Archive for July, 2009

mary’zine random redux: #37 April 2009

July 22, 2009

OK, so the snow is gone. But the first robin appeared, sniffed the air, and went back to its robin ‘hood, meaning it’s 6 more weeks of bare trees and temps of 35-50.

In other news…. I’m starting to look like Barney Frank. Pray for me.

My sister K and I went to Green Bay the other day. It was her last week of layoff until May, when she’ll have the whole month off. Sounds great, but of course it’s involuntary and she doesn’t get paid, except for unemployment. She needed to get a laminator cartridge, and I needed a new vacuum cleaner—have to keep my “cleaning lady” happy. (Don’t tell my niece I called her a cleaning lady.) I could have gone to the Sears in Marinette, a tiny little place, not even owned by Sears anymore, but they probably wouldn’t have what I wanted, and besides, I’m always looking for an excuse to go down to G.B. to eat at El Sarape, on the east side. I’m the chauffeur, and whoever comes with buys lunch. (“Comes with” is a Midwesternism that is interesting for its seeming lack of object; the “me” is silent. [But “I” won’t be silent on the topic of unsilent objects later on in this issue {don’t you just hate it when I tease you like that?}]). Usually, when Barb is along (she’s teaching today), after eating we’ll drive around town, trying to remember how to get anywhere that isn’t on Mason St. I have an excuse, I’ve been away, but considering they’ve been coming here all their lives, my sisters have only the faintest grasp of the geography of their closest thing to a big city. But they eventually remember where Military Ave. or Oneida St. is, and they’ll say, “Take a left at the top of that hill.” And I’ll look around, like, hill? what hill? And I have to bite my tongue not to disparage their idea of what a hill is.

I tell everyone about El Sarape, but Mexican food is a tough sell around here, unless you count Taco Bell, which I don’t. But when I was getting my teeth cleaned recently, I hit the jackpot. Not only does my hygienist love Mexican food, but she didn’t know about El Sarape. So we went on and on (or she did; I had my mouth full of her metal scraper, mirror, and gloved fingers) about burritos and enchiladas and whatnot, and we both got hungry, which is frustrating when the object of your gluttony is 50 miles away. Strangely, my hygienist’s name is Carna. Carna Asada, perhaps? Just free-associating, sorry.

Carna has to make small talk when she’s picking away at my teeth, of course, so she asks if I’ve had any “getaways” since I saw her last. She temporarily vacates my mouth. I never know what to say when the stock question, “So… going anywhere? been anywhere?” comes up. “No” seems a little curt. So I say, “My whole life is a getaway.” Carna laughs and says, “Don’t rub it in, Mary!” This cheers me up for some reason. Well, I know the reason. My droll comments don’t always get a reaction, let alone a laugh. And also, what I said is true.

The very next day, I have to go back to the dentist for a 2.5-hour appointment so Dr. A can begin work on my new bridge. (Do you think I could get TARP money for that?) He sawed off the old bridge and extracted the broken tooth under it a few months ago. I have him trained to be super-sensitive to my dental anxiety, so when there’s any work to be done that involves drilling, he gives me a prescription for Valium. I arrange the appointments for days when K can drive me there and back. (Must have an escort.) So the next day I show up having downed my 3 Valium, and they fit the NO2 apparatus over my nose (I’ve never felt anything from the nitrous, but the barrier of the apparatus helps to distance me emotionally from the goings-on), and headphones so I can listen to a Moody Blues CD, having decided last time that the Beatles are way too sprightly for the bummer experience that is getting orally penetrated by one or more people. I spend the requisite amount of time feeling ironic about listening to some of my favorite music from the early ‘70s way up here in the ‘00s and under very different circumstances. I don’t know if it would be wise to smoke dope before undergoing a day at the dentist, and I doubt I’ll ever know—unless there’s an upsurge (a surge, even) of support for dental marijuana.

Anyway… where was I? Nowhere very interesting, but I’m going to tell you anyway. I’ve come to trust Dr. A a lot, and I’m treated like a queen when I’m there, but let’s face it, it’s not a pleasant experience. As is always the case, I’m being stabbed with the assistant’s sucker, and she seems to be sticking a piece of rebar in there too, as Dr. A works away with his drill and pliers or whatever. I can’t really identify all the things in my mouth, and I can never catch sight of the assistant’s hands, I just know that several inanimate objects are trying to go down my throat, like a logjam about to break up. I have to flag Dr. A down at one point so I can take a little breather. My thoughts through all this are truly mad, and I don’t know if it’s the Valium, though I don’t think it works that way, but I go from feeling like I’m being waterboarded (not a laughing matter, but who said it was?) to thinking that if they really wanted to take my mind off what they’re doing, they’d rig up some sort of vibratory stimulus down in the forgotten region below my neck, below my… well, you know.  It’s the logical extension of their trying to make me so comfortable that I’m not even aware of being there, right? I’m surprised they don’t have someone giving me a shoulder rub or reading me bedtime stories. There are lots of visual distractions that aren’t all that interesting to look at after an hour or two—cute mobiles (skiers, sailboats), panels over the fluorescent light fixtures that simulate clouds in a blue sky on one and colorful fish on the other, and someone’s kid’s colored-in newsprint tooth suction-cupped to the window. My dentist in San Francisco had a TV monitor that played a continuous loop of movies without the sound—Cinema Paradiso, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Mr. Bean Goes Bananas (don’t know real title, don’t care). Mostly, the movies were a pleasant distraction, if Dr. P would let my head turn just enough to see the screen, but he was always tipping it back toward him. I’m easily confused by plot under the best of circumstances—I need sight, sound, and a friend to tell me what’s going on—so without any of those things I’m really lost.

After an hour and a half, the drilling is done and I’ve half-swallowed the goop out of at least three different metal trays. (In dentistry, you get more than one chance to make a good first impression.) Usually, this is the hardest part for me, but I know to think about my nose and not the idea of a handful of slime sliding down my throat. So this time—multiple times—I don’t gag or twitch or otherwise dislodge the tray, and the impression is declared a success. It seems like a good time to request a bathroom break, and as they remove all their equipment and sit me upright so I can gather my wits and climb out of the chair, I turn to Dr. A wearily and say, “I feel like I’m doing all the work.” To his credit he laughs—“What?”—but he has this comical look of confusion on his face. So I shrug and spread my hands and acknowledge that I know he’s “helping, but still….” Is it the drugs talking again? Maybe he thinks so, but no, it’s just my natural drollery (as opposed to the earlier droolery) coming out. The assistants are easier to joke with, either because they’re women and in a subservient role and therefore feel it’s their job to humor the patient, or because they’re women and know what’s funny when they hear it. I also point out to Dr. A that I had to do “half” of Carna’s job the day before, because she couldn’t get the floss threader under my lower bridge and I had to do it for her. Sometimes I wish I had the brazen confidence (and maybe a loud, jolly laugh) to be perceived as obviously joking instead of this deadpan delivery, but I’m not sure the droll ever get to be anything other than what they are: super-serious, super-subtle, super-misunderstood.

This isn’t what I was going to write about. Remember when I started out by saying that K and I went to Green Bay? Well, when we were happily chowing down on our enchiladas, K suddenly asked, “Do you ever regret moving back here?” I didn’t have to think twice. “No,” I said, “do you?” (ever regret my moving back here). She says no, but she clearly has something on her mind. She says she and hubby MP have talked about moving to Florida when they retire… and it would be ironic if I moved back here to be with family and then family moved away. It took 5 full days for this to hit me. What if I were left alone here, with only one nephew and one niece to make the occasional obligatory phone call or visit to check on their old auntie? My other “relationships” in town would hardly be enough to nurture my fragile sense of belonging. Several people seem to like me, but no one has shown any sign of inviting me over for a BBQ or out for a drink. The core unit here is the family. Even when there are 13 brothers and sisters and half of them hate the other half, they don’t usually replace estranged family members with non-blood-related friends. Our family is one of those with more people unaccounted for than are held in the family bosom. One of my cousins “might” be in prison in Colorado. One of my nephews “might” be in jail in southern Wisconsin. One of my uncles left for California, was thought to have married a girl with the same last name, and was never heard from again. A father of six split to Texas “to start a new life” and makes the occasional phone call to his unhappy children. If you subtract the moved-away and divorced adults and the children who have gone with the mother, my family unit consists of Barb, K, MP, one nephew, one niece, one nephew-in-law, and 2 kids. And that’s kind of stretching it, because I rarely see the kids.

The only consistent gathering of this little clan is on holidays and every Friday night, when the four adults over 50 eat a takeout supper together and watch TV or a movie. What’s weird is that I usually spend the entire week from Friday to Friday needing no personal attention from them whatsoever. But when I imagine life here without them, it feels completely different. In an ideal world (=unlimited $), I might move back to the Bay Area. But the world is not ideal, and I do like living here—thank God for that. I know there’s no point worrying about it now—retirement for my sisters is still several years off, and farther still if the economy doesn’t recover. It’s just weird to think that I left here long ago, partly to be done with family, and now I may end up being left by them.

My aunt Judy—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—oops, too late—who’s just a little older than me and was one of my best friends as a young child and a pre-teen, still lives here, but she’s made it clear that she’s not interested in me. It’s my own fault, because whenever I’ve seen her over the years, I clumsily try to connect by reminding her of when we used to play “office” with some old business forms someone’s dad gave us. It’s always the thing that comes to mind when I see her. (Playing office was really fun, although I couldn’t tell you exactly what it entailed.) But then she always says, “And now I’m doing it for real,” i.e., she didn’t go to college and has been doing administrative work in the factory where my sister K does… the factory work. For all she and my other aunts know, I’m just a bookish snob who fled to California and stayed away for 30+ years. (Well, most of that is true.) One of my cousins once, with a touch of resentment in his voice, asked, “If you live in California, why don’t you have a tan?” The obvious answer—“I don’t go outside that much”—didn’t seem to satisfy him.

I suppose it doesn’t help that I was attracted to another aunt, Pat (one of Judy’s six sisters), when I was in the process of coming out in the early ‘70s, and I probably wasn’t too subtle about it. Pat was very glamorous and sexy, had a deep voice and a rich laugh. She lived in Madison and married a Jew (a first—and a last—in the family) named Norman Goldberg who invented something for NASA in the 1950s. The fact that we were blood-related didn’t faze me in the least. She might even have been my first Woman Crush. When I was 6 or 7 and she and her first husband lived across the highway from us, my cousins and I would splash around in their kiddie pool, and I remember one day, for the first time ever, feeling self-conscious about not wearing a top. A harbinger, perhaps? To this day, hearing a woman with that kind of voice, that laugh, brings a smile to my face, though I no longer project my half-naked thrill at Aunt Pat’s attention onto every such woman I meet. Therapy, folks. It really works.

By the way, getting back to my earlier topic, did you know that researchers in the field of dentistry always say “oral cavity,” never “mouth”? Maybe they think it sounds more scientific. But couldn’t it be confused with, you know, cavities? One of my clients is in the School of Dentistry at UCSF, but she never writes about the oral cavity, only the vaginal cavity (as it were), in its role as the purveyor of the placenta.

I have nowhere else to go with that, so I guess I’ll move on.

twitter me shimbers!

I’m a late bloomer in most things, so I’ve just recently surrendered to the inevitability of Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere.

Twitter turned out to be a disappointment because no one I know seems to use it. At first I was “following” well-known people like Tiny Fey, Mika Brzezinski, and Frank Rich, but of course they didn’t want to “follow” me back, so what was the point? Mysteriously, Terry Gross from “Fresh Air” (NPR) started “following” me, and I couldn’t figure out why until I remembered I had contributed $50 to saving her old shows that were disintegrating on magnetic tape or whatever old-fashioned medium they had been recorded on (as if today’s soon-to-be-old-fashioned medium is any more protected from Time’s ravages). So at first it felt like some kind of weird compliment to be “followed” by Terry Gross, but I really doubted she was actually reading my occasional tweets, written in the spirit of one who puts a note in a bottle and throws it out to sea. Actually, the bottle-note would have a better chance of being found and read than my Tweets-to-No-One. Then a couple of people unknown to me started “following” me, but there was absolutely no way of knowing who they were, someone called “sjm39665” or whatever, so I eventually stopped everybody from “following” me and stopped “following” anybody. I have to admit I still check it every now and then, just in case, by some miracle, my notes in the Twitter bottle have washed up somewhere and been read and savored by a stranger on the other side of the computer screen.

Facebook is more satisfying because most of my “friends” there are friends in real life. I initially thought I was too old for this newfangled mode of sociability: Notifying my online friends “what I’m doing right now” seemed really lame. (I fully accept that I am lame, but that’s not the point.) The young are excused for things like writing cute comments on other people’s virtual walls, but the boomelders (boo-melders? no, boom-elders) feel a little silly about it. And I wasn’t sure if my godchild, for example, and her gazillion friends would all abandon the site en masse because people her parents’ age were trying to take it over, like we do everything else.  But Facebook is booming with sprightly oldsters using it to get back in touch with old friends and acquaintances. Let the kids have their impressive roster of friends and display photos of their exotic trips and make obscure references to great parties they’ve danced and gotten high at. Jealous? Mais non. I wouldn’t take my youth back if you handed it to me on a silver platter. Here’s a little couplet I penned:

Life’s best-kept secret is being “old.”
There’s so much more to it than the fearful young are told.

For a while now, I’ve thought I could die happy, nothing more to prove, etc., etc.,  but I’ve finally found something to live for. No, I don’t want to travel around the world or jump out of an airplane. I want to post all the back and future issues of the mary’zine on my blog, (you’re here!). Last year I paid $200 to get hosted, or whatever they call it, by a company online that gives you templates and instructions for creating your own website. And I bought the rights to and Alas and alack, I found it to be the most frustrating, confusing process I’ve ever tried to master. I really didn’t care about having a fancy site anyway, so when I happened to come across and saw that they offer free blogging (and just $15 to take “WordPress” out of the URL), I jumped at the chance. I managed to post several issues of the ‘zine (t)here and even uploaded a photo of the nearby shoreline that Peggy took when she was visiting me last fall. But now, when I want to do a few extra things to make the site easier to navigate, I’ve realized that I am not an intellectual heavyweight when it comes to even such soft-core technology. (Self-knowledge: better late than never.)

There are hundreds of thousands of blogs on (and millions in the world), so my puny output does not equal even a grain of sand in the grand scheme of things. But my attitude is, as long as the mary’zine is out there and available to anyone who wants to find it, or merely trips over it, then I’ve done my bit. Once it’s out of my hands it’ll have to sink or swim on its own. And I’m not going to stand there on the beach and watch its tiny form get farther and farther away. Hasta la vista, baby.

Well, that’s the theory anyway. In reality, I’ve become obsessed with checking the stats and seeing how many views it’s gotten. The problem is, the stats are pretty meaningless, because there’s no way to know, first, if it’s really other people viewing it and not me somehow not logging in right so that the computer thinks I’m a fascinated reader instead of the frustrated author. And if all those numbers actually represent “viewers,” there’s no way to know if they went there on purpose or by mistake, spammed their way to it, went and didn’t like what they saw, or what. (The stats say that someone got to my site by searching for the phrase “peed in my bed,” so what the hell does that mean? [but yes, that phrase does appear in #17]). So I’m obsessing over nothing, which is not an unfamiliar feeling for me. I announce each new(old) posting only on Facebook, so my huge posse of NINE friends must account for all the viewings. Who knows?

By the way, in case you’re put off by the idea of reading things you presumably already read 8 or 9 years ago, I’ve posted one “best of the mary’zine that never made it to print” fantasy called “the art of housekeeping.” I fear there will be no more “bests” because I’ve already cannibalized most of my life to feed the maw of the mary’zine beast.

I googled myself recently to see if my blog showed up in the results, and there was one entry that really surprised me. I had gone on Netflix to complain about the fact that they had mailed me an instant-watch movie (i.e., it was free to watch on my computer at any time, at no extra charge). And since I’ve downgraded to receiving only 1 movie at a time, it seemed like a complete waste of time and postage. Netflix now has no way to write to them except about the topics they deem appropriate. But I found a place to make a “comment,” and the comments were mostly about the fact that you can’t write to Netflix except about the topics they deem appropriate. So I posted my comment about the pointlessness of sending me an instant-watch movie, not expecting a reply because none of the other comments had one. But there, among my Google results, was the answer to my comment! It was bizarre. If I were a paranoid schizophrenic, it would have seemed like proof that the computer was monitoring my every thought. And for a kid who thought the TV was watching her when she was 4 years old (though in my defense, the children’s show host on the TV told me as much: “Susie, Johnny, Mary, do the Clean-Up March! I can see you!”), it wouldn’t be much of a leap to think the computer monitor also monitored her. (Sodden thought: Do today’s paranoid schizophrenics still use aluminum foil to ward off unwanted transmissions?) Anyway, the answer to my Netflix question was that, since I had left the instant-watch movie in my queue, they of course mailed it to me, because some people… blah blah blah.

Actually, I was joking about the paranoid schizophrenics, because of course I know nothing about them, but I’ve been watching the antics of the Leftover Republicans—the weirdos left on the scene after the criminals were booted out (criminals = Bush, Cheney, etc.; weirdos = Michele Bachman, Michael Steele, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, etc.)—on the Huffington Post, and there was one video of a gathering where the right-winged nuts were planning their “teabagging,” and this guy stands up and starts shouting about the brainwashing that the government and the schools are doing. “Take your kids out of college, they’re being brainwashed!” A woman off-screen yells, “Burn the books!” and the camera guy or reporter asks her, “You’re not serious, right? Which books would you burn?” And she says, “The brainwashing books!” And it’s either hilarious or scary-as-hell that these odd, one-winged birds are getting their feathers in a bunch because of… what? “Raised taxes”? What? I’ve gotten a slight increase in take-home cash, and I’m sure most of them have, too. I don’t know if we’ve underestimated these people, or if they’re just Nature’s way of preferring absolutely anything to a vacuum.

So…. I’d like to have more friends on Facebook, but most of my real-life friends are too old or set in their ways or just have better things to do than to mess around with an online “community.” I understand the reluctance to expose oneself to possible scammers, spammers and other evil-doers out there, but it’s too late anyway, your every move is being filmed and recorded, your purchases are being monitored and exploited for targeted advertising, and putting your name on do-not-call lists or wearing a tinfoil hat isn’t going to keep anyone from finding out everything about you if they really want to.

family circus

Nothing’s changed. I still love you… oh I still love you, only slightly, only slightly less than I used to…
—The Smiths

I think that writing about my sister in the last issue actually helped me retreat a bit from my obsession to change things (people) that cannot be changed. The last two Friday nights with the peops have been quite pleasurable. I’ve found myself suddenly thinking, during the WBAY newscast (for some reason, Wisconsinites are killing one another in record numbers) or the inexplicably selected Disney channel (why are we watching “Herbie Fully Loaded”? MP is the remote controller and often dozes off—or fakes it—and we “girls” sit there like compliant bumps on a log because, in a way, watching TV with them really is just watching the TV, a value judgment-less activity similar to looking out the window and seeing who’s driving by and then somebody saying, “There’s Brian” (cop friend of MP’s) or “Look, Al and Doris are back from vacation, they’ve been gone 2 months!” It’s life as a passive observer, one of my favorite (non)activities. At one point the Dish TV repair guy finally shows up (K has been waiting in the “window” for 7 hours), and then we watch him go in and out of the house several times and then cheerfully declare that he’s authorized to switch the “622” to the “722,” and then MP, for no reason I can fathom, moons us (not the Dish guy, he’s in the next room) like the 10-year-old brat he really is. Boy, this paragraph is getting complicated. I’ll try to find the thread. Oh yes, in the midst of all this I’ll suddenly think, “I feel completely calm inside, I neither want something in particular nor don’t want something in particular.” This is progress, yes? Or I’m becoming slowly lobotomized. Either way, it allows me to take part, or not, in the family dynamic without my previous self-consciousness (I am the smart one, I must educate the familial masses or at least shame them), to the point where I get up to go to the bathroom and MP asks, as he always does, where I’m going, and, having used up all the standard, noncreative responses (“to the bathroom”; “nowhere”; “crazy, wanna come with?”), I stop at K’s Easter display in the bow window and put my arms around the two 4x-life-size plush rabbits and pretend to whisper sweet nothings in their large floppy ears, then throw a plastic egg at MP and another one down the hall for the cats Putty, Orfie, and Psycho to chase down. At some point (MP is laughing his head off; my sisters are probably shaking theirs slowly from side to side) I think, “This is so dumb,” but it really doesn’t matter. If your brother-in-law can show his bare ass or belch and fart simultaneously while pretending to be asleep, I guess I can do a spontaneous pantomime with the celebratory rabbits without caring a whit what anybody thinks. Later, I’ll get retroactively annoyed at things my sister has said, but in the moment I feel liberated from being the Judge Judy-like arbiter of what these other blood- or marriage-related folks are up to. They are not me! I am not them! Hurrah! To paraphrase Krishnamurti, I am in the family but not of the family—or at least slightly less than I used to be.

pronouns, pro-verbs

I want you to want me.
I need you to need me.
I’d love you to love me.
I’m beggin’ you to beg me.
—Cheap Trick

When I was retyping the Sept./Oct. 2001 issue of the mary’zine for my blog (once again: You’re here!), I was struck by the repeated pronoun “you” in the poem by W.S. Merwin. Here’s the last stanza:

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

“Thank you” is the recurring refrain, but the poem is titled just “Thanks.” And I started thinking about the “you” in “thank you.” I doubt this is Mr. Merwin’s interpretation of his poem, but it occurred to me that one can be a grateful, awestruck, life-loving, morally, ethically, and emotionally honest human being and not be invested in there being a “you” in the form of God, Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, or “the Universe.” Like the “me”-less Midwesterner’s “come with,” is it possible that “thank,” or “love”—like “be”—can be an intransitive verb, that is, not requiring an object?

It’s understandable that the first people—and the second and third and fourth people through the millennia—had to find a way to explain natural phenomena such as birth, death, thunderstorms, and crop failure, and, not having advanced to such concepts as “synchronicity,” naturally looked up to the sky (source of rain and sun) and imagined a Being or Beings somewhat like themselves but of course a lot bigger, Someone or Something they could exhort through ritual—prayer or sacrifice—when they wanted some control over their lives. And I suppose they started with different Beings, one for each identifiable phenomenon, until eventually someone thought to conjure a One God who had control over it all.

Note: This is not an anthropology lecture, so don’t expect a sophisticated historical analysis, OK? I’m riffing.

And, as humans became scientists and learned about bacteria and other invisible causes of outward effects, we modified our belief systems. Some went the way of “there’s nothing but material reality, even if some of it requires special instruments to see or understand,” and others maintained that there must be some overarching force, a Being who created material reality. And now, more than a hundred years after Nietzsche declared that “God is dead,” some of us have the same abject desire for a kind of ultimate security, some greater meaning with which to frame our lives and answer the question, why? Why me, why here, why now? People who argue for “intelligent design” believe that there must be some One who created all this—as though the mystery and magnificence of nature, including human consciousness, could not possibly be explained in any other way. This is what you call wishful thinking. Despite everything we know about curved space, elastic time, and quantum mechanics—probably the merest A or ½ A of the alphabet that makes up our physical world(s)—we have a childish desire to inflate ourselves to immortality as the progeny of either a literal Father/Mother God or a vast, knowing Universe that somehow sees our every move and raises us one. (Poker metaphor.) When something profound or amazing happens that we can link with earlier events, we feel that our lives are somehow synchronistically monitored from afar, or within, pick your adverb. Like noticing 11:11 on the clock more often than chance would suggest, we pick and choose what we consider meaningful and ignore the rest. If we dream of Grandma the night she dies, we ignore all previous dreams of Grandma and choose to believe that this one is a sign of some greater, meaningful communication. And that allows us to hope that we will see Grandma on “the other side”—that nothing truly ends. Anything to beat the one unbeatable foe (besides taxes), because, if death is truly the end, we are thrown back on our own wits, our own meager existence that is dwarfed by the vastness, the multiplicity, the Mystery.


I thought of something when I was writing about my brother-in-law. There’s an earthiness to working class life that is disturbing to people who weren’t raised that way—as if polite language and holding one’s pinkie up while sipping from a cup of herbal tea (as opposed to guzzling from a can of Mountain Dew) are the epitome of “class.” Conveniently (for them), the word “class” is used to mean both (a) personal integrity and grace and (b) having been born into a family who already had money, regardless of how it was acquired. So “class” = “having more money” = “being superior to the peasants who sell us our cars, or make tractor parts in our factories, or bring our consumer products to market in big, noisy, trucks.” There is a basic belief in this country (but not often acknowledged, unlike in class-conscious England) that if you work at a low-paying job it’s because you’re not smart enough to get a better one, or that (like gay people) you somehow chose that “lifestyle.” If you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you enjoy advantages that are completely invisible to you—you’re taught (maybe not in so many words) that you just deserve them somehow. And though you may understand that something ugly is going on when it comes to race… that racial minorities are disadvantaged for lots of reasons having nothing to do with the character or intelligence of individuals…  you still might group together lower-class white people as “trash” because… well, because you can.

Class isn’t just about money, it’s about different ways of life and different expectations, different opportunities, different goals. Being working class is as clear-cut a distinction as being a racial minority. Like the glass ceiling that keeps women from rising higher, at least in the numbers that would correspond to our actual intelligence and talent, there’s another kind of ceiling—plastic? something cheap and unprestigious—that separates the doctors, the lawyers, the doctors’ wives, and the lawyers’ wives from the people who work in grocery stores or hospitals or make boxes on an assembly line. But there’s so much wealth below that plastic ceiling—in personal dignity,  in intelligence (yes!), in humor and hard work and basic goodness. And they toil in obscurity, either out there in public—waiting on your ass, obeying your orders—or behind closed factory doors or far away in the bean fields.

And yes, I lose my sense of humor when I talk about this, because it’s so galling. And I struggle with my own attitudes learned while trying to fit in, in those higher strata, trying to fake being one of them, denigrating myself because I wasn’t raised with the things money can buy, like nice clothes, good dental care, the poise that comes with exposure to polite society, access to wealth and opportunity through business or social connections, the security of expecting an inheritance or marrying into money—various forms of a financial cushion upon which to rest my sweet ass. As much as I complain about my family’s provincialism and set myself apart because I know things they don’t know and have lived in places they’ve never seen, now that I walk among them (no Messiah complex intended), I feel more comfortable in my body and in my life. I’m no longer a fish out of water, just a fish that looks a little like Barney Frank and cracks up the other fish sometimes, annoys them often, and enjoys the hell out of the stream of life.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #9 December 2000

July 20, 2009

I read the following letter in Miss Manners’ column the other day and was quite shaken by it.


Dear Miss Manners: Recently I’ve received letters without any personal touch. These writers discuss activities, life and the future, but never mention personal views relating to the recipient and never answer questions nor issues raised in past letters to them. It is not a one-time thing. One young writer has sent five such communiques—four pages each, informative, insightful, incisive, but with zero “sharing” and/or a sense of one-on-one communication. This may help high-track movers fulfill their social responsibilities to communicate with others, but to the recipients it becomes another sample of Christmas-letter indifference and laziness.

This letter is real. However, I have fabricated the response I wish Miss Manners (who instead agreed with this misguided soul) had made.

Gentle Reader: Get over yourself. Not everything is about you, you, you. These impersonal letters are called ‘zines. The high-track movers who write them work long and hard to make them informative, insightful, and incisive. Kwitcherbellyachin’. If you want “sharing,” get a dog.

But seriously, folks, thanks for renewing. My audience is small but very hardcore. Speaking of hardcore, I was going to surprise (shock) you with an X-rated issue this time, but then I realized it’s December, the time of little children and sugar plum fairies, the time of that other X—the one who put the X in Xmas—and I decided to postpone the profane revelations for now. Consider this a naughty tease.

Of course, an X rating would have been one way to distinguish the mary’zine from those other mimeographed (aesthetically speaking) “Christmas letters of indifference and laziness”—but this way you’ll have something to look forward to—out of morbid curiosity, if nothing else.

Xmas-wise, I mostly turn a blind eye to the goings-on and just wait for it to be over. I fully support the Buy Nothing movement and would like to extend it to Do Nothing. I get so tired of all the hype about how well (or badly) the merchants expect to do this year—now with the added suspense about whether people will continue to buy via the Internet—with follow-ups after the 25th on how well they did do and what it all means to the continuation of Western civilization as we know it. But I have to admit, I’ve had some lovely Christmases, spiritual ones, mostly with people who weren’t Christians, come to think of it—where we were able to touch into what Deepak Chopra meant when he said, “We are not human beings with occasional spiritual experiences, we are spiritual beings with occasional human experiences.” This is a place I often touch through painting, and maybe that’s what I miss when I look around and see so much hoopla about commerce and so little of the contemplation and reverence that should be the basis for a holy-day of a major religion.

But just on the level of navigating the highways and byways, I always breathe a sigh of relief on January 2. Back to real life, when I can go out and buy socks or toothpaste without fighting the frantic holiday crowds. Funny, when I had a job, I used to get really depressed in January—all those nice paid holidays were over. Now I don’t get paid for holidays (or sick days or vacations); I work 6 days a week. I bill by the hour, so I only get paid for the time I actually work (vs. the average 4 hours of work that most employees do in an 8-hour day); I have no guaranteed income—I have to accrue it $100 or $300 at a time and hope that the work will keep flowing my way; and—guess what—I’m not only happy as a clam but my favorite day is Monday and my least favorite day is Friday. How’s that for weird? I can’t really explain it. My world has been turned on its axis, and it seems to suit me just fine.

