Archive for March, 2009

mary’zine random redux: #1 February 2000

March 30, 2009

Welcome to the first issue of my vanity rag (all Mary all the time), the result of wanting to expand beyond the reach of my process letters to painters. It does feel a little unseemly to project myself so shamelessly into your mailboxes like this, but something is pushing from within and it appears I have no choice.

To use the lingo of the day, this is a ‘zine, not a newsletter, and it’s content-driven. (In the new world order, writers have become “content providers.”) That means there won’t be a lot of snazzy design elements. I’m just a content provider sitting at a keyboard, hoping someone out there will want to input my output. I don’t have a web cam trained on me at my work station, or even a website to send you to. So 20th century. [2009 update: Well, it only took me 9 years to get a website.]

The other day I woke up, stumbled downstairs to make coffee, and turned on the radio. I had forgotten to change the station away from NPR (I’d rather hear music in the morning than reports on starving refugees), so the very first sentence I heard was, “Time does not exist.” I mulled this over as I squinted in the bright kitchen light and poured the water for coffee. The speaker went on to say that, although we constantly make the inference that there was an “earlier” and will be a “later,” there really is no such thing—everything that happens is really like a snapshot. I turned off the radio and trudged back upstairs to check my e-mail. Sometimes the Unknown is just pushing too hard for comfort, and I have to bring myself back to the simple truths: Coffee is good, time is a useful construct, and we are just floating in a great big Mystery anyway. (Literally! I woke up one night with the in-my-body stark realization that we live on a BALL suspended in midair!)

I am an editor and I work at home, alone. I listen to the radio, watch TV, read books, have the occasional out-of-house experience, and think many profound and silly thoughts—all of which I have plenty of time to process between work sessions. Let’s face it, I am easily amused. And I like to share my observations and quirky thoughts, preferably in writing. I write a lot of e-mails, but something in me wants to go to the next level. I write about painting for the painting group every couple of months, but there’s a lot more buzzing around my brain. You are about to find out just how buzzy it is in there, and I hope it doesn’t come as a shock.

I’m not terribly interested in the conventional Writer’s Way, which is to send one’s hopeful prose stylings off to publishers or magazines, trying to fit someone else’s profit-driven idea of what people will read—how about another article on baby boomers turning 50? If this is a copout, I will find out: Truth has a way of getting in my face when I’m making other plans. So in the meantime, dear reader, I am undertaking this experiment, putting my literary toe in the water and waiting for further instructions. These pages are snapshots of my reality and of the nonexistent time in which I wrote them.

You are a hand-selected audience, and this reaching out is a gift. If it’s the kind of gift you could do without, like the crocheted Kleenex box covers your grandmother sends you, please politely decline further mailings. If you are in favor of remaining on my list, I welcome your comments, questions, requests, petty complaints, and personal anecdotes. Feel free to share these writings with anyone who might be interested. I am not much of a self-promoter, but if any of you enjoy promoting others, feel free.

This first issue consists of three personal favorites from my writing archives. Enjoy.

Y2K (how passé did that term seem by about January 4?) was, to not coin a phrase, a wake-up call. I’m grateful that the uncertainty about what was going to happen on 1-1-00 moved me to buy some extra cans of chili, assorted energy bars, enough water to take up most of my downstairs bathroom, a sleeping bag, and a duffel bag, which I packed with items that seemed, on December 31, to be at least remotely useful should I find myself in a Red Cross shelter or hiding out in a friend’s spare bedroom. The bag is still packed, as I’m reluctant to dismantle the preparedness fantasy. It’s such a great feeling, this illusion that exactly the right emergency will happen in such a way that I’ll be able to make a clean exit with this nice new shiny nylon bag containing many of life’s essentials, including aspirin, toothbrush, and a printout of my address book. I was looking for something in it the other day, and the extent of my preparations was embarrassing. Some t-shirts and pants I don’t usually wear, that’s OK, but a roll of toilet paper? two radios? I tucked the bag back in the space between the nightstand and the dresser—maybe someday it’ll come in handy, along with the crowbar and the light stick, the extra pair of shoes, and the all-important wrench for turning off the gas (a necessity in the event of eaRthQuaKe). Oh, and then there’s the paperback book I bought especially to keep in the bag, by an author I don’t read anymore because she’s so gory—Patricia Cornwell. I guess I figured that in an emergency, huddled over a plate of beans on a cot somewhere, I’d be grateful for the diversion of a story about rotting corpses being autopsied.

Anyway, I wrote the following true story several years ago, and it’s as relevant as ever. Still crazy after all these years.

1. preparing for the earthquake

I’ve been living in the Bay Area for 27 years, and for 16 of those years I was utterly unprepared for a major earthquake. Like a lot of other people, I would read the slew of articles about earthquake preparedness that ran in the papers every April (because that’s the month the ’06 Big One happened), and I would worry. I wouldn’t do anything about it, but I would worry. I didn’t like to feel so unprepared, but on the other hand, the fact that it hadn’t happened during the previous years made me feel somewhat justified in not having bothered. If you did everything you’re supposed to do in this life, you wouldn’t have time for anything else.

Finally, in April 1989 some company makes it easy for me by marketing a kit of the necessary items and displaying it at a booth where I work. All I have to do is pick up a brochure and order. When the kit arrives, I am thrilled; now I have all the necessary provisions and accouterments in one handy knapsack. I stash it in the trunk of my car and drive it around for the next six months. At last, I am prepared.

On October 17 at 5:04, I am about to leave work and go to the hospital cafeteria for dinner before my weekly painting class. Suddenly, the building starts to lurch. I grab onto my friend Rick and hold on. In a few seconds it’s over. Although it’s the biggest quake I’ve ever felt, I don’t take it too seriously. The lights go out in my building, the cafeteria closes, and there are little groups of people standing around listening to transistor radios as I walk to my car. But the sun is shining and everyone seems to be in a good mood. An earthquake produces euphoria after the initial terror, because it’s over very quickly and you find out immediately if you’re OK. My everyday mind keeps insisting that I still have to eat dinner and go to my class. It’s as if a little part of me is saving the knowledge, or foreknowledge, of what has happened for a later time. Soon it will say to me gently, “Sit down, dear, I have something to tell you.”

I drive to my friend Barbara’s house, which is only a few blocks away. She is home and glad to see me. We mill around, exchanging our little stories. Then I remember my survival kit. In high excitement, I go out to my car and retrieve the batteryless radio/flashlight I had specially ordered on the assumption that I wouldn’t have working batteries by the time the disaster came. Preparedness in action.

Back at Barbara’s house, I set about reading the instructions and cranking up the radio. The flashlight comes on, but the radio will only stay on while I’m cranking, and it’s hard to hear it over the cranking noise. I finally give up, deciding that I’ll try it again in a “real” emergency. Barbara finds her roommate’s Walkman, and we take turns listening at the headphones.

Then the foreknowledge starts growing wings and sprouting. A house in the Marina blowing up! Fires! Bay Bridge! I suddenly remember my two cats at home in Marin. What’s happening over there? I commit the sin of using the phone. The painting class has been canceled. I get through to some friends in Marin, and they agree to go to my condo and check on the cats. I’ll meet them there as soon as I can.

There are many stories of heroism from the earthquake. Mine is one of blatant self-interest. I lose my enthusiasm for sitting around with Barbara, speculating on bits of news. Suddenly I have to get home! I run to my car and head for 19th Avenue. By then it’s a sea of cars being parted at every intersection for the sea that goes the other way. All the traffic lights are out, and we have to rely on ourselves and others not to panic and create gridlock. I sit in the interminable traffic wondering (a) whether the Golden Gate Bridge is still standing, and (b) what I will do if I have to go to the bathroom. At what point do social conventions break down and allow you to pee in the street? Could I pee in the street?

I make it home in an hour and a half. The cats are fine. A large bookcase has fallen down, breaking some Mexican pottery. My friends and I eat burgers from Jack-in-the-Box and listen to the radio.

The next day I sit around in a complete stupor. What to do about lunch becomes a problem of enormous proportions. When I finally figure out that I can go somewhere and buy it, I leave the house without money. My brain is denying the news of some darker foreknowledge that is working in me.

I decide to step up my preparedness plan. I pack 3 days’ worth of old clothes and my sleeping bag in the trunk of my car, in case I get trapped in the city next time. I buy a regular transistor radio, two flashlights, and extra batteries. I close every barn door through which a horse has gone.

Over the next year I am struck now and then by the nagging thought that I’m not quite as prepared as I should be. For instance, what if I were separated from my car keys? They could be buried in rubble on the floor beneath me as I sleep. (I would—hopefully—end up on top of the rubble—with just the small problem of the roof over my head being really “over my head.”) On the first anniversary of the quake, I step up the plan another notch. I imagine being at home when the Big One strikes, with just enough damage that I won’t get buried but will need to evacuate in 15 minutes. I make a little stockpile of clothes, radio, flashlight, and shoes next to my bed. In a closet I pack a bag of food that will be slightly more palatable than the energy bars in the survival kit: a box of Raisin Bran, some crackers, two small packages of trail mix they gave me at the blood bank, three of those sealed-in-a-bag dinners that will last forever, some dried chicken noodle soup and hot cocoa that are past their expiration dates, a gallon of water, and a third of a bottle of vodka that I’ll never get around to drinking otherwise. I attach a note reminding me to retrieve the bag of processed cheese, mixed nuts, Hershey bars, and extra batteries I’ve stashed in the freezer. I put the two cat carriers in the closet too, with 3 days’ supply of dry food and a plastic dish. What about litter? Well, I’ll try to grab one of their litter boxes if I can. I put two portfolios of my paintings in the closet, choosing them out of the many I will have to sacrifice. What about valuable papers? My will, passport, credit card information, addresses, photographs? How can I be sure to find stuff I use every day, like my checkbook, money, sunglasses?

Suddenly I realize that I’m not just taking a few practical precautions in case I’m in the right place at the wrong time. I’m trying to create an entire parallel universe, duplicating my life with a weird combination of essentials and odds and ends, ready for any contingency but the one that will surely come. They say there’s a 60% chance of earthquake. Well, there’s a 100% chance of death. But that is foreknowledge that I’m not ready to taste just yet. I’ll keep building my stash, making my plans. I see myself living in the room nearest the back door, surrounded by everything I hold dear, wearing the sturdy boots and work gloves and dust mask, the cats ready to go in their carriers, listening and watching for the first sign of disaster so I can escape with everything, lose nothing. Yes, there I am, under the dining room table with the gas wrench in my hand, itching to get at those Hershey bars.


2. adventure day

Adventure Day was so-named because I spent it going to the dentist. Normally, going to the dentist is no big deal, but on this day I was in for a molar extraction and bridge-sawing, and, worse than that, I had to drive the Monster Truck into downtown San Francisco.

I was driving the Monster Truck because my car broke down because of some mysterious “fuel contamination” which it was taking AAA forever and a day to analyze. Fortunately, I had been able to borrow a friend’s Ford pick-up—an unassuming little thing from the outside, but high up in the driver’s seat I felt very butch, like I should be wearing work boots and a flannel shirt and smoking a cigarette. It also required me to be very Buddhist-like “in the moment” to do the fancy footwork on the clutch, be aware of the greater space I occupied, etc. Butch and Buddhism, interesting combination.

Much timing and thought went into this trip to the dentist. I awoke at 3:30 that morning, realizing that I was not about to drive the truck up the steep Gough hill—shades of 20 years ago when I had to drive a VW bug around the city and sweated out every slight grade that had a stoplight at the top. So I got up an hour early, drove to UCSF, where I worked, and parked in Golden Gate Park. I dropped some manuscripts off at the office first and then took Muni downtown to the dentist’s office. I just barely made it there in time, arriving at the stroke of 9:30.

So far, so good. But my careful planning and mindfulness broke down as I found myself lowered into one of the rings of dental hell. First, the chair was moved back and down until I was practically standing on my head, and my gentle dentist loomed over me with two fistfuls of gleaming instruments. After innumerable shots of lidocaine, he set to work. The assistant seemed to be new, and I had a feeling she’d been warned that I’m “sensitive.” (A strange idea my dentist got from the fact that I broke down and cried the first time I met him.)

Time becomes ALL PRESENT TENSE from here on.

I detect a note of panic in the way the assistant is handling the sucking tube—she stabs at my inner cheeks, searching for saliva that isn’t there because it’s hidden on the other side of Dr P’s hand and the giant doohickey that is propping my mouth open. So I am being stabbed and sucked on one side while rivers of saliva cascade down my throat on the other. As I am about to drown in my own juices, I manage to call time-out (by struggling and grunting… ever the lady) and get myself into a sitting position and swallow—no easy feat with the doohickey in place. I am crying and trembling. I suspect some of the trembling is due to the lidocaine, but that doesn’t make me feel any more dignified about it.

After a brief respite, I’m lowered back down into my rightful position as helpless infant. Dr. P goes to work again in my unnaturally small mouth with several steel instruments that clang against each other, bang my teeth, and split my lip. The assistant sucks and stabs while the dentist yanks and tugs, crooning, “Pressure, Mary, pressure, pressure….” This reminds me of the Jimmy Cliff song, as if he’s about to burst into reggae, and I want to giggle. But being in the dentist’s chair is like being in the womb again, no way to express yourself.

I am desperate to laugh, sing, shout, do anything but sit there immobile with my mouth propped open with a 5-pound door stop. Buddhism comes to my aid again, bringing me the phrase, “Chop wood, carry water.” This helps keep me focused, or at least in the chair, in an Isness/Suchness kind of way. I try to think of an appropriate verb/object to complete the phrase. “Chop wood, carry water, yank teeth”? Nothing quite works, but it gives me something to chew on besides Dr. P’s glove.

My next attempt at self-possession is to tell myself it’s Adventure Day, after my favorite Wonderful World of Walt Disney episodes. For some reason, naming it helps me bear it. “I am in pain. Well…. it’s Adventure Day. I can handle anything on Adventure Day.”

I must return to the PAST TENSE for a moment, to achieve some therapeutic distance.

The actual extraction (the bridge-sawing turned out to be a piece of cake) was horrendously painful. All time stopped. Unfortunately, it stopped at exactly the moment of greatest pain. If this had been a movie, there would have been a 5-minute close-up of my gaping mouth, my bulging eyes and gurgling throat, Dr. P. crooning as sweat popped out on his brow, struggling and wrenching and twisting as if to remove a vertebra from my spine, and, finally, the sound of a redwood crashing in the forest where, as luck would have it, there was someone to hear it fall because it was falling in her mouth.

I had naively thought I’d be able to go back to work after this experience, but I quickly see the folly of that as I stumble out of Dr. P’s office with my chipmunk face and bloody gauze and NO-CAFFEINE-YET incipient headache. (I had forgone my usual morning coffee so as not to be at the mercy of my bladder.) I then have to take the Muni back to work to collect the truck but am insanely, undeservedly lucky that there are no delays or incidents, despite a mental landscape that is ripe for trains being derailed or homeless drifters falling onto the tracks.

