I’m a broke single mother of three who drives a minivan.” When asked what I looked like, I’d say, “Kind of like Boy George.”

(Side note: This was true. I was at a party once and this incredibly attractive lesbian said, “Karen, I mean this as a compliment. You kind of look like Boy George.”

Boy George

And I told her thank you. Because look at him! Don’t you dare say anything mean about George).

Of course, I was frank about what was going on in that AOL chatroom. I’d point out that any female-seeming screen name with “69” in it was actually a man (absolute truth). I’d type that anyone with “Vixen,” “Gypsy,” “Diva,” or “Princess” in her screen name was fat (again, this was absolutely true). I maintained that the room was full of soothsaying convenience store clerks and mystical daycare operators.

I guess you could say I didn’t buy in.

Of course, you’d be wrong if you said that. I bought in. I can’t pretend otherwise. I want to make it clear that most encounters were fun, not romantic, and have resulted in friendships that last to this day.

And then, there were the not-so-fun encounters. I crossed paths with hoarders and psychopaths and con artists. I was even fed into the wood chipper! (that’s figurative, not literal language there). I realized that the chatroom was full of people who were typing from a very different place than I was, both physically and mentally. People had problems. And I’m not here to mock them for it.

I’ll leave it at this: There were many adventures, meetups, and debacles, some of which I allude to in this book, SHOPPING AT THE USED MAN STORE, but most will go unspoken for all time. No, seriously, I do have limits as far as what I’ll reveal, even if it seems like I don’t.

I lived to tell, even if I’m not going to.

My visits to the chat tapered off after 2003, when I got my very own stalker, which was hideous but chat was a habit, so I’d still check in occasionally. But you know, the less I went, the less I wanted to. It was a chatroom. A chatroom is an optional space. You don’t have to go there, even if you’re used to it, even if you like it. You have the option of disappearing.

I stopped chatting on AOL in 2006, after my house fire. I didn’t miss it until 2020. I was bored out of my mind during the COVID-19 shut down, so I tried Livewire’s chat. My options were fairly grim. I didn’t want to chat in any of the rooms, but I finally settled on an over-fifty chat. I soon realized that over fifty meant like over seventy. Well, okay, I have interesting friends in their seventies and eighties. I was willing to give it a shot.

I watched hopefully. Everyone on there had been on AOL chat at one point or another, but no one seemed familiar to me, so they weren’t my old gang. Someone claimed to remember my chat name from the olden days but he seemed a little drunk so I wasn’t sure.

There was a definite whiff of MAGA in the air. And, BRB, gotta put the laundry in the dryer kind of updates. Descriptions of what was in the crockpot. Enquiries after the health of pets. I was waiting for banter, that back and forth, the crackle, the spark. I didn’t see any.

I’d throw out a gambit now and then, and get some lols, but really, no one could dish it back. Not in a way that inspired me to stay. These chatters didn’t have the quick wits and astonishing minds of my old chat friends. They weren’t writers, or readers. But one thing hadn’t changed.

They still liked to flirt with each other.

These aged chatters were on the chat make, angling for attention with the old :::chat gambits:::. Only now those people were in their seventies and eighties and…nineties. Ninety year old people flinging out their :::batting eyelashes::: and @—->— a rose for you, and so on.

I watched for a while, horrified but reassured that at least one part of chat had never changed. And then I wondered if Anastasia was still wafting around the chat rooms in her cobweb underthings, beguiling the men, her tiny bird bones made ever so much more fragile by advancing osteoporosis.

Twenty One Years In the Office

A decision looms.

Wooden desk, vintage manual typewriter. Image via pixabay.com
Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

That title probably sounds like I’m talking about retirement, but I’m not. Not yet, anyway. No, this is something else completely. I’m thinking of switching offices at work. Not jobs, not companies. Just my office.

This is a big decision. I’m considering it because I’m rarely in the office these days, and there is a woman who is younger, busier, and in need of the kind of space my current office can offer.

I love my current office. I’m also afraid I don’t need it anymore.

The other office is small. Tiny, in fact. I love it. But do I love it enough it to consider switching offices?

The fact is, the proposed new office is a former storage closet. It has a door and a window. Years ago, when I used to go into this space to get something or other, I would wish it were my office. It had a door. And a window. I’d occasionally suggest to my manager that he clear out the storage closet and let me have it. He would roll his eyes at the idea. “Too much work,” he would groan. And I would return to my terrible little office.

The worst office in the building.

At the time, I sat in perhaps the worst office in our building. It was a hemmed-in narrow strip of windowless space that held a PC, a Mac, a typewriter, and a printer. I sat in the middle of these oxygen depleting machines, and I used them all. The space was so small, I barely had to roll my chair to swap what I was doing.

On the counter at the end of my skinny space sat a huge metal spray booth. People from all over the building used it. They would stand six feet from my chair, opening the doors, flipping on the loud fan, spraying toxic fixative, usually talking to me about whatever they were doing because it was so incredibly awkward to do that in my office.

You can see why I wanted the storage closet, I bet.

When I was choking on the fumes from the booth and the dust attracted by all these various electrical things, I would look across the hall at my friend Sandee’s office, with her huge corner desk and two big windows and credenza topped with random items related to our company. I longed for Sandee’s office. It was visceral.

Better offices come at a price.

I switched jobs. I had a better title, more money, a troublesome manager, and a wonderful office. It had a full wall of windows that looked out onto Broadway Avenue, and a ¾ wall with no door. It was open, open, open.

My manager didn’t like that people would stop by and chat with me. I didn’t invite them, they just somehow needed to say hello. I got my work done, in fact I excelled in this position, but still, there was that friendliness, that chatting, and the fact that during the weekday, I smiled a lot. She didn’t like the smiling. Yes, this boss complained because I often had a smile on my face.

Is that not horrible? She was horrible. I don’t mean to imply that she was a horrible person. She was just a horrible manager.

The horrible manager moved me to a more enclosed office right next door to her. That was fine with me. This office was smaller, but it had spectacular windows and a door. That I would close. Whenever I could. To block out the sound of her strident voice, calling from her office because “everything turned to italics and I don’t know how to fix it!”

This manager was worried about how much time I spent on the phone. Our phones were connected, so when she saw that I had picked up mine, she would pop into my office, eyes wide and blinking, to make sure it wasn’t a personal call. It never was.

And yet, in she came.

I had two enormous black filing cabinets in my office where she filed useless and unimportant pieces of paper that she considered important. She would come into my office to retrieve something from one of them, then walk through the very narrow space behind my desk chair–where I was sitting, mind you–to my side desk. There, she would rummage through my desk drawer to get a pen or pencil, or make a phone call on my office phone while I sat there in disbelief, trying to work with her bumping around to my right.

Once, while attempting to do this, she stubbed her foot on the base of my desk chair and said “OUCH” loudly, right into my hair. I went to HR, where I was told this manager had “a good heart.” She most certainly did not have a good heart, she’d had a heart attack on the golf course, but whatever.

Shortly after this event, I came in on a Sunday and methodically stripped out every single personal thing I’d ever installed in this office; the blanket over the back of the chair where my visitors sat when they persisted in dropping by to say hi, every random scrap, clipping and Cristiano Ronaldo photo on the cork board, the framed photos of my dogs, the pottery unicorn my mother gave me for my seventeenth birthday. Even the plant.

The look on the horrible manager’s face when she popped in the next Monday was priceless. She stopped stumbling around behind my desk. For a while.

There is more to write about this particular period of my employment, but the most important part is this: it ended.

When an office makes you cry.

In the year that followed, I found myself switching offices a few times. I had two fairly crummy interim offices with no windows or doors. One of these offices was so terrible that I went to HR and cried over it. Real tears. This might be because I’m a big baby, and it might be because the office was really that terrible. Possibly both.

The HR manager was very kind, and she took notes. And though it sounds like I was always going to HR, I really wasn’t. I’ve gone there four times in 21 years, and three times were about that manager. The other one was about the bad office.

But here’s the thing about my crummy interim offices. They came with the most wonderful manager. You might wait your entire professional life to work for someone like this manager. And this manager eventually installed me in the window-filled office I’d coveted when it was Sandee’s.

I love this office. It is grand. On the day I moved in, I wheeled in my desk chair, pinned my various and sundry ephemera to the cork board, and covered the credenza with my own crap and a few plants. I hung a blanket on one wall and a huge map of the USA on the other. I filled the bookshelf with reference books I never use, and topped it with a vintage globe, two sock monkeys, a bunch of retro souvenirs from places I have and have not visited.

I also put up a framed company photo from the “Good Old Days” that includes the terrible manager. I haven’t even affixed a sticker over her face. I consider this proof that I am a kind and forgiving person.

Discovering that I’m a stop on the tour.

Last year, I was sitting in my office on one of my rare in-office days. A person from HR stepped into my office and then backed out, a new hire close behind her. That was weird enough, but then I could hear her whispering. “[Redacted]?” I called. “Why are you whispering out there?”

