mary’zine #40: September 2009

By a former member of “the vast Upper Peninsula diaspora” (N.Y. Times)

This is mary’zine #40, which means it’s sort of my 40th anniversary…. which I shall use as an awkward segue to another 40th anniversary that’s been in the news….

if you don’t remember the ‘60s…

I wasn’t at Woodstock, thank God. Instead, in the summer of ‘69 my friends Ralph and Kathy and I traveled in a station wagon from East Lansing, MI, to the Atlantic City Pop Festival and the Newport Folk Festival. Woodstock was 2 weeks after A.C., but Woodstock wasn’t yet Woodstock, if you know what I mean, and we figured we could see more acts at the twofer. I was incredibly miserable through the whole trip. First, I don’t travel well, as you may know. Also, we spent a day at the ocean as soon as we got there, no suntan lotion, nothing. My only concern at the time was the seaweed in my bathing suit. But by evening I was burnt to a crisp and became sick and feverish. If I had known then what I know now, I would have gone to the emergency room. I remember lying across several folding chairs in the back of the Newport concert while someone (I thought I remembered that it was Joan Baez, but apparently she wasn’t even there) sang her folksy heart out. The music was beautiful, the night was pleasantly cool, the stars sparkled in the vast night sky, but it was not transcendent, it was hell. You know how they say youth is wasted on the young? Well, it was wasted on me all right. The ‘60s were a great time to be young, but my youth was consumed by anxiety and depression, mostly in anticipation of the great void that was my unimaginable future. And Zoloft was not yet a twinkle in the eye of its Creator.

So all I remember of the festival itself is one afternoon small-group session with Pete Seeger and that nauseating night listening to _______. And oh, by the way, I don’t remember the dope helping my nausea at all.

We had no money, so we slept in the station wagon and then had to sneak into gas station bathrooms to clean up. We got chased away from a couple of them. We were as bedraggled as you can imagine, but I was still outraged at being stereotyped as a dirty hippie—I was a respectable college student! I had studied the philosophy of art! By the way, we didn’t call ourselves hippies, we were freaks, as in the Furry Freak Brothers. I seem to be the only one from my generation who remembers that. Also, “politically correct” was coined by the left about the right, and no one except squares ever used the word pot. I can’t bring myself to say it to this day—but I know better than to say “grass.” “Dope” and “weed” seem to be perennially acceptable. One is always trying to be “with it” without usurping the cultural hegemony of one’s youngers. Unfortunately, we oldies are going to be around for a while, boring them to death with our stories of youthful abandon and our all-around selfishness.

We also found a church that would give us free doughnuts, but we had to sit and listen to a Jesus-talk at the same time. It did not feel like a fair trade. Plus, I was still burnt and sick.

Tell me where are the flashbacks they all warned us would come.

—Jimmy Buffett

I’d feel bad about the lack of detail in this account, but you know that if you remember the ‘60s you weren’t there. I do have a few snapshot-memories, but those are notoriously unreliable. You can be thoroughly convinced that you remember something a certain way, but it’s been shown that the brain doesn’t go back to the raw data, it makes a copy and then every time you check the memory, it’s of that copy—and the copy itself can disappear or become corrupted. So the brain is less conscientious than a carpenter (“measure twice, cut once”). Even worse is that the original “memory” itself is unreliable, because our feelings color our perceptions. So the half-life of an accurate recording and copying of an event is vanishingly small. Thus we are nothing but layers upon layers of innocent deceit. The “self” is built from these dangling threads of amorphous, poorly focused conjecture.

A mundane example of what I’m talking about is a scene from “Mad Men” (best show on television). Betty and her young daughter Sally are out on the front porch when a policeman comes by to tell Betty that her father died. Both Betty and Sally are stunned. The policeman needs to know what should be done with the body, so Betty goes in the house to get her father’s papers. Everyone who discusses this show online seems to remember this scene as Betty going in the house and closing the door in Sally’s face. But when you watch it again, you see that Betty goes in the house, leaving the door open, and the policeman follows her in and shuts the door. Sally is left outside, but the door is hardly “closed in her face.” But the emotional truth of the show is that Betty is cold to her daughter and thinks only of herself; thus we believe that her neglect is manifested by physically shutting Sally out. Now, if our memories are that unreliable one day after watching a TV show that we pay close attention to and discuss with others in great detail, imagine how skewed the memories of our own lives must be.

