In memory of Pookie 1987-2005
a cat who thought (and often pooped)
outside the box
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.
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.
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.
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.