mary’zine random redux: #37 April 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]

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