Archive for August, 2009

mary‘zine random redux: #34 Winter 2006

August 23, 2009

the late, great Pookie

In memory of Pookie  1987-2005

a cat who thought (and often pooped)
outside the box

Dear Friends,

As most of you know, Pookie has passed over. I had agonized over the decision of what to do and when to do it—hoping in vain that he would die peacefully in his sleep like his predecessor Radar—but when the time came, it was obvious. There was no recovering from end-stage renal failure, and he had lost at least half his weight. Which was considerable. I could see the misery in his eyes.

So I finally faced facts and took him for one last trip to the kindly Dr. V, who gave him the “humane,” dignified end that we do not extend to our fellow humans. You can understand the reasoning there. If euthanasia were legal, you could go to the doctor for a routine physical and come out dead! You’d take your child in for a booster shot, and BAM. Dead kid. No telling what would happen. Better to let people with no hope of recovery suffer unspeakably and long. When my mother was kn-kn-knocking on heaven’s door, I talked to the doctor about “letting her go.” She had a living will and had made it very clear over the years that she didn’t want any extraordinary measures taken to keep her alive. In response to my tentative question about how to go about this final act of mercy, the doctor announced that he wouldn’t help me “kill” her. Then he turned and stalked away.

But I digress. Sort of. It’s true that every new death of someone you love gets strung up on the same line of heartbreak as all the others, whether human or animal. There’s no point questioning your love for a “mere cat” versus your tortured ambivalence about She Who Gave You Life. There’s also little point in reminding yourself (or, more likely, being reminded by those who want to comfort you) that “he/she had a good life.” Yeah, what’s a good life got to do with it. It’s a rough transition all the way around.

But yes, Pookie had a good life, and he survived the Northern USA Jeep Tour of Summer 2004, so don’t cry for him, Argentina. And don’t cry for me. Regrets? I’ve had a few. But we had some good times, me and the Pook Man. The images of his last days are slowly being replaced with memories of earlier milestones. He never wanted to be picked up and held. So one day I started a campaign to pick him up several times a day and then put him down the second he struggled. This regimen seemed to have little effect, until one day I was sitting at my desk, and I saw a tentative little paw reach up to my chair. Pookie had finally realized that I was going to respect his limits. The big lug made himself comfortable on my lap, and that’s where he spent a good part of his days thereafter.

However, in the midst of death comes… you know what… that perpetual renewal of innocence and love and hope that refuses to believe in its own eventual demise…. that relentless, miraculous cycle of the seasons and generations… that crazy engine that fuels us all… Life! Introducing…

a tale of two kitties

One of the highlights of my summer was when my friends P&C came to visit me from Oregon. P had been here before (she drove one leg of the Jeep Tour, if you recall), but C hadn’t. They were my first visitors from my “other” life. I had a great time showing off my big house and some of my childhood landmarks—houses where I had lived on North Shore Drive and Bay de Noc Road; the sparkling blue water of the bay off Lake Michigan; the marina swimming with boats; the 1940s feel of factories, smokestacks, and unidentifiable structures that make up the shipyards and paper mills; more water as the river merges into the bay of one of our Greatest Lakes; the woods and farmland of my youth, much of it long since invaded by developers—and, of course, Henes Park, with its groves of trees, sandy beach, and distant view of Door County, Wis., on the other side of the water.

The three of us had a great time hanging out and driving around. We even drove up to Escanaba along the same shoreline immortalized in the James Stewart movie “Anatomy of a Murder.” Of course we joined the gang for Friday night fish fry at Pat & Rayleen’s, where I felt absurdly proud to introduce my friends to this boisterous sea of humanity that I now call home. The place was jumpin’, as it always is on Fridays. The scene is like a teen hangout, except most of the customers were teens in the ‘50s. These are your factory workers and waitresses, not your doctors and lawyers. God knows where they eat. It took me a long time to realize that these truly are my people, and that there’s more to them than their jobs or the stereotype of the pale-faced, a-few-extra-pounds-around-their-middle American.

At K and MP’s house later, we played cards and laughed our heads off. P and MP really hit it off, so they were slinging wisecracks back and forth, and we all agreed it was the most we’d laughed in a long time. Again, I felt proud of both my friends and my family, and a little incredulous to see two of my worlds meet with such a great outcome (“fantasy colliding with destiny,” as the Chron horoscope used to say).

On Saturday morning, P&C got up very early to make the round of rummage sales with K and Barb, while I slept in. A few hours later, P came in and asked for a box and a blanket. “What for?”, I asked, though I already had a suspicion. Of the cats I’ve had in my adult life, only one did not come from P. She has a kind of animal magnetism (sorry) that attracts the stray, the abandoned, the abused. And guess who she goes to first with each new-found foundling? Years ago, she found Radar in a ditch, and she got Pookie from her sister, who had rescued him from a cat-hating neighbor.

Sure enough, P and C had gone for a walk around Henes Park and had found two little gray kittens playing on some rocks on the bay side.

So we gathered some supplies, including some leftover chicken and bacon to use as bait, and I drove her over to the park, where C was keeping watch. It immediately started to rain, and the kittens scurried into a hole under the rocks. Drizzle turned to downpour. After getting no help from animal control (not working on the weekend) or the police (“nothing we can do”), P—who is not known for her patience in other circumstances, such as while driving or working on a computer—sat hunched in the rain for more than an hour, talking infinitely tenderly to the frightened felines and finally coaxing them out.


We put the kittens in the downstairs bedroom, as far away from Pookie as possible. I called Barb to see if she knew someone who would want a pair of adorable, soft, shimmery all-gray kittens with faint stripes on their tails. But I could already feel my resolve melting. I wanted to spare Pookie the indignity of having to share his final days on Earth with these “fuzzy grey intruders,” as Susan L has dubbed them. But the more I watched them chase and tumble over each other—so sweet, so innocent, so ungrateful for their rescue (they just thought they were having a day at the beach)—the more I became convinced that it was Fate. I was going to keep them.

For several weeks, their innocent joy permeated the entire house, except for about a two-foot radius around Pookie. I had given him his own room so he wouldn’t have to go up and down the stairs, but I didn’t want to close him off entirely. So with the natural boundary violations of the young, the kittens used his litter box, drank his water, and ate his food while he sat hunched on a table by the window glaring at them and occasionally throwing me a baleful glance. It was written all over his face: “How could you?”

But eventually the tension eased. One day I found the three cats curled up on my bed, cheek to cheek to cheek. I wasn’t quite sure what it meant—did the kittens invade Pookie’s space and curl up with him, making him look like a willing participant? When he woke up, his expression was a little like that of a soldier taken hostage in a foreign land and being forced to pose with his captors to convince the Americans that he is being well treated. Pookie wasn’t holding up a newspaper showing today’s date, but I could have sworn he was extending his middle claw in imitation of the U.S. soldier’s classic expression of “Don’t believe them—I am being treated like an animal!”

It took a while to decide what to call the new arrivals: Fred and Barney, Cisco and Pancho, Ranger and Tonto? My first choice for one of them was actually Cisco, for San Francisco, but for some reason I kept saying Costco. That simply would not do. Costco and WalMart? Shopko and Target? Finally, I settled on Luther and Brutus—Luther because… I’m not sure… and Brutus because I wanted to be able to croon, “Et tu, Bru-TAY? Et tu? Et tu?”

Of course, to this day, I keep coming up with names I should have given them: Lost and Found… Ruff and Tumble… Yin and Yang. Caesar and Brutus would be a better pairing than bringing poor old Martin Luther into it, though I wouldn’t have wanted Brutus to actually slay Caesar if they somehow managed to live up to their names. (When I told 9-year-old Summer that I had considered calling one of the kittens Caesar, she exclaimed, disbelieving, “Like the salad?”)

In a land of Fluffies and Mittens, Brutus and Luther do seem like rather grandiose names, but I already did the “cute” thing with Pookie, and I was willing to overcompensate. At this point, I could easily rename Brutus “J.D.” for “juvenile delinquent,” because he gets into trouble 99% of the time he’s awake. Luther, on the other hand, is a real peacenik. I don’t think he’s going to start a new religion, but he’s calm and rather saintly, if I may be permitted to borrow that most un-Lutheran-like term.

Anyway, it doesn’t really matter… they both think their name is Sweetie Pie.

Remember when I wrote about my two-tigers-on-the-roof dream? I thought it meant that some unknown direction was going to manifest for me. I have to admit, it has occurred to me that the tigers were the harbingers of these two furry sweethearts. But that would be really shallow and literal, wouldn’t it?… even though I could totally see Luther lying placidly on the top of the roof while Brutus breathed down my neck with diabolical thoughts about how close I was to the edge.


Pookie and one of the young whippersnappers (it was months before I could tell them apart)

I never knew if Pookie grew to like having Brutus and Luther around, or if he just resigned himself to the inevitable. But he didn’t have to sleep on the bed with the rest of us, and he didn’t have to let them drape themselves over him. On the other hand, he wasn’t always in the mood for their antics. When Brutus would play-attack him, Pookie would often buy time by holding him down and licking his head while he tried to remember his anatomy. “Let’s see, the carotid artery is…. yes!” CHOMP. The kittens were not at all deterred by this tough older-brother love.

I have to admit that the kittens helped me push Pookie’s encroaching mortality to the back of my mind. Youth and beauty are so seductive—a great distraction from death. Their siren song is the clean slate, the fresh start, the illusion of forever-young. The kittens always smell fresh and clean, no matter what mischief they’ve been up to. They have no blemishes, no warts ‘n’ all, no existential angst, no baggage, no childhood trauma. They are so not me! And so not Pookie! The kittens embodied the illusion that there is always a fresh start, and I received that lie gratefully. I didn’t yet have to face their loss… though I would look at Luther stretched out in my arms, his head flung back, his eyes closed, his mouth turned up in a permanent smile, purring like mad while I stroked his soft tummy… and he would open his black-and-rootbeer-colored eyes to gaze at me from the depths of animality, as if wordlessly conveying the wisdom of the ancient pharaohs(’cats)… and my heart would sink as I realized, these two shall pass.

When I relayed this touching thought to K—that their deaths would bring me the same sorrow I was experiencing with Pookie—she hesitated for a second and then said, “Not necessarily.” I didn’t know what she meant at first. Then I did the math. Oh. You mean, if they live to be as old as Pookie, I’ll be as old as Methuselah, or (more likely) dead and gone? Wow. That had never occurred to me. I guess I thought that the key to immortality was always getting a new cat after the old one died, because everyone knows humans outlive their pets.

The love of the young and the innocent is easy, rewarding, and fun—while the love of the old, the oily, the flaky, and the grumpy is shot through with pain. But when I let myself stroke Pookie’s head and feel the pain of loving that which is not eternal…. I felt how precious it is to experience the love of the imperfect, and the pain of the loss to come. It digs deeper into the heart, clawing at our wish to avoid the reality of death and loss. We had a history, Pookie and I. There wasn’t always perfect communication between us, but when is that ever true in a relationship? I miss him so much.




pookie’s goodbye

hello dear friends, and goodbye.

as you may know, i’ve been sick for quite a while… and now it’s time to go.

i’ve had a good life, especially the past year in this nice, quiet place called Menomimeow or something like that.

and so, if you’ll indulge me… [clears throat]…

and now, the end is near;

and so i face the final curtain

my friend, i’ll say it clear,

i’ll state my case, of which i’m certain.

i’ve lived a life that’s full,

i’ve traveled each and ev’ry highway;

and more, much more than this,

i did it my way.

regrets, i’ve had a few;

but then again, too few to mention

i did what i had to do

and saw it through without exemption.

yes, there were times, i’m sure you knew

when i bit off more than i could chew.

but through it all, when there was doubt

i ate it up and spit it out.

i faced it all and i stood tall

and did it my way

i’ve loved, i’ve laughed and cried.

i’ve had my fill; my share of losing.

and now, as tears subside,

i find it all so amusing.

to think i did all that.

and may i say – not in a shy way,

no, oh no not me,

i did it myyyyyyyy…  wayyyyyyy.

thank you, thank you.

pookie has left the building.

remember…  that which is never born can never die.

love always,





the obligatory cute cat stories

The new kitties are the light of my life. Also, they are often the pain of my ass.

It goes without saying that they are impossibly cute. They both retrieve whatever I throw for them—wadded-up Trident gum wrappers, caps from water bottles, stray items they’ve liberated from my sand tray collection (a little green plastic soldier, a gray rhinoceros)—and will bring the retrieved object back and drop it at my feet to throw again and again. I’ll be sitting barefoot at my desk, and I’ll feel something soft pushing at my foot. I’ll lift up my big toe, and a furry paw will push a gum wrapper underneath it. If I’m downstairs, they’ll bring me water bottle caps to throw, because they make a satisfying noise on the slick linoleum kitchen floor. When the cap goes skittering across the floor, the two cats slide after it on their “stocking feet” and slam into the cupboards on the other side.

For the most part, Brutus is the action figure, and Luther is the watcher. Along with pieces of paper and fluff and the odd styrofoam peanut, they have lots of toys, including a carpet-covered “teepee” I bought for Pookie years ago that he never used. (I had wildly underestimated his size—he couldn’t even fit his head in the door.) Until they too outgrew it, Brutus and Luther loved playing in and on it. Late one night, Brutus was in the teepee going wild, while Luther sat watching him (or rather, watching the teepee). Brutus managed to hump the teepee all over the floor (from inside, mind you), and then occasionally he’d stop and stick his paws out from underneath, trying in vain to get Luther to play along. Then there was more teepee humping by the invisible hand of Brutus. Finally, he gave up on the paws and lay on his back and stuck his whole head under the teepee and gazed up at Luther, thinking, I’m sure, that that major effort would be enough to entice his brother to join in. It was not.

Then there was the Washing Machine Caper. Brutus will get into anything that’s normally closed but suddenly reveals an entry point—cupboards and closets, the dishwasher, the refrigerator, the toilet, the shower, the freezer (I have witnesses), the dryer, the washing machine. One day I’m trying to get the wet clothes into the dryer while keeping Brutus from climbing in with them. Put clothes in, take cat out, put clothes in, take cat out. Finally, all the clothes are in, but suddenly I don’t see Brutus anymore. Did he succeed in getting into the dryer? No. Then I hear something jingling. It’s one of their long-lost jingle balls. It’s coming from behind the washing machine. Oh-oh. I spend the next 10 minutes trying to coax Brutus out of there. Luther tries to help by sticking his arm between the washing machine and the wall and stretching as far as he can (which is not far). There’s a long silence. Finally, I hear some frantic scrabbling, and Brutus’s head appears over the back of the washing machine. He’s barely hanging on, and his little face is contorted like he’s lifting 1,000 pound weights. I carefully reach back there and grab him under his armpits and pull. Rescue is successful, and he lives to caper another day.

I paint, therefore… ?

Seeker to guru: “Is there life after death?”
Guru, “Who’s asking?”

Intuitive painting is paradoxical. You paint what you “feel,” but feeling is not what it’s about. What you feel is, at best, a tiny window in a door with no sign to identify it. You can call painting a doorway, but the room it opens onto has no walls, no floor, and no “you” once you enter.

So how do you know when you’re there? You think you know. You associate “connection”—being there—with feeling spacey, blissed-out, like you could stand there forever painting red dots or black lines. You may feel like you’re painting on snakeskin instead of paper. Images can come while you’re making other plans. The brush in your hand boldly goes where the mind cannot follow. But you have enough mind left to assess the situation, and you think: Aha! I’m there!

