mary’zine random redux: #14 May 2001

Well, it’s been a quiet month in Lake Nobegon….

Have been watching all the hair fall out of my head—unexpected bonus of female aging. Bald pate will go nicely with the goatee that’s springing up.

Been to the dentist 8 times in the last 3 months, for bridgework. Would sell firstborn to pay $3,000 bill but unfortunately never bred.

Made my first purchase of Efferdent to clean the new partial denture. Wonder if they still make Serutan (“Nature’s spelled backwards”), a kind of elixir for the elderly. Will have to pay closer attention to commercials from now on.

Walked down to Macy’s in Union Square after last appointment. Fashion, fashion everywhere and not a thing to buy. There’s DKNY, but where’s DYKE?

Best compliment I’ve gotten all month: “You are like a well-worn sweatshirt.” Baggy, I presume.

Read in the newspaper that cats need a “job” to avoid stress. Obediently went out and bought Pookie a cat dancer—feathered mouse (?) dangling at the end of a plastic stick. $7.49. Cat dance? Fat chance.

Then spent $46 on special veterinarian-approved food and powdered food additive for his dry skin. Hunger strike could last a while, considering his fat reserves.

Am doing my annual caffeine detox. Down to 1 cup of green tea and 1 Excedrin per day. Robert Downey, Jr., I feel your pain.

Work continues to be educational. Learned that rats do not have a gallbladder.

Computer is on its last legs—well, it’s 18 months old, which is about 65 in human years. Screen freezes if I try to print and chew gum at the same time.

And that’s the news from Lake Nobegon.

ptsd

I received a plaintive request from a faithful reader, Kathy T., who wants more Pookie news. I tell Pookie all the time that he is becoming a celebrity and has to start taking his fan base more seriously—by giving me, his underpaid publicist, more material. He merely squeaks—doesn’t even bother to meow—and heads for the other room to lie on cardboard.

So I’m forced to dig for stories. He wouldn’t like me telling this one, because what happened was an assault on his dignity, as most things that happen to cats are. But that’s the beauty of living with an animal—they’re illiterate, so you can write anything you want to about them.

PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder, but in this case it also stands for Pookie’s Traumatic Spa Day. I give Pookie a bath every 14 years whether he needs it or not. Actually, that’s not quite true. When he was 7 or 8, he escaped from the patio somehow. Unable to handle the terrible responsibility of freedom, he hid under a nearby car for hours, as I roamed the neighborhood calling his name. When he finally managed to make enough of a pathetic squeak to let me know where he was, I had to crawl under the car and drag him out. Of course, he had big oil spots on his head and back. I didn’t know about kitty day spas then, so I changed into some old clothes, grabbed a big towel, and took him into the bathtub. I didn’t have any special cat soap, so I used Joy dishwashing detergent for its grease-cutting properties. I was prepared to do battle, but he was actually quite docile as I soaped him up and then rinsed him as best I could, using a washcloth and a basin of water.

Well, we both lived through the experience, but I didn’t want to repeat it. For years now, Pookie has had a skin problem that gives him something like kitty dandruff. (Oh my God—was it the Joy?) I’ve asked a couple of vets over the years what I could do about it, but they weren’t much help. One said, “Feed him table scraps,” and I had to laugh. Honey, we don’t have table scraps at our house. Also, because he’s longhaired, he tends to get a lot of mats, and doesn’t enjoy my yanking on his fur or coming at him with scissors. The situation got even worse after his you-know-what was cut off. He has to pee like a girl now, and his private parts—or I should say, his no-longer-private, no-longer-parts—tend to dribble. Things got pretty desperate, olfactory-wise. (His personal hygiene in general leaves much to be desired. He does his fair share of self-cleaning, but often I will come upon him sitting in the middle of a room with a dazed look in his eyes and one back leg sticking up in the air behind his ear. Either he’s contemplating the mysteries of existence, or he forgot what he was doing.)

