Wartime Edition (rated R for language and brief nudity)
Hello, people. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, it’s the wartime edition of mary’zine.
When I was in Berkeley a few weeks ago, I saw posters on telephone poles advertising The Fuck The War Ball. To my lasting regret, I didn’t stop to get the details, but those lovely Anglo-Saxon words have been reverberating in my head ever since.
The times they have a’changed, all right. Back in the day, it was Make Love Not War. Now it’s Fuck the War. Where do we go from here? Nowadays, it wouldn’t be enough for John and Yoko to sit naked in bed to protest the war, they’d have to, well, you know, fuck.
But there are still flag-wavers in Berkeley, so I expect The Fuck The War Ball might get some anti-protest protesters. Perhaps a pro-war group will stage The Fuck The Fuck The War Ball Ball, which will in turn be answered by The Fuck The Fuck The Fuck The War Ball Ball Ball Ball. (Notice, in this flight of fancy, how Fuck and Ball keep getting repeated, and The War stays unchanged. That’s about how much effect The Fuck The War Ball is going to have on real life.)
I actually don’t have much to say about the war Out There. (Après la guerre, moi.) I’m experiencing my own warlike symptoms. In some weird way, I seem to be living out a parallel reality in which the armies of the night are gathering in me. Something inside me is raging, but I don’t know what or who the target is. It’s as if all the pent-up anger from my lifetime stockpile is rumbling just beneath the surface. (They don’t call me Mary Mary Quite Contrary for nothing.) I’m at war, and like The Fuck The War War, it’s an undeclared war against an unknown enemy. Am I projecting onto the world, or is the world projecting onto me? I’m a terrorist of my own self, unpredictable, unappeasable. Mentally I’m crashing into my own building, mailing anthrax letters to my own address. I’m on hyperalert for whatever I’m going to do to myself next. My inner President Bush gives stirring, morale-boosting speeches to a crowd of chanting dissidents, my alter egos. Fuck The Fuck The War The War The Ball The Ball, we echo, overpowering the voice of executive reason.
I cry out for something to be done. Call out the National Guard! Patrol the bridges! Arrest the racially profiled! Scare the citizenry! Pull around the wagons! No, that’s the wrong century!
I wanna be sedated.
Terrorism and war—both the Inner and the Outer—are wreaking havoc with my personal mental health program. The psychiatrist has upgraded my dosage of anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, anti-obsessive-compulsive-disorder-sneezing-aching-coughing-so-you-can-sleep-better-to-feel-better medicine. It is my hope that 75 mg of Zoloft will soon calm the citizenry of my personal nation state. My economy is ailing, and it’s time to get out there and buy. At least I haven’t laid myself off yet.
(You think I can’t keep this up for 10 pages? Watch me.)
It’s like all this roiling, boiling feeling is rising to the top—“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” The rage may have been triggered by 9/11, but it doesn’t seem to be about that anymore, though terrorism is certainly a handy point-of-reference/excuse/public domain/mass hysteria kind of deal. It’s almost like having permission, somehow, to feel whatever I’m truly, madly, deeply feeling, or as my friend D says, “Then there are the loons like me (and I think there are a lot of us) who are actually relieved because now the outside chaos matches the inside chaos/turmoil/uncertainty/certainty of imminent death!”
Yet despite the War on Terrorism, terrorism itself has become almost passé. The news people are all: Ho hum, another person has died of anthrax, and it’s a complete mystery because she was an elderly shut-in and never got any mail. Now for our main story, Are Americans going to spend a lot of money for Christmas this year?
On the other front in my personal war against self-induced terrorism is my therapist, J. Dr. P. gives me the drugs, but J has to deal with me. She’s always trying to bring me back into my body, and I’m always trying to escape. The classic therapist question is “How do you feel about that?” but J’s question is “Where do you feel it in your body?” My answer is always the same. “I don’t know!”
Therapy doesn’t follow a straight path. Why would it? Painting doesn’t; life doesn’t. It seems to go in waves—just as I’m approaching a central stumbling block-slash-snake pit in my psyche, like, for instance, my deep and scary feelings of Fuck The World (you’re all invited to The Fuck The World Ball)—bam!—something else comes up, some crisis of relationship or work or health that calls for immediate attention, and I have once again escaped facing my personal war-mongering tendencies.