Being self-employed isn’t for everybody, and frankly, I’m surprised it’s for me. I don’t have nerves of steel. I’m not super well organized. Discipline is not my middle name. I love working at home, with no one looking over my shoulder, but it’s a constant struggle to keep the tide of household distractions from washing away the sand castle that is my daily accrual of Billable Hours. When you work at home, home becomes this enormous sinkhole of energy and demand. You wouldn’t think so if you saw my house, because it’s not like I spend much time cleaning it, but all my stuff is here, and it calls to me. The washing machine calls to me to put a load of clothes in while I’m fixing my morning snack of peanut butter and rice cakes. The cat box, the cat dish, the cat water bowl, the cat—all of them call to me to take just a minute or two away from that fascinating manuscript about the phylogeny and evolution of low-G+C gram-positive bacteria and scoop, feed, water, or pet. My bed calls very loudly from the next room, especially after lunch—Maaaaary, you are getting sleeeeeepy. I don’t dare open the mary’zine file until my workday is done, because I’ll get sucked in and won’t even notice the hours slipping by.

I do miss having coworkers to hang out with, but I try to take up the slack by e-mailing my colleague Ellie on the other side of the continent. Mostly, we talk about the project I’m currently working on for her, but there’s always room for a weather report (S.F. and D.C.—always opposite), a story about the family (her) or the cat (me), or a joke about George W. Bush.

And of course, Pookie is always a force—sometimes for good, sometimes for eleven smatterings of throw-up across two rooms, which I found when I went downstairs today. He mostly likes having me around, but sometimes I think he sees me as the retired husband who’s always underfoot. He’ll be resting quietly—lounging on a piece of cardboard, as if it’s the finest satin sheet—and I’ll go up to him, all cooing and petting. He’ll crack one eye open, and his look says it all: “Don’t you have work to do?” But sometimes he really seems to get a kick out of me. He likes it when I sing and dance for him when a good song comes on the radio. One day I was doing my serenade routine, singing along to a catchy new song with my arms spread wide, addressing him at high volume—which always makes him perk up, if only to look for an escape route—and I suddenly realized that the lyrics coming up were: “BE my… beeee myyyy… pussycat…pussycat…” and I collapsed in giggles. He gazed at me, pretending to be captivated by my performance, but I knew he was thinking, “Somebody’s bipoooooolar….”

People who work regular jobs have no idea how fast a day at home can fly by. I used to picture myself going out for breakfast, dawdling through the hours I saved by not commuting. Ha! I swear there must be a special subsection of the theory of relativity that covers the paradox of Home Time vs. Job Time. At my job, it was all about finding ways to relieve the boredom—talking to coworkers, running in the park, going for coffee, playing computer solitaire. I still watch the clock at home, but it’s for the opposite reason: Damn, I’ve only worked 1.5 hours this morning, and it’s already time to go for my haircut—or to the dentist—or shopping for dinner—or going to the ATM, post office, Fed Ex, library, bookstore, drug store, or a million other destinations. Suddenly I’m Errand Girl. When did I used to do errands? Did I even have errands? Now, errands are my life. When Home isn’t calling me, Stores are calling me. Life suddenly wants me to be everywhere but at my desk working, and all I want is to be at my desk working. It’s insane. The few days when I have food in the house and have no appointments or other reasons to go out, I’m in hog heaven, if hogs liked to work.

And at the end of the day, I’m like Silas Marner, counting up my gold coins. I guess I would feel more secure having a regular salary, but there’s something about having to earn it one drachma at a time that adds a little spice to the working life. When my job ended, I honestly thought I was going to end up a bag lady. Who would have thought I’d enjoy living on the edge?

ferry tale

If you do not compare yourself with another, you will be what you are.

So can you stand to hear another travel story? It’s pretty exciting, and I don’t want to overstimulate you.

I recently had a birthday. I had decided that this year on my birthday, I was going to take the ferry from Larkspur to San Francisco, no matter what. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 27 years, and I had never taken the ferry, except for a short jaunt on the Tiburon ferry to Angel Island many years ago. I have wanted to do this for a long time but kept putting it off, mostly because I was afraid I wouldn’t know where to buy my ticket, where to board, where to get off, what to do after I got off, etc. Face it, I am a big chicken, sQUAWWK.

But my trip to Massachusetts (zine #8)—mundane as it may seem to a seasoned traveler—taught me that, first of all, one person’s comfort zone is another person’s scary unknown. Risk is relative. Some people, crazily enough, would find it scary to write a one-woman ‘zine and send it to all their friends. Ha-ha-ha! And some people, sad to say, find the thought of any form of travel that is not conducted from behind the wheel of one’s own car quite daunting. So let’s not judge.

One of my projects in middle life has been to learn the belated lesson that, when you try something new, mistakes are not only surmountable but inevitable. So when I planned this birthday ferry trip, I gave myself permission to make all the mistakes I needed to. I decided it would be a fact-finding mission, an initiation into the mysteries of watery public transportation. I wouldn’t have to do anything earth-shaking (which is the last thing you want to do in S.F. anyway) or glamorous upon arriving on the far shore—just getting there and back would be enough for this maiden voyage. If I managed to walk around for a bit and find a place to eat lunch, that would be the icing on the birthday cake.

It was a good thing I had given myself this permission, because my first mistake was to think I could blithely drive up to the ferry parking lot at 10:00 a.m. on a weekday and park. What was I thinking? The commuters fill the place up by 8:30. A uniformed man turned me away but said I could probably find a spot across the road at the Marin Airporter lot. Fortunately, I had parked there for the Massachusetts trip, so I knew what to do. It was a relief to hustle back on foot (threading my way through the acre of cars), find the ticket window, and still have a little time before they let us board. Just that little victory left me feeling flush with success.

On the ferry, I immediately headed for the outside deck. There was less chance of getting seasick out there, and the main point of the trip was to enjoy the view of the bay and the skyline, smell the sea air, and all that. Within minutes, I was joined by a youngish guy wearing shorts, polo shirt, and baseball cap and carrying a knapsack. He asked me if this was the only deck, and I said I didn’t know, I’d never ridden the ferry before.

“Oh, so you’re a tourist too?”

“No, I live here, but I’ve just never….” I trailed off, embarrassed.

To my surprise, we fell into a conversation. I asked where he was from—he had a Spanish accent—and he said “St. Louis.” So much for assumptions. Marty said he loved the Bay Area but that he wouldn’t want to live here because of the way Latinos are stereotyped. He told me he had been driving around lost in his friend’s car that morning, looking for Larkspur Landing (he had driven over to Marin from Oakland! And I had been nervous coming from a couple miles away!) and he had ended up on that strip of Bellam Blvd., in my neighborhood, where Hispanic men gather every morning, hoping to get a day’s work. He had gotten out of his car to ask a passing pedestrian how to get to the ferry, and before he could finish his sentence, she had said, “Yes, this is where you stand.” Obviously, she had assumed from his accent that he was one of the day laborers, even though he was dressed like a tourist.

Marty said to me, “I was offended by that. I am an educated man. In St. Louis, I am treated with respect.” That surprised me, because I would have expected California to be a more hospitable place than the Midwest for any person of color. My assumptions were crumbling fast.

But I immediately understood the seeming discrepancy, and I told him about how, in the Midwest, no one would look twice at me, but here, in the supposed gay mecca, I get harassed all the time. He couldn’t believe it. Turns out he was gay, too (my gaydar had failed me), and he wanted to believe that San Francisco was the Shangri-La he had always thought it to be. But it was exactly as he had been saying about Latinos. The more exposure you have as a minority, the more crap you’re going to get. I think I really burst his bubble.

Marty said he owned three doughnut shops in St. Louis and paid $400 a month rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in a nice area. I oohed and ahhed but politely didn’t say, “But you have to live in St. Louis.”

So we talked all the way across the bay, and the ride was over much too quickly. He had a big day planned—even though rain was threatened, he was going to take BART to the Castro, rent a bike in Golden Gate Park, and ride to Land’s End to check out the nude beach. He hugged me and said, “I hope everyone is as friendly as you are.” I almost choked. I guess it’s true what they say about travel—even 30 minutes of travel a few miles from home—you can be whoever you want, because no one knows any different.

After we landed, he took my picture, and I decided to accompany him up Market to Powell St. So we found the Embarcadero BART station, bought tickets, and descended to the lower level. I had shared with him my near-native knowledge of the BART system, except that I had gotten it confused with Muni and gave him entirely the wrong directions. Fortunately, I realized my mistake in time, though I felt like a complete idiot. (Fact-finding mission, I had to remind myself. Fact-finding means you can’t get the facts until you find you don’t know them.)

On the train, he mentioned that he was always looking for a boyfriend, and I teased him about meeting me instead. He said, “I don’t talk to men, they’re too intimidating.” I said, “I don’t talk to lesbians, either.” We cracked up. Despite gender, age, and ethnic differences, we were totally in synch.

Finally we bade each other farewell, and I got off at Powell and started walking in the direction of Folsom St. I had cut out a newspaper article about restaurants in the city and decided to try to find a place called Mo’s Grill. It turned out to be inside Yerba Buena Gardens, a fact it took me quite a while to find. But I felt so proud of myself when I was finally seated at a table by the window. My favorite singer, Van Morrison, was singing “Brand New Day” in the background, and I smiled to myself, an in-joke in my crowd of one. I had arrived, I had navigated my way across miles of water and city sidewalk to this oasis of urban delight, and I couldn’t have been more pleased.

Unfortunately, the Dramamine I had taken “to be on the safe side” in case the bay was choppy started to take its toll on my energy level, so I decided to head back to the Embarcadero right after lunch. I passed by the Museum of Modern Art, so I went into the gift store and bought myself a t-shirt—hypocritically, since I have zero interest in what the “art world” is up to these days—then wound my way through the lunchtime crowds—9-to-5’ers, eat your hearts out—and retraced my steps to the waterfront. For the last two blocks I got drenched by a sudden rainstorm and instinctively cringed from the rain until I realized it didn’t matter if I got wet—I was wearing my new microfiber, weather-resistant jacket.

By now I felt like an old hand at this ferry-riding business, but I congratulated myself too soon. After handing over my return ticket, which I had carefully placed in a special compartment of my satchel, I sauntered around, waiting patiently to board. I was pleasantly full and not unpleasantly doped-up from the Dramamine. A uniformed man came along and said the Larkspur ferry would be leaving “all the way to the end of the pier,” so I marched down there, suddenly full of myself and my new travel smarts. Way before the place where the ferry was docked, there was a little closed gate barring the way, so I blithely lifted the pole that kept it in place—proud that I saw instantly how it worked—and was immediately yelled at by the ferry workers, “Go back, go back! Close the gate!!” as if I had wandered onto a firing range. Trying to maintain my cool, I replaced the gate pole in the slot and turned to see about 15 people behind me, people who all knew to wait behind the gate and were no doubt thinking what an idiot I was. But who knows, maybe there was someone in the crowd who would have done the same thing and was giving silent thanks that I had gotten there before she did. Soul sister, this mistake’s for you.

I enjoyed the ride back to Marin. This time I was alone on the deck, so I got to watch the S.F. skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the beautiful storm sky. It started pouring rain halfway across, so I went inside, where it smelled like a bus and was full of silent, world-weary—or at least ferry-weary—commuters working on their laptops. I went back outside as soon as the rain cleared. The sense that I could move, change my mind, make decisions, not know in advance what seat to take or what gate to go through seemed terribly liberating, though of course only on the tiniest of scales, and mostly in principle. I am not yet ready for India.

Half an hour later, we arrived in Marin, home sweet home. Trudging through the parking lot, across the pedestrian bridge, and over to the Marin Airporter, I was exhausted and my feet were killing me, but I was feelin’ fine… until I got to the counter where I had to give the man my parking stub. Oh oh. I had thought I’d put it in the special compartment of my satchel, but no, that was the ferry ticket. I started frantically looking through my bag, with a horrible sinking feeling that I had somehow managed to drop my parking stub instead of my ferry ticket in the ticket receptacle at the ferry. If I showed the airporter guy my ferry ticket, would that convince him that I had made an honest mistake and didn’t have to be charged for 30 days of parking?

Me: I don’t seem to have my ticket.

Him [with the most impassive face I’ve seen since Mt. Rushmore]: I need it.

What made it 1,000 times worse is that he was the same guy who had witnessed my losing of the bus pass when I went on the Massachusetts trip. I was even wearing the same clothes. Surely he wouldn’t remember me, surely this sort of thing happens all the time? He continued to stare at me, giving nothing away. Finally, I pulled the stub out of my jacket pocket, where I had carelessly stuck it instead of preserving it in a special compartment. Thank God. Thank you, thank you, beneficent God Almighty.

I can’t help it that everything in my life is a big deal. And actually, there’s an up side to that. If the smallest venture out into the world is difficult for me, then even a small adventure will reap great rewards. It’s that relative-risk thing I mentioned earlier. I see it as a kind of emotional homeopathy. Other people have to jump out of airplanes or climb mountains or seek out dangerous rivers in the jungle to have a feeling of adventure. All I have to do to push the envelope is to lose a ticket or go through the wrong door. My skydive, my mountaintop, my Amazon river is all around me. I’m just living on a smaller scale than some people—like that species of moth or butterfly that only lives for 24 hours.

In my defense, I’ve faced many big challenges on my own—I’ve moved to other states, bought a condo, had a successful career, started my own business—and, of course, I live alone, which creates all sorts of opportunities for bravery—but in some perverse way, the small unknowns can be more daunting than the big ones.

the heart of creation

…when I picture my mother playing the piano, I think of a stillness, a pinprick of a place inside her that is profoundly still. I wonder if a sublime quietness is at the heart of creation.
—Jane Hamilton,

But the unknown can get even smaller(bigger) than taking a public conveyance across small waters. Change and movement can be, quite literally, a walk in the park. I went to painting class one Wednesday morning and started a new painting. I had no idea what to paint, so I started with myself—a peach-colored blob for my head and peach blobs for torso and hips, and longer peach extensions for the limbs. I was supremely not knowing what to do, but for some reason my guard was down and I wasn’t too worried about it. I just let it develop any way it wanted to. One thing led to another, and I ended up in a kind of trance state, painting my internal organs—stomach, heart with tubes sticking out, plus lots of imaginary organlike structures, none of which followed any rules of color or shape or function. I spent two and a half hours painting this strange body, or rather, letting it paint itself.

In the group sharing afterward, I felt stoned, deeply touched. I looked around, and everyone in the circle looked like a heroin addict after getting a fix—but it wasn’t lassitude, it was a deep, quiet presence. No one was preoccupied with being somewhere else, no one was putting on a façade or resisting the silence.

I’ll never get over how strange it is that when you go deeply inward, you connect up with everyone else who is deeply inward. You’ve all been in your own worlds, literally with your backs to each other, for 2 or 3 hours, and when you stumble out of the painting room and try to find words to express what happened, you find you can just look in people’s eyes or make a tiny joke, and you’re all right there, together, as if you’re all the same person with many different faces. Strange that it takes diving into your uniqueness to discover your commonness with others on a heart level. This is what the “creative process” is about, not what ends up on the paper.

It’s not that painting always manifests as this stoned bliss of connectedness, but when it does, it’s a gift. On this day, the afterglow lasted for hours. I didn’t want to leave the studio, but at 1:30 I couldn’t ignore my hunger pangs any longer. So I went off to get my usual burrito and eat it at my usual spot—Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park. But what wasn’t usual was that I wasn’t in a mad rush to get home to take a nap or check my e-mail. I felt like I was in love with everyone I saw—it was as if everyone was a walking archetype, vulnerable and simple—part of the human family. The young people, the old people, everyone so perfectly themselves. In some cases you could see the pain etched in their faces and in their posture. This one bent old woman walked toward me as if pushing into a steady wind—well, it was pretty windy that day, but she looked like she’d been pushing for a long time. I ached for her in a way that (needless to say) I don’t usually allow myself to do. We think it would drain us to feel so connected to other people; we don’t realize that that connection is what keeps us alive. What’s draining is to insist on our separateness.

It was a beautiful day in San Francisco—cool and sunny, with a fresh ocean breeze that ruffled the treetops and filled my lungs with cool air—and I lost all unfaithful fantasies of moving back east. After I ate my burrito, I walked around the lake, loving every sight and smell. I wanted to drink it all in—the cloudless blue sky, the ducks floating peacefully in the water, the trees moving in the wind. It’s not that I felt like a different person—I was aware of my usual reactions—but I couldn’t be mad at anybody, even the woman who went into the men’s bathroom by mistake because she saw me coming out of the women’s. I walked toward a sea of pigeons on the sidewalk, getting ready to be annoyed at the man who was feeding  them, but just as I was about to gear up for my internal diatribe, I came closer and we looked at each other, and I was struck by the kindness in his face. He was wearing green scrubs; there was an old woman in the car, dozing in the front seat with the door open while he fed the birds. Was he a nurse? I took all this in in a millisecond, and then I smiled and said “Hi,” and he smiled beautifully back at me. Was this his usual smile? Was he just naturally sweet? Or did I give him something to which he was responding? It was the briefest possible encounter. Is it really possible to make a difference in the world with just a smile at the right moment? It’s so easy to think of all the times our kindness or generosity fails to transform a moment or to have any effect at all—but I suspect we don’t even know, most of the time, what sparks we emit or what encouragement we give just by being aware of each other.

It was like that—magical—all afternoon. I didn’t even mind the other cars on the road. The radio kept playing all these sweet songs—“What If God Was One of Us?”; “Let go your heart, let go your head, and feel it now….”; U2’s “Beautiful Day.” I was going to take a nap when I got home, but there was work for me by e-mail. So I spent 2 hours editing a business plan for a biotech startup instead, and even that didn’t bother me. I just felt grateful for having a successful business and having the freedom to schedule my own work and take time to drive to the beautiful city and paint gory, beautiful self-innards, and see my beautiful friends and feel that deep connection that seems so elusive and yet is so available, why do we not always feel it?

To me, that day was a day spent traveling, though I walked in the same steps I’ve walked many times before. It wasn’t about covering miles or discovering cultural differences. It wasn’t about being a stranger in a strange land—except, perhaps, the land of Love. It wasn’t about bearing discomfort or proving one’s fortitude. It wasn’t about going out at all, though I felt I extended myself. Mostly, it was about opening up to the vast world that lives inside of us. It’s not a world you can buy a ticket to, you have to have faith and be a little diligent about gaining entry. Sometimes travel isn’t about conquering the world or confronting strange customs or difficult terrain—it can be about making a small inroad on your own sense of isolation, and discovering that the world will come to you.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #33 Summer 2005

July 19, 2009

I’m slouched in my big red comfy armchair, enjoying the luxury of central air conditioning and trying to decide if I should (a) edit the paper on cytomegalovirus that came in last night, (b) take a nap (I’m halfway there, if you really want to know), or (c) eat lunch. Pookie is lying next to the chair in front of the heating—or in this case, cooling—vent. He hasn’t been feeling well, so I’m not sure why he wants to be blasted with cold air, but if any creature knows what it wants, it’s the Poo man.

pookie’s seizures

Pookie has had a rough time of it lately. I took him to a new vet to see what condition his condition was in. He’s been in renal failure for about a year, and lately he’s been having “seizures.” (I think they’re actually more like “episodes of loss of motor control,” but I’ll call them seizures anyway.) I’ll hear a thump! and look to see that he’s fallen over, limbs spazzing, body contorted. I scoop him up and hold him close for a minute or two until the spasms pass and he can get down and wobble off on his own. There’s a definite advantage to being a cat in this situation, because he just goes on with his life, leaving me to worry for the both of us.

The other cats in my family tree go to a clinic in Marinette, but Barb had told me that the best vet there, Dr. V, had recently retired, moved to Green Bay or something. Besides, I wanted to find one in Menominee to cut down on drive time…. specifically, drive time with unhappy mraw-ings from the back seat.
I didn’t have much hope, because Barb and K had both said that the vets over here mostly work on farm animals. Cows? In Menominee? I saw cows and horses every day while driving down the freeway in Marin County, and haven’t seen so much as a chicken here. When I told K this, she exclaimed, “Well, we don’t keep them in town!”—like I’m some hick who lets the pigs sleep in the dining room.

I checked the phone book, and lo and behold, the Bayshore Veterinary Clinic is barely a mile away. I called and made an appointment and brought Pookie in later that day. I hate going to the vet, partly because I’m embarrassed that Pookie’s fur is so matted. I pull clumps off him all the time, but I feel like the little bird that comes once every thousand years to the mountain and takes away one grain of sand, and when the whole mountain is gone, that’s when eternity will begin. When Pookie’s clumps are all gone, eternity will just be finishing up. I once took him to a professional, who got him de-matted all right, but he wouldn’t speak to me for 3 days and I hated to think of what she did to him to keep him from scratching her eyes out.

While we wait for the vet in the examining room, his assistant, a middle-aged woman, is checking Pookie out. I can tell she’s judging me for not having good cat hygiene, because she takes a comb out of a drawer and holds it up like it’s a rare artifact known only to the Rosicrucians, Veterinary Division. “You can get them at Kmart,” she says, helpfully. I say I have one, and she’s all disbelieving, “You DO?” Just then the vet comes in, and guess what? It’s Barb’s Dr. V! He hadn’t gone to Green Bay, he’d only migrated over the bridge. I mention Barb’s name, and he remembers both her and her cat and goes on to regale the assistant with the story of LaMew getting shot in the elbow.

Dr. V goes to work on Pookie, sticking a thermometer up his butt while checking his internal organs (?) by squeezing up under his belly. Pookie’s butt is in the air, his back legs are helplessly straddling Dr’s V’s arm, and his face has a look of complete horror as he realizes he has become Dr. V.’s bitch. While this is happening, the vet assistant is taking the comb and gently wisping it over Pookie’s back, removing approximately one cubic millimeter of fuzz at a time and dropping it carefully into the wastebasket. She has the decency not to say, “See how easy it is?” but this also robs me of the opportunity to counter with: “Yeah, well at home there’s no one to distract him by CRAMMING THINGS UP HIS ASS.”

Dr. V doesn’t know if the “seizures” are related to the renal failure; they could be a sign of “kitty dementia”—uh-oh, me and Ruth Fisher, sisters in bondage to the mentally ill—so he gives me a mixture of amoxicillin and prednisone to squirt into Pookie’s mouth twice a day. Oh joy. Oh frabjous joy.

After a few days on this regimen, Pookie starts vomiting and leaving little piles and dribs and drabs of diarrhea on my nice oatmeal-colored carpet. He’s also listless and unsocial, and I find him curled up in odd corners of the house, like next to the vacuum cleaner (his mortal enemy) in the downstairs bedroom. If I’m around when he has a seizure, I pick him up and press my face against his furry head and try to remember the feeling for when I don’t have him anymore. It occurs to me that I’ve been living in a state of grace for the last few years, since his near-death from a bladder infection, when I hardly cared whether he lived or died. If he had gone to his Maker then, I doubt that I would have felt more than relief. No love = no pain. No wonder so many people go that route. But I was given the gift of his return, along with the blessing and the curse of love, and now it hurts like hell to think we may be coming to the end.

baby robins

But where there is illness and the knowledge of certain death, there is also birth—three little robins on top of a light fixture on my back porch, in this case. Mère and Père Robin take turns bringing the little ones worms, which they drop into the gaping mouths that seem too big for their wobbly, fuzzy little           heads. I’ve never seen a bird family this close up. You haven’t seen beady eyes till you’ve seen a mother bird guarding her babies. And the feeding ritual seems a bit strange. Mère or Père flies up to the nest—the babies have had their heads sticking straight up and their mouths wide open for a good 30 minutes already—and drops a big wad of wriggling worms into one of the mouths (“Here, hold this”) and then takes them back a bit at a time, makes worm mash out of them, and feeds the other big mouths.

But gosh, the kids grow up so fast. One day the strongest of the three babies—its chest starting to fill in with orange tufts—was standing at its full height, flapping its wings like crazy. I hoped against hope that I was about to witness baby’s first flight, but apparently it was just a dress rehearsal. Can you imagine spending the first weeks of your life in a tiny spit-glued grass bowl with two siblings who are getting bigger by the day like you, and Mom comes home every night and squeezes in, too…. and then all of a sudden, you realize… “I’m born to FLY! I’m going to spread my wings and leave this two-bit nest behind!” Can you imagine the relief?  A few days later, the babies were all gone, and I was surprised at how let down I felt. Empty nest syndrome, indeed.

I’m flattered that the robins chose my porch to start their family on. It makes sense, though—I provide quite the little birthing center out there: fresh water, an ample supply of dry food (seeds) and wet food (the aforementioned worms), and, of course, shelter—everything but flying lessons and foot massage. And then there’s the “garden.”

The people I bought the house from had an aboveground swimming pool. So when they moved and took the pool with them, I was left with an unsightly patch of dirt in the lawn. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so K suggested I plant something there. We went to Erik’s Garden Center early one rainy Monday morning because she needed to buy her spring plants anyway. I was a little hesitant, because “Mary Mary quite contrary I may be, but don’t ask me how my garden grows, because it don’t grow shit.” But I was soon excited by all the different colors and types of plants. I ended up buying two hanging baskets of petunias—pink and white for the back porch and purple for the front porch—and, after much deliberation, two broccoli plants and a creeping phlox. (Because I follow my intuition, that’s why.)

K told me what fertilizer to get, we dug up the weeds in the dirt, and she planted the three little plants. Unlike the hard, dry piece of ground next to the patio at my condo in Marin, this dirt is really good, and we dug up many worms. More bisected worms than whole ones, but don’t they regenerate themselves? (Oh, the things I don’t know.) K saw some little maple treelings growing against the foundation of the house and said I should take them out. So I pulled them up by their roots and planted them in the dirt patch also. I never really expected them to live, so I planted them only about 4 feet apart. Could be interesting. Future generations can tell the story of how the hapless old lady who used to live here came to have Siamese-twin maple trees in her yard.

The robins aren’t the only satisfied customers out there. The bird bath is as busy as a public pool, and little birds flutter through the white-barked birch tree mocking the  jays and blackbirds that are too big to dine at the small feeder hanging there. There’s a whole flock of little birds that enjoy taking sponge baths in the 80% of the “garden” that has nothing but dirt in it. They squiggle themselves down and around until they’ve made a cozy indentation and then wriggle all over getting dirt under their wings and all over their bellies. Then they frolic in the broccoli forest or sit on top of the leaves and bite holes in them. I wonder if they’re completely delusional (look! it’s a lake!) or if they’re evolutionarily inclined to want to be covered in dirt.

home girl

One of the happiest outcomes of my moving here, so far, has to do with nephew Josh, K and MP’s younger son. K was having a rummage sale to which a lot of us had contributed our junk, and we were sitting around on lawn chairs in the driveway waiting for customers. Josh was feeling down because his dream of buying a house seemed to be on permanent hold. He and wife Jana lived in a trailer, and there was barely enough room for them to turn around. Even though Josh makes relatively good money as a ship welder, Jana works at Wal-Mart, which, ‘nuff said. They’d been looking at houses, all just out of reach financially, and were starting to think it would never happen.

I had bought MP’s original Ford Model-T running board, which is solid polished wood with a metal inlay. Josh offers to take it out to my Jeep, because it’s hella heavy and he’s a big strong guy. While he does that, I double-check with myself to be clear about what I’m about to do.

As he’s coming back from the Jeep, I go to meet him and say, “Let’s walk.” We walk around the corner, and I ask him exactly how much he needs for a down payment. It’s unclear, because he doesn’t know what they’ll have to pay for a house, what they can get for their trailer, etc. I explain that I don’t want to lend money to family: I don’t want to risk disrupting relationships if for some reason they can’t pay me back. Then I pause significantly and add, “But I’d be willing to give you $5,000.” He’s apparently having a delayed reaction to this news—or doesn’t trust his ears—because he says, “But then I’d have to pay that off, plus my other debts, and….” I stop and put a hand on his arm. “Josh. I’ll give it to you.” He starts to say “Noooo,” but mid-vowel I can tell he’s not going to waste time protesting. He wraps me in a big bear hug. “Thank you, thank you!” “I love you, Josh.” “I love you, Aunt Mary.” Then the music swells, and… wait, there’s no music. But I still feel like I’m in a movie.

This happened on the last day of April. I was surprised at how quickly they found a house they liked and made an offer on it. I guess you’d call it a “fixer-upper,” though they don’t use that term here—fixer-uppers are pretty much what you get. It’s in a pleasant neighborhood in Marinette, centrally located and not too far from K and MP. And it’s on Mary Street! When Josh tells people that I “made it all possible,” I quip that his moving to Mary St. was one of my conditions. I think they know I’m joking. And here’s another twist. When I moved back here last fall, Josh bought me a button that said “Mary is my homegirl.” Are we impressed with these tidbits of synchronicity, or what?

I’m thrilled that I was able to help them out. It feels a lot better than when I donated $1,000 to the Menominee High School scholarship program and found out the scholarship was awarded to the daughter of the financial advisor to the school district.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to handle having money when so many in the family are living from paycheck to paycheck. I haven’t really figured it out, so I just take it case by case. It’s still awkward to give a sizable gift to someone who can’t afford to reciprocate. I wonder if the saying “It’s better to give than to receive” isn’t the moral lesson we think it is, but rather a simple fact. Giving is a joy—though I realize it’s not everyone’s idea of a good time—but it can feel complicatedly ambivalent to receive: There can be shame that you can’t reciprocate; confusion about whether you’re supposed to try to reciprocate or merely accept the difference in circumstances; and fear that the other person’s generosity is masking an expectation or a form of one-upmanship… like now you owe them, regardless of what they say.