So naturally, when you’re feeling something else—stuck, stupid, or sleepy—you think you are not in that room, you can never get there, you have been denied access, you have dropped the key down the drain. You could stand there forever enumerating all the horrible things you are and are not, things you cannot do—except the teacher wants you to keep going. It’s as if you’ve come to the edge of a cliff, you’re afraid to look down, and someone says, “Just keep walking straight ahead, you’re fine.” But there is no ground beneath your feet and, to be sure, no wings either. How can you keep going when you have nothing, are nothing? Paint goes on the paper, but it means nothing. You have abandoned all hope, ye who have entered here. You ask the teacher, “Will I live through this?” and she replies, “Who’s asking?”

Then time somehow disappears, and the teacher comes by again and peers into your face. (She barely glances at the painting.) You register that she’s there, but before you can open your bag of sorrows, she says, “You’re beaming!” And you realize, yes, how strange, I’m not just smiling, I’m beaming. But how can that be, I’m not even aware of feeling anything, let alone anything that warrants this sort of facial reaction. I vaguely remember complaining about nothing, but this is different: There is no nothing, and there is no anything. There is no everything! And I feel great!

Some version of this mysterious transformation happens every time I paint, which is why I keep going back to it, over the protests of my rational mind. So…. in December I braved the snow, the rain, and the tiny airplane seats once again to attend a 7-day painting intensive at the Painting Studio in San Francisco.

As always, painting was a mystery from day to day… and this time the biggest mystery was, “Why isn’t it giving me anything?” In the sharings I didn’t have that OH MY GOD THIS IS INCREDIBLE sense of being One With All That Exists. I didn’t go out into the world at the end of the day and have surprising encounters with strangers or be struck by odd insights and metaphors. I didn’t feel STONED.

Back when I started painting, I remember most of the sharings being dominated by people (including me) saying things like, “Well, first I painted blue… then I painted red. Then I felt like painting black, so I did.” In this intensive, I noticed that the younger people did the same thing, except it was more along the lines of “First, I felt terrible, then I felt better, and now I’m afraid I’ll feel terrible again tomorrow.”

It occurs to me that the painting process unfolds as a more or less consecutive fascination with (a) color, (b) feelings, (c) God, and (d-z) _____(?). I feel like I’m standing at the edge of the cliff of (d). Which is not to say that I’m beyond God—au contraire! I’m just saying that conventional images of the Unknown, while very powerful, are not the thing, or the no-thing, itself. “God” is a continuing mystery, not a symbol or a destination. And painting keeps pulling us deeper into that mystery… a kind of spiritual archeology.

The only hint of the STONED feeling was one night when I was driving Terry back to the flat she was staying in and I had the sensation of wanting to sail straight through a red light. It would be a beautiful ride, I thought, on that brilliant red beam. Of course, I caught myself in time, but it freaked T out. She’d holler “RED MEANS STOP!” whenever another red light was coming up, but by then I was over that, I was going to stop for it, but I wanted to stop in the space between the two crosswalks, which would be in the middle of the intersection. “Ha ha,” I said to T when I explained this latest impulse, but I don’t think she appreciated that one either. After I dropped her off, I turned right onto Bush St. and was startled to see four lanes of headlights coming toward me. Oops, one way, wrong way. But despite the slight mental confusion, I was able to slam into reverse and back up and around the corner like a pro.

It was odd, because I drove all the hell over the Bay Area that week—S.F., East Bay, Marin—and felt supremely body-confident in my abilities at all times. When T was with me, I admit she did save me from a few tiny mistakes, such as not seeing a pedestrian in a crosswalk (when I was inching forward from a full stop, craning my neck the other way to see the traffic amid the chaos which is Mission St.). To take the edge off T’s possible imminent panic attack, I joked about what I’d say if I ran over somebody. “Oops! Oopee!” We laughed. For me, it was gallows humor. For T, I think, it was a lot more gallows than humor.

See, now you’re getting the wrong impression. I probably shouldn’t have said anything. But the proof is in the absolute 0 fatalities caused by me.

I have always had something to say about painting. I probably know as much about this kind of painting as anyone. I’ve been writing and talking about my experiences with this process for 26 years. The mary’zine came directly out of the writings I used to share with fellow painters. I wrote a book called Who Paints? which was rejected by Jeremy Tarcher because it wasn’t “how-to“ enough. Actually, it wasn’t “how-to” because there is no “how-to.” I’ve always tried to describe the what and speculate about the why, but how is the question on everyone’s lips.

This time I wasn’t able to identify or articulate anything that was happening to me. I had very little to say in the sharings, other than “I don’t know what happened!” I’m used to knowing (or thinking I know) exactly what I’m feeling, in great detail. But on the last day, I’m sitting there blubbering hot tears, and all I can say is, “I DON’T KNOW! I have no oPINion!”

When I got back home, BK and I had a couple of long phone conversations. I was troubled by this new development. I thought painting had taken me “somewhere,” but I had no clue where. I had no log or memory of my experience. And what good is experience if there’s no one there (meaning me) to experience it? If the guru says to you, “Yes, there’s life after death, but the ‘you’ as you know you won’t be there,” is that going to be comforting? I think not.

I asked B, “What’s the point? I spent 7 days painting and I’m left with nothing, no insight, no feeling, no words. How am I supposed to write about it? I can’t just write ‘I don’t know’! Is this where I’m headed, to have not only words but actual experience taken from me? What’s the point of nothing?” As we talked, I thought of Archimedes, the ancient Greek who discovered the lever: “Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I’ll move the world,” he said. Uh huh. That’s what all of us are looking for: a place to stand outside the world of our own lives so we can be a witness to our existence. By definition, Archimedes can’t stand outside the world or outside himself. “I don’t mind dying,” some part of us says, “but I want to stay and watch the funeral.” The mind is all about being included. We want to have a division of labor between the observer and the observed. All those stories of near-deaths when people report looking down on their own bodies on the operating table help us believe in a hierarchy of Self… an ordinary self (one for daytime, a somewhat fancier one for evening)… a higher self… a self who will survive death… and, of course, ultimately… the self we call “God”—the supreme version of our self, in whose image we are made (because we have made him and us ourselves) and with whom we will live out eternity in the best of both worlds, like a very grand version of a performer standing on stage basking in the adoration of the multitudes. If the world consisted only of our self and other parts of our self watching our self, what a wonderful world this would be!

To put this nutty idea in a nutshell: I want to be One with Everything yet remain conscious, self-aware, separate, individual, a body and mind with a name, thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Over the years I’ve learned to give up the product or “result”—the look of the painting—for the process—the intuitive trust in following what comes to me. But what if I have to give up the process, too? If the process replaces the result (as in, “I feel different and spacey, so I know I’m in process”) then how is it process anymore? I thought giving up the look of the painting was the whole sacrifice. I didn’t know that I continually make process into result and don’t need paint and paper to do it. Like turning wheat into chaff or gold into lead, I’m a master at reverse alchemy. I mean, not just me, but virtually everyone who gets to (d) on the Painting Progressometer. But of course the Progressometer is just in my head, no more real than my thin air beyond the cliff analogy.

When I was painting and not knowing what was happening, “I” was not there. And “I” did not wake up with a feather on my pillow to prove that my dream of connection had really happened. Some people make bargains with their loved ones: “Whoever dies first, let’s have a signal so the ‘living’ one will know the ‘dead’ one is still there.” I often wonder if, every time I wake up from a dream, I’ve “died” to the other people in the dream, and any deal I might have made with them to drop a feather or ring a bell becomes moot because I don’t remember them and they never existed anyway! What if that’s the knowledge we wake up (die) to? We cannot let go! We must be here forever, even if there’s no here here! Krishnamurti said, “Death does not matter,” and how could it, if we are “that which is never born and thus can never die”? We are so tied to the person we think ourselves to be, to the world we believe we inhabit, like Shakespeare’s players upon a stage. Have we learned nothing from a century of post-Newtonian physics? What we see is not what we get! We aren’t really living on a ball suspended in midair! Space is not empty, people! There are waves! Black and white holes! Cosmic worm buses! Curvy space and no time to speak of! Dimensions beyond our ability to perceive them!

I was not at all unhappy to leave the big city behind and return to my l’il piece of small town America. As attracted as I am to the restaurants, bookstores, and progressive radio stations of the Bay Area, you can’t beat a little retreat on the shores of Lake Michigan for natural beauty and sheer livability.

My first encounter with the locals after arriving back in town was with a man outside the post office. He got to the door first and opened it for me, saying, “Here you go, Pops.” I went in, sort of laughing, sort of cringing, and said, “Thanks.” From behind me I heard, “Or ‘Grandma’, as the case may be… Your voice gave you away!” I confirmed that “Grandma is more likely.” He scattered “sorry”s in my wake as I went inside. When I was done with my brief errand and started to leave, he was at the door again and again opened it for me. I asked what he was going to call me this time. He was still flustered, and mumbled something about “the 21st century” and how he “can’t tell [men from women] anymore.” Are we supposed to wear our vaginas on our sleeves now? I told him it was OK, I get that a lot—”But at least I usually get ‘Sir’—not ‘Pops’.” I was perfectly good-humored about it, but I’m not sure he could tell. Deadpan Mary. He was especially confused because, thinking I was a younger man, he had called me “Pops” to teasingly imply that I was older than him so needed the door opened for me (he looked like “Dr. Zhivago Moves to the U.P. and Feels Right at Home,” so I couldn’t tell how old he was). As I walked off to my car, he trailed a few “thank you”s behind me and said, “Some people don’t communicate so well.” I felt bad for him. I said, “Thank YOU” but later I wished I had said something a little more straightforward, like “Thanks for apologizing, but it’s really OK. I appreciate the effort.” I think he did communicate well, if communication is getting across to a stranger that you’re sorry, confused, tongue-tied, or just plain overwhelmed by the changing times. Most people wouldn’t bother. See how complicated ordinary life can be?

Yes, the Bay Area is muy beautiful. But not even the view of the Golden Gate Bridge with the fog coming in beats the view out my “loft” window. It’s winter now, so it’s mostly monochromatic—gray, black, white—with touches of color: swaths of pink and orange at sunset, and every possible shade of blue on a sunny day. Walking around the park the other day, I sang to myself, “Monochro-o-ome, you bring us such nice… stark colors, I want to take a pho-o-tograph, oh Mama don’t take… my monochrome away….” (If you don’t know what song I’m referring to, you’re way too young to be reading this.)

Someone builds rock “sculptures” all through the park—rocks piled in artistic and physically improbable ways. I think someone else comes along and knocks them over, but the rock-artist is not deterred. OK, so s/he’s not Andy Goldsworthy or even Christo, but I love the shapes of the peaked piles sitting there all un-naturely-like right next to nature and made of nature.

On the bay side are snow drifts piled up along the shoreline, then a frozen band of ice with snowmobile tracks on it, then the dark blue water in the distance. The land curves almost back on itself from the center of town, so I can look south and see a couple of tall smokestacks, a church spire, and a historic Michigan lighthouse. It would be pointless to compare this view with the view of San Francisco as you come out of the Waldo tunnel, but I think a great heart view trumps a great eye view.

Whenever I drive up M-35, along the same route I walked to get to kindergarten and first grade back in the long-ago, I feel a strong tug deep in my abdomen, as if I’m being pulled down by the great magnet of land and memory. I have as many bad memories as good ones associated with that stretch of road—like the retarded, adult-sized boy who stood in the path of little kids who were trying to pass by on their way to school (me) and roared like a monster and tried to grab them (me)—but they’ve been coalesced and compacted, like compost or dinosaur sludge. At this point, they’re part of the earth’s crust. How much crust does 59 years make, as compared to millennia? Anyway, it’s all part of the marytime history of this place, and when I say I feel grounded, I really mean it.

the U.P. in the media (an occasional feature)

The stats won’t support the theory, but don’t some parts of the country just seem more conducive to murder? Michigan’s cold and remote Upper Peninsula comes to my mind….
—Marilyn Stasio, in the
New York Times Book Review

I’m all about “cold and remote” these days, and yet, strangely, I have no immediate plans to murder anyone! Wisconsin, on the other hand, seems rife with baby-throwers-out-of-cars and wife-killing suicide-committers. And of course the worst crime of all (as spelled out on a huge billboard across from Lloyd’s factory): “A baby does not CHOOSE to DIE,” with a big cute face of a 2- or 3-month-old. If it was going to be born to the people who would later throw it out of a car, it might think twice. It would be interesting to see a billboard of an enlarged bit of tissue with the motto, “A cell does not CHOOSE to DIE.” But actually, it totally does; it’s called apoptosis; and a very large percentage of would-be fetuses are naturally aborted in the first trimester. Did GOD ask THEM if they CHOSE to DIE?

Just down the road is another billboard with a huge image of Jesus in his blonde, blue-eyed form and the slogan “JESUS LOVES YOU.” Strangely, he’s looking off to the side, not at ME at all. OK, now I have to tell all my billboard stories. One that I’ve mentioned before is the handmade “Jesus Is Lord Over Menominee County.” There’s one on the road we used to live on and another one on M-35 heading north out of town. That one now has “Over Menominee County” painted out. Is someone saying that Jesus is NOT Lord here? I mean, what’s wrong with “Pray globally, proselytize locally”?

[bloody hell! sometimes I hate the sodding interwebs! … oh… now it’s fixed… never mind!]

faulty remembrance of things past (was it a madeleine? a chocolate chip cookie? or just a stale piece of toast?)

It’s disconcerting, when you think you have every moment of your childhood emblazoned on the All About Me scrapbook of your mind, to run into people you cannot remember whatsoever. One day K, MP, Barb and I were leaving Mickey-Lu’s (have I told you about their flame-broiled burgers with flame-toasted bun, pickles and ketchup, plus a pat of butter, all wrapped in white butcher paper and plunked down on your little table or booth? Mmmmm…… Mickey-Lu’s) and a woman excitedly called out to us, “Is that MARY?” Oh shit. I backtracked, looked her over, couldn’t place her or the older woman with her. K said, “You remember Sharon A. and her mother? They used to come over to see Mom and Dad, and you and Sharon played together.” I wracked my brain. I could not tell a lie. (I could not think of one.) “Uhhhh….. no, I’m sorry.” So Sharon, her smile dimming noticeably, and K and Barb regaled me with details of that apparently unforgettable friendship. “I’m sorry, my memory is good but it’s short!” (When in doubt, rely on a proven platitude.) Then, idiotically, I say, “But it’s nice to see you…. again….” Shit. I couldn’t understand how K and Barb, 6 and 8 years younger than me, could remember these people so vividly when I had never even heard their names before. I vowed that if that sort of thing happened again, I’d fake it.

Recently, I got my chance. I got a UPS delivery one day, and the driver hesitated before handing over the package. Finally, he said, “Do you remember me?… We graduated together.” Oh shit. I take a stab in the dark. “Uh … Don ….?” No. “Tom Cort,” he says. The memory of the disappointed if not crushed Sharon A. flashes through my mind. “Oh yeah! Hi!” and I even give him a little hug to cover the lie that is probably neon-lighting up my face. He said he had recognized my name on the package and thought, “Could it be…?” And I’m thinking, how would he know me if I didn’t know him? I thought I was completely invisible in high school! “Nice to see you again!,” I exclaim, with way too much enthusiasm in my lying voice.

It occurs to me that I should stop seeing myself as a stranger in a familiar land, but, frankly, I don’t want to give that up. Every sense is heightened when you’re continually pinballed between the past and the present and the strange chemical mixture of the two. (Chemical pinball. You’ve never played?)

I wonder if there’s a science fiction book or movie out there with the premise that… OK, I’m thinking along the lines of Gulliver’s Travels, in which Gulliver is tied down by the tiny Lilliputians. Let’s say a friendly giant comes along to help some l’il townspeople with their quilting bee, and suddenly s/he finds herself woven into the fabric of their lives—literally. They display the completed quilt proudly in the town square, and if you look very closely, you’ll see the outline of our giant practically indistinguishable from the threads and crazy-quilt patches of the rest of the design.

If physicists can have a string theory, I can have a thread theory.