So anyway, after much agonizing indecision, which is—face it—how I live my life, I decided to take Pookie to Cat’s Cradle, a feline grooming and boarding place in San Rafael, to be shampooed, combed, clipped, fluffed, and folded. I was dreading it—partly because I was embarrassed to have such a grungy cat and partly because he has been known to shit and piss in the carrier on the way to or from the vet’s, as his personal signature of disapproval.

The setup to this story is a lot longer than the actual story, which was like a dream come true. I dropped him off at Cat’s Cradle at 8:30 a.m. and picked him up at 1:00. He was soft and clean as a kitten, and the spa lady didn’t even make me feel guilty about the gross factor. She did tactfully give me some suggestions for how to deal with his skin problem.

The boarding part of the operation is right up front behind glass, and it looks very pleasant. They even have special accommodations for the non-user-friendly felines. So it seemed possible that I could send Pookie on an extended spa holiday the next time I go on vacation, instead of forcing my friends to make daily pilgrimages to the house to maintain his royal lifestyle.

I was thrilled to have this experience over with and to be able to touch Pookie without washing my hands afterward, but the down side was that he went into a serious funk. It took him 2 or 3 days to recover—he just hunkered down in his bed like a meatloaf or a sphinx, staring straight ahead, with his purr switch on Off. I felt guilty—and had second thoughts about the vacation idea. But he came around eventually, and now if I could just get him to eat his pricey food with the dry skin helper on top, and to do his “job” by dancing for the feathered mouse (instead of lounging on his side, batting casually at it while I do all the work), we might just live happily ever after.

laughterbation

In a year that has not been the greatest for me so far—on so many levels—I had one really great day a few weeks ago. It was truly ordinary in most ways but felt so different. (1) The main difference was no headache, or at least only a small one, of manageable one-Excedrin size. (2) Got new work—a book by an old acquaintance who synchronistically reappeared in my life. I’ll tell you about her sometime. (3) Got a great e-mail from one of my Austrian authors. I had edited a paper for his colleague, and the colleague was “really happy” with my work… so Philipp wrote: “We are all happy you exist!” and there was just something so touching and uplifting about his invoking my existence; I mean, there are presumably other (better?) reasons why I exist, but it was nice to know that I make a difference to someone way on the other side of the world. So I spent the afternoon stretching my brain editing Philipp’s paper on intensive care unit statistics (he’s English-challenged, and I’m statistics-challenged, but we’ve managed to get all his papers published in good journals so far) and finally collapsed on the bed, bone- and brain-weary but with that great feeling of an honest day’s work finally over.

Pookie got on the bed with me, which he usually only does in the evening for TV-watching purposes. I let my mind go (which some would say I did a long time ago) and started thinking about the hilarious interview with Mike Myers that I had seen the night before on “Inside the Actor’s Studio.” Just thinking about different parts of it got me laughing. James Lipton, the interviewer, had complained about a hysterical takeoff that “Saturday Night Live” had recently done of him. He said they got it all wrong—they did him with a British accent, and “I don’t have a British accent, I’m from MICHigan, for Christ’s sake!” And so I laughed when I thought of the SNL takeoff, which I had seen, and then I laughed at James Lipton’s umbrage and at Mike Myers’ deadpan agreement that the takeoff was completely off base, and Pookie looked over his shoulder at me and went “Errkk?” because my laughter was shaking the bed and making him bounce, and that made me laugh all the harder, and I told him it was like putting a quarter in a massaging fingers bed, and that made me howwwl till I was rolling back and forth, unable to speak. It was a laff riot of 1, if you don’t count Pookie, and I don’t—that’s one thing about cats, they have no sense of humor. Then I thought of the word “laughterbation,” which set me off again, and finally Pookie jumped off the bed in disgust, and even that was fuel for the funny fire. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that helpless kind of laughter by myself before. It’s happened with Peggy, and it used to happen all the time with my sisters and my mother—the four of us would be falling-down, pee-our-pants laughing over something completely silly while the brothers-in-law looked on, stone-faced—which made it all the funnier, of course.