If the Zoloft were still working—or at least working the way it did pre-9/11—I could possibly escape forever. But no such luck. Actually, Jeremy told me that he’s known several people on anti-whatevers who have had the same reaction. I suspect that the medication calms you down and diverts your attention from trivial frustrations, and then Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back in the Water, your inner Godzilla rears its ugly head. (Godzilla, Jaws, whatever.)
By the way, Terry pointed out the synchronicity of the word “God” in Godzilla, which completely escaped my attention in last issue’s riff about the tableau on the back of my washing machine (Godzilla v. Buddha), but you can’t go home again to already-overblown analogies, so never mind.
Anyway, I was at therapy one morning recently, complaining about my constant headaches and other psychosomatic preoccupations, when I told J how angry I’ve been feeling since 9/11. I started crying, which is par for the course, and got up to retrieve the Kleenex from her bookshelf. She just moved our sessions to a new office, so the accoutrements so necessary to the therapeutic process are not yet in place, including an end table for the couch. I brought the Kleenex box back to the couch and “jokingly” said, “I’ll just put it on the TABLE” and dropped the box where the table should have been. Even as the Kleenex box was falling to the floor, I realized how much aggression there was behind my “joke.”
J is nothing if not sharp as a freakin’ TACK, so she immediately said, “Do that again—but organize it.” My somatic task was to exaggerate the gesture, bring the anger out from hiding behind my sarcastic wit. So I picked up the Kleenex box again and tried to throw it to the floor instead of just letting it drop. This was surprisingly difficult to do. I kept working at it—I must have thrown it down 10 times or more—and discovered that I was afraid to “hurt” the Kleenex (or something that the Kleenex represented?—Après la Kleenex, moi?) The box was starting to get torn and crumpled, and the tissues kept threatening to fall out. It was really strange to see how afraid I was to let my anger out, even against an inanimate object. (But then some physicists think subatomic particles are sentient beings. I kid you not.) (2009 update: That’s probably just as ignorant as Sarah Palin complaining about “fruit fly research in Paris, France, I kid you not.” For all I know, sentient subatomic particles are the Drosophila melanogaster of the physics world.)
So then J decided to give me something to abuse that would be a little more sturdy, so she rolled up a throw/blanket/shawl kind of thing that was on the back of the couch and told me to “beat it.” I started to leave—no—I started to bang it on the couch cushion. She wanted me to really get into it and even say words—whatever came to me—as I hit the couch. At first, little pipsqueak “nos” and “fucks” came out. But gradually, I lost some of my self-consciousness and managed to make a few loud noises, NO, NO, NO, as I beat that cushion into submission.
“What did you learn in therapy today?”
“Watch out or I’ll beat you with this SHAWL.”
When J let me stop, I had little time to be relieved, because then she wanted me to use the beating-something-with-every-fiber-of-my-physical-being VOICE to tell her how angry I was. It didn’t even have to make sense, it was just a way to practice coming from this other place. But that was even harder than beating the couch. All my so-called anger, even when I was making it up—“How dare you not bring me coffee this morning?”—came out in this thin, teary whine that I immediately recognized as my natural voice. I just couldn’t get down in my diaphragm and even pretend to be angry. I kept having an irresistible urge to laugh or make a joke—ah, what is that they say about the hostility in humor?—or I’d start crying again. The experience was mortifying—but then, “else what’s a therapy for?”
As I was trying to summon up my angry voice, this great analogy came to me. (When I’m trying to get out of working on somatic patterns and feeling feelings in my body, I like to impress J with my brilliant metaphorical skills.) I told her that I felt like Moses parting the Red Sea. (Inflated much?) I felt as if my attempt to speak with a clear, angry voice was like Moses parting the waters and then having to walk through the dry path with all his people while the temporarily suspended waves on either side threatened to drown them all. (Dry path = my anger; waves = my whiny tears.) I tried to fit J into the analogy, but casting her as the Pharaoh didn’t go over real well, and I realized she wasn’t chasing me anyway, she was on the other side of the sea urging me on. I said I didn’t know what was on the other side of the sea for Moses, and she said “the wilderness, the unknown.” That sounded about right. She also pointed out that Moses never claimed to know what he was doing, he was just obeying God, and that sounded about right, too—at least the not-knowing-what-he-was-doing part.
