Expose: How Babies Get Born

Contractions are like cramps. And cramps, I’ve always thought, feel like a giant fist wringing my uterus like a sponge. Being swabbed dry with a cotton ball. The dull ache in my lower abdomen starts at 3 a.m. after a night that included a backyard fire, hobo dinner, a few s’mores and a bunch of episodes of “How I Met Your Mother.” The pain eases in, it’s tidal, and I start the stopwatch on my phone but fall asleep before it ends. This pattern suggests a lack of urgency.

At some point Chuck wakes and I tell him he probably isn’t going to work today. It’s like someone hit the eject button on the bed. He’s upright and wearing pants before his second blink. He’s downloading a contractions app. I’m throwing various chargers into a duffel bag.

“We should have gone to bed early,” Chuck had said when we crawled in at about 1 a.m. “Since we’re going to be going to the hospital at 5 a.m.”

Actually it was 6 a.m.


Sometimes I suspect I’m a pussy. That the urinary tract infections and the recent migraines really would be damn near pleasant for the majority of women and that my default setting is jammed in the “ouch” position. Is there really a giant fist wringing my uterus like a sponge, or is it the downiest of feathers giving my uterus a cartoonish tickle. I have to stop a few times during the walk from the parking ramp to the birthing center.

In the latter half of my pregnancy I took on the look of an anteater. It has to do with my posture, my slightly pained expression and the shape of my glasses. No one here pays attention to my walking zoo exhibition. I might be having the most extraordinary experience of my life, but to these hospital employees I’m just another round-shouldered woman mooing into a window ledge.

My fear is that the inner mechanics of my body won’t be able to keep up with my level of discomfort. The contractions will pulse, but the crypt won’t budge. The professionals will say, “Nice try. Come back when you’ve got something real to show us.” That would be a nightmare. Back in the car, across town, into our living room where I would continue to moan through ebb and flow while Chuck squeezes my hips in comfort. His eyebrows clenched into two points.

The common rubber exercise ball is rebranded as a “birthing ball” on this floor of the hospital. And this is my happy place. I spend hours rocking through the contractions. Sometimes they roll in while my own personal nurse is in the middle of a story and I have to say: “I want to hear more about your son’s baseball tournament, I do, but I need to drop my head, rock my hips and perform a Gregorian chant for the next 45 seconds.” She watches the monitor I’m plugged into and lets me know when the pain is at its apex. She uses a soft, meditative voice to coax me over the hump. This is both awesome and infuriating. It’s allows me to follow my pain like a dot on a map, but wish it would hurry its way to Point B.

We have movement in the crypt and the doctors seems surprised. It’s opening at an acceptable rate. I imagine a sort of Vincent Price creak and groan. Bats, cobwebs, condensation.

“I really hate this,” I say to Chuck or my mom or the nurse. Anyone who happens to be sitting across from me and might be wondering how I’m feeling. “This is like … being tortured.”


There is a new worst-feeling-in-the-world: Having a contraction while getting stuck in the spine with the epidural. I’m knocked breathless. The progressive squeeze in the front, the pinch in the vulnerable part of the back. It’s a double assault. The epidural guy yields to the whims of my uterus, then continues his numb job. The only thing standing between me and a huge HOLY FUCK THAT HURTS is the promise that I’ll soon go dead legged.

Pregnancy seemed to drag on forever and ever. I’m neither patient, nor do I have much stick-to-it-ness. If it was anything else at all — growing a plant, writing a novel, learning French — I’m sure it would have been abandoned. A project lost in storage next to my old easel, a pair of hockey skates and a set of free weights. Still, when the doctor tells me that they are going to break my amniotic sac I get panicky and start to cry. It feels too soon, too fast, too real. Later Chuck tells me that this cloud burst was recorded on my chart, along with the information that “Patient says she has been emotional during pregnancy” — which makes me feel like I’m in the fast lane toward electro shock therapy.

And then a massive gush leaves my body, a creek after a rainstorm, and the bed is warm and my legs are wet. Every time I laugh or cough or shift I get another burst of flow. It’s a new level of gross. A glimpse of life with incontinence.