I think the economic disparity between me and other members of the family is still an issue, but I’ve realized that I can’t control anyone else’s feelings, I can only try to be clear about my own. I truly believe that it’s not important how much a gift costs—what’s important is the intention behind it. But we all grew up poor, and that can warp your sense of worth.

welcome to the dollhouse

Speaking of giving, one of the many things I appreciate about my sisters is that when they go rummaging, they’re always on the lookout for things I might like. Mostly, they’ll bring me crystals, crosses… anything different, colorful, or shiny to hang in my big windows. One day Barb called me from my driveway—that’s how she circumvents my request to “call before coming over”—and said they had a surprise for me. I had once mentioned that I’d like to have a dollhouse to make “dioramas” in the little rooms. Well, they had found a metal dollhouse that was exactly like the one I had as a little girl! I couldn’t believe it. I briefly wondered how they knew it was like the one I’d had, but of course!—they had played with it too—one of many hand-me-downs from me, first-born. I was touched that they had ceded it to me instead of one of them claiming it for herself or for a grandchild.

Late one night I felt inspired to do a sand tray (sans sand) with it. At first I was a little intimidated by the emotional baggage represented by this dollhouse. The fact that I was “playing” with it 50-some years later, a few blocks from my then-home, was a little mind-boggling, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a “Twilight Zone” episode with this plot device…. doo-doo-doo-doo…. Woman plays with childhood dollhouse… After she puts all the dolls in it, they come alive and she becomes the doll! OK, Mare, get a grip.

So I started putting things in the rooms. It was physically more difficult than I’d expected, because, man, those rooms are tiny, and I’m so much bigger now. Duh. And I was really self-conscious at first—I was afraid I was going to keep such rational control of the imagery that I wouldn’t be able to forget myself and just let it flow. But sand trays always take you somewhere you didn’t know you were going to go, so I just… went.

In one of the upstairs bedrooms, I put three little pink rocking chairs in a row with a “bomb” in each one. (Me and my sisters?) A baby lay on the floor in front of them, and a red rubber skeleton hand edged into the room. Men (action figures, a.k.a. dolls) were climbing the sides of the house, trying to get in the windows, which have little open squares cut in the metal, so their arms reached through. In the bathroom I put a skeleton on top of a pile of knives. The living room filled up with tangled red wire, with a soft plastic skull stuck in the middle. A rescue squad vehicle sat halfway into the room. Little green soldiers on the outside took aim at the house.

I put a little pink baby on a makeshift bed in the other bedroom, surrounded by empty blue rocking chairs and a couple of skeletons standing like sentries at the front opening. The baby felt like my little brother Mike who died of leukemia. At that point I knew I was emotionally engaged. I put another baby in one of the rocking chairs, with no idea of who it could be. I didn’t worry that I was orchestrating the scene anymore, because my crafty conscious mind had let go. My “story” had been successfully interrupted, and I could do anything.

I put men climbing on the roof and trying to come down the chimney. One man was caught in a kind of metal mesh cage. There were chains hanging off the roof, black and red wire coming out of the chimney, a large skeleton hand, snakes, and an old light bulb filament. I wrapped the house in long strings of white beads. Long black rods poked through windows and bifurcated some of the rooms.

By now, the only room that had nothing in it was the kitchen. My parents weren’t even represented (details, details)… but all my energy was going to my brother. So into the kitchen went a little yellow crib with a baby in it, red and white flowers, a red plastic heart, and gold Christmas ornaments. The feeling of doom from the upstairs rooms (and the roof and the windows and the whole house, actually) was changing, and I felt a deep, unexpected pulsing of joy in my chest. I grabbed a small jointed skeleton with blue rhinestone eyes and laid it on the floor in front of the crib, and the “sand tray” felt somehow complete. It was then that I noticed that the skeleton had lost one of its eyes. My heart skipped a beat… then another. My brother had blue eyes and had to have one removed when he was a year old. I had often painted him with one closed eye and one bright blue one, and the image has always stayed with me.

This is what happens in the creative process. The mind holds on as long as it can, and then it lets go like a tired swimmer slipping under the waves. From the mind’s point of view, all is lost. But the giving in allows the power of the Mystery to take over. And then the mind has the grace to acknowledge and even feel gratitude for that all-embracing force and the surprising gifts it brings.

Actually, the feeling of getting in touch with the creative force, the Mystery, is not limited to “art.” At times I feel strongly—almost supernaturally—touched when I’m out in the neighborhood or even driving and fully take in the green of the big leafy trees, the lush carpets of lawn, the yellow-green light during a half-sunny/half-darkblue-stormcloud daytime thunderstorm. At those moments I feel swathed, or swaddled—held or holding, I hardly know which—by everything that is. I’m all alone and yet so big—amorphous—that there’s nothing and no one outside “me.” Just as when I’m in the creative flow, I’m only another form through which the prism of sensory experience is being filtered.

July 4

On the weekend before the Fourth of July, I asked Barb if she and Brian and Deb and the kids were going to have a cookout down in the park. She consulted Brian, who thought it was “a great idea.” So Barb went and bought most of the food, and Brian got a pork roast to grill for shredded pork sandwiches. I thought it was just going to be the six of us, but when I arrived, Deb’s brother and his girlfriend and their baby, two friends of Brian’s with their kid, Brian’s live-in and visiting kids, Barb’s daughter L and her husband with their two boys, and K and MP were all there. Deb’s nephew Devon, who’s barely 4 years old and small for his age, was making big circles around the park on a tiny motorcycle. MP was helping Brian dig up some dead rose bushes. Women bearing food were streaming into and out of the house like a line of ants.

K thought she should be helping set things up, but I told her we should take advantage of our elder status and sit out on the deck and have a drink. I’m a terrible influence on her.

Before the food was ready, it started raining, so they set everything up in the garage. The smokers stood at the open garage doors smoking and looking out at the rain. The radio was tuned to the oldies’ station, where every song seemed chosen for the weather: … listen to the rhythm of the falling rain… pitter patter pitter patter… oo-oo-ooh…. We sat on folding chairs awkwardly eating hot dogs and deviled eggs and chips and cupcakes on paper plates on our laps and trying to keep track of whose drink was whose. The kids—I think there were nine of them altogether—raced around the garage, weaving in and out among the adults, who were themselves constantly up and down getting food or going into the house or to their cars for something. Food and drink were spilled, napkins distributed, and second helpings helped. When the rain let up, Sarina and Devon went out and threw rocks at the puddles across the road. I went out to watch and realized that when I’m around kids, I constantly think something awful is going to happen—they’ll hit the neighbor’s cat with a rock… they’ll get too close to the road and get run over—and I’ll be left standing there, powerless. (Why this should be is a whole ‘nother story.)

While we were eating in the garage, I felt like a ghost—or close enough to a ghost, socially speaking, not to quibble about whether I was actually alive or dead. I felt like Scrooge watching the world go by without him (The Ghost of Great Auntie Present). None of the middle generation, the late-20- and early-30-somethings, so much as glanced in my direction. And how could I blame them? They have their kids and their houses and their jobs and their future to worry about. Deb’s family is unusually close-knot (ha! Freudian slip—close-knit), and all the brothers and sisters and the parents are in constant touch and routinely babysit each other’s kids and help build each other’s garages, redo bathrooms, whatever needs to be done. They’re like a giant, well-oiled family machine. It struck me that “family” is inclusive by being exclusive. Barb is one of the grandmas and Brian’s mother, but K and I are fairly expendable twigs on that limb of the family tree. I figure my only hope for feeling comfortable in that situation is to get in solid with the kids. Kids’ attention is fickle at best, but if I have enough one-on-one time with them, I’ll at least have a real connection there and not just be Grandma Barb’s peripheral “sister from California,” whose story is rapidly becoming yesterday’s news.

Here I am talking about connection, but I want contradictory things. Time goes on and one adapts, even to a miracle. But I want to retain the “disconnect,” the “synaptic gap,” the cognitive dissonance of wow, can you believe it, between life as I knew it a year or so ago and life as it appears to me now. I want to be immersed in the experience, but I also want to stand a little apart to maintain an awareness of what’s really going on here… what’s the deeper meaning there…. how does the past inform the present or the present redeem the past…  I’m interested in difference—the strange blessings and contradictions of life—and in trying to express what I see.

At one point, Barb says to me, “This is all because of you,” and I think, You mean no one else thought to have a Fourth of July BBQ? Odd, since I hate the Fourth of July! I’d just wanted to eat hot dogs and deviled eggs.

the grand-nieces

As much as I enjoy the grandkids, I’ve resisted babysitting them. As a teenager I hated being responsible for other people’s precious darlings and was beset by paranoid fantasies (if a man comes to the door claiming to be a relative of the parents, do I let him in or run and hide under the bed?). So I told Barb that I would invite the kids over for a sleepover in my attic room sometime, but she’d have to come with. Over the summer, when they’re not in school and their regular babysitter isn’t available, Barb has been watching them one day a week. I’ve taken to dropping by, taking them out to lunch, and playing a game or two until I desperately need to return to my solitary (big red comfy-chaired) existence. On one of the days that Barb was supposed to have the kids, she had an appointment, so I agreed to watch them for the 1 or 2 hours she would be gone. As the time got nearer, I began to regret my decision. I was afraid I’d just sit there in previous-babysitting-trauma-induced paralysis, one eye on the clock, too stiff to talk, let alone be an engaging companion–slash–loving great auntie.

The first 5 or 10 minutes alone with them were pretty much as I’d expected, until I realized that kids inhabit worlds of their own, and there wasn’t anything special I had to do. Sarina suggested playing dominos, so we did. We played the game where you start with double nines and progress through the double eights, double sevens, etc., until you run out of numbers. We had only got through the first couple of sets before both kids were lying face down on their chairs and playing the game from the floor. To give me a domino to play on the table, they had to go through numerous contortions to get the right one on the table and slide it over to me without being able to see. This gave them the giggles, and they kept up a chatterfest under the table about I know not what. At one point, Summer calls up from the floor, “Aunt Mary, look in the drawer.” I was sitting at the end of the table where there’s a small drawer, so I opened it and found the domino Summer had placed there. Gee, talk about resourceful… I guess when you challenge yourself to play dominos on two levels, you have to think on your feet, er, stomach.

When they got bored with that game, Sarina wanted to play Bingo, so she and I did that while Summer made bead bracelets. Bingo lasted about 5 minutes. Sarina won, so I think it was a case of quitting while she was ahead. Then she brought out Chutes and Ladders, which I knew was a famous kid’s game that I must have played before, but for some reason I couldn’t get the hang of it. The kids thought that was hilarious, especially when I tried to move my piece up the chute or down the ladder.

Next, it happened to be less hot than usual that day, so we went outside so they could play on their jungle gym. They showed off all their acrobatic tricks on the swings and with the hanging rings and did cartwheels on the lawn. I know it’s a cliché, but wow, the flexibility in their thin limbs! Their unflagging energy! Part of the jungle gym structure has ladders and a simulated “rock climbing surface” to climb up to a kind of treehouse, so I made a feeble attempt to follow them up while they squealed, backing up to the opposite side of the platform as I grabbed at them while teetering 12 inches off the ground. This led to their christening me the Lava Monster. (Don’t ask me why Lava.) They went running through the yard, and every move I made in their direction evoked genuine—or fake/genuine, if you see the distinction—terror and screams. I did indeed feel monster-like, roaring and occasionally grabbing hold of a passing arm and wondering what a Lava Monster was supposed to do if she caught one of them. Their shrill screams made me drop them pretty quickly anyway, so as to prevent permanent hearing loss (mine).

Finally, the grandma cavalry arrived. Though I hadn’t been having a bad time, by any means, I was grateful for the rescue. Barb was just in time to take us all to lunch at the Downtown Sub Shop in Menominee. On the way, we saw K and MP riding around in their truck, and they joined us for ice cream.

The kids have another “Aunt Mary,” their mother’s sister, so when we were driving back from lunch, Summer said, “There’s our ‘normal’ Aunt Mary’s house,” and Barb cracked up while I howled. “Normal?!” Poor kid just meant “as opposed to ‘Great Aunt Mary’.” Summer had endeared herself to me earlier by saying, “I hate not knowing things.” I really like smart kids. Four-year-old Sarina is smart too, but she’s still illiterate. I’m looking forward to being in their lives for a long time to come.

the flagpole of now

Pookie started feeling better when I stopped giving him the medicine. He still sits on my lap at the computer and watches the screen avidly as the colorful symbols of Alchemy pop up and move around. He still scratches my knees bloody trying to make himself comfortable. We’re taking it one day at a time, or I am. He’s just living.

He’s living, and I’m thinking. In fact, I’ve been thinking about thought. Many years ago, I heard an amazing talk by Krishnamurti in which he said that time, thought, and fear are all one thing. I noticed with Pookie that if I stay completely in the present with what’s actually happening, I don’t have all the anxiety associated with my projections into the future. He’s on my lap now, he’s purring now, he’s scratching my knees bloody now. Anything that I imagine might happen—or worse, believe will happen—is completely unreal, hypothetical. Several years ago, I spent months playing out in my mind the imminent death of my little black cat Radar, who had feline leukemia. As it happened, he died peacefully in his sleep, with his head butted up against a wall, and I had a friend visiting who helped me bury him, quite illegally, in front of my apartment building. I didn’t shed a tear. It was all just what it was.

So here’s how I picture time = thought = fear. We are sitting on a flagpole (whether it’s all the same flagpole or we each have our own is beyond the scope of this discussion). No, I’ll simplify and say I am sitting on a flagpole, which is the present moment, what is. If you think about it, there’s no flagpole “back there” (past) or “up ahead” (future), because it’s always now. I may think about “tomorrow,” but when “tomorrow” comes, it’s today. No way to get off that flagpole unless we’re sent into space and come back 200 years later while aging only 2 weeks on Earth. I don’t even want to get into that.

OK, so I’m sitting on the flagpole of now, and because of evolutionary developments in the brain, I can imagine things that aren’t real, i.e., aren’t happening now, on my flagpole. When we imagine those unreal things, we are extending our reach beyond the flagpole, forward and back, but those extensions are completely imaginary, a product of our brain capacity. Brain development, per se, is a fine thing, because it can be useful to have a memory (of the best season to plant crops, say) and to make reasonable predictions (if I plant corn now, I’ll have some in late summer). And yet, all that is pure speculation; everything that actually happens is happening now. Late summer may never come, capiche?

When we project these speculations into the “past” or the “future,” that is the nature of thought. We can think about what’s happening, but the thought is never the thing itself. Obviously, that’s also the nature of time, because projection in thought, by definition, is in time and not in the present moment.

Here’s the crucial bit, which is what I realized with Pookie. It’s impossible to have fear in the present. We think we do, but really, fear always comes before or after the fact. In the moment, whether it’s confronting a snake on the path or holding the poor cat while the vet “puts him to sleep,” there’s nothing but this flagpole, then this flagpole, then this flagpole (which are all one flagpole, you understand).

(I sure hope my flagpole analogy is holding up, because if not, you’re probably feeling really irritated right about now.)

So…. everything that our brains project (or “remember”) into the air in front of or behind our “flagpole” is the same thing: thought = time = fear.

QED, n’est-ce pas?

Pookie’s having up to three “seizures” a day now. Be in the moment for him, in whatever way feels right to you, would you?

[Mary McKenney]

mary‘zine random redux: #32 May 2005

July 10, 2009

I’m killing time while the installer from Drees Electric is here wrestling with my new dishwasher and garbage disposal. Plenty of butt crack on display, but I avert my eyes. For the first half hour he was here, I assembled one of my new steel “retro shell back” lawn chairs. It felt oddly companionable, the two of us grunting over our respective tasks. When he came back up from the basement at one point, I was sitting in the chair, and he laughed. “You finished your project!” I felt so butch.

I got up at 7:00 (having gone to bed at 3:30) to be sure I was ready when the installer came. There were lots of cars outside, and I saw that the people across the street were having a garage sale. Around here, garage (aka rummage) sales start at the crack of dawn and end before lunch. The woman who lived there died recently, and the house has already been sold. I’m waiting on pins and needles to see who’s going to move in. I’m officially an old fuddy-duddy now, hoping for quiet neighbors with no children… or motorcycles…. or beat-up cars…. or Kid Rock records…. well, I’ll just have to wait and see. [Update: I’ve spotted a baby and a young blonde woman, and neither of them looks like a Kid Rock fan.]

My official status as an old fuddy duddy was conferred on me by a young woman at Curry’s IGA the other day. She’s checking out my groceries and wants to know, “Are you a senior citizen?” “NO—NOT YET!” I exclaim, all flustered. Then I think for a few seconds. “How old do you have to be?” “55.” “Oh, OK then, I guess I am” (mumble mumble).” I didn’t even check to see how much being old had saved me.

Spring has almost sprung, and a senior citizen’s fancy turns to thoughts of… “Hmmm, I won’t be able to use the garage as a second refrigerator much longer.”

The ice in the bay has finally melted, the snow has long since receded, and the birds are flinging themselves to and fro, filling the sky with their rich cacophony. The grass is growing, but the trees are just barely budding. I’m looking forward to longer days, open windows, and the sweet, earthy smell of spring (if they still have that). I’ve often thought that people who proclaim their love for “the seasons” are just making lemonade out of ice-cold lemons. But of course now that I’m walking a mile in their moccasins, I can understand the sense of antici….

pation. The snow melts, the brown lawn looks forward to new green growth, and suddenly the future’s so bright I have to wear shades.
(I’ll have to be patient, though. My sister Barb informed me that it snowed on her birthday one year—May 16.)

Our mild winter was a piece o’ cake for me—except for the icing on the cake, if you get my drift. I ended up buying “snow chains” for my boots but lost one of them in a snow bank the first time I wore them.

One of the things I love about being here is having kids in my life—though they’re more of a delicacy than a main course since I moved out of Barb’s house. That didn’t come out right. I don’t get to see them as much, is what I mean. I do get to hear all the stories. One day 9-year-old Summer, 5-year-old Sarina, and 50-year-old Grandma Barb were playing “airplane.” As the self-appointed flight attendant, Sarina asks Barb what she wants to eat. Barb says, “Bacon and eggs.” So Sarina goes off and comes back moments later with her “bacon and eggs.” Then she asks Summer what she wants to eat. Summer starts to say, “Bacon….” and Sarina cuts her off: “We’re all out of bacon.” The kid’s a quirky genius, I tell you what.

I may have mentioned this before, but I love watching the birds and the squirrels. I don’t know why people expend so much time and effort to keep squirrels from eating. This morning one of my regulars, whom I’ll call Hurly, came running through the yard and spooked a flock of blackbirds, who lifted up en masse into the branches of the nearest tree. This freaked Hurly out, and he plastered himself against the tree with his back to it. It reminded me of that Far Side cartoon where the deer is standing upright behind a tree as a hunter prowls around in the background. The deer is thinking, “What have I ever done to this guy? Think, think!” Hurly stayed there until the coast was clear and then went about foraging for sunflower seeds. Then a garbage truck drove by, and Hurly scrambled to the top of a nearby utility pole. I worried he would fry himself on the high voltage wires, but he just clung to the pole like a squirrel chameleon. When I looked again, he was gone.

One day I saw Hurly (or Burly, I can’t tell them apart) scrounging for seeds under the bird feeder. Then I looked about 10 feet over and saw a chickadee trying to get at the peanuts in the squirrel feeder. Hmmm…. Isn’t nature supposed to be smarter than that?

Now I glance out the window and see a big ol’ robin in the bird bath…. fluttering this, fluttering that, stopping to take a sip of bathwater now and then. I expect it to start washing under its “arms” like a Disney cartoon bird. I change the water in my two bird baths every day—that’s just the kind of nature lover I am. I take an absurd pride in attracting a large, diverse population of birds—robins, red-wing blackbirds, chickadees, bright yellow finches, blue jays, woodpeckers, mourning doves, and some I can’t identify. I’m even mildly offended when some of them start grazing in the neighbors’ yards. What have they got that I haven’t got?

Just this morning, I saw that a robin is building a nest on my back porch. I’m excited to be a birdparent-to-be.

The gulls can be a pain. They swoop down on the garbage bags that get put out every Friday (we’re not allowed to use cans) and can cover a wide swath of road and yard with orange peels, coffee grounds, and fluttering store receipts and sandwich wrappings. I don’t get mad, I get Glad. (That gives me an idea. Product placement in the mary‘zine? Have your people call my people.)

On the first day of daylight saving time, I became aware that the din from outside was deafening—the raucous cries and sweet melodies of large and small birds filling the sky. So I went outside and sat in the sunny chill, my jacket wrapped around me, trying to remain still so that the birds who had been flying in and out of the yard would forget I was there. I imagined them gathering in a tree across the street to assess the situation. “Have you noticed that big thing over by the fence? Has it always been there? Have you seen it move? I could have sworn it did. Could it be one of those lifelike sculptures by what’s-his-name, the artist who makes those “people” sitting on park benches? Oh heck, let’s go for it. I’m starving.”

Naturally, Pookie loves watching the birds as much as I do. His motives may be less pure, but he’s harmless. The few times I’ve let him outside, he spends most of his time under the back porch, sniffing the dirt for God knows what. And of course the birds, having the advantage of flight, make themselves scarce until we go back in the house.

Pookie seems to like his new home, but it’s hard to tell. He has the advantage of long-term, short-term, and middle-term memory loss so is not demonstrably grateful for having a permanent, spacious home after last summer’s uprootedness and cramped quarters. He has his own mysterious routines. He’ll be sleeping in the little sitting room downstairs when I come down to the kitchen to make something to eat. Within a minute or two, without fail, I’ll hear the click-click of his toenails as he plods across the kitchen floor toward the stairs, not even turning his head to look at me. Hi, Pookie! Bye, Pookie! The only time he seeks me out is after he’s done his toi-o-lette. If I’m sitting at my desk, he’ll come to me and insist on being picked up. If I ignore him, he’ll try to climb the desk chair, and the poignant urgency in his big green eyes makes him impossible to refuse. Unfortunately, his recent activities are evident in his wet nose, water dripping off his chin, stray bits of cat food in his whiskers, and some suspicious moistness down below. I haul him up onto my lap and try to continue working (or playing) while he proceeds to groom himself and either fall fast asleep, numbing my legs under his considerable weight, or toss and turn and dig his claws into my thighs, and gaze up at me accusingly, as if I should know what’s bothering him. At some unknown signal, he starts hoisting himself up for real and I know it’s time to put him down on the floor. I try to remember to say, “Want to get down?” rather than “Want me to put you down?” because you never know what they can understand.

Being as how I’m getting up there in age and might not be able to climb the stairs at some point, my sisters have pointed out that the staircase is wide enough that I could have a lift installed, like the one Tony Soprano’s mother creaked up and down on. Pookie is no spring chicken either, so I’m envisioning a smaller lift for him opposite mine. Then, when he hears me get in my lift and start moving down, he can hop into his lift and go up, ignoring me completely as we pass each other in our respective quasi-invalid apparati.

Speaking of getting old (do old people speak of anything else?), Barb and K and I reference the following joke often.

Three elderly sisters live together. One sister goes upstairs to draw herself a bath but calls down to say she doesn’t remember if she was getting into the tub or out of it. The second sister starts up to help her but realizes halfway up the stairs that she doesn’t remember if she was going up or coming down. The third sister scoffs at both of them. “I hope my memory never gets that bad,” she says, knocking on wood. “I’ll be right up as soon as I see who’s at the door.”

So when any of us has a “senior moment” (even though I’m the only one who gets money off for being old), we’ll say, “I have to see who’s at the door.”

I first heard that joke after Skip’s funeral when several of his old-guy relatives were sitting around Barb’s kitchen table. One of the guys was telling the joke, but I wasn’t paying attention—I was making myself a ham sandwich. (Food always trumps conversation.) When he got to the part where the third sister knocks on wood, he rapped sharply on the table. Hearing that, I went to the door to see who was there. I couldn’t understand why everyone howled at that. Life imitates art, I tell you what.

peaceable kingdom

So it’s been eight months since I moved back to my hometown, and almost exactly a year since P and I (and Pookie) set out from San Rafael to start this grand adventure. I have written about the wonderful discoveries, the synchronicities, the house falling into my lap in the nick of time, the three road trips, the settling in, the beauty of this very different but familiar landscape, the ritual eating of fried fish with my peeps every Friday, and the sense of being home in all possible meanings of the word. (However, I must get the obligatory food criticism off my chest. Dear Midwesterners: mixing macaroni with mayo, cheese, and bacon—even if you add broccoli and call it “broccoli salad”—IS NOT SALAD.) Now I sense that the next phase is beginning, and I don’t mean the birds and the green buds of spring. In some ways, the initial thrill—the delirious speculation about what this big change is going to mean—is gone. You just can’t sustain the sense of novelty, the inevitable illusion that your new life will be so different and so wonderful that you will become, basically, a different person. The illusion that a change of place equals a change of self is common, I suppose—all those Westward ho! pioneers, those back-to-the-land hippies, those frozen retirees relocating to Florida or Arizona…. Same for getting a new job, a new partner. Starting over—it’s the American illusion, I mean dream.

But illusion is a paper ship on a very deep ocean. When “the thrill is gone,” we think we’ve failed. Miscalculated. Been tricked. “That person I was so in love with has changed!” “I’m having the same problems here as I did back there!” We don’t have much social support for seeing what lies beyond the illusion of a new beginning. My favorite image of this is the women’s magazines’ fantasy of the housewife greeting her husband at the door naked, wrapped in Saran Wrap, hoping to put some spice back in their marriage. As if novelty—a continual rekindling of the illusion phase—is the only way to renew: a paper ship in a wading pool. But I think it’s not an accident that relationships begin with that honeymoon attraction that seems all-pervasive yet is only the barely scratched surface of real connection. Illusion is a way to get us moving in a direction we might otherwise not attempt. And once we’re at our destination—that ill-thought-out, happily-ever-after “ending”—that’s when the new seeds and weeds start to sprout.

Much of this insight is due to a dream work session I had by phone with Jeremy Taylor,  a teacher, counselor, and minister whose brilliance is surpassed only by his compassion. Two of the three dreams I told him had the theme of my being aware of something behind me that I wasn’t quite able to see. (Something unconscious this way comes.) In one of these dreams,

I’m sitting on a roof with my legs hanging over the side. Higher up on the roof lies a placid-looking tiger who looks like he stepped right out of one of Edward Hicks’s “The Peaceable Kingdom” paintings. But then I become aware that another tiger has come up behind me and is so close he could touch the back of my neck. I fear I will be eaten, or thrown over the side. But he doesn’t touch me.

To Jeremy, these images signify a new phase to come. He’s been right so many times in the past  that I have to believe there’s something to it. I don’t know what the new challenges, the next phase, will be about, but it seems unlikely that the ramifications of moving back to the place of my difficult childhood would be limited to the surface pleasures of carefree adulthood: the fish fry? the nice park? birds and squirrels in my yard?

I had another “can’t quite see what’s behind” dream the other night.

I’m in a painting class, and I have to keep asking the teacher (a man) to come look at my painting. Finally, he does, and he seems to approve. But he leaves before I can turn the painting over and show him the painting I did on the other side. I keep asking and asking, getting more and more depressed, but I wake up before he comes back.

I’m intrigued by all these dream-teases. I’m enjoying my peaceable kingdom—more about that later—but I’m curious to see what’s next.


What I’m trying to convey here is not that I’m dis-illusioned, or that “the honeymoon is over boo-hoo,” or that I’m sitting here with family but no friends wondering, “What was I thinking?” I’m trying to explore the fault line between imagining the future and then arriving there. Tomorrow inevitably feels different from today. Tomorrow = I’m going to paint a mural on the walls and ceilings of my attic “cave.” Today = I think I’ll play another game of Alchemy. I’m trying to be honest about the sometime mix of blessings in any new venture.

Recently I received an e-mail from A, an old painting (and dancing) friend. She had enjoyed the tale of my move and shared her own synchronistic trail that had taken her to Paris, where she now lives for a third of the year, does some teaching, and has lots of friends. She went on to say that her son graduated with a master’s degree in literature from Stanford and is in a touring rock band. Suddenly, my little adventure seemed tame indeed. I wrote her back, “…man oh man, you really put my little U.P. life to shame. Paris! A literate son in a rock band! I know we each have our own path, but STILL…”

For a brief moment it felt so unfair. Why does she get Paris, and I get a little town no one’s ever heard of? Well, I wouldn’t actually be suited to her life, and that’s the point, n’est-ce pas? But it was disconcerting to have that moment of raw envy, as if what’s right for me isn’t good enough if I spot something more alluring over there. But that’s illusion again, a siren song trying to distract me from the real. A few people have written to say how happy they are for me—and I believe them—but the word “envy” does come up sometimes. “I’m slightly envious of your relationship with your family,” etc. But wishing for someone else’s good fortune is meaningless. If only I were a people person! And could speak French! And liked to travel! It’s a good reminder to see that fantasizing about someone else’s life—based on assumptions and wishful thinking—is different from actually living that life—as is fantasizing about your own. But at least with your own, you’re proceeding on your own path, clearing the brush in real time. “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone; I can see obstacles in my way….”

By moving here I escaped from certain aspects of my life in the Bay Area—the crime and noise in my neighborhood, most notably—just as I escaped from Menominee a long time ago. And now here I am again. Which is the frying pan, and which is the fire? So far, being here is more like being in the top half of a double boiler… warmly melting into chocolate. Mmmmm….. chocolate. Once again, I’ll just have to wait and see.