Like my reimagined Gulliver, I’m slowly becoming embedded in the fabric of my family. We have our Friday night get-togethers, our drop-bys, our holidays. I don’t get to see the little ones that often—everyone works full-time or goes to school, so contact is sporadic. It’s a lesson in taking the long view.

Belatedly, I want to tell you about an e-mail I got from Maria of NM last summer. She had been reading an article by Garrison Keillor (Prairie Home Companion) and he mentioned how interesting it is to listen to small-town radio stations in the Midwest. He gave as an example, “Barb calls in to say thanks to everyone, Pookie has been found.” Maria was all excited, thinking it must have been my Barb and my Pookie. But no, there are apparently parallel Midwestern universes out there, where Barbs and Pookies and Mares live out their lives in blissful ignorance of other dimensions of being. In fact, they live as you and I do… with strained comprehension, arbitarily exercised compassion, magnets pulling this way and that, and memories good but short.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #36 March 2009

August 19, 2009

I was talking to Barbara (BK) about the mary’zine the other day, and she mentioned that there’s only so much you can write about shoveling snow. Au contraire.



Snow is a cold war—

My only weapon? Shovel.

I need a blower!

Jim Anderson (still) blows best

[from an e-mail to my sister] I was out shoveling today while a large man was snoblo’g at the red house across the street. I was pretending not to see him so he wouldn’t think I was a damsel in distress waiting to be rescued. He came over and rescued me anyway. Unfortunately, he hit a submerged Eagle-Herald [useless unsolicited newspaper], which put his blo’r out of commission. Oops. I asked him his name and he said Jim Anderson. Hm. I remembered that a Jim Anderson got my Jeep unstuck from the driveway 4 years ago, but I didn’t know he lived around here. (His mother lived in the red house at the time.) This guy lives in the yellow house on the other side of the red one. Aha. So either I live in a Twilight Zone in which all men are named Jim Anderson (and their children are all Princess, Kitten or Bud), or it was the same guy.


dear snow: Blow me

Contrary to popular belief, the Eskimos do not have more words for snow than do speakers of English. Counting generously, experts can come up with about a dozen.”

—Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct

Check out this website for a debunking of the myth that “Eskimos” (Inuits) have an inordinate number of words for snow: You’ll also find the tongue-in-cheek “The Eskimos’ Hundred Words for Snow” by Phil James. Here are just a few:

tlapa………..powder snow

tlacringit….snow that is crusted on the surface

kayi…………drifting snow

tlapat………still snow

klin…………remembered snow

naklin……..forgotten snow

tlaslo……….snow that falls slowly

tlapinti…….snow that falls quickly

tliyel………..snow that has been marked by wolves

tliyelin…….snow that has been marked by Eskimos

hahatla…….small packages of snow given as gag gifts

sotla………..snow sparkling with sunlight

tlun…………snow sparkling with moonlight

astrila………snow sparkling with starlight

clim…………snow sparkling with flashlight or headlight

And then there’s this…


a Winter wRap

Drove my sisters down to Green Bay town

for Mexican food that was mighty good.

We shopped and we roamed and then headed home,

we’d heard it might flurry but we didn’t worry,

it was ‘sposed to be “light,” no, it wouldn’t last,

but it got real white, and it got there fast.

When a semi blew through, removed the road from view,

I was driving blind, but my sisters didn’t mind—

unlike their men, I drove like a hen.

Slow and steady stayed the course;

I only cried “FUCK!” once or twourse.

Didn’t think we were ever in real true danger,

but I sent up a prayer to a babe in a manger.

At least 3 cars had gone off the highway,

and a crash with a semi almost blocked off my way.

It’s the worst darn snow I’ve ever driven in,

and we’re all glad to still be livinin’.

So that’s my rhyme and I do declare,

the heartland is cool but it gets nasty out there.

I gotta get this stuff out of my system! Like the snow itself, it won’t keep!

It was 0 (zilch, nada) degrees when I got up on Xmas morning, but the sun was shining, making everything sparkle. So I bundled up and went out to feed the birds and the squirrels (and the occasional rabbit), fumbling with the heavy bags of wild bird seed, nuts, dried fruit, corn, and sunflower seeds. I poured hot water on the ice in the bird bath—I bought a heater for it, but it needs a little help at these temperatures (plus, my sister the science teacher points out that the basin is copper, so the water freezes faster). I had had to move the bird bath closer to the electrical outlet on the back porch, so it took the birdies awhile to not only find it but to trust that it wasn’t some sort of trap. I looked out my kitchen window a few days ago and was delighted to see 10 or 12 little birds vying for position on the edge of the basin and flapping around in the just-below-freezing water (when I told BK about this, she said they must belong to the Polar Bear Club)—hopping, fluttering, taking tiny sips, trading places every second or two when another bird arrived to push its way in.

While I was out there, I knocked down the woolly mammoth tusk-sized icicles hanging from the rain gutters. I took out a little aggression doing it, because they remind me of my mother taking my picture between two such ice-tusks when I was 15. To her, it was a joke, though I’m not sure what the punchline was. As for me, the proof is in the photo: I’m wearing a babushka on my head, pink-framed nerd glasses on my pimply face, and eyes aimed downward. Needless to say, I am not smiling. Now I see the symbolism. On some level, my mother must have seen it, too. I was a prisoner in the family jail, with bars of ice and a cheerfully cruel captor. When I showed the photo to my therapist years later, she said it made her want to cry. With the wisdom and distance of age, I can dance on the grave of my former self and forgive the heck out of my mother, but that doesn’t change the facts. And, yeah, I know I’m old enough that I should be forgetting all those youthful humiliations, but my life from age 0 to now has a deep root system, it flourishes underground like the affectionately named “Humongous Fungus,” arguably “the world’s oldest and largest living organism,” that covers 37 acres under the U.P. somewhere west of here. It may be invisible, buried, spreading its rhizomorphic DNA out of sight, even out of mind. But “the past” [I suggest] is not a ribbon of highway that retreats from sight in our rearview mirror, here yesterday gone today, it’s all right here, it bisects the earth’s plane and extends down under our feet, not goin’ nowhere until ashes to ashes, fungus to fungus, we join the ancestral colonies of differentiated parallel hyphae and prepare the soil for the “future” ones who will walk up here the way we do now, oblivious, spinning their wheels and dreaming of heaven, looking up, up and away, as though we can ever be rescued from the fate of the earth, the past, the ground of being. I’ve tried to believe life is an illusion, temporary, quirky as a quark and as hard to pin down, puffy and flighty as a dandelion gone to seed. Now I find that I must renounce the metaphorical breathatarianism by which I thought I could live in the mystical state of Mind, zip code 00000, a continuous metamorphosis performed, except when witnessed, while whirling in thin air, or temporarily captured in ice.

By the way, one of the scientists who discovered the “Humongous Fungus” is… Jim Anderson. My God, where does that man find the time?

So I haul out the bags of ice-melting crystals (Ice-No-Mor—really?—did they really gain brand status by leaving off that final “e”?) and clomp through deep drifts around to the front of the house to shovel a path for the mailman. While I’m a-huffin’ and a-puffin’ out there, I just pray to God I don’t die, embarrassingly, of heart failure, landing on my ass in a snowbank where I’ve fallen into dreams of hypothermia. It’s annoying that I have to shovel halfway into the street, because the city plow comes down the middle of the road, gifting all the home-moaners with extra snow piles to clear away by their own hand.

So I’m shoveling away (Jim Anderson doesn’t seem to realize that my house has a front), trying to keep my scarf around my neck and my back to the wind, defying gravity, age, and other physical laws, and I think about how winter is so very Sisyphean—another metaphor for life that does not, somehow, contradict the underground nature of self upon which I just riffed. Above ground, life is the endless rolling of the rock up the hill, the temporary relief at resting from one’s labors on the walk down—or is that part hard on your knees?—and the taking up of the challenge once again. I suppose Sisyphus could choose to lie down and let the rock crush him, but that would be just as pointless as his endless, monotonous effort. And he probably doesn’t have a choice anyway. Looking for meaning and purpose? Life is energy, and energy’s only goal is to keep moving, no questions asked, or only the Big Questions asked but never answered. The Moving Rock rolls (the snow-blower blows), and having Rock-Roll’d and Blow’d, moves on.

Not that it’s all work and no play: the work is the play. Energy thrums from out the universal boiler room down there, the essential, silent center, the secret source of the laboring lunk who, even if he figures out how to move the rock by heavy machinery, computer, or Dianetic mind power, will never cease to move because he is that movement, he is that moment, and his evanescence is not in conflict with his physical, sweating, heaving, short-lived but eternal self.

OK. I’ve finished the feeding, the watering, the shoveling, the sprinkling, and I come inside, breathing heavily, and take off my boots and change my snow-wet pants and sweaty shirt. I scramble some eggs and sit down with toast and orange juice to enjoy the bright white beauty outside the window and watch the birds of a feather—lots of different feathers, actually—where did those pigeons come from?—flock together, perching on the hanging feeders or scrambling over the frosty ground to get every last bit of nourishment before a fitter flitter comes along and runs them off. Few things make me happier than watching the flying and scooting critters scarf up my largess. Of necessity, I am an anonymous donor, because when I go out on the back porch to replenish their supplies, they all fly off in a panic. I’d like some credit—I’d like to have them perch on my shoulder and tweet and fly around my head like Snow White—but virtue is its own reward, or so I’ve heard. Besides, that’s what cats are for. When Brutus curls up in my arms, shifting his weight to make himself into a ball of lightly snoring fur, that’s my recognition, that’s my gratitude, and in my speech before the Academy I will thank the entire animal community and bask in their applause.

So. Are we done with the snow talk?

In a way, I’ve been riffing about the easy stuff while I think about some other things I want to say. In my conversation with BK, she helped me see that there’s another layer to the story of my moving back here to my hometown. The main story, or the first one anyway, was truly a miracle of following my bliss by way of the little hints that directed me back here, and I’ve dined out on that story more than once… not to take anything away from the truth and amazement of it. Talking about it with her, I started crying—crying! for the first time since the December intensive when I was painting Muslims, the Twin Towers, me floating down the Ganges on a burning funeral pyre, the Sphinx, etc. Usually, I just paint myself with body parts hanging out, so who knows what all that was about. Anyway, I was telling BK about not being able to talk to my sister Barb the way I can talk to my friends. Barb’s level of discourse seems to consist largely of long-winded updates and repeated aphorisms she’s relied on for years. Actually, our father did that. He was a bundle of folksy sayings: “I’ve got one foot in the grave and the other foot on a banana peel.” “Cat fur to make kitten britches, ya wanna buy a pair?” He had only so many conversational bullets, and they kept getting chambered one after the other and shot off when some trigger in his brain was pulled. But he had a major disease (MS)—and no education past the 8th grade. And was an alcoholic and had been beaten as a child and survived being shot in WWII! My sister is a college graduate and a jr. high school teacher, but everything she says seems scripted, the origin of the script long since forgotten, and even with not having much new to say, she gives every appearance of having that compulsive talking disease, something with the suffix “-lalia” or “-glossia.” Perhaps a mild form of “delayed echolalia” (she says, after a brief search online); she doesn’t echo other people so much as herself, as if she’s consulting a dictionary of her own previous utterances because the idea of talking spontaneously is too fraught with possible error and exposure, a fear of silence above all. K and MP and I can sit together quietly and wait for inspiration to strike, for something semi-relevant to say. Barb comes in with a laundry list of “stories,” most of which involve what time her cat went out that morning and came back in, or how many marking periods are left in the school year.

I mean, we all like to talk about our daily lives, and I’m not saying my “stories” are endlessly fascinating, but her story-bites are truly nibbles. But she keeps on dispensing, like a coffee vending machine gone haywire, so if you open your mouth to make a response (or counteract with a “story” of your own), she’s on to the next tidbit. If in the middle of one of these “stories,” nephew Joshua, for instance, walks in the door after a week on the road, she keeps talking, even though the rest of us are looking toward the doorway like any normal person would, to say “hey” to Joshua and ask how his week was and if he got caught in that blizzard in South Dakota.

If she is successfully interrupted, she’ll wait until the next opening and then pick up where she left off, like a recording that you pause and then start up again as if nothing happened in the meantime. She once told us that she sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night talking out loud, and our other sister K (in a rare lapse into impolite truth) said, “Noooooo.” MP and I laughed, and Barb looked stunned, like “Wha—?” She really doesn’t know she talks all the time.

You may be wondering how I’m daring to write this stuff when my peops read the ‘zine, and of course the answer is that I finally gave in and decided to write an “underground” edition that they won’t see. I feel guilty about it—their previous responses to the ‘zine have been almost uniformly positive. K said once that she doesn’t understand everything in it but she just keeps reading because she “doesn’t want to miss anything.” And Barb and MP always LOL at something or other. But oh well. I’ve become blocked in my ‘zine writing knowing they’re going to read it, and I need the freedom to go where my slippery brain and flying fingers take me.

So anyway, I told BK that the sentence that’s always on the tip of my tongue that I’ll probably end up blurting out at Barb someday is, “Do you ever get tired of saying the same thing over and over again??” BK’s immediate response was, “Do you know what that brings to mind?” and I got it. “Oh, you mean, ‘Do I ever get tired of thinking the same thing over and over again’?” Bingo.

What BK helped me understand is that, on a certain level, I’ve been treating my move back here almost as a lark, as if my California-gotten gains (sorry, I know I keep using that phrase, but it’s so good!) and my hard-won career-independence from the constraints of a small manufacturing town have combined to make me feel like a grown-up magically free of the ties that previously bound me. But beware, there are no free lunches in nature.

I thought that, because my parents(mother) are dead, I was free of their(her) influence, and so I’ve been delighting in the near-delirious hallucination of living in this minefield that can’t possibly blow up on me anymore—like, “remember when I stepped on that one over there and almost got my foot blowed off? ha ha.” But the DNA did not die with Mom, no it has been scrambled and reshaped, we three sisters carrying out the legacy of our mother’s passive-aggressive social narcissitude, though K takes more after the McKenney side of the family. But Barb and I are like little clone sheep of our screwed-up/up-bringing, and our interactions are thus weird and annoying because we use the same pantomimes against each other, like Lucy and Harpo doing the mirror dance—but I have the greater felicity with language, the advantage of being the oldest—the first, the best—and so I score my points at her expense, hardly reflecting on why I’m doing it. There’s a rivalry between us, a competition I was never aware of before, a need on both our parts to best the other. Before I moved back, she was the “educated” one (but Northern Michigan University, really? [what a snob I am]), and no one else necessarily knew when she was talking out of her ass.

Now I’m here, and unless she’s talking about 7th-grade science (planets and earthworms and such), I can usually puncture her misbegotten pontifications with the pin of my superior education (MSU, go Spartans!) and worldly experience. If, say, Charles Manson gets mentioned, like when he’s up for parole again for the umpteenth time, and she says how it must have been terrible to be those “nurses,” of course I get to jump in with—“no, that was Richard Speck!”—and her response is “Whatever…,” and then I get all self-righteous, like “you’re a teacher, you’re supposed to care about the truth!” (I don’t say that out loud, it’s all implied in my attitude, which is aggressive without owning up to it, i.e., passive-).

There’s also weirder stuff going on that I don’t fully understand (and am not sure I want to). She and I have become a sort of de facto couple—with K & MP we’re a foursome, and if they can’t get together for our Friday night routine, the two of us usually go out (or stay in to watch a movie) together. Once when the four of us were going into Target, and K & MP were walking ahead of us, holding hands, Barb said, “You wanna hold hands?” and I was like NO! Sure, it was a joke. But for some reason I have this feeling that she expects me to be her partner-substitute—the default “other”—since her husband (the cross-dresser who wanted to be my “lesbian lover”) died. This feeling probably comes from semi-suppressed fears of being controlled sexually (as I was at one point) or emotionally (as I always was) and she has become the placeholder against whom I have to defend myself from being taken over. The fact that this is a classic case of projection doesn’t seem to change my thoughts or behavior, and if I were still in therapy I’d have to be doing some embarrassing somatic exercise right about now, which, fortunately, I’m not.