Chuck is standing next to the bed when the nurse points to something on the sheet.
“That’s the mucus plug,” she says. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen one that is perfectly intact.”
I grimace. This is a bit of science that terrified me from the beginning. I’d never heard the words “mucus plug” before I got pregnant. Truly, it is among the most visual of two-word combos. In my head it would look like a baby rat: pink and wet with a tail. Chuck tells me it looks like something that would come into play during cold-and-flu season.

“I’m sorry you had to see that,” I say to him.
My plan had been to keep as much of this gushing, squirting, bleeding, tearing away from him as possible. I’d like for him to be able to look at me after I sneeze without forever thinking of this slug-like thing that oozed out of my body.
“I’m glad she explained what it was,” he says. “because that was horrific.”

I spend much of the day with no feeling below the waist. I’m assured that I will still feel contractions, but they will be in the form of a blooming pressure. That will prove true. And that pressure feels like the sort of urgent lower abdominal, slash bowel weight that accompanies a night of binge drinking and terrible dietary decisions followed by one too many cups of black coffee.

I touch my right leg and nothing happens. It’s like a slab of dead animal. Something to stuff an apple into and roast over a spit. There is an impulse to see what all I can do to my leg without feeling pain. Pass the fork. Every time I shift positions, I have to physically lift my leg, which has suddenly become the heaviest part of my body — though I’m not convinced it’s even still attached to me.

In my head I refer to her as The Fluffer. There is a new nurse on my case, a woman who has been doing this since the white paper hats were en vogue. She reminds me of my mom, even moreso when the two collapse into lengthy conversations and the nurse later tells me that my mom is such a fashionable dresser.

The Fluffer’s role, it seems, is to prime me. Get me close to delivery. Do the dirty work so that the doctors can scoot in, suit up, and dislodge a set of baby-sized shoulders. The Fluffer is holding one leg, poking at me, circling the exit with her finger and directing my pushes through the contractions. They don’t tell you that there is nothing vaginal about pushing. This feels closer to constipation.

Meanwhile, one rubber-gloved hand seems clenched around … something. She makes repeated trips to the garbage can and returns to the bed wearing a new glove. Later Chuck reveals that she was carrying fistfuls of yuck. He is on the other leg and tells me that during these 10 second push intervals I look like a power lifter.

The Fluffer encourages me to think of the baby as a car that is stuck in the snow. With each 10-second push cycle, I’m rocking the baby under the pubic bone and toward freedom. I struggle with this imagery. I think we can all do better. The Fluffer asks if I want to watch TV or listen to music. I hadn’t noticed that the room had been media free all day.

I could use the distraction. I rock the snow-stuck car free while watching “Bourne Identity.” Only later will I realize that the Powerful Baby Girl was born into a pun.

The Fluffer has done the staging between contractions: Tools here, wardrobe supplies over there. She asks if the sight of the tool table is going to freak me out. No. It’s not like there is a power saw visible.

Once there is a visual on the baby’s head, the team of doctors are introduced. All the efficient donning and tying and scurrying feels like being backstage at a play. Within minutes I’ve rocked the baby loose and a few squawks later I’ve got a little hairless squirrel mewing on my chest. I can barely breathe. She looks exactly like I imagined: Her forehead creased like Yoda, slits for eyes, dark hair wet against her head. Her limbs flail, her back arches and I recognize all of her movements from when she was in utero. That leg kick would have popped out of the right side of my body; The tiny fingers that clawed at the walls of my uterus; That’s the familiar round of her back. I’d recognize that bony little tush in a crowd of bony tushes.

Later Pa Pista will watch her squirm and say: “I can’t imagine what it was like to have her moving around that much inside you” and I’ll feel validated.

Meanwhile, things are happening around me. Chuck cuts the cord, despite early reluctance. She’s cleaned. Photographs are taken. I am asked to push out the placenta. I receive stitches. People congratulate us and doctors say things but all I see were moving mouths and whooshing noises. None of it penetrates the baby bubble I’m in.

Here is the truth: Giving birth didn’t hurt a lick. It wasn’t hard to do.  At all. It’s just pushing and resting and pushing some more. But there, in the back of your mind, is the inkling of knowledge: This doesn’t hurt a lick … now. But tomorrow. Tomorrow it will feel like you made love to an aggressive bowling ball.