To the extent that there are any verifiable facts in the following paragraph, I owe it all to the internets.

At Atlantic City, along with 100,000 other people, we saw Janis Joplin, The Chambers Brothers, Iron Butterfly, and a host of other famous acts, but those are the only ones I remember… Janis because she was Janis, and the other two because they had the longest, worst songs of the bunch: “Time Has Come Today” (“TIME……….. TIME……… TIME…………”) and “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” The place was incredibly muddy… probably not as bad as Woodstock, but still. One of my recurring miseries was having to use the filthy In-A-Porta-Da-Potties, which I wouldn’t have minded so much, but there was a long line outside each of them, and I had a shy bladder that made it impossible for me to go when anyone (let alone hundreds of anyone’s) was waiting for me. I also had a nausea phobia and became very nervous when I was packed in with all those people and couldn’t see a way out. Let’s face it, I was not cut out for the hippie/freak life. I happen to have the letter I wrote to my mother after the trip, so I eagerly reread it to get the, you know, lush, you-were-there, first-hand impressions. But alas, because I had written it to my mother, there was absolutely nothing of interest in it.

One pill makes you larger/And one pill makes you small/And the ones that mother gives you/Don’t do anything at all.

—Jefferson Airplane

My father had died that spring. What I remember about that was getting the phone call from my mother and then that evening sitting on my boyfriend’s—you heard me, boyfriend’s—lap listening to “Piece of My Heart” after taking some random pills someone had given us. We really didn’t care what they were—what difference did it make whether you got larger or smaller? The pills turned out to be downers—perfect for ambivalent grieving?

I’m surprised anyone lived through that time. Perhaps our saving grace was that it was all quite new; we were such innocents. I mean, on “Gentle Thursdays” we would run out in the street and hand daffodils to strangers, all proud of our peacenik ways. Yeah, it was dumb, but all kids do dumb things, that’s how they find out who they are.

So what does all this have to do with the 40th issue of the mary’zine? Nothing, why do you ask? It’s not as if I started writing it in 1969. What I was writing in 1969 was tortured fiction that drew on some tortured experiences I had had, but I didn’t know at the time that you could just write like you were writing a letter. I thought it had to be all formal and correct. Yet, at the same time, I was writing long letters to friends and was often told that my letters were fun to read. Ah… too soon old, too late schmart, as Mom used to say. Or maybe not too old in my case, because, well, here I am.

thought experiment

Now, I’m no scientist—more of a metaphysical autodidact—but I’ve been observing some interesting phenomena and putting 2 + 2 together. Not exactly sure what 2 + 2 adds up to yet, but hear me out.

First, all you folks d’un certain âge—born barely post-WWII—will recognize the continuing deterioration of one’s short-term memory. This used to be a joke. “I walk into a room and completely forget why I’m there!” This experience has become so common as to be unremarkable. But lately the short term is getting shorter and shorter. The speed at which my thoughts flash by and careen off the edge of the screen is truly awesome. I’ll think something, and then a millisecond later there is nothing, and I mean nothing. I have to really concentrate, trace my mental steps, or just stand in one place long enough to get that thought back.

I suspect that, at some point, that little gap—which may be empty of thought, but at least I’m there to notice it—will disappear, and I won’t even know that I had the thought, thus I won’t know that I can’t remember it. And that’s when it will get either scary or, I don’t know, extremely interesting. Maybe not so interesting when you walk into the kitchen, don’t remember why you’re there, don’t notice that you don’t remember why you’re there, turn the stove on… and walk away, letting the house burn down. But that comes later. Right now, you’re still in the phase where you walk into the kitchen, don’t remember why you’re there, retrace your thought-steps, think “oh yeah,” and turn the stove on. Everything proceeds normally from there, and you eat your supper instead of burning the house down—unless, of course, while you’re waiting for the spaghetti water to boil you walk into another room and forget why you’re there…. But my point is that, not only will the short-term memory go, but there won’t be any silent gap in which to regain your stride, get back on your track, and so on.