(That’s a weird story in itself, my attempt to be “friends” with J after I left therapy. Should I leave it for another day? It doesn’t really fit here… does it?)

I do love my sister, but the love is only safe to come out when I have some control—like when I convinced her to let me go out at midnight to bring her medicine when she had a really bad cold. Or when I drove her and her son Brian down to the Green Bay airport in bad weather because I know how afraid she is of driving under those conditions. But when I perceive her as trying to somehow be in charge of me, I get all paranoid and resistant. Back when I arrived at her house after driving 5 days back from California with Pookie in advance of the moving van, she had worked out how it would be: I was to plop down in the recliner while she went out to get me whatever takeout food I wanted, and then we would watch the finale of “Friends” (? I think it was) that she had taped for me. I meekly piped up that I’d like to look at the mail that was waiting for me, and she sighed heavily at having her perfectly good plan derailed on a whim.

Barb has the somatic bearing of one who tries to swallow everyone around her. (Plus, she’s a big gal.) Her friends are people she can “take care of” by telling them what to do and scolding them like a mother or a 7th grade teacher when they don’t follow her instructions.

I told Peggy that I don’t like women who are bigger than me, and she immediately responded, “That would explain the weight gain.” She meant it as a joke, but there may be some truth in it. I feel as if, with Barb, I’m fighting for my life/autonomy in a way I couldn’t fight with my mother because she was implacable. Barb, by virtue of being the “baby sister,” will [knock wood] never quite achieve that status with me, and I have no intention of giving up the awesome [hypothetical, perhaps self-delusional] power that that affords me.

I did have a moment of panic when I was thinking about this and got the image of Kathy Bates in “Misery,” when she traps the writer (James Caan, I think) into staying under her care and ends up doing dastardly things to him. I also think of old Alfred Hitchcock TV episodes that galvanized me when I saw them in high school: like when a woman who’s been kidnapped tries to alert someone to her predicament, and her kidnapper convinces the person that she’s a mental patient; or when a man is forcing his elderly mother to walk up and down stairs to make her have a heart attack, and the truth only comes out when her desperate scratch marks are found along the wall. Are these the typical fears of any adolescent when she feels trapped at home with an overbearing mother and no control over her life except in her private thoughts? It’s instructive that, though I learned to masturbate in elementary school, I only did it on the bars of the swing set at school, never at home, and I “forgot all about it” until I was a sophomore in college; and when I dared to start my first-ever diary as a 19-year-old 500 miles from home, the first (and only) entry being about the delicious feeling of getting a back massage from my upstairs neighbor, a boy, my mother with her super-unnatural radar knowing that something was going on “dropped in” on me and discovered said diary and took the whole family back upstate the following day after leaving me a 12-page letter, literally tear-stained, about my perversity and wouldn’t speak to me for 6 weeks.

So I think there’s another level to my miraculous return to my hometown, that in some ways I’ve been living on the surface, keeping my head just above water, thinking it’s all about living in my big house filled with books, 2 cats, the Internet, and long blissful periods of silence, while alternately enjoying and enduring Friday nights in the recliner-of-honor (bro-in-law and me presiding over the TV, snarking to each other) while my two sisters exchange their job and cat news, talking right through the shows and mysteriously going silent when MP mutes the commercials. My nervousness about what all this may mean verges on exhilaration, if that makes any sense, because I love exploring (spelunking?) like this above all else.

I’m in the process of letting all this new/old information sink in, so I can’t really wrap it all up and tell you I’ve settled down into my own personal fungosity, stretching and spreading for miles beneath the surface, defying the brain’s conscious hegemony—but I have that same feeling as when painting, when I don’t know what I’m doing but something is doing it anyway, and it’s a feeling of being open to, and taking part in, the Mystery, the Unknown, that is bigger than Alfred Hitchcock or speculation about one’s psychological demons, because the greatest fear is merely a sheep in wolf’s clothing, a tawdry trick that is revealed only when the true power and glory of existence becomes known.

So let me conclude with a gentler riff on my family, the peops I was born and/or destined to hang with in my twilight years, to use as a mirror or a one-way glass or, in the best of times, to enjoy the simple pleasures with in a complicated world.

[bloody hell, I have no control over the @#!%** spacing on this thing!!!]

fri fam fun lol

Handy key to names, relationships, and occupations:

Barb, sister, teacher

K, sister, coupling specialist (no, not that kind)

MP, K’s husband, macho wrecker truck driver

Joshua, K & MP’s son, macho long-distance truck driver

So one Friday night I’m at K & MP’s for the usual weekly get-together, and MP, always the joker, talks about “waking up every Friday morning with a feeling of dread,” which I, and I alone, interpret correctly as “dread of Friday night.” Ha ha. The TV is on, of course, and we’re watching some cop show I never heard of called “Flashpoint,” a drama of very little interest, or so it would seem, because Joshua is telling MP how many miles he drove last week (over 2,000) and how few hours he slept (less than 18), and K and Barb are talking about the cats throwing up (K’s) or fighting (B’s) (we have 7 cats among us, and they are all grist for the ol’ conversational mill). I am trying to follow the show and/or get a little nap in (the lights are off and I’m parked in K’s recliner). So between the two cross-conversations and the police scanner and the TV and the bonging grandfather clock, I suddenly announce, “It’s just like the ‘zine!” and everyone chuckles momentarily, indulgently (the thought balloons over their heads all say, “Humor her”), before the volume goes up again on the trucker and cat conversations, talk about splitting along gender lines.

Then MP’s cell phone for the wrecker rings and the TV gets muted immediately so he can sound all professional, “Motor Company,” and the rest of us start whispering/guessing what he’s going to say, either “That’s out of the area” or “We don’t do lockouts.” And we’re laughing, of course, trying to be quiet. So when he asks the caller “Where is it?” we expect to hear “That’s out of the area,” but he keeps asking questions, which means he finally got a tow. Then MP says to the caller, “I don’t have any way to get a fax,” and we’re all primed to laugh at anything, so when Joshua mimes receiving a fax out of his ass, the three of us lose it. There is nothing funnier than watching my sisters dissolve into laughter, especially when they have hands over their mouths, tears streaming down their cheeks, and are unsuccessfully attempting to call for quiet… “Sssssshhhh!” So I’m snorting, which is what happens when you’re over 60 and try to laugh like a lady, and Joshua is still “receiving faxes,” and, very uncharacteristically (while on business), MP starts laughing and has to tell the caller “They’re making me laugh,” and he finally gets the information, which for some reason gets even funnier as he repeats phone numbers and directions. He finally hangs up and is off to Peshtigo to tow somebody out of a ditch. The TV gets turned up again, we all dry our eyes and blow our noses, Joshua takes off to meet a friend at a bar, Barb goes to the bathroom and then announces she’s going to “head to the house,” and K and I, in sudden quiet, watch the last half hour of “Numbers” before I too head to the house with its peace, quiet, and cats who don’t throw up or fight though they do many other interesting things that I could tell the family about next week if I can get a word in.

p.s. Here I have half a page left [in the paper version]. When my mother wrote me her long, long letters and she came to the end and realized that there was a whole empty side or margins that could be filled with more news, she kept on writing so as not to waste a perfectly good few inches of paper.

So I’m going to tell you just one short little cat story, the story of Brutus who stepped on some painter’s tape, sticky from having been used in the painting of my glorious “happy [once attic] room.” In a panic, he fled the room, and of course the tape went with him, and I ran out after him calling “Brutus! Stop!” and as I rounded the stairwell and headed toward the bedroom, I saw him standing as still as a statue, the blue tape clinging to his foot and stuck in his fur, just waiting patiently, like I have never seen a cat do, and then I stepped on the tape and he was free to move again. It was like a mitzvah, even though neither of us is Jewish (that I know of), and I often think of this story as a reflection of the deep bond of which cats are capable, despite the bad rap they get from dog lovers.

This space left intentionally blank.

[Mary McKenney]

#5 in a series… the best of the mary’zine that never made it to print…

August 16, 2009

The Marinette-Menominee Eagle-Herald

November 14, 2008   Peninsula: UP;  Stocks: DOWN;  Weather: IFFY

“Doin’s ‘Bout Town” [redacted for the interwebs]

by H. Society

Well, things have been a-hoppin’ at the home of Miss Mary M—,  North Shore Drive, Menominee, these past two weeks. Ordinarily a solitary homebody, a senior who shares her beautiful home with two charming felines, the divine Miss M— entertained a succession of guests from far-flung parts of the country.

The first guest was Miss Peggy D— of Grants Pass, Oregon. Miss D— is quite familiar with the Marinette-Menominee area, having visited our twin cities back in the 1970s when she and Miss M— were first … enjoying each other’s company. She often visits at this time of year, in time to celebrate the birthday of her hostess, who turned a whoppin’ 62 this year! ‘Bout time to apply for Social Security, eh? The two old friends spent lots of time relaxing, napping, reading, watching football, obsessing about the upcoming election (“Yes We Did!”), and, of course, eating. They mostly patronized three local establishments: Schloegel’s Bay View Restaurant in Menominee, Schussler’s Euro American Grill & Caterers (or “Supper Club,” to those of us in the know!) in Peshtigo, and the pride of Menominee’s First Street elite, The Landing [Ed. note: Ask for Cindy!]. Miss D— also distinguished herself by cooking two delicious meals for the pair, as well as doing several “man chores” around the M— home, which was much appreciated by our hostess with the mostess. On Miss M—’s birthday, they ventured down Green Bay way to Fratello’s Waterfront Restaurant, where they tasted the best of what Wisconsin has to offer (no offense, Schussler’s!). And the next day they joined local family members Mr. and Mrs. Michael (Kay) P— and their son J— for fine dining at, well, Schussler’s, which gets more ink in this paper than I do. Mrs. Barbara K— was ill and could not attend. Birthday gifts, at Miss M—’s suggestion, largely consisted of gift certificates for Don’t be surprised if you see a sharp upsurge in brown delivery trucks in the neighborhood! Throw in a 50-mile drive north to Escanaba to dine at the lovely Stonehouse, and you have some idea of how desperate the locals are to get a decent meal.

After a day of rest and laundry, the parade of visitors continued, with Mrs. and Mrs. Terry and Jean B—-E— enlivening the scene. They hail from Massachusetts, ‘nuff said. (Hint: Note the double “Mrs.”!) They too enjoyed the hospitality of the local establishments. (By the way, Miss D— could be Mrs. D—-B— if Oregon were as progressive as Massachusetts and Connecticut—but let’s save the political rabblerousing for the editorial page!!) At the oft-afore-mentioned Schussler’s, the three friends were joined by Mrs. K—, beloved sister and teacher in the M— Area Public Schools. The evening was capped by a viewing of Mrs. K—’s large collection of handmade bracelets and earrings, of which the Mrs. B—-E—’s chose their favorites and insisted on paying.

When Miss M— and her guests were turned away from The Landing at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night (no reservation—what were they thinking??), she whipped up a delicious meal of penne pasta (a type of spaghetti shaped like a little tube), tomatoes, and sausage. The Mrs. B—-E—’s showered their hostess with well-earned praise.

All of Miss M—’s visitors had the benefit of a tour ‘bout town. Sights included the neighborhoods in which she grew up—Hwy. 35 near “The Cove,” an exclusive community of three wooded estates on the shore of Green Bay, where Miss M— trespassed daily as a young child to get to the public beach; and the formerly picturesquely named Bay de Noc Road (now 18th St.; feh) where the woods, pastures, sand hills, sand roads, and blackberry and raspberry bushes (and wild asparagus and rhubarb!) of yesteryear have been replaced by large, gaudy dwellings (with pillars yet), a manmade pond, paved pathways, and the extensive grounds of the K— (of K— Construction) family, who entertain their neighbors every Xmas with a display of religious sayings writ large in neon in the trees they have not yet hacked down—“Praise God in the Highest,” etc. etc. (imagine if, instead of “God,” they had hoisted electric praise to “Allah,” same deity, different name—Mon Dieu!)—plus the aforementioned First Street (where the other half of 1% lives); the much-traveled Hwy. 41 between State Farm Insurance and Pine Tree Mall; and, of course, John Henes Park, Menominee’s pride and joy and Miss M—’s earliest stomping grounds and personal Mecca hajj sacred site of possibility…. that expanse of cozy bay off Lake Michigan, with the world, vaguely perceived but beckoning, on the horizon, calling me, calling me, I mean, calling Miss M—, calling Miss M—.

Mrs. and Mrs. B—-E— also challenged Miss M— to put her massive brain to the test of finding a physical space containing books for sale. After much thought, and a largely fruitless trip to Wal-Mart, she remembered the grandly named Book World in Marinette (WI), which also specializes in magazines, cigars, and smoking accoutrements. Good books and time were had by all.

Last, but certainly not least, was the arrival of Miss Diane L—, from gay town, San Francisco, California, though Miss L— herself is not “one of those” (not that there’s anything wrong with it). Miss L— also toured the small circumference of Miss M—’s early life and ate in the same aforementioned three restaurants, because the alternatives were just too grim. Miss L—’s motto is “Be Prepared!”; hence she brought goodies from her hometown of Milwaukee—tortilla chips, salsa and bean dip, apple nutbread, stoneground wheat bread, granola, wine—as well as a hostess gift of a warm scarf bearing a close likeness of the Fabric of the Universe™ design created by Miss M— at the Center for Creative Exploration ( painting studio in San Francisco. The two old friends also visited Book World, which hasn’t seen that much business in months (just kidding, BW! Love ya!), and drove through “the grittier side of Marinette”: “tavern row,” Menekaunee shipyards, and an abandoned paper mill. They’re saving “Pollack Alley” for next time. An African American man was sighted, causing them to immediately lock their car doors. Just kidding, African Americans!

The two weeks, though packjam with social activities, just flew by, and before she knew it Miss M— was bidding her final guest adieu and returning to her beloved yet ultimately unknown and unknowable routine with her feline companions, B— and L—, two brothers rescued by Miss D— from the shores of our very own Green Bay three years ago! And so, we leave the homey meows-à-trois to their placid existence within the many walls of one of the most inappropriately large—but beautifully green—houses in the history of the U.P.

That’s “Doin’s ‘Bout Town” for this week! Toodle-ooo!

[Mary M—]

mary’zine random redux: #7 September 2000

August 11, 2009

Roy Orbison’s songs defy all standard techniques and “rules” of songwriting. When asked how he composed a song, he replied, “I just start with something I like, and then I go wherever I want.”

It’s strange that with every issue of this ‘zine, I feel like I’m inching farther and farther out on a limb—c-r-e-a-k! Instead of getting easier, the process gets more daunting. The first issues seemed (in retrospect) so easy to write, because it didn’t seem to matter what I wrote about. I was going to be FREE! Now, I feel more and more exposed, like somebody’s going to notice that I think about myself all the time and that my most intimate relationships are with paid professionals. Of course that’s not true. No way. I spend most of my time thinking about world peace, and Pookie and I are very close.

Every issue so far has been at least loosely thematic—not because I chose a theme, but because there seems to be a drive (the opposite of entropy?) toward continually creating order—making connections, bringing things together. Revealing the perfect order beneath the disorder. I couldn’t say what my theology is, but that comes as close as anything. As I survey the possibilities for this issue, I see that it could be a Healing issue, an Anger issue, a Travel issue, or a Mom issue. Well, there’s already been a Mom issue, but every issue is a Mom issue, if you know what I mean. Dad issue is in the distant future, daring me to approach it.