So I make it back to UCSF, scurrying into my building through the basement entrance like a rat, feeling totally incapable of using the left side of my brain or face. I do the very barest minimum of chores: fill out my time sheet, deliver some chapters to a coworker, collect the mail. When forced to speak, I emit strange vowel sounds and scurry away, hiding my swollen, bloodied cheek from the humans.

At last I take the long walk back to where the truck is parked, carrying a heavy satchel full of new manuscripts. With every leaden step, as my cheek bulges and my gauze leaks, as I slog through gelatinous gray air (caffeine withdrawal coming on fast), I repeat my mantra: “Adventure Day, Adventure Day.” (“Chop wood/carry water” is now a thing of the past, I am stripped to the bare bones of inspirational thought.)

I finally arrive at the Monster Truck, and Adventure Day continues as I hoist and shift and crank and roil my way through tourist traffic, including a scary moment on the Golden Gate Bridge—me in the suicide lane, a line of cars to my right with brake lights popping red, back ends shimmering as if they are about to slide over and shove me (Adventure Day Person) into oncoming traffic. With each mile, my discomfort, pain, and general leadenness become more palpable. By now it is after noon and I need desperately to eat but don’t know what I could eat, even if I had food, since I am unable to part my jaws. I ask myself, “What would go good with the taste of blood?” Finally, I detour to Real Food for a protein juice smoothie, the perfect thing for sipping through clenched teeth. I fight on through the heavy air, the streets filled with hurtling vehicles, the constant shifts and clutches of Truckness Being Suchness…. Adventure Day… Adventure Day….

Finally I arrive home and therein begins my recovery, almost imperceptible in its beginnings and yet complete in its potentiality. Caffeine withdrawal defies a whole thermos of coffee to have the slightest vessel-expanding effect—and yet I know that it will not fail me, it is The Answer. Coffee has not taken me this far only to drop me now. So I dip, I slurp, I savor. And I am home, I am Free. Adventure Day has come to an end….

3. story looking for an ending

And they wonder why some people take everything so personally….

At the time of this story, I worked in San Francisco and lived in Novato, a town about 25 miles north of the city. One day on the way home from work I stopped to do some shopping at Macy’s in San Rafael, which is about 15 miles north. (These distances are relevant later on.) So I’m walking down 4th St. in downtown San Rafael, and no one else is anywhere to be seen except for this old man sitting in a wheelchair. He calls out to me, and I feel there’s no way I can just ignore him, so I stop to see what he wants.

He wants something very simple—for me to wheel him down the street to the hardware store to buy an alarm clock. I really can’t say no. I think it’s partly because my father was an invalid for a long time, and every man in a wheelchair reminds me of him. So I wheel him to the store and he asks me to wait while he picks out a clock. This process seems to take forever, but he finally makes a purchase and is then ready to be wheeled back to the corner (I think). I notice as we leave the store that various passers-by are greeting him as if they know him and throwing little smirks my way. This troubles me.

He then mentions that there is one other store he would like to visit, and I know I am caught. He knows I can’t say no, and he is going to be merciless about it. I push him around the corner, but we encounter some construction on the sidewalk that forces us into the street. I am now feeling like a character in a Greek tragedy (or at least a Roman melodrama), acting out my personal fate, pushing this stranger in a wheelchair through rubble, past cars that are rushing by just inches away.

Our shopping tour goes on for about an hour, maybe less, but time has become meaningless. I have been here before, held in some strange man’s sway, unable to break the social fiction and step out of the script he has written for me. Years before, a black man in Ann Arbor had kept me in “conversation” in a parking lot for what seemed like hours. I remember being rooted to the spot, waiting for a pause in his monologue that would allow me to say I really had to be going. He never paused (duh!), and I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt him, even when he told me about the Swedish stewardess who liked his “blue dick.” I had learned somehow that pretending nothing was happening was the best means of survival. I have no memory of how I got away.

Back in the present moment, the last stop is a liquor store, where the old man buys a bottle of vodka and asks me to help him hide it in his clothing. I am dissociating by now, unable to assess what’s a reasonable request and what isn’t. Is this the equivalent of the “blue dick” moment? I’m finally nearing the end of my patience, and I decide this is it. I’ve done my bit.

Sensing this, he asks for one last favor: to be wheeled home. Figuring that this at least signals the end, I agree. By now, I feel completely responsible for this helpless man. It takes me days to figure out that he had somehow gotten himself downtown in the first place, and probably not for the first time.

“Home” is uphill from downtown. But I am still dissociating, still thinking the only way out of this nightmare is to follow it through. So I push him up-up-up to this huge institutional-looking building, and then he wants me to lug him up the steep stairs so the authorities at the wheelchair entrance won’t find the hidden vodka. I know I won’t be able to do that, so I go off in search of someone to help.

When I get back, he’s gone, and I am strangely annoyed. I feel more abandoned than released. Somehow, I guess I’ve been expecting to be rewarded for my efforts, at least with a thank you. I feel empty as I face the fact that I have again participated in my own victimization, waiting for the victimizer to let me go rather than take a stand myself. I walk back down to Macy’s and buy my sheets or whatever, and I drive home, berating myself for my spinelessness.

About a month later, on Christmas Day, I decide to go out for a run. It’s a beautiful sunny day, and no one, but absolutely no one, is out on the streets. If you remember my set-up at the beginning of the story, I lived 10 miles north of the scene of the encounter with the old man. OK, so I’m running along. Far up ahead, I see a small figure. As I get closer, I see that it is a man in a wheelchair. An old man. MY old man! Alarm bells are going off, and all I can think is, GET AWAY! As I approach him, panting and panicking, he calls out to me, “Do you know if Lucky’s is open today?” Of course he doesn’t recognize me. I fly past him, afraid that some magnetic force will catch me in his field again. “I don’t know!” I wheeze, as I sail by.

His angry old trembly voice floats behind me on the crisp air: “You wouldn’t help your grandmother if she was dying!” (Side note: why grandmother and not grandfather?) I run and run, and run around the corner, and run and run some more until I get home. I don’t leave the house for the rest of the day.

What I want to know is: What does this mean? I’ve spent enough time in therapy to understand boundary issues, the victim mentality, etc.; I think I would react more moderately in both situations today. But here’s the thing: If the second encounter had been with some other old man in a wheelchair, I would just see the obvious lesson: that an inability to say no when appropriate leads to extreme aversion to saying yes in the future. The fact that it was the same old man is what has me shaking my head. The story is overdetermined, like a dream or a fairy tale. Is it possible that waking life is that finely tuned?

I don’t know the ending to this story. I still think about the old man now and then and wonder if he’s lurking around the next corner, sent to test me again. More than that, I wonder how to live responsibly, consciously, in a universe that is paying such close attention.


Little brown bird sits half hidden
in a bush. The breeze ruffles
her feathers like leaves.
Subtle markings on her back
a perfect match for the dappled branch.
Then she betrays the camouflage
with a song.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux #17 Sept./Oct. 2001

March 26, 2009

life goes on within us and without us

You can kill birds. But you can’t kill all birds.

dear friends,

I have started writing this issue many times, in many different moods, and with uniformly disappointing results. Whenever I reread what I’ve written, I see there is no way I can send such disjointed, inappropriate, maudlin, not maudlin enough, one-sided, too-many-sided musings out into the world. You are probably being overwhelmed by points of view just as I am. You are teetering between your own constantly changing states of mind. You are feeling connected and disconnected, close to your heart and far away, back and forth, on again, off again, just as I am. Why should I add to the deluge? I think the answer is simple: I want to take part.

My hopes and expectations for this issue can never be met. I want to strike just the right balance between horror and hope, sorrow and inspiration, with just the right tone—not too heavy, not too light, juuuust right. You’ll note that the word “right” keeps popping up. My way of dealing with most things is to figure out what’s “right” and then plant my flag, so to speak, there. That was a lot easier to do when I was younger, I’ll tell you. Or maybe it’s the nature of what happened, the complexity of an enemy without a face—or with one face that we’ve demonized so we can think there’s a clear target. Regardless of the terrorists’ extreme methods, they do reflect the feelings of a certain segment of the world’s population. “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.”

Sometimes it has felt as if there is just too much to take in—too much sorrow, too much suffering, even too much beauty. I can’t watch the crying firemen anymore, or hear the beautiful stories of sacrifice and love. The tireless rescue effort, the photos of loved ones. The two people who jumped from one of the towers hand in hand. The immense grief, the immense generosity, the immense compassion. My heart resists the workout it’s getting. My brain, too. Every time I turn on the TV or read the newspaper, there’s new input to consider, new tragedies, new strategies, new acts of heroism, new acts of scapegoating, new warnings that we have entered a new world in this new millennium. I am tired of the new.

I see us all creating narratives out of what happened, as if we’re little kids wanting a goodnight moon story before bed. And maybe, at heart, we are. Some people have fashioned a scenario of how Flight 93 went down; it’s just a story, but we have powerful incentives to believe it. In our minds, we’ve already cast the movie—Tom Hanks, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon, ordinary/extraordinary guys who heroically band together to bring the plane down to save the lives of their fellow Americans.

Other people are trying to “decode the message” sent by the hijackers—September 11 is 9/11, get it?, and two of the flight numbers are eerily close to the latitude of lower Manhattan. I told Peggy about this, and she said, “I think we got the message.”

Everything I read and see gives me a different perspective and wipes out the one I had five minutes ago. My spine unwillingly tingles when I hear “God Bless America.” Some part of me responds to the fist-shaking of G.W. Bush and despairs of the “give peace a chance” crowd who don’t seem to have both feet in reality. But another part of me—the legacy of the ‘60s—will probably never be able to fully embrace the American flag. Too much horror has been perpetrated in its name. Bush’s disingenuous use of the term “bully” to refer to the terrorists strikes me as ludicrously inaccurate. If the U.S. is Goliath, which by all accounts it is, then the stone that David throws at us is not the act of a bully, it is the act—no matter how misguided—of an underdog who sees no other way to bring the giant down. We Americans should understand this better than anyone, we the proud historians of our own revolutionary beginnings. But I suppose that is one of the lessons, that the underdog grows up to be the top dog and adopts the posture of top dogs everywhere: We’ll do what we want—because we can. And those of us who live in the top dog’s kennel (am I getting carried away with my dog metaphor?) have been so complacent, so entitled as “Americans—leaders of the free world.” Like we really deserve all our riches.

I wrote the following to Terry late in the first week:

My feelings and thoughts are all over the map. Mostly there’s just a disconnect and confusion, dotted with moments of anger—no fear, though, strangely. Alternately heart-open and heart-closed, for no apparent reason. Going grocery shopping, I’m half extra-kind and compassionate, and half irritated if anyone gets in my way…. It feels like the best of times and the worst of times. Yes, the best of times. It truly does feel as if good could come of this, though it’s often only temporarily that people realize the preciousness of life and have good will toward their fellow humans. I keep being surprised and not surprised and angry and not angry. I am not about to start flying the American flag. Is that a vestige of my misguided youth, or is it good to keep a level head and not dive right into rabid nationalism? Confused, confused, confused…. I read the widely circulated Canadian journalist’s defense of America (which was written in 1973, by the way, not this week) and I think, yeah, we always help out other countries, rah rah for us, and then I think about all the havoc we’ve wreaked in the world in the name of patriotic zeal and anticommunism—defending our oil interests, making alliances with dictators; we’ve been on the wrong side so often. And now I’m identifying with this “we”? Who are “we”? I’m impatient with both the left and the right, with any politics at all, though I know it must come down to that….

Intermittently, I stop thinking and just let myself watch and feel. Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” choking back tears as he describes the former view from his apartment—the World Trade Center—and the view he has now—the Statue of Liberty. Dan Rather crying on David Letterman’s show—not discreet, manly tears but a crumbling of his stern newsman face. I’ve never seen so many men cry.

And then my brain takes over again. Dan Rather asserts that this “war” is not a clash between cultures, between religions, or between wealth and poverty—it’s about good and evil. They hate us for no reason. They just want us dead. And so I lose my previous (five minutes ago) certainty and start questioning again.

My questions chase their own tails.

Dust settles, mind does not.
—headline over Joan Ryan’s column in the

It’s unreal. It’s scary. I can forget it; I can’t forget it.
—my friend E in Washington, D.C.

I thought about writing this issue as a series of journal entries so I could focus on what I was thinking and feeling on a given day. But I realized that the entries would have to be constantly updated:

9:05 a.m.—Heart touched by the plight of Afghani refugees fleeing their country in advance of war.
9:10—Anger at people who think they’re the only real Americans because they came here from lighter-skinned parts of the world.
9:15—Grateful for national leaders who emphasize that Arab Americans are—hello!—Americans. At least we’re getting a much-needed education in Islam.
9:30—Anger at headline, “Falwell says U.S. has lost God’s protection because of spiritual void.” Is he HIGH?
10:05—Heart touched by hug from my favorite grocery store clerk.
10:40—Irritated by “violence only leads to violence” argument.
11:15—Fearful of “violence is the only thing they understand” argument.
11:20—Feel I have to choose one argument over the other. Can’t.
11:30—Horrified by images I can’t get out of my head—scads of shoes on the ground from falling bodies. [2009 update: A TV ad (for shoes, I guess) has shoes falling all over a city street, and I gasp: Did the imagery not ring a bell for anyone at the ad agency?]
11:42—Moved by stories of firemen’s heroism and self-deprecation (“just doing our job”).
12:05 p.m.—Up to here with images of wistful beauty and elegiac sadness.
2:10—Sick that this happened after Bush became president.
2:15—Wondering if Bush could be the right man for the job after all—can’t see Al Gore doing much for the national morale.
2:20—Friend I say this to writes it off to shock.
2:21—Realize she’s right.

And so on.

Some of you know that I put the mary’zine on hold this summer because of an unintended side effect of taking Zoloft, the anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, anti-obsessive-compulsive-disorder medication that I have come to know and love (and just in time). No one could have been more surprised than I that I lost the desire to sit on some literary observation deck above my life and describe its ins and outs, its ups and downs, in witty or soulful terms for the edification of dozens. My “new self” no longer felt it had to justify its existence by writing or publishing.

But that was one of the few down sides, and I was willing to give up the ‘zine if I had to, because Zoloft rocked my world. Or I should say, it steadied it. It was as if my brain, body, and soul—victim(s) of brain chemistry or life experience or unexplained personality defects—soaked up this neuron-connecting drug like a parched begonia, leaving me calmer, less self-conscious, less afraid of what other people think of me, less judgmental of others, content to do the little tasks that are required to maintain a household. I first noticed the drug was working when I realized, to my amazement, that I was perfectly happy to be sitting on a stool out on my patio in the morning sunshine washing and laying out on a blanket approximately 5,000 separate sand tray items that hadn’t been dusted in years, from skulls to plastic hearts to spiders and beyond. I had a sublime moment of realizing that there was nowhere to get, nothing to achieve—that doing this task mattered more than finishing it. At last, I knew what it meant to be “in my body” and to simply be without the usual internal litany of “I’d rather be [reading, sleeping, eating]” (not necessarily in that order).

