mary’zine #39: August 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]

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One Response to “mary’zine #39: August 2009”

  1. Kelly Moore Says:

    Hi Mary!
    I just read your ‘zine from Aug. ’09. I am feeling tired and overworked, so I decided to take the morning off from doing anything in any way productive. It’s very stormy outside and the house is warm and silent. I feel so happy, in an outwardly neutral-faced way. I like that, when I am smiling inside, but to smile outwardly would ruin it. Anyway, very interesting issue. So glad to reconnect. I like hearing you think a lot about honesty. A fascinating topic. I have this vision of myself as being overly attached to honesty, and that it’s healthy for me to tell some small lies sometimes. It think that’s true to some extent for me, but I also think there are sinister, unnoticed forms of dishonesty that are more harmful, and that should not be allowed to flourish. I can’t really think of anything specific right now, but what you wrote resonated with me. Thanks. Love Kelly


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