mary’zine random redux: #36 March 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]

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