OK, hold that thought (if you can). My second observation is that my mind has a mind of its own when I’m tired. I’ll be sitting in my comfy chair reading a book or doing a crossword puzzle, and suddenly these sentences will pop into my mind, unrelated to the text of the book or the clues in the puzzle. The sentences are not my thoughts, nor are they talking to me. It’s more that my “signal” is being temporarily suppressed and other “channels” are opening up. It’s impossible to remember these little gems for long, so one night I wrote a few of them down after I “came to.”

“You were there for the gold feather.”

“I just don’t count on dogs being 4 or 5 months old.”

“They were horrible floors.”

“I’m not convinced these farmers are going to do any good.”

These sentences just came unbidden, as if someone (not I) were reading a book in my mind.

After the disembodied sentences come images—dream precursors, if you will—unless, of course, I’ve jerked awake just as the book is about to hit me in the face, in which case I try again to focus, but before I know it I’m in la-la land again. The images that come are not static, it’s as if I’m watching a movie in my head. I have no idea what movie it is, and there’s no narrator to explain the action, it’s just—BAM—a man is walking into a room and sitting down, and a woman starts talking to him (or whatever). It’s actually more like I’m seeing it in real life, only “I’m” not there—except as the photographic substrate, blank screen, radio dial, channel selector, or what have you.

When I put these phenomena together, what I get is the gradual scrambling of the signal that portends the dissolution of the self. So the question is not whether the self will continue after death, but whether that flimsily constructed bundle of imperfect memories will last as long as the body does. “Aging” is the gradual deterioration of our conscious control (or illusion of conscious control) of our experience, our selfness, the thing we think is so solid and will forever continue to be. And so the loss of short-term memory leaves only the long-ago childhood or young adulthood memories in the bank, and so you withdraw… and withdraw… and withdraw…. No more deposits—they don’t stick around long enough—and there’s no loan officer for memory. At first you appear to others to be merely a boring old woman incessantly recounting her past. Then the signal gets scrambled even more and you’re mistaking your daughter for your mother or losing whole chunks of your life and all you have left are conglomerations of thought-like sentences such as “Those farmers aren’t going to be there for the gold feather” and eventually “thofa caret her gofea.” And they call you crazy and stick you in a home.

My strategy to avoid all this—as doomed as it probably is—is to keep a little corner of my brain swept clean—pristine and aware—so that I’ll always be able to hover just beyond the disintegrating moment and—like Archimedes with his lever having found a place to stand and starting to move the world—look you (or the nurse’s aide) in the eye and say, “Hey… I came into the kitchen to make supper…. Is this a flashback? Don’t bogart that joint. Mommmmmy!”

OMG, LMAO, TMI

(I hope someone leaves a copy of the Urban Dictionary in the ruins, so that future language mavens will know what to make of these increasingly ubiquitous acronyms; or maybe we’ll go back to using pictograms—or just grunting and pointing.)

My sister K recently accused me (gently, jovially) of “always going one step too far.” Obviously, she has no respect for the creative process. More and more, I want to push the envelope, say the unbidden, approach the forbidden. So much happens beneath the surface that we are supposed to leave unsaid. But along with my failing memory, I more and more lose control of what comes out (more about that later!). I do this most often when I’m joking around with my brother-in-law MP. When we’re there on Friday nights he always says to K, “You’re not watching ‘Monk’!” He really hates that show. But then he disappears into the other room when it’s time for it to come on, and K commandeers the remote and we watch it. So last week he pulls the same thing: “You’re not watching ‘Monk’!” So I point out the obvious, which is that he doesn’t really mean it, and then… I take it a step too far…. I call him a pussy (one of his favorite words for other people, and not the worst one). His response is immediate. He turns and glares at me, I gasp and cover my mouth and laugh, half to show I’m joking, half kind of scared that he’s really mad. Just before I said “pussy,” two roads had diverged in a yellow wood and I couldn’t stop myself from taking the one less traveled by. So then MP did the only thing he could to retaliate, which was to turn off the TV. I said I didn’t care, he said he didn’t either. K and Barb were not asked for their vote. Paradoxically, the sudden, relatively rare silence gave us sisters a chance to have a bit of conversation, which usually has to be conducted during the muted commercials or at a volume that must compete with the sound of TV gunfire and explosions.

