Archive for October, 2009

mary’zine random redux: #23 July/August 2002

October 21, 2009

This is shaping up to be a very scattershot issue (scattershot: adj: broadly and often randomly inclusive). I’ve been ricocheting off the walls, shrapnel flying everywhere. Duck and cover if you must, but keep on reading.

longtime companion

This year Pookie and I will celebrate our 15th anniversary. It’s my longest hetero relationship so far—heterospecies, that is. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not into bestiality….

who you callin a beast?

Ah, it’s my better half. Wanna go outside? Wanna go outside? Less go outside!

[exit Pookie]

There, that was easy. He’s got some sort of project going in the back 40. “Back 40” usually means 40 acres, but in our case it’s 40 inches, if that. (I just measured it, and it’s 36.) Basically, it’s a narrow strip of hard ground, 3 x 10 ft, between the concrete patio and the fence. My Danish farmer grandfather would be scandalized that I get by on so little contact with the land. Pookie has been building something behind the honeysuckle that, to my untrained, eye, appears to be a pile of stones. (I can’t help thinking of it as a burial mound and wondering, for whom?) Maybe it’s a Zen thing, a process rather than a product, his own little meditation space, though, frankly, he can meditate just about anywhere. At least that’s what he tells me he’s doing.

I bought Pookie one of those “kitty grass” plants for him to munch on. It was even organic. He could have eaten better than I do. But no, he wouldn’t touch it. So I took it out of its little black plastic pot and put it outside, thinking maybe Mother Nature would take over and do something with it, maybe make a little kitty forest or at least a lawn. Far be it from me to… what do they call it? dig in the ground and… oh yeah, plant anything. But time ran out for the kitty grass, and now it’s just sitting out there, a cube of dirt with bleached-out leaves/blades/whatever sticking out of it. In fact, it looks just like the Wilson volleyball that Tom Hanks painted a face on in “Castaway” after it had been sitting around for about 4 years. It did cross my mind to make a face on the side of the dirt cube, but even I thought that was going too far.

Pookie, of course, can spend hours lounging, exploring (disappearing into the thicket of honeysuckle vines), or piling stones in the back 36 and then come in to do his business in the litter box. That’s OK; better he not get the idea he can go just anywhere. But the other day, after a particularly extended session of rock-piling, he got up on the pile and…

don’t you dare!!! or ill tell them about the time you…

OK, never mind. Let’s talk about our anniversary. I’d say we’ve had a good 3 years. What’s that old joke, “My wife and I have been happily married for 3 years; unfortunately we got married 20 years ago”? But in our case, it was the first 12 years that were kind of rocky. (Hmm, could the rock pile be a metaphor….?) I felt that I never really bonded with him, whereas little Tweeter was the light of my life. But after he almost died of that bladder infection (see mary’zine #2), everything changed. He still throws up all over the place, sheds buckets of hair, shits off the side of the box (“No, Pookie, you’re supposed to think outside the box, not shit outside of it”)… but I feel deeply connected to him. When I  look into his eyes, I feel as if there’s a great intelligence looking back—Pookie and me… in the Mystery. As Krishnamurti said, “When you and another person [cat] are in the same place at the same time, are there really two? Or is there just the One?” (I’m paraphrasing wildly.) So we have these profound, sweet moments, and then I’ll have a little fun with him by rocking him gently back and forth with my foot and saying, “I could crush you like a bug!” in a really cheerful voice, and he’ll look at me deep from behind those luminous, intelligent orbs and he has no need for human speech, it’s all in the eyes. “You talkin’ to me? … You talkin’ to me? … I’m the only one here. You must be talkin’ to me.”

the genius of me

Apropos of nothing (but that’s never stopped me before), here are a couple of my Great IdeasTM. I’d like to run them up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes.

•   Great IdeaTM #1: I wish Ford or one of the other automotive-behemoth-manufacturing companies would have a contest called “Name This SUV” for their next monstrosity. I’m pretty sure I could win with… Land Shark. Think of the possibilities. It would only come in black, with one of those ‘50s-style grills on the front, the ones that look like snarling teeth. A fin on top. And a trompe l’oeil paint job on both sides depicting fish, surfers, and Volkswagens scrambling to get out of the way.

•   Great IdeaTM #2: A store, website, or designer fashion line for Dykes Like MeTM who are tired of trolling men’s departments for simple, comfortable, colorful (or plain) shirts and pants. But these clothes would fit women, including those of us d’un certain âge. What a concept—duds for the non-girlie-girls! You wouldn’t have to be butch to buy them, but it would help. Just think what DKNY could do with this—just scramble the letters a bit. My name for this stroke of marketing genius? Mister Sister.

Yes, I’m brilliant… except when I’m not…. Read on….

war with … huh?

It was July 4, and since nothing closes on holidays anymore, I was out shopping for some Frappucino and other staples. I had just pulled into the parking lot of United Market, and for some reason I had the BBC World News on the radio. I wasn’t really listening, but suddenly I registered the words “… recent attack.”

Of course, I had subliminally taken in all the vague warnings about how the terrorists might strike again on the Fourth of July—as if they would feel the need to attack us on a day that’s meaningful to us, or to engage in symbolic posturing at all. After Sept. 11 there was a flurry of speculation about the numerical significance of the attacks. People played with numbers—flight numbers, dates, latitudes and longitudes—and instead of putting 2 + 2 together to get 4 (they hate us; they really hate us), they came up with… 11. Aha! Eleven! Eureka!

(I can just imagine the terrorists, last summer, trying to book flights that would not only be going cross-country and carrying maximum fuel, but that would provide these numerological fanatics with all the important clues to read the secret message.

“Which flight did you want, sir?”

“Oh, anything going to the coast that would spell ‘Afghanistan’ on a telephone dial.”

But let’s get back to the BBC. The reporters’ voices are agitated as they breathlessly announce that they have just received an exclusive report from New York saying that Hawaii and the Philippines have been attacked! We won’t know for a few days yet if the United States will go to war with… Japan??

My head is in 2002—July 4—7/4—11!—struggling in mental quicksand. “Well, Hawaii is in the U.S.—maybe the terrorists decided to blow up an island. But why the Philippines? And I sure haven’t heard anything about hostilities with… Japan??

And then, of course, I realize I’m listening to a rebroadcast of reports from 1941 about Pearl Harbor! But why now? What a thing to play on Independence Day! Are the British still trying to get back at us for that?

I sit in the car feeling like an idiot. I’ve had my own personal little “War of the Worlds” moment. (“War of the Worlds” was the 1938 radio play that started a panic because people thought Martians had landed in New Jersey.) Well, at least I didn’t run into the store crying, “The terrorists attacked Hawaii!”

***

This slow-grasping-of-the-obvious may or may not be a sign of early senility, but I’ll tell you what is. The other day I drove up to P’s house in Novato, parked in the driveway, and popped the trunk with the lever inside the car instead of opening it with my key, as I usually do. I got out and went back to get my tennis racket and noticed that the trunk was slightly open. And I thought—swear to God—“Why is the trunk open? Did I drive all the way from home like that?” And then my brain cells kicked in and I remembered that 4 SECONDS AGO I had popped the trunk. By now I’m used to walking into a room and forgetting what I’m doing there—I can handle that—but I’ve been known to get up from my desk chair to do something and forget what I was going to do before I’m even fully upright. I’m beginning to see why old people live in the past—the past is on the hard drive, but the present is on an unlabeled double-sided floppy disk you can’t even read on your Power Mac G4 because it requires high-density… (An unexpected error occurred because an error of type whatchamacallit occurred. Save your work and abandon metaphor now.)

So, while I still have my wits about me (they’re around here somewhere, I just know it), let’s get serious for a minute.

the rough beast returns

One day I was driving home from Woodlands Market (that’s all I do all day, is drive from one grocery store to another), and my radio was again tuned to NPR. Fortunately, the BBC was occupied elsewhere—maybe chasing down old recordings of the Battle of Gettysburg. (Oh yes, serious.) A local left-wing talk show, Working Assets, was on, and the guest was Todd Gitlin, NYU professor, formerly of UC Berkeley. He was talking about the difference between patriotism and nationalism, a distinction that the usually bright politicos on the Left seem incapable of making. Nationalism is the gung-ho belief that your country is superior to all others. But patriotism is about the bond you feel with your fellow countrymen (countrypeople?) and the public servants who put their lives on the line for you every day: your firepeople, your policepeople, your soldierpeople. That seems legitimate to me, and that’s  why I have an American flag sticker on my car—not to rally ‘round the Bush Man’s warlord tendencies and crimes against humanity but to express my solidarity with my fellow (and gal) Americans, who are not predominantly racists and xenophobes and corporate criminals, but regular people who don’t deserve to die for the real or perceived sins of the government.

I was pretty sure I’d seen an article by Mr. Gitlin in the S.F. Chronicle a day or two before. So when I got home I started pawing through the recycling bags. I had to pee, it was way past my lunchtime, but I was determined to find it. When will I learn to clip these things when I come across them? Well, sometimes I do, but those are the ones that pile up on my dining room table and get covered over by Lands End catalogs and coupons for Silver Screen Video and Mr. Handyman until they finally float to the surface, old and faded, and I wonder what I thought I was going to do with “Science makes strides toward relief for restless leg syndrome.”

Finally, voilà! The headline is “Anti-Semitism masquerading as activism”; the article first appeared on motherjones.com. I e-mailed the author asking permission to reprint his article, and he replied on the same day:

Thanks very much. I’m delighted that you want to send the piece around and you have my enthusiastic permission.

Todd Gitlin

Professor of Culture, Journalism and Sociology

New York University

***

“The Rough Beast Returns, by Todd Gitlin, June 17, 2002

“The email sent out last month by Laurie Zoloth, director of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University, was chilling on its face.

“ ‘I cannot fully express what it feels like to have to walk across campus daily, past maps of the Middle East that do not include Israel, past posters of cans of soup with labels on them of drops of blood and dead babies, labeled “canned Palestinian children meat, slaughtered according to Jewish rites under American license,” past poster after poster calling out Zionism = racism, and Jews = Nazis,’ she wrote—and the details only became more shattering from then on.

“I read Zoloth’s words with horror but not, alas, complete amazement. Eleven years ago, during the Gulf War, across San Francisco Bay, the head of a student splinter group at Berkeley addressed a room full of faculty and students opposed to the war, spitting out venomously, ‘You Jews, I know your names, I know where you live.’

“The faculty and students in attendance sat stiffly and said nothing. Embarrassed? Frightened? Or worse—thinking that it wasn’t time to tackle this issue, that it was off the agenda, an inconvenience.

“Far more recently, two students of mine at NYU wondered aloud whether it was actually true, as they had heard, that 4,000 Jews didn’t show up for work at the World Trade Center on September 11. They clearly thought this astoundingly crazy charge was plausible enough to warrant careful investigation, but it didn’t occur to them to look at the names of the dead.

“Wicked anti-Semitism is back. The worst crackpot notions that circulate through the violent Middle East are also roaming around America, and if that wasn’t bad enough, students are spreading the gibberish. Students! As if the bloc to which we have long looked for intelligent dissent has decided to junk any pretense of standards.

“A student movement is not just a student movement. Students, whether they are progressive or not, have the responsibility of knowing things, of thinking and discerning, of studying. A student movement should maintain the highest of standards, not ape the formulas of its elders or outdo them in virulence.

“It should therefore trouble progressives everywhere that the students at San Francisco State are neither curious nor revolted by the anti-Semitic drivel they are regurgitating. The simple fact that a student movement—even a small one—has been reduced to reflecting the hatred spewed by others should profoundly trouble anyone whose moral principles aim higher than simple nationalism—as should be the case for anyone on the left.

“It isn’t hard to discover the sources of the drivel being parroted by the students at San Francisco State. In the blood-soaked Middle East of Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon, in the increasingly polarized Europe of Jean-Marie le Pen, raw anti-Semitism has increasingly taken the place of intelligent criticism of Israel and its policies.

“Even as Laurie Zoloth’s message flew around the world, even as several prominent European papers published scathing but warranted attacks on Israel’s stonewalling of an inquiry into the Jenin fighting, the great Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago was describing Israel’s invasion of Ramallah as ‘a crime comparable to Auschwitz.’

“In one of his long, lapping sentences, Saramago wrote in Madrid’s El Pais (as translated by Paul Merman in The Forward, May 24):

“ ‘Intoxicated mentally by the messianic dream of a Greater Israel which will finally achieve the expansionist dreams of the most radical Zionism; contaminated by the monstrous and rooted ‘certitude’ that in this catastrophic and absurd world there exists a people chosen by God and that, consequently, all the actions of an obsessive, psychological and pathologically exclusivist racism are justified; educated and trained in the idea that any suffering that has been inflicted, or is being inflicted, or will be inflicted on everyone else, especially the Palestinians, will always be inferior to that which they themselves suffered in the Holocaust, the Jews endlessly scratch their own wound to keep it bleeding, to make it incurable, and they show it to the world as if it were a banner.’

“Note well: the deliciously deferred subject of this sentence is: ‘the Jews.’ Not the right-wing Jews, the militarist Israelis, but ‘the Jews.’ Suddenly the Jews are reduced to a single stick-figure (or shall we say hook-nosed?) caricature and we are plunged into the brainless, ruinous, abysmal iconography that should make every last reasonable person shudder.

“The German socialist August Bebel once said that anti-Semitism was ‘the socialism of fools.’ What we witness now is the progressivism of fools. It is a recrudescence of everything that costs the left its moral edge. And, appallingly, it is this contemptible message the anti-Semitic students at San Francisco State chose to parrot.

“We are not on the brink of ‘another Auschwitz,’ and to think so, in fact, falsifies the danger. The danger is clear and present, though not apocalyptic. It’s no remote nightmare that synagogues are bombed, including the one on the Tunisian island of Djerba, famous for tolerance, an apparent al-Qaeda truck bomb attack. This happened. It is no remote nightmare that hundreds of Palestinian civilians died during Israeli incursions into the West Bank. This, too, happened. The nightmare is that the second is being allowed to excuse and justify the first.

“Laurie Zoloth wrote: ‘Let me remind you that ours is arguably one of the Jewish Studies programs in the country most devoted to peace, justice and diversity since our inception.’

“But anti-Semitism doesn’t care. Like every other lunacy that diminished human brains are capable of, anti-Semitism already knows what it hates.

“This is no incidental issue, no negligible distraction. A Left that cares for the rights of humanity cannot cavalierly tolerate the systematic abuse of any people—whatever you think of Israel’s or any other country’s foreign policy. Any student movement worthy of the name must face the ugly history that long made anti-Semitism the acceptable racism, face it and break from it.

“If fighting it unremittingly is not a ‘progressive’ cause, then what kind of progress does progressivism have in mind?”

***

This is where I wanted to tell the story of King Christian X of Denmark, who, when told by the Nazis that Danish Jews must wear the yellow star of David, said that he and his family would wear the yellow star also, and that all the Danish people would be encouraged to wear it—thus expressing their solidarity and making it difficult to identify the Jews. I’ve been known to tell my Jewish friends that “my people saved your people,” because Grandma and Grandpa Larsen came from Denmark. But it turns out this story is just another urban legend. I found the following on the Web, written by King Christian’s granddaughter, Queen Margrethe II:

“One of the stories one often hears about the Occupation, and which I persist in denying each time I hear it, is the story about Christian X wearing the yellow star of David as a demonstration during the Occupation. It is a beautiful and symbolic story, but it is not true. I do not mind it existing or being told, but I will not support a myth, even a good one, when I know it isn’t true, it would be dishonest. But the moral behind the story is a far better one for Denmark than if the King had worn the star. The fact of the matter is that the Germans never did dare insist that Danish Jews wear the yellow star. This is a credit to Denmark which our country has cause to be proud of: I think this is an important fact to remember. The myth about the King wearing the star of David, well, I can imagine that this could have originated from a typical remark by a Copenhagen errand boy on his bicycle: ‘If they try to enforce the yellow star here, the King will be the first to wear it!’ — I don’t know whether this was the actual remark, but I imagine it could have been how the myth started. It is certainly a possible explanation I offer whenever I am asked. To me, the truth is an even greater honour for our country than the myth.”

However, there was a mass escape of Danish Jews from Nazi-occupied Denmark to neutral Sweden, organized by the Danish resistance. So maybe I can stand by my claim that my people saved my friends’ people. And regardless of urban legends, if worse comes to worst, I’ll be out there on the front lines wearing my “Gone Gefilte Fishing!” cap and wielding the souvenir “Danmark” letter opener Mom brought me back from the Old Country—

Gai kakhen afenyam!”* I’ll cry. “Mæke my däy!

*Yiddish for “Go shit in the ocean!”

***

One of Todd Gitlin’s sentences that really struck me was: But anti-Semitism doesn’t care. Like every other lunacy that diminished human brains are capable of, anti-Semitism already knows what it hates. I think of that sentence when I hear that we have to change our foreign policy so the people who hate us won’t hate us anymore. Which is somewhat like a woman saying, “I must start wearing old rags instead of these provocative dresses so I won’t get raped.” If it were that easy to avoid rape, we’d all dress like me. But the rapist doesn’t care what you’re wearing, and the Islamic fundamentalists, or at least the ones whose handiwork we’ve seen, don’t care what our policies are. It works better for them if we’re Satan’s spawn. They’re not interested in walking hand-in-hand with us to make a better world. Just because oppressed peoples have legitimate claims against our government doesn’t mean that the terrorists are working on their behalf. Can we hold two ideas at once? The Bush administration is fucked AND there are fanatics who will stop at nothing to destroy us.

***

In a recent column in the Chronicle, Jon Carroll quoted part of a New Yorker article:

“A lot of contemporary culture seems to take the form of the opinion piece: you read the first paragraph—sometimes you read just the title—and you don’t have to continue, because you know exactly what is going to be said. Everything is broken down into points of view, positions on a curve. If you’re off the curve, or if you pay no attention to the curve, no one seems to know how to understand you….”