She came back in, embarrassed. “I was just explaining to [Redacted] here” (the new hire who had followed her in) “that some of the people who’ve worked here for, you know…” and she smiled, “some time, how you decorate your offices. And yours is just so cute.”

I smiled and said thank you! Wow! Gee! And thought about how much I hate being told that anything about my life, age, appearance, or taste is cute. It is one of the most condescending things you can say to an older person, no matter how cute she may be.

Working from home, like everyone else.

Since the shutdown of Spring 2020, I have rarely used my cute/grand office. But I miss it. I miss my team, chatting with my manager, lunching with my friends, and the give and take of office conversation. I even miss a couple of people I hadn’t really liked before the shut down. We were somewhat awkward with each other in the “before times,” but now we are all hearty with each other, practically slapping each other on the back in all our break room bonhomie.

I attribute this to the nearly forgotten pleasure human beings experience from random unplanned positive interactions. I make it a point to go in at least once a week, now.

That was how I discovered that the former-storage-closet-cum-office was vacant, due to a realignment of staff. The former occupant is on a different floor, and this tiny space, which has somehow housed two different visual managers over the years (don’t they need space?), is sitting empty.

When I broached the subject of switching offices with my manager, she gave me a look. “It’s a closet, Karen. I want you to go sit in there with the door closed for a while. You can be kind of…claustrophobic.” (It’s true, but how does she know this?)

I have, and it’s fine.

I think.

I’m not sure when, or even if I’ll be moving into the office that used to be a storage closet with a door and a window that I coveted so long ago. I’m not even sure why it calls to me. I know part of it is that I feel like my team member would make better use of my current space. I despise waste, and I feel like the space is wasted on me. I also feel like if I’m going to work mostly from home, keeping the big office is selfish of me.

I have a lot of feelings.

I’m not sure that the move will actually happen. I’m still considering this switching offices thing. If it does happen, I’m sure I’ll find a way to personalize this dinky little space.

I just hope no one tells me it’s cute.

Going Through the Garbage

Confessions.

I was listening to the radio in the early 2010s, and the hosts had asked people to call in with Oregon things they don’t like. Everyone in Oregon is supposed to always like certain Oregon things, except we don’t, so people were calling up with unthinkable confessions. “I hate coffee.” “I hate bicycles.” “I can’t stand hiking.” “I don’t eat salmon.” “I hate the ocean.” “I can’t stand hazelnuts.” “I won’t go camping.” The strongest radio host reaction was to this one: “I don’t like dogs.”

If I’d called in, I’d have told them that I hate recycling.

I do it badly. You know the type. We don’t flatten all the boxes. We have too much coated stock in there. We throw away the plastic peanut butter jars. We are crappy recyclers, resentfully going through the garbage, saving out what we can. But I do it, I rinse, sort, flatten, organize. It takes almost no effort but I actively resent it.

Going through the garbage.

A Child’s View of Trash

I never thought about garbage as a child. I never took out the trash, or paid attention to the garbage can, or wondered where its contents went once they left the alley. In my youngest life, garbage was invisible. Except, someone was dealing with it.

Garbage penetrated my youthful consciousness in Arkansas. I have lived at some questionable addresses, but my family’s rented farmhouse outside Booneville was the most rundown, ramshackle place I have ever called home in my life. When we arrived, the place was strewn with trash, inside and out.

Where was it supposed to go? If there were garbage trucks in Booneville, Arkansas, they certainly didn’t travel the red dirt roads out to our place. I’m sure there was some sort of decaying Southern midden somewhere on the property, and of course there was a dump somewhere. We weren’t going to seek it out. We burned our garbage.

It was a foul endeavor. A huge metal barrel on the other side of the abandoned garden collected the leavings of daily life, every food container, bathroom wad, the contents of my parents’ brimming ashtrays. It accumulated and festered until the barrel was full. Then it was dispatched to the skies with lighter fluid and wooden kitchen matches.

Our new father believed in giving children chores, and thanks to his Minnesota upbringing, he had a nicely gendered split for duties. My sister and I did the dishes, folded laundry, vacuumed, swept, helped with cooking, and took care of our little brother. Trash was a male endeavor.

Our older brother was sent out to the burn barrel. While the flames rose, he had to watch for sparks and stamp them out. This was possibly not a great use of his skills. My brilliant, artistic, musical brother was very overweight, tippy on his feet, and had terrible vision. He was soon excused from trash burning, as he lacked the visual acuity and physical nimbleness to track and stamp sparks.

Well, my sister and I were up to the challenge. We worked in tandem. Squirting the lethal-smelling lighter fluid all over the top, striking the wooden kitchen match, watching the wooooosh when it all went up. I’ve always been overly sensitive to smells, so I should have hated this duty, but I enjoyed it. Organics smelled terrible before they were burned, but plastics smelled the worst while burning. That was beside the point. The danger and heat of a fire absorbed us, no matter how toxic the flames. The sparks flew, we shrieked and chased. There were whoops of danger and triumph. If the blaze slowed, we’d give it a few more spurts of lighter fluid and get it going again. Now, that was a wooooosh.

Of course our father caught us doing this. He took over the garbage burning. And then we moved to town. As far as I know, there were garbage trucks ever after. But no one recycled. Not even my liberal parents.

There was no such thing as recycling.

My Overriding Question

Is this why I want to argue with recycling? To pick a fight with it? To demand of recycling whether or not it actually helps with the problem? The problem being us, humans, and how we are ruining everything, all the time, every day.

I want to know if recycling makes a difference. The answer appears to be, “It depends on who you ask.”

As far as plastic, according to the Atlantic: No. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/05/single-use-plastic-chemical-recycling-disposal/661141/

Paper is a different story. https://www.afandpa.org/priorities/recycling/does-paper-actually-get-recycled

Glass is a natural for recycling, but we don’t do well with it as a nation. https://cen.acs.org/materials/inorganic-chemistry/glass-recycling-US-broken/97/i6

I read all this. I think on it. I honestly don’t know if we are doing any good with all this sorting through of our garbage. At times, I think recycling is a scam designed to make us feel less guilty as we ruin the Earth. I imagine all the piously sorted recycling that isn’t actually recycled, loaded onto barges and towed out to sea, where it will be dumped to float in enormous archipelagoes until it reaches the Wide Sargasso Sea.

I’m always tempted to throw my plastic away to keep it out of the ocean. Am I the only one?

Taking Charge of Trash

Like my Minnesota father, I think of garbage and its tertiary duties as male. This was a problem in a post-divorce household consisting of me and my three daughters. None of us were interested in cracking gender binaries when it came to taking out the garbage, but it had to be done.

Often, when the can filled, I’d just set the full bag on the front porch. The idea was, the next person to go outside (on the way to the school bus stop, for instance) would pick up that bag and pitch it in the trashcan down by the garage.

That person was always me. Always. Unless I nagged, which I sometimes did, I nagged and yelled repeatedly to spare myself a trip to the can, and hated how I sounded, and decided at some point I’d rather just take out the trash than hear myself berating the girls for not doing it.

Almost always, then. Almost always me. I think two of my daughters enjoyed the pitching, slinging that bag up and into the container, slamming the lid. They liked it, but not enough to do it very often.

*

I forgive myself for not recycling when the kids were young. I had enough to deal with, didn’t I? So I threw it all away, right up until I began sorting my garbage like a good Oregonian.  The trouble is, I can’t remember when I started doing that.

I dated a man for three years who recycled so thoroughly that he didn’t have trash service. Every once in a while, he’d put a small, smelly bag of non-recyclable stuff in my garbage can. Did I start recycling because of him, I wonder? Did his modest little bi-weekly bag put me to such shame that I finally set up a system and started acting like a responsible human being?

But no, it was before that. Maybe I started recycling because of the house fire.

Burning UP

My house burned in April of 2006, an event of such trauma and dislocation that I don’t talk much about it. I talk around the edges of it. I reminisce, say, about the unreality of living in a rental house, where every single thing—every garbage can and spatula—was also rented. I talk about our strange landlord, and how to this day I cringe when I drive past her house on Lower Boones Ferry because she has campaign signs up for various election deniers.

I talk about how Zoe the Tiniest Dachshund killed a mole in the backyard. I can talk about how it felt to endure the months while the insurance companies duked it out and the house waited, torn back to the studs, to be reconstructed.  I can talk about how I couldn’t find my way around right after the fire, how I had to drive over to my house from the motel where I stayed for a few weeks, and plot my course from there.

But the fire? Ah, that’s hard.

Many of my most-treasured possessions made it through without being touched by flames. Accordingly, they were packed into smallish cardboard boxes and ozoned and returned to me six months later. Seventy boxes of papers alone, seventy-six actually, full of a tossed-together assortment of important papers, junk mail, keepsakes, photos, scrapbooks, drafts of novels, letters, all of it jumbled and random and nearly impossible to sort.  Now, add in the books. Have you seen my books? Well, there are a few. And it was all in boxes.