That urge to veer toward calamity seems to be getting stronger. I think it’s always been there, but in the old days I was more likely to cry than to laugh my ass off. Is that a step forward? I increasingly don’t care. I’d say I don’t give a shit, but… OK, here’s as good a place as any to expose my deteriorating sense of decorum. There’s no way to tell the following true story tastefully, so I’ll just dive right in.

I leave K & MP’s one Friday night and stop off at Angeli’s to get a few groceries. I have no idea what lies in store for me, but I’m grateful later that it didn’t lie in store. Driving out of the parking lot, I feel the first tummy rumblings that tell me I’d better get home fast. I have made the tragic mistake of ordering Applebee’s version of chicken quesadillas—complete with processed cheese and mayonnaise—earlier in the evening. My house is only about a 10-minute drive from the store, but as always happens when I’m in a hurry, I get stuck behind every cautious old woman who’s not used to driving at night and every old farmer who thinks he’s out in the field on his combine.

The reports from my intestines are getting more and more ominous. I sense an imminent shit storm heading my way, and I don’t need a weatherman to know which way the shit blows. I clench, I curse, I pray. Well, I don’t pray, I’m not stupid. I try to hold on, mentally urging the sluggish old people in front of me to damn well shit or get off the pot! Bad choice of metaphor, but that is my world right now.

I make it home, open the garage door, ease the Jeep inside, attempt to gather my wits (and innards) about me, and take clenched baby steps into the house. The downstairs bathroom is just a few feet from the door, so I’m in luck. Or so I wishfully think. I step inside, and the floodgates burst, whoosh! The explosion is both impressive and expressive. I try to get my pants down, though clothes are no longer a barrier to nature’s call. I fumble with the toilet seat. Oh, look, the cats have arrived to see what’s up. What’s up is now out and about, all over the floor. They begin to investigate—probably wondering why I don’t use a convenient box of sand like they do. I have visions of their little cat feet traipsing shit all over the house. I struggle to stand up, and I waddle—pants around knees—to the door and shoo them out. I shut the door. I turn around. I cannot believe what I see. It is not just a shit storm, it is a shit massacre. There is shit everywhere. All over the floor. All over the toilet. Behind the toilet. Splatters halfway up the wall and in the sink. All over me and my clothes, which I guess goes without saying. Plop plop but no fizz, and no relief it is, except for the fact that this happened in my own bathroom, not in the middle of the supermarket. I could have been one of those crazy old broads who just lose it. It would be like the dirty hippie experience, only a thousand times worse, because at least dirty hippies are young. Being old is the vilest thing, and shitting yourself in public is the ultimate in indecent exposure. It’s a toss-up whether it would be worse than throwing up—in school, or at a dirty, muddy rock concert—but something tells me shit trumps vomit, or at least sees it and raises it one. (I think I just invented a new card game.)

So I’m standing there in this shitting field, this self-made massacre. I realize belatedly that in my haste I have left the outer door open, so I know Brutus and Luther are now taking a tour of all the dirtiest, dustiest, oiliest, spider-webbiest corners of the garage. Better than the shittiest, though. I am overwhelmed and almost succumb to hysterical laughter. But this is no joke. I gingerly step out of my pants and underwear and proceed, bare-assed, to use toilet paper and rags to clean up the mess. Nothing like this has ever happened to me, and no child or animal in my presence has ever comported itself with such wild abandon.