The reason this exercise was so hard for me was that I have perfected my mother’s art of “expressing” anger through silence and withdrawal, which had the all-important safety feature of putting her out of reach of a counterattack. The other person (usually me) could use the same tactic back at her, but then nothing was ever aired and no one was ever happy. Conversely, my father, a helpless invalid, raged and hollered all the livelong day and it never got him anywhere, because my mother could literally walk away from him. One time when he was bellowing about something or other—she had taken too long to come back from the store, or she had leaned her breasts on the table while playing Scrabble, and Vince, another guy with multiple sclerosis, had been eyeing them—she hauled him into his wheelchair and wheeled him out of the house, down the ramp, and out to our deserted country road where he could sit and rage at the woods to his heart’s content. Naturally, that stopped him cold. My mother never lost a fight.
Lately, I’ve seen what a dead end this tactic of angry withdrawal truly is, but I’ve despaired of learning new tricks at my ripe old age. It was probably a dead end for my mother, too, but at least she had us kids to pass the silent gene on to. I’ve noticed that my sister’s deepest expression of anger is a heartfelt, sarcastically tinged “Huh.” Since my mother was an aspiring writer, you’d think she would be a natural talker, a creative wordsmith of emotion. (But then my father, the Irish talker, never had the urge to read or write.) But I’m reminded of something Adair Lara wrote: “… you have to be pretty good at language to get the full savagery from silence.”
So my assignment for the next few weeks is to beat the bejesus (bemoses?) out of my mattress and holler like a banshee while I’m doing it. It should be easier to do this without an audience, although I’ll probably worry about my neighbor Kim hearing me through the wall. I just can’t seem to admit to myself that it’s the sound and fury itself that scares me.
This is what I dreamed after that therapy session:
I have a PENIS, which is fairly new, and I’m looking at it and thinking it doesn’t look very big. I remember that most guys measure theirs, so I decide to do that. I feel down at the base of it to see where to measure from, but then I remember that you’re supposed to measure it when it’s erect. As I have that thought, I immediately start to get erect, and the penis gets longer and longer and curves up and touches me between my eyes. I’m so impressed.
I also dreamed that I was really angry at a guy wearing bright orange pants, and I yelled at him and pushed him down and started shoving him with my foot.
Pandora’s Box much?
So, getting back to the world Out There, it’s becoming harder and harder to read the newspaper these days. There’s just too much information to absorb—every day, some shocking new report of a world that has forever changed. Take this headline from the S.F. Chronicle of November 11: “People turn to food to ease terror anxiety.” I was floored when I read this. A proven link between food consumption and anxiety? Get out! I scanned the article for more details about this amazing finding.
People across the country have turned to food—from chocolate to mashed potatoes to peanut butter and jelly—to deal with the anxiety of the Sept. 11 attacks and anthrax scares, according to dietitians and psychologists.
“What’s one more chocolate?” asks Almquist, 24. “It seems a little strange to be obsessing about something like that when there’s so much more going on.”
Zumberge, 49, typically would think twice about indulging his sweet coffee craving. “But now? Not so much,” he says.
[Some] say they don’t need the added stress of carefully watching what they eat. “Why do I want to put myself through that right now? There’s enough stuff going on,” said Johnson, 36, a Newport Beach receptionist.
I skip to the end of the article to see if there is some explanation for this stunning new evidence of the mind-body-food connection.
Clinical psychologist Emanuel Maidenberg said Johnson’s feelings are not surprising. “Food of that kind is typically associated with pleasant feelings—comfort, relaxation, calm,” said Maidenberg.
Whoa. Talk about food for thought. I put down my bag of chips—no, actually, I stuff another fistful in my mouth as I consider this possibly life-changing information. Could I possibly be—gasp—using food as a way to deal with my war-induced stress? I review my food choices over the past couple of months. Hmm. A steady diet of hamburgers, enchiladas, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, popcorn, chocolate, Ben & Jerry’s….. I know I have to take a long, hard look at myself to see if my eating habits have been affected by 9/11. Let me think. Nope, nothing’s changed.