When I moved back into my newly rebuilt house that November, I had empty boxes stacked to the ceiling in in kitchen area. My then-boyfriend (now-husband) came over to break down boxes and take them to the curb. Then came Christmas, with its own load of recycling. It took diligent effort to get it all handled, but we did it, week by week.

I’d finally gotten it all hauled away in January. February was so much cleaner down at the curb. Until that one day when I lost it.

Yes, I lost it over recycling.

*

I live next to a fourplex, an older building that was a commercial chicken house until it was converted into apartments. With its shingles and white trim, it’s actually quite cute as an apartment building. And that February, someone in that apartment building brought a huge mess of wet, mildewed cardboard boxes, we are talking about the size of two cords of wood, and put them in my driveway.

I want to make it clear, these nowhere near the street. Not down at the curb, where the recyclers could take them away (thought they probably wouldn’t, because they were wet and mildewed, in addition to not being broken down). And not on the grassy strip between the two properties, a sort of no-man’s land where their cans sat next to mine on collection day. These boxes were on my driveway, on the other side of a huge laurel hedge that divides the properties, and up about twenty feet from the curb.

Whoever did it had to walk around that hedge, carrying this grossness. It would have taken a few trips. They’d gone to some effort to put the boxes on my driveway and I have never been able to figure out what that person was thinking.

I am absurdly slow to anger, but when it hits, watch out. My fury bordered on derangement. I walked over and coldly enquired of the tenant in Apartment #1 if he had any idea who did it. He directed me to Apartment #4 at the back, where no one answered my knock.

Okay, fine.

I went back to my driveway and pitched the whole mess across their driveway. Not close to the curb to where the recyclers might have taken it, if they were feeling generous. Yes, with less effort, I could have done that. But I didn’t. I made sure to take up their precious parking spaces, a madwoman in sweatpants flinging around mildewed cardboard and swearing under her breath.

It felt good.

My spell of madness did not last. I gathered my wits, regained my composure, and rolled down my own garbage can. Right next to it, I placed my tidy container of recycling, with boxes broken down and flattened, unwanted catalogs in their own paper bag. I wanted to make it VERY CLEAR to the garbage people and all the people driving by that this wet mess of cardboard had nothing to do with me.

Except for the part where I flung it all over the neighbors’ parking area.

*

As I write this, I realize that this wasn’t the first time I completely lost it over recycling, or rather, with recycling.

Just a few months earlier, while we were still in the rental, I’d been kept up until 4 AM by my college-aged daughter and her friend, who were sitting in the kitchen of our rental house—the super shitty rental home where we lived while our own house was being rebuilt—laughing and drinking and playing music, even though I asked them several times to quiet down.

I responded by getting up at 6 AM and slamming around the recycling to sort it, waking them up on purpose, slamming and huffing like a crazy woman.

Would you all just take a look at that crazy woman?

*

I can be kind to this version of myself in retrospect. Her house had burned down. And that wasn’t all. Her mother died in October of 2004. She had two relationships flame out in 2005. In 2005 she also had a hysterectomy. In April of 2006, her house burned down. That woman held it together, she held it all together. She finally lost her shit over some cardboard.

Let’s be kind to her.

But the story about my daughter and her friend reminds me that there was a pile of recycling in the kitchen of that rental house. So, this means I was recycling before I dated the recycling man, and before the house fire. So when did I start to recycle? I have no idea.

Today’s Trash

Whenever it happened, however it happened, I took out the garbage for twenty-five years, and that eventually included the recycling. I rolled the cans to the curb, arranged the recycling appropriately so that the collectors wouldn’t leave me a note explaining how I was out of sorts (if they only knew). I even (usually) rolled up the cans before the neighbors got mad at me.

I did it all, and then I got married. My husband takes out the garbage now. He likes a full can liner, one that sometimes requires two people to shimmy it out of the can. He wants that trashcan liner to be so stuffed and heavy that it might break the drawstrings.

I, of course, hate this. What a pain in the ass, a bag that wants to split, those straining red drawstrings that want to amputate your fingers. Why would you do that to yourself?

And with my nose, there’s the issue of smell. I will ask him to remove a stinking but not-full bag full of meat wrappers and onion peels (I do not compost, there is a limit). He is slightly resistant, but does it when asked. First, he gives me a look. Maybe he hates being told what to do (he does hate being told what to do, and even though it’s phrased as a question, I am telling him what to do). But it’s more than that. I think he feels like taking a not-full bag out is wasteful. He’s right. But I don’t want to smell garbage.

My husband is a better recycler than I am. He diplomatically pretends not to notice when I throw away a peanut butter jar because I hate scrubbing those out. He manages our laundry room system for the recycling, which isn’t a big hassle, so I don’t know why I’m a big resistant baby about it.

Unlike me, my husband knows the collection schedule. He knows exactly when the recycling and the lawn waste will be picked up, and puts it all out as necessary. He takes care to leave the returnable cans where they can be picked up by the man who comes down the street after dark on Monday nights, gathering the neighborhood empties before the recycling truck comes on Tuesday.

I welcome my husband’s attention to all this. I appreciate that he does it. Because I hate doing it.

Please don’t come for me. I have toed the line. I recycle. I might wonder if it’s doing any good at all. That doesn’t matter. I do it even though I doubt it. I do it even though I didn’t grow up with it. I do it even though I hate it.

I do it even though I watched this video.

We might have already have passed the point of no return, but we have to try.

The Puberty Contraption

A fascinating article

I recently read this feature in the New Yorker about how there was a huge drop in the ages at which girls all over the world went into puberty during the pandemic.

https://www.newyorker.com/science/annals-of-medicine/why-more-and-more-girls-are-hitting-puberty-early

This is a deep dive into the science of puberty, with an equally deep consideration of the emotional and social consequences of entering it early. It got me thinking about my own entrance into puberty. I knew I came to womanhood early in far too many ways, but I never actually thought about the biological side of it. I have tracked how I was pushed into premature adulthood by family pressures, but Nature had a hand in it, too.

Thanks, Puberty.

Karen at age eight in Rapid City, South Dakota
Me at age eight, before all this started. Orange loafers, pink sunglasses, and a romper. I was stylin’.

In my childhood experience, boys were not interested in girls. They were interested in boy things, boy pastimes, boy games. Girls were beside the point. When boys started to notice girls, it was because of our parts.

I didn’t like being noticed for my parts.

I was a tall girl with subcutaneous body fat, so I began to develop in the fourth grade. So I was nine. I remember exactly where I was, what I was doing, and what I was wearing when this was pointed out to me. I was playing outside with two neighborhood boys. I had on a navy blue sweater dress with a tan striped collar, a hand-me-down from my sister.

It was complicated playing with boys and climbing trees in a dress, but this was after school, and in those days, in the Midwest at least, girls were not allowed to wear pants of any kind to school. So while playing, I did what I could to observe the forms of modesty, which was (I assume) the entire point of making girls wear dresses; to make us be careful and modest.

That day, one of the boys said to me with a little sneer in his voice, “You need a bra.” I looked down to see what he was talking about. Yes, there was something there, on my chest. Possibly those bumps were breasts. I didn’t want them, I didn’t need them, so I ignored them. But boys didn’t. That day of play was ruined, and I went home feeling shame and confusion.

Time to Train

I immediately told my mother what had happened, because I told her everything. She took me to be fitted for a training bra. From what I can tell, this particular garment has passed into the ether of outdated ideas, replaced by the bralette or the sports bra, so let me describe it for you.

The training bra was a flimsy little apparatus built along the lines of an actual bra, but without a support function. It was intended to get a girl used to the idea of a bra. She would learn to fasten the hooks, adjust the straps, and live with the protrusion of a small rosette trim between her nonexistent breasts.

In the literature of the training bra, there are two kinds of girls. One longs for the training bra. She thinks it is the prettiest thing in the world. She can’t wait for her dainty bra straps to show. She knows if the rosette shows, her top is too tight. Her bra is a rite of passage, a lacy privilege. She feels celebrated.

And then, there are girls like me, as illustrated by the New Yorker piece.

In Judy Blume’s 1970 young-adult novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” which has served as a puberty handbook of sorts for generations of girls, a character named Laura Danker looms awkwardly on the periphery. Laura is studious, very shy, and very tall. When the eleven-year-old narrator of the book, Margaret Simon, sees Laura on the first day of school, she mistakes her for a teacher, not a fellow sixth grader. “You could see the outline of her bra through her blouse and you could also tell from the front that it wasn’t the smallest size,” Margaret observes. “She sat down alone and didn’t talk to anyone.” … Laura’s body commands a chaotic attention from her peers: by turns affronted and leering, repelled and keenly envious. Her body provokes their imagination, then serves to corroborate whatever they might imagine. Laura belongs nowhere: a head taller than all the boys, arms crossed over her chest, feeling the shame and confusion of the eleven-year-old she is but does not look like.