When I finally settled down, I felt thoroughly refreshed—much more so than after the other –bation. So I have to agree with Reader’s Digest that laughter is truly the best medicine. If you have no moral objections to self-pleasure and want to try a little laughterbation yourself, here’s a suggestion. Get thee to a used bookstore and look for a copy of How to Massage Your Cat, which is inexplicably out of print. [2009 update: It was reprinted in 2003 and is available on Amazon.] It’s the funniest book ever written (and illustrated). These laughing jags are one of God’s greatest gifts. Laff on.

white like me

At the beginning of this issue, I invoked Lake Wobegon, the innocent fictional town of funny-talking people that Garrison Keillor made famous. And I got to wondering if he has ever told a story about racism in Lake Wobegon. Something tells me no—it’s not exactly the stuff of humorous anecdotes. But the good Lutherans of the far North—despite little in their surroundings to indicate that any color of person other than pinkish exists—pass racist beliefs on to their children as surely as they pass family stories about the Old Country and the recipe for abelskiver. These are my roots. My people were not the slaves, and not the slaveholders either, just the ignorant (not innocent) bystanders….

My earliest memory of being aware that there were “differently colored” people in the world was when I was about 5 years old and my parents and I took a car trip to Oak Park, Illinois—a suburb of Chicago—to visit my aunt Dagmar. We were driving through a part of Chicago where all the people on the streets were dark-skinned, and I gleefully called out from the back seat, “Look, there’s a nigger!” My mother, horrified, turned around from the front seat and hissed at me—“Shhhh!” And at that moment, the complex conditioning that is instilled in white people in America took root in me, at least on a conscious level. Obviously, the seed had been planted sometime earlier when I first learned the word and matched it to the dark face. What’s strange is that I don’t remember ever learning that word—and there were no dark faces in my town to match it to.

I remember a couple of other details from that trip to Oak Park. Having been told that we were going to ride the El, which was “a train in the sky,” I told my friends to watch for me in case we flew over our neighborhood. In Chicago we attended a live TV show, and from my seat in the audience I thought the camera was trained directly on me. I wasn’t happy about being there for some reason, so I spent the whole time scowling at what I thought were the viewers at home. I mention these two little misunderstandings because it didn’t take me long to figure out the nature of El trains and the fact that TV cameras pretty much focus on the stage. But no one ever came forward and said to me, “You know, ‘nigger’ is a bad word, not because it could get you beaten up on the streets of Chicago but because it’s demeaning to perfectly decent people.”

As to where I learned the word, I figure someone passed it into my lexicon when I read Little Black Sambo. Then there were Brazil nuts, which were routinely called “nigger toes,” and the childhood chant, “Catch a nigger by the toe, when he hollers let him go….” I’m deliberately using that shocking word when it’s the word I mean. It’s not that I think we should ever become comfortable using it, but I think we sweep the reality of the slur under the rug when we resort to the coy and disingenuous “N-word”—as if it’s a joke or something cutely naughty.

Later in life, I became aware of the origins of this early conditioning when my aunt Doris and uncle Sonny came to visit me in San Francisco. My aunt matter-of-factly announced upon arrival that they had had to drive through “niggertown” to get there. I was horrified, of course, having moved into a more genteel world by then, where you knew to disguise your nasty thoughts with nice language, or you didn’t admit you had nasty thoughts in the first place. This is why white working-class people are scapegoated for their racism—they aren’t more racist than the higher-income classes, they just don’t coat it with nice words. This is one reason they’re called that other ethnically demeaning term, “white trash,” which is considered completely acceptable in this age of careful, “sensitive” language—don’t say “Pollock” or “dago” but feel free to dismiss millions of people as “white trash.” Don’t get me started—oops, too late—but I think this term is still in use because it lets people project their racist feelings obliquely on a safe target—can’t mention race but can get all high-and-mighty about white people who “have no class”—in that double meaning that says so much about how poor white people are viewed. (“In our society, money is equated with virtue”—Jon Carroll, S.F. Chronicle; “The upper income classes tend to be highly intelligent and to have highly intelligent children….”—letter to the editor, S.F. Chronicle [substitute the word “privileged” for “intelligent” and we’ll talk].)