When I was staying with Barb last summer, I marveled at my heretofore unknown adaptability. I actually liked people dropping by and kids poking me with questions. I liked the sense of being ready for anything—working on a dining room table amid layers of clutter, with a TV on in the background… sleeping in a room without a door… not able to cook and barely able to find space to make a sandwich in a kitchen in which every surface, including much of the floor, was piled high with stuff—some in transit, some seemingly in permanent residence. In certain respects, my sisters and I are sharply divided between the “Larsen side” and the “McKenney side.” Barb and I resemble each other in looks, but K looks more like our McKenney aunts. And Barb and I do not have the gene that would cause us discomfort if we noticed that the juice box and half-eaten cookie that one of the kids left on the fireplace ledge three days ago was still there.

Conversely, sister K, as a teenager, vacuumed out the coal bin in the basement with Mom’s good vacuum cleaner. Neat freak from day 1. I’m just sayin’.

One day Barb asked her son Brian to haul away an old recliner, because she had bought a new one. He moved it out to the kitchen and said he’d take it to the dump “this weekend” (it was Monday). The recliner sat there in the dead center of the kitchen floor for the rest of the week, and we not only lived around it, we made it into an “art space”: One day I propped a frog planter (a planter in the shape of a frog, not a planter in which to plant frogs) in the chair, put sunglasses on it, and stuck a small American flag in the crook of its elbow. Barb picked up on the game immediately, and we had fun with it all week. One night before we went out, I noticed a full bottle of Zima in the hands of the frog, and I duly chuckled as I went out the door. When we got back, the bottle was empty. (Barb had switched them at the last minute, ho ho.) When Brian saw this strange tableau, he said simply, “I don’t get it.” But here’s what’s strange. Brian took the chair away on Saturday, and when Barb and I got home that night, we walked in the back door right into the kitchen, put our bags and purses down, and didn’t notice that the chair was gone. Being oblivious to one’s surroundings has its advantages.

Anyway…. while I was thinking that I had changed, because I enjoyed the people interruptions and was able to handle the household chaos, it really only meant that I had learned to cope and adapt—which is no small thing, but not the same as “Now I want people around me all the time so I can go with the freakin’ flow.” So when the movers arrived from California and I was able to physically move into my house, it was as if I was letting out a breath I’d been holding for months. I had done it. I was here. My life was my own. And when Barb called a couple days later, waking me up from a nap and wondering if she should come over right after school so we could go out for an early supper, I snapped. Like a twig. NOW THAT I HAVE MY OWN SPACE I NEED TO BE ALONE FOR A WHILE, I announced. I was probably as shocked as she was at this sudden reversal. I had been keeping it together, and I was now in a state of collapse—mental and physical exhaustion. In addition to unpacking and getting my rooms arranged and making to-do lists as long as my arm, I had to reorient myself, mentally incorporate the rest of my being into this new situation. All last summer I had been visiting—on a vacation doubling as a fact-finding tour, a trial living situation. At Barb’s I had been a guest. I did my best to fit into her schedule, but it wasn’t my schedule. I had brought part of my life with me, but most of it was still back in the Bay Area. I was dealing. It wasn’t real.

When I was finally here, safe within my own four (×10) walls, I could no longer be a houseguest in Barb’s life. I had to start erecting movable fences, establishing boundaries. Call before you come over! No, don’t call, I could be napping! Clearly, I’m not the only one who has had to adjust. Barb is a people person. I, on the other hand, can barely deal with one snooty cat. We’re working it out…. but there’s more….

on the fault line

Jerry Falwell is in the hospital. His condition has been upgraded from “critical” to “judgmental.”
—joke heard on the radio

Barb and I are apples that fell off the same tree, and not very far from it. Mom could be both tactlessly critical and punishingly silent. Unsurprisingly, some of that has rubbed off on us. The main difference is that I can talk to Barb about it and get a considered response from her rather than anger or the silent treatment.  (In therapy a few years ago, I was pissed at J one day and wouldn’t talk about it. I started to leave without saying good-bye—that would show her! J said, “Why don’t you just be angry at me? It would be less hurtful.” I replied, “This is anger where I come from.” I have to commend J for sticking by me through 12 years of that kind of thing.)

When I first moved here, I announced that I would try to refrain from correcting anyone’s English. (I like to think of myself as hugely tolerant. Where I got that idea, I don’t know.) But of course I couldn’t stick with my good intentions. I’m shocked by some of the accepted usage around here: “Me and my girlfriend went shopping.” “Him and her don’t get along.” “Do youse know what you want to order?” So, yes, I admit it…. I’ve been known to offer an alternative pronunciation or word choice now and then. I always think that the valuable information I’m imparting makes up for any temporary offense I might cause. Yeah, right. My sad excuse is that I’m critical for a living. (I’m judgmental on my own time.)

For her part, Barb does not always notice that she’s treating her perfectly capable adult sisters like the 7th graders she has to deal with all day long. With her teacher voice and sense of God-given authority, she’s a force to be reckoned with. She takes me to Menard’s in her truck to buy a ladder, because it won’t fit in the Jeep. As I haul the ladder first through the parking lot and later into my garage, she can’t resist telling me, oh, four or five times, the right way to carry it. As with her students, she thinks she has to keep repeating an instruction until the person “gets it right.” And like me, she doesn’t always question whether her help is needed or appreciated.

K, on the other hand, is so afraid of hurting anyone’s feelings that she tries to keep the peace at all costs. Here’s a trivial example. We all keep each other’s favorite soft drinks on hand. It’s almost ritualistic. You walk into someone’s house, and the first order of business is, “Want something to drink?” For years, Barb thought that K liked Dr. Pepper, but I found out that she preferred Coke. She had never said anything to Barb because Barb never had Coke in the house. But Barb was specifically buying Dr. Pepper because that’s what K would drink when she was over there. It’s a little bit like “Gift of the Magi,” don’t you think? OK, not so much. But K is such a sweetheart that it’s hard to know what’s really going on with her. With Barb and me, our faces tell the story even if our words don’t.

We all enjoy telling our respective horror stories about Mom’s insensitivity, but it’s harder to see what we ourselves have internalized or are reacting to. The good news is that we have an opportunity to become more emotionally real with each other—to the extent that we each want to, of course—a lesson Mom was not able to teach us.

in the mix

While anticipating the unknown future hinted at in my dreams, I’m enjoying the heck out of my peaceable kingdom, my old people’s neighborhood, my huge house (just right for one person and her catty companion), the physical safety I’ve never felt in a sustained way before, the leisure of being semi-retired (I work when work is sent to me, but I no longer go looking for it), the long quiet nights when I read, play Alchemy on the computer, listen to “Loveline” from a radio station in Seattle, or pull matted clumps of hair out of Pookie’s back. But when the spirit moves, I can also bust out the jams in my jammies… turn up the speakers and dance to the delirious, pounding music of the Chemical Brothers at 2:30 a.m. in my blue-and-green-lit loft.

Now that I can afford high-speed Internet, a monthly subscription to, and 99 cent songs from iTunes, I am hugely enjoying my media palace. I am tuned in and turned on to a degree I never knew before. I’ve discovered whole genres of music—some with no label other than “alternative” (to what?)—more than 400 songs on my laptop and easy transfer of music and books to an iPod shuffle or an Otis media player. I started building my electronic library with favorite artists from my college days—Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Four Tops, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Mimi and Richard Farina, Tim Hardin)—the familiar and comforting tunes of my youth. But then I branched out musically in all directions, thanks to iTunes, (free downloads), KCRW (musically eclectic public radio station in Santa Monica—I’m now supporting three public radio stations: two in California, one in Wisconsin) and other sources, and now I have a musical accompaniment to any mood. I’ve discovered Thievery Corporation, Bloc Party, French Kicks, Gang Gang Dance, Supreme Beings of Leisure (hey, that’s me!), Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and Shivaree, to name but a few.

Somehow I got turned on to and discovered endless subgenres of dance music: Deep, House, Sexy, Funky, Chunky, Jazzy, Techy, Tech, Techno, Tribal, Tech Step, Hard Step, Deep Tech, Neuro Funky, Deep House, Acid House, Chunky House, Funky House, Chunky Tribal, Tribal Techno, Tribal Tech House, Funky Deep House, Electro House, [inhale!] Electro Tech House, Progressive, Progressive House, Progressive Tech House, Progressive Breaks, Techy Progressive House, Deep Ethereal Progressive, Deep Progressive Trance, Peak Hour Progressive House, Rockin’ Teck-Step, Hardsteppin’ Bounce, Smoothed-Out Teck-Steppin’ Funk, Funky Peak Hour Beats, and the ever-popular Liquidly Funkin’ Drum & Bass Beats.

I swear I did not make any of those names up.

I had heard a song (oh excuse me, a track) by “DJ T” (remix by “Random Factor”) (I have no idea who these people are, assuming they are people) that I liked. I didn’t realize until after I’d ordered the “album” that I didn’t know exactly what I was getting—CD? LP? MP3? ABC? 1-2-3? you and me? I had become accustomed to downloading—acquiring substance/essence without the bother of storing a physical object. But what arrived was a record in a plain black cover sleeve. Then I realized, oh yeah—that deep chunky funky stuff is played in clubs by hip-hop DJs. Here I was, a civilian—and a “senior” one at that—buying the beats beloved of large crowds of stoned-out youth. I liked the thought of the Bay Area hipsters at seeing the address on my order and speculating, “D’ya suppose there’s a happening turntablist scene in—what’s the name of that place?—Menominee?”

I suppose “senior citizens” through the ages have resented the assumptions made about them by the young-who-believe-it-will-never-happen-to-them. But it seems worse now, since my generation is the first to have the luxury of indulging our youthful interests far into our dotage. Many of us, of course, are still getting stoned and listening to Crosby Stills Nash Young and Increasingly Decrepit. But I got tired of the ‘60s music scene decades ago and prefer the punk and new wave of the early ‘80s and, more recently, electronica, hip-hop, and “alternative” (Iron and Wine, Milosh, Nick Drake, the whole “Garden State” soundtrack—good movie, by the way).

One of the sad things for me about leaving the Bay Area was losing the ability to listen to the Saturday night marathon on Live105 known as Subsonic—all electronic and hip-hop and mash-ups and remixes until 4 a.m. One Saturday night before I left, I called the Subsonic DJ to find out the name of a song I had just heard (“Callin’ Out” by Lyrics Born). Impulsively—feeling all girlish and shy—I told him that I loved the show. On further, ill-considered impulse, I told him I was 57. His reaction was predictably condescending. “Oh, so you’re one of those ‘rockin’ grandmas’!” Uh, well, I suppose—I’ve never reproduced, but yes I am of that older generation. But “rockin’ grandma”? Is it possible for me to feel any less like a rockin’ grandma? Subsonic’s producer, another child, was also on the line, and he pipes up, “We don’t care who listens!” Then the DJ says, “I hope I still dig new music when I’m 57!” (thinking to himself, “I’ll never get out of my 20s alive”).

And yet, how can I be offended when I was known, back in the day, to utter the cliché, “Don’t trust anyone over 30”? It’s laughable now (my godchild is 30), but I understand the impulse to reject the old folks, the so-not-with-it, the irrelevant—move along to your ice floe, gram and gramps, it’s our turn now, we scoff at your moldy oldies, we resent your great booming numbers while we’re stuck with single-letter generational names… X, Y… Z? and then what? the alphabet and the world both come to an end?

Part of what you do in the illusion phase of a life change is to think that every little thing that happens is significant. Because the events leading to my move had been so dramatic while seeming precariously coincidental, I started expecting that every ripple from a stone thrown in my little pond was going to lead to something big. Sometimes the stone just plops down, no discernable ripples at all.

I’ll give you a few examples. One night last fall, after the peeps’ weekly fish fry, I stopped at Angeli’s on the way home to pick up some groceries. I was wearing my Cody’s Bookstore (Berkeley) t-shirt. As I was leaving, a man came up to me and said, “If you’ve been to that bookstore, what are you doing here?” So I explained that I had recently moved back from the Bay Area, and we stood in the parking lot and talked for several minutes—of course I had to ask what he was doing here, too. Turns out he’s a playwright and theatre director at the UW-Marinette campus. He had interviewed at Sonoma State but eventually wound up here. It was from his time at Sonoma State that he “recognized” me (i.e., my type) from the “t-shirt and the haircut” (code for Big Dyke).

I asked him where the nearest bookstore was, and he said, “Madison.” I thought he was joking—Madison is 150 miles away—but apparently not. He said he had gone to an estate sale just that morning that had an unusually large collection of books. He told me where it was, we said good night, and that was that.

The next morning I went over to the estate sale and there were indeed lots of books. I called Barb and she came over, too. We started talking to the two sisters who were clearing out their father’s house after his death. One was a lawyer and the other was a psychiatrist. I said to the shrink, “Oh, I’m looking for a psychiatrist who specializes in psychopharmacological management [to prescribe my Zoloft].” She says, “That’s what I do!” Perfect! She gave me her card, which announced that the focus of her practice was on women and children. Was this synchronicity or what? The only problem was that she was based in Racine, which is even farther than Madison. But she said she was thinking about coming up to Marinette to see patients a couple days a week. The four of us chatted away, all mutually intrigued by each other’s professions and getting along famously.

I bought an armload of books, Barb bought an armload of books plus some chests of drawers, and the lawyer promised to have another grouping of books ready for next week’s sale; she said she would save any old Hardy Boys’ books she found for me. The following Saturday we showed up for the second installment of the estate sale. The lawyer met us at the door and said they hadn’t had a chance to get the books sorted. Barb picked up the chests she had bought, and the lawyer promised to call one of us when they were ready to sell more things. We never heard from her. I tried to find the psychiatrist in Racine, but she had moved from the address on her business card.

It’s not as if we had been deliberately misled. Things happen. These were ordinary interactions, pumped up by my insistence on thinking “everything happens for a reason.” Those linked episodes with the playwright, the lawyer, and the psychiatrist (they sound like characters in a play by Sartre—or a joke about 3 people walking into a bar) were apparently self-contained, a pool of possibilities that, for whatever reason, never turned into a stream or a rippling pond. (I have since found a psychiatrist—in Oshkosh, 100 miles away. Fortunately, I like him.)

Similarly, my supposed burgeoning friendships with the bank manager and the city tax assessor—both smart, engaging women—never came to pass. The tax assessor never called me back after I contacted her a couple times, even going to the extent of sending her the issue of the ‘zine that included my story of meeting her. I’ve noticed that people can get really weird about what’s said about them in print, so maybe it was horribly inappropriate of me to identify her by name blah blah blah.

I did have lunch with the bank manager, but it was soon obvious that we weren’t on the same page, friendshipwise, despite having had some interesting conversations and lots of laughs in her office. It seemed more like a customer service gesture on her part—the bank paid for lunch. (Yes, that would be the first clue.) I gave her a copy of that same ‘zine. When I asked her later what she thought, she said my writing was “interesting.” End of story. So what did I expect? I expect the universe to present its sunny face to me at all times, why do you ask?

Years ago, when I had chronic back pain after my mother died, I found a wonderful chiropractor/healer and, through her, my therapist J, after a series of “coincidences”—recommendations acted upon or not, scheduled and canceled appointments, and a frosty-sounding psychologist who was too busy to see me. Looking back, it all seems “meant to be.” That’s fine for looking back, but I always want to know, what do I do now? Life’s combination of “lack of ultimate control” and “necessity to act despite that fact” is frustrating, if not downright diabolical.

Here I am, already over my usual page limit, and I haven’t described the most jarring note in my hometown hit parade. Read on.

Back in the #15 issue of the mary’zine, I wrote about desire, illusion, intimacy, and passion. One of my examples of illusion was BA, a friend from 5th grade through junior high. She never went to college, never got married, doesn’t even drive. She’s not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. The only time I’d seen her as an adult was at my mother’s wake, when I wondered why she hovered around me way past the usual two-minute paying of respects. To me, we had grown apart even before high school. So why did she keep bugging my sisters to get me to come home for high school and grade school reunions? After one of the reunions, she sent me pictures of the aging ex-fifth graders and our fossilized teacher in a greeting card with a teabag enclosed, saying she “missed” me. I never responded. Besides feeling no personal attraction to her, I saw her as the embodiment of everything I had left town to escape. I’ve always been afraid of getting sucked back into poverty, as if my pretence of middle-class living would turn out to be a temporary reprieve and I would wake up like a Cinderella who’s only dreamed she went to the ball. So BA was kind of my doppelganger—the alter ego of my underprivileged, small-town self, my “there but for the grace of God went I” if I hadn’t gotten scholarships to college.

BA was much on my mind as I made plans to move back here. This town wasn’t going to be big enough for the both of us! It’s relatively easy to reject a would-be suitor, but how do you tell someone you don’t want to be their friend? I had hoped to escape detection for as long as possible, but before I even got here, BA had heard about my move from my aunt, who works with K. BA tried to confirm the rumor by calling up my bro-in-law MP: “I heard Mary’s moving back here, is that true?” “News to me,” says MP with a straight face. Then one day K runs smack into her at Angeli’s supermarket, and BA again asks if the news is true—K admits it is—and in that case, “Where is she living?” My loyal-to-the-end sister says, “I’m afraid I can’t tell you that.” She explains that I’m “lying low,” am “kind of a hermit.” BA acknowledges that “after all those years in California, it’s understandable”—whatever that means.

So time goes by, and the new phone book comes out but too soon to have my name and number in it. Then the inevitable happens. I walk into Stephenson’s Bakery (which shares a small building with the Michigan DMV; there are lots of odd pairings like that around here), and there she is, talking to the counter person. As Barbara Havers—a working class detective in Elizabeth George’s novels—would say, “Sod bloody all on a toasted tea cake.”

As she turns to see who came in, I have that panicky moment of thinking it’s not too late to turn around and run out. Instead, I say, “B—?” “Yeah.” “Mary.” She is flabbergasted and thrilled. We sit down at a table to talk because I can’t bring myself to make an excuse to leave. She comments that I “don’t look that different” except for “putting on a few pounds.” (Thanks! I hadn’t noticed!) She speculates that I must live nearby. She’s still trying to ferret out my home base. I finally tell her, “I live out on M-35”—which, believe me, covers a lot of territory.

Then she launches the boat of conversation into Lake Memory. She reminds me that I was editor of the school paper in 5th grade. She still has a copy; do I want to see it? (Part of me is sorely tempted. Is this how Jesus felt with Satan in the wilderness?) BA rattles off several other facts, events, and conversations. But I don’t remember even one of the memories she is excitedly recounting. It’s truly a lesson in “eye of the beholder.” To me, she was a minor player in my life from ages 10 to 13 or so. To her, I was apparently some kind of touchstone. She keeps saying, “I’m just glad to know you’re really real!” In our dream work session, Jeremy suggested that she’s a lesbian who has been in love with me since the 5th grade. [insert “Jaws” music here] She clearly thinks synchronicity is working for her in this situation—that I’ve come back into her life for a reason.

After our excursion through the lake of stagnant memories, I offer her a ride home. Why? I don’t know. I think I’m a little intrigued in spite of myself. The old asphalt-shingled, hardly-any-windowed house she rents the bottom of looks like a contemporary of the shack of a house she lived in with her family across from the grade school. I think about my big, beautiful house by the water and the park. Damn, why do I feel so guilty?

She rattles on about how the house used to belong to a classmate who was a football star. Two other classmates I would never think of as an item—one of them is distantly related to me—live down the street. My aunt—who, in one of life’s little ironies, gave me the brushoff when I asked for her e-mail address—lives right around the corner. As BA gets out of the Jeep, I tell her I’ll call her sometime. It feels like a mistake as soon as I say the words. But what else could I say: “Have a nice life”? (Am I being the architect of my own downfall here?)

I know I’m not responsible for BA’s being born into an extremely poor family, without the resources (or the smarts or the will) to go to college or to make friends easily. Back in junior high, I clung to any other girl who was willing to hang out with me. She did too. And then I went and changed, moved on, found people to love and be loved by, and situations where I could thrive. And yet—if my high school English teacher Ruth ever moved back here, I would be delirious with hope and expectation. I don’t like to think about that. I’m different. I’ve seen the world. I don’t have to cling to childhood relationships. Do I?

A few days later, BA is walking by the middle school and sees Barb coming out. She yells to Barb to wait up and then tells her about seeing me. Here’s her assessment of our little chat in the bakery: “I think she’s lost and is searching for her childhood.”


Barb reminds her that I have my own business and that I edit scientific manuscripts from all over the world.

BA says, “Yeah, she mentioned that.”

Then she tells Barb I gave her a ride home: “I’m not from California—I don’t care who sees where I live.” She adds, hopefully: “She said she’d call.”

So what now? I’ll just have to wait and see what’s on the other side of my painting, what the tiger at my back has in mind, and whether BA—strange link between my then and my now—is successful at finding me and either convinces me to attend the next school reunion or murders me in my bed. Life is a mystery.

Au revoir.

[Mary McKenney]

mary‘zine random redux: #31 February 2005

July 9, 2009

Well, as Ann Landers used to say, I have the best readers in the whole world! Modesty prevents me from quoting from all the amazing responses I got to the Michigan homecoming ‘zine. One generous soul even sent me a check, which I have not asked for or expected for a long time. She must have missed the part where I am now made of money. (Literally. Hold me up to the light and you’ll see the watermarks.) But seriously, I love the feedback. And financial contributions, while not mandatory, are never turned away. As my old friend P is constantly reminding me, last year’s real estate deal is the last windfall (as opposed to snowfall) I will ever see in this lifetime.

I’m especially pleased by the reports of a few readers that they shared the ‘zine with others. One spouse (with midwestern roots) claimed he had “the best sleep in a long time…” after he and his wife read it in bed together. I often wonder if people have to know me to get half of what I write. So this kind of feedback is really encouraging and makes me want to keep writing. (Yes! Your responses are like applause for Tinker Bell!)

It was a relief to hear from Maria, who didn’t mind that I had published her initial misgivings about the ‘zine’s “midwestern preoccupation.” I want to quote part of her response, since her earlier e-mail played such a big part in the last issue….

… Well, Mary. You did it. I am so proud of you. You moved to the heartland… YOUR heart land. And I loved that you used my email. You can use any words of mine you like. They don’t really belong to me, as they pass right thru me. I don’t even know where they come from really.
But even MORE amazing then getting your wonderful, full of homey facts, cozy, heartwarming, tear jerking issue (with only one ‘cutely amusing’ comment from Barb!!!) yesterday…. this morning on the ‘Today Show’ the weather man; Al Roker, interviewed a group of ladies under umbrellas who were standing in the rain outside the ‘Today Show’ headquarters in New York holding a BIG sign that they had printed, in unprofessional big letters, MENOMINEE, MI.  I was blown away it was so mystical! How often does THAT happen??

Wow. The Yoopers are starting to manifest in all sorts of strange ways. To me, there’s nothing stranger than my becoming one of them again, but I’ll grant you that local folks showing up on Maria’s TV is truly a sign. I’ve told you about “Yooper,” yes? It’s the folksy, self-deprecating version of “U.P.’er.” I’d like to see the term changed to “Uppers,” but then Schloegel’s gift shop wouldn’t be able to pander to the vacationers from down state (the Lowers) by selling homegrown hick paraphernalia (“Say yah to da U.P., eh?”) in an attempt to make an economically depressed area into a tourist destination. We’re not lucky enough to have alligators, Cuban exiles, and Mickey Mouse, so let’s play up the dumb lumberjack approach: “Yah, yah, we so stoopid up here.” (Actually, that sounds more like Arnold Schwarzenegger; now I’m confused.)

So to answer your first question, yes, I still like it here. The peeps (and everyone else I meet) keep asking me, “You still like the snow?” Yes! “How about the cold?” Yes! The ice, I’m not so crazy about, but we’ll get to that a little later. But first, here’s this….

I left my heart… and had to go back for it…

When I was finally starting to feel settled in my new home, I had to fly back to San Francisco for a 7-day painting intensive. The peeps were a bit perplexed… “She’s going back to California already?” Barb’s friend Shirley wondered if I would go for a visit and realize my mistake and want to move back. Even if I had, it would have been tant pis. (That either means “too bad” or “Aunt Piss.”)

The trip wasn’t all it could have been. I kept getting surprised, and not always in a good way. But I guess whether surprise is welcome or not is entirely a function of one’s expectations. I didn’t expect to get sick, for the first time in years, on the very first day of painting. I didn’t expect Terry and Jean to cancel because of various foot-and-eye disorders. I didn’t expect to have my crucifix pocket knife pulled off my bag at the airport in Green Bay. I guess that’s not as outrageous as having your nail clippers confiscated, but it was still a hassle. The security people huddled around this Weapon of Minimal Destruction and exchanged significant glances, as if they couldn’t bring themselves to speak. “Aha!” their glances conveyed. “Another terroristic plot foiled! Foiled, I tell you!” Also, I’d like to say to that ONE GUY who put explosives in his shoes before he tried to board a plane…. THANKS A LOT. I complained that I had no shoes, and then I met a man who had no dynamite. I mean, this was Green Bay, not Tel Aviv… although, I suppose northeastern Wisconsin could be the perfect gateway for a rogue Canadian to sneak through on his way to bomb the Blatz beer plant.

But the good surprises outweighed the bad, and of course some things, such as the Eternal Present itself—embodied, enacted, and embraced by Barbara, Pi-Te, Polly, Jan, Kate, Diane L, Diane D, Kerry, Amy, and more—were not so much a surprise as a delightful reminder that Eternity is not “out there” at Time’s End—as if we’re going to sail over the horizon of life and fall off the edge (someday, people are going to talk about us the way we talk about the Flat Earthers. “They actually thought time was linear?????”)—but dwells in Stillness and Communion, Here, There, and Everywhere. I seem to be channeling Emily Dickinson with all the capital letters here. There is, of course, a special connection with friends with whom I have been doing this Painting Dance for up to 25 years, but the beauty of the Eternal Present is that there is no “old” and “new,” no “then” and “now,” no “being at the intensive” and “lying in a hotel room blowing your nose.” Pi-Te expressed this same idea one day when he said that he felt no time had passed since last year’s December intensive, when we sat in this same circle, with one more or one less participant but all part of the same stream.

It was torture to try to paint when I wasn’t feeling well—and to live in a hotel, for that matter, in a room with no refrigerator or microwave. I wanted to go home so bad. But I was able to return to the studio for the last two days of the intensive, and everything came together for me. I started painting my new house and yard and everything, and I came to the point where I knew I had to let go and let anything happen. You can’t paint truthfully if you’re holding back or trying to steer the imagery in any way. So I started painting pig demons at my windows, a Loch Ness-type monster rising out of Lake Michigan, snakes coming up my front porch. I don’t know if it’s possible to convey how deeply satisfying this sort of thing is to those who’ve never done it. Some part of me had been afraid that if I let the truth—what is, whatever it is—come out, I would discover that my idyllic coming-of-home story—my fairytale, as my Lower friend put it—would be exposed as mere fantasy. And yet the truth is always good news, contrary to popular belief; the trick is that you have to go toward it not knowing, with no reservations. Allowing yourself to follow wherever the brush wants to go takes courage—more than you can imagine, considering it’s “just a piece of paper.” Painting for process is a microcosm where you learn just how boogie-man-basic our grownup fears really are.

While I was in S.F. I got to see some friends who were not part of the intensive: had lunch with E/Van near Union Square… dinner with Jean at Ping’s in Marin (I have longed and lusted for Chinese food since moving away)… and lunch on Clement St. with J the day before I left. Remember J? I haven’t written about ending therapy, almost exactly a year ago. The process came to a natural end, and we both felt it. J was open to becoming friends after some time had passed, so I called her 6 months later and we met in Berkeley a couple times. Now we talk on the phone once a month or so. We shared such intimacy during our therapy hours, but of course the focus was always on me. Now we are building a new relationship out of that deep connection, and, to me, that is the best possible evidence of the good work we did together.

San Francisco is truly a fantasy city, exciting and stimulating. It was refreshing to see so many different kinds of people again: the young hip-somethings in Ella’s Restaurant, one of them a skinny black guy wearing outrageous jewelry. A rabbi telling his breakfast companion about being interviewed by The New York Times. The European woman who got on the hotel elevator with me and, when I asked her which floor, said something that sounded like “Ted.” “What?” “TED!” she exclaimed, pointing to the button for the third floor. (Sorry, I’m not up on my foreign numerals.) The woman in another elevator, this one in the Sutter-Stockton garage, wearing a big cowboy hat and spike heels, with a French poodle in her purse. The young guy with face piercings at Sony Metreon who helped me (shouting above the megadecibel sound system) pick out the right PlayStation components for my nephew. Stopping in at the Whole Foods on California St. after dropping off my rental car… having forgotten the color, the bustling energy, the endless food choices… and then walking slowly back to the hotel past dignified apartment buildings and a small jazz band playing on Fillmore St…. remembering the excitement of moving to this exotic place in 1973 and learning the neighborhoods, where we would live, where we would find work.

In fact, most of the memories this trip awoke in me were from the early days, when P and I lived on 17th St. below Uranus (butt of many jokes) and went dancing in the many gay bars that flourished back then: Scott’s, Maud’s, Amelia’s, Peg’s, and many more whose names I’ve forgotten. Eating at the plentiful restaurants in North Beach, Chinatown, the Mission…. playing cards with Jean and Bruce for money and saving it up to blow on a dinner at Ernie’s ($100 for four of us!). Strolling down the hill to see old Katharine Hepburn movies at the Castro Theater. Standing in line for hot fudge sundaes at Bud’s. Reading the Chronicle for the daily dispatches of “Tales of the City” (before it was a book) and increasingly bizarre political developments: the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the Jonestown massacre, the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone… marching in a candlelight vigil to City Hall on that cold November night and listening to Joan Baez sing all our hearts out… marching again after Dan White was all but freed on the Twinkie defense, but leaving when the crowd began setting police cars on fire.