And then the Events of September 11 happened (“Event” is my chosen euphemism, a good substitute, I think, for “first war of the new millennium”). It’s a cliché, but my foundation felt shaken, like after the 1989 earthquake. After a couple days of total shock and media overload, I e-mailed Diane, saying in part,

… by turns I’m a prickly pear and a dish of mush and an unconcerned Zoloftian and a selfish Bay Arean who doesn’t know anyone directly involved and was damn glad to know that you, my chick-a-dee-dee, were driving and not flying on the fateful day.

In her reply, Diane suggested that I had the beginnings of the next issue of the ‘zine. So she was the first to put the bug in my ear, the bee in my bonnet, the ants in my pants to get the ‘zine back on track. I began to hear the call of the blank computer screen, even as I wondered what I could possibly add that would be of value to a world already saturated with expressions of grief, loss, anger, and love.

All week, I kept hearing people in the media talk about how in times of tragedy, everyone instinctively reaches out to make contact with their loved ones. I sat here alone in my home office, editing yet another book about microbes, wondering why my loved ones weren’t reaching out to me. Of course, I wasn’t reaching out to them, either. But I did turn on the ringer on my phone, way up to 4 rings, which is huge for me—to dare to answer the phone without knowing who is there. Eventually, some of my loved ones did reach out, and I want to thank Kerry, Sissypuss, Diane, Terry, and Kate for calling or e-mailing during the freshness and rawness of that first awful week.

A week after the Events, Rob Morse wrote in the Chronicle,

Last week we were slammed over and over again with the most horrendous reality TV of all time. Then the electronic media decided to censor anything that could conceivably trigger memories of the violence they had broadcast.

Some radio stations were dropping any song that referred to airplanes, plus REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” But besides the contradiction Rob Morse pointed out, protecting us from reminders is a hopeless cause. Most popular songs are about love or loss, so there’s no way to avoid thinking about our own vulnerability. Just being alive is a reminder.

With predictable timing, the pundits began telling us to try to get back to normal. For once, they were right. I felt palpably relieved whenever I turned off the TV and stepped outside to breathe the fragrant, cool air, or when I listened to the blue jay splashing away in the bird bath on the patio. It was good to be reminded of the natural world. Laughing with a friend on the phone eased my heart and soothed my nerves. Going out to dinner at the Lark Creek Inn to celebrate a friend’s birthday felt alternately like a relief and a guilty pleasure. After we ordered dinner, the waitress informed us that there were candles out front in case we wanted to go outside for the national moment of silence at 7 p.m. We didn’t. We had had our fill—one friend had already sung two “Amazing Grace”s and had two moments of silence at the school where she works. It seemed more important right then to be sitting at a table together, waiting for our petrale sole and our heirloom tomato salad and our butterscotch pudding to arrive, talking of little things and big Events and laughing when we could.

My goddaughter Kelly, age 25, was having dinner with us. I told her I might not be writing the ‘zine anymore. She said I couldn’t stop now. Why? “Because you haven’t written about me yet!” So I teased her that I was going to dig up some embarrassing stories from her childhood. She mentioned the time she peed in my bed, which I don’t even remember. But Peggy said to her, “No, she’s going to write about your saying you want her to write about you.” The woman knows me, I must say.

This year I’ve been struck by the fact that Kelly is the same age I was when I met Peggy 30 years ago. Let’s have a moment of eerie silence to contemplate that horrific number. (“Eerie silence” and “horrific” were the terms we decided we were most tired of hearing in the wake of the Events.) Even though my political agenda back then was quite different from hers (she’s an ardent environmentalist, health-foodist, bike rider), I feel the connection of having been, like her, an idealistic young person with a desire to create change.

But what’s also fascinating to me, beyond seeing the similarities and differences between our life paths, is that contemplating her young life puts my middle-age-hood in perspective. It’s interesting to see some of the ancient truisms coming, in fact, true—such as the one that says the older you get, the more you realize you don’t know. That’s not as frightening as it may sound. It even makes life more interesting and less depressing—there is more to learn, more windows of opportunity, more ports in a storm, more facets of every diamond in the rough, more complexity and more grace. More ability to change, rather than less, which is what I used to think. So to all those who fear growing older—you won’t know the benefits until you get here.

In the newspaper the other day, there was a photograph of Ukrainian Americans in Golden Gate Park celebrating the 10th anniversary of Ukrainian independence. One of the women in the photograph leaped out at me. (Not literally—I have not completely lost touch with reality.) Sturdy and rather grim-(or determined-)looking, as if she’d seen it all and then some, she reminded me of my Danish peasant grandmother. Wrapped in a warm coat, her purse on her lap, she held a small American flag. And in that moment I got it about the flag. How it’s the immigrants from poor or war-torn countries who carry the American dream forward, who claim the flag as their own, who consecrate it rather than embarrass it. She wasn’t holding a symbol of world power or hegemony, she was holding a symbol of freedom and all the other American ideals that seem so false and fragile at times. I was humbled by this. In my youth, it was easy to disavow this symbol of America’s hypocrisy. But this woman wasn’t holding the same flag that’s waved by the patriotic jerks who want to bomb a country of innocents into the Stone Age. In her hands, it meant something good and true.

I cut out the picture of this woman and taped it to the side of my computer. At first, I thought I may have to take it down, because the wrenching of my heart every time I looked at it was hard to take. The picture gave me something important, something I valued, but the brain (enjoyer of certainty and habit) fights any attempt of the heart to be open, to let love and suffering coexist in a contradiction that will always be linked.

Soon the picture became part of my desktop landscape, and I had to strain to reexperience what had felt like “too much” only days before. This is the other part of the contradiction: the love, the suffering… and the ability to move on. Thomas Friedman, who has written extensively about the Middle East, said on NPR’s “Fresh Air” that people who live with terrorism every day are either survivors or thrivers. The survivors are consumed by fear; the thrivers are appropriately careful, but they don’t let fear rule their lives. He wished for us all to be thrivers.

One of my friends flew back East 5 days after the Events. Another friend doesn’t want to fly again until she knows what’s going to happen. I wonder if we will ever “know what’s going to happen.” One thing I have not felt much during this topsy-turvy time is fear. It could be the Zoloft working its magic, or it could be the enormity of the Events, the vagueness of the threat, and the pointlessness of being afraid. It seems likely that the terrorists who are still out there won’t target the airlines again—we’ve already rushed to close that barn door after the horse was gone. For all we know, having made their symbolic statement about American finance and military might, they will start planting bombs in random small towns and cities throughout the country—San Rafael, Boulder, Taos, Ashfield—but it’s all too amorphous. Why not just go ahead and worry about Death and be done with it? For me, at least, the Events have not so much struck terror in me (though I could still be in the shock stage) as they have made me realize it’s pointless to fear the unpredictable and the unexpected—which is to say, Life itself. I could die on a hijacked airplane or be hit by a bus or get crushed in the next earthquake. Speaking of which, to quote myself, “They say there’s a 60% chance of earthquake. Well, there’s a 100% chance of death.” Who are we trying to kid?

Overall, I’d have to say that during these last weeks, thanks to the Zoloft, I have been more forgiving of myself than I would have been in the past. I have mostly allowed myself to experience whatever life brings me: the sweetness of the only cartoon in this week’s New Yorker (a violinist with her head bowed, stopping the music, and her cat covering its eyes), the sadness even when it does not bring tears, the irritability when it does not achieve righteous anger, the hardening and softening of my heart in seemingly alternating pulses, the occasional fear, the love, the lack of fear, the lack of love, the political confusion, the selfishness, the compassion. I think I have never before felt so much a part of humanity. I don’t want to give up that feeling—that sane connection with reality—but I don’t know if I can stand it. Sometimes it is just too heartbreaking to be alive, and to feel so much.

Almost last, but certainly not least, Diane sent a group of us the following poem. My first thought when I saw it was, “I don’t want a goddamn poem.” I was already up to here with beautiful expressions of loss, love, and gratitude. But the poem is exceptional, and so I share it here.


with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridge to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with all the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

—W.S. Merwin

from The Rain in the Trees, copyright© 1998 by W.S. Merwin.

And now—I don’t know about you, but I need a freakin’ break. So here is a guest contributor to take our minds off our own species’ troubles.

my life with mare—a work in progress
by pookie (poet manqué)

so i live with this human… they call her mare like a horse haha…. ive been studyin her for about 14 years now… observin her closely takin copious mental notes. i do my surveillance with eyes half closed so she thinks im sleepin but im always on the job.

mary is remarkably unselfconscious in front of me which tells me she has no clue as to my true mental capacity. i play the dumb kitty cat pretty good if i do say so myself. she doesnt even check for my whereabouts when she gets out her magic wand. i have to say, thats kind of insultin, i mean what am i, chopped liver/she thinks i can sleep through that racket/well someone has to maintain the proper boundaries around here so i quietly leave the room and find somethin to do downstairs like visit the litter box… though i usually like to save that for mealtimes, just to get her goat….

i used to enjoy a little self-diddlin myself; she had this fuzzy lavender blanket that i just loved; but as soon as i got my paws on it and got my mojo workin, shed grab it away. but those days are long gone and not even kitty viagra would help me now.

its hell to get old.

i have to admit that not that much happens to me. its a big day if she lets me go out on the patio to lie on the sticker plants. i dont much care for the sticker removal process but its so nice to get a whiff of fresh air that isnt comin from a window three feet above my head. lots of interestin smells out there. i try to hide in the honeysuckle vines, hopin shell forget im there but she never does. ive been studyin the fence, which has a possible way out if i could dig deep enough… but im not gettin any younger….

ok heres the big confession. i was abused as a kitten. i know its very trendy to talk about those things now, but i had to get it off my chest. this horrible man used to throw things at me and even throw me when he could catch me. it was pretty brutal but it was the only life i knew. then mare took me in when no one else would have me and for that im grateful. but there was that time she almost let me die of a bladder infection. for once i wished i could speak cuz she sure wasnt gettin the first clue about how much pain i was in. i have to admit since then her attitude has changed for the better… she pets me a lot more and talks to me in that high, funny voice they all have when they like us, and i gotta admit it feels pretty good.

sorry i was so cranky last time i wrote. thats what happens when you dont get your tuna-flavored laxative when you want it. i gotta admit the spoken vocabulary of my species leaves much to be desired… meow… mew… erkk… there just isnt a lot of range when youre askin for somethin specific. she has this cartoon of a cat lyin on a shrinks couch and hes sayin to the shrink im startin to feel dependent and boy can i relate to that.

anyway i came into her life when i was a tough young tomcat with a chip on my shoulder and a few problems with anxiety and depression… from the kittenhood abuse of course. when i was just startin to get the hang of the new place and still had the strength to jump up on the dinin room table and the washin machine and actually look out the freakin window she brought in a little girl cat that she called tweeter and i called ms priss… oy gevalt… i think mare thought she was doin me a favor but what favor thats what i want to know. ms priss was a connivin little thing actin all sweet to mares face but talkin mighty catty behind her back… meow… she even played this stupid game fetchin little wadded up pieces of paper that mare would throw and then bringin em back and droppin em at her feet lookin up at her all cutesy gag me with a spoon. i tried to get on mares good side by runnin after corks but i was too proud to bring em back so little ms priss got all the best seats in the house like the bed and that damn lavender blanket. i used to pounce on her when she walked by… ms priss that is… what a brainless girly girl she was shed squeal and mare would come runnin.

since ms priss went away life has been pretty uneventful. i eat sleep beg for treats lie on cardboard sometimes walk back and forth between mares legs when shes workin on the computer which is pretty much all the time unless shes stretched out like a corpse on the bed. it’s not a bad life all in all.

well i guess id better skedaddle. til next time yrs truly

p.s. good luck people, god bless humanity and all creatures great and small

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #11 pt1 February 2001

March 21, 2009

sex, shame, and videotape

I used to think, like Tom Petty, that “the waaaiting is the hardest part….” After mailing each issue of the ‘zine, I’m on pins and needles, waiting for the responses to trickle in. I’ve never yet managed to feel confident enough about my writing that I’m—like—whatever…. But after “mary’s first porno” hit the streets (see #10 January 2001), I was especially nervous. I had great fun writing that piece, and I thought it turned out fairly light and humorous, compared with, say, The Story of O. But you never know if something that’s funny or interesting to you is going to translate to anyone else. And the responses I received to that issue tell me that the beauty (or not) of every piece of writing is in the eye of the beholder. I always thought that if only I were a good enough writer, everyone would like what I wrote. And now I know it isn’t true. What the reader brings to the page is every bit as important as what the writer puts on it. This is huge, for me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I discovered that waiting is not the hardest part. As it happened, the first response I got, two long days after mailing the first batch, was from someone I love and respect who was very uncomfortable with the porno story and said she would “never have gone there.” Instead of taking this at face value as an expression of her own feelings (which it was), I panicked. My blood ran cold, then red hot. It was my worst fear. I had crossed boundaries, broken taboos. I had offended my readers’ sensibilities. I had exposed myself, and now I couldn’t take any of it back. It felt like the biggest mistake of my life.

I didn’t know what to do. I had already mailed out most of the copies and was imagining that everyone I knew and cared about was cringing at my words and calling me a pervert. I pictured mouths dropping open across the land, one time zone after another. Why had I ventured out on such a creaky limb? What was I thinking? I planned all sorts of desperate measures. There were still eight copies to be mailed, and I thought about cutting that story out of those copies and pretending it was just a short issue. Restaurants and cats—let’s stay on safe ground from now on. I even thought of canceling my session with J that week. I couldn’t imagine facing anyone who had read that story. I spent most of the day in bed, under the covers, rigid with shame.

I tried to tell myself that people are responsible for their own feelings—that I was just the messenger bringing the message of their own shame or lack of it. But it didn’t really help. It simply wasn’t possible for me to believe that my friend’s response was hers alone. It triggered something too deep in me, too shameful, something of long standing—just as, probably, my story had done to her.

[2009 update: Recently, my friend asked me to send her the issue again, and she enjoyed it this time.]

Shame isn’t rational; it’s a powerful emotion, learned early. I can trace my earliest experience of shame (my earliest memory of it, anyway) back to the age of 4 or 5, when my cousin Donny and I—partners in pre-pre-pre-pubescent crime—were playing house. Husband comes home from work and finds wife taking a bath—naked, of course. I don’t know why we had chosen that particular scenario; we were much too young to have lascivious thoughts, and there was no touching. But I imagine kids play house in an attempt to manage feelings about the family, especially the feelings of powerlessness of being a child. And in a completely mundane sense, you don’t take a bath with your clothes on, and Daddy doesn’t come home from work naked! Anyway, when my mother came upstairs and found us like that, she completely lost it. I remember lying in bed later, banished to my room, hearing her turn away another friend who had come over to play: “Mary can’t come out now, she’s being punished.” More than the words, I felt the anger and disgust in her voice pour directly on my heart and brain, branding me. I was a tiny computer, processing the information: The body is bad. I have a body. Ergo, I am bad. (I was a tiny computer that hadn’t yet learned the classical logical fallacies.)