As I recall, Margaret liked getting her training bra. My own appointment in the lingerie department of a large store was a humiliating debacle, because you’re not supposed to spill out of a training bra. I was already past the training stage. My mother, unsure of what to do, simply left without buying me anything.

That was fine with me. I wanted nothing to do with such a confining contraption. I went back to ignoring the entire issue of breasts, even though the boys didn’t.

Bodily Privacy

Coming of age is tricky and difficult. Some children seem to sprint gracefully into it like gazelles, but those are outward appearances. Internal realities are probably different.

My own experience was not graceful. I became the focus of unwanted attention and there was no taking it off me. My bodily privacy had been violated by early development. This wasn’t fair. I was a child, surrounded by other children. They were allowed to live their lives as kids, unencumbered in a particular way I was not. I felt confusion and shame. Shame, because that’s the backbone of how girls are socialized, and confusion, because even then, I knew I hadn’t chosen early puberty or the assumption of maturity it thrust upon me.

This bit of the New Yorker article spoke to me, even though it is specific to Black girls, who tend to go into puberty early.

A 2017 report from the Georgetown Law School’s Center on Poverty and Inequality studied the impact of “adultification,” a phenomenon in which children are socialized to act older than they are, and in which Black kids, specifically, are perceived as “less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers”—less in need, or less deserving, of the kinds of protections that childhood confers.

At age ten, grown men began flirting with me. I remember one in particular. I was sitting on the dryer in our sunny utility porch in Rapid City, holding court during an afternoon potluck. I thought it was my superior wit engaging the attention of this man in his twenties. I was a sharp, sarcastic kid, there is no doubt about it. But more likely, it was the allure of a very tall, very young girl with pretty eyes and the clear beginnings of a womanly body.

Karen, age 11.
This was taken a little later, in Arkansas, when I was eleven. If you’re wondering where my nose is, it was clearly visible from the other side, but this was always my favorite photo because it sort of disappeared in this shot.

At the end of fifth grade, we moved to Arkansas. The South declares open season on girls at an early age. We lived way out of town on a farm, and my neighboring-farm boyfriend was a perfect gentleman, but puberty had arrived. My father finally made my mother understand that she had to do something about the bra issue.

Of course, she told me that. “Your dad told me you needed to start wearing a bra.” There was a note of derision in how she said it. Again, I felt the shame.

I’ve thought about this too much. There was nothing creepy about him saying this. He was pointing out the very obvious facts of the situation my mother and I were ignoring. But he’d only been my dad since I was nine. In certain ways, my new father was much better at parenting than my mother. He had a Midwestern Minnesota handle on what childhood should include for children, and the stages we would be going through as we left it. But I was eleven, and scalded by embarrassment.

Why did my mom even tell me it was Dad, anyway? Wasn’t that the creepy part of it? Her telling me? Maybe she knew how resistant I was to the contraption, and she wanted backup.

At any rate, she brought home what she thought would fit, and I wore it.

Karen, age 11
Look at me, a little red-eyed devil at age 11, absolutely loving myself, despite the fact that I was growing up. But then, Ophelia started drowning.

I also started my period that year at age eleven. I understood the first morning I woke up in a bloody bed that childhood was over for me.

On with Adulthood

I started high school at age 12, because you started high school in seventh grade in Booneville. I was sent to the principal’s office for wearing shorts under my skirts. I thought this was a solution to the problems caused by not being able to wear pants to school, but it was explained to me that it made me less modest.

As a young lady, it was my job to keep my knees together. I was threatened with a “whupping” should it happen again. Yes, you still got whupped by the principal in 1972. And of course, I kept wearing shorts under my skirts because I found this all absolutely ridiculous.

This was the South. Boys came knocking, but I was not as mature as my body. This attention was disconcerting, sometimes even frightening because it did not come from boys my age. The boys I liked in my class (Melvin, Todd, Bruce) were way shorter than me. In the sixth grade, I was 5’5” and they were nowhere near that. Especially Todd, the class clown, who was hilarious but really short. And that was okay, because it was easier for me to garner no attention, than to garner the kind of attention I was too young to want.

This is an excerpt from the article, quoting a woman named Megan Gray, who went into puberty at age eight. “When you’re shamed at a young age for a sexuality that you don’t even have, I think it inhibits you from developing a sexuality. I began to associate people seeing me in a sexual way, or even as attractive, as a negative. At the same time, when you’re entering that age, you do want people to like you. And you want to like other people. There was that constant tension of, you know, liking is good, but attraction is bad, even if, on a rational level, I understood that wasn’t true. That contradiction started very young.”

Cat and I, ages 12 and (just barely by one day) 15.
I was twelve here. Adolescence was fully upon me. This was the Christmas Eve my mom was in the hospital, so it was very calm at our house for a change. I’ll write about that another time.

The best word to describe my feelings for boys at this time was, longing. I was longing for boys. I enjoyed this feeling, but preferred that the boys in question not be real. Teen idols fit in nicely, because you could long for them without any complications or expectations. You could practice safely. This also coincided with the growth of deeply imaginative play for me and my sister, in which my characters were always male. I felt safer when I pretended to be male. My own precipitous puberty and unwelcome sexuality were held at bay while playing at being a boy. Somehow, this allowed me to recover my bodily privacy.

But sometimes, I longed for real boys.

Real Boys

My family lived in Booneville, and Tommy and Floyd Daphren, or maybe it was Daffron, I don’t remember, lived in a neighboring town. They both had very wavy blonde hair down to their shoulders. I think Floyd was fifteen and Tommy was seventeen. My sister and I encountered them at the lake.

Tommy was tall and silent and stunningly handsome to my 12 year-old eyes. Just looking at him struck me dumb. I mean, he wore his hair parted down the middle. Floyd was smaller and funnier and should therefore have been my type, but my heart longed for Tommy. I was possessed with the idea of wearing his FFA jacket (dark blue corduroy trucker style with a big FFA emblem on the back and his name embroidered over the left chest pocket, if you’ve never seen one).

I did manage to chat him up at a dance. I found myself standing next to him, and cracked his stunning but rather blank façade of beauty with wisecracks. Humor was a start, but I already understood that if I wanted a boy like this, an older boy, some sort of physical contact would be involved. I was only twelve, but if we hadn’t left Arkansas, I might have been able to land him.

My parents hated Arkansas. As kids, we were happy there, academically successful, socially accepted. My older brother was possibly less enamored of the place than my sister and me, but he’d won a scholarship to art school in Minneapolis, so he went back first. My liberal parents were desperate to go back North, so we left Arkansas for Montana. Was that supposed to be an improvement? Rural Montana? Was that a hotbed of liberal thought in 1973?

Karen and a trash can at the corner of Booneville High where I hung out with my sister and her friends.
Me, age 12. I would never have dared wear a skirt this short (my sister and I wore this as a top with jeans on the weekend), but it was my last day at Booneville High and I felt immune from whuppings. The shoes were also a bold statement. They were called N-word shoes whenever I wore them.

We stopped in Minneapolis to see my father’s family on the way. My great-grandfather Otto took one look at me and exclaimed, “What? You’re not married yet?” I said, “Grandpa! I’m twelve!” The house erupted in laughter. As my adoptive great-grandfather, he could be forgiven for not keeping track of my age.

I finished coming of age in Montana, a gorgeous, isolated combination of natural paradise and traumatic hellhole where my young life went completely off track.

Taken by a friend of my mother's named Ron on a visit to Albequerque, NM. Age just turned 14.
Taken shortly before I graduated eighth grade, when I was the hippie-girl scandal of Gallatin Gateway Elementary.

To quote the New Yorker:

The stigma of early development in girls is particularly painful because, in some cases, it may perpetuate a vicious cycle. An article published in the Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, in May, found that early puberty put girls at higher risk for obesity, type-2 diabetes, breast cancer, and heart disease along with “depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and antisocial behaviors,” “earlier onset of sexual activity, higher number of sexual partners, and higher likelihood of substance use, delinquency, and low academic achievement.” The journal Hormones and Behavior, in 2013, argued that “early maturing girls are at unique risk for psychopathology.” A Pediatrics article titled “Early Puberty, Negative Peer Influence, and Problem Behaviors in Adolescent Girls,” from 2013, stated, “Early timing of puberty and affiliation with deviant friends are associated with higher levels of delinquent and aggressive behavior. Early-maturing adolescents tend to affiliate with more-deviant peers and appear more susceptible to negative peer influences.”

This photo was taken five or six years after the first photo in this post.

Karen, Eric, Kittycat. Squaw Creek Ranger Station, 1973 or 1974.
At the ranger station with my baby brother, who was no longer a baby but I still call him that, and he’s fifty. Biologically, I was year shy of being able to give birth when he was conceived.