Before I could use the bathroom, the nurse told me, I had to call her. They would need to make sure I was steady on my feet after the epidural. She didn’t tell me that I was going to be spilling liquids like an overflowing rain bucket. That I would leave a trail of blood and urine that started on my legs and ran the length of the floor to the bathroom. Adding to the insult: Two nurses holding a size XXXL maxi pad/diaper — one in front, one in back — as I walk.

When I’d first held the baby, I’d caught a whiff of pee and assumed it was from her. She had been swimming of a stew of her own for months. But now, on the toilet, with nurses scrubbing my route, I realized it was me. It was me that smelled like pee.

“I could tell your bladder was full when I felt your uterus,” one tells me.

I’ve never been more glad I’m not a nurse.

The Powerful Baby Girls is 11 days old today, in what continues to be the most surreal science experiment of our lives. She looks exactly like Chuck, it’s even in her expressions, so when I look at him I see her little face.

We’ve both succumbed to a new disease called “Where’s the Baby.” On our second night home, I was frantically searching for her in the blankets on the bed and Chuck woke me to tell me she was in the cradle. I was dreaming. He had “Where’s the Baby” the next night. I had it the night after that.

She peed on me during a doctor’s appointment and peed on Chuck, her changing table and her rug just a few minutes ago. I’ve witnessed projectile poop. It shot out as she screamed. I accidentally pinched her chest in her car seat and dropped Fig Newton into her ear. She spent 80 percent of yesterday crying and today I breast fed her in a high traffic area of a public park.

Chuck’s convinced that she is freakishly strong. She’s becoming exponentially more alert. Sometimes she makes faces that smack of incredulous teen. She smells good and has hilarious feet.

And every single day I wake up happy.

This post was originally published on my blog Blah Blah Blahler

Feature: Pinky and Maree Skorich

By Christa Lawler
Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune

Today, like every day, Dan “Pinky” Skorich and his wife, Maree, will exchange the kind of custom-designed affection that longtime couples develop over the years: Maree Skorich will tell him she loves him and Pinky, always the card, will respond that he loves her “more-ther.”

The Marble couple has had more Valentine’s Days together than most. In October they will celebrate 75 years of marriage, one of the longest unions in Minnesota. The secret to their lifelong relationship: “Joy and happiness and lots of laughs and good friends,” Pinky Skorich, 94, said.

There was a light rain on Oct. 23, 1937, when former Greenway football star Pinky Skorich married a quiet girl from Keewatin, the one he had determined was the cutest in her group of friends. There is lore attached to rain on a wedding day and the Skoriches won’t dispute it:

“They say it’s good luck,” Pinky Skorich said.
“We’ve sure had a lot of good luck.”

Pinky Skorich met Maree Vranesh when they were both out on the town in Keewatin with separate groups of friends. His older brother knew her older brother. Pinky Skorich ended up walking all the girls home that night, saving his future wife’s stop for last.

“She hit me with that arrow,” he said.
“He looked like a gentle person,” she said.
“She still loves me after all these years,” he said.

Pinky Skorich said he wanted to kiss her that night, but she wouldn’t let him. They hadn’t even had a proper date, she told him.

He has a tall tale he likes to tell about picking up the marriage license, which cost $2.25 in those days. Pinky Skorich claims to only have had 25 cents on him. Luckily, Maree had him covered.

“She was Quick Draw McGraw,” he said. “She had the two dollars. I still owe her!”

When the two were first married they lived in a small house on Pinky Skorich’s parents’ land in Calumet. He came home from work and found his young wife waiting with dinner.

“She was standing at the door with the most beautiful pan of spaghetti,” he said, then “the handle broke.”

He scooped up the pasta dinner off the floor and ate it anyway, he said.

Pinky and Maree, 95, have three children: Mike Skorich of Grand Rapids and Michele Picchiotti of Las Vegas are twins. Dan Skorich is a Duluth ophthalmologist. There are seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Pinky Skorich worked for the Burlington Northern Railroad and traveled a lot; Maree Skorich went back to school and became an assistant librarian at what was then called Itasca Junior College in Grand Rapids.

Dan Skorich said his parents always stressed the importance of family and sticking together.

“They were just always very loving and there for us,” he said. “The strength of their marriage was an example for all of us.”

The couple lives in the same house they have had for more than 50 years. Pinky Skorich writes poetry, a relatively new hobby. He collects the handwritten rhyming couplets in a notebook. They take about 10 minutes to write, he said. Maree Skorich has her favorites and when he reads one, she mouths the words along with him.