Back to the ‘zine. I e-mailed apologies to those I had addresses for and wrote notes to the rest. The responses have been incredibly affirming. I can’t quote from the wonderful phone calls I received, but here’s a sample of some of the mail (apologies in advance for the self-horn-tooting):

… I absolutely loved it; I laughed out loud the whole way through…. I hate thinking you spent one minute feeling you had to apologize. I guess that’s human nature though. And, just like painting, I imagine really putting yourself out there can result in major contraction and self-doubt as the mind scrambles for safe ground….


… I appreciate your writing about the taboos and daring to go somewhere most people wouldn’t dream! So keep writing!


i say hurrah for MMMMMMaaaaaarrry. you crossed a line. marched straight into the wilderness of our shames and humiliations and sang out loud in a  manner that for others like me the air opened up, creating more space for courage and play and fun. i could FEEL the fun you had writing the piece, and that was a flavor that gave me a passport to enter into a space that has been off limits to me. limits guarded by my own quivering fearful shamedness. hurrah hurray for mary….


Dear Editor w/Vulnerable Heart….. I thought your porno piece was a riot! I loved it….

No apologies needed. Your writing, as always and no matter what the subject matter, is bright, funny, touching, and engaging. You bring renewed life and validity to the inner personal world, carrying your readers through the intriguing maze of observation and reflection. How’s that for a review?! Carry on!….


I was saving my mary’zine to savor with Sunday morning coffee, but the note I received today carried the imperative to learn the nature of your distress. I was sorry to hear that one person’s reaction to your recent edition caused such remorse that you felt compelled to apologize to your readers. Then I think, perhaps the apology wasn’t directed to your entire readership. Maybe I am on the list of “questionables.” If such is the case, please edit my name from that database, as I’m a true blue Mary McKenney fan. Your stories may be unique, but the feelings, and quite often, the experiences, are universal. Please, don’t stop taking risks with your writing. Please don’t stop exploring, and please keep sharing. Always a grateful and appreciative recipient of “mary’zine”….

Now that I can hold my head up again and face my adoring public, I can see that it was a liberating experience to write that story, because I unburdened myself of one of my darkest secrets: Yes, I used to be a librarian. But seriously, folks. As I replied to the last person quoted above, “In the past few days, I’ve learned a lot about the isolation of shame, and about the beauty and generosity of people like you who have welcomed me out of that isolation.” To hear so many strong words of support was like being welcomed back into the human family, from which I had exiled myself—to my own bedroom, to lie in the dark, being punished. My mother is gone now, but the software lingers on.

To be fair, not everyone was wildly appreciative of my story. One person bemoaned the fact that I had put the image of *n*s l*ck*ng into her head for the better part of the day. Actually, it was probably the worst part of the day. She said she wouldn’t want to pass this issue along to any of her friends who have small children. I agree wholeheartedly. You must treat the mary’zine as a controlled substance. Keep it out of the hands of precocious preschoolers, nosy fifth graders, randy teens. Avoid sharing it with the frail elderly, the weak of heart, the humor-challenged. Keep it away from homophobes, right-wing fundamentalists, cat haters, the mentally unbalanced, the stark raving mad, and anyone who’s likely to come after me with a gun. Other than that, please share the ‘zine (the blog) with your friends. Do your part to make the mary’zine (the blog) an underground sensation.

See, with the mary’zine, you never know what you’re going to get—hard-hitting news, human interest stories of compassion and rollicking humor, shocking revelations. Well, not so much hard-hitting news, I guess, unless you consider it news that my cat likes tuna-flavored laxative. Oh, and by the way, he l*cks his *n*s regularly.

lost weekday

Here but for the grace of God go you.

If it had been up to my mother, I would have had all my teeth pulled when I was 13. She herself had gotten full dentures at the age of 30, so to her it was just a matter of time, and why wait? “You know,” she’d threaten, “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Dr. NEM [Name Escapes Me] decided to pull them all and get it over with one of these days.” I was terrified whenever she talked like this. I thought frizzy hair was bad? I thought having pimples was bad? Try starting high school with FALSE TEETH. I lived in mortal fear of the dentist. Everyone in my family had bad teeth, but he held me personally responsible for every cavity. And the bastard did manage to pull most of my back teeth, but I escaped with the ones you could see. I had to eat like a chipmunk for years.

As an adult, I’ve had to endure countless hours in the dentist’s chair, making up for Dr. NEM’s handiwork. In the mid-‘70s, I had long bridges installed in all four corners of my mouth, and they have required continual maintenance over the years, usually involving ghastly feats of mechanical engineering. The record so far is 7 STRAIGHT HOURS in the chair as the valiant Dr. Johnson tried mightily to save a tooth by doing a root canal but had to give up eventually because it kept crumbling under the drill. By the end of the 7 hours, I don’t know who was a bigger wreck, me or her. I think we were both ready to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge—me with my mouth locked wide open, her leaning over me with the drill, making one last stab at saving the tooth.

Dr. Johnson quit the profession soon after that, I hope not entirely because of me. My current dentist, Dr. Potter, is a worthy successor. And he knows when to quit. When I went in for yet another root canal recently, he sawed off the bridge, examined the offending tooth, and declared it hopeless and pulled it instead. Unbeknownst to me, this was the high point of my day.

Dr. Potter is a great dentist and also one of the kindest men I’ve ever known, but he tends to say things like, “Let’s get Mr. Tongue out of the way” as he comes at me with yet another new contraption to stick in my mouth. I’m always on the verge of hysterical giggles when I’m there anyway, and that kind of remark doesn’t help. This time I beg him for a Valium or something to calm me down—apparently he doesn’t believe in nitrous oxide—and he gives me a pill called Atanol. I think it should be called Notatall, because it doesn’t do much—except I find it slightly easier than usual to deal with the tray of goop he puts in my mouth to take an impression for the new bridge. To keep from gagging, I have to YELL at myself (internally, of course), “Think about your nose!” for the 2 or 3 minutes it takes for the goop to set. He also gives me a high-dose “cocktail” of ibuprofen and acetaminophen before he pulls the tooth. And of course I’ve had several shots of Novocain. I neglect to tell him I have already taken two Excedrin that morning. I am better stocked than your neighborhood pharmacy at this point.

Getting on toward lunch, I start to feel a little weak, so I drink two small cartons of soy milk I have brought with me. I congratulate myself on my foresight. Dr. Potter finishes up and I leave, feeling a little sick to my stomach. The soy milk went down pretty good, but it comes up even easier in the restroom of the Sutter-Stockton garage. Also, my body chooses this moment, this place and time, to let me know that I now have urinary incontinence while barfing. Nice. My pants are soaked, so I get a plastic bag out of the trunk of my car to put on the driver’s seat. I pull out of the garage into the pouring rain, praying to make it home without further incident. I make it out of the city and through the rainbow tunnel into Marin, but by then it’s hailing, and I’m not feeling so hot. So I pull off at the Spencer Ave. exit above Sausalito and throw up in a paper bag. I look out the window and vaguely register that there is snow on the ground. I feel like I’m in a dream. A police car cruises slowly by. I wonder if they do police escorts for nauseated dental patients. I kind of hope he’ll stop and ask me if everything’s OK ma’am. I could use a knight in shining armor about now.

Suddenly, I realize the bag is leaking. I grab a newspaper to put under it, but not before my urine-soaked pants get dribbled on. Believe it or not, this sounds more gross than it felt at the time. There was a surreal quality to the whole thing, a kind of state you get into when it’s all about survival and you can’t afford to dwell on the gory details. I spend so much of my life worrying about things that could happen, and then when something does happen that I could never have anticipated, I just do what I have to do. It’s reassuring, in a way.

So I get home, throw up once more for good measure, and crawl into bed. I feel like I have had a day of chemo. Every time I get up and try to eat something—some nice hot soup, some nice hot tea—I feel too sick to finish it. Strangely, the only thing I’m able to eat all day is some leftover rice and lemon chicken at 8 p.m. Go figure. I sleep all night and get up at 5 a.m. feeling great.

I drive to Berkeley for my 9 a.m. therapy appointment. J has read the ‘zine by now, so we spend the whole hour talking about masturbation and other sexual topics. Before I wrote that story, I hadn’t used the word “masturbation” in 8 years of therapy. I have since used it approximately 82 times. It’s liberating. On my way home, I sing along with the Divinyls on the radio: “When I think about you, I touch myself.” I tell you, it’s everywhere.

I know this whole sex thing seems like a tempest in a teapot to some of you, but we don’t get to pick and choose our challenges. Sometimes it’s about telling it like it is and risking offense by “oversharing.” Sometimes it’s about enduring—improvising, surviving—when you thought you knew what the big challenge of the day was going to be. Root canal? Forget it. You’re going to spend the day losing your bodily fluids in a freakin’ hailstorm. And I have a feeling the challenges are not going to decrease as I get older. Time is accelerating—the past is bumping up against the future—and events are accumulating meaning like a snowball rolling downhill. Let’s get Mr. Tongue out of the way, shall we? It looks like it’s going to be a wild, wild ride.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #10 January 2001

March 18, 2009

With this issue, I boldly go where I never thought I could go before—into the XXX Zone. I have a hard time talking about sex. I have never used the word “masturbation” in 8 years of therapy. I’m no Betty Dodson or Suzie Bright. But this ‘zine is my place to explore, and you are the lucky recipients of my intrepid findings.

Those who do not wish to enter the XXX Zone may proceed directly to Story #2, which is considerably more decorous and in which the word “nipple” does not appear even once. Ha! I dare you to skip over it now.

mary’s first porno

As I sit here at the computer, wondering where to start, I ponder the title of this story for a while, and it occurs to me that I have unconsciously made an association between sexuality and childhood—Mary’s first steps, Mary’s first word, Mary’s first porno—and I suppose that is accurate after all. Before you get too scandalized, let me just state that I’m referring to watching a porno, not starring in one (…as if…).

I had my first sexual experiences at the age of 10, at the hands of my older cousin John. It’s hard to put myself back in that time and understand why I couldn’t refuse, why I couldn’t tell anyone. But like many other things that had happened to me, this unwanted attention was like a fact of life, like a death or an illness. It wasn’t something I chose, and therefore I had no choice.

Something was awakened in me by those encounters in the woods, the basement, and our “fort” on the sand hill, but not in the sense of the handsome prince awakening the beautiful princess with a kiss. It was an awakening of fear, guilt, shame, and pleasurable physical sensation in a mixture that was most confusing. The way I found to deal with the confusion was to try to separate the pleasure from the rest of it—or to own my own body, if you want to get feministic about it.

This new awareness of my lower body morphed into inspired masturbation under the very noses of my grade school classmates and teachers. The large institutional swing set at Grant School had fine, sturdy poles, up which I climbed like the boys—humping my way slowly and deliciously to the top, then sliding down after climax—instead of the dainty swinging back and forth on the underside of the pole that the girls were supposed to do, all work and no play whatsoever. The bell to end recess would ring, the other kids would go running, and Miss Magnuson, the second grade teacher, would call up to me from the ground, “Come now, Mary!” And so I did.

When the swing set was no longer a viable option—“When I was a child, I humped like a child, but when I became a woman, I put away childish things”—it took me years to realize that there were other means to accomplish the same end and even books to help you do it. When it comes to erotic materials, I have always been more a fan of the written word than the visual image. I have had little enough exposure even to the written word (I mean, those written words). My first awareness of pornography was finding my father’s hidden copy of Nudist Holiday when I was 10 or 11. I can’t imagine why my mother let him keep it—my father lost all property rights after he got sick with MS—unless—oh, horrors—it was hers. The book was pretty soft-core. I remember the bobbing breasts of the ubiquitous volleyball players—do real nudists love this sport above all others, or is that a smutty-book and movie cliché?—but I don’t remember any big swinging members or anything that truly shocked me.

Recently I had cause to contact a woman-friendly sex appliance store in San Francisco called Good Vibrations. I found it on the Web when I was forced to replace my Hitachi Magic Wand after the cord became frayed and started emitting little sparks. An ex-girlfriend had given it to me some 13 years before, so you know it was ready for the scrap heap. Whenever I succumbed to an onanistic session—staring death by electrocution in the face—I imagined the humiliation of being found dead in my bed days later with the foot-long accidental-suicide weapon in one hand and Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden in the other. I could only hope that my spirit would be long gone by then and wouldn’t still be hanging around the ceiling looking down on the body, watching its surprised friends and family get an eyeful. At least I don’t indulge in any really strange practices, like autoasphyxiation or dressing up in women’s clothes.

When the Wand arrived (I wonder if the Hitachi Corp. really thinks people are using this thing to massage their backs and shoulders?), I looked through the catalog that came with it and noticed that they also sell videos. I figured it was time to satisfy my curiosity about—oh, one thing and another—so I pored over the descriptions and finally settled on a bisexual video called “Curious?”:

Two attractive same-sex couples living under the same roof wonder what it would be like to succumb to their curiosity and swap partners. Enjoy steamy gay and lesbian sex, a woman learning blowjob techniques from a gay man, and a not-to-be-missed four-way in which one of the men becomes the center of everyone’s attention.

I thought, naively, that a video featuring gay men and lesbians would be kinder and gentler, more wholesome somehow, than your usual porno. Obviously, I didn’t think this through. For one thing, it doesn’t get more down-and-dirty than two guys getting it on (despite the fruity-fairy stereotypes), and I had forgotten that pornos showing women together are made to satisfy the fantasies of straight men, not your Birkenstock-wearin’ middle-aged wimmin-lovin’ wimmin. One of the women in this video was named Candy Apples, which should have been my first clue. For viewers with no imagination, the two parts of her name were tattooed on her chest, one above each… apple.

Now that I think of it, I’m not even sure who would want to watch this mishmash of gay, lesbian, and straight sex. Gay men and straight women wouldn’t be interested in the bulbously breasted women, and straight men and lesbians wouldn’t care to see the Long Dong Silvered men… leaving, I supposed, the true bisexuals and those, like me, who are indeed curious or just confused.

So why did I select the bisexual video? I am quite ambidextrous in my sexual response—it’s only emotionally that I walk the gay and narrow—so I admit I was interested in seeing some “towering columns of stiff male meat,” as the women in Nancy Friday’s books like to say. I mean, I’ve experienced my share of said columns, but it’s been awhile. Not everyone knows this, but I’ve been around the block with several penii. In the days before I knew that women were an option, I fooled around a fair bit with the boys but never found one who could begin to intrigue or attract me intellectually or emotionally the way legions, scores, and oodles of women have in my life. Talk about your Mars and Venus. I’m a same-planet girl.