Yes, said the old codger (if women can be codgers), it was a great place and time to be young…. but when the intensive was over, I was more than ready to leave.

Dec. 14, 2 a.m.

The flight home was arduous. United had changed the aircraft from a 747 to a… I don’t know, a 666?… so my “E” aisle seat became a middle-of-the-row seat. I spent the whole 4 hours with my shoulders and knees pulled in, trying to avoid physical contact with my seatmates who sprawled unconcernedly on either side. Then in Chicago I waited 6 hours instead of the scheduled 45 minutes for a flight to Green Bay after mine was canceled. Landed in Green Bay at midnight. I had thought I wouldn’t be able to drive the 55 miles home after taking Dramamine downers all day, but I was wide awake and rarin’ to go. I reclaimed my Jeep, headed for the exit, and drove right into a chain that was roping off part of the lot. Oops! Got to the parking toll booth and oops! again, I had no idea where my ticket was. But I finally got out of there, stopped for coffee at the first gas station I saw, and called P on my cell phone to let her know I was almost home. I was ecstatic when I finally drove across the Menekaunee bridge into Michigan exactly 2 weeks to the day that I had driven myself and my hidden-in-plain-sight Weapon of Barely Any Destruction to do battle with the security forces in Packerland. As I drove quietly down First Street, which was lined with Christmas lights and old-fashioned streetlights, past the bandstand and the marina, the bay glowing darkly to my right and snow on the ground, it felt just like “It’s a Wonderful Life” but without James Stewart’s suicidal depression or his chubby angel (and without Donna Reed, unfortunately: oh my God, that scene where she’s on the phone and he has his face in her hair, inhaling her scent…).

I had been dreaming of the moment when I would finally get home, dump my bags inside the door, and tiptoe upstairs to surprise Pookie. At first he looks startled, and then recognition dawns and he emits a single “MEW?!” I spend the next 2 and a half hours holding him, combing and petting him, and burying my face in his furry neck. (If you can’t be with Donna Reed, bury your face in the one you’re with.) He endures my affections because he’s so grateful to have his longtime companion back again—and probably because he’s damn sick of listening to the radio, which I had left on an NPR station for the whole 2 weeks so he could imagine I was just in another room listening to the BBC News Hour. Barb and K had faithfully come by to do the necessary upkeep and keep him company for a while, but there’s just no substitute for… well, for me.

Dec. 14, after a few hours of sleep

It’s wonderful to be home again, to be covered in Pookie’s flying fur, to check my e-mail, to look out at the thin layer of snow in my back yard in wonder and disbelief. (Disbelief because it does look kind of fake, as if they had trucked in some artificial stuff for my benefit.) I treat myself to breakfast at Pat & Rayleen’s, where I savor a broccoli-and-cheese omelet and hot coffee. The sun is dazzling on the snow outside, the restaurant is warm and almost empty, and I watch in fond acknowledgment of the special intimacies of small-town living as the waitress tries to extract from an old man in a nearby booth what kind of pie he wants. It’s a scene of great intensity, and especially volume, as the entire list of available pies is SHOUTED distinctly and repeatedly at the old man while his daughter looks on in amusement….

Waitress: “BANANA CREAM…? APPLE…?” (she hesitates encouragingly after every flavor)… “STRAWBERRY RHUBARB…?”





Old man: “WHAT?”



Waitress: “BANANA….?”

And so on. You’d think this would have been a highly irritating experience for everyone concerned, but the daughter’s wry smile never falters, and the waitress shows perfect patience, like she’s willing to stand there and shout at him all day until he chooses his pie. She’s one of my favorite waitresses anyway…. Mary Kay…. and she’s come to welcome me as a regular, since I always sit in her section and am making a pretty good reputation for myself as a generous tipper. (I imagine waitresses gathering in back rooms all over town, whispering, “I hear she’s from California. Obviously she has no idea what passes for a tip around here.”)

mary’s first christmas with snow… and peeps… in a quarter of a century

Dec. 17

Barb, K, MP, and I have dinner at Schussler’s, ostensibly for K and MP’s 32nd wedding anniversary, but they insist on paying. The food and drink are excellent as usual, and it’s fun to be out in the happy holiday atmosphere. Christmas is definitely better in snow country. (Do you suppose Lebanese or Syrian Christians ever mutter, on December 25, “It just doesn’t feel like Christmas without snow”?) On the way home we drive around to see the elaborate Christmas lights and decorations. We go across the bridge to our old neighborhood, which is still basically rural. Mr. Krygoski (he of the “Jesus Is Lord Over Menominee County” sign) has bought up most of the land around there and puts on an outdoor extravaganza every year. We pull into a small parking area and are met by a man dressed like a shepherd who hands us a religious tract and wishes us a Merry Christmas.

It’s an awesome sight—or spectacle, rather. There’s a manger scene. Angels in a pagoda. A live donkey walking round and round in a pen. Lights in all the trees and bushes, all around the house, and even “on high”: the property is bordered on two sides by tall trees, and in the dark you can’t see the trees, just the lights, so it looks like Mr. K’s message is written across the sky: GOD IS THE GREATEST. On the roof of the house, outlined in bright lights, is the single word JESUS. (I think I would have at least made a sentence out of it: JESUS WEPT?) It’s bizarre, as if my old, modest neighborhood of woods, pastures, and sand hills has been transformed into a religious carnival. All that’s missing is cotton candy and a Pharaoh’s wheel. (Sorry about that.)

Other light displays around town are more tasteful and truly awe-inspiring. The best of them make you feel like the people in the house are bursting with the joy of the season and just have to share. I haven’t done any Christmas decorating myself in years, and I really didn’t this year, except to hang some light strings in my loft windows—and they’re definitely an eclectic lot: red chili peppers, white skulls, and two strings of beautiful “paper lantern” lights that Kate made. I also lit up the green neon question mark Barb gave me for my birthday, and changed the bulbs in the ceiling fixtures to green and blue. When everyone else in the neighborhood retired their seasonal light displays, I kept mine up, because now when I’m puttering around in the middle of the night I feel like I’m at the bottom of a peaceful sea, softly dappled with color.

Dec. 21

I wake up and am pleasantly surprised to see that it’s snowing, for the first time since I’ve been back. (I’ve seen the result but not the process.) Little puffy flakes drift lazily down, and the thin drifts on the roads look like granulated sugar being blown this way and that. I get busy with breakfast, coffee, and e-mail, and the next time I look out the window, everything’s white! HOLY MOLEY, I’d better get going! I have to go shopping for groceries and mail a package—a neon question mark like mine for Barbara to use as a visual aid in the painting studio.

Tightly zipped, tucked, and laced into my squall parka, scarf, gloves, and boots, I waddle out to the garage. (A year ago, when no one had any idea that I might move to a land of snow and ice, Barbara knitted me two beautiful wool scarves, which have now become part of my basic wardrobe.) I have never driven in snow before, so I’m a little anxious. I’m thankful for the 4-wheel drive (4WD) as I cautiously back the Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo (Cheyenne Apache Running Bear Marlboro Man) out of the garage and start driving down the unplowed road. My top speed is 20 mph, and I note gratefully that everyone out there is driving as carefully as I am. I stop at the Pack’n’Ship, where I struggle through mid-calf-high snow in the parking lot to get inside. I’ve been moving freely through air and on land for many years now, so it does smush my brain a little to be faced with the basic challenge of getting from point A to point B through dense snowgrowth. I’m enjoying it, even though everyone seems to want to bum my high:

Me to shipping person: “I just moved here from California, and I’m loving it!”

Shipping person: “Yeah, the first snow is nice, but you’ll hate it after a while.”

Me [silently]: Gee thanks, are you from the Michigan tourist board?

I’m serious about the brain-smush thing. Depositing a check in the bank, I put the wrong numbers in the wrong places. I can’t keep track of all my winter accoutrements—there are way too many pockets on my person. The Kleenex in one of my flap pockets is wet from being snowed on. (Always keep the flap on the outside!) I can’t find my money. I also can’t find a mailbox for the sweaty sheaf of bills in my hand (the grocery store is like a sauna). When I get back out to the Jeep with my groceries, I’m slipping and sliding in the snow, and while I have too many pockets, I don’t seem to have enough hands. My scarf is trying to blow off, and the hood on the squall parka doesn’t move when I turn my head. (Did mama pin my mittens to my sleeve? I sure hope so!) Finally, I’m ready to leave, but now I can’t find my keys. Did I drop them? I traipse all around the Jeep, head down, feeling like an idiot. Finally, I find my keys in the passenger seat, where I had dumped them with my bag. Whew.

Dec. 22

It’s been snowing all night. At 2:00 in the morning I remember that my new furnace is going to be arriving at “eight, eight-thirty,” so I set the alarm for 7:30 and get out there and start shoveling the driveway. I’m self-conscious, because I haven’t done this for a long time (ever?), and some of my neighbors know K or Barb so know who I am. (“She never goes anywhere!” proclaimed one of K’s coworkers who lives a block away.) I make pretty good progress, actually, flinging snow to the side and making a path out to the road. But it’s going to be a big job to clear the whole driveway, and even if the furnace guys park in the road, they’ll have to bring the furnace in through one of the big garage doors. So I get the brilliant idea to drive the Jeep out and kind of mash the snow down with it, thus using horse power instead of my own.

Thankfully, the garage door on the Jeep side opens easily, despite the snow that has drifted in under it. I power backwards and….. oops…. the mighty Jeep strikes out! I’m stuck in my own driveway, with front and back tires spinning uselessly! I thought 4WD was like magic—you mean it can get you over hill and dale and ditch and gully but can’t handle a foot of snow? This is really embarrassing. I get to work shoveling snow from around the tires, but it doesn’t help. I bring out some old carpet remnants from the garage and put them under the rear tires. No help.

Then the man across the street comes out of his garage, snowblowin’ in the wind. He’s obviously out there to clear his own driveway, but there I am, damsel in distress, and he can hardly ignore me. He blows his way across the road, and I explain that the 4WD isn’t working. He asks if I’m sure I have it in 4WD. I’d be offended, but I so clearly don’t know what I’m doing that I’m grateful when he asks to get in the Jeep and check. He plays with all the gears, including 4WD-Part Time, 4WD-Full Time, 4WD-Lo, etc. He rocks the Jeep back and forth and finally it whooshes backwards out of the driveway through the big snowplow-generated drift to the road. He gets out and tells me that 4WD-Full Time isn’t working, but Part Time is OK. (I guess you can get some of your Jeep in 4WD some of the time, but you can’t get all of your Jeep in 4WD all of the time. I later read the owner’s manual and discovered there was nothing wrong, it was supposed to be in Part Time mode.)

We’d never met before, so we shake hands and exchange names. And guess what his name is. Go ahead, guess. Jim Anderson. Ring any bells? First, I think, what a perfect Midwestern name. Then I think, perfect name for an insurance agent. Then I think… “Father Knows Best”! Robert Young was Jim Anderson, insurance agent and all-around good guy. Mother (who “Knew Best” before Daddy had a clue but also knew her place) was Margaret. I reckon that makes me Princess or Kitten. Princess was older and kind of snotty, but I feel more like Kitten at that moment… young, naive, and beholden to a nice man with a big blower.

I use my by-now-pretty-tired line, “I just moved here from California,” and he says, “So I heard.” (See? I told you they’re all talking about me.)

He goes back to his own driveway, and I go around to the front of my house and shovel the porch, steps, and a path out to the road for the mailman. I see Jim blowing other neighbors’ driveways, so I go inside for hot cocoa and fresh-baked cookies (not really—Mother Anderson is nowhere to be seen). A while later, I hear Jim out there blowing my driveway, and I wonder about the etiquette of playing Kitten-in-distress to Robert Young. Do I have to bring him a hotdish, or a Jello mold? Invite him and his wife over to play pinochle? Or can I just wave my thanks out the window?

As so often happens, the social conundrum solves itself, and the furnace guys show up just as Jim has finished clearing the driveway. I go out there to greet them and wave/shout thanks at Jim, as he puts one finger on the side of his nose and vanishes up the chimney. The furnace guys look like they’re 16 years old. They need the second garage door open, so I push the button to operate it and then decide to shovel out the shelf of snow that has built up against the door. I have my boots on but no gloves or jacket. I discover to my dismay that there’s ICE under that thare snow, and I slip and fall to my hands and knees. From that humiliating position I look up to see one of the furnace boys looking down at me. It’s a perfect sit-com moment, but there’s no laugh track and no witty repartee. Just a long pause.

“Slippery,” he finally says.

(P suggests that his terseness might be Hemingway’s influence. A rare U.P. literary joke.)

Furnace boys spend the whole day in the basement, banging around for an hour or so at a time and then driving away in their van for unexplained reasons. It’s starting to get a mite chilly around 5:00 p.m., when they tell me they’ll have to come back the next day to finish.

Dec. 23

I’m sitting here in my loft on a beautiful sunny day. Radio says it’s 7 degrees, high of 13 today, wind-chill factor minus 15-20. But I am not impressed by these numbers. I’m actually too warm in my long-sleeve t-shirt and corduroy overshirt. The heat’s not on, because the furnace boys are still down in the basement, making a racket and hopefully getting my furnace installed and putting all their ducts in a row. P and I had our weekly phone chat yesterday, and it was odd that she was trying to convince me how cold it is here (she’d seen the Packers on Monday Night Football), and I was claiming that if you’ve got the right winter clothes, you actually feel warmer here than you do in the Sunset district of San Francisco on a foggy summer’s day. Supposedly, the coldest winter Mark Twain ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. The coldest winter I ever spent was a winter in Northfield, Minnesota. Man, was that cold. But I digress.

Dec. 24

It’s 0 today. No degrees whatsoever. I’m sure there’s a wind-chill factor of massive minus proportions, but I’m starting to think that “wind chill” was invented so Midwesterners could brag about, not how cold they are, but how cold they feel. But I’m toasty in my loft. K and Barb and I do some last-minute Christmas shopping in the afternoon. As we leave Shopko and head for the mall, I ask, “Which mall?” and Barb assures me, in her best deadpan voice, “There’s only one mall, Mare.”


Christmas Eve and Day (one at Barb’s and one at K and MP’s) are a satisfying whirlwind of kids and wrapping paper and ham sandwiches and dueling harmonicas. Everyone makes out like a bandit. K gets a down coat, MP gets lace-up boots, and Barb gets DVDs of “Six Feet Under.” I get a big red frying pan and lots of other goodies. The kids get everything they ever wanted and are soon bored.

Jan. 1, par-tay!

I forgot to tell you about hosting (or at least housing) Thanksgiving. My house is the only one with enough space to fit both Barb’s and K’s branches of the family tree. (I’m out on a limb by myself, as usual.) K comes by a few days earlier to help me make Swedish meatballs. We divide up the rest of the cooking, and on T’Day we stuff ourselves with the usual—turkey, potatoes and gravy, meatballs, green beans, deviled eggs, fresh cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie. I discover to my surprise that I love having people over! Everyone seems comfortable here—I’m glad that even the younger ones who never knew me before seem to accept me as part of the scene—and there’s a natural flow between rooms as people group and regroup according to whether they want to watch football or talk quietly or play noisily or eat some more. I love that I’m actually giving something back to my family after all my years away. I feel like I’ve gone out into the world and made my fortune, and now I’ve brought it back to share, in all sorts of ways. Assuming I don’t live into my aught-aughts or piss it all away, I will be leaving a material legacy that will change the lives of my sisters’ children and grandchildren. Finally I feel part of the human chain that came from Denmark and Ireland and struggled so that each generation that followed would have greater opportunities. That is the American Dream, and not even George Bush and his cronies can destroy that.

So anyway, I decided to have another family gathering on New Year’s Day, with finger foods so people could drop by whenever they wanted. I fretted over the event as if I were going to be hosting the Junior League. For one thing, I wanted to provide food that was outside the usual realm of veggie tray, fruit tray, and mass-produced brownies from Sam’s Club, but I also wanted them to like it. For another thing, I wanted to make the presentation colorful and artful—such as a pretty design of contrasting colors and types of Mackinac Island fudge. I was trying to figure out how to serve the little BBQ sausages on toothpicks but still keep them warm, and while I was explaining the dilemma to K she fished a couple of the sausages out of the crockpot with her fingers and proclaimed, “You’re in redneck country now.” Geez, you try to be a little refined. The day was quieter than Thanksgiving because not everyone was there at the same time. Again, the party shifted from room to room in a natural way (I am just so absurdly proud of that! I have brought the gift of space to the peeps!), and the kids played hide-and-seek, always hiding in the room where the adults were, always surprised when they were easily found.

Jan. 6, the weather report continues

I’ve been disappointed by the recent “warm” temperatures—20 and above—and the melting snow. So I’m happy to see little flakes swirling down when I get up. Snow looks so insubstantial when it’s falling, but it covers all the yards and roads in no time. I hear a snowblower nearby and peek out my bathroom window. Yes! Father Blows Best has cleared my driveway again! I just have to shovel off the front porch and a path to the road. It’s easy because the snow is light and fluffy. I strew ice-melting particles on the porch and steps.

Even though I have work to do—I’ve gotten two big papers to edit on the same day… one on the proteins in saliva (more spit research for Barb to tell her students about) and one on how viruses are transmitted from mother to fetus—I decide to take advantage of the beautiful virgin snow to walk over to Henes (pronounced Hennis) Park. It’s only a block away, but so far I have just not found the time to get out there… you know, so many naps to take, so little time….

The snowplows have come through so the road is mostly packed snow, but there’s treacherous ice underneath. I daintily pick my way over to the park and enter through an unplowed entrance and trudge across what in summer is called a “lawn.” I soon realize I should have brought my new digital camera. I am surrounded by white-flocked evergreens and the stark intricate patterns of branches against the sky. The sun has come out, so the contrast of black-and-white winter—the so-called “dead season”—and the blue sky is stunning. When I get to the huge expanse of snow and ice that in summer is called “the bay,” I start thinking about beauty, the capture of: Take a picture (it’ll last longer). But there seems to be no separate picture here, no obvious frame where “this” is more beautiful than “that.” There’s just a sense of wholeness, a sense that I’m part of the picture, not an outside observer. To paraphrase Krishnamurti, the “picture taker” is the “picture taken.”

I haven’t seen anyone else around except for a park employee driving a snowplow up ahead. The park is closed to cars in the winter, and though many people walk here regularly, it’s the middle of a weekday. As I’m crunching past the snow-covered beach on one side and the playground on the other, I realize a couple of things: Though this park feels deeply personal to me, and has almost mystical significance in my life, it isn’t the same place it was when I was a kid. The big slide is gone, the concession stand where I worked one summer with my father has been boarded up, and the swimming area is marked off by buoys that make it difficult for an adult to get wet past her knees. And of course I’m not the same person, for all sorts of reasons. But there’s enough of an intersect that the point where the place and the person meet—like a cross, or an X if you prefer—is also the intersect of heart and memory. It’s a feeling of… and here in my ruminations, BAM! The ice slyly rises up and slides beneath my feet, and I fall hard on my ass and my left elbow. After uttering the obligatory “Oh shit,” I assess my possible injuries. My elbow hurts like a son-of-a-gun, but I seem to be intact. Before attempting to rise from my hard landing, I lie there for a moment and think about what would be even more important than a camera to bring on these walks (should there ever be another one)—my cell phone. Snowplow Man has long gone, there are no other walkers, and it has started snowing again. Worst-case scenario, I could have lain there all night and become a Maresicle before anyone ever found me.

Also, I think about how, if I’d brought my camera, and if there had been another person to take my picture at this moment, it would have been worth more to my friends and family than 100 photos of the snowy trees. There’s Mare, hunched over on hands and knees, slowly rising like a pachyderm from the ashes, her bomber’s hat askew, sunglasses down on her nose, weaving and wavering like a toddler taking her first step, and then BOOM… No, I won’t give you the satisfaction of picturing a second tumble, I make it the first time, thank you very much. I clomp my way carefully out of the park, and there are no more incidents. The 15-minute walk has taken about an hour, and when I get home I swallow a couple of Aleve and count my lucky stars.

Jan. 14

Obviously, I could go on like this all day, but I’ll restrict myself to just one more snowstory. MP and K both have the day off, so we drive back up to Escanaba to the furniture store with the unpronounceable name—Heynssens-Selin’s—where I buy a beautiful Mission-style rocking chair and a leather hassock. MP is driving, K’s in the back seat, and I’m riding shotgun. It’s hot in the truck so I’ve taken my squall parka off. That will prove to be mistake #1. When we get back to my place and I start to get out of the truck, I make two more mistakes: (2) I forget how high up the truck is, and (3) I forget that there’s ice on my driveway. Actually (4), I forget completely that just because the sun is shining doesn’t make it California. As soon as my right foot touches terra-not-so-firma, it goes slip-sliding away and I fall the rest of the way out of the truck, landing hard on my ass and bare elbow (at least it’s the other side of the ass and the other elbow from my fall in the park). K sees what happens and shouts to MP, “SHE’S DOWN!” He looks across the front seat and can’t see me because I’m on my ass. He comes around and helps me up and I shuffle carefully into the house. Good guy that he is, he finds the ice-melting particles in the garage and sprinkles the driveway. The next day, I check out my bruises in the big bathroom mirror and I’m amazed. There are two huge black and purple hematomas, one on each cheek (“I regret that I have but two ass cheeks to lose for my country”), and the surface is smooth and strangely beautiful, like fine Italian marble. I really should have taken a picture. I have never paid so much attention to my ass (or had to) in my life.

Jan. 25

Reading this over, I’m a little embarrassed that I’ve spent way more time talking about winter than about my peeps. Well, last time I was all consumerist, and this time I’m the weather channel. And I still haven’t told you about my frozen sump pump hose, frozen furnace vent, or frozen dryer vent. I’ll just say Thank God for a brother (in-law and in-spirit) who’s willing to get sprayed by dirty water from a sump hole, a sister who happily paints my walls, and another sister who makes me yummy cookies and deviled eggs. (I tried to convince K and Barb to have a “deviled egg-off”” so I could “decide whose were better,” but they declined. Being the oldest sister isn’t as easy as it used to be; gone are the days when I could trick them into competing for my approval, or at least bribe them with a dime.)

I love that everything here is part now, part then, all touching into deep places within. I have the essential element of solitude and the ritual family gatherings to eat fish fry, watch a movie, or celebrate a birthday. I have both happy and sad memories to share, and new happy and sad moments to learn and grow from. I love that my peeps are still crazy about me after all these years, their quirky “sister from California” with the lefty politics, $50 words, and oddly decorated house who is different in so many ways but who can laugh and sing with them and share a life that is no longer just theirs but ours.

The Lord bless thee, and keep thee;
The Lord make his face shine upon thee,
and be gracious unto thee;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee,
and give thee peace.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #30 Summer/Fall/Winter/Spring/Summer/Fall 2003-2004

July 8, 2009


it’s the…

“increasingly midwestern”…







Great Lakes state

that ate…

the mary‘zzzzzzzine!!!

Subscribers protest: “What up with this Midwest shtick?”

I can only say, “Hey! It’s not that bad!”

November, 2004

As you may have noticed, this is the first mary‘zine to come along since the summer of aught-three. I have a lot to tell you.

One of my favorite e-mails that arrived last summer, after mary’zine #29 came out, was this one from the lovely Maria of NM.

I have been reading your increasingly midwestern preoccupied Mary’zine with conflicted interest these last two issues. The last one I had about had it. My thoughts midway thru the issue were “OK Miss Mary, you have just gone over the line with this one. If I have to read one more, I MEAN one more, cutely amusing email from Barb, I am going to cancel my subscription!!” But of course, they kept coming… AND I kept reading! I finally settled into it this last issue. I settled into the fact that I am truly happy that you have found the SOUL of your family life. You make it all so very interesting and, of course, funnier than anything! It really makes me want to break out of my little comfortable rut of Calif/New Mexico and see how the rest of the country lives their American life. But the food (except for the cherry pies)!!! I think I will bring my salad makings with me. May you live your bliss…. it sounds like you have found it.
All love, Mary!

I was glad to hear that Maria had successfully navigated the stages of grief—or of excessively midwestern preoccupation—and arrived at acceptance. I hope that my idyllic tales of small-town, family-bosom living will be of aid and comfort to you all.

a new life

I still can’t believe it. This has been the strangest, most uncertain, most exciting year of my life. It’s been the same for Pookie, except for the “exciting” part. Here we are in Michigan’s beautiful green (and orange and yellow and red—soon to be black&white) upper (U) peninsula (P) in the northern Great Lakes region. Menominee, humble town of my birth, is way down in the lowest part of the P, right next to Wisconsin, 50 miles north of Green Bay (which explains the plethora of green-and-yellow football bobble dolls and cutouts that decorate many yards). And Menominee is where I am now the proud owner of a four-bedroom house in a quiet neighborhood where the trees outnumber the residents, one block from the bay (Lake Michigan) and Henes Park (my refuge when I was growing up) and three blocks from the house where my family lived before my father became disabled with multiple sclerosis. (Can I pack information into a paragraph, or what?)

[See pics at end of post. There’s a mixture from different time periods. If the house is white, it’s back when I bought it. If the house is green, that’s how it is now.]

The upstairs of the house features a large open area (“the loft”) that I have taken over as my home office. There are tall, south-facing windows all across the loft and the adjoining bedroom, which has double French doors leading into the loft, and more windows facing east. There is a 30-foot-long attic bedroom on the west side and another bedroom on the north side. And a tiled bathroom with shower. Downstairs is a large kitchen, a semi-enclosed dining area with bow window, an L-shaped living room, and a large bedroom with vaulted pine ceiling, bow window, and window seats. There is beautiful woodwork throughout the house. The downstairs bathroom is tiled and features a large magenta (!) Jacuzzi. There’s a 2.5-car garage (so important to get that .5 vehicle in there) and a large basement.

Outside, there’s a sizable back porch off the kitchen, a patio off the garage, and a large lawn in back, surrounded by a chain link fence, with several trees, including an apple tree. Pretty large front lawn, too, with a big (maple?) tree. There’s also a birch tree, my favorite. The house is on a corner, with wide streets and no sidewalks. I’m 4 or 5 miles from my sisters and their families in Marinette, Wisconsin, over one of three bridges, because Menominee is tucked in between the bay and the Menominee River. Water water everywhere….

I love being here. It’s great to have Barb and K and K’s husband MP (and their kids and some of the grandchildren) nearby, and to be able to do ordinary things with them instead of just flying in and visiting for a few days. We go to Friday fish fry, rummage sales, shopping, breakfast or supper out, birthday celebrations… and who knows, maybe snowmobiling in the winter. Just kidding about that last part… I hope. One day K and MP drove me to Escanaba to go furniture shopping, and I made quite a haul: at a 25% off sale, I found a big red armchair & ottoman, solid oak sleigh bed, couch and coffee table, Tiffany-style floor lamp, and side table. With the furniture I brought from California, I still have plenty of room to spare.

I’ve become such a materialist. I want to (or at least think I should) write about everything that puts the heart in heartland—and I’ve discovered lots of it, from little kids to a personal banker—but my real interest seems to be in my shopping list. Thanks to the wild disparity in housing prices between California and the Midwest, I sold high and bought low, so it’s the first time in my life I’ve had enough money to get pretty much whatever I want (assuming I don’t want a villa in the south of France). Shopping here is limited to Wal-Mart, ShopKo, Kmart, dollar stores, and rummage sales, so people make biweekly or monthly treks to Green Bay or Escanaba. K and I went to Green Bay recently because they have a Target, where I bought a wok, placemats, flatware (I’ve had only two forks for as long as I can remember), driving gloves for winter, and a “mad bomber’s hat” with ear flaps that hang down. (When I tried it on in the store, K said, “You look like Mom when she took her teeth out!” I bought it anyway.)

OK, this is getting out of hand. I have an almost overwhelming urge to make a list of things I’ve bought for the house … wait …

•    things I’ve bought… kitchen island, TV, stove, washer/dryer…
•    things I’ve done… (lots of boring stuff plus) framed and hung 11 of my paintings; one of my nephews tried to tell me that “demented” is a compliment…
•    things I still have to do… buy real toys for visiting children so they don’t have to play with snakes and eyeballs from my sand tray collection…
•    things my peeps have given me… an electric drill & screwdriver set, our grandmother’s oak table, four dining room chairs, many sparkly things to hang from my sun-filled loft windows, a plaque that reads “Home Is Where They Love You”…
•    things my peeps have done for me… rescued and refinished the oak table, painted almost all of my rooms, cleaned out the gutters…
•    things I’ve hired out… lawn care, furnace repair, carpet cleaning…

What brought me here was my family, and they’re still the anchor, but I have a strong need for solitude. So now I have ready access to human companionship but can still be alone a lot. When I need a break from work (euphemism for “whenever I want to”), I sit by the loft window in my big red armchair, put my feet up, and watch the sky, the trees, and the birds, while I dream, perchance to nap. It’s so peaceful here, and such a change from my old neighborhood—no fights outside my bedroom window, no midnight ranting, no blaring rap music (until I get the new Eminem CD, that is), no police megaphones. Any sound that reaches my ears is completely benign… the drone of a lawn mower (they’re lawn fetishists around here)… the somber but romantic sound of a train in the distance… the screech of gulls out for a good time. I’ve set out to woo the passing birds and local squirrels by putting up feeders in a couple of the trees. One morning I raised the bedroom blinds and noticed a squirrel in the middle of the road down by the park. As if on cue, it came running in my direction. It got closer and closer, then veered off the road, slipped easily through a hole in my chain link fence, and made a beeline for the tree that holds a metal squirrel feeder. It climbed the tree, flattened itself briefly against the gray bark (did anyone see me? no? then let’s go for it!), zipped around to the front of the feeder, lifted the lid, and dove in head first, just the tail hanging out like Davy Crockett’s coonskin hat. It popped back out and paused for a second to turn the peanut around in its paws—checking for an expiration date? carb content?—and then stuck it back in its mouth and bolted down the tree and up the neighbor’s wooden fence and away. I like that my tree is a favorite destination of the local critters. And yes, I know they’re just “rats with fur,” but they were smart enough to take the “cute” evolutionary path, so I’m fine with that.