Far from trying to force these threads together into a tight weave, it almost seems as if they need a bit of prying apart. I get paralyzed at times, because everything I start to write about wants to go in ten different directions at once. And yet all the directions are related, all the topics are related, everything that occurs to me is related so intricately (and often indescribably) that sometimes I think there must be a Knot at the center of everything. And that somehow the job of a writer is to keep picking at that knot, loosening it strand by strand. Who knows what’s left when the Knot is gone? Maybe Knothing.

With that cheery thought, I think I’ll just throw Healing, Anger, Travel, and Mom into the Writer’s Blender, turn it on puree, and see what happens.

First, I’d like to share part of a delightful response to the last issue that I got from Barbara (popularly known as B) while she was vacationing in Taos. (That’s where I got the Knot analogy.)

i just devoured the zine… which i thought I left on the airplane and had a big wondering about what life it would take on, passed into the hands of stewardesses or air servers or whatever politically correct terminology they use these days… and maybe the pilots would be reading the zine, instead of paying attention to the clouds and planets passing by… and then, after the next major crash, when they found the black box at the bottom of the ocean, it would be determined that the pilots were all discussing green tea and parallel universes… and of course this info would be kept TOP SECRET… and only I, if I never got to share my spontaneous thoughts with you… would know how it all came to be… m… this was the best zine ever. it took me awhile to enter into it… probably because I didn’t want to read about addictions and deprivations, while eating my own little chocolate universes, but today… in the midst of all the vastness of taos, or maybe it’s the nothingness of it all… no distractions… no dramas, no millions of other lives to dive into, no studio plants to water (having just watered Jani’s plants – I think she is humoring my need to be useful and helpful – and then, there’s always caleb who has an endless ball to throw and chase… so, after all that liveliness… and the sun is already melting all my desires… or maybe it’s the chocolate within me… I picked up the zine… and forced myself to read it… and after the first word I was off and running…and wow… wowwww… wwwwwwwow..ow..oh.. from coffee, to tea, to parallel universes to worm hearts…wow… all in one… with an endless array of Shakespearean might have beens or not have beens… and what have yous and what have you knots.. oh m… what wonderful inspiring writing… wait… I’ll go get some more chocolates from the jar that I filled to make it look like I didn’t already eat half of their chocolates yesterday upon arrival. and to realize it’s all so not the issue, like really, like wow… forget the food… it’s the Knot not b that I’m running from…

I feel like I’m getting a little ‘zine in return when I get a response like that. Let a thousand ‘zines bloom!

I’m feeling slightly better than I did the last time I wrote—in fact, the caffeine dilemma has been reversed to the point where I had to trade in the green tea with its pinch of caffeine for a blend called Easy Now that is supposed to “ease tension and stress.” (I also drink the cleverly named Eater’s Digest to “promote healthy digestion.” I’m a sucker for unsubstantiated claims sold in neat, trademarked packages.) I’ve experienced a tremendous resurgence in energy since I started seeing Hillary, a jin shin jyutsu practitioner in Fairfax. (Thanks to Anna D. for the referral!) So far, my stomach still feels like I’ve swallowed a medicine ball with every meal, but I’ve only had a few sessions. It’s amazing how quickly we forget, though. I e-mailed Diane that I wasn’t sure if I should continue the jin shin because it wasn’t doing anything for my stomach, and she wrote back, “I can’t *BELIEVE* you’re off caffeine due to this. Did I read that right?? Is that accurate? And I can’t BELIEVE you would consider STOPPING the doing of it???? Hellloooooooo? This is helllllllppppping!” And I thought, Oh. Yeah. That. Well, maybe it is helping.

I’ve been through a lot since February (my stomach problems started when I was writing the first issue of the ‘zine—coincidence?). I was really hoping that the Western medicine plan of attack—when in doubt, remove an organ—would do the trick, but now I’m deep in the land of mysterious “alternative” practices. Instead of learning the arcane language of gastric acid reflux and H. pylori, I’m learning the arcane language of energy flow and tension release. Instead of reading pamphlets called “You and Your Gallbladder,” I’m trying to follow the instructions in “Know Myself It Is,” a title I have yet to decipher.

Sometimes I feel like a Jaguar (the car, not the animal)—finely tuned but has to spend a lot of time in the shop. I have a team of specialists working on my mind, my body, and the connection between the two at regular intervals. I could host a conference on The State of Mary’s Mental, Physical, and Spiritual Health. All my helper-healers, past and present, could get together and swap insights and funny stories. Jeremy (dream shaman) could speak eloquently about the amazing dreams I’ve had and the time he uttered the fateful words “wire sculpture” that sent me into a thrilling phase of wire and metal construction. Linda (cranial-sacral bodyworker/chiropractor) could reminisce about our months of work after my mother died, when I had disabling back pain. (I would ask her to read the poem I wrote in her honor: “There once was a healer so blest / She saw that the body knows best / I live in my mind / She said that was fine / But now and then visit the rest.”) Barbara (painter/teacher/center-holder-together) could describe some of the high and low points of my painting process, complete with slide show. Hillary, the newest addition to the team, would be mainly there to learn from the others but would also have some useful things to say about my energy flow.

It goes without saying that J would be the moderator and keynote speaker. She would hold the conference participants spellbound by her presentation of the enormous somatic and life changes that I’ve undergone in my years of therapy.

I, of course, would sit in a special chair on stage—maybe wear a small tiara—and lap up all the attention. It would be like a Friars Club roast, except nobody would make jokes at my expense.

When I saw J after I started feeling all perky from the jin shin, I happened to mention that when Hillary touched me in a certain place close to my epicenter, I became very uncomfortable and kind of held my breath until she moved on. J thought that was “interesting,” so she asked me how I was feeling right then. I said, “Full of energy—like I’m vibrating.” She said, “Do you feel it in your pelvis?” And I said, “What’s that?” Ha ha. I am such an amusing client at times. That little exchange sent us off on an old line of inquiry that I’ve been avoiding for years.

(Dear reader, I didn’t mean to write about my pelvis. I will try to keep it from intruding any further.)

The mind-body continuum is so complex. Every “physical” ailment turns out to be related to the mind. I enjoy mind travel, don’t get me wrong, but when my stomach hurts, I just want to be put up on the rack and have my oil changed and my front end realigned. I do get to lie back for the jin shin treatments, but there’s also “homework”—stuff like holding my right cheek bone with my left fingers and my left inner thigh with my right fingers, then waiting—voila!—to feel the pulses “harmonize.” I have a hard time believing in this stuff. I have no trouble believing in parallel universes, but ask me to feel a pulse in my own body? What’re you, crazy?

Also, I’m discovering that trying to change one little thing in this system is like buying a couple of throw rugs to add some color to a room and you end up tearing out the underflooring and moving walls. Probably giving up coffee was the least of it. But I resist turning into the kind of person who consults medical intuits and engages in monthly wheat juice fasts. I’m too invested in mind-body satisfactions like Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia.

(Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up food again, either, having dwelled at length on that topic in the last issue. Maybe I could have different editions of the ‘zine, and people could subscribe to the ones that interested them. “Give me everything you’ve got on food and cats, but keep your pelvis to yourself—please.”)

Have I ever mentioned that J is a somatic therapist? Instead of sitting back and pondering the mythic meanings of my life, I’m constantly having to locate feelings in my body, intensify them in steps, bring them down, and report on what happens—do I get flooded, do I get more grounded, etc. I sit there, my brain in high gear, trying to come up with the right answer, feeling like I’m failing a body IQ test. As in painting, my biggest fear is that I’ll feel nothing, or at least not the right thing. But doing the work always makes me feel better, because it gets me out of my head. Sometimes I think my life’s work is discovering I have a body. By the time I “get it,” it’ll probably be time to turn it back in.

Before I started seeing J, I had been avoiding therapy for years, because I assumed that I’d never find anyone who was as smart as me. (It’s a burden, I tell you.) I knew someone who had tried 17 therapists and never did find one she couldn’t manipulate or who had anything to offer besides “get a hobby, go for a walk” (at least according to her). I found J through two short degrees of separation—from M. Cassou (oops, forgot to invite her to the conference) to Linda, from Linda to J.

That’s not to say I’m always an enthusiastic participant in the work. I still roll my eyes whenever she asks, “Where do you feel that?” In all the spiritual books I’ve read, the message is, “You are not the body,” but I think, paradoxically, that you aren’t, but you are. There does come a time for an amicable divorce between spirit and form, but while we’re (in) the form, then Bodies ‘R’ Us, pretty much.

To possibly change the subject—but then there’s only one subject, guess who—I’m about to get on one of them there flying machines and go out to visit Terry and Jean in western Massachusetts for a few days. I’m a little nervous about getting on an airplane again—it’s been at least 7 years. And United has had a horrible record at SFO this year. You may legitimately ask why I chose United, in that case. I don’t know. Why do moths fly irresistibly toward the flame? Why did Icarus fly too close to the sun? Wait, I don’t like where those metaphors are going.

“Don’t you ever want to go someplace new?” For a moment, I felt like a creature of dull habit and unimaginative routine.
—Ellen Goodman

I’m not a traveler, never have been. It doesn’t help that I get sick on any and every mode of transportation, but that’s not all there is to it. I think I lose my center when I leave my familiar surroundings. And maybe that’s the whole point of travel, but if it is, no thanks. I do better with a center.

Ironically, my father’s family—he was the oldest of 13 kids—were itinerants. There’s one surviving story about my grandfather’s childhood. After the family left Ireland and came to the U.S., my 10-year-old grandfather-to-be, Henry, and his brother decided to hop on a boxcar and run away together. But somehow they got on different trains going in opposite directions. They eventually found each other—after 50 years!

The McKenneys were always restless, wanting to be on the move. The few times my grandmother visited us during my father’s 15-year illness, my grandfather would wait out in the car. When they wanted to get away, they would dump the youngest kids on one of the older, married ones. My aunt Judy, who’s only a couple years older than me, once lived with us for six months. Grandma and Grandpa had been known to start out for a Sunday drive in our small town in upper Michigan and end up in Texas.

Clearly, I take after my mother’s side of the family—sturdy Scandinavian peasants who farmed the land and cultivated rock gardens instead of gallivanting all over creation.

I am not unfamiliar with travel….
—Ellen Goodman

My mother herself, however, was a gallivanter, even though she lived most of her life down the road from the farm where she was born. Until my father died and she had the freedom to go off on her own, her only form of travel was car trips with the family—including a camping trip when I was 14 that lasted all summer and cut a swatch from the U.P. all the way out to the redwoods of Eureka, Calif…. then to Seattle for the 1962 World’s Fair… me with acrophobia at the top of the Space Needle… Seattle not cool yet, except literally… to Yellowstone, where my mother, taking pictures, got between a mother bear and her cubs and shrieked as she made a dash back to the car, throwing wedding cookies toward the bear to divert her from her charge. Me a virtual prisoner in the back seat, car sick and couldn’t care less about the scenery as my mother careened down winding mountain roads. “Wheeee—look out the window, girls, you’re missing everything!” My sisters were young enough to avoid most of the work, so I was Mom’s only help in getting my disabled father in and out of the car, setting up and taking down camp, preparing meals and cleaning up. Sort of like all housework all the time, with no room of my own to retreat to. All five of us sleeping in a leaky tent or in the Vauxhall (small British station wagon) with the smell of coffee grounds and orange peels. Between chores, I couldn’t sit and read, I had to “make friends” with the next-door campers if the kids were even remotely in my age group. That summer I was reading Exodus by Leon Uris. Wishful thinking, no doubt…. Let my people go! No, on second thought, just let me go!

One night in a national forest in Utah, a single male camper in a trailer next to our campsite came over after summer to introduce himself. He looked like your prototypical quiet loner/mass murderer type, except we didn’t know about those guys in 1962; this was before Lee Harvey Oswald. His name was Elver—should have been a dead giveaway right there. After a bit of chat, Elver asked if he could take me for a walk to “show me something.” It was pitch dark, we did not know this man, and my mother said, “Sure!” (She later claimed it was my father who gave Elver permission to take his firstborn into the woods—like a child bride handed off to a stranger by her hillbilly pa.) I was scared to death but afraid to refuse. Elver and I walked through the woods in the dark for an interminable length of time, not speaking, and we finally went up a rise and stood at the edge of a meadow that was quite unexpected in the midst of this huge, dense forest. Damned if old Elver didn’t have a legitimate purpose to this walk after all. He never touched me. I breathed a sigh of relief and made it back to camp in one piece, no thanks to ma and pa.

We were planning to stay at this campground for a few nights, but the next day, Elver did a bit of inappropriate touching of my sisters, who were seven and nine. So I had squeaked by—too old for him—and my sisters took the hit. The next morning, we hid behind the curtains in the Vauxhall, peeking out at Elver as he walked around, wondering where we were. As soon as he went back in his trailer, my mother quickly started the car and drove off, giggling like it was high adventure. Like she was a mother bear with no sense of danger, too full of wedding cookies, perhaps, to sense the harm that had already befallen her young.

She was a lot fiercer when I was the only child. Maybe after 4 kids, one dead—so the unthinkable had already happened—you don’t worry about every little thing. Before my father got sick, he tended to go off on 3-day drinking binges with his army buddies. One night, he brought one of them home, and the guy came into my room where I was sleeping. According to my mother, he was trying to shake me awake, asking me if I wanted a drink. (Am I crazy to find this funny?) My mother came charging in and grabbed him and pulled him out of my room. Since I don’t remember this incident, I wonder what really happened—from his point of view, and from mine. And what did I infer from that raging rescue? If you’re being saved from wolves, that’s one thing, but if the mother bear treats an innocent tourist like the enemy, won’t the baby cub grow up to fear and hate tourists too?

Let’s see, how are we doing thematically? You got your Healing (or at least steps in that direction), your Travel, your memories of Mom… and by golly if you don’t have a little Anger seeping through, like arsenic in the water supply. Imagine that. It has not escaped my notice that I have skewered my mother for two diametrically opposed actions: (1) for letting a stranger take me off into the woods as if the world were a Lutheran summer camp and no harm would come to me—and of course, for taking my sisters’ actual violation in stride, and (2) for furiously saving me from a probably innocent, confused man and possibly setting in motion a lifetime of fear on my part. Is it that she just can’t win in my eyes? Do I keep chewing on that dry crust of grievance so I can remain the passively aggressive victim? Is there a statute of limitations on anger? on blame? Does “angry” always have to be followed by “at”?

I remember being an angry kid—even before my brother was born, before he died, before my father got sick and became a different person. I don’t remember the anger at being displaced by a beloved boy child or at seeing the tiny coffin holding his body being lowered into the ground. I vividly recall, at the funeral, thinking that everyone in the church was laughing at me because I was crying. I was 6 years old. How early our emotional make-up is created, how early our real feelings are displaced for the defenses that never seem to defend against much but give us something to cling to when there is nothing else.

On my desk is a picture of me and my father taken in 1949—pre-brother, pre-illness, pre-death. We’re standing side by side on a sidewalk, and the trees in the background are bare of leaves. He’s dressed for work at Prescott’s Foundry—old pants, workshirt, jacket, cap—with a cigarette in one hand, his thumb hooked in his pants pocket, and a black domed lunch pail dangling from the other. I—Mary Lou, barely 3 years old—stand next to him, looking all pouty in overalls, a striped polo shirt, one of his caps draped rakishly on my head, and my own child-sized lunch pail, like his but with a yellow top. I have a crystal-clear sense memory of my love for that lunch pail, while the memory of my love for this man is deeply buried, hardly accessible even now. (I do know that he’s still alive to me. Maybe that’s the definition of haunting, of being haunted.) In the picture of the two of us in our “going to work” outfits, my father is a good-looking man, a George Clooney type, if George were a working-class man from the U.P. My mother appears only as a shadow, because she is taking the picture, standing with the sun behind her, looking down at the ‘40s box-style camera she holds in front of her. Her shadow almost obliterates the lower half of my body. The symbolism of this part of the picture alone is worth 1,000 words.