Maree Skorich sings. For many years she was a soprano in the church choir at St. Basil of Ostrog Serbian Orthodox Church in Chisholm, where they were married. When they were first dating, she would sing “Goodnight, My Love” to him. She still does. As she sings he gives her hand a squeeze, closes his eyes and joins in for a few lines.

They work on crossword puzzles together — in ink and without a dictionary. Maree Skorich’s vision has weakened and Pinky Skorich has trouble walking. He’s the talker of the group. She makes meals: spaghetti, pigs in a blanket, eggs and bacon and her signature apple pies.

She tucks him into bed every night.

“He never goes to bed without saying he loves me after all these years,” she said.

This story ran in the February 14, 2012, edition of the Duluth News Tribune.


Book Review: ‘1Q84’ by Haruki Murakami

The first thing you need to know about Haruki Murakami’s hefty slab of a novel1Q84 is that it sizzles. Seriously. Pick it up off the display at your local bookstore. It’s like 5 pounds and it’s wrapped in this higher-test version of cloudy tissue paper and there must be an electric power source, a fork in an outlet, something, coursing through this thing. At the very least, magnets. Touch it. You’ll see.

The story centers on Aomame, a sleek and level-headed assassin slash physical trainer, whose world shifts a little to the left after she climbs down a super-secret ladder during a traffic jam on an expressway. She’s late for a date involving a sharp weapon, an abusive businessman, and a discrete spot on the back of his neck.

The cab driver who alerts her to this exit warns her that if she takes this route off the expressway, not to be surprised if the world changes. Sure enough, she starts noticing subtle differences right away and begins referring to the year formerly known as 1984 as 1Q84. When Aomame isn’t stealthily killing bad men or tweaking people’s muscles into sweaty submission she likes to dress in her one remotely sexy outfit and get nuts with anonymous balding men in hotel rooms. Occasionally this involves a tag-team effort with her new friend, a bi-sexual female cop.

At the same time Tengo is a solid writer whose work lacks that certain something. His all-knowing editor comes to him with a proposition: He has discovered a 17-year-old girl with a great story, “Air Chrysalis.” Fuka-Eri just needs someone solid to re-write it and she has the potential to become a bestselling sensation — as long as no one outside the inner circle ever finds out the truth about the ghost re-write. This solitary math teacher by day, writer by night reluctantly takes the job. The book becomes a hit, but it unleashes a hoard of mysterious troll-sized critters with a pretty serious religious affiliation.

The second thing you should know is that 1Q84 has that signature Murakami-ness to it that makes it feel like he is this wordy puppeteer who blurs the landscape into something dreamy so everything feels like you’re still awake, but not awake enough to know that, I don’t know, your second grade teacher wearing a Superman costume? Or in this case, the world doesn’t have two moons. It feels enough like Wind-Up Bird Chronicle for a reader to know that these two books have the same birth father.

It goes without saying when it comes to Murakami that there are plenty of places in this book to shelve your disbelief. The difference between him and other writers is that you don’t slam the book shut and say: REALLY, HARUKI?! These Shrinky Dink beings just crawled out of a dead goat’s mouth? Or REALLY, HARUKI? You’re going to convince me that this hulking, immobile pedophile is a misunderstood conduit of religious truth and that part of this sacredness involves his . . . boner? It only seems whack when you say it aloud.

You should also know that sometimes reading Murakami’s sex scenes feels a little clinical, but clinical in this way that is like your homeroom teacher saying the word “genitalia” multiple times in a really long drawn out way.

This book is long. It’s divided into three sections and the first two slide by seamlessly, but the third is an alright-already-old-man, get-on-with-it that includes some nonessential subplots, repetition, and some almost-coincidences that are a frustration because of all the actual coincidences we’ve signed on for. It’s a little sitcom-y in the style of: one character walks into a bar looking for a character who has just left through the back door, times, like, 100. At the same time, it never settles into a boring sputter, so. Anyway, fun read.

This review was originally posted on December 27, 2011, on Minnesota Reads.