The weather is turning cooler, but I love it, and I’m eagerly anticipating the first downfall… oops… Freudian slip… snowfall. Everyone—and I mean everyone—thinks I’ll change my tune around about February or March, when it’s still cold and the snow has degenerated into dirty slush. But I don’t really care. I’m home.

And what does Pookie have to say about all this? After several months of travel (three road trips between California and Wisconsin/Michigan), strange motel rooms, strange houses containing rival cats and a couple of dogs, and a lot of disruption on the home front, Pookie is starting to trust that we have at last reached our final destination. I don’t like the sound of that—final destination—but let’s face it, where am I going to go from here?

So, to back up a bit, in early May I made the pilgrimage east to spend some time with my peeps. It was a working vacation: I stayed with Barb and edited a book called The Bacterial Chromosome on her dining room table. I wanted to find out if I could really live here, or if I had romanticized the idea of home and family on my previous visits. Going into the experience, I had no idea what it would bring or how it would end. But I understood that it wasn’t about “deciding”—lists of pros and cons clutched in fist—but about “finding out.” Process painting has served me well.

Unbelievably, my old friend P agreed to drive me and Pookie all the way here in her Lexus SUV. I wasn’t willing to take Pookie on an airplane, and I didn’t think he’d enjoy hitchhiking (no opposable thumb, for one thing), so driving was the only option. P lives in southern Oregon now, so it was an extra day’s drive for her. As we were loading up her car in my carport, trying to cram Pookie’s carrier, litter box, plastic sheeting, towels, water and food dishes, and the big lug himself in the back seat so our suitcases and my reference books, work files, office supplies, radio, and laptop could go in the cargo area, P said, “Why didn’t you bring Pookie up to my house for the two months and fly out from Medford?” I just looked at her. Brainiac that I am, I had never thought of that. So basically, the 4-day drive, plus another 4 days for P to get back to Oregon, were not strictly necessary. But I was glad we did it that way.

The trip itself was uneventful—unlike our big move in the early ‘70s, when we drove from Maryland to California with a dog and a cat in a U-Haul truck towing a VW and had many adventures ranging from a tornado to broken windshield wipers, a flat tire, and a close call with a motel sign (OK, so I hit the sign). On this trip we were fortunate to have good weather instead of the tornados and floods that came a couple weeks later. P stayed for 3 days, and, happily, she and my peeps got along great. But when she was leaving to begin the trek back home, I felt like I was being abandoned. Suddenly it didn’t seem like such a great idea to camp out in Barb’s spare room for two months and attempt to replicate my work and financial life in every detail, waiting for my future to reveal itself.

For the longest time, I didn’t know how Pookie and I were going to get back to California. I figured that if worse came to worst, I could rent a car… a big car. I had a target departure date of early July—I figured that was ample time to decide if I wanted to move. Most people said I should make one more visit, in the dead of winter, to see how I really felt about the place. But I brazenly (and I hope correctly) announced that I didn’t see winter as the big drawback that everyone else did. If I have to eat my words, so be it. But I ordered some cool (warm) clothes and boots from Lands’ End, so I should be fine. [Insert knowing laughs of family members reading this.] I bought a snow shovel the other day, too, and talk about knowing laughs—everybody blows around here. I have a lot to learn about living in the northland. (But this just in: the Northern lights. Wow.)

Anyway, I knew that something would come along to get us back to California, so I put my desire out into the “universe” (of my male relatives): “Gosh,” I’d say, “your Ford F150 truck with the snarling grizzly bear decal that fills the entire back window would be just the thing to drive out west.” Nearly everyone around here has a truck or two, so I seriously thought that someone would eventually say, “Hey, I was going to get a new one anyway—take this, and God bless.” No one did. But one day MP called to say that the Ford dealership where he works had just gotten in a used ’03 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo (do you think it has enough names?) and would I like to take it for a test drive. By then I had realized that I should buy a car rather than waste money on a rental. My ’89 Honda wouldn’t be much good in the U.P. winters anyway. So I bought the JGCL. Barb enjoyed teasing me about it: “Sure, I spoil my cat LaMew, but at least I’ve never bought him a car!”

One day, several of our peeps were over at Barb’s house, and Barb pointed to all the F150s and Explorers parked out front and said, “Looks like Ford Country around here.” I quipped, “I guess that makes me the black jeep in the family.” Ha-ha.

(Note that I have not yet rationalized my sudden endorsement of SUVs. But I cannot deny it: an SUV got me here, and another would take me back, and then back here again. I am comfortable with the fact of life that four-wheel drive is an absolute necessity in these parts.)

Living with another person in a chaotic household was a challenge, but one I mostly enjoyed. Little children and grown-up (30-something) children were always coming by to borrow a ladder or bring some spaghetti for our supper or install window fans or see what Grandma had in her refrigerator. I had a short working day, because Barb would get out of school at 3:00 and bring Summer and Sarina (8 and 4 years old, respectively) home to wait for their parents to get off work. Most of our mealtimes had to fit into someone else’s schedule. I’d wake up from a nap at 4:00 and Barb would announce, “Oh good, you’re up—we’re having supper at Brian’s in 10 minutes.” As a teacher, Barb works predictable hours, but most of the others do shift work, sometimes with mandatory overtime. So I had to be the flexible one, because I could work any time, unlike factory, shipbuilding, and retail workers. One day nephew Josh came in and saw me working at the computer, and he shook his head: “Must be nice.” (Summer was impressed, though. She said when she grows up, she too wants to have a job where she’ll “never have to leave the house.” I’m not sure I’m being a great influence.)

When Sarina and Summer were there, I’d be trying to work on a chapter about E. coli or a paper on pediatric cardiac surgery while they watched the ubiquitous reruns of “Sister Sister” on the Disney Channel. I’d turn around occasionally to see who said what or to ask if the mother and father of the separated-at-birth twin girls were going to get married. I sometimes paid more attention than the kids, who often fell asleep in the recliner or played with dolls from the toy box or (in Summer’s case) helped Barb grade spelling tests.

So my real work and alone time had to come after midnight, when Barb had gone to bed and it was just me and Pookie downstairs, eating snacks and listening to iTunes on headphones. Well, Pookie didn’t use the headphones, but he would sit on the back of Barb’s couch and look out the window at… well, nothing, because it was completely still out there. When I was visiting the previous summer, I didn’t understand how Barb could leave her drapes open at night, with the lights on so anyone could see in. At home in my condo, I was always barricaded, blinds down or cracked only slightly to let in some daylight or fresh air, constantly aware of movements and noises outside. So feeling safe was a pleasant change. Sometimes I stayed up until 6 a.m.—another reason (vicious circle, really) why my days were so short, because I’d sleep in until 10:00 or so.

I really enjoyed the kids, though, especially Sarina, who had blossomed in the year since I had seen her last. She was less shy and had become a talker, so would ask me endless questions about what I was doing. For some reason she was dying to know the password for my laptop (one day, she crowed, “One of the letters is an ‘n’!”) One morning when Brian came over to fix Barb’s washing machine, I invited Sarina to come along on my daily walk to the Mobil station to get coffee. It took ever so long to get there and back, what with Sarina looking at every leaf and bug, and cautioning me not to walk in the road and to look both ways when crossing, and I had to figure out what sort of drink to buy for her, not knowing the ins and outs of children’s beverages of the 21st century. We finally settled on some sort of Kool-Aid concoction with cartoon animals on the box and a top that only a child could open. On the way home, between asking if we’re almost there yet and bragging about how much juice she’s drunk, Sarina asks, “Aunt Mary, can we go for another walk?”

Barb and I, sometimes with K and MP, spent all of May and most of June driving around, looking for For Sale signs and checking out neighborhoods in both Marinette and Menominee. I’d say to Barb, “This is weird. I’m looking for a house and I don’t even know if I want to live here yet.” I didn’t want a three-bedroom ranch-style house, and I didn’t want a 100-year-old “charmer” that hadn’t been renovated since aught-whatever. But I believed strongly that finding the right place to live and “choosing” to move would go hand in hand. One day I remembered listening to the Eagles (a guilty pleasure) on iTunes the night before and singing along with “…I’m allllllready gone… and I’m feeeelin’ strong,” and it hit me. I was already gone! The “decision” had been made!

My fantasy dwelling was a house or condo on the water, but none of the ones I saw said BUY ME—or they said BUY ME IF YOU DARE. A house on First Street was practically in the bay it was so close, but the inside of it looked like no one had stepped foot in the place since ‘89…. 1889. I seriously considered a five-bedroom house down the road from Barb’s that had an asking price of $118,000 (!). It had Flower-Power-pink carpeting, horrible orange-patterned tile kitchen counters, and no appliances, but I loved the open-plan, all-vinyl-floored upstairs—the closest thing to a loft I figured I’d ever get. I alternated between thinking, “Am I crazy?? FIVE bedrooms?,” and “It’s the only place I’ve seen that isn’t a stuffy, cramped old-lady’s 2BR with orange shag carpeting.” Summer immediately loved the big house—she lives across the road from Grandma Barb so would be a close neighbor to me also—and announced that it would be fun, “We could sleep over all the time.”

Whenever we went driving around, looking at possible properties, Barb or K would say, “Oh look, there’s a fenced-in yard for Pookie!” And I’d say, “I already bought him a car, I’m not going to buy him a house!” And yet, that’s exactly what I ended up doing.

I wasn’t quite ready to commit to the Lincoln White House (well, it was on Lincoln St. and it was white…), so I looked at a few more places. I had an agent sending me fact sheets from the multiple listings service, but this is how a small town really works: Barb’s sister-in-law lives down the street from one of my former English teachers, who died this year. She had heard that the late Mrs. T’s daughters were going to put her house on the market, so she arranged for Barb and me to see it first. It seemed like my dream house—on Henes Park Drive, right on the bay, with a cedar-paneled studio, a large back porch, three bedrooms, all in immaculate shape. It seemed appropriate, somehow, that I could end up working in Mrs. T’s beautiful studio with its built-in bookcases and desk. It’s true that I was far from her favorite student, being kind of a smart-ass in my own quiet way, so there was a tiny part of me that wondered if her ghost would haunt me for taking over her beloved house. It was a moot point anyway, because they were asking over $300,000 for it. Technically, I could have afforded it, but I wanted less mortgage, more nest egg, so I let it go.

By this time—mid-June—I was beyond idle speculating and really wanted to find a house. It would be a lot easier to sell my condo and finalize moving plans if I had somewhere to come back to besides Barb’s spare room. And yet, I felt I was asking for the impossible: to find “the perfect place” that would cinch my decision to move away from my “almost-perfect place” in the Bay Area and give up all the perks of living there—the weather, the beauty, the restaurants, the gourmet take-out….

2000 miles I roam… just to make this block my home…

And I found it! It’s close to Mrs. T’s, and though I’m not right on the water, it feels like the perfect spot. Barb and K and I fell in love with it right away, despite the fact that it’s huge. (The sellers, with their two kids, wanted to downsize; it was a minor scandal among some folks that I was buying such a big place for just me.) There was much humorous speculation about Barb and K moving in with me. (Also, MP wants to live in the big downstairs bedroom, and nephew Brian wants the garage.) After we had toured the place for 15 minutes, I told my agent that I wanted to make an offer. (Barb claims she saw the woman’s knees buckle.) She was happy to present the offer to the sellers but informed me that she could no longer represent me, because her company was the one listing the house. She said to consider her “the same as the seller” from that point on. And so I descended into Real Estate Hell. I had no way of knowing if the asking price was reasonable, and I had no information about the history of the house. The agent swore she couldn’t tell me anything, that I’d have to “do my homework.”

The house was listed for $169,000, and I offered $165,000. The owners’ counteroffer was $167,000, the standard “split the difference” in bargaining. But Barb and I had gone to city hall in the meantime to see what we could find out. We ended up meeting with a really cool woman who’s the city assessor. Jill took an interest in me and loved the fact that I was moving back here from California. She was impressed with my work and the fact that I’m an “artist.” (Yes, I used the “A” word; it saves time.) In fact, she wanted to hook me up with someone from the local paper to interview me! I said that all my clients live elsewhere, but at least I would be spending my hard-earned dollars at Schloegel’s and Jozwiak’s, so I’d be contributing to the local economy. What she said next really astonished me. She said, “There’s also something about a soul coming home.” I couldn’t believe that came out of the mouth of a tax assessor! She told me to “be brave” and stand firm on my offer, because “no agent in her right mind” would advise her clients to turn it down. She later followed up with a phone call to Barb to see if I got the house, and even left a message on my home phone in San Rafael. We’re going to have lunch together soon, and I’m hoping she will have forgotten about the newspaper interview by then.

I also want to mention another cool woman I met. Actually, she was the first one who made me realize that not every smart person who’s born here grows up and moves away. Heidi is the bank manager at a Wells Fargo branch in Marinette, and also my personal banker (first one I’ve ever had). She’s extremely helpful, and I trusted her immediately. She has a very dry sense of humor and reminds me of the comedian Paula Poundstone, so we have lots of laughs when I stop in to see her. When I was mistakenly charged a service fee two months in a row, I called her and she said, “I set it up so you’d have to call and talk to me once a month.” We’re having lunch next week. Who knew I’d be hobnobbing like this?

OK, it’s time to start making this long story shorter. The agent was amazed that I wouldn’t back down on the price. But Jill was right: the owners accepted my offer just in time for me to leave for California on July 5. Pookie wasn’t too thrilled to be on the road again, but Barb had decided to ride back with me, so she fussed over him and we all survived the trip—in my case, barely. At a motel in Oregon, I fell OUT of a bathtub. It was the oddest sensation. The tub was slippery, I lost my balance, and before I knew it I was falling through the shower curtain, hitting the toilet with my right shoulder, flipping over, and landing hard on the floor on my left side. I got a massive, colorful bruise out of it but wasn’t otherwise hurt. But I can still vividly remember that feeling of “Nooooooo…..” as I flew out of that tub like a slippery bar of soap.

When we finally made it back to San Rafael, Barb stayed for only a few days, because she was anxious to get back to LaMew. (All the women in my family have the cat gene.) I gave her a quick tour around San Francisco one afternoon—through Golden Gate Park, past UCSF, through the Castro, the Mission, past the painting studio and some of my former apartments. Then she flew back home and left me to put the condo on the market and get ready to move.

I had my work cut out for me. Fortunately, I had a great agent—the antithesis of the one here. With the help of Connie, her partner Fletcher, and Julie the “stager,” we got the place looking pretty good. P happened to be coming down to the Bay Area the next week and spent two days helping me pack. The hardest part was having to keep the place spotless for 9 days in a row, and take Pookie off somewhere while agents and buyers were looking the place over. Usually I would drive to the civic center and park by some trees and read for a couple hours. Pookie had become quite accustomed to riding, but he did look at me strangely when we made these little jaunts and never even got out of the car.

The day after the open house, I got four offers. I met with Connie and Fletch to hear the details and almost fell off my chair when they told me that one offer was $27,000 over asking price, for a grand total of $425,000. The prospective buyer had no demands and was, in fact, offering to buy it as is—no worrying about the bars on the back windows or the sluggish garbage disposal, though I disclosed everything but what I’d had for breakfast that morning. I was so relieved when the buyer’s financing came through and it was a done deal. I then had to arrange to have all my furniture and stuff packed and shipped to Michigan. Barbara and Jean helped me pack dishes and other fragile items, for which I was grateful. I made several trips to the dump, the movers came, I put in a change of address at the post office, and took to the road again… just me and Pookie this time. I went the northern route so we could stop at P&C’s in Oregon. I was so exhausted from the move that we ended up staying for more than a week; it was bliss after all that lifting, hauling, and bending. My body is still sore.

The trip back was uneventful—no bathtub accidents—but horribly tedious. Achhh…. I never want to do that again. It took five days, and Pookie and I again bunked with Barb while I waited for the Fourth St. people to move out and the movers to show up with my stuff.

Once I moved in, the real work began. I had remembered unpacking as “the fun part,” but my memory, as they say around here, is good but it’s short. I was still getting editing work, which I had to fit in between the gazillion things on my to-do list. And of course nothing was simple—it felt like two to-dos forward and one to-do back… and much to-dos about nothing. I had to arrange for lawn care, get the locks changed, have the furnace checked, and start up cable, high-speed Internet, and phone service. I had to get a driver’s license, register the Jeep in Michigan, get car and homeowner’s insurance, and pay off bills from the condo. I’m still trying to get settled and catch up on everything. Every day I have to ask myself… Do I clean the garage or make another stab at installing Mac OS X on my computer? Do I prepare invoices, buy lamps and a rake, or assemble the kitchen island? From the trivial to the mundane and back again—when all I want to do is curl up in my big red armchair and do the New York Times Sunday crossword, while the red and yellow and orange trees out my window whip themselves into a frenzy.

On her days off, K would come by early (like, before 6 a.m.) to paint my bedroom, loft, and kitchen. She’s here again now, painting the living room and dining area. She wants to get to the downstairs bathroom next. The former owners had decorated the whole place in country kitsch, including a (fake) Christmas tree in every room and Christmas trees hand-painted on the bathroom walls. With K’s help, I’m gradually making the space my own.

One of the highlights of my week is on Friday nights when Barb, K, and MP and I go out for fish fry. You can only get not-frozen lake perch around here one day a week: the supply ain’t what it used to be. We could go to the VFW or various taverns for this ritualistic event, but we always go to Pat and Rayleen’s, a little family restaurant on Highway 41. We always have the same waitress, and she always remembers what we like. We laugh and carry on like we’re the only ones in the place, but just about everyone there is a regular, so there’s lots of yelling across the room and joshing with the waitresses and other customers.

It’s fun to talk about old times and trade memories and dispute versions of long-ago events with people you’ve known all your life. I still don’t believe I was part of a conspiracy to throw Barb’s Raggedy Andy doll up on the roof… but for me, being back here isn’t about nostalgia; it feels more like time travel… like Back to the Future—“Where we’re going, we don’t need…. roads….”—except that the trip was taken in real time, and I didn’t have to change anything in the past to make the present acceptable. There are enough of the old-timey places—the decrepit deserted gas stations, hulking gray asphalt-shingled early 20th-century bleak houses, defunct department stores put to new uses (mostly selling “antiques”), taverns that haven’t changed one iota since I was born, old factories that look like something out of a novel by Zola, Mickey Lu’s BBQ and Jozwiak’s bar, Henes and Red Arrow parks, the Interstate, Menekaunee, and Hattie St. bridges, the smokestacks and historic lighthouse, and the grand lumber-baron mansions on First Street—where I get jolts of remembrance that take my breath away. But at the same time, I can hardly believe that the past is well and truly—madly, deeply—gone, and I can weave the old and the new together—like the old neighborhood with its all-nouveau riche residents—into an adult haven. This is not your father’s Menominee-Marinette.

This year was the first time I’d been home for my birthday since I turned 17. Barb, K, MP and I went out to our favorite “occasion” restaurant, a roadhouse-style supper club in Peshtigo called Schussler’s. It’s a very friendly place—one big happy family, whether you know the other people or not. The first time I walked in, I felt right at home. There’s a bar with a lovely bartender who makes a Cosmopolitan as good as any I’ve had in the Bay Area. After the first one, I complimented her and confessed my snobbish California assumptions about midwestern libations. She was gracious about it.

I had decided to open my birthday presents in the bar, because it’s festive and I like to spend time there before being seated in the dining room. I had no idea there would be so many—I had already seen the oak storage cubby they’d given me back at the house. The presents kept coming and coming, and soon they covered one whole end of the bar. Everyone who came by remarked on how “someone must be loved.” At first I was embarrassed, but after about half a margarita I was holding each treasure up to be admired by the crowd—the bar was now filling up, despite the fact that it was only 5:00. After a delicious steak dinner (never thought I’d eat steak again) we drove back to K and MP’s, all four of us singing along to the radio—the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.” A sweet sound and a sweet feeling.

Faith-based initiatives? The destruction of the World Trade Center was a faith-based initiative.
—George Carlin

I must say, the politics up here leaves something to be desired. Even though Michigan and Wisconsin did end up in the “blue” column, billboards touting the pro-life-except-when-it-comes-to-the-death-penalty-and-war-and-innocent-deer agenda are rampant. My favorite: “Unborn babies are Americans too.” So Iraqi, French, and Chinese fetuses are actually American citizens, at least until they’re born? Wouldn’t that be a good argument against war? Think of all those unborn babies that will die! And shouldn’t we be championing the unconceived as well? Those that do not exist are Americans too! These people seem to think that the separation of church and state was the result of some horrible misunderstanding on the part of the Founding Fathers that must be corrected by any means necessary. They’re starting small, according to one sign: “Jesus Christ Is Lord Over Menominee County.” Today, Menominee! Tomorrow, the rest of the U.P.! But seriously. The separation of church and state was originally meant to guarantee freedom of religion: Let a thousand beliefs bloom. Not Christianity über alles.

There is so much more I want to tell you—did you know you can buy a salami in the shape of a beer bottle with a Pabst Blue Ribbon label on it?… have you ever seen a pickup truck with a shield that runs across the front of it with the words SCRAMBLED EGG or OLD GUY?—but I feel like I’ve come to the end for now. Working on this issue sporadically over the past several months has felt like trying to be cautious at an all-you-can-eat buffet when you’re starving. Too much too soon can lead to indigestion. I’ve only started digesting this amazing experience of returning to my roots after years of insisting I was beyond all that. It’s one of the secret pleasures of middle age, that life can still surprise and delight—it isn’t about sitting around waiting to die, as we all think when we’re young. To me this whole journey has been a lesson in the limitations of the will. Far from not being able to go home again, you can repudiate your birthright with what you think is every fiber of your being—and it can still come back to claim you. The will has the fiber. But Being is made of sturdier stuff—the Spirit. That’s the lesson, I guess, in a nutshell. But you’d better grab that nutshell while you can, because there’s a squirrel down the road that thinks its name is written all over it.


It’s so beautiful here—less spectacular than the Bay Area but rich in color and texture, fresh air and water, and very quiet. The fall colors have mostly… fallen… but the sunsets are awesome and the lake changes color daily. Last Saturday was as warm as a spring day but with a hint of burning leaves in the air. Brian and Josh came over to replace the framework around my garage doors, so while they worked on that, I hauled out the redwood-and-metal 6-foot cross I had made in California and dug a hole in the back yard to stand it up in. I caught a whiff of something I had been dreaming of for years: the smell of the earth in this part of the world. Places near the ocean have their own good smells, but I like this one the best. I breathed in deeply, feeling rejuvenated by it, taken back to the times when my cousins and I would make little holes in the soft spring earth and shoot marbles, or build hills with roads on which to “drive” our little cars. It felt oddly satisfying to be working outside. I replaced some nails and screws on the cross and got it stabilized in its hole with bricks I found in the basement. I had convinced my nephews to accept money for their work (going against a long family tradition), because I felt it was mutually beneficial. I needed those damn garage doors fixed, they needed the money, and if they didn’t do the work to my satisfaction, I could always sic their mothers on them. K came by in the afternoon and put my new mailbox up for me. Then we sat on the back steps in the warm sun and talked. Blessing upon blessing upon blessing.

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[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #29 Summer 2003

July 8, 2009

Cherries is the word I use to describe…. (I have a feeling this issue is going to be full of in-jokes. Take what you can and leave the rest.)

Well, it’s been quite a month or two in Lake Ibegone. First I be gone to Wish/Mich for 10 days, where I had the best vacation ever, and since then I be gone in my head trying to figure out what’s next. My whole world has been turned U.P.side down.

didn’t expect a miracle

You may recall that when I went back to the U.P. last fall for my brother-in-law Skip’s funeral, I rediscovered my family. (Funny, they’d been there all along.) To refresh your memory, here are the main players: my sisters Barb and K; K’s husband MP; nephews Brian (and wife Deb), Josh (and wife Jana), and Mike; niece Lorraine (and husband Aaron); and great nephews and nieces A.J. (8), Cody (2), Summer (7), and Sarina (3).

To come into this acceptance of family at my age seemed like a miracle. I have spent my entire adult life in a gay family circle—my ex-partner is as much family to me as anyone I share DNA with—but I had always downplayed the importance of the blood connection. Now I have to admit that seeing myself in Barb’s face, and having a long, strange history in common with her and K, even though we experienced the family in distinctly different ways, does feel special. The primeval feeling of the place where I grew up, on the shores of the Green Bay of Lake Michigan, adds to the miracle of acknowledging my attachment to that chain of life. I won’t go so far as to describe myself as the prodigal daughter, but I left home at an early age to make my way in the big world, and now I’ve come back with my “fortune,” which will someday benefit my sisters’ progeny and their progeny, and so on and so on. Someday they will be saying, “Boy, that great-aunt Mary really was great!”

My mother always made a strict distinction between blood and non-blood relations. When Lorraine (Skip’s daughter from his first marriage) was much younger, she went to hug my mother, who said, “You don’t have to hug me, I’m not your real grandmother.” I think Lorraine was scarred for life, but then so were the rest of us. For me, blood doesn’t really enter into it, except as a starting point.

So I was looking forward to going back for a longer visit, preferably one that didn’t include a funeral. I expected to have a good time, but what I didn’t expect was another miracle.

back from a future

I arrived on a Thursday night, and it wasn’t until a week later that I got around to taking Barb’s big purple truck and tooling around downtown Menominee by myself. I especially wanted to visit Spies [pronounced Speeze] Public Library, where I had spent many happy hours reading and conjuring a future for myself. In the children’s room I had read every adventure story they had, and when I was allowed upstairs in the adult section, I read every book I could find about girls at college, a world I desperately wanted to join.

The library had changed, of course. There’s a new addition and a new entrance, and the children’s room, instead of feeling underground-cozy down a flight of marble stairs and through a dark anteroom filled with glass cases displaying Indian arrowheads, an ostrich egg, somebody’s old bones, and pictures from the bygone logging and shipping days, now has big windows that look out on the boats in the marina. It’s appropriately modern and cheerful, and there’s a computer for looking up books. Except for the Hardy Boys, I couldn’t remember any titles or authors, just feelings I got holding certain books—books about deep-sea hidden treasure, or the Black Hawk Indians, or a boy who ran away from home on the back of a great bird. Unfortunately, librarians  have not yet figured out how to catalog books by feeling. Subject, Title, Author, Thrill, Desire, Aching Loneliness.

The display cases are gone, and there are no longer any dark rooms. My old haunts have been spruced up and brought into sync with the future. I don’t begrudge the changes. The past is continually being remodeled—razed, amended, reinterpreted. I had hoped to find an artifact, a long-lost book that I wouldn’t remember until I saw it again, but instead I felt that I was the artifact, the bridge, rooted on both ends of a space that seemed to encompass all time. I felt perfectly synchronized, in tune with my pastpresentfuture—oneword, onereality. And I realized that when the present aligns with the past—when there has been a complete exploration and acceptance of what brought you to this moment—then the future is aligned also. It’s like a lock that slides home and holds fast. Anything that happens from now on happens on that same continuum, because you are the continuum. I’m done defining myself in opposition to everything I experienced as a child. It’s all One. And it’s all good.

In the marina, dozens of boats are bobbing gently in the water. The bay is a rich, dark blue. It’s a beautiful sunny day, not too hot yet, and I inhale the fresh air with pleasure. I’ve always described the sky in my hometown as overcast and oppressive, like raw space curving right before your eyes into a bell jar every bit as confining as Sylvia Plath’s. So this feeling of freshness and possibility in the air is invigorating. Gee, when did everything change?, I wonder.

As I stand there, taking everything in, I feel surrounded by and deeply connected to this completely familiar, old-new place that seems surprisingly benign, considering how I had demonized it when I was aching to leave. Although my sisters and their families live over the river in Marinette (WI) now, it’s Menominee that still touches me, that makes me want to drink in (or drown in) the miles-long stretch of bay. The ocean is impressive, but it’s too vast for me to feel a part of. The bay that laps along the edges of my hometown and its twin city, the watery horizon that was so important to my dream of leaving that earthbound institution called the family, has a deep hold on me. Its little whitecaps on a windy day are dearer to me than the biggest surf in the Pacific. My “lake sisters” DH and KM will know what I mean.

Both Menominee and Marinette seem more prosperous now, although well-tended ranch-style houses with monogrammed awnings and cute flags and weathervanes on the front lawns still sit next to 100-year-old boxy two-story Scandinavian-immigrant houses with gray asphalt siding and rotting porches. The ubiquitous taverns are one-story gray asphalt boxes with no windows, sparkling on the outside with neon Old Milwaukee beer signs, dark as pitch inside and unchanged since before I was born. I kept wishing I were a photographer so I could go back and document the decay, a.k.a. history, of the place. Many of the buildings that housed thriving businesses when I was a child are now boarded over, torn down, or turned into something else. Meyers’ bowling alley, St. Ann’s Catholic Church, Niemann’s IGA, and the Gateway Cafe (where I had my first independent social outing in the 7th grade, having scrounged up a dime for a cherry Coke) have been demolished to make room for McDonald’s, Subway, Taco Bell, KFC, and Jiffy Lube. I know it’s a cliché to even mention the march of time, let alone the march of corporate America, but that’s each generation’s old fogies’ job, to miss the old and diss the new. Someday today’s kids will wish Wal-Mart hadn’t been replaced by wireless shopping pods installed in their foreheads at birth.