Carroll was writing about the flack he’s taken for what he wrote on September 12, 2001. He was “essentially the only person in the mainstream press” with his particular take on the attacks:

“I had not trusted the Bush administration before Sept. 11; I saw no reason to change my mind. I feared an unwise war; I feared John Ashcroft; I feared anti-Muslim witch-hunts…. I had not waved the flag and asserted the essential strength of our nation, nor had I called for revenge.”

I was in complete agreement with his column that day and thought it was gutsy of him to write what he did. I thought the same about Bill Maher (even though I can’t stand the man) when he got in trouble for disputing the use of the word “cowardly” for the terrorists who flew into the buildings. Freedom of speech much? I thought that was a given.

But were either of these guys “off the curve”? Seems to me they were on a well-traveled curve—the one that curves to the Left. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) The Left’s curve—conflating mass murderers with oppressed peoples and predicting the death of democracy—is just as predictable as anything the Republicans are saying. The most common ending to letters to the editor decrying our “loss of civil liberties” is “What’s next?” The Domino Theory was a big joke back in the ‘60s—we mocked the anti-communists for thinking that if we didn’t stop the Reds in Vietnam, they’d proceed directly to Dubuque, Iowa. But now dominos are falling all over the place in the minds of the Fuck The War people, who don’t seem to see any difference between Then and Now. Isn’t there a weird kind of low-self-esteem/self-centeredness (“The U.S. is the piece of shit around which the world revolves”) in assuming that the only reason any group or sect would want to destroy us is because we’re BAD? Do we really think the terrorists would back off if we all just marched for peace and learned more about Islam? They’re not negotiating with us. Have they made any demands besides “DIE”?

And because I love the word “conflating” so much, I’ll use it again. While writing this, I realized I was conflating the U.S. terrorism issue with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Unconsciously, I was seeing the two as the same problem, interchangeable, and maybe they are. Innocent people are being killed all around. And the seeds are certainly the same. When you fight with your neighbor or hate people who are different from you, you’re a freakin’ Johnny Appleseed of violence.

But there’s at least one very big difference between Israel and the U.S.: We are surrounded by (a) water, (b), Mexicans who come here in droves, not to kill us but to work, and (c) Canadians who do the same but walk unnoticed among us. And look who Israel is surrounded by. Like us, Israel is not always true to its democratic ideals, but it’s also not deserving of extinction.

***

So that’s my rant du jour, my scattershot, my meandering curves, my reactionary politics, my failure to get with the program and condemn the Jews for being racists. I have sympathy for both the Israelis and the Palestinians, I really do. But those activists at San Francisco State have gone too far. With that sweet Scandinavian blood in my veins, I can’t help wishing for all my Danish-descended sisters and brothers to join me out there at 19th Ave. and Holloway, 100,000 strong in our “Gone Gefilte Fishing!” caps, fulfilling the promise that King Christian would surely have carried out if history had gone the other way.

mary’zine random redux: #12 March 2001

October 20, 2009

You wouldn’t believe what I go through when I’m writing this ‘zine. On the one hand, I respond to whatever has been brewing in me that insists on coming to the surface, whether I want it to or not—like the seXXX issue. In that way, writing is like painting—whatever is pushing comes out, I can’t stop it. Hm—guess it’s like birth, too. On the other hand, I’m increasingly aware of having an audience, and the part of me that wants to please my readers tends to flutter around the delivery room, agonizing over what the baby’s going to look like instead of just getting the thing born. Will it be funny enough? interesting enough? deep and light in the right proportions? Will anyone else care about my precious philosophical spelunking, or will the triumphant consummation of pages of meticulously reasoned insights go unread on the back of a toilet or under a stack of magazines?

A friend of mine told me early on that she thought I was “generous” for writing the ‘zine. I was surprised by that word and told her honestly that it felt more like being selfish—like, look at me, read me, see me. She said “Oh,” and I wished I had kept my mouth shut. The problem with “telling the truth” is that there’s no guarantee that anyone else will (a) like it, (b) relate to it, or (c) care. And so, in writing the ‘zine, I’ve had to talk myself into the necessary writer’s delusion that there’s nothing I can do about that and therefore it’s out of my hands. I’ll just concentrate on breathing and pushing and let you decide how you feel about the funny-looking creature that emerges.

pookie’s higher self

I learned recently that Pookie is afraid of the rain. I don’t mean being out in it, I mean hearing it on the roof. I don’t know why I never noticed this before—maybe it’s a new development. To me, the sound of rain is restful, so when I see him slinking past me, moving slow, looking fearfully right and left, I can hardly believe it’s rain related. But it is, as I saw when it started hailing one night. He looked terrified, crouching in a corner, hugging the wall as if he were being pelted with bits of ice. I doubt that he’s ever experienced rain directly, though I know he wouldn’t like that either. If I want to totally mess with his mind, I have only to flick a few drops of water at him when my hands are wet and he’s taking up more than his fair share of the kitchen. I’m not proud of myself for doing this, but it’s a cruel streak I can’t seem to control. I actually remonstrate with myself afterward: “You are baaad,” but I can’t stop myself from grinning wickedly at his startled attempts to discover where the water is coming from while he frantically licks at his back. But he doesn’t even know the rain on the roof is wet—what bothers him is the sound and the fury, signifying—something—I don’t know what.

When I first noticed this strange behavior, I tried to pet and comfort him, but he wasn’t assured in the slightest; he just turned his head anxiously away, looking toward the ceiling and the rattling windows. I tried to hold him, but he doesn’t like to be held at the best of times, so he tolerated that for about a minute and then I had to put him down (as in “on the floor,” not… down down). I even tried to reason with him, making little reassuring cooing sounds and explaining that he was perfectly OK and nothing bad would happen to him. Obviously that was pointless, but it’s weird how you always, with animals, revert to human reasoning when direct interspecies communication fails. “If you just stay out of the kitchen when I’m making dinner, you won’t get flicked with water, will you?” Or: “You’re not wet, are you? The rain isn’t coming in, is it? Then what are you afraid of?”

Coming upon him hiding in the downstairs bathroom, the only room with no windows, and feeling helpless to do anything for him, I felt like Pookie’s Higher Self. Like any higher self, I could see the big picture; I could see that he lives in a fine shelter (if I do say so myself), one that’s sturdy and reliable, and that he’s safe no matter how afraid he might feel in the moment. But the fear takes over the lower self, and there’s no reasoning with it. I don’t even know if I believe in higher selves, but if they exist, how powerless they must feel to help us, how loving they must feel toward us….

When the rain stops, Pookie forgets all about his earlier terror and is happy to curl up in his sheepskin-lined bed with its attractive Southwestern motif and dream his mysterious dreams… or to gaze at me with love-besotted eyes, head at a tilt, hoping for any crumb of Divine Love I am willing to bestow upon him… at least until I drag out the vacuum cleaner, and then his pea brain goes into action again and he assumes the terror position under the dining room table.

Pookie knows only love and fear. Maybe he’s not so different from his “higher self” and oh-so-complicated mistress after all.

God spelled backwards

Dogs have been in the news and on my mind ever since the horrific death of Diane Whipple in San Francisco. When simply walking out of her apartment, she was so viciously mauled—by a dog that was on a leash held by one of its owners—that by the time the police arrived, the body was naked and there was hardly any evidence of her clothing, just little bits of cloth and a ton of blood. Someone said to me that that incident probably didn’t help my fear of dogs any. I said the dog didn’t give dogs a bad name as much as its owners, a married couple, have given people a bad name. They blame the victim and take absolutely no responsibility for the attack, show no remorse. (In one telling detail, the owner on the scene didn’t get around to checking the victim’s pulse afterward, because she was busy looking for her keys in the blood-soaked hallway.) There are so many disturbing aspects to this story—the prison attack-dog-ring connection; the “punishment” that only bars the owners from keeping dogs for the next 3 years (no criminal charges have yet been filed); the fact that the victim’s female partner can’t sue for wrongful death because they weren’t legally married (and of course they couldn’t get legally married)—that to me, the dog itself is a crucial but almost secondary element, like the smoking gun or bloody knife wielded by a murderer. If I’m going to extrapolate from dog stories to life, I’d rather do it with the following….

The universe is infinitely correlated.

—Deepak Chopra

I am not a dog person, to say the least. If dogs were as standoffish as cats, I wouldn’t have any problem with them; I could admire their finer qualities from a distance. But then dog people wouldn’t like them, and we’d see a lot more ferrets running around. Pot-bellied pigs, something like that.

Dogs seem so intrusive to me; they’re always invading my space. And they have way too much saliva. To me, cats are a thinking person’s animal, because they have a little dignity (except Pookie when he wants his tuna-flavored laxative, but even then, he keeps all four feet on the floor). Also, cats can entertain themselves, usually by napping.

I think there must be a bad-dog incident deep in my past. In the only recurring dream I’ve ever had in my life, which I had around the age of 6, a dog was biting me, and I would wake up with a pain in my side. Maybe this dream-dog was a metaphor for darker, more sinister invasions of my space, I don’t know. Anyway, back in those days in our small town, and especially out in the country, people didn’t keep their dogs inside or control them in any way. And they certainly didn’t “walk” them—the dogs walked all by themselves—or ran, rather. You simply couldn’t ride your bike or walk past a dog in its yard without its chasing after you, snarling and barking. Were these dogs “all bark and no bite”? Maybe, but they terrified me. On the other hand, we had a gentle collie named Dollie, but I bonded better with our cats, Smokey and Mickey, and with our parakeet, Tweetie Pie, who used to sit on the rim of my glasses and peck at my teeth. I loved feeling his soft feathers against my cheek.

Anyway, this is not supposed to be Mary’s pet history, this is a dog story, so let’s get on with it. I was walking home from Unicorn Printing one day when I saw two little brown dogs running at top speed from the Circuit City parking lot straight toward the road. Yapping, ears flapping, they were the very picture of joyous doggy abandon. I froze. Somehow I knew exactly what was going to happen, even though traffic is light on that part of Bellam Blvd. The dogs crossed the median strip and ran into the other side of the road, and that’s when I heard the thump and the yelp—one dog had been hit. The driver, an older woman, just kept driving. I don’t think she noticed she’d hit anything. In that moment, I wished with all my heart to be somewhere else, wished I could just keep walking and let someone else deal with it. But I was the only pedestrian around, I had no choice.

I crossed the road and stood over the dog, not knowing what to do. She was still alive and obviously in pain. In a few moments, a young guy in a station wagon with a big dog in the back stopped and got out. I was so grateful, I could have hugged him. I asked him if he could take the dog to the vet—I figured he must be a dog lover, unlike me—but he said he didn’t know where the vet was, he didn’t live around here. So I made a split-second decision and offered to go with him. At that moment, a truck driver stopped and gave us a towel to wrap the dog in, and we got in the station wagon and took off. I held the dog on my lap; she was so smooth and so small. (Don’t ask me about breed, I have no idea.) I had one of those wild, irrelevant thoughts you have in an emergency—that I was lucky it wasn’t a big dog, that it wasn’t bleeding on me or thrashing around or trying to bite me in its distress. For that matter, I was lucky with the driver. This guy was young and personable; what if he had been big and scary-looking; what if it had been a carload of guys? I’ll take dogs over carloads of guys any day. How far did my Good Samaritan responsibility extend?

From the moment I first saw the dogs running, I felt like I had stepped into another world. I guess this is the nature of emergency. Time slows down; you find you can’t use your brain so good. Everything seemed to happen on cue—me alone, helpless with the injured dog; then the guy in the car, the guy in the truck, the decision to move. It all felt overdetermined, like a dream or a fairy tale, or like a play—as if I were only saying my lines, even though I had no memory of having tried out for this part, let alone rehearsed it.

The driver introduced himself as Paul, and I directed him to the East San Rafael Veterinary Clinic, where I take my cats. As we slowly crept down Francisco Blvd. in the rush hour traffic, I could hardly believe what I was doing. There I was, in a moving vehicle, with the two creatures I fear most in the world: Man and Dog. Two dogs: Paul’s big dog was standing in back of me, literally breathing down my neck. I kept moving my head away, but it didn’t seem appropriate to say, “You know, I don’t really like dogs. Could you get this beast away from me?”

The ride was taking forever, as the little dog panted softly in my lap. At some point, I realized someone would have to pay the vet. I mentioned this to Paul, and he didn’t say anything. I took this as a bad sign. I was willing to pay my share, but he was in this as deep as I was. When we finally pulled into the vet’s driveway, I got out and walked quickly toward the door, carrying the dog. As I was about to go in, I realized Paul wasn’t behind me. I had a moment’s panic. I had left a folder of original art from the publisher I was working for on the floor of the car. What if Paul, having got me there, decided to take off and leave me to deal with the vet bill? I would have no way to find him. And would someone who would do a thing like that try and track me down to give my stuff back? All this flashed through my mind in a second. Paranoid much? Well, yeah. But I guess Paul was just tending to his own dog—or having a quick talk with his conscience—because in a moment he came and joined me.

The dog died just as we got her into the examining room, and I burst into tears. I generally hate crying in front of men, because I think it reinforces their feeling of superiority. But my take on male-female relations will have to wait for another time. The vet said the SPCA would take care of the body, so that let us off the hook about paying.

I asked Paul if he would drive me back, and he said of course. On the way, we talked about how fast death can strike and how ordinary our respective days had been up to that point. I had been on a routine photocopy run; he had been shopping at Circuit City. We were both supposed to be home by now, sitting peacefully at the computer or thinking about dinner. How Rude is Death? I asked him to let me off at the scene of the accident—I had a momentary, reflexive fear of letting him see where I lived—but he insisted on driving me the rest of the way. I’m happy to report that he didn’t come back later to sexually assault me or burglarize my home. (I think it’s important to acknowledge all the times my fears don’t come true, rather than just forget about them and go on to the next one.)

I was shaken by the experience, which transcended my personal feelings about dogs—even threatened to change my personal feelings about dogs. Mon Dieu! Or: Mon Ueid! (Dieu spelled backwards.) The next day I went for a walk in the hills above Dominican College, and I saw the threat of death everywhere. Up ahead, a little dog stood in the middle of the road, barking furiously at me. I thought for sure a car was going to come speeding around the bed and hit her. A little farther on, I saw a deer with her big ears tuned to the sound of distant barking. I stood still, not wanting to scare her into the path of danger. Suddenly, a big dog came loping up the road toward us. My feelings were a mob scene. Was I afraid for myself, for the deer—or for the dog? Who was at risk here?

The deer bounded across the road and away before the dog spotted her. The dog’s humans called to him from down the hill, and he crashed through the woods toward their voices. I was left standing there alone, on full alert, like a guardian of the animal world—St. Mary of Assisi—but with no power to stop Death from striking again.

For the next two weeks, I kept reliving the moment when I saw the two dogs running toward the road. At my next therapy session, J said I had had a traumatic reaction, and we worked on it somatically for the whole hour. Afterward, she got this pensive look on her face, the way she does when she’s about to say something about herself and isn’t quite sure if she should cross that boundary. She said that the session had been a gift to her. She was leaving for Honduras that afternoon to help train trauma workers to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. She hadn’t actually done the trauma work in a while, so my experience gave her the practice right when she needed it. It seemed like such an unlikely connection, from the dog dying in my arms to the hurricane victims hundreds of miles away. But there it was. I felt honored to be a conduit for such a connection—a reminder that our actions have consequences far beyond what we can see.

It was as if that one brief moment in time—when my premonition of disaster was confirmed by the awful thump of tire on flesh and bone—had set off a series of ripples, like a pebble dropping in a pond—as if everything in my world were now being touched, in one way or another, by what had happened. And yet this event was so minor in comparison to more personal losses I’d experienced. Maybe that’s why the ripples were more visible—I wasn’t as deeply involved, so I noticed them more. I felt like I was getting a glimpse of the mechanism behind the “infinite correlation” of everything.

I sensed that there were many ripples that I would never even see. For instance, I wondered what had happened to the other dog, the companion to the one that had died. We hadn’t given that dog a second thought as we rushed the injured one off to the vet.

awakened from a catnap… to the sound of one dog barking…

Two days after the therapy session, I was taking a nap and was awakened by high-pitched barking outside my window. It sounded familiar—I ran to the window to see, and sure enough, it was the surviving dog from the accident, playing with a little girl. My heart was pounding as I debated what to do. I saw the little girl and the dog go around a corner to a row of units across the way, so I quickly got dressed and went to find them.

The Vietnamese woman who came to the door spoke little English, but I felt pretty language-impaired myself. In halting, shy sentences, I told her about the death of her dog. She thanked me and said, “We love her very much.” I was touched by that; I wanted to say, “So do I!” But my mind was racing with conflicting thoughts—Why do you let your dogs run in the street?! I pointed out where I lived, and after more smiling and mumbled phrases—“Sorry” and “Thank you”—I left. I wasn’t sure if I had gone over there to give something or to get something. I wasn’t sure what had been exchanged, if anything. But I was left feeling hyperaware of the connections that were still being played out—and hopeful that my showing up at her door had touched her in some way.

There were a few more ripples—like the time I was driving on my street and the surviving dog ran in front of my car—almost turning me into the inadvertent killer instead of the would-be savior. I felt a weird sense of responsibility to that dog, as if it were now up to me to keep him alive. Or the time I saw a neighbor boy trying to get the dog to attack a baby bird. I went out and talked to the boy and “saved” the bird—put it up in a nest in a nearby tree, out of harm’s way—checked on it later and it was gone. What had happened to it?

The two dogs and everything connected with them had assumed larger-than-life significance to me. The more ripples I saw, the more I looked for. I wanted to see the workings behind the façade. But I suspect that I mostly wanted proof of my own importance. I had placed myself at the center, and I wanted to know that there was a reason for my participation in the “original” experience—as if it only started when I came on the scene.