This is how I torture myself. One day I bought a Hershey bar and put it in the cupboard, hoping to forget about it so that when I was desperately wanting a treat sometime, and I despaired of finding anything suitable in the house that would be a good substitute for whatever it was I really wanted, I’d suddenly spring up like Einstein discovering relativity and cry “Eureka! I have chocolate!” The problem with that plan is that first you have to forget the chocolate is there. I wouldn’t let myself have it if I couldn’t forget about it, but if I could forget about it, I wouldn’t have come up with such a ridiculous scheme in the first place. I was in a mental prison of my own making, and a bar of chocolate with almonds was my jailer. The more I rattled the bars of my cage, the harder the jailer laughed. “Eat me!” he cried. (I know it was a he, because it had nuts.) (Oh God. Now I’m channeling the teenage boys who used to torture me with this “joke” when I was working at the snack bar in the park.)
To distract myself from the thought of food, I hurry past the terror-anxiety news to the entertainment section of the paper, where I hope to escape into fantasy. But once again I am faced with shocking revelations:
“Shallow Hal” actress found she wasn’t the center of attention in a fat suit.
You’ve got to be kidding me! I can’t take this!
In this movie, Gwyneth Paltrow, beautiful movie star and daughter of a beautiful movie star and a movie producer, plays a 300-pound woman, a role for which she wears a fat suit.
She donned the fat suit and makeup for a day and walked around the lobby of a New York hotel…. At first she was concerned that the crowds in the lobby would figure out who she was right away. To her surprise, no one did. “People wouldn’t even look at me,” Paltrow says with astonishment. “They wouldn’t make eye contact with me at all. It was awful.”
The actress says she experienced a similar reaction whenever she wore the fat suit on the set. “I felt no sexual energy from men,” she says.
After I pick myself up off the floor, I go straight to the cupboard, fall on the Hershey bar, and tear off the wrapper. I think about saving half, but—ah-hahahahahaha. Later that afternoon, I have that moment I had been waiting for—the moment of despairing of finding anything suitable in the house that would be a good substitute for whatever it was I really wanted. But by then, of course, it’s too late.
C’est la guerre.
I’m going to lick this food thing yet. But first, I have more to say.
I do not seek novelty.
—Kay Ryan, poet
I am an enjoyer of repeat experience. Others are drawn to the new; I’m drawn to the been there–done that–enjoyed that–let’s do that again. I generally order the same food in the same restaurants, and I can identify my menu item of choice in just about every restaurant I’ve ever been in. I’m a serial monogamist when it comes to food. In Ann Arbor one summer, when I was 23 and very much alone, I ate a chili dog for lunch every single day. Peggy can attest that I have been searching for a chili dog of that caliber ever since. Maybe it was my need for comfort, not the chili dog itself, that made it such a tasty, satisfying treat—the old mouth-of-the-beholder theory.
Actually a lot of my favorite comfort food comes from Michigan, which is odd in one sense, because my home state is not exactly a culinary paradise. But I guess the whole point of comfort food is to remind you of your childhood. Except, if I wanted to be reminded of my childhood, you’d think I’d be craving pasties (not the little circles that cover a stripper’s nipples but a horrible vegetable pie that the U.P. is known for); creamed salmon and peas on toast (known to my ex-Army dad as shit-on-a-shingle); boiled New England dinner; a dozen varieties of “hot dish” (hamburger or tuna casserole with noodles and canned vegetables); and lime or orange Jell-O with fruit cocktail suspended inside. True, in the summer there was corn on the cob (13 for a quarter, picked that day from the farm next door), potato salad, baked beans, hot dogs—to this day, my favorite food is picnic food—and my mother was an excellent baker. She made the world’s best pie crust—I have yet to taste its equal, and that goes for all the fancy-schmancy crumbles and crisps I’ve had in Bay Area restaurants. Sometimes, all we’d have for supper was strawberry shortcake, if the strawberries were fresh and that’s all anybody (i.e., my mother) wanted. Sometimes we’d have only rice porridge, a Danish rice soup that was basically dessert by any other name—rice cooked in milk, to which we added butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar at the table.