When I was 8 years old, my father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which is an immune system disease. The cause of MS is unknown, but if I had only my father’s hard life to go on, I’d guess that it’s a disease of anger turned inward. I thought of this recently when I had a dream in which my mysterious stomach problem was diagnosed as “AIDS-related complex.” Throughout the dream, I was trying to keep people from finding out about it. In one part of the dream, I bought a house from an angry woman—which is interesting, considering the house can be a dream symbol for the body. Anyway, it was an unusual dream in that I woke up from it at 2:30 a.m., went back to sleep, and reentered the dream 4 hours later. It picked up right where it left off—with me trying to keep people from learning my secret. It was dream overkill, and it makes me think that I was not only keeping the secret from everyone else, I was keeping it from myself—the secret of my anger, my ailment, my whatever-related complex.

When I was 10 or 11 years old, one of my biggest secrets was that I was being molested by my older cousin. But you don’t want to hear about my pelvis, remember? So I’ll leave it at that. When J told me, “Somebody probably got to him, too,” I asked, “But don’t all boys do that?” Shocked, she said, “No!” It was the first time I had ever asked, and her answer surprised me.

I persist in thinking there must have been an earlier, pivotal event that turned me into such an easy target for my cousin, that started the anger seed growing in the first place. I want to identify the original evil deed, chase down the One who started it all, the uncle or family friend who first betrayed my trust. I want to know how I had learned to keep a secret so well.

But that’s a head game, trying to analyze the past, look for motive and opportunity. Colonel Mustard with the Penis in the Drawing Room. All I know is, the anger is a part of me now—growing in my stomach like a nonindigenous weed, displaced into a symptom I feel as anger only when it’s safe. Like when I’m watching a woman in the supermarket dig through the snap peas looking for those perfect few that are good enough for her—or who shucks half the corn in the bin, tossing each ravaged cob aside because the kernels don’t meet her high standards. And I guess that’s how it works—fume at the merely annoying rather than face up to what’s really going on. No wonder so many of us suffer from Road, Air, and Vegetable Rage.

I remember, a long time ago, painting when I was very angry at someone. I painted all the requisite red and black angry slashes, I painted myself killing her, I painted her eating me with a knife and fork. I was shaking with rage, with all the pain she had caused me and how futile it all was, because she would never be what I wanted her to be. Painting is, sometimes, like walking through the valley of the shadow of death. You are never more alone, and never more in God’s grace. I made a great discovery that day—that if you go deep enough inside yourself—which is not the same as withdrawing, it’s more like settling down into your core, your true self—those feelings that seemed so all-consuming a moment ago just disappear into thin air. They’re still up there on the surface, harmlessly making waves and getting sunburned. But down in the depths (swimming in Lake You, as Richard Simmons would say), it’s as if you’re breathing pure liquid oxygen, like the fishes. It’s a benediction.

Anger wants things to be different. It fights reality at every turn, not even admitting to itself what it’s angry about. No wonder the body gets confused—it’s asked to gather its armed forces against a stranger driving a car or taking too long in the checkout line. When the immune system gets confused about who the enemy really is, then all hell breaks loose. So, metaphorically, maybe I do have an “immune” disease of sorts. I want to identify the intruder, the long-ago source of my anger. But I am the source, I am the battleground, I am both warring armies no longer sure of what they’re fighting for. Oh God, don’t get me going on a Civil War analogy.

There are two ways to live—wide or deep….
—Ellen Goodman

I flatter myself that I don’t travel in the world because I’m more interested in traveling inwardly. (I know people who do both, but I have no explanation for them.) For all I know, I may not be going that far inwardly, either—I could be treading the same worn piece of carpet, back and forth, shuffling like an old woman from her recliner to the stove for her tea and back again. (Ha! I use tea in a metaphor! I am slowly reprogramming my caffeine-besotted brain!) It’s true that I’m more of an archeologist than an astronomer—but looking is looking. I am, like the Buddha, an Enneagram Five—The Observer. We Observers tend to sit in our little home offices with only our own beating hearts to tell us what’s true. Of course, the Buddha was an Evolved Five, whereas I’m just an old, schlumpy Pissed-Off Five with many hidden compartments—more of a 4.9, really.

You may not know where you are but you’ll never forget how you got there.
—Anonymous radio spot

Maybe the only real lesson is learning to live with yourself, stopping the civil and uncivil wars. Making peace with all your quirks and blind spots, your secrets that may never be told. Your aged anger, like a pricey side of beef or an ancient cheese. Your lack of an intercom system between head and lower regions. Your stubborn refusal to change, and your desperate desire to be different. Krishnamurti said there is no improving the self. I think that’s true. But I do think we’re all on a journey, whether it involves jumping out of airplanes over Mongolia or taking a stroll around the park, deep in thought.

In the third part of my AIDS-related complex dream, I met a young boy who was traveling on his own and who wanted to know how to tell what direction he was going in. I showed him the sun in the sky and asked him which way it travels. He said, “North and south.” Then I asked him which way the moon travels. He said, “East and west.” I knew he could now find his way. I felt so much love for this boy.

My rational mind, of course, wants to make sense of this navigational “error.” Obviously, the sun doesn’t go north and south. But Jeremy suggested that the dream compass points to my uniqueness, to my own sense of direction. And in fact, in this part of the dream, the earlier anger is gone. So maybe the knowledge I’m imparting to the boy has to do with learning to travel on my own terms, remaining true to myself. Not by excluding my fellow travelers but by knowing I carry my center with me. Knowing there’s no real difference between outer and inner, that I can travel inwardly while outward bound, in a body, with other bodies, following my own trajectory even as I share the journey with everyone I meet.

So if the good Lord’s willin’ and the plane don’t fall, I’ll see you back here next time, maybe with lots of fascinating stories about our nation’s airports. And food—that ubiquitous preoccupation—may also make a comeback in these pages. During my last jin shin session, Hillary recommended a book that tells you how to eat according to your blood type. So I bought it, and now I am truly in despair. Basically, everything I eat, all day long, is on the “avoid” list. I managed to follow the diet, pretty much, for one day, and I was quite proud of myself until I realized that I’d have to do it again the next day, and the next. I ate so many vegetables, I dreamed about them that night. It was a scene of pure Vegetable Rage. A woman in front of me in the checkout line was piling vegetables on the counter, and I started putting my vegetables there too. But some of my vegetables got ahead of hers, and she got mad and started yelling at me in a foreign language. So I started piling her vegetables back in her cart, which really set her off. I ended up grabbing her wrist and pressing a certain spot that immobilized her so she couldn’t get at my vegetables. So this dream is like a playlet featuring my rage, my paralysis, my jin shin energy points… my fear of vegetarianism? Another knot to unravel.

The truly bizarre thing about the blood type diet is that coffee, of all things, is considered “highly beneficial” for me. That’s the last straw, now I know the world has gone mad. I will be choking down my tofu and my lentils—and giving up all things eggy or cheesy or meaty or tomatoey (no more BLTs, just Ls)—but I’ll have my old friend back, caffeine pouring through my veins again, making me brilliant in my own eyes. I can’t wait.

mary’zine #39: August 2009

August 10, 2009

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
—Emily Dickinson

In writing this ‘zine I try to be honest, I really do. But there are so many ways to lie—to myself and to you—to lie, to beg the question, to create half-truths out of whole cloth, to use faulty memory, false modesty,
red herring!—
logical fallacy, tautology, weak analogy—
exaggeration, equivocation, self-deprecation—
poetic license, devil’s advocation—
authorial omniscience, oratorical ebullience,
printer’s error, clerical error, little white lie—
self-sabotage, self-delusion,
sins of omission ( _____ ), misinformation, outright fabrication….

I’ve told you many stories about my family. I’ve defended them, attacked them, sworn my allegiance to them (sworn at them), tied their individual quirks to sociological tendencies, political inevitabilities, biology, geography, quantum reality. I can make you think whatever I want—create their images, break them, and mend them again. Tell what I saw, what they said, what was going through my head.

And what is going through my head right now is a song I can’t identify until I catch some of the lyrics….

Time, time, time, see what’s become of me…
Hang on to your hopes, my friend
That’s an easy thing to say, but if your hopes should pass away
Simply pretend
That you can build them again…
—“Hazy Shade of Winter” (Simon and Garfunkel)

Right now it’s a hazy shade of summer, but that’s all right. Time and seasons are jumbled together, Mary is quite contrary in all kinds of weather. Who are my family to me? Why all this ambiguity? I had it all figured out, there was no doubt. My siblings both, vestiges of my youth, now larger than life. Their male attachments, the living and the dead. Déjà my father all over again. There’s no escape, no exit true. What can I do?

I know some of you don’t like this—
my Half rant. Half slant.
My peripheral vision.
Bear with me.

4 stages, and counting

In thinking about my life in the 5 years since I moved back to my hometown, I remembered the five stages of grief as outlined by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross:  (1) denial, (2) anger, (3) bargaining, (4) depression, (5) acceptance. And it occurred to me that I have experienced at least four of the same stages in reuniting with my family, but in a different order: (1) acceptance, (2) denial, (3) depression, (4) anger, (5) ______?

Acceptance is probably the wrong word for stage 1, since I “accepted” what I found here from the point of view of an outsider, a working-class glorifier, an imperial superior who took her bubble-gotten gains and moved to an economy that was already bust. The joke in the Bay Area is that, sure, you can buy a big house in the Midwest for a song, but then you have to live there! Well, I did an end run around that, too, because I love living the quiet life.

Denial was the part where I tried not to notice that there were flies in the paradisal soup, more than just 1 snake in the Edenic garden. I had factored this in (I’m not stupid) because, like Donald Rumsfeld, I knew what I knew, and I knew there were things I didn’t know, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was perfectly willing to face these unknowns and sort of “pre-know” them in theory, the way I used to argue my therapist’s point before she made it, so she wouldn’t have a chance to throw in a zinger I couldn’t defend against. But I still wanted to believe that everything was fine. Just fine.

Depression was realizing that I couldn’t wave a magic wand or my superior education and make the frustrations disappear—the frustrations of not being heard, of not being engaged with, of (in Rodney Dangerfield’s phrase) “playing tennis against the curtains.” Not surprisingly, the frustration was centered around—ta da!—my beloved family members: Barb=sister; K=sister; MP=K’s husband. Thank God I have friends who are adept metaphorical tennis players, but “the heart wants what it wants.” (Oh dear, I’ve quoted Rodney Dangerfield and Woody Allen in the same paragraph. What is happening to me?)

Anger was my impotent reaction to the above. I could write a book called It Took Me 50 Years To Become a “Mean Girl.” I never experienced the “mean girl” phenomenon in high school, probably because I was so preoccupied with the “mean boy” phenomenon. (Funny how you never hear about that—how teenage boys treat the underdog girls.)  I had my two “beatnik” male friends and didn’t care about belonging to a girl clique. And my prettier, better-dressed, richer female classmates had other fish to fry and didn’t bother me. But now, out of the aforementioned frustration, I’ve become just plain mean. With my brother-in-law, a self-proclaimed “asshole,” I’m able to hold my own with humor. When he uses vulgarity to try to intimidate me (such as using sexist or racist language, or threatening to show me his dick), I fire right back and make him laugh more often than not. Before I moved back here, K had worried that there would be fireworks between us, like there were between him and Mom, but he’s mellowed since then and I’ve become more obnoxious. With my teacher sister, who has learned from 30 years in the classroom with bratty 8th graders that her role in life is to (a) boss people around and (b) dominate any conversation, I am quick to point out her mistakes and stop just short of poking her with a stick to see if she’ll fight back. K is a stealthier target, because she’s a lifelong peacemaker who just wants us all to get along. So she nods and smiles through the Talker’s long stories, but it’s all a sham, she’s probably thinking about the laundry or her shopping list, like some bored wife submitting to sex. And both sisters ostentatiously Change the Subject when the slightest disagreement (usually between me and MP) threatens to roil the placid surface.

Wow, this is a lot of vitriol for someone as nice as myself. Well, when I point one finger at my sisters, four fingers are pointing back at me… or is it three fingers and a thumb? But the thumb just sticks up in the air. Am I doing it right? Sometimes I think of myself as a bomb dropped in their midst, but I have no idea if my net influence is for good or ill. They were oddly unsurprised when I moved back here, and I suspect they’re oddly unaffected by my continuing presence. They’re pretty good at ignoring what doesn’t fit into their world. They never ask about the life I lived in California, even when I come back from a visit out there…. or about the life I live here, now, for that matter, beyond asking the open-ended “What’s new?” (“Well, just this morning I was thinking about Ralph Waldo Emerson. Let me explain….”). I am a square peg that has somehow become halfway wedged into the round hole of the family, and the part that doesn’t fit just doesn’t get their attention.

As I read this over, I realize I’m “lying” to you right now—giving you the wrong impression by emphasizing the discord. I’m actually pretty copacetic and receptive to whatever’s going down. The outbursts are fairly rare. I’ll tell you about one a bit farther on.

Stage 5: Bargaining? I don’t think this stage applies, since for me “God” doesn’t enter into it. But I just can’t believe that anger/frustration/intolerance is to be my final destination. I do feel that I have to change and truly accept my peops for who they are. The weird thing is that, when I don’t think about what I should be feeling or saying, or how I should be interacting, more times than not I just let go and realize I’m being with them. It’s that paradox between thinking it’s all about me—I’m the one who has to change—and thinking it can’t be all about me because they’re who they are. Between getting mad at them and getting mad at myself, it’s no wonder I’m raging half the time.

And do I have to explicitly say this? Despite all my pettiness, despite our wildly different experiences and perspectives on life, I would not hesitate to give either of my sisters a kidney, a piece of my liver, the shirt off my back, whatever they needed. That deep-down bond doesn’t change. But instead of focusing on the bond, I tend to put my attention on the surface annoyances, like when my sister says, about a garage sale purchase, “I jew’d ‘em down,” and I feel like I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t say something about it, because to her it’s just a word, and I’ll be condescending to her with my oh-so-refined greater knowledge of inter-ethnic propriety. In fact, we had that conversation years ago when I objected to her telling her young son that he couldn’t ride in the car up front with me, because “white folks sit in the front, black folks sit in the back.” I made the obvious argument, like Don’t let your children grow up to be racists, but that’s not what she heard. To her I was being intolerably picky and imposing a ridiculous standard on a saying that to her was completely innocuous. It’s times like that that I’m torn between my working class populism and my middle class politicization. It’s an awkward fence I straddle. Ouch!

and yet… laff riots

The three of us went to Green Bay recently for a much-delayed birthday celebration and shopping spree. Barb couldn’t go in her birthday month, May, because she was having gall bladder attacks, and K’s birthday was in July, so we combined them. Plus, we were all jonesin’ for Mexican food and wanted to hit the stores we don’t have up here: Target, Kohl’s, Michael’s, T.J. Maxx, Office Depot, Sam’s Club. We killed an extra bird with the same stone by driving Barb’s son Brian down to the airport so he could fly back to his child-free life in Texas after a 7-day whirlwind visit with his six kids, whom he misses “so much” (meow).

So we’re sitting in the restaurant, El Sarape. Brian has ordered some flour tortillas and “queso,” which I know is cheese, but what arrives is a bowl of liquid, like some disgusting thin, cheesy soup, into which he dips the tortillas. When I’m bored and waiting for food (and even when I’m not), I like to play with words, so I start riffing on the liquid queso, like is it Spanish for CheezWhiz, and I’m trying to say “Mexican” in the proper dialect, “Meh-he-cano,” and suddenly K pops out with “Mah-ha-rella” (mozzarella), and Barb and I start laughing, and then K is laughing, and then we’re in full-blown can’t-stop-laughing mode, and we can’t look at each other without cracking up all over again. Brian is sitting there observing this, completely not getting it, and it’s too bad, because it’s one of our favorite things. For some reason it’s just hilarious that we’re laughing out of control, blowing our noses and wiping our eyes, trying to avoid eye contact. There’s a moment of calm, and then suddenly I have my head in my hands and my shoulders are heaving with laughter, and then all decorum is lost once again. At those times there’s no judgment, no small-town/big-city split, no learned class difference, just a thing that happens sometimes, a kind of grace.

