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.
…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.