At fourteen, I was drinking heavily and sexually active. At fifteen, I left home.

1974, Karen
The disembodied hand and my plaid shirt belong to the boyfriend who would become my first husband. He had staked his claim with that seagull ring on the third finger of my left hand. 1974, taken at Faculty Court, married student housing, Bozeman MT – this was a three bedroom unit in the “Monopoly Houses,” now torn down.

A Pattern Repeated

When I consider my life, my misspent youth, I have failed to consider biology and generational trauma. I have thought too much about the emotional factors involved in this (see my last blog post), and not enough about the other factors.

I inherited much of my biology from my mother. It’s more than just the look of our bodies, so similar that you’d be forgiven for mistaking us for each other from behind. It’s more than the lipedema, it’s more than our wonky foreguts. If you just looked at us together, you would see it.

Me and my lovely mom in 1979, Christmas in Eugene, OR at my sister's house.
Me and my lovely mom in our matching robes. Taken in 1979, Christmas in Eugene, OR at my sister’s house. I was actually taller than her but I was barefoot and she had on her Famolares.

Mom hurtled into life. She grew up very fast, but to me, she seemed happy about it. According to family lore, she actually wanted to grow up faster than she did. She wanted to marry a sailor named Red at age fifteen, but was forbidden to do so by her parents. He was banished from the premises, so my mother married another sailor named Burl and had my older brother at seventeen.

Gaye Elva Odland marrying Burl Fain in 1957, North Hollywood, CA.
I found this photo in my brother’s papers after he died. My mom and Steve’s dad look so radiantly happy and young. 1957

The seeds for this were planted by her early development. She was four years younger than her sister, but taller than her by age twelve. This was exceedingly rare in the 1950s, a child who looked like a grown woman. My mother tagged along with the older kids like I did, but my sister is only two years older than me. What did it mean to my mother, to be running with the sixteen year-olds when she was twelve? Why was she allowed to go at life so early? And how could she let me do the same, when she knew where it could lead?

Oh Mom, I am trying so hard to understand.

Maybe the New Yorker can help.

A tall, developed ten-year-old who has reached menarche may not be chronologically older than a petite, flat-chested ten-year-old who has not—but she is, in a real sense, physically and even experientially older. Adults and other children will almost inevitably relate to the girl differently—and not necessarily even in a sexualized way, although that is of grave concern; but intellectually, socially, emotionally. They may have advanced expectations of her, and she may strive to meet those expectations or fail to, and, either way, that cycle of stimulus and response is determining her place in her social milieu, conjuring a mirror in which she sees herself, and wiring her brain in configurations that subtly differ from those of her average-developing peers. Nature begets nurture. For this girl, the hands of the clock simply go faster.

I tried to shield my own girls from this fate. I tried too hard. I wanted my girls to be children, not women. I hid my beautiful, bountiful mixed-race daughters out here in a White suburb, where they went untouched by the pencil-necked White boys. As a result, my girls didn’t understand their own beauty. I hope they can forgive me for that. For the most part, I think they have.

Three beautiful mixed race girls.
My youngest hates this photo, but I wanted one where they were all a little awkward. Sorry, kid. Besides, you know how beautiful you are.

My daughters and I were texting the other day, as we do most days, on and off, all day long. I told them I was doing a deep dive into the music of our past. I texted, “I only have one question. How did we all survive the Fiona Apple “Tidal” CD? It’s like stepping onto a loopy dangerous adolescent carousel ride. Brilliant, but Jesus.”

This led to a declaration that “Being virgins in adolescence saved us,” from one daughter. Then, of sex in your teens, I said, “It is an unnecessary complication.” The girls tapped their little “HaHa” icons onto the corner of this text, because of course a mother would say this. But I stand by it. It is too much, too soon.

Biology is inevitable. I couldn’t stop it for my daughters, but I could extend the protections of childhood to their young selves while their minds and emotions caught up with their bodies. Or maybe I overprotected them.

Maybe I hurt them in other ways. Maybe I always did everything wrong.

I’m sure of only one thing.

I tried.

*

All quotes are from Annals of Medicine – Why More and More Girls Are Hitting Puberty Early: A pandemic-era rise in early puberty may help physicians to better understand its causes. By Jessica Winter, published October 27, 2022, © 2022 Condé Nast, all rights reserved

So, I had Covid again.

Yeah. How did that happen?

Flower

Supposedly, I’m a liberal person who is cloaked in the moral righteousness of taking Covid seriously.

Supposedly, I’m a very careful person who works remotely and always wears her mask in public spaces.

Supposedly, thanks to my vaccinations and boosters, I have some degree of protection, and if I were to get Covid again, it would be mild.

Ha, I tell you. Ha, and ha again.

A Quick Review

With the Omicron variants, you carry the virus for three or four days before you show any symptoms. This means that I was possibly contagious on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, before my symptoms showed up on Thursday. So let’s review those days.

My four year-old grandson had been with me all weekend. I must have picked up the virus while running around with him and my daughter before she flew to New York on Sunday morning. I dropped her at the airport and kept the grandson. I’d keep him all the time if I could, just saying, but I had stuff going on, so I had to share him.

My oldest daughter and her fiancé watched him Sunday evening so I could go to a little talk that was part of a class I’m taking. I picked him up, and he stayed with me Sunday night. But I also needed to work, so early Monday morning, I dropped him off at my middle daughter’s home. I didn’t go inside, just said hello to everyone on the front porch, where they enjoy their morning coffee. He spent the night there on Monday night.

On Monday and Tuesday, I worked from home. Late Tuesday afternoon, I went to a class with eight students and an instructor. We meet outside, and we’re careful, but is anyone really careful enough in the age of Omicron? I love this class, but sitting outside over the course of the summer has meant I’m roasting out there for three hours in 102 degree weather. Has it been worth it? Absolutely. But has it been easy? God, no.

After my roasty class, sweaty and heat-exhausted, I picked up my grandson at my middle daughter’s house. I went inside and saw her, her wife, their two kids before we left.

On Wednesday, I worked from home while my grandson amused himself. I had a great “carrot” for him: If he would let me concentrate, we’d go see the new Minions movie. He kept himself busy.

A former coworker dropped by the house at noon and we had a nice chat at my dining room table/office.

Then at 5:30, I took my grandson to experience to his first movie at a movie theater. It was great. We shared some popcorn and a Pepsi slushy (his choice and I dislike soda but I had to admit it was tasty). He did a fine job of paying attention. There were only five other people in the auditorium besides us, so when he got a little antsy and began to clamber about on the seat backs, no one was bothered. (An aside, I have loved every Despicable Me/Minions movie. There is something hilarious every minute, and I don’t know who writes these or how much cocaine it takes to be this funny, but Bravo.)

Anyway. On Thursday, other than a mad dash to the store for juice boxes, we were once again at my house all day. My exiting tenant dropped by to leave a key and a forwarding address. In the early evening, my middle daughter came over with my younger grandson. My daughter and I talked, but mostly we just enjoyed watching the boys thunder through the house between the guest room and the TV room, echoing down the hallway, thrilled because you can run inside at Nonna’s house.

And then, I coughed.

Just that. A dry little cough. And then I coughed again.

That’s all. Just a couple of dry coughs.

They went home and I put my happy grandson to bed in the guest room, where he’d been sleeping happily and alone for days. But Thursday night was special, because he knew when he woke up, his mom would be there.

Late that night, my ex-husband picked up my youngest daughter at the airport and drove her to my house, where she slipped in the door and went to sleep next to my grandson, just as she’d promised him on the phone.

All was right with the world.

On Friday morning, I woke up before everyone else feeling a little stuffy, coughing now and then, no big deal. But just to be on the safe side, I tested.

Negative. Excellent. I had a summer cold of some sort. I worked all day, and I’m working from home so my mild cold wouldn’t factor in, but how reassuring to know It wasn’t covid.

That same morning, my daughter’s boyfriend arrived from Eugene with my sweet bonus granddaughter. We had a hugs and hellos and nice chat, hello! The trip! Presents from NYC! My granddaughter went in and played with my old dollhouse for a while, which is her favorite thing to do at my house. And we heard all about my daughter’s exciting trip to NY, where she modeled for a Big Company’s marketing efforts.

Eventually, everyone got packed up and ready. I gave them drinks and snacks for the road, and then they left for that two-hour drive home which never takes anyone two hours, because it’s I5 South.

I worked like hell for the rest of the day. My husband came home after work and brought us teriyaki for dinner. I could taste everything, so I felt reassured.

Saturday morning plans involved my brother, his wife, coffee and donuts. But I woke up feeling really snuffly, so I decided to test again, “Just to be on the safe side.” I swabbed and swirled and squeezed and dripped the drops in the little reservoir and watched as the entire test strip lit up pink before the control and positive bars settled in, clear as beacons.

“Oh Honey,” I said to my husband. “I’ve got it. I’m positive.”