In short, I found the whole area to be comfortable with both its well-being and its decay. Or maybe I’m the one who’s become comfortable with my well-being and decay. Very possible. Very possible, indeed.

If my mother were reading this, she wouldn’t like the fact that I’m on page 3 and am still writing about buildings. When I was back there for a visit some 20 years ago, I went around taking pictures of the taverns, boarded-up gas stations, crumbling buildings of no known provenance, and other peculiar Midwestern old-country architecture that reminded me so much of the 1940s, in which I had spent the first years of my life. I always knew there was a reason I’m attracted to industrial areas, the railroad tracks and smokestacks and tall machinery framed against a blue sky, the Fuel & Dock and ships coming on the great waters and leaving perfect black and white pyramids of coal, ore, and salt. Back then Mom complained that I wasn’t taking any pictures of people. But I knew what they looked like, I wanted to have a record of Prescott foundry, Tiny’s Tavern, the Koffee Kup Cafe across from the train depot, places my father worked, drank, or hung out.

I’m spending a lot of time thinking about the place itself because I’m considering moving back there. (That’s the miracle, thank you for your patience.) For 30+ years I’ve considered the San Francisco Bay Area the only place in the world I’d want to live. But in my ruminations about the old and the new, and the lake so blue, I was stunned to realize that it would be an entirely different experience to live there as an adult, compared with when I was wriggling to get out from under Mom’s thumb. I can conduct my business anywhere there’s computer capability, and I would have a greater choice of housing for much less money than I could afford where I live now (I want to bring my inflated Bay Area dollars and Californicate the U.P. housing market, just as they’re doing up in Oregon). Most important, and the whole point really, I could bask in the glow of being part of a close-knit family system but retain my independence, or try to, by announcing over and over again that I don’t like to be dropped in on. That, or I may come to like it. Expect another miracle.

I just realized I hold two opposing beliefs: (a) that there are endless possible pasts and futures, endless “me’s,” and (b) that I was meant to live exactly the life I’m living now. If that life moves in the direction from which I came, it will feel like my destiny, ironic but true.

Yes, the drawbacks are legion. The winter. The summer. The lack of world-class restaurants and California farm produce. The lack of my favorite radio stations. The lack of large independent bookstores. The distance I’d have to travel for painting intensives and to see my Left Coast friends. But there are a few things there that I will never have anywhere else…

• bombing down the road (oops, “25 [mph] in town,” cautions Barb) with my sisters, singing “We Are Family” (“I got all my sisters in me….”);

• hopping on the back of Barb’s all-season John Deere tractor, this time lugging picnic supplies instead of blowin’ the snow doncha know, across the road to Barbaraland to roast wienies and marshmallows with my peeps;

• sitting in a comfortable lawn chair sippin’ on a Mudslide, watching two muscley dudes build a deck on the front of K and MP’s house while K watches their every move and demands perfection—and MP says to the guys, “Don’t ask me, she’s the boss”;

• hanging out on the new deck later that night, drinking only water or Fresca but gettin’ jiggy wid it when MP brings out the boom box and turns up the oldies station and we get up/get down and boogie to “Baby Love,” “Think!,” “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” “Sugar Pie Honeybunch”…. I’m transported back to MSU at the height of the Motown era, how lucky I was to have Aretha and the gang as a soundtrack to my debauched college life…. But we really get down with the Village People. Oh to have a videotape of me and my sisters in a chorus line, facing the dark street, singing to the night as we shape our middle-aged bodies into the Y the M the C and the A, right out there on the front deck, no railing yet so it’s like a stage, on the corner of a tree-lined street, kids coming by and dancing to our beat, other kids mooning us as they skateboard down the street;

• staying up late with Barb, each of us playing Bejeweled or Spider at our separate work stations, singing along to the radio until 3:00 in the morning, talking about anything and everything between periods of companionable silence. I couldn’t remember a particular time when I cracked up at Barb’s antics, so I asked her. She replies,

There were 2 times when I left the room and we laughed about things. One time I had changed into my nightgown and came in dancing King Tut style. At this you cracked up right away. The other time you were standing facing the printer dancing and I put on that Patriotic Cat in the Hat hat and was dancing behind you, waiting for you to turn around, and you finally did….

• going out to breakfast with whoever calls first (everybody works different shifts at their factory or car dealership or welding job, so the shopping or rummaging or eating-out group is constantly changing), meeting K and MP, sometimes Josh and Jana, at Pat and Rayleen’s (a little family restaurant on 10th St.) for bacon and eggs, staying in constant touch throughout the day on cell phones, Brian stopping in to drop off some mattresses he had to move out of his in-laws’ place or to cut Barb’s lawn, Josh and Jana wanting K and MP to go with them to see some modular homes, so we all troop over there and the salesman says, “I see you brought the whole herd!” As we move onto the lot to look at model homes, Barb emits a quiet “Moooooo….”

surreal i can taste it

I had been practicing driving Barb’s truck, so on the Monday after I arrived, I take ‘er out for my first solo run, over the Hattie St. bridge past the old paper mill to the Menominee airport to pick up KM, my friend and coworker from the University of Michigan/Graduate School of Business Administration/Bureau of Business Research, whom I hadn’t seen in over 30 years. Her husband Don has flown her UP in his private plane to have lunch with me and to see how the other half (of the state) lives. I take her (with many fits and starts—I keep thinking the brake is a clutch) to Pat and Rayleen’s where she has a burger and fries and I have more bacon and eggs. (Don’t they say that there are no calories when you’re on vacation?)

I am aware, as are all people who are growing older, that my reality has too many layers.
—Jon Carroll

After lunch, I take KM on a tour of the area—she lives in the woods downstate but fantasizes about living on Lake Michigan, so I show her the house on North Shore Drive where I lived from age 0-7. I stop outside, hoping the man whose face we see briefly in the window will come out and invite us in. (How weird would it be to stand in the rooms in which I experienced so much early trauma and joy?) But he doesn’t come out, he’s probably calling the cops, and then KM looks up and sees a Cessna flying overhead and it’s her husband! He’d said he was going to practice landing and taking off (or vice versa, I suppose), so he’s following the shoreline and, I don’t know, it hardly qualifies as serendipity let alone synchronicity, but there is something so delicious about all these different realities coming together in the same place—the adult me and the child me with the friend of 23-year-old me looking up at her husband in the sky with diamonds. I am immediately reminded of being 4 years old and telling a friend that I was going to Chicago to ride the “train in the sky” (the el) and she should watch for me in case we flew overhead. In that moment (and pretty much for the whole week) I felt like a living stratum of time, a future fossil that in the fleeting, eternal present encompasses all the layers of a life, all folding into one another in constantly changing forms, a kaleidoscope.

I drive KM around Henes (pronounced Hennis) Park to see the bay up close and then down the highway to First Street past all the grand old houses, built by the old lumbering and iron-mining families in the robber baron-slash-grand philanthropy days, and the beaches with wide lawns running down to them and the boats in the marina, and the library (built in 1903), the Menominee North Pier lighthouse (1877), and then across the Menekaunee Bridge, past all the bars I imagined Barb snow-blowing past last winter, and then, since we’re in the neighborhood, I show her Barbaraland (which KM later, in a typical flash of brilliance, dubs the Barbaretum) and bring her inside to meet my sister, who’s making bead necklaces (I seem to have gotten all the slacker genes in the family; home alone, I would have been taking a nap) and even drive her past K and MP’s house (they’re both at work) so she can see the new deck where we danced and sang the night away until it started pouring rain and I called my peeps pussies for going inside.

Then it’s back over the bridge again to Colonel K’s Pasties where we stop so she can take some of the nasty things home on the plane. She gets frozen ones (rutabaga [!] and beef) so we schlep up the road a piece to look for ice and a newspaper to wrap them in. Then back to the airport, where Don has been having a fabulous time trading pilot stories with the local flyers. I see their plane up close—it looks smaller than the purple truck!—and we hug and say our good-byes. KM e-mails me later to say they got home safe and that they’d had perfect flying weather both there and back. She pronounces the whole trip a surreal experience and I have to agree, though probably for different reasons.

When I get back to Barb’s, we pick up some sub sandwiches and head out to Porterfield to visit Lorraine and Aaron and the kids on their beautiful old farm with umpteen acres, yellow farmhouse with a red living room, donkeys, and a dog and a cat peeking out of different holes in the side of the 100-year-old barn. It’s the quietest and most peaceful place I’ve been in a long time. Not that their lives aren’t usually hectic, but on the afternoon we visit, the setting is the very essence of idyllic—visually stunning, with long green fields, the sun slowly setting, not a breath of wind and not a sound except for our own voices.

A.J. is shy, but he finally invites me upstairs to his room to show me his books. I take notes on what he likes and what he already has… the Magic Tree House series, Captain Underpants, Harry Potter. He thanks me many times for sending him books. He’s a big fan of dinosaurs but has branched out to race cars and now, according to Lorraine, plans to be paleontologist-slash-race car driver when he grows up.

I’ve known Lorraine since she was A.J.’s age. She’s smart, and I always assumed she would go to college. But to see her now, in her element, being mother, wife, farmhouse restorer, animal tender, hay baler, helper in Aaron’s workshop where he builds beautiful furniture, makes my heart stand up and holler. You ask, whither the family farm? It’s hither. Between the two of them, Aaron and Lorraine are the Jack and Jill of all trades. (Aaron also works fulltime in a foundry.) Sometimes Lorraine seems apologetic about her life, as if I must think she’s not living up to her potential. In high school, her vision of the future was to “go to college, get an M.B.A., and move out to L.A. and hang with Motley Crue.” Now she’s got a sweet husband, two kids and a bunch of animals, with plans to get some cattle and chickens, restore the master bedroom, rebuild the barn and other outbuildings, and make the furniture business self-sustaining. I am so happy for her.

On the way home, Barb and I discover we’re both hungry again (quel surprise!) so we stop at Perkins on 10th St. for a chocolate malt. We feel like naughty kids, sneaking away for a late-night treat. (The joys of middle age are life’s best-kept secret.)

every day packjam

I’m moving all around in time here, so let me back up a couple of days (BEEP BEEP BEEP). Looking back at the notes I scribbled at the end of each day—bare-bones reminders of where we ate, what we did, and who we saw [sometimes my notes are too bare-boned. I jotted down my sister’s K’s hilarious comeback, “Thanks, but I need my ass” without noting what prompted it]—I’m amazed at how much we packed in. I don’t know what we did more of—talking, laughing, singing, eating, or shopping. Usually, I was just “there,” but many times I stepped outside myself and drank in the sweetness of the moment. I knew this trip was going to be special when MP was driving Barb, K, and me north through Oconto after picking me up at the Green Bay airport. Oldies were playing on the radio, and we were all singing along—MP contributing the “ooooooooo” high notes (prompting me to wonder, Why is singing falsetto so satisfying?). I don’t remember which song it was, but during “The Sounds of Silence” (“Hello darkness my old friend”) or “I Will Follow Him” (“wherever he… may go…”), I look out my window to the west and see the red sun blazing as it slowly disappears below the horizon. It’s like having a dream come true, but a dream I never knew I had…. the blessing of being part of a loving family…. of seeing “family” as a positive force instead of an albatross of guilt and obligation. It’s partly a bond of blood, but the bond of history and shared experience, the bond of respect and love are just as important.

On the first full day of my visit, Barb, K, MP and I go out for a fish fry (deep-fried lake perch) at Pat and Rayleen’s (they should give me a free lunch for all this publicity). Sitting there with my peeps, anticipating my long-awaited supper (I had planned my vacation specifically so I’d be there for two Friday fish fries), I’m feeling a deep sense of comfort and freedom because we’re at the top of the heap now, no parents to worry about and appease. So I say that it’s nice to feel like equals, there’s no pecking order. K turns to me, and in a voice that rings throughout the restaurant says, “And you’re the oldest pecker!” We all burst out laughing. I am, indeed, the oldest pecker of them all.

One day we drive out to Riverside Cemetery to see Skip’s headstone and to visit the future site of my “ash-condo,” as I have dubbed it, next to Mom, Dad, and brother Mike. Friends have expressed surprise that I don’t want to be scattered over the bay or something, but I’d just as soon stay contained for as long as possible.

On the day of our picnic in the park, we have to stick around the house to wait for the fire marshal to come and bless the big metal half-tank Barb uses as a fire pit. She spends the time cooking and cleaning while I nap. Later I drive us over to Angeli’s for Barbie-que supplies and to a liquor store for Mudslides, White Russians, and ice. Around 5:30 we all start gathering down in the park, spray each other with Off, and then pig out on hot dogs, salads, beans, fruit, and chips. A sizable portion of the clan is there: K and MP, Brian and Deb, Deb’s brother John, Lorraine and Aaron, and the four kids. MP and I compete for custody of the deviled eggs (let’s just say I get as many as I want). The kids find a snapping turtle in a dirt pile and take it down to the creek, but not before K brings it over to us for closer inspection, eyeeeuu!

In due time, the grapes become projectiles in the hands of kids and adults alike. I try to get Summer to tell me what kinds of books she likes, and she claims to read “everything” (she’s 7). Deb reminds her that she likes fiction better than nonfiction, and Summer exclaims, “Fiction is amaaazing.” Deb says that when Summer writes about her family in school, she always includes “Great Aunt Mary.”

When we (and the mosquitoes) have eaten our fill and it’s getting dark, Brian stays behind to be sure the fire is completely out, and the rest of us go back up to the house. A.J., Summer, and I perch on the back of the John Deere, watching so the ice chest doesn’t fall off, while Barb drives. “The adults” try to find room in Barb’s two refrigerators for all the leftovers while A.J. and I sneak away to the computer room where I supervise his game of Dino Defenders, which he can’t play at home because their computer is “broken.” (Or at least that’s what they’re telling him.) I’ve never even seen a computer game in action before, so it’s kind of intriguing to watch him learn the commands as he goes—the object is for the main character to trap or kill a series of ferocious dinosaurs, but the learning curve is steep and A.J. keeps dropping the guy off a cliff into the river, at which point he has to start over. After about an hour of this, I’ve seen enough to last me a lifetime, but now Cody has come in and wants to sit on my lap and watch. He’s brandishing a green sucker that gets alternately dropped on the floor and stuck to my shirt. Cody says “Da” whenever A.J. has to start the game over. He’s consistent, so I know it must mean something to him, but I have no idea what. A.J. is so grateful for the chance to play that I let him continue until Lorraine comes in to say it’s time to go home. He of course tries to wrangle more game time, saying he just has to trap one more dinosaur (he’s clearly stretching the truth), so Lorraine and I talk while A.J. tries to get his guy over the river, again and again, aiming for the woods where all the dinosaurs are. I’m amazed at his patience.

One evening, when we’re on our way over the bridge to have burgers at Jozwiak’s tavern, we come up behind a large bus. It’s not a regular tour bus on the way to an Indian casino, in fact it looks like it could be a rock’n’roll bus. On the back window are several M&M stickers—I mean the little candies with arms and legs and big M’s on their chests. I don’t dare hope, but… could it be? Would the real Eminem please stand up? please stand up? I can see it now. The great M is heading for an appearance up north—to Marquette? Superior? Houghton? Canada? Somehow I can’t imagine him using the M&M candy logo, but a gal can dream, can’t she? Once I’ve imagined him on the bus, it’s no trouble at all imagining him tooling down Hwy 41 and spotting the big painted letters on the side of Jozwiak’s building—“BBQ and pizza”—and stopping in for a coupla Wabashes, thinking he’s safe from his legion of fans—because who would know him in this rinky-dink town? So he’s chillin’ in the back of the tavern with his roadies, talkin’ about their loves, their losses, whatever rock’n’roll guys talk about, and suddenly who should appear but this big ‘ol middle-aged dyke with blue spiky hair and a Berkeley t-shirt, her “herd” close behind her, whooping it up because oh my GOD, it’s YOU. What UP, Em?

At the turnoff to Jozwiak’s, the bus keeps going straight. I sigh at the abrupt termination of my fantasy, and we go in and eat our burgers while watching a very drunk old man try to make it from his bar stool to the door.

The next morning, Barb and I, K and MP, and Josh and Jana tour modular homes, check out a few prospective lots, and then head up the highway to Seguin’s cheese store so I can get some goodies to mail home to P and C as thanks for feeding Pookie while I’m gone. We’re in there for a long time, because I’m agonizing over what kinds of cheese to get. I’m drawn to the ones in the shape of a cow or Wisconsin, but I don’t think my friends are as enamored of that novelty as I am. I finally settle on some Gouda, extra-sharp white Cheddar, and baby Swiss. I throw in a package of Wisconsin beef summer sausage and some fudge from Mackinac Island. I arrange for the shipping and then join the others in browsing through the tourist merchandise. I buy Barb some earrings for her birthday, and K and MP buy bracelets (MP wears his all the time now, even to work, where he gets teased by lesser men than he). I find a nice canvas cap with M (for Michigan, for Mary) on it. On the way home, we stop for Perkins’ malts again.

That night we’re sitting out on the new deck when “little Mike” calls. He hadn’t made it up for Father’s Day because of some trouble I don’t fully understand. MP talks to him for a while and then hands me the phone. We’ve had no contact for 12 years. I’ve been holding on to an image of him as a sweet kid of 14 who wanted to be around me all the time, who was really funny and smart. Now, of course, his voice is unrecognizably adult, he’s had a bad marriage and a couple of kids and is going through a divorce. The Mike I knew is no more. After some awkward small talk, I decide to just put it out there. I say, “I really want to see you, to see if I can find the sweet and innocent ‘little Mike’ I remember. Are you still sweet and innocent?” He laughs flatly and says, “No… but Josh is.” We say we’ll e-mail each other and I give the phone back to K so she can say good-bye. I’m really sad. I feel like I’ve gained one nephew (Josh) and lost the one I thought I had.

Later, MP and I are sitting out on the deck alone. He asks if Mike and I had “a nice chat.” That starts me crying, and I just shake my head no. He’s quiet, waiting for me to speak. I tell him about the phone call and say that I always thought Mike had so much potential. MP agrees, and we talk about him and Josh and about MP’s hopes for them both. Later, he asks Barb if I’m OK, because I had been crying. This isn’t the brother-in-law I thought I knew. There’s a lot more to him than “the baddest guy around.”

MP is notorious for not liking to be hugged, so I don’t ambush him like I used to (and like my mother used to), as if imposing bodily contact on someone is delightfully sneaky. But one night as we’re leaving, Barb and I hug K, and then I look at MP all the way across the room. As a joke, I put my arms out as if to hug him and the whole room at the same time, and then he does the same. We both laugh, and I feel that we have found a compromise both of us can live with.

But what really surprises me is when MP talks about wanting to have a recommitment ceremony with K. When they got married originally, my mother made all the decisions. She moved the ceremony back to February from June, because she assumed that K was pregnant. (Their first child didn’t come along for another 2 years.) She chose the church (hers), the colors (she had Barb wear her prom dress, so everything had to match that), and, believe it or not, she even chose the best man—Barb’s boyfriend at the time. I assume that they managed to consummate the marriage without her help, but that was about all they had control over.

By the way, I asked MP if there was anything he wouldn’t want me to say about him, and he said to go right ahead. He may be regretting those words right about now.

I’ve encouraged them to have another ceremony, and I promised to come out for it anytime, even in the dead of winter. I offered to be his best man, but MP didn’t jump at the chance. Now get this. There’s no love lost between MP and his family—he’s the fourth of 12 kids and was physically abused by both his father and his older siblings. So he’s talking of changing his name to McKenney. I don’t know if he’s serious, but his even suggesting it says a lot. My baby brother who died was named Michael. He was 4 years younger than me; MP is 5 years younger. I know he can’t really be my brother, but I like the idea of his being a kind of grown-up representative or reminder of the Michael I barely knew and deeply mourned.

On Thursday, while I’m off having metaphysical insights at the library, Barb and K bake me cookies to take home—Barb makes the chocolate chip and K makes the peanut butter. I should have protested, “No, no, no, I can’t possibly eat any more,” but I was salivating so much that I couldn’t get the words out. Barb also bakes a cherry pie, because the three of us have discovered it’s our favorite dessert. We eat it Friday after another round of birthday shopping.

My last meal is a fish fry, of course, back at Pat and Rayleen’s, of course. Afterward, we drive to the lighthouse pier and walk all the way out on it. We can see across the water to Red Arrow Park in Marinette, so we go there next. We sit on a park bench above the beach and talk and watch some kids who are splashing around in the water. Barb calls Lorraine to leave her a message, and we find out later she couldn’t understand a word of it because we were all laughing so much.

It’s time to wrap it up. We stop by Josh and Jana’s, because Josh has taken half a day off work so we can say good-bye. Brian tries to convince me to stay another day so I can meet his other two kids who are coming for the weekend. Lorraine shows up at Barb’s at 7:00 the next morning to say good-bye. MP has to work on Saturday, so K drives me and Barb down to Green Bay to the airport. As we’re heading out of Marinette, we pass the dealership where MP works. K suddenly beeps the horn and says, “Hey, Michael’s out there!” By then we’re past the place, but I stick my hand out the small window opening and waggle my fingers in his direction. Knowing approximately when we would be passing by, MP had come out to wave to us. I think that says a lot, not only about the family connections, but about the scale of the place.

back to a future

A year ago I could not have predicted and would not have believed that I’d seriously consider moving back to the U.P. (or across the river and through the woods to Grandma’s house in Wisconsin). There are advantages to small-town life that are easy to overlook if you’re used to living the life of a sophisto-cat…

• You can get anywhere you’re going in 5 minutes and park right in front.

• Once you get away from the shopping malls and fast food joints, there are many pleasant neighborhoods with trees and lawns and wide streets and friendly people. If your brother-in-law knows all the police on a first-name basis, so much the better.

• It’s pleasant to live at a slower pace. Here in San Rafael, though my life is as slow as I can make it, I expect catastrophe at any moment. Part of the slowness I felt back there was from being on vacation, but more than that, I felt safe in the bosom of my homies.

• If you don’t have to work at a dirty, low-paying job, and if you have computer contact with everyone else in your life, including clients and bookstores that do free shipping, and if you got most of your traveling and sightseeing and club-hopping out of your system back in the ‘70s, then the down-home life is just fine. The key is money. Most people who get more money will try to swim upstream into a higher class, but they will never feel completely at home there.

• Ambition in a small town (if you’re not in the echelon who want to be judges and mayors) consists of making a decent wage, buying a house, and supporting the kids in the style to which they would like to become accustomed. If you’ve already done all that, your cost of living will be way low. There’s no concern about status except perhaps in the doohickies you choose to put on your vehicle (I saw a pickup that had been covered with newspapers and shellacked), a status system to which I am impervious.

• You feel physically more comfortable there, because a dress code is virtually nonexistent. and no one cares if you have a bad hair day. As long as you’re not a kid or trying to get into an exclusive country club, you’re pretty much free to be, you and me. Hardly anyone mentioned my blue hair, except when all three of us became the Blues Sisters for a day. A lady in an antiques store asked if this was a new trend, and we told her we were trying to start one. We said we were sisters having a good time together, and as we went giggling out of the store, she said she could see that.

• If you want to see people, they’re all within a very small radius. You grab your phone on the way out of Shopko and call to see if K and MP want to go out for lunch or to a movie. Or Brian calls on the “bag phone” in the truck to see what’s up, and you decide to have a picnic in the park. I don’t know yet what you do if you don’t want to see people.

• Here is a very big thing, that I value more as I get older. If you need help, you got it. People will get out of their beds in the middle of the night and come over to give practical or moral support. If you need a ride, a paint job, a lawn mowed—anything up to and including a calf birthed (I think I’m kidding)—your peeps got your back. And they got you, babe.

home again

It was nice to get home (to Calif.), but it wasn’t that “inhale the fresh ocean air and kiss the ground” sort of feeling I used to have after getting back from a visit with Mom. I had been thinking about Pookie all week and anticipating our joyful reunion. When I came in the house, I called his name and there was a long silence…. then a plaintive little “mew.” He came creeping down the stairs as if he couldn’t believe his eyes—she’s back!!!! I think he was traumatized by all that alone time. He got back at me by being very aloof for the rest of the day. But when I vacuumed the next morning, the familiar, hateful noise must have reassured him that we were back to normal, because he warmed up to me after that. Now he likes to sit with, I mean on, me when I’m at the computer. I can’t reach the keyboard when the big lug is sprawled across my lap, but I can use the mouse to play Spider or Forty Thieves while I’m listening to “Loveline.” Life, she is sweet.

home again?

For me, “back home” has become a phrase that no longer denotes a direction. I went back home. Now I’m back home. But should I move back home?

At first I thought the idea of moving was just an idle fantasy born of a fun vacation in perfect weather. And maybe it is. But the idea refuses to go away. It’s not that I’m unhappy where I am now—au contraire. My cup runneth over—but somehow it doesn’t seem to spilleth. One cool, sunny morning, I sat out on my patio, working on a manuscript from Italy about TREM (triggering receptor expressed on myeloid cells) and watching Pookie roll around in the oleander blossoms, and I felt expanded, not divided. My life here is ideal in many ways, but there’s one big thing missing. Barb and I are in daily contact by e-mail, but it’s not good enough anymore. I want to share my life, not just run it by remote from my command post, the computer.

Call me crazy, but I fully expect not to have to give up anything essential—of my essence—to go UP. There will be plenty of trade-offs, I know. I’ll be blowin’ the snow with my sis in tow, or vice-a-versa while I shiver and curse-a. I’ll be screamin’ and kickin’ for Yu Shang’s chicken or Chevy’s fajitas and margaritas. I’ll be like Hawkeye on M*A*S*H* when he wants a BBQ bash and calls Kansas City, askin’ for delivery. At least I’ll have the Internet, you bet.

But I can’t just UP and move, I’ll want to spend a couple months there on a “working vacation” to try small-town life on for size. If I go sometime in the fall, Barb will be teaching and I could attempt to replicate my work life using her PC. The problem is Pookie—and her cat LaMew. How would I get Pookie there, and could the two male cats coexist? LaMew is much smaller and has a shattered front leg from getting shot by some a-hole neighbor several months ago. (He gets along amazingly well on three legs—LaMew, not the neighbor.) Would Pookie take advantage of the wounded rival, or become the big pussy he really is and hide behind the couch the whole time?

For a while, Barb and I were e-mailing feverishly back and forth, trying to work out how I could come this fall and how we would accommodate Their Two Royal Highnesses. She made it clear that her casa be mi casa and that she would welcome me with open arms. That reassurance is better than insurance.

Finally, I decided I would have to drive there, but it was out of the question to make the trip with Pookie in my two-door Honda Prelude. Maybe after 1,000 miles or so, he would realize we weren’t going to the vet, but I really don’t think it would be pleasant for either of us. Could I rent a van? I half-jokingly asked P if I could borrow her RV, and she said “Sure.” Suddenly, Barb and I were making real plans, including her flying out here and driving back with me! We figured we would let the chips (and the cats) fall where they may.

I think it would be a blast to take a road trip with my sister, but if we did it this year she would have to get back in plenty of time before school starts on August 25. So she would have to come out here in a couple of weeks! I went into a quasi-panic, almost calling my therapist J to beg for help in making my decision… but I already knew what it was. I wrote to Barb:

I’ve been thinking about our Crazy plan, and I think I have pinpointed just exactly what is Crazy about it….. One plane trip (yours) and two cross-half-country road trips (1 for you, 2 for me) accounting for more than 16 woman-days (if I did the math right) of hot, tiring travel with the lingering aroma of urine and feces…. why?…. to accommodate a CAT, albeit a beloved one. Not knowing the reception said CAT will get at the other end is nothing compared to all that slogging back and forth.

Just as suddenly as it began, the whirlwind subsided. We had talked about knowing when the time is right, and that includes knowing when it’s not. I still feel a strong urge to be there, but that will have to remain a dormant impulse for now. Maybe I’m gonna wash that vacation right outta my hair, or maybe it will all come together in 5 years when my mortgage and Barb’s mortgage are both paid off and we have some financial elbow room.

I’m having a hard time finishing this, because there’s no real ending. The Wish-Mich-or-Bust plans resurfaced when J asked me if I had a friend who would be willing to drive cross-half-country with me and then fly back. I said, “Well, P has said she’d like to do it,” and there was this big silent DUH hanging in the air between us, and I admitted, “I never thought of that.” So I checked with P later, and she has her hands full this fall, what with retiring, packing for the move to Oregon, going to Tahiti for 2 weeks, stuff like that. But by spring she should be Free To Be, Her and Me. Then I could have my 6-week working vacation while Barb is teaching, and maybe a short real vacation when school gets out. The possibilities are morphing daily, this way and that, the kaleidoscope is spinning, and if this were a movie you’d be seeing calendar pages flying off to indicate the passage of time. The scene that follows is still a mystery. All I know is, I’m going to follow my heart. Pookie will just have to deal with it.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #28 April 2003

July 7, 2009


Like a snowball rolling downhill, the mary’zine is picking up more and more stories from Back There, the U.P., Wish-Mich, the Land of the Giant Underground Fungus, We-Aren’t-In-Kansas-Anymore-Toto-We-Are-A-Little-Bit-Farther-East-Than-That.