As a kid, I generally refused to play with any gender-appropriate gifts I got—especially dolls—but I did like the little Easy Bake oven I got for Christmas one year. Down in the basement, next to the wringer washer, I would bake little chocolate cupcakes from the tiny boxes of cake mix that came with the oven. I think what I liked was the miniature size of everything—the oven itself, the little pans and pink spatula, the bite-sized cupcakes—and the privacy, the solo adventure in micro-cookery that seemed almost scientific in its precision. Obviously, my mother had an ulterior motive for giving me this gift, because she kept hauling me up from the basement to the grown-up kitchen, where I was supposed to transfer my newfound culinary skills to making pork roasts and boiled potatoes for the family. I never really made the transition—I had my own ideas about what I was going to do with my life. When I got the Junior Betty Crocker cookbook as another gift (I never realized how pointed so many of those gifts were), I was drawn to the recipes primarily as esthetic arrangements. I wanted to make what looked good in the pictures. I was more interested in the art—the red tomato soup offsetting the white and yellow of the egg salad sandwiches—than in throwing together whatever leftovers were in the fridge.
I also tried out some of my irrepressible religious humor when I made this supper:
“It’s like we’re eating the body and blood of Jesus.”
“I say, it’s like we’re eating the body and blood of Jesus.”
“That’s enough,” says Mom.
I thought of my Easy Bake oven experiences when I read about a panel of professional chefs who competed in the Easy Bake Oven Bake-Off. They had to use all the creativity and skills at their disposal to bake their dessert specialties in the tiny toy oven, which is nothing but an aluminum box powered by a 100-watt light bulb. The winning entries were a huckleberry tart topped with goat cheese ice cream and a chocolate flourless cake. The most surprising thing I read in the article was that the Easy Bake oven “was introduced to the market in 1963.” I figured it must be a typo, because that made me a junior in high school when I was playing cupcake chef down in the basement. And why was my mother giving me such a thing at that age anyway? Well, that’s more understandable. For my 21st birthday, she gave me Pat Boone’s book of advice for teens called ‘Twixt Twelve and Twenty. I guess she couldn’t do the math.
I was going to say that this ‘50s nostalgia thing is really getting out of hand, but I guess instead it’s this early ‘60s nostalgia thing that’s getting out of hand. However, I’m pretty sure paint-by-number was around when I was an actual child. Believe it or not, even that is becoming trendy, in an all-things-kitschy-are-in-again kind of way. Some guy has a huge collection of these paintings and is trying to make sociological/historical/cultural/financial hay out of this supreme example of noncreativity. In the article I read, he was quoted as saying, “Some people actually painted these paintings to hang on their walls,” and I thought, “Yeah, you got my family pegged.” Well, my mother never did that, but my aunt put up the paintings that my cousins did. I am so torn right now between being sarcastic about the condescension of trend-spotters who exploit unsophisticated people for financial gain and getting all condescending myself about the unworldly pleasures of the people to whom I was born. Or maybe I’m not really theirs, maybe they found me in a basket in the bulrushes. (I am inflated much.)
But when it’s all you can do to survive and raise a family and you aren’t exposed to art (except Norman Rockwell—who’s also making a comeback, by the way) or music (except Lawrence Welk, ‘nuff said) or books (except possibly Reader’s Digest condensed books), you really don’t know any better. And that is the eternal shame in being working class (a.k.a. white trash) in this country. You don’t have the right clothes, the right accent, or the right knowledge about the right things, because you never had the financial means to buy yourself 4 years of leisure (a.k.a. college) to become more discerning. If you’re lucky, your kids manage to elevate themselves enough to get an education and come back to make fun of you for your primitive preferences. I could go on and on about class and about what it’s like to have come from that background and then try to fit in with people who assume you had the same privileged background they did, and maybe someday I will.
But for now, I think I’ll call it a day. It’s a day. No comments from you-know-who (starts with “P” and ends with “e”). Our latest noteworthy encounter was when I gave him a “bath” with a waterless shampoo that smells (a.k.a. reeks) of tea tree oil, with which I had had no prior experience. It was frustrating not to be able to explain to him how lucky he was, that it was this or get hauled down to the professional cat shampooers for the full treatment. (They should have a cat wash, like a car wash; just strap ‘em in and run ‘em through.) Afterward, I felt sorry for him, because he kept trying to get away from the smell by getting up off the floor and hunkering down on straight-backed chairs for a few moments before moving on. I knew just how he felt. It’s hell not to be able to get away from yourself when you want to. I’ll have more to say about that next time, I hope—after beating my mattress with a towel every day and yelling FUCK YOU to the universe (The Fuck The Universe Ball, why not), possibly getting myself some bright orange pants in which to haul around my gigantic new PENIS—oh, and I suppose BALLS go along with that. And so we come full circle.