Coffee and donuts were cancelled.

So let’s do the math.

Four days before I got sick, I might not have been contagious. It depends on who you ask. On that day, I was around:

Youngest daughter, grandson the first (inside, outside, upside down)

Nine or ten people at the informational talk (outside)

Oldest daughter and her fiancé (inside)

Three days before that first dry cough, I was around:

Middle daughter, Daughter-in-law, Grandson the second, Granddaughter (outside)

Two days before that first dry cough, I was around:

My entire Tuesday class (outside)

Middle daughter, Daughter-in-law, Grandson the second, Granddaughter (inside)

and of course my older grandson (inside and outside)

One day before that first dry cough, I was around:

My grandson (inside)

Former coworker (inside)

Five strangers in the movie auditorium (inside)

Day of:

Grandson (inside)

Former tenant (inside)

Middle daughter and younger grandson (inside)

Every single day:

My husband

That’s so many possible exposures, and I work from home. But I also ran in to the store to get juice boxes and a few other things, right? And I bought gas, and tickets and snacks at the theater. This is how it happens, and how it keeps happening.

Being sick

I had to make quite a few calls and texts, but I felt fine enough to do that.

My husband tested negative, so we instituted some halfassed isolation measures that we assumed wouldn’t work, but we had to at least try. I wasn’t feeling that bad, really. Along about midday Saturday, I called my doctor’s office and let them know that I had Covid, and because I have some risk factors (weight, heart, age) I wanted to know if I should take Paxlovid.

They called back and said they’d made a remote appointment for me with their Paxlovid clinic on Sunday at 3:15. So all I had to do was survive until then. That seemed entirely possible on Saturday morning. But by Saturday afternoon, I was having some doubts.

Do you remember hearing that if you got vaccinated, you’d have a mild case? Remember that? I’m vaccinated and boosted, so I was going along under the assumption that my case would be mild.

Silly me.

I realized how sick I was while trying to participate in an online book group at 4 PM. I was coughing and sneezing, and my eyes watered. Painful, burning fatigue settled on my shoulders, making it hard to remain upright. So I signed off and went to bed, where I rolled around in a fever all that evening and night, blowing my nose and coughing. That cough, deep, painful and smothering, felt like the cough I remembered from February of 2020.

I woke up the next morning horrifically nauseated. I won’t go into it, just trust me, it was terrible. By Sunday afternoon I was a wreck.

Getting myself mentally organized for the telehealth appointment felt impossible. How did Zoom work, again? I really had to think about it, and I’ve been Zooming for how long?

Sitting in a chair also seemed impossible. I was supposed to sit there and hold my head up? How did people do that, anyway? I’d forgotten. But I managed, and met with the doctor, and he gave me the prescription.

My husband (still testing negative) masked up and went to the store, where he procured the Paxlovid, some anti-nausea pills, two magical Mucinex elixirs that helped last time, and a six-pack of soft Kleenex.

As soon as he got home, I took the anti-nausea pill and a dose of Paxlovid, and rolled up in a quilt on our bed, waiting for death or a miracle, whichever came first.

After an hour, my husband peeked in. “Are you feeling any better, sweetie?”

“They said it would take 24 hours,” I replied. “It’s been one.”

The Miracle

But the truth is, I did feel better. The horrible smothering cough improved rapidly. To have that lift felt like a miracle. And after another night of breaking fevers and weird obsessive thoughts where I mentally played my Wordcrossy game (quite brilliantly, I might add), I woke up on Monday morning feeling human again. Weak, dizzy, coughing and spewing snot, but human. So I’ll say it.

Paxlovid is a miracle.

And yes, the taste in your mouth is horrific. If you’ve heard someone complain and thought, how bad could it be? Trust me, it’s worse.

Okay, here are my best descriptions. If you haven’t had your gall bladder out, imagine some dried moldy grapefruit peels, and then light them on fire. In your mouth. Or, if you have had your gall bladder out, once in a while you get something called bile reflux, which is when your stomach fills with bile from your small intestine. It’s painful and horrible and yes, you throw up, and that’s what Paxlovid tastes like. And it’s absolutely worth every wretched moment of that sickening taste, because it helps so much.

Everyone tested again on Sunday. Everyone was negative. Including my husband.

And then, Monday came.

My husband tested negative, so according to his employer’s guidelines, he could go to work masked. But Youngest daughter tested positive and became rapidly, horribly sick, shivering and bed-bound. She was able to get the Paxlovid that same day. It fixed her up enough that she could get out of bed and sit on the sofa, and believe me, that’s a tremendous accomplishment when you have a tough case. She improved steadily and tested negative on the fourth day and has tested negative since.

Grandson the first tested positive on Tuesday. Sick, coughing, feverish for two days, then right as rain. He tested negative on the fourth day. His father tested positive on Wednesday, and tested negative after three days, that young and healthy brute (I am so envious).

I’d managed to expose so many people. No one else in the family got it. My former tenant and former coworker never got it. No one in my class got it. My husband never got it. But still.

Oh, My Guilt

I was devastated when the Eugene branch went down. My family insisted that I get down from the cross because really, they were more worried about me. I’m older and the only mom they have and I have an errant ticker, and I was sick, sick, sick. But I made it through.

After a week, I went back to work (from home, of course). I tested negative on that Friday, and have done a test every day or two since to make sure I don’t have a rebound case, because there’s something going on with my sinuses on left side. It took six weeks for my sinuses to dry out last time, and I’m prepared for it to take that long again.

So, how did this compare to the original Covid?

Well, the fatigue was just as awful, as was the cough: violent, overwhelming, like I was going to suffocate. The nasal congestion has been just as spectacular, and I had vertigo again, and the same general sense of unreality and disorientation.

But the first time around, I didn’t have fevers. I also didn’t have any nausea. So this time was actually worse, except for the fact that I didn’t lose my sense of taste and smell. I am extremely relieved about that.

So aside from the fever and the nausea, the main difference is, the first time around I had no warning, no idea how to prevent this, and no treatment for it. I was a hapless victim of a new illness that everyone kept insisting I couldn’t have because it wasn’t present in the US when my husband and I got it. Except, it was here, and there was nothing I could do about it. But that was last time.

This time, I was just a moron who didn’t mask up at some point. I’m not even sure when. I have become haphazard, but no more. I’ve been a diligent masker after the fact. For one thing, my daughter is getting married in a week. What if I’d gotten it this week? The thought gives me chills, and I’ve had enough of those lately.

So don’t be an idiot, and don’t get sick. Take it from me, who was both.

Living While Fat

Zaftig

Sculpture of a fat woman with a big, happy hiney.
Image via Pixabay

ZAHF-tig

Part of speech: adjective

Origin: Yiddish, 1930s

Having a full, rounded figure; plump (typically used of a woman)

Dating while fat

Back when I was filling out those online dating profiles, I used to wonder what to call myself. My weight varied and I didn’t own a scale. I was fairly sure I wasn’t “a few extra pounds” because it was way more than a few. There was “curvy,” which was true—in those days I had a true hourglass with a flat stomach and admirable waist-to-hip ratio—but that didn’t take into account the exaggerated nature of the hourglass.

“Big and beautiful” seemed too much of a value judgment on my part. Big, yes, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A man I dated a few times confirmed my reluctance around that term when he said, “Just because you’re fat, doesn’t mean you’re pretty” (he did think I was pretty). He told me I was what his black friends in the military called “thick” (now “thicc” in the parlance of the day). To me, that term implies a certain firmness or muscularity I lack.

There was “full-figured.” I probably chose that the most, but it was a term that no one (including me) understood. My dear friend and dating guru, who is exactly what “curvy” should mean on those profiles, thought I should instead put “curvy.” She believed in casting a wide net. When the inevitable coffee date came, she thought my superior wit and charm would cancel out the fact that I hadn’t been honest.

I tried that a few times, but the disappointment in men’s eyes on meeting was more than I could take. So I always made it quite clear that I was not thin. I did this on purpose. If weight was an issue, I didn’t want to meet. I was being…efficient.

Even so, I’d be gently questioned by my correspondents, politely asking the equivalent of, “Just how fat are you?” Pretty damn fat, thanks for asking. This might be followed by a polite request for some specific data, as in, height, weight, measurements, dress size, and so on. Or better yet, a nude photo.

To which I replied, “Next.”

Other times, men would try to argue with me about my size. Something equivalent to, “I bet you’re not fat at all. I bet you’ve just bought into our society’s unrealistic weight standards for women.” The wishful thinking behind this was pretty obvious, and there was no point in stringing them along. “Nope,” I’d insist, “I’m actually overweight. I don’t hate myself, I’m not slamming myself, I’m just being honest so that neither of us wastes any time.”