Of course, the ripples became more faint with time and then “disappeared.” But I’m sure I was witness to only the tip of the iceberg of those ripples—a metaphor I am not going to apologize for, take it or leave it—for example, who knows what effects the experience may have had on Paul’s life?

I first wrote about this incident a couple of years ago, so I have been going back and revising my account—adding details I didn’t have room for before, looking for any new perspective I may have gained with the passage of time. And as I did so, I started to get a little nervous. This is what I find so intriguing about writing. All writers say that you learn what you think by writing, and that’s certainly true for me. I may start out with a clear idea of what I want to say, but the more I stay with it, trying to make it truer and truer, the more my thoughts and feelings change. Writing is a lot like painting in that way; it takes you deeper.

I finally realized what was making me nervous. What if the death of the dog meant nothing to Paul except as a little story to tell his wife at dinner? What if the ripples started and stopped with me—meaning that all the connections and coincidences I had seen were products of my overactive imagination? What if I was choosing what to notice and what to ignore because I wanted to believe that Deepak is right, that the universe is infinitely correlated and thus my life and death, my time on this earth, are of vast importance? But what if “infinite correlation” means that everything is equally important because even the smallest thing is necessary to the whole? Then I am exactly as important as the bird flying past my window or the ants planning their next assault on my kitchen.

There’s no doubt that there are connecting threads running through all our lives, sometimes visible, sometimes not. But I seem to have an investment in collecting the proof of those threads. I want to believe that “when bad things happen to good people”—or to good dogs—there’s always a reason, a lesson, a connection, a guarantee of meaning. I wield my Deepak Chopra quotes and my metaphors and my synchronicities as if I can reduce the universe to fit in my little cup, rather than face the Not Knowing—the great, uncomfortable Void of that moment when nothing has yet been revealed, when anything can happen.

When I stood over that injured dog in the road—unprepared and inadequate—utterly without resources—sure only that I was not the right person to deal with a doggie-mergency because of my firmly held pet preferences—I was all unknowingly experiencing the moment at which Creation happens. It’s the moment when the past is of little help and the future is no help at all. Time deserts you, and you go forward on sheer instinct, purely responding to what has been put in front of you. It’s only afterward that you gather the bits of evidence and set about proving to yourself that you’re part of an immense, intricate puzzle, that there’s some bigger hand at work, moving you here and there, making your life worthwhile. But does being an intricate part of the puzzle increase one’s significance or diminish it? If the bird flying past my window is also an intricate part of the puzzle, then which of us is expendable? Neither? Both?

We say we want freedom, but we want safety—which is to say, knowledge—even more. We want to bargain with the universe—“I’ll do this good deed if I can be assured that the man won’t kidnap me and the dog won’t bleed in my lap.” But when this situation with the dog went down, choice was taken away from me—my preferences and personality and history became irrelevant—and I entered the Not Knowing. I could have kept walking, and Paul would still have stopped, and the dog would still have died. Do I have to imagine a mini-“It’s a Wonderful Life” to figure out the difference I made? Why is it so important to think I made a difference? Why isn’t it enough that my life has its face value, like every other life? Do I have to be trivially, remotely related to disaster victims in Honduras (as opposed to directly and meaningfully, like J) to feel that I deserve to be on this earth? Why this constant quest for meaning? Why that word “deserve”?

I do believe that Not Knowing is the greatest gift we humans receive, but it’s the sort of gift (to steal someone else’s joke) that when you receive it, you say to God, “You shouldn’t have.” Like most of us, I do everything I can to avoid such moments, to avoid being in the new, the now, the unrehearsed. I live in the past, in repeat experiences, looking over my shoulder, assessing the tracks I left behind. All I know is what I see receding in the distance behind me, as I marvel at what has already come and gone.

***

Over the years, I have adopted many ways of organizing experience into meaning. I discovered politics in the ninth grade, enamored of John F. Kennedy’s idealism (my mother scoffed at my innocence, said all elections were rigged; only with the Bush-Gore election have I begun to wonder if she was right); took a sharp turn to the right when I became a devotee of Ayn Rand and a would-be voter for Barry Goldwater (I was a little too young to vote when he ran on his “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” platform); drifted left in college, gravitated toward SDS, though I never actually joined; voted for Eldridge Cleaver when I finally turned 21—one of the few acts of my youth that I sincerely regret.

In Maryland in the early ‘70s, I met Peggy at a small college where she was a student and I was a librarian, and we became part of a leftist, faculty-led political group. She and I were the first known gay couple on campus, and we lived with two professors—a Greek communist in exile from the junta and the first radical feminist the college had ever seen.

Politics were important to me—the U.S. government was not only waging war on the Vietnamese but also killing Black Panthers and college students at home—but the political construction of reality didn’t satisfy my deepest needs for meaning. For one thing, there was no room for psychological factors in our analysis, so you had to fit your personal life into the cracks of the bigger picture. As “working class dykes,” Peggy and I had an edge in that world, even though our friends knew absolutely nothing about the working class despite their interest in Marx and Mao. And the group became increasingly sectarian, obsessing about the errors of other leftists—those bloody Trotskyites! One night when we were hanging out, drinking wine, we played a kind of political parlor game. As part of the game, we had to reveal our deepest wish. I knew better than to say “to be happy,” so I said something to the effect of “The communists will take over, and there will finally be peace and justice in this imperialist hellhole of a country.” That was my belief system at the time, but on some level I knew I was slanting the truth, that something was missing.

After Peggy graduated and we moved out to California, we were cut off from the political climate in which we had met, and we were exposed to other mindsets, to say the least. Exploring this new world, I took a drawing class, and the teacher turned me on to the Seth books—Seth was a nonphysical being who was channeled through a woman named Jane Roberts. I became enamored of the metaphysical realm as a kind of backlash against those years of leftist political indoctrination, and my worldview took a 180-degree turn.

Because of the—for me—radical idea that “you create your own reality,” I spent a lot of time overinterpreting everything that happened to me as a kind of personal message from the universe that I was creating. (If I was creating it, then why would I need to get messages from “myself”?) Once, I grabbed my cat Radar to keep him from attacking another cat, and he bit me on the hand. It didn’t take me long to notice that the wound was in exactly the same spot where my baby sister was touching my hand in a photograph of us from 1954. Somehow, I saw the picture as (a) a premonition of the wound-to-come-some-22-years-later and (b) a vision with which to heal myself. It was as if the universe was winking at me with every image, every juxtaposed word, object, or experience. And so I turned everything into symbolism, the “higher meaning” being much more important to me than the direct experience. I suspect I have not made much progress in this area.

I moved on from Seth when I discovered painting for process, or, as it is also described, painting as a spiritual practice. The beauty of painting is that it’s nonverbal (though I can get plenty verbal about it), and so there is one place where I don’t really know what’s going on, and I don’t have to. But the desire to understand my life and my place in the world still exerts a strong pull on me, as witness this ‘zine.

In essence, I think I have been a “meaning machine” since birth. I was having philosophical debates with myself at least by the age of 8 or 9, if not before. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this. Kids are seeing everything new and haven’t yet learned to either accept the essential mystery of existence or create a belief system with which to wrassle the mystery to the ground. But I remember clearly the moment in which I “popped into” this reality. One day my father, a master of clichés—he lacked the legendary gift for language of our Irish ancestors—yelled at me, “Wake up to the fact that you’re alive!”—by which he wasn’t making a metaphysical point, he was merely expressing his irritation with my slowness in bringing him his coffee or rolling his Bugler cigarettes. I had heard that expression from his lips many times before—along with other golden oldies like “I’m going to knock you into the middle of next week!” or “I’ll knock you for a month of Sundays!” or “I’ll give you something to cry about!” He never hit me, but he threatened me constantly, as if he could raise welts by the sheer repetition of words. Maybe that is an Irish thing, I don’t know.

But that day I heard the words “Wake up to the fact that you’re alive” literally, and I went Poof! and realized that I was alive! It wasn’t that I had never been self-conscious; I had always been extremely shy and hated being the center of attention. But I had never been consciously aware of my existence before, and it was quite an amazing revelation. I am alive, on this earth. I am ME. Whoa.

***

So the ripples from the death of the little brown dog go backward as well as forward, because everything I’ve ever experienced—my physical birth, my metaphysical birth into self-awareness, my choice of college and profession and partner, my move to California, my decision to walk instead of drive to the copy center—brought me to that place and time where I saw two dogs running toward the road. And I wasn’t even at the center of that event, except in my own mind. There’s an infinite number of centers and an infinite number of ripples from each center and each interaction between centers and all around the peripheries, going in all directions at once. It’s not possible to trace all the ways in which any of us affects the world, old Jimmy Stewart movies notwithstanding.

A few pages back, I asked, “Why this constant quest for meaning? Why that word ‘deserve’?” Well, “deserve” is certainly a useless word. I’m alive, whether I deserve to be or not. It’s a gift. And my quest for meaning is also pretty useless, because “understanding” will never really prepare me for the future. Not Knowing will find me again, and then I will be just as bereft of resources as I was when I stood over the injured dog—as it should be, because Creation demands complete surrender to the moment. You lose yourself in that moment because your “self” is not much good to you then. Greater forces are at work, and need to be.

So I do my backward looking not as preparation for the future, as if I could study for the test of life, but because it’s in my Buddha-nature to do so and because I enjoy doing it so much. This realization is gold in itself, because it’s my habit to disparage my desire to look for meaning. It’s my habit to disparage myself for being the kind of person I am rather than some other, undoubtedly better kind of person, the kind who likes to travel to foreign countries or jump out of airplanes, as if only the exotic and the extreme can bring the New, when the New is all around us every day, in both the simplest and most complex forms. Gee, I feel like Dorothy returning from Oz.

It was an extraordinary thing in my life that a little brown dog took her final ride on my lap and died in my dog-disparaging arms. I don’t have to justify or explain this—though I’ve enjoyed trying—and you don’t have to care—though I hope you do. After all my careful analysis and ripple-tracing, I have only one thing to say: Wake up to the fact that you’re alive. We are all the pebble dropping in the pond, and the ripples we send go on forever.

birdsong

Birds know the rain is coming. They gather excitedly on lawns, and as I walk by, they release themselves in clouds of chirpy panic, flustering and fluttering ahead of me. In the trees, other birds are outlined clearly against the latticework of bare branches. They are as still as a painting, secure in their visibility. But the birds in the dense bushes come rushing out of hiding to escape from me. Strange to think that safety can be found in exposure, and that danger can invade one’s hiding place.

Birds saved me once. Rejected in love, lost in suffering, I looked out the window at the desolate rain and was astonished to see hundreds of birds. They covered the lawns, the street, the tops of cars, the telephone wires; they burst into and fled the scene, filling the sky. It was a powerful sight that shocked me into sudden happiness. My heart felt too small to receive this benediction—but the benediction remained, perched like a bird on a wire, carrying me through the next days of sorrow with a tiny smile and an unfamiliar feeling of hope.

mary’zine random redux: #16 July 2001

October 12, 2009

red, white, and bah humbug

Are we all quite finished celebrating the Fourth of July? I’ve never seen so much hoopla over a 1-day holiday. Since July 4 fell on a Wednesday this year, people were stringing together makeshift vacations out of two weekends and a “short” week. Richard Nixon made the 3-day weekend possible by moving most federal holidays to Mondays, but 3 days off work has become small potatoes. Mid-week holidays are celebrated for a week, and since no one works on the Friday before a 3- (or 5- or 9-)day weekend, those Fridays are de facto holidays too.

My point, of course, is that someday no one will have to work at all, except me. Signed, The Curmudgeon.

But I predict that in the future, for maximum efficiency, there will be only two holiday seasons, each lasting 6 months—The Holidays (formerly known as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s) and The Fourth (formerly known as Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day). The word “Christmas” will die off altogether, except among a few rabid traditionalists, such as the Pope and Martha Stewart. Everyone else will fakily-multiculturally blandify the winter shopping season as The Holidays, which is pretty much what they do now.

Fourth of July sale—5 days only.

—Petaluma car dealer commercial

The purpose of the two holiday seasons, of course, will be to shop, and children will be taught to sing “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of spending-to-save-the-failing-economy.” During The Holidays, merchants will focus the consumption pitch on the theme of The Spirit (Of Shopping), and during The Fourth they will focus, as they do now, on the theme of Freedom (To Buy) and Independence (To Go Against the Crowd by Buying What Other People Can’t Afford). This year, Old Navy commercials, with patriotic band music playing in the background, extolled this theme in a mock-ironic tone, as if they were poking fun at the commercialization of the holiday—“Support the Red, White, and Blue! Buy Something!”—while at the same time baldly declaring their true intention.

The consolidation of holidays will require that the currently constituted minor holidays be subsumed into the Big Two. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday (when “I Have a Dream Mattresses” will be on sale, if they aren’t already) will take up the tail end of The Holidays, and Gay Pride Day (Week/Month) and Memorial Day, strange bedfellows though they may be, will play an integral role in getting The Fourth under way—Memorial Day will represent the sale of picnic foods, Weber barbeques, and backyard pools, and Gay Pride Day will represent the highly desirable new market of “nontraditional families” (formerly known as queers). The words “gay” and “lesbian” will disappear along with “Christmas,” because they conjure up unpleasant images in the minds of otherwise motivated shoppers. But to encourage the new nontraditional families to get out and buy, there will be one massive annual parade down Market Street to the ocean that will last for days and celebrate the Pride of anyone at all, both nondenominationally and nonsexually-orientationally.

Easter will disappear, because there’s really nothing to buy for it except baskets, colored eggs, and candy, and without the birth of Christ, who needs to celebrate His resurrection? Or it will just be renamed Bunny Day, because there really is a dearth of holidays in the spring, and it’s important to anchor the beginning of The Fourth, just as Macy’s or Sears anchors a mall. The Fourth will have to start getting under way sometime in late March, lest consumers forget their purpose in life. The Fourth will officially end in late September, to give the people who put off their summer vacations until they think everyone else is back at work a chance to get their RV’s and SUV’s and every other kind of V’s out there on the roads, fully equipped with a duplicate of every convenience they have at home. Labor Day will be renamed Labor-Saving Day, the perfect time to shop for household appliances. Then The Holidays will begin again. Actually, The Holidays will never end, and neither will The Fourth. Clearly, what’s in store (so to speak) for us is a total consolidation of all celebratory buying occasions, and America will be renamed Holidayland, and people a hundred years from now will be debating the origins of the name and whether there was ever a time when holidays happened one day at a time. And the scholars and pedants who can still remember that there was once an important date far back in history known as July 4, 1776, will be on hand to bore everyone to death with their nitpicky details about what the US of A was originally meant to be.

But at some point, I’m sure, the pendulum will begin to swing back, and there will be a movement to establish a few Workdays throughout the year, so that people can take a much-deserved break from all that shopping. On Workdays (beginning cautiously with one day a week, probably Wednesday so the weekend can start promptly on Thursday), people will be encouraged to find productive labor in order to beef up their bank accounts so that they can continue the all-important getting and spending that is their—and their magnificent country’s—true purpose.

off to see the wizard

Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible.

—Monsanto Corporation’s 1979 advertising slogan

I feel slightly glamorous sitting alone in Dr. P’s tasteful waiting room on a tree-lined street in Menlo Park. The four blank doors that surround me—she shares office space with other practitioners—lead to sanctums sanctorums unknown. I’ve pushed the button next to Dr. P’s name that will cause a light to go on in her office so she’ll know I’ve arrived. Something about that detail intrigues me—the discretion, the quiet signal of a light—a metaphor? enlightenment?—instead of the crass public milieu of a regular doctor’s office, with its coughing patients and gossiping receptionists. I feel like I’ve stepped into a novel, or at least an episode of “The Sopranos.” Dr. P is my new—my first, my only—psychiatrist, and I have come in the hope that modern pharmacology will cure at least some of my woes. J and I have agreed that it’s time for me to try anti-anxiety medication, since nothing else has worked on my clenched-stomach symptom.

While I’m waiting, I study the picture on the wall across from me. It’s a bland, unpeopled rural scene—a large tree in the foreground, and in the background an arched gateway that leads nowhere. I think of Tony Soprano getting pissed off at Dr. Melfi for having a “trick picture” in her waiting room. He accuses her of deliberately putting a picture of a “rotting tree” on the wall as a way to evaluate his mental state. He can’t think of the name of the test—“Horshack,” he finally calls it. She asks if the picture disturbs him, and he says the disturbance is “built in.” I recognize the paranoia of one who has trouble trusting authority figures.

But most of you probably don’t watch “The Sopranos,” so I guess I’ll have to keep my allusions to a minimum. I can’t afford HBO either, but I rented the first season at the video store and got hooked. I finally bought the tapes and watched them all over again. The second and third seasons aren’t out on tape yet, so I’m woefully behind on story development.

Tony Soprano is the bad guy you hate to love; I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love him, but I’m fascinated by him. He’s a complex person and likeable in spite of the mouth on him—“Stick it up your fuckin’ ass” is a typical response—rather than the usual one-dimensional gangster. And there seems to be a hint of redemption to come. His seeing a shrink at all is a sign that he has a hidden inner life. A clinically depressed person must be capable of remorse, of deep feeling. We get to see the world through his eyes, and depending on how you look at it, the show could be an insidious way to get us to sympathize with a cold-blooded killer or a way to believe vicariously in our own redemption. When, after much thought, he calls the police to arrest a child molester instead of having him killed, he gets drunk and rolls giddily on the floor, exclaiming to his wife, “I didn’t hurt nobody.” And we think, “Aha! He doesn’t really want to be a bad guy!” What a hook—lots more interesting than watching guys shoot each other in the street (though they do that too—this is no touchie-feelie fairy tale).