Book Review: ‘It Chooses You’ by Miranda July

At first I didn’t like Miranda July. She seemed too precious. Her first book of short stories, contrived quirkiness. Like watching Zooey Deschanel shop for leg warmers at Goodwill. But I didn’t like Miranda July in that way that meant I’d be peeking out from behind the curtains to watch her walk down the street. I didn’t like her in a way I understood to mean that I didn’t like her right now, but that wasn’t necessarily my final verdict.

Then I loved Miranda July. It was her movie “Me You and Everyone We Know,” which she wrote and starred in. It was different. Nice. A little uncomfortable. Mostly different, with clever characters whose motivations I didn’t understand, made better for the not understanding. There was minutia, and I’m really into minutia lately. It was funny, but not obviously funny. It was an hour and a half I didn’t regret at all. And now. And now.

Miranda July tipped me over with It Chooses You, the memoir slash journalistic exercise she wrote while she was supposed to be doing something else, namely the screenplay for another movie. It’s a familiar moment she describes, and the reason why my boyfriend and I — both in the middle of other creative projects — first started a basement rock band, then started a web comic (although neither lasted long).

“The funny thing about my procrastination was that I was almost done with the screenplay. I was like that person who had fought dragons and lost limbs and crawled through swamps and now, finally, the castle was visible. I could see tiny children waving flags on the balcony; all I had to do was walk across a field to get to them. But all of a sudden I was very, very sleepy. And the children couldn’t believe their eyes as I folded down to my knees and fell to the ground face-first with my eyes open.”

July starts contacting people who are selling things in the Penny Saver: a suitcase, a leather jacket, cats, a blowdryer. She doesn’t want their stuff, she wants to meet them and talk about stuff. She takes along a photographer, Brigitte Sire, who has her work included in this book and July’s assistant Alfred “… to protect us from rape.” She trades about $50 for a session with these people and asks them about their lives and when they were the happiest. She meets a mid-transition transsexual (selling a leather coat) and a teenager selling bullfrog tadpoles and at a house where a woman is selling a blowdryer, the woman’s daughter sings for them “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus.

And somewhere in Los Angeles, July meets Joe, an old man who has spent years writing dirty poems for his wife. Lots of “tits-and-twats” stuff. He inspires a direction shift in July’s script and then role in her movie “The Future.”

I’m not sure where a person in the book business shelves this. At our local bookstore it was with films/movies/TV. But I’d give it more of a memoir, memoir-y, memoir-ish label. She has a very favorite-blogger voice, funny and a collector of stories, circumstances and non-event events. Just kind of honest sounding. Maybe I’d even stick this book somewhere near Bird by Bird, the quintessential “How to Write Good” guide by Anne Lamott. Especially when it comes to the short personal bursts, writing “The Future” or doing anything creative, actually. She talks about her style when it comes to creating films, being grateful that she is a part of it, but:

“I was desperately trying to remind myself that there was no one way to make a good movie; I could actually write anything or cast anyone. I could cast ghosts or shadows, or a pineapple or the shadow of a pineapple.”

Just pages later she has left a copy of her script untouched. She’s trying to become unfamiliar with her main characters. She imagined it curing like ham, the longer she left it. She also tries to trick herself. She’s a snoopy housekeeper who has stumbled upon this packet of words:

“‘What have we here,’ I said to myself, peeking at the first page and then slyly glancing over my shoulder.”

How many times, how many times.

This review was originally posted on December 1, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Book Review: ‘Sophie’s Choice’ by William Styron

In August I read an essay by Alexandra Styron that partly recounted the first time she tried to read her father’s most famous work. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron was still in galley form, and I suppose, symbolically, so was she. Alexandra made it about as far as the narrator’s erotic dream before she worried about barfing on her loafers. Then, despite the hullabaloo that surrounded the movie and the fact that she, herself, became a writer, she didn’t double back until she was in her 30s and curious about the man she remembers as less hands on and more Great Male Artist.

In reading it, she meets young Stingo, the young writer her father was when he first moved to Brooklyn in the 1940s.

“The experience was, well, death-defying. Thrilling and nausea-inducing and I communed with my father in the full bloom of youth. Not Stingo, but Daddy, so vivid and living so close I felt I could turn around and touch him back through the years.”

And that’s how a writer I’d never heard of sold me on reading a book I’d only heard of.