[Hetero sidebar] In my 20s, I was naïve enough to believe in the so-called sexual revolution, so when I was first seeing P, I also got involved with two married male librarians. And an unmarried one, if you count my boss, the library director, who got me drunk one night and tried to seduce me, insisting that he knew “gay ways of making love.” He later fired me, but we didn’t know about sexual harassment back then. One of my fondest hetero memories (ah, I am a real woman, after all) was the night the two married men faced off like two stags in the log cabin I was living in. C drove me home after an after-hours rendezvous in the library, and J followed us from town and burst through the door in a jealous rage. I’m glad handguns weren’t readily available back then (at least to librarians). I just sat there, the helpless damsel, in my gay-liberation-button-festooned army shirt, flabbergasted and pleased at this rare display of machismo on my behalf. (No, I can’t explain why I was messing around with these guys. It was the “sixties”; we were insane.)

At the ripe old age of 40, I became temporarily enamored of an older man—a VIP in the Krishnamurti crowd in Ojai, Calif. My 12-year relationship with P had ended, and I guess I figured it was time to sow some wild oats. I didn’t realize right away that what I was enamored of was feeling “normal” out in the world. I loved being seen with a man, going to restaurants with him, walking down the street. It was like suddenly being admitted to an exclusive club. Was I imagining that I was treated entirely differently, that I was receiving the respect and nonchalant approval I had never felt as a dyke? It was a heady experience, to say the least. It almost seemed worth it to “switch,” even though this man turned out to be emotionally cruel and very conflicted about women. Also, he’d had a lifelong problem with impotence—I mean, not occasionally, but completely. I don’t think he had ever really “done it.” I figured this was fate’s way of confirming that I wasn’t meant to go down that path.

Back to the porno. As soon as the video arrived, I rushed to put it in the VCR. Frankly, I was stunned, right from the beginning. The video started out with several minutes of ads for male/male 900 numbers and lurid close-ups of men’s frontal and rearal anatomies. I still had hopes that the “story” would provide more titillation—was it too much to hope for a little subtlety, a little eroticism?—and less of an anatomy lesson.

I hadn’t really expected the acting to be any good, but I was frankly astounded to see how bad and insincere it was. They stumbled their way woodenly through the dialogue necessary to move the two guys from the top of the washing machine and the two girls from the bathtub into the joint living space where they could satisfy their “curiosity” about the mysteries of hetero love. But what shocked me was that they couldn’t even act the sex very well. They didn’t seem to be feeling anything. I’m not talking about emotionally, but sexually. The guys wore stoic (or bored) faces—presumably, they were thinking about dead puppies or stock quotes in order to keep going—and had very little dialogue, but “Yeah baby, get your lipstick all over that baby” was a mood killer for sure.

And the women were so obviously faking it, it wasn’t even funny. I mean, it was funny. It was as if they started with a crashing orgasm and then just kept it going and going—move over, Energizer bunny. But since their enthusiasm was not even slightly credible, there was nowhere for it to go. You had to wonder if they were feeling anything at all, or if they had become completely desensitized by the constant manipulation of their parts and their faked over-the-top reactions. There was absolutely nothing sexy about these women, who are supposedly the ultimate sex objects, the ones stamped and approved by scores of porno-loving men. I really had to wonder, What kind of lesbian am I? I love women’s bodies! I find them endlessly fascinating and smooth and curvy and juicy. But if the women in the video were giving and receiving any pleasure whatsoever, you could have fooled me. And it wasn’t just the “lesbian” scenes—the women in the hetero bits acted exactly the same—all over-the-top fakiness.

So if the women were laughable with their feigned horniness, the men were a turnoff because of too much information—testicles hanging out of a guy’s pants like elephant ears; a beer-can-sized penis inserting itself quiveringly into a puckering a-hole. I suppose the organs erecti were impressive enough, but somehow the microscopic detail and the zealous slurping and handling—not to mention 5 solid minutes of the same camera angle—made the action seem about as sexy as bobbing for rubber wieners.

I’m not saying I want the soft romantic lighting, the thin white curtain stirring in the breeze, a bird flying high in the sky to represent the “culmination of the act.” I’m not a prude. But for me, the visuals are just not stimulating—whereas the words—the lick, the flick, the nipple and the clit—ahh. Give me something to dream on. Are you with me, dear reader?

Now that I’ve seen “Curious?,” I no longer am—curious, that is, And I’m more in the dark than ever about who would want to see extreme close-ups of men licking each other’s anuses and gigantic-fakily-breasted women moaning over each other’s shaved mounds—not to mention switcheroos in the middle of the action, so that the women are licking the… and the men are moaning over the….

And I can’t get those images out of my head. You know how they say that if you ever see how sausage is made, you’ll never eat it again? Well, that’s how I feel… not only about the sausage but about the biscuits, if you know what I mean. Oh, and the gravy—especially the gravy. It’s as if someone waved the Magic Wand and worked its magic in reverse. The fairy dust has disappeared, and my Hitachi is once more a mundane reliever of muscle tension, not a means of self-pleasure and delightful fantasy. I cry for my lost innocence.

And now, for something completely different…

just one

For some reason, I like to take myself out to lunch or dinner after a therapy or dreamwork session. (“Take myself out” is such a quaint, romantic concept—as if I’m also going to bring myself a corsage, come around to open my car door, and kiss myself sweetly at the end of the evening.) (Given what you have just read, this might not seem so far-fetched.) It’s as if the inner work and the relationship with J or J* make me want to open to the world, or as if I’m already open and there’s nothing for it but to go out among the human, letting myself seep into their consciousness and take them into mine.

On this particular day, I’ve had a wonderful time with J*, batting back and forth the dream images I’ve offered him out of the dozens I’ve written down since I saw him last. He does most of the batting, hitting multiple home runs. (Though if we’re “batting them back and forth,” I suppose a badminton metaphor would be more appropriate here…. Oh, never mind.) He modestly calls himself a “master of the obvious,” but if so, then it’s clear that pointing out the obvious to those who would otherwise never notice it is a particular form of genius.

Both J* and his wife have become avid readers of the ‘zine, so that adds another dimension to the relationship. They are so enthusiastic, in fact, that I feel myself turning red, wanting to disavow their praise like too-rich chocolate. I ache to hear it and yet it is a bit hard to swallow. I reflexively want to turn their words away at the door, like beautifully dressed partygoers who must have the wrong house. I imagine it’s like being praised for the sweetness of intelligence of your child—you blush to be receiving all this credit for something you’re not sure you’re responsible for, but you also marvel, “So—is that how my little one is received out in the world? Honey, I barely know ye!”

It’s 5:00 when I leave the house on Pleasant Lane—aptly named, because the street feels like a veritable boulevard of pleasantness as I walk to my car, full of feeling and torn between wanting to share it and keep it all to myself. This is where the bustling café comes in—a place where I can sit with a glass of wine and a small pizza or dish of pasta and dream over the insights of the past hour and a half—but at the same time feel the pulse of connection with the world.

I decide on Il Fornaio. It’s still early, so there should be plenty of room for my party of just-one, and it’s a relatively benign environment in which to experience that peculiar luxury-slash-torture which is dining out alone.

Despite my glow from the session, I feel as false and brittle as a mannequin walking down the row of tables behind the beautiful hostess, all the eyes of the other diners seemingly on me instead of on her deserving countenance. She first tries to seat me at the table right opposite the kitchen door, but I’ve been stuck there before. When you dine out alone, you learn to be suspicious of the host’s first choice of seating. I’m there to have a sensory experience in a refined atmosphere, and the comings and goings of the waiters in all their raucous camaraderie through a constantly swinging door are not part of my plan. Instead, I successfully negotiate for a table a little farther along, where I can keep my back to the help and pretend that I am far, far above the mechanics of dinner delivery.

Throughout the perusing of the menu, the ordering of the wine and salad and pizza margherita—grateful to the Italian waiter for instantly seeing them I am a Madame and not a Sir—I feel like a new immigrant to these shores who has only learned to say one phrase, “Thank you.” The thank yous necessary when dining out alone add up to a veritable chorus of gratitude. And because you’re not conversing with another person in between, all you hear yourself say all night long is thank you, thank you, thank you—for the table, the menu, the placing of the order, the bringing of every little thing, the taking away, the bill—as if riches are being bestowed upon you in exchange for your gracious presence rather than $37.48.

When I’m alone in a restaurant, I take self-consciousness to dizzying heights. My self inflates to take up the entire, vaulted dining room—crouching at the high ceiling, pushing against the windows, seeping under the doors, seeming to need a larger venue, the Oakland Coliseum, perhaps, to contain it. It is impossible to believe—as I know must be true—that all eyes are not on me, that judgmental glances are not taking in the falsity of my nonchalance and the obvious pose of bringing along a book to populate the tabletop. It’s a good book, actually—Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life—but who can concentrate on written words when the outsized dimensions of the fearful ego are expanding to fill the vacuum that Nature and solitary diners abhor.

Thank God for the vino. I have nervously drunk almost the whole glass while waiting for my food, and the nice waiter asks if I want a second one with my meal—sparing me the humiliation of craning my neck in obvious alcoholic dependency as I wave down any passing busboy for more liquid courage.

The salad, when it comes, helps to focus my attention a bit, but then there’s the problem of how to hold the book in one hand and navigate the slippery pieces of lettuce and shaved parmesan with the other.

Slowly, slowly, I begin to deflate back to a manageable size. It’s probably the wine, but also, I’ve decided I want to write about this experience, this spiritual practice of sitting quietly in full public view, a “single,” a “just one?” among the paired and partying humans. The writer’s detachment comes in handy sometimes. No social experience is so awkward that it can’t be turned into a good story.

My neck and shoulders begin to loosen a bit, and I dare to take my eyes off my book and look around the room. I’m not interested in the couples or the parties of four (two couples—twice as uninteresting). Pairing is such good camouflage—allowing one to direct all the bonhomie and cheerful chatter at one’s disposal to a safe face sitting opposite, knowing that you have nothing to prove, you are accompanied by your own raison d’être. You each have an other, one who consented to be in your presence for the course of a meal. I’m not knocking it—I prefer eating with a friend, too, and basking in the companionship and the security of bringing along a flesh-and-blood person, nothing so obviously forced as a book.

My attention wanders farther and farther afield. I am really getting bold now. I look over to my right, and I see a young woman sitting alone at a table set for 10. Logically, she must feel 10 times as self-conscious as I do, because all sorts of questions are raised by her being there, surrounded by what seem like 20 wine glasses and a flurry of little plates. She must be waiting for the rest of her party, no? But it looks like some of the glasses have a little wine left in them, as if the party has long since disbanded and she’s frozen there in front of a half-drunk bottle of red, sipping from her glass and twisting a napkin in her lap.

At first I refuse to believe that she is anything but right in her element. She’s attractive, with shoulder-length dark hair, wearing a pretty dress; no one would ever mistake her for a Sir. She probably dines here every night—knows the owner—is married to the owner—is the owner.  But I’m intrigued by the ambiguity of the table settings. Is she coming or going? I’m sitting slightly behind and to her left, so I can gaze at her without being seen (thus confirming my own paranoia—who’s sitting just out of range watching me?).

After several minutes of idly pondering her situation, wondering if her inflated, insecure self is bobbing up at the ceiling along with mine, if she is silently praying for someone else to show up so she doesn’t have to sustain the curious looks from all the safely paired diners—or even those singles who were smart enough to bring a book—I realize that her hands that were twisting the napkin are now rubbing her thighs and making little gestures as if she’s talking to someone. Then I realize her lips are moving! Not animatedly, not like an out-and-out crazy person, but quietly. If I pretend that the rest of the table is populated with her nine companions, it looks like she’s having a conversation with someone across from her. Is she practicing a speech? Is she planning to break up with her boyfriend (under cover of a crowd) or confront a coworker? Or is she out-and-out crazy after all, having called in a reservation for 10 but with only her and nine imaginary friends to fill the chairs?

The waiter comes by and refills the woman’s glass, which she sips at nervously. Or excitedly. How can I know? I don’t. Maybe she’s as self-conscious as I am, or maybe she’s caught up in her own world. Maybe this is the happiest night of her life, and the celebration is about to begin. Or maybe I’m way off, maybe I could never imagine what’s going on with her. It’s as if I’m seeing the mechanics of projection laid bare—as if I can only “put myself in her place” (see her as my twin) or imagine her as my glamorous opposite. In both cases, I am setting myself as the standard, the known, the norm. Maybe we can never see one another true but must always supply the tint, the blush, the coloring from our own bag of makeup. I can’t believe I’m using makeup as a metaphor.

So I can’t size her up, but something about this reassures me. Maybe I’m not so transparent after all. Perhaps, like her, I am obvious only to myself. Obvious because I’m posing as a person of ease—an ugly duckling yearning to be perceived as a cool, gliding swan—like her. Yet as mysterious, in my own way, as any attractive stranger in a pretty dress. I don’t know her story, but if she had been watching me, would she have known mine?

Posing, always posing. Pretending to be OK when we’re not. Even pretending to be OK when we are! Now there’s a pose for you. I was perfectly OK that night—better than OK—but I insisted on feeling like a sore thumb—the girl from the sticks all growed up and just barely learned how to use a fork—the dyke in the telltale haircut—instead of… well, whoever I really am. The simplest lesson—free to be, you and me—seems to be the hardest to learn.

Too much thinking on a full stomach.

When it’s time to leave, I bid a silent farewell to my mysterious counterpart, realizing that I am just one of the multitudes of mysterious, obvious humans—obvious in our pretense sometimes, but mysterious at our core. Saying my last round of thank yous to the tactful waiter and the beautiful hostess, I glide out the door, swanlike, into the dark solitary night, back to my private self.

pookie’s christmas

Pookie is almost impossible to buy for. He turns up his nose at all manufactured “cat toys,” with their trying-too-hard-to-be-fun jingly bells and stale catnip. What does he care if the thing is in the shape of a mouse? It’s not a mouse. A real live spider at least has authenticity.

Pookie can be happy with a piece of cardboard large enough to hold his enormous sprawling self or, better yet, a box, with sides to contain him. Nothing, apparently, makes him feel more secure than a cardboard floor and four little cardboard walls. He is a founding member of the Simple Living movement. Often, I’ll have boxes lying around my office that are way too small for him—like an 8-1/2 x 11 stationery box—but he snuggles in anyway, with his furry flab hanging over all the sides, forcing himself to fit like Cinderella’s stepsister jamming her foot into the glass slipper. But cardboard boxes tend to come serendipitously, you don’t just go out and buy one. Besides, they take up a lot of room. A cute little toy mouse with a jingly bell at least ends up behind the couch, out of sight, out of mind. But a box big enough to hold Pookie is a piece of furniture in itself.