So let us now dip into…

ye olde mailbaggie

First, a correction from my sister Barb, my official source of U.P. news and lore:

I enjoyed [the March 2003 ‘zine] thoroughly, especially the little footnotes. Correction though. The family who lost 4/5/6 brothers were the Theuerkauf’s…. I had the daughter in my classroom, so there’s your relationship. The brothers were overcome by methane gas that had built up in a manure pit [due to weather conditions]. The first went in, got disoriented and couldn’t climb out. The second went in to help the first get out and also got disoriented. The third went down with a rope and tried to get the other two hooked up to get them out, but dropped before he could do anything. And so on and so on. I don’t remember why the first one went down there in the first place….

I continue to be blown away by my family’s embrace of the ‘zine—which is to say, of me. How embarrassing to paint oneself as the Black Sheep, only to be welcomed back into the clan with élan. I’m not whack, I’m part of the pack! Here’s Barb again:

Brian called right after I finished reading the ‘zine and asked what I was doing. I told him and he got all excited, “I didn’t know Aunt Mary wrote stories. I want to read them.” He is going to start with #1. I read him most of this issue. I stopped at the part about War mostly because the kids in the background were demanding his attention. He laughed a lot and enjoyed it thoroughly. I also read [the snow-blowing story] to Bruce and Sheila, and then to Lorraine. So the ‘zine has a lot of miles on it so far. I will be dropping it off to K tomorrow night as I know she is anxious to read it.

Well, it sounds like Brian liked it, but I’m picturing the rest of them sitting through the reading the way our uncles used to sit through my mother’s slide shows of our trips out West—with glazed eyes and the occasional jerk of the head. It’s true that I can’t control how my readers respond, or with whom they share the ‘zine, or how the people with whom they share the ‘zine respond therewith, henceforth, or nevermore. It’s just a little scary to have no control over that.

The next night, Barb reported on the ‘zine’s reception by our other sis and her man.

I went to K and MP’s tonight and MP read it first as K and I were talking. We could hear him laughing in the computer room. K then read it…. She laughed a lot too.

You know, it’s great to hear that my niephlings and nephew-in-law and his girlfriend have joined the expanding tribe of ‘ziners, but there’s something about my elusive, undemonstrative bro-in-law cracking up at my silly jokes that just makes my day.

Moving now to the Lower P of the Two-P(eninsula) State Area, as promised in the last issue, I got all the juicy details about my friend KM’s U.P. party. From her dog. Yes, you heard me. I never know who (or what) in that household is going to write to me next. A while back it was Skelly, the plastic skeleton, who came to live on my bulletin board. Now Benny the (newly adopted) Corgi has written to me from snowbound lower Mich. while KM and husband D were selfishly vacationing without him in South Carolina. (He writes that “in a recent call home, K says she can see why the South lost.”) He thoughtfully enclosed a picture of himself under a Christmas tree. Oddly, he referred to KM as his “boss”; I gather he provides security for the household, or at least for her feet under the computer.

In his letter, and in a subsequent e-mail, he conveyed a number of messages from KM, which I will combine for the sake of efficiency (publisher’s prerogative):

First, she said to tell you that your descriptions of born-again-UPdom were wonderful and moving. The first arrived shortly before she and D gave their “14th Annual Black-Tie Pajama Overnight Party” for their four closest friends, one of whom was born and raised in Ironwood. Of course, K’s parents are also from the U.P. Anyway, each year this party has a theme, and this year it was [yes] the UP.

First, D made a replica of the Mackinac [pronounced Mackinaw] Bridge as the table centerpiece—with real working lights. They decorated the house like an actual highway leading to the UP, which was in the dining room behind closed doors. A roll of black paper with a yellow line down the center stretched from the front porch into the house, and they made highway signs and hung them all along it, like “West Michigan Cocktail Exit” and “River Rouge Rest Stop Exit.” On the highway were little logging trucks and a little 4 x 4 with a dead deer—well, a wind-up dead deer—in the back. The four guests had to bring their dolls “dressed UP.” I’d better explain about the dolls. Several years ago K made each of their four guests a doll with a photograph of the guest’s own face ironed on and dressed the dolls in elegant clothes and they were seated at the table when the guests arrived. It was a grand surprise—and very eerie. Now the guests must bring the dolls to each “Black Tie Overnight Party.” This year, one doll was dressed as a fisherhunterperson, one in mosquito netting… and… I forget the other two. But this year the guests also brought two additional dolls with K and D’s faces ironed on them—K was a dance hall girl from Calumet and D was a Finnish radio announcer named Toivo…. K and D were very thrilled to have their own dolls at last.

After their dinner (featuring the Michigan state bird—the Robin—or rather, Cornish hens disguised as Robins) under the Mackinac Bridge, the dolls performed at Da Superior Theatre (a large cardboard box decorated with pine branches). They were given the outline for a play titled “Speed Limit 50” and they had to improvise with their dolls as if they were driving along U.S. 2 in the UP and explain why a Speed Limit 50 sign had a bullet hole in it. Actually, D had found this road sign many years ago and saved it, and it served as the main prop for the evening. I understand that there was so much hilarity that the plot kind of got lost, but in the end, one of the guests/dolls revealed that the bullet hole came about because a young UP girl had wanted to get her ears pierced and her boyfriend did it for her with a pistol on the side of the highway. Well, I guess you had to be there….

In the morning, when they exchanged tuxedos for bathrobes (I’m assured that this is not kinky, just old-fashioned fun), they had PASTIES [rhymes with NASTIES] for breakfast. That’s right—K had some shipped down from Calumet. Oh, she told me to tell you to correct footnote 7 in your publication of 12/02—pasties are always made with beef, at least in her family!

[Ed. note: There’s more, but let him get his own ‘zine if he wants to go on and on….]

Woof, woof, woof, woof,

Mr. Ben Corgi

After I received the first letter, I replied to Doggie Ben as follows:

Dear Ben,

Thank you very much for sending me a letter and a picture, instead of… how can I say this… yourself. That’s how I met up with your cousin (?) Skelly. Just POP—lands in my mailbox one day. I’m afraid you would not be very happy here. This household already has one mangy, hair-shedding animal. And then there’s Pookie….

Skelly—whom I believe you’ve never met, but maybe we will all have a big happy reunion one day—is doing fine. He’s kind of a lookout, like the guy at the top of a ship’s mast watching for Land. He gazes out the window—oh wait, I just checked and he’s looking the wrong way, damn! Never get a plastic skeleton to do a dog’s job, eh Bennysan?

Besides providing security, you appear to be a competent social secretary. I am a little surprised that your mistress would leave her correspondence in the hands/paws of an employee, but I’m sure you’re a part of the family by now, right?

OK then. I appreciate the updates on the new addition to the household (that would be you) and the nitty gritty about the U.P. party. Fitting that it took place in the winter, no? The description of all the special touches was hilarious. Also, I stand corrected on the ingredients of the dreaded Pastie. All I can remember is a  mouthful of mush surrounded by crust. Nuff said….

[Forgot to tell you that when I go back to visit Wish-Mich in June, KM is going to ask her pilot husband to fly her UP to have lunch with me! Maybe I’ll take her to Schloegel’s for Swedish meatballs and pie]

Please tell Ms. K that I would be deLIGHTED and HONored to receive her by airplane between June 14 and 19. I will also be there on the 13th and 20th, but I specifically planned my itinerary to include two fish fry outings with the clan. Why is the perch becoming extinct while pasties keep proliferating? Answer me that. My sister says the perch have been “overfished,” but I’ve never heard of any “overpastieing” going on. I think that says it all, don’t you?

Anyway, it would be SO COOL to have lunch with a jetsetter such as your boss. Not quite the same as flying to Paris on the Concorde, but she will be received like royalty. My hometown of Menominee used to have a nice little airport—I’m assuming it’s still there—that has its own claim to fame. A helicopter company called Enstrom was headquartered there, and two big names from the ‘60s, F. Lee Bailey and Rudi Name-Escapes-Me (the guy who designed the topless dress with the crisscross straps; never really caught on, more’s the pity). I think one or both of them owned the company. But that’s neither here nor there. (Be right back, have to pee.)

yo, pookemon here. shes writin to a DOG now? that takes the cake. I just wanted to give you a friendly warning. STAY AWAY, DAWG. if you come around here I swear ill open up a can of whoopass, you hear me?

Well, it’s been nice corresponding with you. I can hardly wait to find out who’s going to write the next letter for her—the potted plant? hahaha. Have a nice life. If you like Michigan in winter, you’re going to adore spring.

Mare de la Zine

WAR {??What War??} TIMES (Special Mopping Up Edition)

There are Known Knowns.
There are things we
Know that we Know.
There are Known
Unknowns. That is to say,
There are things that we
Know we don’t Know. But
There are also Unknown
Unknowns. There are things
We don’t Know we don’t

—Donald Rumsfeld

S.F. Bay Area Car Bumper War News Update

The first and most popular bumper sticker to come out in the weeks and months before Operation Here We Come To Liberate You Whether You Like It or Not was the obvious:


Then people started to cut the sticker in half to read:


But my favorite one, which I saw only once, is the same sticker cut down even further:


Of course, W refers to our quasi-elected president.

Then bumper sticker #1 was supplanted by


Cutting this sticker down to Stop W would work just as well. You really can’t go wrong putting any sort of negative word in front of W: Evict, Eject, Eviscerate

My contribution to anti-W-war bumper literature is


But things move fast in this time of One Superpower Fits All, so getcher red-hot up-to-the-minute bumper sticker here:


I certainly hope you enjoyed that little war as much as I did. I know it was fun, exciting and WAY too short, just a teaser really, no contest at all and we’re just getting nicely warmed up, so fortunately it looks like we may be able to make a case for bombing the sh*t out of Syria, so we can do it all over again. Say, why don’t we just make it a lifestyle, we could no doubt create enough enemies to keep the war machine lubed for decades, we are so good at it. We are such assholes. I can see that a large part of my life’s work for the next 10 years will be keeping my son’s ass out of the service. Do they honestly think I suffered two months of bed rest, natural childbirth, two years of nursing, 3 years of coop nursery school and the cooking of 5,379,24 hamburgers I didn’t want just to send him off to get shot at for the sake of Halliburton’s contracts? I don’t think so.
—S. Lockary

Hey, is this thing on? The war, I mean. Geez. You get a perfectly good war-related ‘zine all written and ready to be hauled off to Copy Central, and they claim it’s Finnish. What do the Finns have to do with it? They’ve never hurt anybody, have they? Finland isn’t even in that part of the… Oh, “finished”? … Never mind.

Anyway, pretend you’re reading the following before W proclaimed the Iraqi regime to be “not in existence.”   Dirt in the fuel line… just blowed it away.

my own private Vietnam

In one of our nightly e-mails, I asked Barb if she had participated in any April Fool’s Day pranks, either as a perpetrator or as a victim. She said she couldn’t work anything into her science classes this year, but she told me about a trick she played in Language Arts a few years ago.

I told my students a story about a rabbit taking a trip. I started the story by having one student hold a string. Then as I told the story of where he travels, I unwound the string around students, through chairs, under desks, etc…. until I had the whole class tied up. I told the story 5 minutes before the bell and kept it going until the bell rang. Dropped the string, said April Fools, and walked out.

Now, you may be wondering, what do 25 groaning, giggling, struggling middle school kids who have to get untangled from their desks and each other before they can rush off to their next class have to do with Vietnam? For that matter, what does Vietnam have to do with anything? Aren’t we All Iraq, Al Jazeera, All the Time these days? These are All excellent questions.

I guess what strikes me about the image of the strung-along-and-then-abandoned-to-their-own-devices kids is that, like a lot of people, I’ve been a mass of conflicting feelings about the war. I’m tied up in knots, and W has left the building. I know who the Fool is, but where’s the joke? I’m angry at this self-righteous, propagandizing, Bible-thumping administration. I’m afraid of red, orange, and magenta terrorism alerts to come. Horrified and helpless over the deaths of soldiers and civilians in a cause the rest of the world All Jeers at us for. Afraid of further upheaval in the Middle East and beyond. Afraid for Israelis, Palestinians, for Americans thought to be condoning our government’s actions. Afraid for everyone, really, who is inextricably entwined in this mess. And who isn’t? So anger, fear, horror, helplessness, fear, fear and fear kind of sum up my response.

I’ve had to ration my media attention—I surf past CNN and I’m selective about what I read. I can usually handle the 10 minutes of BBC News that starts off the hour on NPR. (British voices are soothing, regardless of what they’re reporting.) It’s like being on continuous nighttime patrol of the perimeter of my consciousness: I will let this in but not that, not right now. I try not to let guilt take hold, not to despise my privilege, my sunny days, my little pleasures in life. What can I do about other people’s lives and deaths, anyway? Immolating myself in the town square won’t help anyone. If a tank were to come rolling down Bellam Blvd. (out to crush Circuit City?) I might find it in my guts to stand in front of it, like the Chinese student in Tiananmen Square. But I don’t really see that happening. I do notice that whenever I hear an airplane overhead, I hope that it (a) stays overhead and (b) doesn’t drop anything on me. And I think about what it would be like to live with that as a reality and not just a paranoid fantasy.

I’ve discovered I’m past the black-and-white thinking of my youth. Or maybe the world has become more complicated, more multilayered, and even more controlled by the powers that be—One Big Superpower in bed with the Three or Four Big Multinational Corporations. But I doubt that it’s only the world that’s changed. You hear old people say, “The older I get, the more I realize I don’t know.” That always seemed curious to me. Like—aren’t you going backwards, dude? But now I know—it’s not that I’ve been rolled up in mothballs and put away, or that I’ve stopped paying attention, or that I haven’t learned anything. I’m not just waiting for death-and-taxes while young people take to the streets in their idealistic fervor. Au contraire. Young people are doing what they’re supposed to do, which is to harangue the rest of us, and I’m learning that age brings a different perspective. It’s not necessarily about losing touch or sticking to the old ways. I’m in plenty of touch, and rather than cling to the old ways, I’m having to dispense with many of them—the old “antiwar-isn’t-everybody?-pro-Mao-pro-Castro-pro-the-victory-of-the-proletariat” ways from a time when it seemed obvious who were the good guys and who were the bad.

It may be that Iraq is categorically different from Vietnam, that 2003 is not only a different millennium but also a different mindset than 1968. But I don’t think so. Some things have changed globally, there have been political shifts, but the human heart is the same. We still try to sort out right from wrong, choose the least of several evils, and in the end it still feels like it’s all out of our hands, like the last presidential election. Politics is a legitimate realm, and those who are drawn to it, especially those who want to counteract the selfish interests of any elite, should certainly take part. But I want to investigate my own responses, go where my inner compass (guide, road map) takes me, find the common thread that connects me with other people in a real way, not just as one head talking to another. Dial right down the center, baby. C-A-L-L-H-E-A-R-T.

Is this typical American—or at least Californian—self-involvement? Maybe. But moving up the food chain to where you don’t have to think about where your next meal is coming from or who’s going to kick down your door and kill you brings the privilege and responsibility of focusing on other things. And that’s what the mary’zine is for me—a way to articulate, shape, and share what touches me, from the ridiculous to the sublime. But let’s move on.

As I write this, the latest news is that Baghdad has fallen, or at least the statue of Saddam has been toppled, yay for our team, and a few Iraqi men are stomping on his likeness, much to the delight and relief of millions of people around the world who want more than anything to believe that it’s going to turn out all right after all, that Arabs and Arab sympathizers everywhere are going to thank us for Operation You Say Invasion We Say Liberation, and radical Islam and fundamentalist Christianity are going to revert to the kinder, gentler religions of their founders. But we’ve heard lots of stories out of this war that were retracted the next day, so we continue to hold our collective breaths as we go about our “normal” lives—working, taking care of children or ungrateful cats, passing along Internet jokes, enjoying the warmer weather, and wishing, hoping, and praying that the new threat of ground-to-air missiles aimed at incoming commercial flights at SFO is just more media hype.

So now I’m going to honor my inner whatjamacallit and leave the topic of the day to write about Vietnam, or at least about a little piece of that seemingly ancient history that has gripped me in recent days.

I watched a documentary on PBS called “Daughter from Danang,” about a 7-year-old Vietnamese girl who was sent over here during Operation Baby Airlift in 1975 because her father was an American soldier and it was feared that the Communists would kill all those children. She (Hiep, renamed Heidi; I’ll call her H) was raised by a single woman in Kentucky, and her adoptive mother fully Americanized her, warning her not to tell anyone she was half-Vietnamese. (No wonder: She grew up in the town where the KKK started and still has a visible presence.) All her life, H wanted to find her mother, and she finally did. At about age 30 she traveled to Vietnam (with an interpreter and a documentary camera crew) for a 7-day visit to meet her mother and other relatives. She was thrilled and happy, and her mother was even more thrilled and more happy, because of course she had distinct memories of her little girl, whereas H didn’t remember much of anything from that time.

When H comes on the screen for the first time, I’m startled to see that, except for a slightly fuller face, she’s the spittin’ image of my aunt Judy on my father’s side. Methinks her G.I. father must have been Irish. And she has a southern accent, which is also disconcerting. She’s an all-American girl, ex-cheerleader, everything.

In Vietnam she is surrounded by relatives and other villagers 24/7, and her mother never gives her a moment to herself, she’s all kisses and “I love you, I’m so happy,” clings to her hand as if she’s never going to let go, insists on sleeping in the same bed with her. The family is very poor, but they clearly have a strong bond, and family is everything to them—there’s a shrine to all the parents, grandparents, and other ancestors all the way back to… wherever it goes back to. In contrast, H has lived her American life with many material comforts, but her adoptive mother was abusive—rarely touched her except to hit her—and perversely cut off all ties with her when H was in college. So to say she is undergoing a culture shock on this visit is quite an understatement.

After a while, you can see that H is getting more and more uncomfortable with the constant crowds surrounding her, her mother’s unwavering, enveloping attention, the heat, the fish smells of the market, having to keep a smile on her face and not able to speak directly to anyone, because they speak little English and she speaks no Vietnamese. (They keep trying to teach her to say “I love you,” but the syllables are awkward in her mouth.) And through all this she has a camera trained on her! So she starts to crack, starts to question the wisdom of having undertaken her search. She’d had a romantic image of what awaited her back in Vietnam, but the reality is very different. All of the relatives are blunt and unabashed about asking H for money. They seem to assume she’s going to take her mother back to the U.S. to live with her or at least send a monthly stipend to help the huge extended family. H’s eyes widen in increasing dismay as she sits with this family of strangers who have a lifetime of duties and obligations mapped out for her.

I have been drawn into this story from the beginning, and not only because of the superficial resemblance of H to my aunt and my limited acquaintance with Vietnam from my neighbors Kim and Thé and Lee and Trang. There’s a deeper resonance that I can’t explain. I feel like I am H as she becomes more and more upset and finally looks up at the cameraman or the interpreter and says, “I can’t do this.” The family insists that this is the Vietnamese way—if she had been raised there she would never have questioned her family obligations. She starts sobbing over the unexpectedness and impossibility of the situation, like the ultimate Be Careful What You Wish For, and one of the older male relatives says (in Vietnamese), “She cries easily, doesn’t she?”

H runs outside to get away from everyone, and the mother follows her and tries to hug her. Heidi moves farther away. “No! Leave me alone!” The pain on her mother’s face during all this is indescribably poignant. It’s clear that it was the hardest decision of her life to send her Amerasian daughter away to America, and now she’s losing her all over again.

I was initially put off by the mother’s constant clinging to H and her belief that they could instantly return to being the loving mother and child they had once been. She matter-of-factly assumes that she will go back to America with H, maybe not right away, but in time, and they will be “together forever”—she stresses “This is FOREVER, FOREVER, FOREVER” as she stares deeply into H’s eyes. I am getting agitated at this point, just as H is. To her credit, the mother finally seems to come to grips with the fact that her long-lost daughter is now “American” and can’t understand the traditional ways. But she is still visibly suffering and obviously holds out hope for a happy ending.

But H goes back to her home on a military base in Rhode Island where she lives with her American soldier husband (irony noted) and two young daughters. For weeks she keeps her children close by her side and tries to forget she ever took that painful journey back to the past. She can’t even explain to her husband what happened or what she’s feeling.

And having porously absorbed her dismay and inarticulate horror at having “opened this can of worms” (the experience has definitely put her off searching for her father), I feel as if I too know what it means to be an immigrant with ties to the mother country that I reject but cannot reconcile. Clearly, my feelings of identification are very much shaped by my own projections, my “what if’s.” (What if I found out I was adopted and my real mother was Kim next door? How could I possibly think of her as my mother?) For me the documentary goes well beyond being just another sad, interesting, or bizarre story, something that has happened to someone else.

The end of the film shows Heidi 2 years later. Her Vietnamese family have written several letters to her asking for money, and she hadn’t answered any of them. She says she’s closed the door on them—“but not locked it.” It’s kind of shocking that she has simply withdrawn. Despite my identification with her, I guess I still thought she had to do something. But I also know that I probably would have done the same thing. CAN’T DEAL. CAN’T DEAL.

I had therapy the day after seeing the documentary, and I didn’t know what I was going to talk about. There seemed to be nothing to say about “me”; all I could think about was H and her “family.” So I started with that, but it didn’t seem to take me anywhere. I kept thinking I was wasting the session, that I was being self-indulgent. This was H’s story, not mine. Did everything have to come back to me, me, me?

Rambling on to J, starting and stopping, questioning why I’m talking about this, I feel like I’m going in circles, or tied up in that April Fool’s string. Finally, some questions start to come clear, and with the questions come clues to my interest in the story.

What are H’s obligations to her original family?

What is “family”? Is blood thicker than water, or do distance, language, and life experience trump the biology?

Are we all just human with a few cultural differences (you say potAto, I say potAHto) that don’t really mean anything—except when they do? When you’re gay, you cheerfully and gratefully adopt the idea that “family” is not necessarily biology-based, that the family you choose as an adult is your real family. (Actually, you don’t even choose that family, because everybody comes with other ties—parents, friends, ex-lovers—but that’s a rant for another day.)

And what is “America”? Is it the land of the free and the home of the brave, or is that only on game days and the Fourth of July? Are we still dreaming the American dream? Or are we the uprooted ones trampling on centuries of ancient wisdom? Is our diversity our strength, or will it be our undoing? Does multiculturalism add to or detract from our nationhood, our common origin as immigrants, either forced to come here as slaves or indentured servants, or begging to come here for asylum or a better life? What is our responsibility to the rest of the world, much of which we’ve deliberately left behind? What the hell are we supposed to do about Iraq, Vietnam or anywhere else? Are we the world in microcosm, or are we history’s footnote, its next debauched Roman Empire?

As the therapy clock is ticking, and I’m trying to find my way through this morass of questions and abstractions and feelings and the frustration of not knowing what’s going on with me, wondering like the kids in Barb’s class, how did this happen?, 5 minutes ago I was just sitting here at my desk, minding my own business, listening to a nice story about a rabbit, and now I’m “tangled up in blue,” creating by trial and error my own private string theory even though I’m not equipped to do the math… I think I feel the end of the sentence coming on… J is patiently helping me look for the thread/string that will lead me back to myself and untangle me from the jumble I’m in, because the one place we all need to be right now, she says, is in our deepest heart.

Suddenly I take a turn, it’s just like painting, when you’ve been grumbling over how nothing feels right and suddenly there’s a curve in the road and you’re right where you need to be. I find myself telling J that I can relate to H’s story so much because I am intimately familiar with the fear of being sucked back into poverty, back to the place of my traumatizing childhood, back to having to hide my true self and my foreign influences and unholy aspirations from an oppressive regime (Mom); the fear of discovering that my middle-class pretensions and independence were a temporary fantasy, a respite from reality just like college only a lot longer—that I might still disappear back into my upper peninsular fate, my own private Vietnam.

So that’s the unlikely connection that brings everything into focus. I left my “Vietnam” under much less dramatic circumstances than H, of course, by choice and not at 7 but at 17, but there’s something similar about the fear of “going back” and “getting stuck” in a landscape that is viscerally familiar but no longer habitable by my “American” self. I know it seems inflated of me to project myself into a truly momentous story like Heidi’s, but I’m talking about the feeling level, where our childhood fears still dwell regardless of the proof-pudding of “reality.”

And yet… this is what’s so strange, what I still can’t seem to take in… my own private Vietnam has turned out to be the opposite of Heidi’s quest for her roots. Clearly, she didn’t have the best home life in Kentucky, and she had every reason to believe she was going to be reunited with her Shangri-La of a past. I, on the other hand, had tried to put the past behind me to the point where, to set foot on that soil again would be my undoing, as if the Giant Underground Fungus had a magnetic pull that would erase all the data I had stored in me and return me to the land of limitation and obligation. It was as if I were doomed to a fate that had been set in motion at my birth and could not be changed.

So I wasn’t looking to hook up again with the past, as Heidi did, and I didn’t consider my trip back to my homeland last fall to be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, as she did, but what I found there… SURPRISE… was the family that had been there all along, in plain sight: the family of my peers and heirs, the past not completely overcome but contained and subdued, shoulders pinned to the mat, no longer the obligation of FOREVER in the doomed sense but the promise of something like Forever, in that way that makes you feel safe and happy, not trapped in a room with the walls moving in on you. Barb and K were always dear to me, but they seemed overshadowed by the looming presence, even in memory, of Mom and her inability to see us as separate beings.

Even a couple of years ago, I would have taken a very different lesson from Heidi’s story. It would have confirmed for me the necessity of migrating to the new country, the land of opportunity, and never looking back. How many times do we have to hear You can’t go home again before we take it to heart?

But I did go home again, and, far from encountering a “Vietnam” of strangers masquerading as my long-lost kin, I found “America” there. Not America as the imperialist, war-mongering, Christian nation trying to impose democracy (so many oxymorons, so little time) on the backward peoples of the world, but the America of the past-and-future double helix, the native-born and the foreign-born entwined, mixing if not melting in the same pot. In my absence my sisters had not only survived but thrived beneath the threshold of my awareness, like that Giant Underground Fungus again, a fungus for good, not an axis for evil, a cross-cultural bridge that could be traveled in both directions, you could go there and come back!

The string of connection keeps wrapping around everyone in my life and every stranger who’s a relative I haven’t met yet—the ‘zine and their response to it, the e-mails a live wire going back and forth, the depth of understanding despite years of distance, the same giggly jokes and memories but with children and grandchildren and great nieces and nephews added on, and blooooood and marriage and child support in multiples of 3 or 4, everybody ending up at Gramma’s (my baby sister’s!) house on birthdays and holidays, a family which, however you slice it, is connected by the strings of shared experience and feeling and sometimes by blood too, but blood is not the main ingredient of those ties. Mother and Father, after all, are not blood, but they form a heart bond just like any other lover and lover, friend and friend, lesbian middle-aged woman and cat, Jewish therapist and nominally Christian Uppity-Midwesterner turned hopeful S.F. Bay Area neo-bohemian type who sits typing this long-playing record in a microcosmic neighborhood of Vietnamese, black, Hispanic and white adults, kids, and trash-talking teenagers of every hue—every person, every family struggling to make a living, to make sense of life and get through the night, the day, and the night after that.

Is this the point?—that we’re all wrapped up in this string together, in the sheer complexity, the insolvability of our differences, whether mediated by blood or culture or injustice, that we must look for the common humanity beneath it all and be as open as we can to the differences and similarities, not taking the flag of our old or adopted country so seriously that we believe we have the right to liberate or kill at will?

Close to the end of the therapy session, I find myself telling J that I have faith in humanity. There have always been wars and there will always be wars, but despite it all, hope and love, so seemingly fragile and easily suppressed, like a jackboot crushing a delicate flower, will always live. How else could she and I be feeling this bond with each other and with the friends, family, and strangers who touch us so deeply? I look at J; we’re both feeling wrung out, like we’ve made a long journey together. It seems a miracle that’s we’ve traversed all that confusion and my insistence on talking about a film of someone else’s life that’s barely suited for the analogy I have thrust upon it. I understand now how therapy can be a place for exploration, for true learning and discovery, not just problem-solving. I feel blessed.

And I continue to walk the middle ground, as J has taught me. I’m Open when I wannabe, Closed but not Locked when I gottabe, maybe even Locked once in a while, retreating to my bed with a bag of double-dipped chocolate-covered peanuts and a good book. I shall traverse to the best of my ability “my” world, “their” world, whichever world I find myself in, until I get called home, or the cows do. Let’s all lose the self-flagellation about our middle-class American privilege, especially those of us who are only nominally m.c., the salt and pepper of the earth, our feet planted in the soil and our immigrant backgrounds. We all have our own private Vietnam, our childhood abuse of whatever stripe, we’re all in the closet about one damn thing or another, whether it’s our ethnic background in a KKK town or our cross-clothing-crisis in noncoastal America. I’m no rah-rah patriot, but I think America truly is the future—America being not the puppeteer government of smirking oilmen but all of us Americans, the immigrants as well as those who were already here when the invading/liberating Europeans came a-knockin’. Our real privilege in this land of the free is to make a life beyond survival, to create a new brew of all the world’s cultures and human endeavors. What that means is up to each of us to figure out. No blueprint, no scroll of rules handed down by the ancestors, except the obvious 10 and the Golden one. America is a contradictory land, with ideals that can be twisted every which way and leaders determined to carry out George Orwell’s worst imaginings. But I believe that we are bound together by stronger ties than the ones we find ourselves struggling against. Like the Giant Underground Fungus—yes!—we are connected at a much deeper level than we know. Let’s use that bond to get us out of this tangled mess and on to the rest of our lives before the final bell rings.

[Mary McKenney]

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