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.