He also used to like chasing wine corks. I would see him crouching behind a chair in the living room, signaling his readiness, and I would throw the cork halfway up the stairs. He would run for it, batting it all the way back down, or—nine times out of ten—knocking it under the stairs, where I would have to crouch down to retrieve it, giving him the perfect opportunity to take a swat at my head from above. I’ve always suspected that that was the real point of the game. But he mysteriously lost interest in cork chasing after his male-to-whatever operation last spring. Better for me and my back, though. And I no longer have to extract stray corks from the vacuum cleaner hose.

Pookie also likes to lick plastic ribbon and lie on tissue paper. After my birthday and Christmas, I used to leave the wrappings on the floor for a few days, for him to pounce on like piles of leaves. But I have banned tissue paper from the house since the time he puked on some orange paper, and the dye stained the light gray carpet right in the middle of the floor. I now have a small round rug covering the evidence, but it’s like Poe’s telltale heart beating under the floorboards, I know it’s there.

I discovered the perfect gift for Pookie when I had to take him to see Dr. Bill because he was drooling. (Pookie, not Dr. Bill.) We never found out why he was drooling, but I had to pay the $54 anyway. And then the drooling stopped. A ruse, apparently, to get inside the doctor’s office and score himself some… tuna-flavored hairball laxative. The stuff comes in a tube, oozing out all brown and shiny, and is licked off the human finger. My human finger. I have to wash and wash my hands afterward like Lady Macbeth. After he’d gotten his first taste, he was after me 24-7 to get more. He lops off a big glob and then has to keep licking and licking the inside of his mouth, trying to get it all down. I entertain myself with the cruel thought, “Got milk?”

When T was staying with me during the painting intensive in December, Pookie would go begging to her for the tuna laxative, too. One day, I heard her talking to him in the next room. “I can’t give you laxative,” she said sweetly, “but I can give you love.”

And that’s what Pookie got for Christmas. Love and laxative, and plenty of it.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #2 March 2000

March 16, 2009

Thank you for joining me again here in Mary-land. (Remind me to tell you about the time I worked at St. Mary’s College in St. Mary’s City, Maryland. It was quite an inflating experience, and not just because of the name recognition factor.) The response to mary’zine #1 was so gratifying that I was, of course, terrified when I realized I would have to do it again. Writers are never happy, because either they (a) don’t get the kudos they deserve or (b) get the kudos they deserve and then worry that they won’t live up to their first (accidental, fluky, one-time-only, never-to-be-repeated) success.

But putting out a ‘zine—really a glorified letter to a few friends—is doing something for me that I didn’t expect. We’re all taught that writing is torture: 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration. Traditionally, you force yourself to get up and go to your desk at some ungodly hour before the children (or cats) wake up, every day writing those morning pages whether you want to or not. Writing is usually presented as an onerous chore, and the writing that results is usually onerous, too. I’ve become more interested in finding my natural way and my natural voice—no more tortured attempts at literary descriptions of the landscape or the weather, no sad fictions about a lonely young girl in northern Michigan. Writing is fun when you surrender to who you really are—not the next Dostoyevsky, not the next Anne Lamott, but whoever you are, which you discover through the doing of it. You painters will know what I’m talking about.

I’ve also discovered that I don’t have to follow the other standard writerly advice, which is to write full out without editing, without stopping the “flow.” Since my greatest joy by far is in the editing, I’ve always hated that advice. For me, spewing a lot of unconsidered words on the page just means that I come back to a mess later and have to start over. Archaeologists don’t use a bulldozer to dig up big plots of land and then claw through the dirt looking for artifacts. They sift carefully, brushing the earth away from small chips, keeping a running account of what they’re finding and how it all fits together. Maybe those are the two extremes. The point is that we all have our own way to dig for our treasures. I was gratified to hear Fran Lebowitz say in an interview, “Writing is editing.” But she also thinks writing isn’t fun, so I’m trying to take her philosophy without the tortured spirit. Writing is editing is fun.

Let me also say for the record that I hate the ubiquitous writing exercises. “Write for 5 minutes about your grandmother’s shoulders.” I don’t even remember my grandmother, let alone her shoulders. I know these exercises are supposed to loosen you up, but I can’t bring myself to write pointlessly on random topics. And you can’t make me.

So for the past month I’ve been having a great time, writing over morning coffee or in the evenings after my paid work is done. (If you’re just joining us, I’m a self-employed scientific editor.) Some of the stories I’ve started to write are very personal—about my mother, my childhood traumas, my total isolation as a teenager. But I’m grappling with how to approach these stories, how to make them less ponderous than they felt when they were happening—how to inform the past with my present perspective.

My therapist, J, says I need to establish a relationship with my audience first. I already have a relationship with most of you, but you may still not be ready to hear about my mother finding my “sex” diary, or my phobia about throwing up in junior high, or about the alcoholism, illness, and death that dominated my early years. (I can hear you clamoring now: “Oh please, please, tell us about the alcoholism, illness, and death that dominated your early years!”) Anyway, I’m sorting these questions out and pondering such things as how to maintain the privacy of people I want to write about who aren’t dead yet.

A case in point—the above-mentioned J. She’s very supportive of this ‘zine but is afraid I’m going to write about her. At least that’s how I interpreted her saying, “I’ll have to be careful of what I say from now on.” I had referred to one of my stories as “the story about my mother,” and she said, “All your stories are about your mother,” and we both cracked up, it was so true. So I threatened to quote her in the masthead or something. Anyway, I assured her that I’m not going to write about her. (This doesn’t count, does it?) But I think there’s an old saying, “All’s fair in writing and war.” So check out mary’zine #3 for a story that encompasses J, my mother, a sweet tooth or two, and an essay contest in search of a queen.

animal lover

I’m not a vegetarian, far from it; I’m one of those classic meat-eaters who don’t want to think about where their food is really coming from. A few years ago, one of my work projects was editing a training manual for the care and use (as they put it) of laboratory animals. The first picture I saw of a rabbit being restrained, I thought I was going to throw up. And that was just a drawing! I told myself (Official Justification) I may be helping animals by making sure that scientists who work with them follow correct procedures and know how to keep them from experiencing too much pain. Still, the argument felt a little hollow even to me.

So I’m working on the manual one day, and at the same time I’m thinking about my poor cat Tweeter, whose malignant tumor has come back after being cut out a year ago, and I’m planning my dinner, Uncle Hugo’s Garlic Chicken, and I’m wondering, what is our “right relationship” to animals anyway? Who are we to each other? And especially, what is our responsibility to them? “I love cats” and “I love chicken” aren’t equivalent statements. As I’m sitting there, I notice that there’s something crawling around inside my desk lamp, which is made out of a large wine bottle I acquired back in the ‘70s. It has a lamp fixture stuck in the top with a cork, and I haven’t taken it off in 20 years, and there’s no way for a spider to have gotten in there, but there it is, crawling up to the cork and then back down, over and over again.

I don’t know if it’s the convergence of all those animal thoughts, or the idea that this is something I can do something about, but now, all I can think of is rescuing that spider. So I take the lamp thing off the bottle and take the bottle out on the patio, but some big parts of the cork have fallen down inside the bottle, so I can’t shake the spider out because it will get creamed by a flying piece of cork, and besides, there’s a hollow section of cork still in the bottleneck that the spider refuses to climb over. So I’ve got the bottle at an angle, trying to encourage it to leave, but strangely, it will only crawl toward the opening when I hold the bottle straight up. So I’m talking to it, urging it on, trying to trick it by holding the bottle up and then quickly putting the opening down by the ground so it will get a whiff of nature or something, but no. So I go back in the house and cut the cork out of the bottleneck, bring the bottle back outside, prop it on a rock so the opening is pointing downward, and then finally, finally, the spider manages to crawl through all the cork rubble and out the top, and I make sure it lands on the soil not the concrete, and I go back in the house and go back to reading about animals in cages, and feel sad for my poor cat, and think about how good my chicken dinner is going to taste.


the great Pookie

judgment day

I live in my own little world, as most of you will not be surprised to hear. It’s a small kingdom—queendom—with only one subject, Pookie, a cat the shape and color of a 14-pound meatloaf. I took Pookie in sight unseen more than 12 years ago. I was supposedly rescuing him from a friend’s abusive neighbor—or at least that’s what the friend who wanted to get rid of him when she moved told me.

It’s good that the population of this sovereign domain is small, because the queen and her subject are both getting larger by the year, and the castle is condo-sized.

I used to have a little gray striped cat, Tweeter, who was the joy of my life until she died tragically young of a tumor. Tweeter was cheerfully oblivious of just about everything, including me—unless I was lying in bed, and then she would curl up in my arms, round and round, like a clock winding itself. I’m not sure she ever figured out that this nice, manageable-sized lying-down person was the same as that hulking monster who loomed over her the rest of the time.

Pookie is never oblivious, and he’s not your stereotypical cat who wants a human around only when he’s hungry or needs a warm place to curl up in. He has many doglike qualities, though thankfully he doesn’t bark or drool. When he’s feeling emotionally needy, he flings himself on his back in front of me as I’m trying to walk across the living room floor. I used to stop, squat down, and pet him every time, but that got old real quick. So sometimes I’ll just walk by, pretending not to notice—like I’m on my way to something really important in the kitchen—and when I come back through the room 10 minutes later, he’s still on his back with his paws curled in front of him, looking expectantly in my direction. When he’s feeling really needy, he’ll sit by my desk and stare up at me, his big green eyes beaming love rays. When I make eye contact, his head dips a little in acknowledgment and gratitude, but he never takes his eyes off me. That’s when I feel most queenly, like I should be touching his head with a sword or something.

(Am I the only one who finds it necessary to pretend to an animal?)

But at other times, Pookie seems to be reconsidering the wonder that is Mary. His looks are often thoughtful, speculative, as if he’s thinking about all the times I didn’t stop to pet him, the times I yelled at him for sprawling in the middle of the dining room table or tiptoeing across the kitchen counter. Now and then it’s as if a tiny light bulb goes on over his head, his eyes narrow, and the dim, distant thought begins to form that I may not be the perfect royal mistress after all. Like Columbo in his rumpled old raincoat, he seems to be biding his time, collecting evidence without giving anything away. I’m waiting for him to pause at the door and turn back and say, “Oh, one more thing….”

When his loving looks turn to darker glances, I’m afraid he’s seeing directly into the dark regions of my heart. It’s as if he’s my animal soulmate who sees all and knows all. His looks are most disconcerting when he sits a couple of steps down on the staircase and watches me in the upstairs bathroom. I’ll be sitting innocently on the toilet, minding my own business, and I’ll happen to look over, and there he is. All I can see are his ears and frowning eyes peeking over the top step, the rest of his large porky body hidden from view—as if he’s pondering his prey before making the final assault.

Let’s face it, I have not loved Pookie unconditionally, as I loved Tweeter, and I’m sure he knows this. True, my complaints are petty. He’s kind of a pest with all that flopping on his back, he leaves little bits of litter all over the house, he eats whole clumps of his own hair and then has to throw them up, he stands in the litter box with his ass hanging over the side so that the only real point of the litter is to give him something soft to stand in. He’s also very jealous. He used to jump out from behind doors and attack Tweeter, just jump on her back and sink his teeth into her neck. (He had at least 10 pounds on her.) I was constantly rescuing Tweeter and yelling at Pookie. He would turn, his eyes glittering with unspoken thoughts, and skulk away. Tweeter, happily lacking any short-term memory whatsoever, would sidle up to him five minutes later and expect to be licked about the head and shoulders. Pookie would accommodate her until he thought I wasn’t looking, and then CHOMP—Tweeter’s high-pitched cry would ring out, and I’d have to rescue her again.

As you can see, life was much more complicated when I had two subjects, so there won’t be any more little kitties coming to live with the queen until the aging Pookster finally goes to meet his Maker. [Ah, famous last words.]

Speaking of meeting one’s Maker, sometimes I get the feeling that Pookie was sent to me as a spiritual test—a test of my capacity to love an imperfect creature. (Come to think of it, I’ve been tested on this fairly often.) If so, I’m failing badly. My uncanny feeling that he can see directly into my soul makes me wonder what awaits me on Judgment Day. For one thing, what if Pookie is on the panel of judges?

Here’s how I see it going down. I’ll show up for my day in court. I don’t know if Jesus has anything to do with Judgment Day—maybe he’s the public defender. I hope so. Because on Judgment Day, I’ll stand in the dock, look up at the figures on the bench, and this is what I’ll see.

  • all the telemarketers I’ve ever hung up on;
  • almost every dog I’ve ever encountered;
  • most of my ex-girlfriends;
  • several men from my lesbian separatist period;
  • and Pookie… with a gleam in his eye that says, “I’ve got you. I’ve got you now.”

And on this day of days, I won’t be the queen of the realm anymore. I’ll be stripped of my powers, reduced to my true essence as one who failed to love God’s more annoying creatures. And all the judges will be staring down at me, balefully, the way Pookie does now—just the tops of their heads and frowning eyes sticking up over the edge of the bench. Ready to pass judgment on me for all my earthly sins. Ready to let me have it.

Take me as I am without one plea, Pookie,

I throw myself on the mercy of the court.

pet ER

Whenever I sit down at the dining room table to eat, Pookie never fails to rise from whatever heap he’s been dozing in and plod by me on his way to the litter box in the next room. “Ah, mealtime—time to take a dump!” As I watch his tail disappear around the corner, I’ve been known to mutter, “You little prick.”

I was muttering out of the other side of my mouth one day when his frequent trips to the box revealed that something wasn’t right. Unfortunately, I misdiagnosed his problem, just as I had misdiagnosed my appendicitis a couple of years before. I thought he was just constipated, so I plied him with Laxatone and tried to ignore his pathetic appearance as he hunkered oddly around the house and sought out increasingly more obscure hiding places. I checked on him regularly, but sometimes it would take me 10 minutes to find him, and it’s not that big of a place.

Naturally, I didn’t realize how bad the situation was until 11:00 that night, when I was about to go to bed. With the clarity that nighttime brings to any medical emergency, I suddenly knew it couldn’t wait until morning. So I stuffed him into his carrier and took off for the pet emergency hospital a few blocks away. (There are advantages to living in a semi-industrial area. If I want a tire, a windshield, or a piece of lumber, I have but to walk out my door. Apparently, pet hospitals aren’t wanted in the nicer neighborhoods, either.)

I naively expected to be the only one there, but the place was busy—there would be a 2-hour wait! It’s the only pet ER in Marin—or so the girl behind the counter told me when I started to huff myself back out the door with my heavy cargo—so I sat down in the plastic-chaired waiting area begrudgingly—oh so begrudgingly. I was starting to get that buzzy feeling from being up past my bedtime, and I was now convinced that Pookie was at death’s door because of my negligence. Worst of all, I hadn’t brought a book. I kicked myself for stashing a spare read in the duffel bag at home but not in the earthquake kit in the car—proving my point that emergency supplies are never in the right place when you need them. I could have lived in the waiting room for 3 days on the rations I had in the car—but there wasn’t a damn thing to read out there, unless you counted the instructions for purifying water. The only reading matter in the waiting room was Martha Stewart Living, but I wasn’t that desperate.