Sophie’s Choice stars Stingo, a reluctant virgin who has moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn with plans to write his debut novel. His first two experiences with his upstairs neighbors include a domestic bloodletting and a wicked ceiling shaker of a sex scene. He meets Sophie, a Polish immigrant with a tell-tale tattoo from time spent in a concentration camp — though she is not Jewish, and Nathan, who is. Nathan is also a commanding presence, smart and dramatic. Stingo falls in love with the former and craves affirmations from the latter. They become a friends-forever threesome, hanging out at the bar, traveling to Coney Island — when things are good. But Nathan is prone to sudden bursts of paranoid fury that always end in snot and tears. And when he darts out into the night, hurling insults and vowing its over between all of them, Stingo and Sophie nurse each other and talk about her chilling background.

Huge chunks of the book flash back to Auschwitz, where Sophie and her children are taken when she is discovered illegally carrying meat. She describes the sights, sounds, starvation, and smells — and the survival tactics that haunt her. Then Nathan will cool down, return to the scene, and everything is like Paris in the 20s all over again.

The characters are so complete, between the balance of likability and flaw. Stingo is naive and a people-pleaser, guilty about his Southern upbringing. So resentful of his virginity that he goes from Mr. Nice Guy to a Chaffed Loin Jerk every time he feels like he has paid his dues at first base and is ready to take a lady to a grand slam land. Sophie is sad and the more she talks, the more Stingo realizes she has actually told him less. She has a bare bones version of the truth. Then there is the truth. Then there is the whole, whole truth. The one that plagues her (and has become a metaphor for people who must choose between two impossible things). Nathan is just crazy. From day to day he might stir his friends into a frothy lather of happiness, or whip them into shells of their former selves, stripping them of any sense of self worth.

In one of my favorite parts of Alexandra Styron’s essay, she writes about answering the phone at her childhood home and taking messages from a series of accented women from around the country, each claiming to be Sophie.

This review was originally posted November 8, 2011, on Minnesota Reads.

Book Review: ‘The White Album’ by Joan Didion

Dear Shevaun,

You left a self-addressed envelope, the size of a note card, in the Duluth Public Library’s copy of The White Album, a collection of essays by Joan Didion. Your name as both the sender and receiver. Both address labels indicate an association with the University of Florida. One is decorated with a UF, the other a cartoonish profile of a cartoon gator, its snout hanging out of a decorative oval. Neither label is very artistic minded, not the finest work of a graphic designer. I doubt this is your fault, that you are the graphic designer in question, though you might have selected these two designs from eight other versions and you most certainly were the one to decide they were at least good enough to stick to this envelope.

I assumed, Shevaun, that you were older. Perhaps of the same generation as Didion. That you had checked out The White Album for the same reason I might revisit the movie “Adventures in Babysitting” or Debbie Gibson’s “Shake Your Love.” A nostalgia for the late 1960s in California. The Manson era. Black Panthers. The Doors, sans Morrison, trying to record an album without the vocalist known for wearing black leather pants without underwear. I imagined you looked like Didion, whom Michiko Kakutani ofThe New York Times once described — using Didion’s own words from A Book of Common Prayer — as possessing “an extreme and volatile thinness. . . she was a woman. . . with a body that masqueraded as that of a young girl.” I imagined you as widowed and crafty. A woman keeping the same strict schedule for almost half a century. A woman who could write a recipe book filled with meals starring Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. A woman with things that went in certain places.

I was wrong. I Googled you. You are maybe in your mid-30s or en route. And your education is of a certain level that damn-near paralyzes me when I consider the quagmire of student loan debt you must be seeped in. My wallet weeps for you, Shevaun, and it’s weeping louder than my admiration for your commitment to furthering your education.

Did you finish The White Album? Or did the envelope mark the spot where you said: “I’m feeling you, Joan. But I just can’t, right now, give a shit about water treatment and highway systems. I was with you through the piece on the end of the 1960s. And if I’d gotten there, I might have enjoyed the one about your migraines and how you’ve learned that suffering through them is like a form of yoga.” Then the book was due and you just didn’t renew it?

Or maybe that envelope marks the point where you said: “Screw this rental. I’m buying!” I don’t remember where you parked your envelope, but if this is the case I bet it is where Didion says:

“I am a thirty-four-year-old woman with long straight hair and an old bikini bathing suit and bad nerves sitting on an island in the middle of the Pacific waiting for a tidal wave that will not come.”