I don’t think the picture in Dr. P’s waiting room is a “Horshack” test—and I don’t think the tree is rotten—but I wonder if I’m about to go through a gateway that leads nowhere. Already, I’m anxious about having to drive so far (55 miles each way) and pay so much—Menlo Park shrinks charge an arm and a leg—guess I can only go twice, ha ha—to tell my life story all over again. The worst thing about having any “illness,” if that’s what this is, is having to talk about it all the time. Or maybe it’s just the opposite—maybe I want to talk about myself all the time, and this gives me the perfect excuse.

Seeing a psychiatrist also feels symbolically like I’m facing an old demon from my past. As a teenager I read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and scared myself half to death with the extent to which I identified with the main character, who was a patient in a mental institution. All through my childhood, I was aware of a place in the U.P. called Newberry, where the crazy people went. I don’t remember if anyone ever threatened to send me there. I heard quite a lot about “the poorhouse,” but I’m not sure what gave me the heebie-jeebies about Newberry. One of my cousins did end up there, after spending a cold night in a swamp and freezing both his feet off. I don’t know what his diagnosis was, but I think his father, my uncle, was manic-depressive—clinically depressed, for sure, and I had seen him in a manic state. So in addition to spending the first 40 or so years of my life afraid that I was going to get multiple sclerosis or alcoholism from my father’s genes, I worried sporadically that I might be genetically destined to end up “crazy.” The crazy genes would have come down through my mother, so I was covered on both sides for something bad to happen.

You know, I have a horrible feeling I’m going to end up on my deathbed realizing how much of my life I’ve spent worrying about things that never happened. But it seems to be the way I’m built. Or at least the way I’ve grown, like a tree that twists and turns to accommodate nearby trees or a concrete wall, contorting itself into any shape necessary to sustain its life.

***

The specter of Newberry popped from the back of my mind to the forefront at the beginning of the eighth grade. For some reason, my mother was supposed to drive me to school on the first day. Most days, I took the bus, and by God, I wish I had taken it that day. School was my haven, my escape from home, but the first day of school was always traumatic—new teachers, new kids, the self-consciousness of showing up in new clothes. I was anxious, getting ready—do I start out wearing the new rust-colored blouse and skirt ensemble, or do I transition in with last year’s poodle skirt and the new pink fuzzy sweater? I had a new little purse, my first, which contained a pack of Wrigley’s spearmint gum, a comb, and a dime in case someone asked me to go out for a Coke. (I had no source of income; a dime was big money; we’re talking 1959.) When it was time to leave and my mother wasn’t ready, I panicked. The thought of walking in late on the first day of school, in front of the whole class, made my stomach churn. But empathy was not my mother’s strong suit. If she wouldn’t bother to stop for a policeman trying to pull her over, she sure didn’t think twice about making me late for school.

At the last possible minute, my mother recruited my cousin John to drive me. He lived right next door and had just got his driver’s license. I avoided John whenever possible, ever since I managed to find an excuse to get out of the back seat at the outdoor drive-in theater where he was trying to get his hands in my pants while my parents watched the movie in the front seat. He had stalked me for months, or years, I don’t remember anymore. I just remember the mental snapshots—precious memories (not)—of specific scenes—his startled face framed in the window when I stood up from my bath—his naked game of “hot dog and bun,” no surprise which part I played—the odd tableau we made by the washtubs in the basement, me with the dribbling hose, him watching, always watching, like a creepy yellow-toothed man out of True Confessions magazine.

I don’t remember the ride to school, I only remember arriving, sliding into my homeroom desk barely on time and out of breath, feeling sick to my stomach. What a close call! I sat there, trying to still my beating heart and calm my stomach. Suddenly, I had the most dreadful thought. What if I got so sick that I had to throw up? In those days, you didn’t just get up out of your chair and waltz out the door—or even run out. I had never before thought of the classroom as confining; it had always been my salvation, my structured haven away from the chaos and unpredictability of home. Suddenly I saw it as a prison. I couldn’t just sit there and throw up at my desk like a second-grader. I’d never live it down, and I was not exactly on the Miss Popular track to begin with. But I also couldn’t run out of the room, with no time even to ask permission to leave. Even if I did, I’d have to come back at some point—feeling humiliated—worse than being late on the first day of school—and then what if it happened again, and again?

I knew enough to know I was creating this dilemma myself. The nervous ride to school with John had been a trigger, but now the fear of vomiting had a hold on me. Now that I saw the truth of how much of a prisoner I really was, I felt doomed. I was a prisoner not only of my teacher, Mr. Ersland, but worse, of my own thought processes. It’s amazing to me now that I put so much trust in my reasoning abilities at age 12 or 13. I knew exactly how I was setting myself up to feel sick, but I couldn’t think of a solution, and therefore, in my still-developing brain, there wasn’t one. Is this why so many teenagers commit suicide? They have an acute knowledge of the bleakness of their situation, without any perspective to see a way out. I think that’s the curse of adolescence. You see the negative so clearly, and it’s not that you’re exaggerating—you see it, and you know it’s real. What you don’t know is that there’s a better world out there than the one you see at home or in school, but it can take many years to show itself. The lucky ones have parents or a teacher or another adult who can see farther than they can. I had no one.

I want that sentence to stand on its own as a factual statement—I had no one—but I realize how melodramatic it sounds, as if I were Princess or Kitten or whichever one of the “Father Knows Best” kids was the tortured teen, and merely had a fight with my best friend or lost my math book or something and forgot how very understanding my wise father and loving mother could be. (As a first-generation TV watcher, I believed in the truth of shows like “Father Knows Best” and “Ozzie and Harriet.” It was my family that was out of whack.)

But no, I was alone. My mother had been my primary link to human connectedness, and she had pretty much cut that link with the “Why My Mother Deserves To Be Queen for a Day” episode (see mary’zine #3 for the whole brutal story).

So there I was. I couldn’t run out of the classroom even once, even knowing that the nausea would vanish as soon as I was free, out in the hall. I knew that if it happened once, I was done for. And I couldn’t stay and vomit in the classroom; that would be a thousand times worse. Either way, I couldn’t afford to let this feeling get away from me. If I was identified as “having a problem,” the least of it would be the teasing or the shunning by the other kids. All I could think about was Newberry—the nuthouse, the insane asylum. I was absolutely sure, in every fiber of my being, that no adult in my world—not Mr. Ersland, not the principal, not the large, braying guidance counselor, and certainly not my mother—could begin to understand the mental bind I was in. Surely, only a bona fide crazy person would worry about such a thing, would make herself sick for no reason. They would try to “talk sense” into me, those sane adults, and I would never be able to explain myself. They would have no choice but to send me away to Newberry, where someone who could create such a self-torturing mental loop surely belonged.

Of course, I can see now that there was something going on that I had no way to grasp at the time. There was so much inside me that I couldn’t let out—not just in the homeroom but in my whole life, maybe since birth and certainly since my little brother Mike got sick and died—all those unspoken fears, all that anger I couldn’t afford to express toward my narcissistic, preoccupied mother; my disabled, ranting father; my sexually stalking cousin; my cruel male classmates who openly jeered at my pimpled, permanented, four-eyed, tongue-tied self; my teacher with his sarcastic taunts about how little we knew of life’s problems—as I sat there gripping the sides of my desk, staring at the large metal wastebasket to have one still point in my world, willing myself to keep it all inside, the contents of my stomach and the contents of my psyche, was there a difference?

This torture went on for the whole school year, every single day. But each day, the nausea mercifully only lasted for the first period. As soon as I went on to my second period class, I was free of the fear, for some reason, as if surviving the most difficult hour let me off the hook for the rest of the day. And how appropriate, in a way, that my first visit to a psychiatrist would be in search of relief of another stomach symptom—one that may also be caused by everything I hold inside. But now I’m old enough and enough in charge of my life that I can call up the lady shrink myself and seek her diagnosis and her prescription drugs, without the fear that she will cart me off to the Bay Area equivalent of Newberry. Since my horrible, silent, suffering adolescence, I’ve learned to talk about what’s going on inside me, and I’ve learned that there are people out there who will listen and understand. So, no—I am not nostalgic for my lost youth, why do you ask?

***

When Dr. P finally summons me inside, I give her the nutshell (so to speak) version of my life, and the first story I tell, and the only one I cry about, is the story of my bleak year of nausea in the eighth grade. She takes all my life tragedies in stride, including the molestation—she’s just looking for patterns of anxiety and depression, and I’m sure she’s heard much worse. But it’s weird how you find yourself competing for Worst Childhood or Most Depressing Life when you’re talking to a therapist while, at the same time, you feel so lucky and blessed in your life and, strangely, both are true. It’s almost as if all the bad things happened a long time ago, except, of course, for the sad fact that currently you feel like your upper abdomen is a separate thing, like a deer strapped to the hood of a car, and you want to be dead a good percentage of the time—not to kill yourself, nothing so cruel to your loved ones as that, you’re not desperate—but just to be done with it already, as if your life lately is like that horrible point three-quarters of the way through a rough therapy session (I’m talking about J now) where you can’t believe you looked forward to seeing this person, whom you usually adore but who is now torturing you, which she prefers to call challenging you, with some undeniable truth that you can’t acknowledge and with an impossible request that you can’t see any way of fulfilling, like maybe emitting sounds from deep in your silent chest and she’s looking at you with respect and sympathy as she awaits your decision, are you going to step forward and take the risk to be seen (and heard), or fall back like you’ve been doing all your life, and you glance at the clock and it’s not time to go yet and you think, like Tony Soprano’s mother, I wish the Lord would take me now.

Because I’m so “complicated” (moi?), Dr. P and I have to schedule another appointment for the following week to discuss which serotonin reuptake inhibitor best suits my special needs. She is frankly amazed that I’ve never taken any Prozac-type drugs before, and I tell her all about self-medicating with caffeine, which I would still be perfectly happy to do if only my body hadn’t started rejecting it. Self-medication (or self-sufficiency in general, I suppose) is all well and good up to a point, but then the Being that we are deep down starts making its presence known, sometimes in such a prodding, uncomfortable way that we have to go out in the world, seeking the help (or maybe just the contact) we need, until we get the message and see that we do need other people, that it’s not enough to live on the Island of Self with a tax-deductible home office and relationships by e-mail and a cat whose silence is easily bought with a little tuna-flavored laxative. Strangely, it’s just as scary to think of reaching out now as it was in junior high, because now I have no excuse, I know lots of wonderful people—not just J but the whole alphabet. Time to write the new story of my life from that alphabet instead of going round and round about the past.

***

After the eighth grade was finally over and I was rid of the sarcastic Mr. Ersland, I spent the summer at Henes Park, alternately working at the concession stand with my father and going swimming. Every now and then, I’d think about the ninth grade coming up and wonder if I was going to go through the whole hideous ordeal again. Sure enough, when the first day of school came, the phobia started right up again. As it happened, my first period class was home ec. There were three rotating sections of home ec—sewing, cooking, and art (!)—and I was starting the year in sewing, which I hated with a passion. Those bobbins, those patterns, those self belts! I had a complete and utter lack of interest or competence in the female world they were trying to prepare me for. On the first day of school, I sat there at my assigned Singer treadle sewing machine and steeled myself for another year—a lifetime—of trying to stay hidden, and contained.

Just then, the principal came in. There were too many girls in sewing class and not enough in art. Who would be willing to transfer? I practically threw myself at the guy. “I’ll go!”

When I walked into the art room, with the easels, the paints, the indefinable feeling of freedom, the implied permission that drawing and painting gave me—I breathed my first free breath in over a year. I was saved.

feng shui this

At Barbara’s surprise 50th birthday party, where a grand time was had by all, we had a lively conversation about clutter. Barbara had bought a book called Clean Up Your Clutter with Feng Shui, and she and her daughter had successfully “decluttered” her house. So everyone started chiming in about how bad it is to have any unnecessary items anywhere in your environment, “blocking energy,” and so forth, and I took the devil’s advocate position against the obsession with orderliness. Like—relax, be free, don’t worry about it. Because in that moment, probably a direct result of the fact that I have Clutter up the Wazoo, it seemed just as enslaving to be afraid to have anything on hand that you don’t absolutely love as it was to be weighed down by unnecessary possessions. Constantly judging what you love, what you don’t love—it seemed to me that patrolling your environment for every unloved scrap of paper was a waste of time, when you could just as well let that scrap of paper sit quietly on your dining room table under the phone book, the fall 1999 dining guide, your sunglasses, and a handful of change, where you just might need it someday.

So I took the position that Clutter can be a source of Creation. Block energy? Why not see it as creating energy, sparking creativity? Who mandated that everything you own has to be only the very most special thing? There’s something so puritanical about that, so anti-life. Why not embrace Abundance and Discovery? If you want to make birthday cards or collages or sculptures, you need working materials. (Granted, this does not really apply to most scraps of paper.) I had the idea to write a book called Love Your Clutter, Love Your Life. It seemed like a valid point of view, and besides, any book that supports people’s hope that they really don’t have to improve their lives is sure to be a best-seller.

I read a very disturbing article a while back (unfortunately, I never save the articles I wish I had) in which a young environmentalist was so despairing about the place of humans on the planet that he said that the space he himself took up would be better off empty. In other words, he felt that just by breathing and using up whatever resources he needed to stay alive, he was harming the planet. He seemed to be speaking for the minimalists who want to “tread lightly” to the point of not existing at all. I think there’s something very, very wrong with this. I say you have as much right to be here as any animal, any plant, any insect. Removing yourself from the picture isn’t going to do the planet any favors.

***

But as often happens when I take a strong position on something, my argument in favor of clutter was just the last gasp in defense of the status quo, and underneath, something was already beginning to change. In fact, I had already bought three plastic storage boxes to start dismantling my sand tray collection. Anybody have a compelling use for scads of plastic eyeballs, spiders, knives, dinosaurs, soldiers, animals, cars, flowers, and skeletons?

So even as I was arguing the devil’s position, the anti-clutter seed was being planted. When I got home, I started looking around my office, and I reluctantly admitted that something had to be done. I had a totally unusable work table that was piled with wire and metal sculpture materials, tools, stacks of ‘zine copies and correspondence, plastic folders bulging with stickers, and four wire and metal sculptures that had been gathering dust since the first Bush administration. Worse, the area under the table was also crammed full with rolls of wire, metal rods and tie plates, old manuscripts, and a storage box full of God knows what from an earlier attempt to get organized.

The next day I set to work. I had to start somewhere, so I made the difficult decision to dismantle one of the sculptures, which featured a blindfolded girl doll trapped in a Lego tower. (Using the previously disputed feng shui criteria, I had to admit that I did not love this thing.) So I painstakingly took it apart, thus creating even more piles of wire and metal. I had the brilliant idea of hanging the other three sculptures from the ceiling. Two are flimsy but evocative forms of wire “houses” that represented my insecure state of mind when I made them, and one is a flimsy but evocative form of a “church” that, likewise.

I’ve noticed that deciding to get rid of stuff is similar to going on a diet, in the sense that, out of an advance fear of deprivation, I find myself going out and buying more stuff or eating extra food to make up for what I’m going to cut out of my life. Truly, the left brain doesn’t know what the right brain is doing half the time. So, telling myself I needed more containers to help me organize my stuff, I went to Stacks & Stacks and bought some wire baskets for the work table and another bookcase—which I clearly needed, because I only have two other bookcases in my office, along with two long banquet tables, a computer desk, two filing cabinets, several cardboard storage boxes full of old files and memorabilia, a card table, a typing table, another long table for my stereo equipment (two radios, four speakers, a tape player, a CD player, a receiver, and a turntable), and piles of envelopes, file folders, hanging folders, and computer manuals on the floor. My dream books are on the shelf under the computer desk, and all my Krishnamurti books are lined up on the floor under that, pretending they’re on the bottom shelf of a bookcase. There’s also Xerox paper and a box of scrap paper under there. Oh, and there’s an almost-life-size wire skeleton that I constructed with a floor lamp as the spine that stands next to my computer. Also, I have three chairs in the room and a painting board, a huge bulletin board, and lots of pictures and some metal crosses on the walls. And some wire that goes along one whole wall above the big window that’s strung with colorful plastic crosses. And a string of chili pepper lights over my other window. And a “tramp art” matchstick cross Diane gave me on the windowsill. And icon calendars and postcards and photographs, and dried flowers, a family of ceramic cows, a silkscreen poster of Annie Oakley (the real one) shooting at me, and packing materials for absolutely any occasion, including several Fed Ex and Airborne boxes. You want me to tell you I love everything in that room? Maybe not, but I love the effect. When I sit at my command center (the computer), I feel supported and energized by all the color and texture that surrounds me, the sheer energy of my sculptures and paintings, the many wonderful gifts I’ve received, my fabric of things that reflect who I am.

Of course, the bookcase I bought had to be assembled, and miraculously, I managed to glue and nail it together and haul it into place almost the same day I bought it, though the cardboard box it came in, which I flattened out for Pookie to sprawl on, took up half my bedroom floor for several days before I finally cut it up for recycling, and I think the screwdriver, Elmer’s glue, box cutter, and extra nails and screw coverings are still in there somewhere. One of the plastic storage boxes is now full of wire and metal, and it’s half blocking the door to my office because I haven’t gotten around to finding a good place for it. And yet I have made progress.

Turns out I didn’t have that much stuff to put in the new bookcase besides my 41 bound journals, so I happily took a metal interior breadbox off Peggy and Cally’s hands, and it’s on one of the shelves now, with a red and white plaster Jesus standing inside with his hand raised in blessing amid a pile of gold beads. Man, I can decorate.

See? Even as I’m trying to describe the turning over of my new leaf, I’m betraying my delight in stuff. When I “declutter,” I’m working against my Buddha-nature, trying to be someone I’m not and never will be. Give me a sheet of paper with writing on it, and I’ll organize it down to the last comma and full stop. But in the physical world I’m useless. Things dominate me. Stuff happens and then collects around me. There’s probably already a book called Feng Shui for Dummies, but if not, maybe I could write that one. It would have to offer a modified form of organization for people who don’t naturally think that way. For instance, the standard advice to “handle a piece of paper only once”?—can’t do it. Anything that comes in the mail or gets cut out of the newspaper goes on my dining room table, the central collection spot.