So you see… it’s the ambiguity, the ambivalence that confuses me. I always think things should be all one way or all the other. I still have a lot to learn.

the mitigated gall

Barb had her gall bladder removed recently, and her daughter arranged for the three of us (the two sisters and her) to take turns staying with her for a few days until she could manage on her own again. I spent one night and one afternoon with her. On the second night after the surgery, she was still in pain. She had a drain in her side and a bottle of bodily jus taped to her belly, which the caretaker du jour had to empty periodically. She had to sleep sitting up in a chair, and when she went to the bathroom she couldn’t get off the toilet by herself. I didn’t sleep all night, partly because I don’t sleep that much at night anyway, and partly because there seemed to be no place that (a) was comfortable and (b) had a decent light by which I could read a book. I kept thinking longingly of my big comfortable chair at home and of course my two cats. But as soon as I heard the slightest sound from the living room, I was on my feet and going in to find out if she needed anything. There was that ambivalence again, between my absolute willingness to help her and my dismaying discomfort. I watched the clock almost minute to minute, and the night crept slowly by. I felt trapped, like… oh, imagine that, like when I was a kid living in a tiny house with my sisters, mother, and invalid father. I’d almost forgotten the visceral discomfort of that paralysis, that lack of an exit. I sat on the bed for minutes at a time, unable to even lie back, immobilized by the feeling of no way through, no way forward, no way back. Just wait for time to pass. And this was just one night!

I gave Barb her pain pills when she needed them and made her a sandwich when she felt she could eat. I emptied her drain bottle, pulled her off the toilet, and helped her step into clean underpants. At one point she said she dreaded the first time she would have a bowel movement, because she could hardly wipe herself just from going #1. I didn’t say anything, but I thought a lot about it. It felt like karma coming home to roost. I escaped all caretaking of my mother when she was in her last months, and I heard about Barb being disturbed at having to wipe Mom’s ass. K told me she could have done it, because, after raising two kids and several pets, “shit” was her “middle name.” “Shit” is not my middle name. But I knew I would do it for Barb if it came to that. There’s some comfort, I must admit, in accepting the worst. But I never had to face it. A week or so later, her daughter told me that she had said to Barb, “Wait until Aunt Mary is with you before you go #2; let’s see how much your sister loves you.” My niece cracks me up, she’s like the Roseanne Barr of the Wisconsin farm set… and one of the saving graces of my life here.

And so, we endure. The time may come when one of my sisters will be forced to wipe my ass, or stay up all night outside her comfort zone, away from her beloved pets and favorite chairs. It’s a two-way street, a three-way bond, for better or worse.

your lying eyes

One night I walked into K and MP’s house for our usual Friday get-together, sniffed the air in the kitchen, and said, “I smell apple pie.” K replied, “No, you smell hot dogs, that’s what we had for lunch.” “No,” I insisted, “I smell apple pie.” Again she denied it. (If she had denied it one more time, we would have had a situation of Biblical proportions.) But I figured it was a new flavor of dish detergent or air freshener, and I forgot about it.

Later in the evening, K and MP were off in another room for a while, and when they came back in the living room, MP asked me, “Why did you think you smelled apple pie when you came in? We had hot dogs for lunch.” I said, “I don’t know, that’s what I smelled.” After a pause he says, “I bought an apple pie today. It’s in the fridge.” I was stunned. I asked K, “So why didn’t you just tell me that?” and she says, “Well I had to make sure it was OK with MP; he bought it with his own money.” I was really offended. “So what did you think I was going to do? Grab it and run off with it?” We went back and forth like this, and I kept asking, “WHAT DID YOU THINK I WAS GOING TO DO?”—and she finally said, “It wasn’t mine to give!” And I, reaching a fever pitch, exclaimed, “I DIDN’T ASK FOR IT! I DIDN’T WANT IT! I DON’T WANT IT NOW!” I couldn’t believe she felt she had to get her husband’s permission to acknowledge that there was a pie on the premises. And “he bought it with his own money”? What is he, 5 years old?!

The very fact that I was shocked by this incident tells you that it’s an extreme example: for once, no muddiness, no ambiguity. But I know my family is not alone in refusing to corroborate the most sensitive family member’s perceptions. “You didn’t see that, you didn’t hear that. (You didn’t smell that.) You’re crazy. What’s wrong with you?” And the one who knows what she sees, hears, or smells is left wondering: What’s really going on here? So if you’re that family member, you have to deal somehow with the lack of truth-telling, the peace without honor, the mis/perceptions, the trails of bread crumbs leading nowhere.

As my friend P points out, what’s even worse than outright lying is willful ignorance. My biggest frustration is the refusal to engage, the lack of interest in looking beneath the surface, in questioning the obvious. Is it just Midwesterners? In these parts, if you ask someone her opinion of something—a movie, a book, a restaurant—you’re likely to get the response, “It’s different.” It’s a binary system: There’s “the usual” (familiar, comfortable) and “the different” (i.e., not the usual). Cue the classic iceberg analogy, the glacial heritage, perhaps, that carved out the gritty bottoms for the Great Lakes: Everything must be taken at face value, even if there’s nothing of value there. Those hidden expanses below the surface are too threatening to confront. Lie, deny, obfuscate, keep it light.

I have a vivid memory of walking down Bay de Noc Road when I was 11 or 12, making a decision about how I was going to live my life. I had experienced the injustice, heard the lies, “knew” there was no honor, nowhere. So from that day forward I vowed that I would keep the truth close to my heart but would say and do whatever it took to survive. I actually believed that I could remain honest inwardly while compromising any value and any truth. I had come to believe it was the way of the world, and I wanted to survive in the world.

I don’t know what specific event might have caused me to sell my soul like that. It might have been the sexual abuse that I was afraid to tell my mother about. (I knew that I would be the one to get punished.) Or it could have been the “Queen for a Day” contest, when my mother wrote a letter to the local radio station in my name and won herself tons of prizes (see ‘zine #3 for the whole story). But from an early age I had believed that it was a dog-eat-dog world, unrelenting and unfair—that it was crazy to tell the truth, to make yourself vulnerable. Every dog for himself.

In a long phone conversation with my friend B, I was complaining to her about the apple pie incident. And I forget exactly how the epiphany came about, but I suddenly realized that I was exempting myself from my own lies to family members, with some fine rationalizations intact. If I’m really honest with myself, I know that I lie for convenience, to “not hurt feelings,” to avoid confrontation. It always feels so inconsequential, something I skim over quickly and then promptly forget, while dwelling on the real or suspected untruths of others. I was telling B about the ‘zine’s long hiatus, when I had wanted to dig a little deeper past the honeymoon feelings but had felt constrained by having to censor myself for my sisters’ benefit. And then I realized: My new freedom in writing has come from not letting my family read it anymore. And more to the point at hand, I haven’t told them I’m still writing it. So basically, I’m lying to them. The fact that they haven’t asked about it in no way mitigates the lie. I can skate by on a technicality, implying by my silence that—“zine? what zine?” And if they did ask, I could easily mislead them with irrelevancies: “It’s hard to write,” or “I’m lazy.” And it would be easy to justify: What they don’t know won’t hurt them. (Also, what they don’t know won’t get me in a heap of trouble.) Let’s face it, lying is a tried and true way to protect yourself and control a situation. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, preferable to the alternative, or just plain unimportant. But long past the age when I was trying to save myself from a spanking for stealing penny candy from Pietsche’s store, I continue to think I have to censor the truth, even as I demand it (be careful what you wish for) from others.

“more than kin and less than kind” (King Lear)

I suspect that the biggest prevarication of all is that I’ve set myself up to be the arbiter, the judge-jury-and-executioner of my family’s words and actions. I’m hoist on my own pedestal, looking down on them, using my own intellect and life experience as the gold standard. I withhold myself while blaming them for not digging for the glittery substance just beneath my surface. When I get on those jags where I sit sullenly judgmental in the corner, like Mom’s opinionated ghost, and despair of the level of conversation or the inane TV show that’s blaring away while MP snores in his recliner, or wish for the enlightened company of friends I rarely see, whom I left in order to move here, I think: Am I a fish that is back in the barrel, no longer out of water, or have I simply traded in the big pond where I was barely noticed for the much smaller one where my fool’s gold can shine all the brighter and I can exalt in my kinship while failing very badly to be kind.

Remember, you can always reach me at or leave a comment on my blog at

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?
—Emily Dickinson

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #35 September 2008

August 9, 2009

Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice. (If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.)
—Michigan state motto

Well, the pressure finally got to me. I’ve been hounded, begged, flattered, and cajoled to bring back the mary’zine. OK, I may be exaggerating just a bit. But when I tried to explain to J.M. of Fairfax, Calif., that it has to be fun for me, she cried, “But you’ve left the rest of us in a sucky void!” It’s not that I lost interest in writing. But once I made the move from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Green Bay Area, my mission seemed to change. No longer was it enough to riff on the odd theory about the universe, describe humorous or poignant encounters at the grocery store, or rant about bicyclists’ wanting to be treated like regular traffic except when they run stop signs or ride in front of you at 9 miles an hour. I felt I had to do more… describe my change of circumstances in terms both humorous and grand… tell pithy anecdotes with an underpinning of profundity… relay hilarious but respectful tales of family life. Could I be happy and still write with the soul and wit of a born critic? Could I convey the joy of a semi-retirement spent in solitary refinement: reading… watching movies… listening to music and radio talk… playing and napping with two sweet balls of purr? Could I—should I—have blogs of things to say about the election or Darfur or the environment? (Jellyfish are washing up on the beaches of Spain: We are doomed!) Should I have important observations to share about the U.P., or at least the south U.P. (SoU.P.)? It all became Too Important, and I lost the gift of having fun with it.

I may have been reacting to the disapproval of one of my spiritual mentors (for lack of a better term) who was alarmed at my saying that I’m happy here and have “nothing left to prove.” Truly, I’m done striving—not that I was ever much of a striver to begin with. (I merely floated to the top.) He thought that the mary’zine should consist of more than “things that [I] ‘think’ will ‘amuse’ people.” He seemed to be worried that, having moved to the culturally and intellectually moribund Midwest, I had become dull and complacent—had left my brain, if not my heart, in San Francisco. Yes, God forbid anyone should actually enjoy life. One must seek but never find. He even thought that my plan to make copper and found-art objets, perhaps to hang in the trees in my back yard, was “a copout”—a copout from what, I don’t know.

I have disappointed so many people in my life.

•    Mr. E., 9th grade English teacher, who, during a locker inspection, discovered I was reading a paperback adaptation of “Leave It to Beaver” (OK, that’s pretty bad, but I was yet to discover Catcher in the Rye and become a literary snob);

•    Miss W., 12th grade English teacher, who generally adored me but wasn’t pleased with my irreverent take on Shakespeare’s 400th birthday—a poster with the punchline, “My what’s-its-name, my what’s-its-name, my kingdom for a what’s-its-name”—something to do with Richard III and a contest to name a horse (OK, that was pretty bad, too);

•    Dr. R., director of the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Michigan, who almost fired me for writing “SUPPORT BAM” [Black Action Movement] on my timesheet in large block letters; he was incredulous—“We have to keep these timesheets in the files for YEARS!”;

•    Fellow socialists at a college in Maryland who thought it was a crime against the Revolution to play solitaire or sew a Grateful Dead patch on one’s jeans; they didn’t even approve of psychology.

To the literary people, I was too low-brow; to the political people, I was too frivolous; to the scholars, I lacked ambition; to the artists, I was uncool; to the authorities, I questioned too much; to the spiritual seekers, I was too complacent. While riding on the back of the tandem bicycle of Life, I have never, apparently, done my fair share of pedaling. Well, I say this: It has taken me a long, long time to realize that I can make my own decisions about how to live my life. As for the tandem bicycle, Life has control over the handlebars that actually steer the thing; mine are just for holding on.

And maybe it’s the peaceful environment I now find myself in; maybe it’s having become a sexagenarian…. but I’m just happy—that untoward, somewhat embarrassing H-word. Like my mentor, you may be thinking, “How dare she! With the world in the state it’s in! She has given up! She must be asleep… her vestigial brain cells are rotting from self-absorption, inaction and lack of stimulation!” So, yeah, I’m fat-and-happy and I have all the downside quirks of my personality that I ever had, maybe more, but the good news is… I don’t care so much. If loving my life is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.

So… (finally, she begins…) It’s been a quiet year-and-a-half in Menominee, Michigan, my hometown. After moving to this north central middle American upper peninsular small town 4 years ago, my transformation from Westcoaster to Midwester is complete. I knew this for sure when I went online to iTunes and downloaded “The Beer Barrel Polka.” [I’m not kidding]

Illusions? I always knew I’d lose a few after I settled in, but I didn’t know which, how, or when. My most profound delusion was that I would become an entirely different person—involved, friendly, sociable. Hiding out in my condo in San Rafael, I thought I was just avoiding the rowdy neighbors, parking lot rappers, and midnight crazies. But here too I peer out the window before going out on the front porch to get my mail. Some days I don’t go out at all, or if I do, I back my Jeep stealthily out of the garage like Dick Cheney emerging from his undisclosed location. I avoid making eye contact with neighbors or passers-by, unless they wave or say hello first.

So I’m the neighborhood riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, and no one comes a-knockin’ for a cup of sugar. Which suits me fine. I’m happy as a clam up in here, with my kitties and my lifeline to the greater world, the Internet. It’s like living in my own personal biodome, or biosphere, or whatever they called that underground experiment in the ‘70s where people lived without natural light and discovered their biorhythms without external cues. I sleep irregular hours, often in my big red chair, with one kitty on my lap and the other curled at my feet. I usually stay up most of the night, reading, listening to music, or wading on the Internet (never learned to surf). My favorite times are when I’m still awake at 6:30 a.m. when Schloegel’s opens, and I can sit in a booth by the big windows, with my coffee and scrambled eggs, watching the sun come up over the bay. But then I always wish that I had slept, so I could start my day in the bright sparkling morning.

My quasi-hermit life has changed somewhat since I hired Paul to put up new siding on my house. Paul is that rare contractor who is dependable, agreeable, and a perfectionist. He’s done several jobs for me, including replacing my roof, blowing insulation into the attic, and installing a skylight in the old attic room that I’ve painted in a wild and crazy fashion.

That’s Brutus on top of the world/cat tree.

Paul and his helper Bob, two old guys (I say “old”: they’re both younger than me), along with Bob’s son-in-law Joe, have been working on the siding 7 days a week for several weeks now. They just finished on Labor Day, and my house is now the shining star of the neighborhood. I’ve gotten used to having them around—sawing, pounding, walking on the roof, coming in to use the bathroom and get a Mountain Dew. Bob is fond of saying, “Whatever makes you happy….” He’s done several things for me that weren’t strictly in the job description, like clearing out the weeds and old bottles from under my back deck. All the guys have day jobs: Paul and Joe work in factories, and Bob is a city worker in charge of the parks. But they come straight from work to spend another 4 or 5 hours working on my house on weekdays, plus all day on the weekends.

The three of them are always joking around, and I enjoy contributing to the banter. I have a mild fantasy of hanging out with them off the job site, so to speak. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but men are so refreshing sometimes, in their willingness to be playful. Bob likes to tell stories, some of which are of questionable truthiness. He told me he used to lend money to his friends and charge them 100% interest. So he’d lend this one guy $400, and the next month the guy would pay him back $800. But then the guy would borrow another $400, so Bob figures he wasn’t really making any money from it. I’m sorry, but wouldn’t he be making $400 a month? I have a feeling I’m not meant to scrutinize these stories too closely. (My contrary nature makes me get all jokey when people are serious and require documentation when they’re trying to be funny.)