That’s the sentence I read over and over again while sitting at a tall top table at Subway, unsure of why it snagged my attention. It’s an easy sentence. A descriptive sentence. The sentences around it provide perspective: her marriage is on a precipice. There have been tidal wave warnings. Literally. They are in Hawaii. Her daughter wanted to go for a swim. Maybe it’s just the idea of picturing Didion as a thirty-four-year-old when for all of my life she has been post-thirty-four. And maybe it’s because I have a fortune teller’s view of her future.

Many decades later the tidal wave will come and that tidal wave is The Year of Magical Thinking. Writing, Shevaun, is a weird thing. I’m cooking up a theory on Didion as the OG blogger.

I can give or take Joan Didion. Her curiosities aren’t necessarily mine — the essays on water treatment and the the highway system. But when she turns an eye on herself, buying a dress for Linda Kasabian, witness in the prosecution of Charles Manson or on her first book tour and ordering a Shirley Temple from room service for her daughter, I take her. I take her like the Lothario on the cover of a bodice ripper, chest like fine leather upholstery and hair like a windsock.

Best Wishes,

This review was originally posted on October 17, 2011, on Minnesota Reads.

Book Review: ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline

In my 1980s, video games did not even play a supporting role. We didn’t own Atari. My parent’s loathed fads, ‘it’ items. Things advertised between cartoons and things that made moms trample moms in the Toys R Us parking lot. Plus it was expensive. Addictive. An indoor sport. The first in a long line of begats: Atari begat Nintendo begat Marijuana begat Satanism.

Occasionally there was Pac Man. A local pizza parlour, owned by the then-mayor, had a decent game room. We would both get a single quarter to wait out our pie. First my brother ripped and jerked the joystick. Then, at the dizzy ‘Game Over’ spirals, he took my quarter and lost again. Back at home he drew me a detailed picture of a Pac Man board on loose leaf paper. Bite sized nuggets inside a maze with tiny jagged ghosts. Pac Man’s mouth open wide, paused with a look of a triumphant roar. My brother told me I could play with that. (Give me a break).

Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One, in all its geeky 1980s glory is a vision of 1980s pop culture — it’s not my vision of 80s pop culture and I did have to Google a few things related to Dungeons & Dragons.

The gist: All the world co-exists on OASIS a pretty realistic non-reality online world, multi-purposed as fun and educational. When the creator James Halliday dies, a contest is announced in which savvy gamers vie for his fortune. Finding Easter eggs he has hidden within OASIS. This hunt requires plenty of 1980s pop culture knowledge — for instance, being able to quote verbatim a character’s lines from an entire movie and being able to get a perfect score on Pac Man. Our hero is Wade Watts, who has little money and less family, but has spent his whole young life studying Halliday’s interests. He and his posse, including a bestie he’s never met IRL and a girl whose blog he has stalked, take on the evil corporate America to win the prize.

This story is a heckuva lot of fun, even without Jelly Shoes and Madonna. It’s boundary-less and inventive and the brain graphics are amazing.

Cline’s debut novel had me thinking a lot about my 1980s.

My 1980s had two rubber bracelets, linked connected ovals on my right wrist. Plain barrettes woven with alternate-colored ribbons that hung so long they hit my shoulders. White Keds, followed by red Keds, and denim Keds. Jeans decorated with thin white pinstripes.

‘I’ll never in my life not wear pinstripe jeans,’ I told my mom.
‘I don’t believe that’s true,’ she said.

In my 1980s I bought florescent pink Wet & Wild lipstick at Woolworth. I wore homemade shorts that hung to my knees, a starchy collage of busy designs. My hair was too fine to hold a perm or a plume of bang so I went hay-straight the ends turned under, bangs hard with spray yet barely made a fan.

In my 1980s, I listened to Madonna — but not ‘Like a Virgin,’ only her self-titled debut. My mom knew what ‘virgin’ meant, though I did not, and didn’t think it was appropriate. I listened to Tears for Fears, Wham!, Lionel Richie, and Phil Collins. Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Debbie Gibson.