You know the Buddhist definition of eternity? As I remember it, a little bird flies to a mountain once every thousand years and takes away one grain of sand. When the mountain is gone, that’s the beginning of eternity. That’s pretty much my method of housekeeping. Every six months or so (I don’t have a thousand years to spare), I’ll be walking by the dining room table and I’ll impulsively pick up a newspaper clipping about, say, identity theft—the proverbial grain of sand—and I’ll carry it upstairs and put it on top of one of my bulging file cabinets, to be filed later. The next time I “fly to the mountain,” another clipping or stray pen or phone number on a slip of paper will make its way upstairs. Thus do I contribute to the birth of eternity in my own small way. I just thought of something. Where does the little bird put the grains of sand it takes away? It must have to make another mountain out of them, at which point some other little bird will have to start taking away those grains of sand. I’m beginning to get the picture. Eternity takes forever to even get to.

In some strange way, I think I feel calmer in the middle of chaos. Halfway through this clean-up project, half of my CDs are piled under my desk, waiting to be taken to the record store for trade-in, and half of my clothes are piled on the bedroom floor, covered with the trash bag they will eventually go in, waiting to be taken to the Salvation Army, and my work table is half cleaned up but still strewn with miscellaneous items I haven’t found a place for—a candy dish full of glow-in-the-dark crucifixes, a friend’s manuscript that I can’t bring myself to toss, several tubes of glue, some rusted metal decorations left over from the birdhouse I made Terry—but I feel quite cheerful about it, as if I’ve projected my inner clutter onto these inanimate objects, which can handle it a lot better than I can.

At first, I was thinking I collect things around me as a way to symbolically stave off death, because disorder can be confused with liveliness. But then I remembered that when my mother was dying and I didn’t know how I would survive the void that seemed to be opening up at my feet, I became compulsive about cleaning out closets and doing crossword puzzles. I knew I was doing what I could to create order out of emotional chaos, even though it was a false order and real chaos. Maybe it works both ways—maybe the continual struggle between creating the chaos and creating the order is just our pitiful attempt to control the uncontrollable. But let’s have a little compassion for ourselves. We deserve to live, to take up space, and to fill our space any way we want to. Love your clutter, clean up your clutter—your choice—but in any case, people—love your life.

p.s. Pookie would say hi, but he’s been grounded for spending too much time on the Internet. Kitty porn.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #18 November 2001

October 12, 2009

It’s really hard to maintain your natural humility and lack of pretence when you’re being praised for your articulateness, your humor, your honesty, even your grammatical and typing skills. I’m speaking of Pookie, of course. My condo isn’t big enough for the three of us anymore—me, Pookie, and Pookie’s ego. The way he struts around here, you’d think he was the next Alice B. Toklas. I know he’s thinking, “Don’t kid yourself, they’re only reading this rag for my stuff.” But hey, I’m not proud—whatever works.

I have to admit that when I first realized Pookie was getting into the computer and making unauthorized additions to the mary’zine, I wasn’t too happy about it. One literary genius in the family is enough, don’t you think? Also, it seems to me that his style is highly reminiscent of mine. (Dare I call him a copycat?) I know that imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery, but he’s never shown any interest in flattering me before. Maybe he just has a highly developed sense of irony and enjoys mimicking my style to show that it isn’t all that hard to do. I’m a little concerned that he might get so good at it that he will gradually take over more and more of the ‘zine and even sign his name to stories I’ve written! If you start seeing a “P” or an “oo” working its way into the masthead, you’ll know something’s up.

But I’m not too worried. After all, who owns the means of production? Who brings home the Eukanuba Moderate pH Nutritional Urinary Formula? Who wears the clothes in the family? I rest my case.

On the other hand, there’s no definitive proof that Pookie, is, in fact, writing those extremely clever and creative passages. We have only his word for it. Everybody knows how easy it is to get writing samples off the Web these days. Now I know how those literary detectives who are trying to figure out if Shakespeare really wrote Shakespeare’s works must feel. It’s quite a puzzle. If Pookie didn’t write Pookie’s works, who did?? Some say there’s a dog in the neighborhood named Francis Bacon who’s been seen wearing a carpal tunnel wrist support, so who knows?

One interesting thing about “Pookie’s” writings is that he tends to lapse into Yiddish whenever he gets upset. I don’t know who taught him “oy gevalt,” but if he starts throwing around words like “farmischt” and “ferklempt,” you’ll know he’s an imposter. I mean, he’s as goyish as I am.

hey I know you kvell when they laugh at my jokes.

OK, buster, I’ve had genoog out of you today. There are important matters to be written about. Say good night, Pookie.

good night pookie.

[Editor’s note: Watch for Pookie’s upcoming column, Mews of the Day. The name was MY idea.]

[And to think I used to call Rita Mae Brown a sellout for giving up her life as a radical lesbian separatist to write mystery novels with her cat Sneaky Pie Brown. Now look at me—mouthpiece of Pookie McKenney. Pookie Pie McKenney? I’ll have to work on that.]

living in the ground ‘00s

I don’t know why, but every time I try to write something serious about the World Crisis, I end up writing about Pookie instead. I guess, in such stressful times, one wants to tap into the timeless… the eternal verities… the cat jokes.

For example, Pookie has been affected by the tragedy in an unfortunate way. He’s taken a sudden dislike to Persian cats. (Thanks to the selfless friend who gave me that line but doesn’t want the credit [or the blame].)

Last time, I talked about my conflicting feelings about displaying the American flag. Well, I finally gave in and bought a decal for the back window of my car and stuck it next to the gay rainbow flag. Then I put a small sticker of the Statue of Liberty on top of the rainbow flag. Thus is my layered and nuanced support of both my country and my chosen cause conveyed in the grand tradition of bumpersticker politics. However, I cut the bottom off the American flag decal where it said “God Bless America”—I couldn’t go that far. It’s not that I don’t want God to bless America, but I don’t like the implication that we’re the only ones who should be blessed. No country is an island (?)—well, we’re not, and 9/11 was definitely our wake-up call.

For years, I’ve had a plastic Godzilla sitting on the back of my washing machine. (No reason—you should see the rest of my house. For example, there’s a life-size plastic skeleton sitting behind a semicircular desk in the living room; it sports a University of Michigan baseball cap, the skull t-shirt I used to wear all the time, and a cross necklace, and its skeletal fingers are resting contemplatively on the book Demolition Angels by Robert Crais.) A couple months ago, when I was decluttering my sand tray room, I decided to put a wooden Buddha on the washing machine next to Godzilla. For weeks they just sat there, passively coexisting as if they were mere objects sharing space. Then it occurred to me to move them so that they faced each other. Suddenly, the spark of truth—the monster of aggression threatening the peaceful monk, and the laughing Buddha raising his arms in blessing and in welcome. The scene struck me as a microcosm of each of us in the world—our aggressive, selfish, survival instincts—the reptilian brain—constantly at war with our transcendent awareness of who we really are (We are stardust, we are golden And we got to get ourselves back to the garden [sorry, I’m having a marijuana flashback]).

When I went back in the house after creating the sticker tableau on my car window, I realized I was holding the sticky “God Bless America” strip from the bottom of the American flag decal. Impulsively, I stuck it on Godzilla’s back. And thus my bumpersticker sensibility acquired yet another layer, another nuance. The special aggression of nationalism (God Bless US) faces off against another way of looking at the world, as maya, as illusion, as beyond the duality of nations and of concepts.

And if you think I’m contradicting myself (“yay America” vs. “America = monster”), well that’s why Art attracts me more than Politics. In Rumi’s famous words, “Beyond right and wrong there is a field; I’ll meet you there….” It’s also what makes this country great—and maddening at times. You and I are free to express our layered and nuanced, sometimes contradictory feelings, whether artistically or politically. (How much do you think I love the phrase “layered and nuanced”?) And that’s the side I have to come down on, when all is said and done.

[Sidebar: A few days after adorning the car window with symbols of my current belief systems, I found the following words [?] written in the dust on the trunk of my car:

CV STROY DER CHPin

This message bothered me for days—what could it mean? Perhaps “I have put anthrax in your gas tank”? or “Down with the California Highway Patrol”? A neighborhood kid told me it means “I am a Guatemalan,” but a Spanish-speaking friend said it’s not even Spanish. I wanted to believe the Guatemalan explanation, the patriotic sentiment of a stranger far from home and thus somewhat in keeping with my sticker sentiments, but I guess it will remain a mystery.]

But to get back to my point, if I had one. Little did I know that the decision to display the flag was the easy part. This isn’t a perfect society, by any means, but I’m finding a faith in “America”—the essential decency of our people and our values—that I haven’t felt since I heard JFK’s “Don’t ask what your country can do for you” speech. (Are they sending patriotism germs through the air????) It’s embarrassing to be having these feelings. I don’t know what to make of them and don’t really trust them. On the one hand, it feels strangely liberating to be set adrift without an ideology to fall back on (Kelly, I’m mixing my metaphors on purpose), because I also don’t want to be thrust into the camp of those who are pro-USA-at-all-costs.

I think a lot of people are struggling with this. I got an e-mail from K, with whom I worked at the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Michigan 30 years ago [gulp], where I used to argue with the faculty about capitalism and where I got in trouble for writing SUPPORT BAM (Black Action Movement) on my timesheet. In her e-mail, K mentions having a conversation with her husband about hanging the flag.

…he had a feeling after 9/11 that he wanted to hang our 4th of July bunting above the front porch (why we even have one is beyond me… plus we live at the dead end of a dirt road a football field away from the dirt road and NO ONE can see our house). I told him that something about that really didn’t sit well with me—the flag and religion were too closely entwined and didn’t he understand that I was a product of the late ‘60s when I was ashamed of my country and its flag and considered moving to Canada?… The arrival of your zine helped me further sort out some of my feelings.

She goes on to say,

By the way, a VERY LIBERAL sister of a friend of mine fell off a ladder on September 12 trying to hang a flag over her cement drive and broke her shoulder/arm in three places.

Let that unfortunate person’s accident be a lesson to us all. It can be downright destabilizing to mess around with a powerful political symbol you’re not familiar with. Would this have happened if she’d been hanging a “Free Tibet” sign?

One of the unnerving things about getting older is that you are sometimes forced to realize that ideas you’ve been taking for granted since your college days might need a bit of readjusting. It’s like keeping the same hairstyle for your whole adult life—making it easy to distinguish the bouffant-haired ‘50s beboppers from the long-haired ‘60s radicals. (My hairstyle only dates from the early ‘80s, so I’m ahead of the game.) It’s especially weird for the “Times They Are A-Changin’” generation to see that all times change, not just the ones you want to be done with.

Personally, whenever I see one of those bumperstickers that say, “Question Authority,” I always write “Why?” on it.

—quoted in Author Unknown by Don Foster

“Question authority” is the classic bumpersticker distillation of my generation’s politics. I’ve been questioning the authority of the U.S. government since at least 1966, but in recent weeks I’ve realized that there are other forms of authority that can be just as insidious. The Left is not always right just because its adherents claim to walk the high moral ground.

It’s not that I’ve changed my basic political inclinations, but I’m finding it difficult to apply them to the current crisis. My point is that those who “question authority” seem to have only one model for what authority is—the parent/high school principal/college administration/government model. But it’s also important to question your own assumptions. My friend Z has a bumpersticker on her car, “Don’t believe everything you think,” and I say Amen to that. If you believe everything you want to believe, you’re going to pass along “untrumors” (now I’m channeling Herb Caen), such as the one that CNN used decades-old footage of cheering Palestinian children after 9/11. The alternative theory is that reporters threw candy up in the air to get the pictures they wanted. This may be true, for all I know, but I think that the desire to believe this kind of thing, the idea that everything’s a conspiracy, should be questioned also. God forbid that people should refrain from dissenting—I haven’t gone off the deep end and drunk the Kool-Aid yet. But all “authority” is not out there.

I have been known to pontificate about how I’m waiting for the concentration camps for gay people to open, because I wouldn’t put it past the Christian right, if they gained enough power, to take such an extreme stand. One fundamentalist’s “infidel” is another fundamentalist’s “queer.” Different scriptures, same bigotry. But I now question this cynical hyperbole on my part. It might be more dangerous to inflate the enemy’s influence than to focus on the essential decency of people. It’s tempting to believe the sky is always falling, but how wearisome to live in a state of such mistrust.

Even paranoids are right twice a day—oh no, that’s clocks.

—me

(Hold your applause till the end.)

Back in the day, another popular saying was “Even paranoids have enemies.” And it was true—the FBI files that came to light after the Freedom of Information Act showed us that they really were spying on us. But I think the reverse is also true: “Even those with enemies can be paranoid.” Panic about anthrax is one thing, but the prevailing panic on the Left about how we’re in imminent danger of losing all of our freedoms seems just as counterproductive. “As long as we still have it, I’m going to make the most of the First Amendment….” I assume Stephanie Salter was speaking figuratively when she wrote that, but still, there’s a lot of this rhetoric going around. Does it mean I’ve been brainwashed if I have more faith in our country than that? Granted, it was chilling to hear the infamous “Watch what you say” comment from the White House, but I do believe that dissent and free speech are so integral to our traditions that they will not be eliminated so easily. I can’t convince myself I live in a police state just because I don’t agree with everything our leaders say and do. There are plenty of real police (or fundamentalist) states in the world that wouldn’t tolerate half the freedoms we have.

America Freaks Out

(The Daily Show’s answer to “America Strikes Back”)

Contrary to popular opinion, 9/11 did not sound the death knell for irony, and humor once again saves the day and our sanity. (One of the writers who famously announced the death of irony later said, “I was misquoted. I said the age of IRONING is dead.”)

On The Daily Show, a cast member is purporting to give a report about the anthrax scare while headlines run under his talking head, as they do on CNN. At first, the headlines are straightforward, and then they get increasingly silly.

MAJORITY LEADER DASCHLE RECEIVES LETTER CONTAINING ANTHRAX • AL QUEDA VOWS NEW ATTACKS • FBI WARNS SOMETHING BAD TO HAPPEN SOMEWHERE SOMETIME • WHITE POWDER FOUND ON DONUT IN ST. LOUIS • STORMS BATTER NEW ENGLAND—LINK TO TERRORISM STILL UNDETERMINED • CIA: THAT GUY SITTING ACROSS FROM YOU ON THE BUS LOOKS A LITTLE SHIFTY • A FRIEND OF THIS GUY I KNOW CONFIRMS HIS GIRLFRIEND TOLD HIM THEY’RE PLANNING SOMETHING IN A MALL OR SOMETHING • OH F—K, WHAT WAS THAT SOUND • SERIOUSLY, DID YOU HEAR A SOUND • “THE HORROR, THE HORROR”—KURTZ • POLL: 91% OF AMERICANS “WANT MOMMY” • CHICKEN LITTLE: “THE SKY IS FALLING! THE SKY IS FALLING!” • OH GOD OH GOD

Then there’s a “fight” between the reporter and the teletyper, and after a while the report continues and the headlines are back:

EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE JUST WONDERFUL WITH LOLLIPOPS AND RAINBOWS AND HAPPY FEELINGS FOR EVERYONE • BUNNIES ARE CUTE, CUDDLY, AND COMFORTING

OK, so I quoted that whole bit just so I could use the line WHITE POWDER FOUND ON DONUT IN ST. LOUIS.

***

And who do you not want to be right now? Members of the thrash metal rock band Anthrax. (“When bad things happen to good band names…”)

“Rock me, B. anthracis!”

***

Some people are still trying to solve the “mystery” of 9/11. One of my editor friends wrote me this:

…got an email a while ago about the numerology of it, how everything comes down to the mysterious number 11:

Sept. 11, or 9/11 or 9+1+1 = 11

Sept. 11 is the 254th day of the year: 2+5+4 = 11

After Sept. 11, there are 111 days left in the year

The Twin Towers, standing side by side, always looked like the number 11

The first plane to hit the towers was American’s Flight 11

New York was the 11th state to join the Union

There are 11 letters in New York City, Afghanistan, and The Pentagon

etc., etc. …

Tup [her husband] chimed in, “Yeah, and the other flight was 77, which is 11 only with funny hats.”

floating down de Nile

I’ve been writing this issue over the span of several weeks, and I find that my interest in political analysis (a fancy term for “trying to figure out what the hell I think”) is on the wane. It’s a new phase. As time goes on, I view the daily headlines about bombing and anthrax scares with a strange sense of detachment. I’m not getting bombed. I’m not getting anthrax. Disaster and grief seem so mid-September. Why is this stuff still happening? Maybe the Zoloft is turning me into a nation of (1) sheep. Or maybe it’s saving me from useless panic and anxiety. I seem to be in denial, and it’s the only place I can be right now. Didn’t the president (note to self: I’ve never called him that before) say we’re supposed to get back to normal? Well, I’m back to normal. Why do I feel so guilty?

In this mood, I go to my weekly painting class, less sure than ever about what is going to come out of me. For those of you just joining us, I paint at a studio (www.ccesf.org) where the focus is on the intuitive process, not on “making art.” Thus, we don’t plan what we’re going to paint or try to make it look a certain way. We talk about “what wants to come into the painting” or “what wants to be painted.” Sounds kooky, but it works. Sometimes we paint what’s going on in our lives, and sometimes it’s all just a big fat mystery. Sometimes life is a big fat mystery. Since 9/11, I had painted the events only once—a fast painting of people falling or jumping out of the towers, because that image was haunting me. It felt good to paint it—sometimes what we’re most afraid to feel turns out to be more manageable when we get it out on the paper.