Ahem. Where was I?

Not that derogatory words are the only way to insult people of color. Once when I was back home visiting my family, my 12-year-old nephew wanted to sit in the front seat of the car with me, whereupon my sister told him, “No, Mike—black folks sit in the back, white folks sit in the front.” I noted the change of language—was that progress?—but was horrified by the same old sentiment. I launched into a diatribe—“What are you teaching your kids?”—and she got (justifiably) pissed at me. To her, it was a completely benign saying, a “joke.” In lecturing her, I was playing the insufferable older sister who goes away to college and comes back with strange sensitivities and high-falutin’ ways. I was the privileged one with a middle-class job and a middle-class social conscience to go with it, while my sister stayed in our hometown, raised two kids, and worked (still works) at a strenuous, noisy job in a factory making couplings. In this situation I knew I was “right” in one respect but wrong in so many others.

***

Strangely, I don’t remember hearing any anti-Semitic comments when I was growing up—not even “They killed our Lord.” To me, Jews were the chosen people as portrayed in the Bible and remained that way in my mind even after I stopped reading the Bible. They were the people my father fought for in WWII. And quite literally, “some of my best friends” have been Jewish. I know anti-Semitism still exists—that it’s a strain of “emotional bacteria” that will probably never be completely eradicated—but I don’t understand it. And I wonder if that is largely due to not having been exposed to that form of racism as a child. Also, I just thought of this: My mother loved Jewish humorists like Sam Levenson, Herb Shriner, Shelley Berman, and Allan Sherman. I can’t think of any black performers she liked, except maybe Bill Cosby.

***

As I try to come to terms with this difficult topic, knowing that there’s no point in writing about it if I’m not going to be truthful, I feel like I’m pushing a shopping cart with a defective wheel that keeps pulling to the side. It would be so much easier, in a way, to write about growing up working class, or about being a woman or a lesbian—I could get on my high horse and harangue you about how middle-class people, men, and straight people have oppressed my sorry ass. They say you’re supposed to write about what you know, right? I don’t even have any black friends—my experiences with actual black people have been so marginal, it’s embarrassing. But I figure that sometimes you have to write about what you don’t know so that your admitted ignorance can be a beacon to others similarly without clue. And in the process, you reveal what you do know, which is how you see the world, for better or worse. Then, if the shoe fits, other people can wear it too.

After I decided to write about racism, I came up against a lot of fear. It was difficult to think about exposing myself in that way. What if I revealed more than I intended? What if people took it the wrong way and didn’t catch all the nuances of how I’m not actually a raving racist, I just think like that sometimes? Perhaps if I had more Pookie stories to tell, I would have convinced myself to save this heavy topic for a later issue. But I kept thinking about what the painting teachers say when you get stuck and don’t know what to paint—“Did an image come to you that you rejected?” And so, even after I decided to play it safe and write instead about gay marriage and other things homo (“The Evolutionary Importance of Gay People”), something kept nagging at me. Then I talked to J about it, and I came away knowing I had to push that edge. So, even though my shopping cart keeps wanting to turn onto safer ground, I’ll just keep wrestling with it, if you don’t mind—just as I wrestle with the feelings and contradictions of being white in this society, or at least white like me.

When I e-mailed a friend that I was trying to write about this topic, she wrote back, “I understand your ambivalence about committing ink to racism… it IS loaded for people, and there is SO MUCH PC-ness around it. Makes me afraid to move.” And it’s just this paralysis, this fear of “moving”—of saying or doing the wrong thing—that makes it all the more important, I think, for well-intentioned white people to talk about racism. Even if we use all the right words and shun all the wrong ones, we know the nasty secrets of our heart and of the thought process that keeps racism alive. Personal feelings are only a small part of the reality, of course—but as we used to say in the ‘60s, “the personal is the political.” So it’s a place to start.