Because the guys are out in the yard or up on ladders all the time, they get to do the meet-and-greet with curious neighbors and passers-by, including an old (see above) guy named Stan who comes by now and then. One day Stan asks Bob, “Is the woman who lives here married?” Bob says, “I don’t know, I’ve never seen her husband.” Stan says, “Maybe I oughta get together with her!” Yeah, right. Make a new plan, Stan….

Dozens of people so far have exclaimed how beautiful my house is now—it’s sage green, in a town where most buildings are white, gray, or beige. I’m so proud of my color sense. Also, I say fie on George Bush’s economic stimulus package. When I got my $600 check, it felt like pocket change. I’ve stimulated the local economy by putting $25,000+ into the siding, lights, metal soffits, painted railings, stained deck, (red!) doors, and a new driveway. It’s like that Citgo commercial, where “Bob” eats at “Tom’s” restaurant, so “Tom” can get his car fixed at “John’s” garage and “John” can get gas at “Bob’s” gas station. In a small town like this, I can see my California-gotten gains making a real difference to local people and businesses.

I did accidentally meet the woman across the street whom I’ve studiously avoided since she and her husband and baby moved in 3 years ago. I’m just so awkward with casual yard-to-yard relationships. When are you expected to wave, and when can you just go about your business? Do you wait for them to look up from their lawn mowers, or do you tramp over there with a plate of cookies and an earnest query about the wife and grandkids? I really blew it by not introducing myself to the neighbors when I first moved in, but I opted to hide instead. I somehow thought, Oh, I’ll only be here for another 20 years or so, there’s no point getting chummy. I have this thing about remaining anonymous and thereby exempt from the laws of social discourse. “Don’t mind me, I just moved into this big house on the corner where the previous owners had lived for 17 years or so and probably planned block parties, held rummage sales, and did house-to-house canvassing for the freakin’ American Heart Association, and here I show up, a middle-aged, apparently single gal from the exotic land of California, no visible means of support, lights on at all hours of the night, darts in and out with nary a by-your-leave or a “Howdy, neighbor!’”

My sister Barb’s sister-in-law lives around the corner from me, and, needless to say, I have been derelict in never dropping by to visit or to buy more of her stained glass ornaments. She told Barb she didn’t know why I bought that big house, there was a little ranch-style house down the street that was for sale at the same time that would have been “more appropriate.” So it’s now a running joke between me and my old friend P about how “inappropriate” and “big” my house is. When P was on vacation in Napa Valley, she mailed a postcard addressed to me at Menominee, MI, with zip code but no address other than “Inappropriately large house, 4th St.” It got here.

I often wonder if I’m ever going to make any friends here… I mean “friend-friends,” people with similar interests and outlook. Where have all the bohemians and artists gone? Long time passing! But I do have a growing roster of people I’m friendly with, who I stop and talk to if I see them around town. It’s different from the intimate friendships I’ve formed in other places. But these stop-and-say-hi relationships are surprisingly satisfying and genuine—whether the other person be waitress, bartender, haircutter, grocery store clerk, veterinarian, bank teller, or store manager. In a small town there’s a camaraderie that comes from seeing the same people in expected places, most of whom were born here and are connected in sometimes unlikely ways with family or other people you know. Usually I’m only one degree of separation from anyone I meet. Bob’s wife Bonnie works with my sister K, and Paul knows K and her husband MP from remodeling the house across the street from them. MP knows Tony my lawn guy from high school (amazingly, the lawns in town are well kept up despite the lack of illegal immigrants to do jobs that “Americans won’t do”!). Paul’s wife Mary graduated with MP, and Barb knows a lot of people from teaching their kids. Sometimes Paul brings in other guys to do little jobs on the side. The guy who trimmed my big ash (whose ash you calling big? oh, it’s a tree; never mind) turned out to be the brother of the woman who was so excited to see me at Mickey-Lu’s a couple years ago, though I had absolutely no memory of her. The brother, Niles, remembered my family too. (Where was I?) I know it’s not a huge surprise to “know people who know people” in a town of ~9,000 (close to 20,000 if you count Marinette, WI, and we do), but it still intrigues me. In my youth I opted to go to a large university, in part to be anonymous. Now I’m learning to enjoy being known a little bit.

going nuclear

…the tortured dynamics of nuclear-family life: the roles children never grow out of, even after they’ve become adults; the close-quarters intimacy that simultaneously binds and enervates…; the ever-shifting alliances; the short-lived feuds; the commiserative phone calls about how loco everyone else in the family is.
New York Times, 9-17-06

This is the tricky part, talking about my family. With people I don’t like or who will never read this, I don’t have to worry about being fair. I’m a whore for a laugh, you know that. But writing about my family, I want to be honest without hurting feelings if I can help it. This isn’t an annual holiday letter, where everything is amped up to impress, or at least bland enough not to anger any of the recipients. My goal here is to get at the contradictions of living with or around folks whom you care about deeply but who don’t necessarily share your beliefs and certainly don’t share your experiences. There, I’ve covered myself the best I can. Let’s dive in….

During my first year here, I felt like I had fallen in love. Everything was wonderful, from the beautiful Christmas light displays on every block, to snow fluttering down, to sitting in a funky bar eating pizza or fried lake perch. It was easy to take everything at face value, give everyone the benefit of the doubt, want for nothing to be different. As with my expected transformation from recluse to bon vivant, I believed that I would be wonderful, too, and to that end I vowed not to correct my family’s grammar or judge them in any way. You can imagine how that turned out.

K said to me a while back, “You’re just like everybody else now.” Oh no, my worst fear! But it’s not true anyway, except in the sense that it is. (How’s that for a riddle wrapped in an enigma?) I feel utterly at home here. The bloom is not off the rose; the honey has not gone off the moon. I’m just more realistic now. One either stays on the surface, making no real connections or commitments, or one settles in to Reality and accepts that life is more than pretty lights and the intoxicating smell of fish-fry grease and stale beer.

We have our differences—political, philosophical, cultural, and, of course, personal. For example, Barb is a born teacher, and I am a born editor. Often, the teacher resents being corrected and the editor resents being lectured. I often find myself struggling to: disprove the Internet stories offered as fact; accept without comment the clichés and oft-repeated anecdotes; fend off ingrained sexism and racism (the C-word, the N-word, the G-word [stop me when I run out of letters]); argue for my interpretation of the Iraq war or gay marriage or whatever. Recently, MP—to provoke me, I’m sure—complained, “Now we have to vote for a fuckin’ [N-word]!” Which I know sounds bad, but what I took from that comment is that somebody’s going to be voting for Obama.

There are some funny disconnects, too: One time, after I had ranted about George W. Bush for 5 minutes, my 27-year-old nephew Joshua exclaimed, “Aunt Mary said ‘Fuck’!”

Often, the disconnect is mine. K and Barb and I were on our way to Green Bay to get our fix of Target, Sam’s Club, and a real (for Wisconsin) Mexican restaurant. I’m driving, and K and Barb are chatting about this and that, and suddenly I realize they’re discussing Russia’s invasion of Georgia. Like the nephew who can’t believe his old auntie says bad words, I’m the oldest sister still thinking of my younger siblings (both in their 50s) as somehow still naive and uninformed.

Mostly, we all get along really well, and of course the waters run deep, even if they aren’t always still. Also, my sisters and I have our somewhat shared childhood—I say “somewhat” because I was incarcerated first and was paroled first, so we remember lots of things differently. There’s an ongoing debate over who was treated the worst: I received way too much intrusive attention, Barb was criminally neglected, and K was made to go to beauty school.

English, motherfucker! Do you speak it?!
—Samuel M. Jackson, “Pulp Fiction”

As for the grammar, I used to cringe when I heard people say “between you and I.” But it’s common usage around here to say, “Her and her husband went to the movies,” or “Me and him are good friends.” Waitresses often ask, “Do yooz know what you want?” Sometimes I have to clamp my hand over my mouth to avoid saying something, especially when it’s someone who should know better. I try not to flaunt my advanced knowledge of the English language, but it leaks out sometimes. MP doesn’t like my using “75-dollar words,” but after I thanked him for valuing my words so highly, he doesn’t say it as often. Besides, I think he likes to play dumb. I’ve been wanting to hit him with the line, “I refuse to have a battle of wits with an unarmed person,” but I don’t want to push it. We have fun, though. Me and my guy friends. Who knew?

I’ve always accepted that the initial ecstasy of union and re-union would dim eventually. How could it not? I’ve had a few serious disappointments, all beyond my control. I had looked forward to being involved in the lives of my sisters’ grandchildren, especially Summer and Sarina, with whom I spent quality time when I first moved here. But they’re now in their mother’s custody after a divorce, and even Barb doesn’t see them. I also imagined I’d be close to my nephew MJP, as we were when he was 14, but he’s a grown-up cynical (divorced) man now who has apparently cut all family ties. I’ve enjoyed spending time with his brother Joshua, but he’s divorced now, too, and caught up in his new job (long-distance trucking) and new dating life.

Mostly, any letdown I feel is minor and short-lived. K, MP, Barb and I (and Joshua, when he’s in town) get together every Friday night at K&MP’s house and either go out to eat or get takeout from the Marine House, Mickey-Lu’s, Applebee’s, or Taco Bell. (I wish I were joking about Taco Bell. The culinary options here are slim indeed, though the consequences are not.) One night we were having burgers at Mickey-Lu’s, a ‘50s diner that has never been gussied up to look like a ‘50s diner. It was a favorite hangout of the kids who had money to waste on junk (as my mother would say) when I was in high school. The burgers and brats [sausages, not children] are still grilled over flames and wrapped in butcher paper and plopped down in front of you on a Formica table. And the waitresses call you “hon.” It could star in its own sit-com. So here’s the scene: K, MP, Barb, Barb’s son Brian, and I are crowded into a corner booth, and the air is festive as all get out. It’s just a few days after Christmas, the decorations are still up, and the place is rapidly filling up with folks coming in from the latest snowstorm—red-cheeked, bundled up, and cheerfully stamping their boots. The noise is quite loud in this small space, and someone is playing the jukebox. MP and I sing along to the music, and he amuses himself by blowing straw wrappers at me. I feel like I should be having one of those honeymoon frissons, seeing myself and my family as if we’re extras in an Adam Sandler movie. But it’s just… what it is. No more the glistening-eyed romantic, the California expatriate, the prodigal sister, the city mouse moved to the country. I’m just like everybody else now. Except in the sense that I’m not.

Every week, after supper, we spend the evening watching TV or a movie I’ve gotten from Netflix. If it’s a movie I really want to see, I watch it at home ahead of time, because the peeps (or peops, as my friend Van logically spells it) don’t always have the longest of attention spans and are known to suddenly start talking to the cats or mentioning who stopped by today, or did you fill in the check register when you got home from Menards. Barb does most of the talking,  accustomed as she is to addressing a captive audience in her classroom. (Meow.) K points out that we get together to visit, but it’s hard to do that and also pay attention to a movie plot. Plus, they have a grandfather clock that chimes every 15 minutes, and the police scanner has to be turned up so MP can hear if there’s an accident he has to go to with the wrecker. It’s quite a contrast to my quiet household of three—two of us being dumb animals, and I’m not going to tell you which two.

I complain, I kid, but our Friday nights are a lifeline I would hate to do without. One night I went home and wrote down what I could remember of the latest news about Barb’s son Brian, because it reminded me so much of the “News from Lake Wobegon,” if Lake Wobegon had any young people living there, and if they beat each other up—oops, spoiler!

One of the best-kept secrets of middle age is that the personal dramas of one’s 20s and 30s (and 40s and 50s, in my case) are a thing of the past. Instead, I get to observe the personal dramas being suffered by my younger friends and relatives. One feels for them, and one freely dispenses advice based on one’s own youth (though, strangely, those fascinating stories from the ‘60s rarely seem to impress), but one doesn’t have to suffer them oneself. (Is a person less self-centered if she uses “one” instead of “I”? One is just asking.)

Here’s a condensed version of the stories Barb told us.

Brian’s (now ex-) wife Deb’s brother J broke up with Deb’s friend and married this new girl. No one else in the family likes her, so she won’t let any of them in the house, and he won’t answer the phone. Their sister Amanda thought it would be a good idea to tell him their mom had a heart attack and was clinging to life, just to get his attention. His father went over there to borrow a ladder that happens to belong to Barb—she didn’t even know he had it—and J made him talk out on the porch.

Brian sold the trailer. Deb was OK with it at first, but then she wished he hadn’t, because she and Amanda and their sister Mary wanted to go camping at Shakey Lakes and they would have to take Mary’s little trailer. They wanted the guys to go up and get everything ready for them and then leave. [The new feminism.]

One night, with her kids in tow, Deb’s friend Wendy showed up at Brian’s house and accused him of breaking in and stealing her safe. After a brief argument, Brian denying it and inviting them to search the house, Deb and Wendy walked over to Mary’s house to accuse Amanda of stealing the safe. Brian got angry at being accused, and also at not being asked to go along. He got in his truck and left.

[Here’s where it gets a little confusing.] At Mary’s house, Wendy physically attacks Amanda; Amanda’s boyfriend tries to pull her off; Jason and J.T. [who they?] try to break it up; Wendy shoves J.T.; he pushes Wendy to the ground; Deb screams at Wendy to chill out; Wendy attacks Deb, chokes her and gives her a nasty bump on the forehead. The neighbors call the police. Wendy returns to Brian’s house.

Brian gets home to find three police cars there. Wendy has walked away from the cops, yelling “Fuck off!” It takes three police to pin her to the ground. They get her into the squad car. She kicks the back window out. Her kids stay the night at Brian’s.

Brian is mad at his daughter Summer [who’s 12 going on 30] because “she’s such a drama queen and wants attention all the time.” As he’s telling Barb this, he’s holding his head in his hands. He says he hates his life and asks if she has any food so he can feed the kids.

A few days later, Mary, her son Devon, and her boyfriend are in a car accident near J.C. Penney’s. They’re hit head-on by a guy in his truck who admits to the police that he did it on purpose because he wanted to prove to his family that he didn’t care if he lived or died. Everyone seems to be OK, though Mary has to wear a neck brace and little Devon is called back to the hospital for a CAT scan when his face starts to swell up.

At the hospital, Brian tells Barb that he, Amanda, and Sean [Mary’s ex-husband—the guy Deb was cheating on Brian with] [you will recall that Deb and Mary are sisters] are all under suspicion for the theft of the safe from Wendy’s house. Sean, who didn’t have enough money to pay his water bill last month, magically came up with $3,400 to pay on his credit card. At the Nite Court bar the night before, Sean walked past Brian three times, smirking at him, and telling everyone in the place that he’s going to “nail” the third sister, Amanda, next. Brian goes outside and sees Sean letting the air out of Deb’s tires. Sean had told the two bouncers, who are friends of his, to look the other way. Brian punches Sean in the face.

Oh, and it doesn’t stop there, no siree. It’s a continuing soap opera that rivals anything on daytime TV. Although I feel for all the people involved—and also see that they are the agents of their own troubles—it’s kind of nice to be the onlooker for once and not the star of my own ridiculous melodramas.

Update: Sean is now in jail for drunk driving; Brian moved to Texas after the divorce; Deb is living with a new guy; and the beat goes on….

There are other things I could write about: my delightful kitties, my backyard “wildlife sanctuary,” the born-again cable guy, class in America, Pat & Rayleen’s new restaurant, and, of course, death. But I figure I should leave yooz begging for more. Au revoir.

[Mary McKenney]

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