Some songs from the 1980s remind me of roller skating at Skate Country, where it was always dark and the lights made neon patterns on the smooth oval floor. Perfect for holding hands with a boy while listening to Journey, then skating to the snack bar for Laffy Taffy. Some songs remind me of roller skating in my basement, grey boom box plugged into the wall, skating in circles while Casey Kasem counted back the Top 40 hits of the week. Some songs remind me of rainy days on a school bus, the smell of rubber seats. And some rainy days remind me of kindergarten and the embarrassment of wearing a yellow slicker in public.

The ‘Footloose’ soundtrack, the ‘Top Gun’ soundtrack, the ‘Dirty Dancing’ soundtrack. Loverboy, Guns ‘n’ Roses, LL Cool J. In my 1980s, I took a short piece of historical fiction called ‘Paul Revere,’ plopped myself on a stool, and held it open for my classmates to see. I eschewed the actual words of the story in favor of ones written by the Beastie Boys:

‘Now. Here’s a little story, I’d like to tell,’ turned the page, ‘About three bad brothers, you know so well.’ Flip. ‘It started way back, in history, with Ad-Rock, MCA and me, MIKE D!’

In my 1980s I liked ‘Goonies.’ We watched ‘Stand By Me,’ rewinding and rewinding a part where an old man says ‘Loony, loony, loony’ and then we would cackle. I liked Wil Wheaton best. (Still do). I thought ‘Dirty Dancing’ was stupid, but watched it anyway at every slumber party I went to. Later we would crawl across the floor singing, ‘Sylvia? Yes, Mickey? How do you call your loverboy? Oh, loverboy. And if he doesn’t answer? C’MERE LOVERBOY.’ I liked both Coreys in ‘License to Drive,’ and thought Mercedes, with her thick chunks of blonde spiral, had the best hair in the world. The volleyball scene from ‘Top Gun’ set puberty in motion and ‘You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling’ would become a song I would never not know.

The only poem I’ve ever memorized, I memorized watching ‘The Outsiders.’

In my 1980s I most related to Mary Stuart Masterson. Denim shorts to her knees, drum sticks in hand. It was the unrequited-ness of her crush on Eric Stoltz’s character in ‘Some Kind of Wonderful.’ That moment when he practices kissing her.

‘Pretend I’m her, Amanda,’ she goads him. ‘I know it’s a stretch. But try it.’

His hands on her hips, morphing into claws as they turn up the heat. She realizes she’s a little too into it and pulls away.

‘You’re cool,’ she says.

In the 1980s I loved ‘Fame.’ Leroy, with his perky buns wrapped in tight grey sweatpants. I loved ‘The Young and the Restless.’ When it was over for the day, it was time to walk to kindergarten. This only became an issue when the storyline involved Nikki as a stripper. My favorite show became more real when Michael Damian, who played the rock star Danny Romalotti, had a real song on the real radio. ‘Rock On.’

I loved ‘Scooby Doo’ and its antithesis ‘Three’s Company.’ ‘Facts of Life,’ and ‘Silver Spoons.’ ‘Punky Brewster,’ the real-live show but not the cartoon. ‘Smurfs,” though.

Alex P. Keaton has always reminded me of my brother.

In my 1980s, I could moonwalk and do the worm, kind of, in a spastic seizing way. I had choreography for ‘Eye of the Tiger’ that I performed in the front yard and loved to scream ‘GHOSTBUSTERS!’ ‘I could do a back handspring, but not the splits. I could take a soccer ball and kick it in a way that it went over my head and landed in front of me. I had a T-shirt that said Orange Crush, I had a sweatsuit that said “Let’s Get Physical.” I had a two-toned baseball-style shirt that said “Totally Awesome” in glittery balloon letters.

I took the Pepsi Challenge, and picked Coke every time. I bought a copy of ‘The Get Him System,’ a self-published book about winning boys advertised in the back of a magazine. It didn’t work; I didn’t even try for the money-back guarantee.

I had an Esprit bag slung over my arm and kept my pencils in a LeSporte sac. My stuffed Garfield was dressed in a jogging outfit. I ripped photos of cute celebrity boys from magazines and hung them in a fort. The smell of paper when I matched my lips to Rob Lowe’s.

Where Cline’s novel has that glowing green tint of an old-school game of Pong, my lean was more Hubba Bubba pink with a side pony.

This review was originally posted on October 10, 2011, on Minnesota Reads.