One last disclaimer: Obviously, there are many different groups that make up the color and culture spectrum. I’m focusing on black people because they seem to provoke the most complex feelings in those of us who are a whiter shade of pale. But let me recommend a fascinating book about the “history of multicultural America”—A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki. I was surprised to learn that the Irish were oppressed by the English long before the concept of skin color evolved as a way to divide and conquer. So class distinctions may be even more deeply embedded in our collective psyche than racial ones. As I’ve heard it said, few white people would object to living next door to Colin Powell—but blue collar workers in neighborhoods of a certain income level are another story altogether.

***

I told myself that in writing this, I was going to stick to my personal experience and leave out the polemics, but I’m not having much luck with that. I happen to be a born polemicist. Even though I also love to schmooze about my adventures in the grocery store aisles and my close encounters with a certain kitty cat, get me near a political topic and I start lecturing. Well, I cannot deny my Buddha-nature. Please humor me for a few more pages….

***

I know how hurtful it is to sensitive black men to see white women cross the street to get away from them, clutching their purses to their bodies as they glance over in fear. So when I see a black man walking toward me, I not only refuse to do that, but I make a point of saying “Hi” to show that I am not that street-crossing, purse-clutching scared white woman. Sometimes when this happens, I feel there’s a genuine human moment of connection between us that can be read on more than one level—(a) I’m just being neighborly and saying “Hi” like I would to anyone else; and (b) I’m conveying what I believe to be a richly layered awareness of the cultural norm and my refusal to participate in it. And yet, it becomes such a self-congratulatory thing, and inevitably condescending, as if I’m doing him a huge favor by not running from him on sight. I’d rather not see everyone through the frame of race, but it seems inevitable, and I figure you have to start somewhere. So I say “Hi.”

It’s one thing when I see a friendly-looking black man in my own neighborhood who’s out for a walk just like I am. But it gets complicated when I feel in any way threatened as a woman. The culture has taught white women that dark-skinned men are more likely to rape us. This is a statistical untruth, but the perception is hard to shake. When I was in college, I was painfully aware of Eldridge Cleaver’s statement in Soul on Ice that raping white women was rightful revenge against the white man. This disturbed me, to say the least, but I didn’t question its validity—partly because of a prefeminist lack of self-respect. If class distinctions may be older than the arbitrary concept of race, how old is the belief in the inferiority of women? Old as the hills, and alive and well today.

So it’s hard for me to sort out in any given situation—say, on the street at night—who has more to fear, me or the black man. My whiteness isn’t going to protect me from his physical superiority—but historically, at least, my pale sisters had a lot of power over his dark brothers through the evil of false accusation. And my “white skin privilege” permeates my life, though the benefits are mostly invisible to me, just as men’s various entitlements seem natural and unremarkable to them.

I imagine a cartoon in which a black man and a white woman are approaching each other on the street. Both are scowling, and the thought bubble above the black man’s head says “White oppressor!” and the bubble above the white woman’s head says “Male oppressor!” We see through our own particular lenses, always. It’s as if humanity is a giant Rubik’s cube, hopelessly scrambled. No wonder we find it hard to move. I knew a young white gay man who thought I was a guilt-ridden ‘60s dinosaur for being anti-racist—he couldn’t get past the “rudeness” of black teenagers on the bus who called him “fag.” He could see the injustice done to him but refused to see all the ways in which their lives were completely circumscribed in comparison to his.

***

A few years ago, I was shopping at Macy’s in The Village—an upscale shopping center in Marin—where I always stick out like a sore thumb, or think I do. Marin is the first or second wealthiest county in the U.S., which means that I mostly feel like a fish out of water—or a fish in a fishbowl—something to do with fish, anyway. I seem to straddle genders and classes, and Marin is not really a good place to straddle.