The other women who were waiting had thought to bring books but were mostly ignoring them in favor of chatting back and forth, encouraging one another about their respective pet emergencies. I was grumpy and didn’t feel like obeying the waiting room rules—at least the rules for women—smiling, being nice, showing an interest. I envy men the social permission they have to sit there like a bump on a log, taking up space, not putting out an iota of “please like me.” Some would say I don’t do much in the please-like-me-iota department myself, but they would be wrong.

As I sat there, trapped, feeling like I had already been tagged a troublemaker when I tried to leave for pet ERs unknown, I wondered if I was on the cusp of that charming time of life when a woman decides that it no longer matters what strangers think of her. Forget all that “When I grow old, I shall wear purple” crap; when I grow old, I shall be a royal pain in the ass to all the young women who still believe that being nice is the first commandment.

After a few minutes, I muster up a smile at the woman closest to the door and tell her I have to leave for 10 minutes. As I run to the car, I wonder if she thinks I’m abandoning my poor cat. I drive home and retrieve my book—fortunately a brilliant one about a young woman who spent a horrible summer with Lillian Hellman—ah, an old woman who had totally lost her desire to be nice! It’s a theme! When I get back with my book safely in hand, I’m able to wait out the rest of the time with equanimity and even summon a smile or two at the new incoming women who have delayed all day taking their cats to the vet.

Eventually, Pookie is diagnosed with a urinary track blockage. The situation is serious, because his kidneys could fail. I get home about 1 a.m., and in the few short remaining hours of the night, I dream that he dies and the vet bill is $30,000.

But when I go back to pick him up at 7 a.m., he’s still alive and the bill is “only” $500—at least for the ER part of the journey. Next stop, the regular vet.

It’s not looking good—both the ER doc and the regular vet say they’re “concerned”—and I’m told it will take 24 hours to get Pookie stabilized. So I try to get some work done in my sleep-deprived state, feeling guilty about all the times I called him a little prick (Pookie, not the vet), and when I come downstairs for dinner there’s a message on my answering machine from the vet saying to call him back before 6:00. It’s 6:15, and I figure it has to be bad news. I curse him (the vet, not Pookie) for not at least giving me an idea of why he was calling. I figure he wouldn’t want to leave the message, “Sorry, your cat is dead,” but I would rather hear that than “Call immediately.”

So I spend the evening worrying, trying to imagine the outcome, trying to prepare myself for the worst. I’m reminded of “Schrödinger’s Cat,” which, if you remember your quantum physics, was a thought experiment about a hypothetical cat in a box and the observer who doesn’t know if the cat is alive or dead until he opens the box. I think Schrödinger proved that the cat is both alive and dead, and so is the observer. I don’t know how that explains life in general or Pookie’s situation in particular, but the puzzle keeps my mind occupied. I can almost see that Pookie’s fate is truly undetermined until I know what it is—and I wonder if it’s true that our existence is entirely dependent on being observed. It’s like the old conundrum about whether a tree falling in the forest makes a noise when there’s no one there to hear. [News flash: the answer is no! A hearing apparatus is needed to receive the sound waves.] But before an event has revealed itself, is it possible that all contingencies are equally present? Note to self: Brush up on your quantum physics.

So in the morning I call the vet at the earliest possible time, and voila! Pookie lives! But the bad news is that he needs surgery to, as the vet delicately puts it, “turn him into a girl.” I want to say, thanks, Dr. Bill, for pointing out that girls are just boys with gashes where our thingies should be. $1,000 later, the surgery is a great success, but it has not been reported whether Pookie has started meowing in a high voice. Wait, he already did that.

So Pookie is now stranded on the planet Venus, having left Mars and certain anatomical parts (the little prick, in fact) far behind. He isn’t out of the woods yet (speaking of trees falling unheard), but I have high hopes, high apple pie in the sky hopes. Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant—

Epilog. What I’ve realized while writing this story is that my attitude toward old Pookie—fortunately, the name is androgynous—has changed. In some ways he’s more of a pain than ever. He’s now prone to urinary tract infections, which require applying ointment at one end and dropperfuls of pink viscous liquid at the other. But there was something about seeing him knock knock knocking on heaven’s door and then getting him back again (do you suppose he got to the light at the end of the tunnel and relatives told him to go back, it wasn’t his time yet?). Anyway, my heart has softened toward the big lug, and now he’s the one who gets treated like royalty.

Maybe Judgment Day won’t be so bad after all.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #4 May 2000

March 14, 2009

I was telling J (my therapist) the other day, “I’d rather have 100,000 readers than a million dollars any day.” J asked what that would do for me, and I was amazed to hear myself say, “It would make me feel like I was part of humanity.” I’ve never really felt like I belonged here, on this planet. So knowing that other people are actually moved to laughter or tears by what I write is a revelation to me. Maybe I’m not so strange and alone. Maybe I belong. And it occurred to me that a lot of people must feel this way, all of us bumbling along, feeling different, feeling wrong, feeling separate—unheard, unseen—and that is why we are always looking for ways to connect.

I had this whole issue ready to go—ruminations on everything from caffeine addiction, to my time as a morally bankrupt librarian, to death, dreams, and metaphysics—but events overtook me, and I decided to write about my laparoscopic cholecystectomy (gallbladder surgery) instead. Lucky you!

déjà vu all over again

As I troll the aisles of United Market in search of rations for the days following my upcoming gallbladder surgery, I don’t know if the strong sense of déjà vu is from my December 1999 controlled buying panic preparatory to the nonevent of two centuries passing in the night, or if I’m harking back to Pookie’s ER experience. After all, he had stones, I have stones. He had an inessential body part removed, I’m about to have an inessential body part removed—my fourth, in fact, after tonsils, uterus, and appendix. I feel as if God is taking me Home piece by piece.

But there was no time to shop before Pookie’s turn under the knife, so this heady feeling of “Anything goes—and I’d better be ready for it” has to be related to my late-millennial buying spree—if “spree” is the right word when you’re pushing your cart slowly, contemplatively, down the aisles of forbidden treats, rationalizing your future need to be rewarded for having survived a natural disaster. Ordinarily, I would resolutely avert my cart from the tempting display of Pepperidge Farm soft-baked chocolate chocolate chocolate (how many chocolates? I can’t think straight after the first two) chunk cookies, but it seems I have entered a Twilight Zone of extreme calm and purposefulness in which anything in the store is mine if I but pass mine eyes over it. The mission that is driving me today is—I will be stuck in the house, alone, for days after the surgery, so I am allowed to imagine the medical and/or psychological postsurgical therapeutic benefits of any substance within reach. “Get it while the gettin’s good” is another way to look at it.

So I linger in front of the rows of soft, cuddly bags of soft, cuddly cookies, and my eyes are caught by those magical words: “REDUCED FAT.” If I remove my glasses and zoom in closer to the bag, I can read the rest—“25% less fat than our regular soft baked cookie.” Of course, this statistic is meaningless, because if a regular bag is 100% no good for you, then going for the 75% version is hardly a calorie-cutting measure. By law, the fine people who make these cookies down on old Pepperidge’s farm should not be allowed to use the word “reduced” or refer to the ephemeral 25% at all. For the sake of truth in advertising, the bag should read:


But 25% in the hand is worth 75% on the shelf (who says I’m no good at math?) so—plop, there they go, landing softly in my cart. Hope I can keep my mitts off them until I get home from the hospital. For good measure, I throw in a “mango tango” shake, a vanilla Frappucino, a quart of orange juice, fresh raspberries, half a cooked ham, and a whole roast chicken. I feel like I’m preparing for a picnic instead of surgery. As a concession to health, I toss in some frozen veggie burgers. I predict that hell will freeze over before those things ever get thawed.

(As I reread this, the day before surgery, the Frappucino and raspberries are long gone, but the cookies and, God knows, the veggie burgers are still waiting for my triumphant return.)

It’s amazing, the preparations I have to make for being away from home for a day and a half. The cleaning, the packing. The calling the East Coast publisher to arrange to get the last figure captions for Recombinant DNA and Biotechnology—looks like I’ll be editing on my recovery bed—no sick leave, no vacation pay, or personal days for the self-employed—or is that “no rest for the wicked”?—the instructions on what to take and what not to, the meal planning before and after, the setting the VCR so I’ll have “The Practice” to come home to, the grocery buying, the phone numbers, the prescriptions, the errands, the cat food, the mental preparation for death, the hormone replacement patch—stick it far from the gallbladder—the preregistration, the forms to fill out, the blood test, the urine test, remember to tell them about the problems I had after the colonoscopy, was it the Versed? To complicate matters, my carport is going to be repaved the day I return, so I have to arrange for P and C to take their truck home (it gives me a feeling of security to have a pickup parked out back; I’m tempted to install a gun rack), and I have to move my own car out to the street before I leave. In this neighborhood, it feels like leaving my only child out in the yard for 2 days. I’ll remove my valuables—sleeping bag and survival kit, car phone—but still. In case my carport is covered in bubbling tar when I get home and I can’t get to the back door, I have to round up the missing key to my front door, which I never use. Can’t find it, so what am I supposed to do, leave the door unlocked? Then I have to buy bigger food and water dishes for Pookie, plus a second, huge litter box, so he’s completely self-sufficient for the duration. He’s going to feel like Pookie in Wonderland, everything suddenly getting bigger on him. Of utmost importance is what book to take. I decide on Cryptonomicon, a huge, elaborate novel about cryptography, computers, and World War II—probably too much for my postsurgical pain-addled mind, but I don’t want to get stuck with Family Circle as my only option.

No wonder I don’t travel.

Last but definitely not least, I have to arrange for a ride to the hospital and back. I have to arrive at 7:00 a.m. Monday and leave around midday on Tuesday. This is a dilemma of enormous proportions, because I find it really hard to ask for help. I hated having to accept charity as a child (we needed a lot of it) and I somehow got it in my head that it’s shameful to need anything. J has to talk me down from my panic, as if I were a kitten stuck in a tree. I ask her, half-jokingly, half-defiantly, if she’ll come and take me to the hospital, and she says she can’t “rescue” me from this challenge—but if I ask three people and can’t find anyone to drive me, then yes, she will drive over from Berkeley in the morning and pick me up. I am deeply touched by her offer. I know there’s no way I’m going to let her do that, but talking it out with her helps me see that the problem is all in my head, so I get on the phone and call a few friends, who are, of course, happy to help.

And by the way, I feel like writing an “Ode to J” for this woman who perfectly inhabits the role of my therapist, with a rare (in my experience) combination of looking out for my best interests and keeping boundaries intact, yet showing me very clearly how much she cares for me. Her integrity is unwavering. She has never let me down or tried to take advantage of me. The fact that this amazes me tells you something. I have been ill-used by certain female authority figures in the past, and J has done a lot to repair the damage. I am grateful for her presence in my life.

I have started writing this story before the actual surgery, counting on something of interest happening that will make all this introductory material worthwhile. I would hate for it all to be much ado about nothing, as so many of my preparations for disaster turn out to be. And I don’t want to have to resort to fiction, not my strong suit. (“Dear reader, it was terrible—the doctor took out my liver instead!”) Never fear, I have a backup tale to lay on you if the gallbladder story turns out to be benign.

Well here I am, back home… pain and Vicodin battling for dominance… and I shudder to think of some of the “special” moments I endured in the hospital. There was pain, there was nausea, there was a cloyingly rich yellow mystery soup I dubbed “cream of butter.” I think what I suffered from the most, though, was e-x-p-e-c-t-a-t-i-o-n-s. Because of the brief time I’d be there, I naively thought that it would be a piece o’ cake. Apparently, it was a piece o’ cake for some people. When the surgeon came in to discharge me, he bragged about the procedure, “What could be easier?”—but of course he hadn’t been with me during the long night of bloodletting (I learned that I have thin veins that disappear at the poke of a needle), the projectile vomiting, the excruciating catheterization.

But the expectation that failed me the most was the idea, the hope, that I would have a transcendent experience like the one I had after my appendix ruptured 3 years ago. Come to think of it, the first day or so of that hospitalization was no picnic either, but what happened toward the end of it wiped the bad parts from my memory chalkboard. With apologies to those who’ve already read the story, here it is. (I return to gallbladderlessland a few pages on.)

the parsley epiphany

We are not human beings with occasional spiritual experiences, we are spiritual beings with occasional human experiences—Deepak Chopra

Two weeks before my appendix burst, I had this dream:

I’m driving a small truck, like a camper, and I park at the edge of a cliff. I have to get out on the cliff side, and as I look out the door, I’m so close to the edge that I can’t even see the ground the truck is standing on. I’m going to have to go down the little steps and turn and step onto a rope ladder attached to the truck and sort of climb sideways to get to the back of the truck to the ground. I spend what seems like an eternity looking down into nothingness and wondering if my weight hanging off the side of the truck will cause it to topple over the cliff. But it seems steady enough… so I finally do it, I go down the steps, turn, put my feet in the rope ladder, which swings out away from the truck a little, and I am acutely aware of that vast abyss below me….

I woke up at that point, but not in a panic: I knew I had made it—I didn’t have to play out the rest of the drama and actually reach solid ground. It was all about being willing to hang there, suspended. I can still feel that vivid sensation in the pit of my stomach—how it felt as I swung out from the truck, absolutely nothing below me.

Trust is hard for me. I have a lifelong tendency to feel that disaster is always about to happen. If it doesn’t happen, I make it up. I constantly find myself in the middle of a mental drama in which, to take the most common theme (especially at night), a man is breaking into my house. This fear is somewhat understandable because I’m a woman living alone and it’s been known to happen, but I am also capable of worrying that an airplane is going to crash into my roof. It doesn’t really matter what the imagery is, there’s just a sense of always expecting to hear the bad news on the phone, the sound of breaking glass, it’s a feeling of what next? I hear a strange noise and my adrenaline starts pumping. I’m sure there are psychological reasons for this tendency, but that’s not the point. I’m now over 50 and wondering if it’s possible to have a sense of ease in my life. Trust the universe? Easier said than done.

And then, one day my appendix burst. I didn’t know that was what was happening, it didn’t feel like a burst, it was more like a slow turning of screws in my midsection over the course of about 30 hours. It is, of course, ironic that I assumed the pain to be benign—for once, I didn’t immediately leap to a disaster scenario—and I assured myself that it was just some gastrointestinal bug from the leftover Chinese take-out I’d had for lunch. As time went on and the pain got worse, I was thrown into that excruciating inner debate: Should I take the big step of calling the doctor? (I never think they’ll know any more than I do.) What if I ask my friend Jean to come all the way from Fairfax to take me to the ER and it turns out to be nothing?

As it happened, I called her just in time, I got to the hospital just in time, they operated just in time, and my life was saved just in time. Which tells me that, yes, of course, I can trust. Trust myself, trust my intuition, trust that I’ll know when the crisis is real and not manufactured by fear. Trust the universe to be “endlessly correlated” (Deepak again) whether it looks like it or  not. I’m not just saying this because my life was spared. People die all the time. The issue is not—Trust, and only good things will come to you, nothing bad will happen to you, no bad man will break in, no airplane will crash, no illness will come. There may be a local rupture—of a doorway, a roof, an internal organ—but there is no rupture in the fabric of being.