Despite all my efforts to weed them out, some men who objected to my weight would be brave and meet me anyway. My guess is, they were taken enough by my face and wit that they thought they could get past it, and were disappointed that they couldn’t. A few asked me why I didn’t lose weight. “Oh, I don’t know,” I’d say. “I’ve gained and lost so much weight over the course of my life, and I want to take a break from all that.”

This was a revolutionary stance, back in the day. I wasn’t loud and proud about my self-acceptance, but I was firm in my quiet refusal to accept the idea that I had no worth or value in the world because I was fat. I also made it clear that this probably wasn’t going to change. This attitude actively antagonized some men. I guess I didn’t hate myself enough for them.

At any rate, the point of all this is that when I wanted to, I found men who admired and accepted me, and were proud to take me out and about. And even though I wrote an entire book about a very specific time in my dating years when I was laser focused on finding a man worthy of commitment, and how fruitless that particular search was, that was less than six months. Most of the time I did fine. I’m also glad to be married, and off the market.

As a side note (and to be fair), I think that combination of fat/devoid of self-hatred is rare out there in the dating arena. So many fat women cower in shame over taking up any space at all. I understand, because every six or eight months I slide into self-loathing over my weight. Usually this happens when I have to fly, because sometimes I have to ask for a seatbelt extender and sometimes I don’t. I have not completely reinvented contemporary womanhood, and that experience can melt me right down. I might even start a diet when this happens. The last thing I tried was intermittent fasting, which worked for a week, and then I boomed right back up to my starting weight, so forget that.

I have a life to live.

Living while fat

I was over at a friend’s house for dinner the other evening, and we talked about weight. My friend is healthy and slim, with a graceful, classically proportioned shape. Like, those elongated Venus on the half-shell proportions. But she was an overweight kid and teen. That will scar you. Even though she lost her weight forty+ years ago, it still haunts her. It’s hiding around the corner, a big pink blob waiting to jump back on her if she relaxes her vigilance. She weighs herself each morning, and carefully considers every bite of food that goes into her mouth. She doesn’t trust her thinness. She says she has body dysmorphia.

I told her that (like Ann Wilson of Heart) I have body promorphia. That I always think I look fine. I walk around here like I have a right to be here, thinking I look great most of the time. And occasionally I see a photo or a reflection that contradicts this, a self-view that makes me say “Yeesh, Karen. Seriously?” Those moments of reckoning (like the seatbelt extender) can trigger self-loathing, but I furiously beat it back.

The thing is, I wasn’t always this way. I used to feel extremely upset with any weight gain. Here’s a very old photo of me right after I had a baby, and was awash with self-loathing over how fat I was.

It is clear that I was not fat. It is also clear that I like myself more now than I did then, despite the enormous difference in my size.

I don’t care if anyone else understands or accepts my acceptance of being fat, but I realize this is an affront to people who fight hard not to be fat. I’ve likened it to religion. Some people find a religion and are gripped with apostolic fervor. They organize their life around it, and forego certain of life’s pleasures, and resist temptations and struggle through dark nights of the soul because they have found the answer, the one true way.

And there they are suffering for their beliefs, and here I am, shrugging, because as far as religion goes, I’m fine without it. I realize this is a slap in the face to true believers. My “whatever, no thanks” attitude about diet and fitness probably feels the same to those who have devoted their lives to it.

The formerly fat fitness influencers I see on Instagram have gorgeously muscled bodies and post things like, “If I can do it, you can do it. You have to want it enough.” I agree, you do have to want it enough and I don’t. Whatever the cost is to being thin—eating 900 calories a day, time at the gym, all that damn sweating—I don’t want to pay it. I’ll just stay over here, putting half and half in my coffee, eating whatever the hell I want to, and being fat.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I have a life to live.   

Eating while fat

Believe it or not, I don’t eat that much. I have something called lipedema, or lipoedema, or lipoeadema, depending on who you ask. You can fall down the rabbit hole of googling it, or you can look here: https://www.lipedema.org/  This condition has been recognized since the 1940s, but American doctors don’t diagnose it because isn’t it easier to tell your patients that they can lose weight if they just want it enough? Isn’t it more effective for the medical community to shame you for your weight? Isn’t this poorly understood medical condition just another excuse for women to be lazy and fat?

But the reason I don’t eat that much has nothing to do with lipidema. I went through a bunch of foregut testing six years ago. My mother died of small cell carcinoma of the esophagus (as opposed to the kind of throat cancer caused by HPV), and I wanted to understand my own risk factors. I’d had chronic heartburn for years and years, and treated it with OTC acid suppressors, but I was starting to have a lot of night regurgitation and thought it was time to get things straightened out.

So in addition to an endoscopy, I did all these tests. Like, they implanted a little capsule-sized sensor in my esophagus that measured every acid spike that rose into my throat. Every time I had a stab of heartburn, I clicked a thingie that then coordinated with the information gathered by the capsule. And yes, if you’re wondering, I could feel the capsule in there. I felt like I’d swallowed a pill that wouldn’t go down. It was supposed to fall out after three or four days and go through my digestive system, but it took two weeks to do that. Fun times.

But wait, there’s more!

Next, I had a tube snaked into one nostril and down into my stomach to measure something else. That was also uncomfortable. That was a swallowing reflex text. Then I sat in the office and drank something disgusting and had my swallowing reflex measured in another way.

We found out some interesting information during all that.

I had serious chronic heartburn, and yes, I could tell when I had acid spikes. Believe it or not, that’s good, because some people’s esophagi are so scarred, they don’t feel the pain anymore. Despite my huge nostrils, I have tiny sinus passages and a small esophagus that narrows at the bottom due to scar tissue from acid reflux.

I have a hiatal hernia that a nurse called “cute.” “You have a cute little hiatal hernia bobbing around in there.” I’ve always wondered about that. What makes a hernia cute?

My swallowing reflex is pathetic, which is the cause of my esophageal spasms (these are so painful that some people mistake them for heart attacks).

I have chronic heartburn because don’t have a valve at the top of my stomach. Oddly enough, my sister and younger brother are the same. My guess is, this is an anomaly inherited from our mother, and explains why her esophagus became cancerous.

There are surgeries that might help with some of this, but if they go wrong, they really go wrong. Like, goodbye to solid food wrong. So I have developed an entire protocol for how, when, and what I eat to try to deal with all this stuff. A big part of it is, I never want to be too full.

I don’t eat that much.

I’m a queen of the leftovers. I cook for two at home, but still save leftovers from most dinners and eat them for lunch. If we eat out, I always have to ask for a box.

I also eat early. This makes me a difficult dinner guest because I need two or three hours and a bunch of water before I go to bed, and if we start eating at 8 PM, I have to sit up and sip water until the wee hours before getting prone. I’ve been eating like a senior citizen for many years. There is a certain relief in actually reaching senior citizen age, because now my early eating habits seem less absurd.

So you’d think with all that, I’d just give up food and switch to protein shakes or something. But even though I’m fat, and I’m supposed to be ashamed and secretive about it, I actually do enjoy eating food, so I muddle through.

Growing up with fat

As previously mentioned, I haven’t reinvented womanhood. I do care about how I look, and it does get tiresome to be fat sometimes, but I’m determined to like myself because I was raised by a woman who didn’t. My mom also had lipidema, though we didn’t have a medical name for it. We just called it “Mom’s legs.” Mom’s legs were her lifelong shame, and I inherited those same legs—well, not exactly the same, but my fat-legged genetic destiny was inescapable. I accepted that, but I didn’t accept that my body should be a source of pain, anger and self-loathing, like it was for Mom. She inspired me to try to find a different path.

But first I had to get through my childhood.

There is so much I could write here about my mother, and my older brother, who was morbidly obese before he was a year old, and the diets my mother started subjecting me to at age seven, and my sister’s eating disorders, and my birth father’s very vocal hatred of fat women, and my own decades of up and down dieting. It would fill a book and at some point I might even write that book. I’m taking a memoir class with a friend this summer, and I assume we will be asked to pick a topic to write about, and maybe this will be mine.

I’m not sure I want to do that.

There’s a crew of people who have recently decided it’s okay to be fat because they watched some Lizzo videos or read Lindy West’s books or whatever.  They’re trying to stop pitying and/or despising fat people, and are desperately trying to find them admirable.

“You go girl, look at you, over there being fat and everything! Whoohoo, chubby woman! I feel you! Team cellulite!”

Writing a book about my weight might feel too much like initiating a conversation I’m not quite ready to have, especially with those people. I dread the idea of offering up my fat reality to their new understanding that I’m a human being.

But whether or not I ever write at length about how deeply weight affected my earliest years of life, and what weight loss and weight gain meant to my personal happiness, at some point I decided to get on with life without worrying about my weight all the time. I had a life to live, and no matter what I weighed, I went ahead and lived it.

I’m starting to understand what a radical act that was.

A New One Arrives

Recent travel for reasons delightful

A baby girl whose name is Pearl.