So on this day I start a large painting of myself, letting the brush go where it will, going with the flow, as they say, and I’m somewhat surprised when I paint a few small airplanes at the top of the paper. Then I paint some dead bodies at the bottom. I’m just painting, without a lot of (identifiable) feeling. Finally, some “anthrax bugs” come in, flying at my head, along with a couple of “terrorists” shooting me and grabbing me from behind.

On my second painting, I know I want to paint myself standing on top of an airplane, waving a flag. It feels good, feels right. It’s a relief not to have to make sense of it. The plane is red, white, and blue—starred and striped like the flag—and it’s dropping three bombs, one labeled U, one labeled S, and one labeled A. I have a flag in one hand and a bomb in the other, with a short fuse burning. My heart has tubes coming out of it. Bodies are falling from the sky above me—they feel like they’re from the World Trade Center—and underneath the plane, more bodies are falling—these feel like they’re in Afghanistan. When I describe it, it sounds conceptual, as if I were making a (confused) political statement, but I swear, it just happened as I painted and watched.

Now I’m on a roll. I’ve been painting for an hour and a half, and I’m in the zone, just letting it all come. On my third painting, I start with three black airplanes flying across the top, dropping bombs. Dead black bodies are piled at the bottom of the painting, and I’m standing on top of them, looking up, holding an American flag in each hand. Red tears are coming out of my eyes, and my heart again has tubes coming out of it. This time, yellow light is streaming out of each tube onto the dead bodies below. My body is white, heart is red, eyes are blue. Nice symbolism, but again, it just happened. I notice later that the way I’m holding the flags (one up, one down), I look like I’m flagging the winner at the Indy 500. No clue what that’s about, but fortunately it’s not my job to know. Time is up, so I’ll finish this painting next week.

So those are the images, but they don’t tell the whole story. As I said, we aren’t painting to make art or to make a statement but just to be with ourselves, to explore without judgment. When I sit down with everyone in the group afterward, I feel strangely whole in a way I haven’t felt since 9/11. I feel as if I’m everyone I painted—the victims, the terrorists, the bombers, the bombed Afghanis—and, being everyone, there is no need to figure out which “side” I’m on or what I think about “revenge versus justice.” Even the image of me standing on the dead bodies, holding the flags, looking up at the planes—it doesn’t make a coherent political statement, but it says something true, I think, about how we are each “all of it.” Feeling whole, I feel both big enough and open enough to embrace and embody all the contradictions that the mind can’t begin to resolve.

Looking around the studio and talking to my painter friends, I find it fascinating to see how differently the 9/11 events are being expressed—some people are painting fast, violent images of bombs and bodies, and some are painting slow, detailed scenes of men in turbans and rippling flags, or close-ups of the World Trade Center flames, or just pages and pages of black tears. I would love to see an exhibition or a book of these paintings. They’re like the paintings of traumatized children—forget “art,” this is pure response. And yet there is a beauty and a power in these spontaneous images. We paint with the simplicity of children but with the emotional depth and complexity of adults.

I heard an interview on “Fresh Air” with a photographer who’s taking pictures of the World Trade Center wreckage. His aim is to make the pictures absolutely starkly clear and to have them enlarged so much that you see the things themselves without anything getting in the way—no interpretation, staged effects, special lighting, etc. It struck me that we painters are doing exactly the opposite—we’re not trying to capture the image objectively; instead, we’re expressing what’s in our hearts and souls. It’s not about the event “out there” but about our human response. So each painting is individual and yet archetypal, because we’re responding without manipulating the image—so (come to think of it) maybe it’s a little like what the photographer is doing after all. Each painting is a product/snapshot of the human heart, without anything in the way—no interpretation, staged effects, special lighting, etc.

The photographer said something else, about how in late afternoon the smoke and the pink light from the sunset and the red drapes hanging on nearby buildings make this scene of devastation look utterly beautiful. He said he couldn’t fathom how beauty and horror could be so entwined. It struck me as a perfect argument for the existence of God.

Make of that what you will.

chat mystérieux

Scenario 1

I am coming downstairs. Pookie is in the kitchen eating his expensive, pH-controlled cat food, a good 25 feet away. As soon as he hears me on the stairs, he flees the kitchen like a wanted man and either cowers under the dining room table or makes his way around the perimeter of the living room, crouching and scurrying like a Marine on a mission, finally taking cover behind an armchair. If they sold camouflage suits for kitties, he’d be the first one in line.

Scenario 2

I walk into the sandtray/storage/litterbox room to put a bottle in the recycling bin and come face to face with Pookie. A look of stark terror crosses his face, as if I’m the one-armed man and he’s The Fugitive, Richard Kimball, about to go over the waterfall. He makes a mad dash for the door, barely escaping the fate to which I surely would have consigned him. I have yet to figure out what that might have been.

Scenario 3

I am coming up the stairs, carrying a heavy basket of laundry. Pookie is lying on one of the stairs, stretched from one side to the other, taking up every inch of space. As the basket of laundry hovers precariously over his head, and as I grunt in an unladylike manner while struggling to find a foothold on the stair he so lordily (is that a word?) occupies—and failing that, as I straddle the stair and him and attempt to hoist myself and the basket up to the next step, risking life and limb—he looks up at me with the bemused, dispassionate gaze of a direct descendant of Buddha’s cat and begins methodically licking his right paw.

Forget Sneaky Pie Brown. This is a mystery.

By the way, His Royal Highness has informed me that his preferred nom de plume is now Pookemon. I have created a monster.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #27 March 2003

October 3, 2009

a winter’s tale (or two)

I wake up at 6:30 a.m. and it’s cold in the house (my condo in San Rafael, CA). Thermostat is almost down to 50. I open the blinds. There would be frost on the pumpkin if there was a pumpkin. Brrrr! Put a sweatshirt on over my pj’s, turn up the heat, and settle down at the computer with my daily allotted half-full glass cup of coffee (i.e., the cup is made of glass, it isn’t just a metaphor).

There’s late-night e-mail from my sister Barb. Lately, her subject lines are variations on a theme: “–3 degrees,” “Wind chill factor of –15,” and the extremely chilling “–24 degrees this morning.” I’ve taken to calling her “Brrrrrb.”

In my world, the chill is short-lived. By the time my workday is under way, the sun is shining and the birds are chirping their unfinished symphonies. It’s another beautiful day in paradise.

I feel guilty when I write this to Barb:

I thought of you today when I was walking to the store to get a newspaper with only a t-shirt on (well, pants and shoes too). The sky was perfectly blue, not a cloud in sight.

She takes it in stride, though. She and K must have inherited those sturdy peasant genes. I was always a wimp.

Do not miss your chance to blow.

—Eminem

Barb’s e-mails to me go more like this:

First time on the snowblower this morning. I stepped out early enough to get my garbage and recycling by the alley to be picked up and realized that if I was going to get out, I would have to do at least minimal snowblowing. We had about 5 inches of snow and it was the heavy wet stuff. Freezing rain had also started. I hopped on the tractor and blew my way out of the garage and did the back sidewalk enough to get the mailman to my back door. I then blew my way to the front walk. I saw Shirley had her driveway plowed but not her front walk, so just kept going past her house. I had gotten that far and there was nowhere to turn around, so I did the entire block. I turned around in the street and blew snow off the sidewalk on my way back too, making the path wider. I then tackled the driveway and part of the side of the house. The plow had already been through so had the nice little mound of packed snow they always leave to contend with.

And only then does she hop in the truck to drive to the middle school where she teaches math and science.

After burying my garbage cans [I’m guessing she accidentally buried them with blown snow, she didn’t actually go out there and dig a pit and throw them in], I dug them out, put them away and headed off to work. As I was driving there, thankful I had 4-wheel drive, the radio said it would have cancellations in a few minutes. They played one song, then another song, and I kept thinking, “Hurry up or I am going to make it all the way to school before I hear what has been canceled.” Just as I got to the unplowed school parking lot and saw no teachers’ cars there, they announced school had been canceled.

In my safe, warm haven thousands of miles away, I entertain myself with the image of my baby sis on the John Deere tractor-snowblower, bundled up in her long wool coat and Skip’s red snow hat (known as a “chuck” for some reason, and often referred to as a “condom hat” for a soon-to-be-obvious reason) with a full head-covering and an opening just big enough for her eyes and nose. The hat sticks way up high on her head so she has an attractive floppy knitted top of the head thing going on—or the condom look, if you will. They can see her coming for miles. She “blows out of the garage”—in the movie, she’d be played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he wouldn’t open the garage door first—and barrels down the street, spewing snow right and left. Or maybe it only blows one way, what do I know. No place to turn around, so she keeps going. She’s like Santa Claus without the toys, blowing down the streets of town to make the way safe for little girls and boys, the elderly, her fellow Northern-Americans. In my fantasy, she’s picking up speed. She’s got grit, and also pluck. She’s determined to do the whole M&M loop (M = Marinette, WI, & M = Menominee, MI). She blows down Cleveland St. to Pierce, heading for the Hattie Street Bridge by (the long-closed) Scott’s Paper Mill.

Crossing the bridge into Michigan, to M’s twin frozen city of M* [see “Footnotes” below], she blows up 10th Avenue past the courthouse and jail, up to First Street, turns toward the marina and band shell, perhaps waving gaily to the guys ice fishing in their shanties out on the bay. Past Menominee Paper Company, over the Menekaunee Bridge and past Marinette Fuel and Dock, where she sees a ship unloading pig iron, salt, or coal. “Hiya boys, how’s it hangin’?” Then past Waupaca Foundry (where son-in-law Aaron works) into Menekaunee**. Where there are docks there are men, and where there are men there are bars, so she blows a path past Helen’s Edgewater Bar, Rei Tec Bar, Mike and Jean’s Bar, The Cactus Bar, The Aloha Inn and The Corn Crib, all on the same block, on the same side of the street. (Shelly’s Beer Depot is across the street, in case all the bars are hit by lightning or you just like to drink at home.) Fortunately, Barb didn’t inherit Daddy’s alcoholic gene, so she’s not tempted to stop in at the Aloha Inn for a bottle of Blatz with a paper umbrella sticking out the top. But she’s gettin’ tired, mighty tired, and she’s covered with snow (like they say, don’t spit into the wind, especially when it’s coming out of a tractor). Finally, she comes up the home stretch past Barbaraland to home sweet home, completing the loop, and is greeted by the mittened applause of neighbors pouring out of their houses with steaming mugs of hot chocolate in hand*** to warm up our heroine.

“Footnotes”

*In my “research” for this little fantasy, I discovered that the “Twin Cities” have been upgraded to the “Tri-City Area.” I couldn’t imagine what the third city could be, so I asked Barb. She said it’s Peshtigo, about 10 miles south. (So two of the Tri-Cities are in Wisconsin. My U.P. references are going to take a hit.)

**Ah, more research is called for. Menekaunee used to be a rogue village of squatter fishermen and other hardscrabble folk that was later annexed to Marinette. A “working class haven,” it has its own flavor and is still sometimes referred to as Fishtown; the residents call themselves River Rats.

***This is just a fantasy, OK?, so I don’t know how they could be applauding while holding steaming mugs of hot chocolate.

Ah, for the zines when I felt like riffin’ ‘n’ rappin’… I could have done some serious language damage to that story, with words like snow and blow to work with. “Doncha know I gotta go out and blow, cuz I’m goin loco from the snow, it’s piled up so…. On second thought, NO, fergit this snow shit, it’s frigid as a Frigidaire out there, that’s it, I’m gettin’ out of this place ‘n’ save my frozen face. Don’t need a weatherman to know which way the snow blows, it blows for thee, no more for me, you dig?”

Unfortunately (?), I’m not in the mood at the moment. But give me time.

Barb also writes:

My fingers are kind of numb right now. I just spent the last 20 minutes going in and out of the house trying to get LaMew from a cat fight that would have kept him out in the cold too long.

Compared to LaMew, Pookie is a pussy.

***

On a serious note, Barb tells me our cousin Jerry has died.

Apparently he had frozen pipes during that cold snap we have been having. He was found under his trailer, apparently electrocuted himself trying to thaw out the pipes. He wasn’t found until 3 days later and was frozen and blue.

Holy Christ! This is the same cousin who passed out in a cornfield one night 25 or so years ago and got frost bit so bad they had to amputate both his legs. How weird is it that the two major catastrophes of his life involved freezing? But here’s the saddest part:

Deb got a call from the funeral home. It seems they took Jerry’s phone/address book to find a relative and all the names he had, had phone numbers that had been disconnected. They found Deb’s number in there [they were neighbors] and called her to see if she could find a relative. Turns out her mom works with an ex-wife who put them in touch with someone [his current wife?] in South Carolina.

Barb kept watching the paper for a funeral notice but never saw one. Jerry’s estranged brother and sisters apparently had no interest in picking up the body, straightening out his affairs, or even claiming his stuff. His car still sits out in front of his trailer, covered with snow.

This just in:

Apparently the wife who lives in the Carolinas wanted to be done with it all as soon as possible, so she sold the trailer and all of its contents to the people who own the trailer park for $3000…. the pictures on the walls were even left behind. Talk about wiping out the existence of a person.

***REST IN PEACE, JERRY. I HOPE HEAVEN IS WARM AND DRY.***

I showed my therapist J some pictures of my sisters and their families, and she saw the resemblance between me and Barb right away. (K looks more like our wild Irish aunts.) What’s more startling is that our humor is so similar. She was 9 years old when I went away to college, so I don’t think she got it from me. And I don’t remember any of us being funny at home. Mom loved comedy on TV and in books, so we were familiar with Bob Newhart, Vaughn Meader (he impersonated John F. Kennedy in the early ‘60s—a short-lived career), and several Jewish comedians— Herb Shriner, Shelley Berman, Sam Levenson, Allan Sherman. (Interesting ethnic attraction, considering she was a sheltered farm girl from the upper Midwest.) So most of our humor was imported—or else I’ve forgotten the witty banter that kept us all in side-splitting laughter all those years.

A friend of mine sent me one of those lame Internet questionnaires that ask about your personal preferences—books you’re reading, favorite color, have you ever been in love, etc. I filled it out and sent the survey with my answers to Barb. She filled it out too and sent me her answers. One of the questions was:

DO YOU SLEEP WITH A STUFFED ANIMAL?

Here is Barb’s answer:

Only after LaMew has eaten a rabbit and wants to sleep it off, but not often.

I love that her humor sneaks up on me so that I almost miss it. One day I wrote to her,

Sometimes I wonder what our home life would have been like if Daddy hadn’t gotten MS. His alcoholism would have progressed… Mom might have divorced him… you might not exist….

Barb replied,

I wonder if Mom would have been as hard and controlling, using the guilt factor on us kids, or you kids as the case might have been.

When I LOL’d to this and asked her if her humor reminded her of anyone, she answered, “Yes, I noticed the similarity, sis.”

I used to be concerned about Pookie taking over the mary’zine, but I think Barb is a much bigger threat. She starts by wheeling in the Trojan horse, getting her notable quotes quoted by the horseload, passing along greetings to J—my J—who says she’s getting to know my sister from her stories and bon mots, and then one day, POOF: barbie’zine. Well, maybe she’ll quote me once in a while.

Some more U.P. news, and then I’ll try to think of something in my Left Coast life that’s compelling enough to share.

We had a triple shooting in Stephenson this weekend…. One of the women was the former librarian’s daughter. Apparently it was a husband-wife breakup with the wife’s friend (librarian’s daughter) there as a mediator while the wife got her things out of the home. They thought the husband was gone. He was not, ambushed them and shot them with a shotgun. The wife is in critical condition, the husband shot himself after shooting them and is dead, and the librarian’s daughter has buckshot lodged in her head they are not going to remove. More excitement in small town U.S.A.

Mom used to work in the library in Stephenson (Stephenson is in the U.P., 27 miles north of Menominee; it is not yet part of the Multi-City Area) and knew the buckshot’d woman. People get murdered in California too, of course, but they’re mostly just folks you read about in the paper. Back there, pretty much all the tragedies are up close and personal, you either know the people involved or you know someone who knows them. I remember a horrible event from about 30 years ago. There were four or five (or six) brothers who worked on neighboring farms, and one day one of the brothers went down into a cellar (?) or an underground tank (?) or something to check on a gas leak (?) or whatever (they don’t call me Storyteller for nothing; OK, they don’t call me Storyteller at all). He didn’t come back up and didn’t respond to their calls, so another brother went down to check on him. And so on, and so on…. and in the end, all the brothers went down there and died, like, within minutes. I’m not going to be so cruel as to suggest that brother #3 (at the very least) should have figured out that it wasn’t a good idea to follow #1 and #2 down there, but maybe it’s one of those male-bonding things. There was a picture in the paper of the wives of these brothers being interviewed for the story—can you imagine what a shock it must have been? And I remember thinking they looked… not unhappy. But no one in my family knew them, so that kind of shoots the whole premise of this paragraph.

Oops, the computer is checking my e-mail and blows the siren that announces I have mail. And guess who it’s from?

LaMew seems to be interested in this chicken commercial with a blacked out breast area. The chicken walks around and the commercial says showing large breasts on TV is prohibited in some states except when it’s in a sandwich.

Which reminds me. Pookie likes to watch TV and will recognize animals on the screen. Mom once sent me a made-for-cats video that shows real birds and squirrels in the videographer’s backyard. Pookie was fascinated by these larger-than-life creatures. But I was surprised the other night when he recognized a CARTOON of a cat…. and there was no identifying kitty noise. I was impressed. The big lug is smarter than I thought [oops better start dumbin down again she could be on to me]. This gives me paws… I mean pause… where did that come from? [heh heh] Soon after Pookie came to live with me, I came home from work one day and the TV was blaring. The remote was on the bed, so I figured I had left it there and he had accidentally stepped on it…. But now I wonder…..

fan mail from some frozen flounder

Just to show that I can cannibalize e-mails other than my sister’s, I finally heard from my old friend K—oh dear, there aren’t enough letters in the alphabet to go around; I’ll have to call her KM—who lives in lower Mich. She chimes in with:

… your last THREE ‘zines have provoked me to want to really write to you, for a zillion reasons—and you will probably hear from me soon. The U.P. connection…. wow. The first of your U.P. ‘zines came just as we were giving a U.P. party! ….