Upon arrival in the ER, as I was lying in pain, freezing cold, while an angel of mercy tried unsuccessfully to insert a catheter to take a urine sample—HURT much?—I felt safer than I’ve felt in a long time. Part of it was knowing that I had navigated the rocky road from “I don’t want to bother anyone, it’s probably just gas” to actually getting my body where it needed to be. But on a much deeper level, I felt that I was safe in the universe. I’m not that thrilled with the word “universe,” but I don’t know what else to call it. I’m not trying to aggrandize my little self, we’re all hooked up to the “universe” through the catheter of our individual lives—now there’s an image—but what I mean is the deepest, truest pulse, the heartbeat that runs through everything.

And so, as I was rushed up to surgery—ah, the thrill of being the center of all that attention, my reward for the preceding hours of solitary torment—I felt that it truly didn’t matter if this was my time to die, it didn’t matter if this drama, the drama of little Mary, one of countless millions of dramas, was about to end. I knew I was held in much bigger hands than the hands of the surgeon. As I had that thought, I flashed on the hands of the blue Being in one of my recent paintings. You could as easily say that I was held in those hands. Whose hands they are doesn’t matter. Hands are there.

After a few days of, let’s face it, pain and misery, when I was unhooked from the I.V. antibiotics and was able to eat soft food, I sat in my hospital bed, looking out on Mt. Tamalpais, and the sun was pouring in, and all I could see out my window was green, except for the birds who would come up to the wire netting and look in and chirp and fly off again. As I contemplated the food on my dinner tray—the usual hospital fare, not the carrot cake and chili dogs I had been dreaming of (literally)—I saw that the same “cottage cheese and soft fruit salad” I had had for lunch had been dressed up for dinner with a sprig of parsley on the cottage cheese. This simple, even lowly, probably mechanical gesture (I don’t think someone in the kitchen was sending me waves of love by tenderly placing the parsley just so) pierced my heart. It touched something in me about the care that had sustained me through the difficult days, the focused attention to keep me safe, the confluence of events and help from friends, and even a compassionate surgeon (!!!). I felt so blessed, and the blessing came by way of a sprig of parsley and a ray of sunlight, it was such a simple thing.

But the real surprise was when I examined my good fortune, and I knew that the gratitude was not for anything. It wasn’t for the nurses, the doctor, the sun, the view; it wasn’t for another friend named Jean, an out-of-towner, who drove to Marin without a map and found the hospital by sheer luck and intuition because “calling didn’t seem good enough”; it wasn’t for my medical insurance, my restored health, my repaired bowel; it wasn’t even for my life. I was not grateful for my life. The gratitude just kept tunneling down, and it wasn’t dependent, I was grateful for no-thing. Each good thing that had happened could have been taken away—including my life—and the gratitude wouldn’t have been touched in the slightest. I found this most curious.

And so I ate the cottage cheese and the tasteless, touch chicken tarragon with canned mushrooms, not being grateful for any-thing, and tears fell on my hospital gown and I thanked God, and I felt so incredibly held in grace. And it was not Mary that was being held, Mary was just as meaningful and meaningless as the sprig of parsley—a manifestation of God’s love and completely expendable at the same time. What an incredible precipice to teeter on, but it didn’t feel like teetering, because the precipice and the abyss were one, there was nowhere to fall, there was no one to fall, no truck, no rope ladder, no ground, no dream separate from reality, no rupture of any kind.

It’s not that I have attained enlightenment and will never have paranoid fantasies again. In fact, the day I came home from the hospital, I found myself in another fantasy loop of “what if something awful happened, what if my guts fell out of my stitches and I had to call 9-1-1 and the medics had to break down my door and the neighbors looted all my belongings….” Then it hit me what I was doing, and I thought, oh my God. It already happened. One of my worst-case scenarios already happened. Something burst in my belly,  a true life crisis burst upon me, and what did I do? I handled it. Or it was handled. The friend was called. The doctor was summoned. Life took its course.

It was a wonderful insight to see that the ravings of the mind are completely unconnected to reality. And a deep experience (a spiritual experience, for lack of a better term) may not even affect the mental level, because the mental level is what it is. It made me realize that I don’t have to set a new standard for myself now that I’ve “seen the light.” Maybe I’ll jerk to attention when I hear a noise outside, maybe I’ll stave off the bad man in my imagination, maybe I’ll fear the worst over and over again. The mind is not capable of deep change. I can probably hope to catch it sooner, and I expect I will. And then I will go on with my life. I will not look for change on that level, because it’s not relevant.

I have been given the gift of the piercing moment of truth, the fleeting awareness that the things of my life are not the Real, whether they are sweet and precious or difficult and painful. The truth is: Appendixes can rupture. Being cannot. On some very deep level, it doesn’t matter what happens to you.

Do I need to keep this gift on display, keep asking to see it again, as if it will disappear? Where could a gift like this go? Sure, it would be nice to live in a state of higher consciousness, but it doesn’t ultimately matter. What’s true is still true, whether I believe it every minute or not. This releases me from a potential burden, the burden of trying to live up to something that’s beyond my mind’s comprehension. I don’t have to prove anything, I don’t have to attain anything or “be a better person.” The truth doesn’t have to set me free. How liberating is that?

Epilog: A few weeks later, I received a questionnaire from the hospital about my stay there. One of the questions was: “Were your spiritual needs adequately met?” I had to laugh. Oh, yes.

Back to the present

And now do you see why I had such high expectations about going back to the same hospital, the same surgeon, as if I had attained a level of blissful transcendence that would keep me safely above it all? And just in time for the ‘zine—how appropriate my two stories would be, cheek by jowl, as if I were singularly blessed to be able to perceive the usually fearful experience of surgery from some higher plane. Yes, that earlier surgery and its aftermath were a gift, but so was my safe transport through this less-threatening experience, just as every day is a gift—but how tempting it is to single out certain moments, to want only the heady insight, the glorious relief, the ice cream that sweetens and numbs the pain, the bliss of oblivion named Vicodin when the throbbing gets too bad, the luck of the draw that brings the sweetest nurse on earth to your side when you need her the most.

I think my lesson here is that holding out for epiphanies is a lost cause, because they’re not within my control. All I can do is take what comes. Besides—when I think of sweet Pramila, who came in to take my breakfast tray and said, with a twinkle in her eye, “Are you finished with this, or are you still enjoying your coffee?” (you would have had to taste the coffee to get the full effect of this quip)—and another twinkly-eyed chap who said he was writing on my chart, “Patient claims to have washed up and brushed her teeth already”—I know that epiphanies aren’t made up of only the amazing insights or the moments of life-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-death. Epiphany is where you seek it, I suppose.

I sit here typing this on the evening of my return home—physically drained for sure, and feeling a little let down, but still grateful for the love of the people in my life and the disinterested but caring presence of the angel-strangers at the hospital. Somehow the very ordinariness of what I went through, compared with the earlier surgery, feels appropriate. Life is not scripted, much as I would like to cut and paste only the happy endings. Maybe that would be the beauty of being a fiction writer, epiphanies a dime a dozen as long as you can fit them into the plot.

But even having to stick to “facts,” it seems that things tend to connect up, that even dashed expectations and failed attempts at transcendence play their part in life. I got up after typing the above paragraph—suddenly I felt the need to wash down my evening Vicodin with two chocolate chunk cookies—didn’t want to risk taking the drug on an empty stomach, you know—and I accidentally stepped hard on Pookie’s tail. He retreated to his little bed under the stairs, turning his head away and refusing to purr as I petted him and apologized profusely, asking his feline forgiveness. I knew it would come—his brain isn’t big enough to hold a grudge—but I wished I could erase what I had done.

And then I thought of poor Nurse S., whose catheterization technique was pure torture—something about my vagina being “too high”—I worry about my body like everyone else, but it never occurred to me to worry about that—anyway, she came to me when her shift was over, took my hand, and said how sorry she was to have caused me pain. Even though I murmured, “It’s all right,” it didn’t feel all right in my heart. I judged her harshly and held on to the resentment, banking it as if it would pay interest some day. But now I see the true epiphany of this story. Transcendence is not just about the moments of grace or pleasure or love; there is salvation in the difficult moments, too. I see that sometimes it’s my turn to be the one who forgives and not just the one who gratefully receives.

[Mary McKenney]

#1 in a series… the best of the mary’zine that never made it to print…

March 9, 2009

Scorpio [horoscope for Sunday, February 8, 2004]:
Listen a minute, Scorp. Your appliances, your furniture, the walls of your home are crying out. “Fix me! Fix me!” It’s pathetic! How much longer can you ignore their cry? The message is loud and clear: It isn’t enough to just capture the castle. You have to maintain it.

Anyone who has entered my home knows that my credo is: “I believe that housekeeping is an art.” To that end, I have constructed a Housekeeping as Art Installation Project in my condo that I call “I Was Just About To….” This installation was originally meant to be fluid and ever-changing—responsive to the vicissitudes of life—but it tends to stay pretty much the same, gathering dust (literally and figuratively), which I believe only adds to the authenticity of my artistic vision. In the sense that housekeeping can be seen as “keeping the house pretty much as it is,” I offer the following Installation Art ideas as the perfect hom[e]age to the house and to me, its estranged -wife.

Visitors, art patrons, and utility men (your PG&E, your SBC, your Comcast), should they be allowed to pass through the portal into my home-slash-gallery, are greeted by the sight of a modern-day vacuum cleaner, with all of its accoutrements, in the dead center of the living room. This is a bold statement that references the sheer futility of modern civilization’s obsession with cleanliness and the elimination of pathogens. “I Was Just About To Vacuum” is at once a comment on the good intentions of the Artist and the never-ending work of “keeping house” (as if it’s going to get up and leave if you don’t watch it every minute), especially since one of the Artist’s companions is a big old hairy cat. As part of the “Vacuum” project, tufts of Pookie’s hair are artfully placed (by him) in widespread patterns covering large portions of the once-tasteful, once-light-gray carpet, like a Buddhist monk’s mandala painstakingly created in colored sand—with the difference being that the cat-mandala is not destroyed immediately after completion. Supplementing the cat-hair arrangements are individual Kleenexes covering stains also produced by Pookie’s inner (and I do mean inner) process, some wrapped tightly in hair, others the raw materials of creativity, intestinal division.

Off to the side of “I Was Just About To Vacuum the Floor” [alternatively titled, “I Was Just About to Shave the Cat”] is an auxiliary installation called “I Was Just About To Do the Laundry.” It will come as no surprise that this project consists of two or more piles of dirty clothes, artfully divided into light and dark (symbolizing, of course, the duality of the material world), with a squirt bottle of “Shout!” standing at the ready. “Shout!,” of course, provides a fascinating subtext that can be analyzed on many different levels. This is an interactive exhibit, and the visitor, or patron, if she or he chooses, may apply “Shout!” to the many paint stains that are randomly distributed on the clothing worn to a recent—OK, not so recent—painting intensive.

Until the visitor, or patron, ascends to the second floor of this three-dimensional art installation, she or he does not realize that an ironic echo of the “I Was Just About To Do the Laundry” exhibit takes up a small corner of the Artist’s bedroom with “I Was Just About To Put Away Last Week’s Clean Laundry.” This of course illustrates the Cycle of Life, and any puns on “wash cycle” are heartily encouraged.

But before we go there, need I mention that the kitchen environment is rife with witty exhibits? “I Was Just About To Do the Dishes”? “I Was Just About To Empty the Dishwasher”? What’s slightly different about this display space is that it has the most “behind closed doors” exhibits, meant to be ferreted out and discovered anew by each visitor, or patron: Surely you can recite along with me: “I Was Just About To Clean the Refrigerator,” “…Take Out the Garbage,” “…Replace the Broken Light Bulb Over the Stove,” and so on and so forth.

There is a surprise in the small downstairs bathroom, where the visitor, or patron, is greeted by the striking juxtaposition of two rubber gloves with their “hands” in the sink, one of them gripping a heavy-duty sponge. An ambiguous shrine to indoor plumbing, it was the Artist’s intention that it subtly conjure the Ghost of Housekeeping Future. “I Was Just About To Clean the Bathroom” is as straightforward as it is witty. Again, interactive play in the form of putting on the gloves and scrubbing a bit of bathroom sink is highly encouraged.

I hesitate to catalog the contents of the downstairs “junk” room, because I haven’t got all day, but here’s a start: bags upon bags of cardboard for recycling [toilet rolls, Kleenex boxes], whole cardboard packing boxes [“I Was Just About To Cut Up the Boxes into Neat Flat Pieces”], bottles and cans, brown paper bags, junk white paper (“white trash”), shredded bills, newspapers, and the multi-sensory (sight, smell, crunch [litter bits popping under one’s feet]) installation of “I Was Just About To Clean the Cat Box.” In the corner, amid the bottles of Earthquake Disaster Water and Extra Rolls of Toilet Paper and Duct Tape is a small, poignant display, almost an afterthought, of an old red-handled hand saw (contributed by P. DuPont a là Her Ancestors on Her Mother’s Side) with two tattered gardening gloves gripping its rusty teeth in a silent indictment of my neglect of Patio Nature entitled “I Was Just About To Prune the Oleander.”

I forgot to mention that in the midst of the major installation currently being promoted are layers of previous installations, which are equally dusty though slightly less transparent in meaning: the life-size plastic skeleton wearing a University of Michigan baseball cap, seated behind a semicircular desk adorned with books, metal sculptures, D. Hullet original creations (a cloth beaded and milagro-festooned snake, a glittery star), and front display shelves with… geez, I’m getting tired of this inventory, let’s just call it: “I Was Just About To Tell You Everything I Have in the Skeleton Behind the Desk Installation and the Walls and the Bookcases and the Antique Chest and the Dining Room Table….” Let me just say that Ms. U.M. Skeleton is holding a large teddy bear with “Holiday Greetings” and “From Michigan” spelled out in glittery letters on the bottom of its feet. Can you top that, dear reader? I thought not.

The final installation, “I Was Just About To Take You on a Tour of the Upstairs But I Am Daunted by the Art-as-Function and Vice-Versa Layers of Work and Music and Play and Gifts and Criss-Crossing Strings of Paper-Lanterned Christmas Lights (a là K. Luna) and Bracelets Hanging from S Hooks (a là Ms. Luna and Sister B),” ends here, I’m afraid, where I sit amidst the rollicking decorative chaos that is my office, with the computer keyboard on my lap, ignoring Pookie’s attempts to get my attention from the shelf under my desk by sticking his head out and making his eyes big as saucers, and contemplating my next project, “I Was Just About To Get Back to Work.”

Prices are highly negotiable.

[Mary McKenney]


No, this isn’t Pookie… or is it??

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