I’m recently back from Brooklyn, where my daughter and her wife have welcomed a new baby girl to the world. This is my first granddaughter, so I braved a plane ride and Omicron to visit them, to help with the baby, to enjoy my three year-old grandson, and to just spend some time with my far-flung girl, who left Oregon at age 22 and has been a Brooklynite ever since.

I was warned that my grandson had a cold. I’ve had lots of colds, so that was not going to deter me. I got on that plane and kept my elbows in for five hours and arrived at JFK fairly late. The long ride in was quiet. My Uber driver didn’t chat me up, so I was free to watch the neighborhoods unspool before my Oregon eyes; commercial strips that seemed like perfectly constructed movie sets with marginal businesses with their graffiti-sprayed pull-down doors. I honestly don’t know where I was, even thought I’ve taken this ride many times on my way around Prospect Park, and into Park Slope, where the kids live.

Park Slope

I love this area. I often visited one my best friends here from 1997 to 2014, when she moved away from Brooklyn. I can’t say that I know my way around Park Slope, because I really don’t. But I know the feeling of it. The brownstone streets soothe and delight me. When I walk down one of these streets—or even just look down one of them from a more commercial street—I’m instantly delighted and uplifted.

Here, my gut says, here is a place you could actually live in New York, Karen. You actually belong on one of these streets, with these fenced and tended trees, with these curving stoops constructed to last centuries. My entire body thrills to the idea. But I am hopelessly rooted in the Pacific Northwest. I count myself lucky to have visited this neighborhood, to have understood the beauty and allure of this part of the city.

After a 45 minute drive, I found my daughter waiting on the street for me. We shared the first hug in years, because the last time I saw her was pre-vaccine, and our visits were distanced. So we had a nice, long hug, me and my girl, there on the streets of Park Slope. And then, I went in to see her “new place.” It was close to 11pm, and I’d had hopes that the new baby might be awake. But she is what one calls “a good baby,” so she sleeps at night. All I had was a quick peek into a darkened room, to see her swaddled form in her bassinette.

The next morning, I got to meet her.

And oh, what a peach she is. Just a snuggly little armful of new baby girl, with bright eyes that open up so wide that the whites show over her irises! And so many things made her eyes open like that; the miracle of the front windows, some particular picture frames, and of course, our faces. She was seven weeks old, two weeks older than her brother was when I first met him. Smiling and occasionally giggling, interested in her baby books, prone to evening colic with a fierce, low, pissed-off squall, and occasionally catching sight of her own hands with bemused wonder.

There are not too many things to say about new babies, which is too bad, because they truly do function as the center of the universe. There is the baby’s appearance, which is, in the case of my granddaughter, absolute perfection. This baby is a beauty, with brown eyes and wavy, almost-black hair, and beautiful darkly golden skin. After a blonde, blue-eyed grandson, and a strawberry blonde, hazel-eyed grandson, it appears that the dominant genes have come into play. She looks like my first two daughters, and it’s pretty special, I tell you. She is a substantial, healthy baby. Her feet are tiny, with narrow heels, and her hands? Well, certainly no other hands have such intriguing wrinkles and perfectly shaped nail beds.

Every tiny piece and parcel of a new baby is fascinating, even though they don’t do that much besides the rudimentary functions of life. For these functions—nursing, burping, spitting up, peeing, pooping, sleeping, crying—they are endlessly praised. As they should be. I am here to report that my granddaughter is an absolute champion at all of these, just so you know.

Rolling and Back Sleeping

Her older brother rolled over for the first time while I was visiting him at five weeks, but she hasn’t. I hope she does soon, because she loves to sleep on her stomach.  Did you know there are rules, now, about babies sleeping on their stomachs, and not having any blankets or bumpers in cribs or cradles? Babies sleep on their backs in swaddles, something I learned when my oldest grandson was born four years ago. It’s a wonder my kids survived their infancies, because they slept on their stomachs under baby blankets, surrounded by lethal bumpers and killer teddy bears.

Once my granddaughter can roll, she can safely sleep on her stomach, which was her favorite thing to do while I was there, to fill up at the breast and then sleep on her stomach on someone’s chest for hours, safe and warm and soothed by an adult heartbeat.

So that’s what I did.

I held her and rocked her, changed her diapers, and walked her fussies away. I entertained her with various black and white picture books and things that squeaked and jangled. I also became terribly sick with my grandson’s cold, and managed to live through a day when I couldn’t get out of bed. But I think, on the whole, I was a benefit to her moms.

I haven’t even talked about my grandson, who I was really able to get to know as a talkative three year-old. We had mountains of fun. Nothing entertains me more than kids. I want to observe their ways, and understand how they see the world, and cherish up all their funny little ways of saying things, like, for example.

Okay, like this one.

My daughter was looking forward to my cooking while I was there. One night she asked me to make my special pork chops, and to show her how to make them. My smothered pork chops are really easy to make, but the recipe is not mine. I actually learned how to make these from her great aunt on her father’s side, who used to sell dinners off her back porch in New Orleans. So there was a lot of talk about these chops, and how to make them. My grandson was intrigued, but he had already eaten by the time they were done.

So the next night he kept asking about “Nonna’s peshul foe charts” which sounded to us like he wanted my special flow charts, and then his mom figured out he was asking about “Nonna’s special pork chops.” We’d saved him one, he ate it right up for dinner, and all was well. But I giggle over the idea of my special flow charts, every time. He also helped me make tuna casserole, but when I served him some, he didn’t like it at all. “It’s not tasty to me! Why it’s not tasty!” Hey, you can’t please everyone, even an omnivorous, adventurous eater like this grandson.

Becoming Nonna

We definitely built a nice rapport while I was there. I could type in about a hundred different times when he chose me for reading night time stories, playing magna tiles, holding his hand, doing the post-potty paperwork, painting pictures, watching the paleontology episode of Sesame Street, and so on. He was a delightful guy to hang out with.

When it was time to go, we were both sad. When I left him in Brooklyn three years ago, I cried all the way across America, wondering when I’d see him again. And you’d think that this time, since I was leaving two grandchildren behind, I’d have cried twice as much. But I didn’t.

You know why? In August, they are moving back to Oregon.

I’m not dead.

I’m not dead, I’m languishing.

Languishing is that in-between place, where you’re not one thing or another. You just are. And we all are, right now. Is it over? is it not? Where do we stand with opening up, here in my rigorously liberal city where we have been dutifully masking and distancing and vaccinating and boostering? Are we going to throw away our masks or just wait for the next wave? Will we start eating in restaurants? Are there any restaurants left? Will my book groups start up again?

Can I have a goddamned dinner party already?

I’m not dead, I’m sleeping.

Sort of. I’m tossing and turning my way through some nights, unsure what time it is, if it can be over, if I can get up and get on with the day, if my husband is asleep or not, if I’m asleep or not. Last night I slept eight full hours, and would have slept more but woke up to the sound of a horn giving one loud honk. I started awake, wondering what in the world that was. Was it a foghorn? Unlikely, since I live almost 100 miles inland. Was it a car? Also unlikely because I knew the honk originated within my own head. Yes, it was me. I honked. I honk when I’m falling asleep.

I woke myself up, and who can I blame for that?

I’m not dead, I’m waiting.

I’m waiting for…something. Well, one thing for certain, another grandchild arriving this month. This is the third time I’ve awaited the birth of a grandchild, and the first time was an agony. Now, three times in, it’s more like this. Imagine a woman and her three daughters, who made it through so much together, waiting for one of them to give birth. Three of the four focus on the pregnant woman with keen intensity, watching and waiting and worrying and fussing over every scrap of information as if we are the pregnant ones, not her. She’s merely incubating the baby for us. We will take ownership immediately, as a grandmother and as aunts.

We will all have our new baby soon.

I’m not dead, I’m writing.

Yup. A project that was an idea, then a germ, and then a sprout, is now 60K+ of words. Good words. It’s not quite enough words to send out to my carefully selected first readers, but it’s there and it’s real and I am so delighted and baffled with this project because it’s nothing like Iris or the Gentry books. It’s more like the Trailer Park book. I’m not trying to unravel the knots in anyone’s soul through suffering and humor, well, maybe I am, but it’s a work of pure imagination in a version of America that has never existed. I believe that’s called alt-history in the lexicon of terms I don’t give a shit about when it comes to writing.

Look, this place isn’t real, but my hope is you’ll enjoy the visit.

I’m not dead, I’m bingeing.

I’ve been really miserable this week with the state of my aging, leaky gut, and my husband has been in rehearsals every evening, so I’m watching my streaming channels with an unlikely intensity. Here’s what I can tell you. If you don’t have HBO Max, you should get it in order to watch Somebody Somewhere. If you’re in Schitt’s Creek withdrawal, watch Somebody Somewhere. If you’re languishing, and waiting, and sleeping, watch Somebody Somewhere.

Are you getting the message? Good.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this:

I’m not dead. I’m just here. And I’m glad that you are, too.