So I’m riding down the escalator in Macy’s, wanting to get this shopping trip over with. I gather my courage to go browsing in “young men’s streetwear,” where I may get smirked at but where it seems to me all the “normal” clothes are. (OK, so I straddle ages, too.) I look over, and there’s a black man riding up the escalator just across from me. Although it’s not that unusual to see black people in Marin, there’s something about the fact that I’m feeling self-conscious about my own misfittedness, and I register that he’s the only nonwhite person I’ve seen in the whole store. Anyway, a blinding number of synapses fire in my brain. The ones I can catch are:

(1) Since I have immediately identified him as a fellow outsider in this situation, my first impulse is to smile at him, as if he would instantly read my smile as “Aren’t we just the biggest sore thumbs in the place?”

(2) I quickly suppress this impulse for fear of being rejected in my attempt at frivolous bonding. He may fail to discern (or appreciate) how different I am from all the other white people in the store.

(3) Worse yet, he may be all too aware of my differentness. Remember the cartoon I imagined above? In this version, the black man’s thought balloon could be saying: “White oppressor!—Dyke!

(4) This projection makes me feel potentially judged by him, and so in defense I judge him right back. I’m afraid to imagine what the thought balloon over the white woman’s head says now.

(5) In half a second I have gone from feeling like a “sister” on some minor, all-oppressed-peoples-unite level to feeling like just another pathetic white liberal who seeks out the approval of black people in order to convince herself she’s not a bad person. (“I may be white, but I’m not like them!”)

My glance at this man and the flood of thoughts that followed—even my desire to initiate a friendly, complicitous fellow-outsider look—simply reeked of racism, not because I wished to run him out of town or burn a cross on his lawn but because I looked at him and immediately defined him by his blackness and then proceeded to trip out on all my stereotypical reactions. I wondered what it would be like if the thoughts of all the white shoppers in the store, upon noticing this man, were broadcast over the PA system—what terrible detritus from our sordid racist history would we hear? Even if a small number of the shoppers were perfectly comfortable with people of color, and even if a fair number were so lost in their own quest for consumer goods that they wouldn’t notice if the Harlem Globetrotters slam-dunked their way through the perfume aisle, I still think that the buzz of assumptions, reactions, and defenses precipitated by years of racist conditioning would be deafening. My last cartoon fantasy—every white person in Macy’s with a different racial slur in their thought balloon, maybe a few that have gratuitous “compliments” like “Hey, I LOVE Stevie Wonder!,” and the balloon over the black man’s head saying “HELP! I just came in here to buy a tie!”

***

What is a ‘black person’?

—J

The best advice I ever got about how to approach the thorny problem of actual contact with a person of color was from the late Pat Parker, a Bay Area poet. In “To White Girls Who Want To Be My Friend,” she wrote, “Forget that I’m black/Never forget that I’m black.” This is contradictory on the surface, but it makes a lot of sense to me. So when I interact with a “black person” (J’s question rings in my head whenever I say that), I hold both attitudes in my mind at once and hope that by not trying to deny any part of what’s going on in me, I will be able to receive the truth of the person.

When I worked at UC, there was a black man named Bernard in my friend Liz’s lab. Bernard was huge and didn’t smile much, and I was completely intimidated by him. Because Liz liked him, I tried to be friendly despite my self-consciousness and his lack of response. One day I made him laugh, and that broke the ice. After that, we would stop and chat when we saw each other in the halls. What surprised me at first was that he couldn’t seem to make enough disparaging remarks about white people—everything was “crazy white people” or “crazy white women.” But he said these things cheerfully, so I went along with it. I sensed something was going on, that I was being tested. And as I continued to respond not with outrage—or with flight—but by laughing or shaking my head, the remarks faded away. I think he was conveying that I couldn’t just treat him like an honorary white person and be “color blind” and act like his race was irrelevant or taboo. (“Nice people don’t talk about things like that”—an attitude I’m very familiar with from the gay angle.) People who are different from you don’t want to be whitewashed (so to speak), they want to keep their identity and be accepted and treated decently—which I think is what Pat Parker meant by her paradoxical statement.