So now I can’t wait to hear what on earth a “U.P. party” is. Guys in lumberjack shirts eating pasties? Video showings of Anatomy of a Murder and Escanaba in Da Moonlight (both filmed up there)? The partygoers speaking in strange tongues?: “I s’pose, eh?” (The Canadians get all the credit for the “eh” thing. The U.P. is truly the forgotten land.)

***

Well, I’ve done an honest accounting of recent events in my life and have come to the conclusion that nothin’ much is happening here, so I will merrily merrily row my boat back in time and tell you a story. Yes, it comes from her.

I asked Barb if she likes margaritas (mmmmm—margaritas). So she lays this memory on me:

Back before I got married I had a margarita experience:

Jennifer K. and I went out with a couple of guys for the evening; me with my then boyfriend, Dean, and she with the Hunka Hunka Burnin Love guy that I wished I was with, Mark. I had 3 margaritas that night as we danced the night away. I was driving a big old heavy Chevy. We dropped off my boyfriend first, then dropped off Mark. Made the mistake of turning onto 10th Ave. which was undergoing street repair at the time. On gravel first and then came to the barriers. “Oh,” the slightly inebriated me said, “we are at the end of the construction already,” so I went around the barrier. After traveling for about a half a block, I came to a dead stop. What on earth was that in the middle of the road? It rose about 2 feet above the road. Focusing in, we discovered it was the railroad tracks, and when I looked to my left, discovered the manhole cover was also 2 feet in the air. I was in sand, and when I stopped, my car sunk like a stone up to the floorboards. Jennifer laughed so hard, she fell out of the car.

We walked back to Mark’s house, what else could we do at 2 in the morning. We woke his parents, they weren’t too pleased. The 3 of us then walked back to my place. I lived in Pollock Alley at the time…. This was down by First Street mind you and my car was near the old Red Owl store on 10th Ave.

We had breakfast, crashed, and slept until noon…. Jennifer was going to drop me off by my car…. We got there and the place where the car had been was all smoothed over. Only one lone guy was there and I went up and asked if he knew where my car was…. He just grinned and said it was at Holiday Wrecking. I called them and asked how I could get my car back. $10 [Ed. note: !!!] was the answer. That day was payday, but Jennifer had to get back to Green Bay, so I had to ask Babe, my boss, if I could get my check early, as I had no money, and then had to explain why. She gave me the money to get my car along with a lecture.

[Barb was working as a bartender at the time. She was a tough cookie, took no shit from the biker patrons. P and I were visiting once when they brought a band into the bar and she sang some Three Dog Night songs… Jeremiah was a bull frog… She could belt ‘em out pretty good.]

I got my car, Jennifer went home, and I stopped at a friend’s house. “Oh, you’re the one they’re looking for. The cops were trying to find the owner this morning, and went to your old address in Marinette.” I had just moved to Menominee. Scared that they would come to Hodan’s while I was working and haul me away in handcuffs, I went to the CopShop and asked them if they were looking for me. “Why, what did you do?” was the question. “That was my car on 10th Ave. this morning.” He just smiled and said, “If you ever do that again, just make sure it is removed by 7:00 in the morning.” Relieved, I thanked him and walked out.

Do I like margaritas? Oh yeah. Can I handle them? Oh no.

***

For a while I couldn’t figure out why I was so focused on life back there in “Wish-Mich,” as we have taken to calling the Two-State Area. My life here is fine… finer ‘n frog’s hair, as my father would have said. There’s really nothing to tell—in therapy, as well. I tell J I’m swell, and I don’t have to sell her on that, she can see and feel that I’m in a deep well (well, she said “pool” but that’s cool too). She helped me see that I’m not in my head, it’s all somatic, almost automatic, this response to my changed relation to my family. I might not be ready for this task, to write about the blast from that long-ago past. But now I see that if things aren’t all happening at the same time, they might as well be. This is the mental snowblower, the mind eff’er: “past” is just a word we use to separate perceived realities. We all know that memory is fallible, our brain is malleable, our thoughts not believable, I know it sounds inconceivable that the past can actually, literally, change, or rather, it doesn’t change, there is no “it,” it’s all inside us. So not only do we not remember things as clearly as we think, but even if we do remember images that we have set in concrete, gaining a reality much more defined than when they were “real,” our error (my error) was to think that what I remembered was even true at the time. We pretend there are no limits to our perceptions, but my childish conceptions were just points on a Tri-City map. Barb and K and Mom and Dad each brought their own realities to bear, making a rich, confusing stew of points of view. So where is the truth? It’s got to be deeper than our experience, which is fleeting as all get-out until we codify and build a monument to our flimsiest recollections. We call ourselves survivors, but do we even know what we survived? They say that at a wedding it’s the bride’s day—for the bride. For the usher, it’s the usher’s day. We each represent maybe one molecule in all the simultaneous happenings that happen just in our own little spheres. At the age of 4 as we’re driving through Chicago and I call “Nigger!” out the window, I’m as proud as when I connected the pictures of Dick and Jane with the words in the book. That was my “reality.” I knew nothing of the reality of those urban people of color just trying to get through the day in early 1950s USA.

My point, in case you missed it, is this: We are all just as ignorant “now” as we were “then” about all the other points of view through which the world takes on its hue. Obviously, I have learned a thing or two, but there are always just a few more blind spots in the way of enlightenment.

So with every e-mail I get from my sister, and every story from her past, or our shared past, or the present as it is lived in that working class haven or hell, depending (again) on your point of view—nephew Joshua on strike from Marinette Marine, times are lean, he’s getting bags of groceries from local churches, the odd job doing drywall and all, it’s so much like the life I recall but lived in different ways by all…. I see now that the narrow thread I have clung to all these years, through all these me-mories, a thread called My Life, is no more enduring than the wispy web of the spider above my bed. And somehow that is such a relief. It tells me the past is wide open, there’s no ground beneath my feet, nothing to cling to and no need to cling to anything. The past is just as mysterious as what we call the future, which is only “past” or “present” from a different point of view. If you’re standing high up on a hill and see two trains far away, each coming toward the other on the same track, and you somehow notify each of them to stop because a crash is imminent… are you “seeing into the future,” or do you just have a different perspective?

Which brings me to… WAR. I’ve been compartmentalizing like crazy from down here in my deep well or pool, call me a fool but I surface reluctantly and wonder what my place should be in this worldwide multidimensional drama that is unfolding.

I don’t want to write a polemic about it—there are plenty of other people shouting and arguing and taking sides and looking down on each other—the ugly American, the arrogant French, the self-righteous Arab, the embattled Israeli, and throw in the mix North Korea, India, and Pakistan… where does it end? (Canada?) There are infinite points of view, not only of nations and of factions within nations, but between our hearts and our minds, and vice versa, not to mention the many divisions, seen and unseen, within ourselves.

The peace activist and the war criminal have the same heart, like it or not. All conflict comes from that heart, on different scales and levels of power, of course, but in essence it’s the same. It’s us vs. them, me vs. you, it’s that well of feeling you call on when you’re almost crushed by an SUV that’s wandering back and forth across lanes while its driver chats obliviously on a cell phone, or when you want to kill the woman ahead of you in the checkout line who waits until she has heard the total cost of her groceries before digging into her purse and finally coming up with a checkbook and starts laboriously writing the amount and double-checking the checker’s total and showing her ID and filling out the checkbook register in complete detail. Is it better to fume at a fellow ordinary human than it is to massacre hordes of people? Of course. But that division is where it all starts. I am not like you. You’re different. I’m good, you’re bad.

We band together with others on whatever (shifting) basis, be it family, school, town, country, mode of transportation, political party, age, sex, skin color, sexual orientation… all the myriad ways we find to group ourselves into “self” and assign others to the limbo of “nonself.” (Sure, our immune systems do that too, but we’re supposed to be better than our biology—aren’t we?) The SUV driver says, “The only thing that matters is that my family is safe.” What s/he’s really saying is, Who gives a shit if I kill someone else’s family in a fender bender? The only thing that matters… is me! Then there are the people with their Baby on Board stickers, like Watch out, I have procreated! P had a near miss with another car once, and the woman passenger shouted out the window, I’M PREGNANT. Oh, excuse me, I should have divined the state of your uterus and pulled over to let you pass undisturbed by my nonpregnant ass.

I have had a car cut in front of me and the driver gives me the finger when I honk my outrage; then he roars off and I actually hope he crashes. Naturally, one doesn’t want to “own” these feelings so instead we project them this way and that, like human snowblowers. Don’t care where it lands, just get it out of here.

“Peace” is always “out there,” thwarted by someone else’s behavior or beliefs. Whenever we blame external forces—even if those forces are the clearly demented George W. Bush and cronies—we create “war.” But we think “peace” is only about governments, treaties, settlements. It’s something high and holy that can only come from the top down, negotiated by our leaders, never mind the little “wars” that get people shot to death just for taking someone else’s parking spot. My parking spot—Our land—I was here first—God is on our side—You started it. Every “political” argument is circular. I’m the victim here. No, I am.

The oxymorons are all around us. Angry peace activists. Environmentalist SUV drivers. No war for oil [bumper sticker on gasoline-powered cars]. Animal rights activists advocating the killing of defective human babies [Peter Singer]. Hate-filled Christians.

One day in a supermarket, I noticed a woman who was all prissy-lipped staring at another woman who had offended her in some way, like maybe brushing past her or leaving her cart in the middle of the aisle. The offending woman was completely unaware of her transgression, and I could see the wheels turning in the head of Prissy Woman, “You bitch, get out of my effing way.” So, because Offending Woman didn’t offend me, I’m free to judge Prissy Woman, like, Get a life, Prissy Woman, and then of course, I remember how many times I have done exactly the same thing, and I wonder who’s watching me judge Prissy Woman for judging Offending Woman. It’s a total merry-go-round, what goes around just keeps coming and going around, no way to get off the ride until, maybe, we take the Bible’s advice: Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye (Matthew 7:5).

But here is humanity’s dirty little secret: it is pleasurable to hate. Rage, anger, and annoyance—the large grievances and the petty—take us off the hook of our own transgressions, but they also just plain feel good. To see the driver who cut in front of you get pulled over by the CHP. To hate the slow driver ahead of you, and in the next minute hate the tailgater in back of you. We have endless opportunities to stoke this pleasure. And what is the alternative? We don’t even like to think about what it would mean to abstain from the unholy joys of resentment and revenge. So we sweep our own culpability under the rug—our spitefulness, our tailgating, our honking and finger-giving at the too-slow and the too-fast, our anger directed at our parents, neighbors, Bush, Saddam, Al Qaeda, right-wing Christians, peacenik lefties, Zionists, towelheads. We truly live in a “pluralist” society/world, you can’t keep up with all the targets of otherness that are presented to us each and every day. We’re addicted to being pissed off, to blaming, to finger-pointing, to imploring “How can I miss you if you won’t go away?” (Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks).

So yeah, “fuck the war” out there but what about “fuck the war” in my own vengeful heart? When does that become the truth that sets us free? Are we going to wait until the aliens come (the outer space kind; the Mexicans are already here) and we can all band together because we have magically, under pressure, turned all humans into self?

We get annoyed when other people act as if they’re the only ones who count—because, deep in our faithless hearts, we believe that we’re the only ones who count—we and whoever we have included in our circle of “us.”

That’s the only problem I have with “family.” It can be a wonderful thing, a respite from a hostile world, a source of comfort and support—but it also encourages the belief in us vs. them, self vs. nonself, family (community, religion, country) vs. non-.

Ahem. And now for something completely different….

working on my (t)issues in therapy

One of the unexpected by-products of therapy for me has been my invention—or discovery, depending on how you look at it—of a new art form. I don’t have a catchy name for it, but I’m open to suggestions. Simply put, I am reclaiming the magic of spontaneous expression through the humble medium of… Kleenex—the tearing and twisting of; see also soggy mass. This Kleenex Kreativity (too kute?) is a bit like very flimsy origami, except that the resulting creations are not your conventional waterfowl, your cranes, your flowers—no, they are natural, intuitive expressions of my subconscious or, as I like to think of my subconscious, the stream of humanity through which all KreativityTM, Kleenex or otherwise, flows.

This most ephemeral art form always ends up in the trash, which is fitting, because in my artistic expression I am as the wind, the passing clouds, the morning mist, here today, gone at the end of the session. In fact, I liken myself to the artist in the movie “Rivers and Tides,” who creates artworks from materials found in nature. He goes out before dawn and pastes twigs together with his own spit to make a sculpture, say, and as the sun rises (or the illusion thereof), its warmth dries the spit and his twig sculpture falls apart. Then he moves on… though not before photographing his “temporary” art for posterity. I know exactly how he feels—the thrill, the challenge of kreationTM is worth the inevitable destruction by the same natural forces that drove him to kreateTM in the first place—“the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” (Dylan Thomas) or, in my case, the force that through the white fuse drives the ghost, the angel, the Arab, the little person with a big head and flimsy legs, the finger puppet, the ring with a twisted 0-carat diamond on top, the je ne sais quoi. (Note to self: must change name of art form slightly to avoid action by Kleenex attorneys. I have not yet kreatedTM a Kleenex attorney, but if you put 100 monkeys in a room with 100 boxes of Kleenex, I’m quite sure that at least one practitioner of law would emerge.)

Is this deeply spiritual but impermanent art what Freud had in mind when he encouraged free association in therapy? Did they have Kleenex in his day? Maybe not. I’m sure he would have seen the possibilities in this telling construction performed by unconscious fingers while the head of the person with the fingers sheds copious tears and tells her story of woe. A self-generated Rorschach test. Sometimes the KllenxKreationTM-to-be doesn’t get crumpled and twisted, merely torn, and then what arises are the ever-popular eye slits and mouth through which I peer at J and stick out my tongue as she valiantly attempts to make a serious point. Or the fingerless glove that allows me to waggle my digits provocatively. If I haven’t made it clear, I have no idea this kreativeTM activity is going on until, as the tears dry on my cheeks, I look down and gaze in wonder at the delicate (or soggy) KlenexKreationTM that has sprung to life through the grace of God and the Kimberly-Clark Corporation.

Therapy is Process. You could not do Therapy without Kleenex, ergo, KlienxKreativity Is ProcessTM, or so I humbly submit.

Donations for the purchase of raw materials, preservation of the artwork (I’m starting to think there could be a book in this), and possibly a website and future Museum of KlnxKreativityTM are always welcome.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #8 Oct./Nov. 2000

October 3, 2009

the trip of the century

Considering I’m not exactly Travel Girl, my trip to western Massachusetts to see Terry and Jean was a huge success. My extensive planning paid off, as did my years of therapy, which have taught me a thing or two about boundaries and about staying in my body when I have the impulse to flee.

I admit, there were times when the planning got a bit out of hand, such as when I was writing a note for Pookie’s temporary caretaker, Jean M. I wrote down instructions for what to do—the feeding, the watering, the scooping—plus the phone number for where I’d be, the vet’s phone number, the pet ER’s phone number, the office hours of the vet, the hours of the pet ER, plus special situations such as the vet is open certain Saturday afternoons so call him first, but all day Sundays or weekdays after 6:00, just go ahead and call the pet ER… and by then I had run out of paper and realized she probably wouldn’t need to call the vet anyway. Five days in the life of your average cat usually aren’t that exciting. Clearly, I was projecting my sense that leaving home for even a few days would create massive shifts in the earth’s infrastructure and permanent changes in climate. I tore up the note and wrote a new one.

Food—as you might expect—was also planned down to the last bite. I had snacks for the plane—popcorn, peanuts, energy bars—and even an alternative lunch in case the vegetarian lunch I had ordered was inedible (“vegetarian” turned to “vegan” in United’s computer—I’m sorry, but vegan is way too exotic for my tastes—if exotic is even the right word). Kate had advised me to bring a sandwich or a burrito, but I was too self-conscious to eat brazenly from my land-based food supply while fellow passengers picked at their foil-wrapped food-like substances. So instead, I packed a Tupperware container of roast chicken in bite-size pieces so I could nibble on the sly. (Yes, I know no one would question my supplementing a vegan lunch with chicken, but still….)

The night before the trip, I barely slept. The brain was all set to go, rehearsing the final steps that would have to be taken when the alarm went off, going over and over the plan. As usual, the body was left eating the brain’s dust. All it could do was lie there hoping against hope that the brain would eventually wear itself out with its thinking, and for a while it did, and the body took its few zzzzzz’s in the early morning hours.

Alarm goes off. Travel Girl—for she is de facto Travel Girl for the next 5 days—thinks there’s plenty of time to complete the duties on the last-minute to-do list, but the 2 hours allotted for final packing, eating, and bathing pass so quickly that the last few minutes are a blur, and she runs out the door without time for a final, careful perusal of every room in the house. The car does not break down on the way to the Marin Airporter, so that is good. (Each leg of this trip is going to be measured in such small victories.) She buys her bus ticket and manages to lose it between the service counter and the bathroom, a distance of about 10 feet. Panicking (so soon the plan starts to unravel? she can’t believe it!), she asks the weary bus counter man for another pass to get on the bus and is told she will have to fork over another $13. She retraces her steps and finds the pass lying on the floor of the bathroom stall. This lack of focus is not a good omen, she thinks.

(As the reader has perhaps divined, the out-of-body experience has begun, and all actions are being observed from a vantage point about 5 feet above Travel Girl’s head. Part, but not all, of the explanation for this is Dramamine, that miracle motion-sickness pill that permits the airborne journey in the first place but takes a toll on body, mind, and spirit.)