It takes forever, but finally, still bare-assed, I go out in the garage to find the cats, and they reluctantly come in with odd bits of lint and spider web sticking to their heads. I go upstairs and get in the shower. Ah, I am making progress. I do a shitload, literally, of laundry. Then I sit down at the computer and compose a short but graphic e-mail to my peops.

The next morning I get MP’s response. He and K had laughed so hard at my predicament that they nearly shit and pissed their own selves. Ah! The reward of truly reaching someone with my writing! I have opened up a Pandora’s box of new material, a brave new world of self-exposure not heard of since the prison diaries of Jean Genet or the confessional poetry of Anne Sexton.

Have I found my muse at last? Shit happens. Oh, does it ever.

And now, enough about me (as if).

truth takes another drubbing

As I may have told you, my sister Barb is not allowed to teach evolution to her 7th and 8th graders. She once used the word “evolved” in passing (as in “Humans have evolved to become much taller”), and one of the parents complained to the principal. So one day, for an assignment, she passed out cards that pictured famous scientists. The kids were to research the scientist on their card and make a report to the class. Too late, she remembered she had forgotten to take the Charles Darwin card out of the pack. Horrors! She didn’t know what to do, so she talked to the (jr. high) principal about it. The principal talked to the school superintendent and the high school principal. Then he checked the class list to see if the families of any of the kids were “staunchly Catholic.” There was at least one. So he told Barb to take the Darwin card back and give that kid a different one. She did as she was told, and the kid got Aristotle instead… who was a “humanist” but also a believer in God, so that was all right then. (Who says we don’t live in a theocracy?)

Evolution is only taught in the high school (but who knows with what equivocation). I asked Barb why the jr. high kids have to be shielded from such an important scientific concept, and she said because they’re too susceptible, too easily swayed at that age. In other words, by high school they’ve presumably been brainwashed sufficiently, and their minds will be closed to any teaching that controverts their parents’ prejudices. It galls me that kids have to be protected from actual facts but not from opinions, which religious views surely are.

As Barb was telling us about this one Friday night, I got outraged, of course. When I was done ranting, K told Barb she had done the right thing. “They [the kids] don’t have to know everything,” she said. My jaw dropped. Sometimes I don’t know who these people are.

***

So there you have it. My old woman memories, my DYI metaphysics, my shit capers, my impotent rage. I’ll be back next time with… I don’t know what. Life in the Midwest is what you make it, and I’m doing just fine. Don’t worry about my mental health. I am in close contact with the psychiatric profession, Oshkosh division… a stone’s throw (plus 2 hours by car) away.

Be well, my friends. And whatever you do, stay away from Applebee’s.

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One Response to “mary’zine #40: September 2009”

  1. Susan Lockary Says:

    About 5 minutes after reading your new entry I came across this in a book written by a brain surgeon: “My husband & I can waste inordinate amounts of time in arguing over which one of us came up with a certain brilliant idea, exchanging accusations of faulty memory…Neither of us gives in. This makes me think that the memory network must also be tied strongly to whatever cortical regions control ego, but I haven’t seen any studies on this.” Now I’m not sure exactly how this relates to what you were saying about memory…but it seemed important when I marked the page….I guess your image of a clean part of one’s mind standing outside the rest of it to monitor and assist one’s own memory could then include standing outside one’s own ego, monitoring and assisting defensive responses. Looking myself in the eye, “Hey, you don’t have to be right all day, and that probably wasn’t even an attack. Chill out.” I like that. Record it, hit repeat as needed.

    But fear of dementia is real. I’m dealing with parent (or in-law) #2 fading into oblivion, scrambling past with present (she’s my sister, she’s my daughter), stuck in the ancient same thought loop for seven re-tellings within one breath. My own “strategy to avoid all this” is to acquire a nice bottle of pills and hope I can discern when the moment of permanently diminished returns has arrived, thereby sparing everyone around me a lot of heartache and diaper changes. It’s probably as doomed a strategy as yours, but what the heck. Keeps me going.

    Like

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