***

I was listening to “This American Life” one Sunday on NPR when they interviewed an African American woman who had moved to Paris because the French seemed free of racism, at least compared to what she was used to in this country. (It sounded great; I wish there were a place like that for women.) She talked about the time that she and her friends tried to push to the front of a line at a Paris theater and the French people yelled at them and made them go to the back of the line. She liked this, because it showed they were being treated like everyone else. She and her friends had routinely pushed to the front of lines in the U.S., where, she crowed, “White people are afraid of us.” She apparently regretted her candor, because she added, “Maybe I shouldn’t say that.” And my immediate thought was, “That’s right, you shouldn’t!” I felt a surge of resentment, because it hit too close to home. It’s painful to feel the wrath of the downtrodden—and to be mocked, besides! But when I feel that way, when I feel unjustly (or justly) accused and labeled, I take a cue from the men I respect—bet you didn’t expect me to say that—who are able to acknowledge the righteous anger of women without becoming defensive or going on the counterattack. I think that’s the first step toward healing an ancient rift.

***

I like to read a murder mystery.

I like to know the killer isn’t me.

—Erasure

A few years ago, I saw “Rosewood,” a movie based on a true story about white southerners in the 1920s who burned down an entire town and killed all the black people who lived there.

It made me sick to watch it, not only the killing itself but the laughter and excitement of the white men as they went about their business, proving their superiority. I had a sudden, sickening realization that they were exactly like the Nazis—in their hearts their hatred was the same, regardless of the local, unorganized nature of the American version.

I found myself trying to pick a safe place to land in all this. I wanted to blame the men, because I’m a woman, but it was a woman who (in the movie, at least) put the whole thing in motion by lying about a black man having raped and beaten her. I wanted to blame the southerners, because I’m from the north, but as I’ve said, some of my northern relatives could have been in the front lines. In one scene there’s a group of white people by the river singing hymns and baptizing children. I had a jarring moment when I saw them all standing there, nice and clean and dressed up, holding babies, because they could have been my family, my town—my sweet aunt and uncle, referring casually to “niggertown.”

So my mind buzzed on, not wanting to have any part of that disgusting heritage, not wanting to accept that I could ever have feelings like that. But when I first moved to my neighborhood, groups of Hispanic men used to gather under the big tree outside my bedroom window every day and in the middle of the night, talking and drinking beer—leaving behind all their trash. It got so that I hated the sound of Spanish. I knew that what I was feeling was racism—extrapolating the actions of a few to the entire ethnic group. At the same time, I felt vulnerable as a woman living alone, in a neighborhood where, over a period of months, three of my windows were broken, my condo was burglarized, and my car was vandalized. So I felt like a victim in my own right. Would I have felt free to stumble drunkenly and loudly through the night, as those men did? Would their wives have felt safe gathering outside a stranger’s house, drinking beer, playing a radio? The very thought of women doing those things is ridiculous. On the other hand, I was living alone in a three-bedroom condo, making a good salary—not holed up in a small apartment with 8 or 10 other people, begging on the streets for work. It’s the Rubik’s cube again.

Watching a movie, when I’m safely distant from the bad guys and they’re showing a sanitized picture of the good guys, it seems obvious. There must be evil, it must reside over there—in Germany, in the south, in men, in gay bashers, in rich people. I’m adept at putting the dividing line wherever I can land on the side of the innocent.

Despite my efforts to the contrary, I feel dishonest. Always trying to show (to others, to myself) that I am good. Hating the bad people. Hating the bad in myself. Hating people who hate. Or not even admitting that I hate any of that. Going toward the light. Trying to project an image of compassion when inside I am burning with anger and resentment. Projecting, always projecting, so the bad things will stay over there.

***

p.s. This issue is brought to you in part by Copy Central, at which I won my second “fishbowl gift certificate.” I have put my business card in their fishbowl only twice and have won both times. Or maybe it’s just a marketing scheme in which they pay off everyone who bothers to put their card in. (As always, I am suspicious of good fortune.)

[Mary McKenney]

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