mary’zine random redux: #2 March 2000

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]

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