Before she knows it, Travel Girl has arrived uneventfully at the airport, has stood in the interminable, snaking line with the true Travel People (most of whom have learned from experience to pack everything on wheels), and is now seated at gate 75, boarding pass in hand, with a  mere 2 hours to wait for the plane to take off. She spends the time alternately people-watching and reading the book she has brought, the perfect easy read for the circumstances, Armistead Maupin’s The Night Listener. Throwing convention to the winds (it is only 9:30 a.m.), she starts in on the snacks… first the popcorn, then surreptitious bites of chicken sneaked out of the Tupperware. (Like many other things about Travel Girl, her secretive nature passeth understanding.)

Miraculously, the flight is on time, and it’s nonstop to Hartford, so it feels like a small step for a woman, a giant step for this same woman to actually get on the plane and take her seat, a window seat right over the wing, so she has an unobstructed view (of the wing). She waits breathlessly for her seatmate to show up—will it be a Bratty Child, a Talkative Woman, or a Lecherous Man (the only choices, she fears)? Bingo, it’s a Bratty Child, a one-and-a-half-year-old boy with a doting mother. Travel Girl’s heart sinks at the thought of spending 5 hours next to an active, much-loved, much-indulged child. The plane starts moving, but 10 minutes later it appears they are going to roll all the way to Massachusetts. Finally—airborne! Now the trip feels like it has officially begun. Mother and Child begin a series of games to keep Child occupied. The first game involves spelling, but while the Mother supplies various consonants for the Child’s edification, the only letters at his command appear to be “I?” “E”? “I?” “E?” spoken with emphasis, volume, and unrelenting regularity, with the counterpoint of Mom’s futile suggestions of “D?” “T?” for at least the first 200 miles. (Are they trying to spell DIET, or am I just paranoid?)

Fortunately, I have read Rob Morse’s column in the Examiner about survival tips for flying. His Number 1 tip is to block out the sounds of children and other living things. So I narrow my focus, concentrating on my book and resigning myself to a cross-country spelling bee. But gradually, I realize that this Mother is actually aware of when her Child is kicking or slobbering on Travel Girl and pulls him gently away. For this I am extremely grateful. It makes all the difference between occasional annoyance and all-out despair. (No, it doesn’t occur to me to interact with the Child, why do you ask?)

The vegan lunch consists of a container the size of a 3 by 5 card with soft, unidentifiable vegetables, an unidentifiable grain, and an unidentifiable sauce. I do, in fact, supplement the official vittles with my bootleg chicken. The Child has fallen asleep, the Vegans have provided me with a cookie that would not be considered edible on land, but something about being airborne—like being in the hospital—makes every little offering a mystery to be unwrapped if not savored. So I nibble on the no-wheat/no-dairy/no-sugar/no-kidding cookie and consider that maybe Traveling isn’t so bad after all. Besides, I’ve got plenty of peanuts.

While I succumb to leaden, Dramamine-induced sleep, time flies—ha ha—and before I know it, it is nighttime and we are approaching Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn. I admit that I have spent a few short moments in the air worrying that I have miscalculated the geography of the eastern states and that when Terry said “Hartford,” she meant someplace called Hartford, Mass., not Hartford, Conn., where I am about to land. But no, it’s the right Hartford, so once again I feel my Travel Karma is right on track.

I wobble and lurch my way down the ramp to greet my friends (I had to take a second Dramamine over Nebraska to be sure that I would remain drugged throughout the flight.) My first words are, “You should be honored—I wouldn’t do this for just anybody.” It’s great and bizarre to see T&J on the other side of the continent—they have always come west—and it’s great and bizarre to be on the other side of the continent. The miracle of flight, to this fledgling Travel Girl, is still a mystery right up there with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Lo and behold, my duffel bag—which I had packed for Y2K seemingly a century ago and then unpacked to put it to actual use on this trip—which was like opening up a time capsule and marveling over the ancient artifacts—the dental floss, bank statements, and pulp fiction, the lost pair of black pants that I had been searching for for weeks—appears in the stream of rotating luggage, and I pluck it out gratefully, one more step of my journey successfully negotiated. We walk out into the cool night air and climb into Jean’s SUV, the first such vehicle I’ve seen that is actually used to navigate wintry dirt roads, not as a status symbol to drive to the grocery store. It’s unseasonably cold, I’m told, but I bought a microfiber jacket for the trip, and I’m snug as the proverbial bug. Planning Girl feels vindicated.

We discuss what to do about food for quite a few miles—it’s 8:00 p.m. for them but only 5:00 for me. (Over the next 3 days I will be constantly pointing out the time difference—“I can’t believe I’m eating lunch at 9:30 a.m.!” “I can’t believe I’m eating dinner at 3:00 p.m.!” What a delightful houseguest I must have been.) We end up at one of my favorite kinds of places, a real, honest-to-God diner. I’m thrilled to be sitting down on a solid chair on solid ground in the company of my friends. Suddenly all things seem possible, even Travel. (That might be partly due to the Coke I had on the plane and again in the diner—caffeine on top of motion-detector-deadening Dramamine makes me feel hopped up on goofballs.) My first moment of culture shock is when I smell the smoke emanating from cigarettes brandished by unrepentant customers in adjoining booths. I feel like such a California purist, not a citizen of the real world at all but coddled and buffered in her home state from Life’s Unpleasant Emissions.

Hmmm—I’m on page 4 and we haven’t even gotten to T&J’s house yet. I think I need to pick up the pace a little bit. Well, I’m thrilled and impressed by their new house—beautiful and spacious, out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by fir trees and reports of mountain lions in the back 40, with a huge dome of stars overhead. I have my own bedroom and my own bathroom. Finally I begin to relax after the months of anxious planning. The whole raison d’etre of the trip comes into focus—travel isn’t just about transportation, it’s about destination. I have successfully left my cocoon and soared across friendly skies to land in a friendly foreign environment. It’s a good feeling.

For those who don’t know them, Terry is an old painting friend—we’ve braved years of Esalen workshops and the intense teacher training together, and she is teaching now. Jean is her partner, whom I had met only a few times before but felt comfortable with instantly. They are like family to me.

After sleeping off the double dose of Dramamine, I awaken at 4:30 a.m. (body time) and try to reconcile the sunlight coming in the window with my creature sense that it should still be dark and (more important) that I should still be asleep. Jean has been called away early for an emergency meeting of a community board she’s on, so Terry and I laze away the morning, catching up on our news, taking a tour of the house, and playing with their new black kitten, a fireball named Gus, whom I rechristen Thugmuffin for his alternately Cuddly-Cute and Hell-on-Paws antics.

Western Massachusetts is a revelation to me—everything so clean and orderly, barely populated (or so it seems), hardly any traffic, cold, clear, and bright, with beautiful greenery everywhere. Shelburne Falls reminds me of my youthful days in Northfield, Minnesota—one of those small towns filled with college-educated folks who take classes in stained glass or stone carving and act in the community plays. I realize that one reason I haven’t liked to travel is that I’m afraid of awakening my desire, of wanting something new that will be inconvenient and require sacrifices. But with T&J I feel both expansive and contained, so it feels safe to fantasize. I let myself imagine who I will have to convince to move with me. (If you think I’m going to name names, you’re crazy.)

I’m excited by everything I see—the “bridge of flowers,” the Art Bank where Terry teaches, the tree-covered hills, and the brick architecture I’d almost forgotten about while living in the far west. T&J seem to know everybody in town. We run into the female owners of Margo’s Bistro, where we’re going to eat that night; their contractor; the head of the Art Bank; the editor of the newspaper. Despite the appeal of the small town, that’s one thing I relearn about myself, that I prefer being anonymous in my daily rounds.

Also, I have to keep reminding myself that it’s fall, my favorite season, and the weather is basically like S.F.’s, only about 10 degrees colder. Easy to fantasize about all-fall-all-the-time and forget the twin tortures of winter and summer. At dinner, we run into a fellow painter, Deanie, who does a satisfying double-take at seeing me transplanted 3,000 miles from the site of our last encounter. I choose tofu and pasta for dinner—as with the airplane vegan lunch, I am making half-hearted strides toward a healthier diet—and the faux-meaty taste of the tofu links reminds me of my earlier attempt at vegetarianism, when the first tofu hot dog I ever tried seemed like a viable option, and the second one proved inedible—some strange chemical reaction, or else my mind catching on to what I was eating. But also, it’s only 3:00 p.m. Pacific time, and my stubborn body has rules about when it will eat what.

That night Terry and I try out their new hot tub—a wonderful shock of liquid body heat in the midst of a cold, starry night—and I don’t know if it’s the tofu or the full day of being introduced to strangers, or the release of tension after months of Travel Girl Planning, but my lower lip starts trembling and my eyes start leaking hot tears into the hot water. As always, I try to figure out what’s wrong, but the beauty of my long friendship with Terry is that there’s a mutual loving acceptance of each other’s idiosyncratic crying patterns, and so the storm comes and goes without very much precipitation and no storm damage at all.

The next day, we drive to Northampton, and I discover that this is my fantasy town. It’s like a small city or a neighborhood in a big city, with lots of colleges in the surrounding area so it’s a beacon of hipness and literary and artistic activity. The book Home Town by Tracy Kidder is about Northampton. I love the downtown with its lovely brick architecture and church spires, its independent bookstores, its cool kids on the street looking much like cool kids everywhere, but in the crisp fall air I am again reminded of my youth in Ann Arbor and Northfield, that carefree time of college and the few postcollege years when earning a living is less important than hanging out with the tribe.

We check out some shops. I buy a souvenir for friends back home and a book for myself and lust after all the things that I never want until I see them—like a cool folk-art car made out of wire. Along with the coveted artifacts are the so-called art forms that defy belief, like the framed paint-by-number pictures of birch-tree-by-the-lake landscapes. We can’t tell if they’re actual paint-by-numbers or are just painted to look like them, in some new-millennial campy homage to the “folk art” of the mid-20th century. Irony so ironic that it’s indistinguishable from the real thing.

Speaking of food (weren’t we?), we eat a wonderful dinner at Mulino’s, a little Italian restaurant. My head is full of the pictures of me living there, in that small arty city, my computer and my cat all I’d need to make a cozy home from which to run my editing business. Once again, I have to remind myself of the Impossible Seasons that were one (two) of the reasons I moved to California in the first place.

The third day passes in a flash of talks and walks and more food and meeting some of their friends. Sunday morning it’s all too soon time to pack up and put my travel plans in reverse. Gus Thugmuffin “helps” me unmake the bed and pack my duffel bag—he cuddles up in the bag at one point, in his Cute As a Button persona, but besides the fact that T&J would surely miss him, Pookie would never approve. We take a last walk down their country road, watching geese land in the newly cut-down cornfield, me inhaling the final eastern smells before returning home.

Before I know it, I’m plunged into Airport World once again. I’ve been especially worried about the trip home, because I have to change planes in Chicago. Also, there is only going to be a “snack” between Hartford and Chicago and then nothing until “dinner” between Chicago and S.F. But the snack turns out to be a box lunch of white chickenlike substance on a white doughy bun, so that provides bulk, and once again I’m saved by a cookie. My seatmate is a taciturn woman who is either as unsocial as I am or is terrified to fly, because she only starts babbling when we land safely in Chicago.

This is getting boring, and there’s no more food worth talking about, so let’s skip ahead, shall we? I arrive in S.F. and spend an anxious half hour trying to get from the new international terminal to the north terminal. (Somehow we and the baggage have landed in two different places.) I survive the interminable bus ride from the airport to Larkspur Landing, pay for my parking, drag my luggage to my car—thrilled that it hasn’t been vandalized—and as I drive home at 11:00 “real time”—“real time” is now East Coast time, and I have no idea when I made that particular adaptation—I feel like a subject in a physics experiment. If my destination = x, then I am always at x – y. It may just be the Dramamine again, but it’s as if time has stopped and there exists only space—more and more space between me and home.

But the physics of everyday life prevails, and I am allowed to arrive home. First thing I do is call Pookie, and after a long pause, he comes bumping hesitantly down the stairs, meowing weakly. Five days in solitary confinement has aged him. He comes and sniffs me and the duffel bag, finding indisputable olfactory evidence of Gus Thugmuffin. It’s like being caught with lipstick on my collar.

Seventeen e-mails await me—10 of them spam. Oh well. It’s good to be home, but it’s disconcerting that I’m not desperately grateful to be in my own world again. I mean, I’m glad to be on solid ground, to have the Travel portion of the program come to an end, but I guess I learned that it’s possible to partake of someone else’s world and not give up my own—to take my center with me instead of treating it like a major appliance I can only plug in at home. Viva Travel Girl! Where will she go next??

big dyke with a blue head

Well, I could take my happy ending and stop right there, but life has an annoying habit of changing right when you have everything just the way you want it. After I’d been home for a few days, I lapsed into a deep depression, or deepressionTM, with a soupçon of smoldering anger. I spent a lot of time lying in bed watching TV and talking back to annoying sit-com characters. I was practically on suicide watch—had to get rid of all my belts and shoelaces. (Pause while I laugh maniacally.)

I was having all sorts of physical symptoms—stomach, foot, hip, you name it. I wanted to smother my sorrows in food, but I was still trying to follow the blood type diet. I had managed to change only a couple of things—drinking soy milk on puffed rice instead of cow’s milk on Grape Nuts Flakes. I don’t think this a revolutionary diet change makes.

When I saw J next, I could barely drag myself in the door. I was dressed all in black—color-coordinating my mood. I don’t like going to therapy when I feel that way, because I’m afraid she’ll get all chipper and practical on me, and I find both of those things hard to handle when I’ve already decided I have nothing to live for.

J asked how long I’d been feeling depressed.

“… Since I talked to the psychic.”

J, bless her heart, laughed. I love that about her—no poker face. I had to laugh myself, then, despite my black mood. We decided it was the perfect beginning to a short story—if only I were a fiction writer, which I’m not. I sobered up quick. I hadn’t planned to tell her about it, it was too embarrassing.

[I had called this person, a “medical intuitive,” about my stomach symptoms, just in case there was something the doctor and the surgeon had missed. She can give people readings over the phone, she said, because she “doesn’t believe in time and space”—she only needs your name to “locate you in the universe.” I’m thinking, “So there’s no time and space, but there are names?” The psychic was silent for a while, tuning into my frequency, and then she said my “adrenals had lit up,” and she rattled off names and dosages of several vitamins and various concoctions I should be taking. She also said that my back and shoulder muscles are constricted and pressing on the vagus nerve, which goes down to the top of the stomach. She said this was “psychologically caused by hiding, holing up in yourself.” Now if this isn’t a perfect description of me, I don’t know what is, but I contend she could have got that information just from my terse replies to her questions. If you look up the word “monosyllabic” in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of me.]

A few days before, while sleeping the afternoon away, I’d dreamed about a woman with a shaved head whose whole head, including face, was dyed bright blue and had colorful tattoos all over it. In the dream, I thought she was strangely beautiful, but I wondered what she would do if she ever had to get a real job. The paint and tattoos were indelible—there was no going back. J pointed out that this was the part of me that I try to keep hidden—my exuberant dancing, painting self—and that I should focus on bringing that part out, rather than following depressive thoughts down the rabbit hole.

The thought of coming out of myself is terribly threatening—is it because my mother burst any bubble of exuberance that floated to the surface? J says the “why” is no mystery, but understanding is not enough. The important thing is to undo the somatic patterns. So we worked on that a bit—organizing and disorganizing the clenched fists, which reflexively returned to their clenching as soon as the exercise was over.

Throughout the session there had been noise coming from all directions, and it became impossible to ignore. There seemed to be a Noisy Man Convention coming and going in the hall outside the office. Someone in the construction company upstairs was banging on the floor as if trying to break through J’s ceiling. Loud motorcycles and cars revved up in the street right outside the window. I decided it was synchronicity in the classic sense—as in Jung’s story of the woman who was telling him her dream about a scarab beetle, and a scarab beetle came flying in the window. If there is no time and space but I am a name locatable in the universe, then it makes sense that I could be projecting all the inner noise of my body and mind into the surrounding landscape. A frivolous idea, perhaps, but no more so than many others I entertain.

At the end of the session, to get some energy moving before I left, J had me do some karate punches in the air. Usually, I “express” anger with a grunt and a muttered expletive. It felt good to be doing something physical, even if J wouldn’t let me use her as a punching bag. My assignment for the week was dancing, singing, deep breathing—movement of any kind. I promised her I’d start doing Taebo again. (Note to self….)

Afterward, feeling much better, I—no, I don’t go for a hike or run around the park—I treat myself to a beef taco and a margarita at Las Camellias and then stop for some Ben & Jerry’s on the way home. Plenty of time to start my exuberance training tomorrow. I watch “Freaks and Geeks,” stay up till midnight listening to “Loveline,” and feel just a little bit closer to being human.

***

But the good mood doesn’t last. The next day, I walk to the gas station to buy a Chronicle, and as I go to step off the curb—with the WALK sign flashing—a car screeches to a halt in front of me, half in the crosswalk. I veer around the car, thinking how close I may have come to being creamed, but before I can thank the universe for saving my life, the driver snarls, “You big dyke!” My stomach drops, but I ignore him, hoping he thinks I didn’t hear. My insides are like jelly, and I wonder why I let things like that bother me. Is it my own shame I’m reacting to? If he yelled “You big Democrat!” with the same snide tone, would I feel the same way? Obviously not.

I scurry home to my safe haven—if a big dyke can be said to scurry—and think about my dream of the woman with the blue head and colorful, indelible tattoos—the one who has put herself out there, who can’t get a real job anymore, who can’t go back. Is that person really inside me? And if she is, why am I hiding her, and what good is it doing me? If you’re already a big dyke, is it that much of a stretch to show off your blue head?

For the next two hours, I can’t stop thinking about that man and his casual insult. At first, I can only feel the shame of being different, of being despised by the world. But gradually the alchemy that began in the therapy session starts to do its magic, and I feel a stirring from within. I start to get pissed off. “Thank you, Mister Man,” I say, “for your succinct commentary. I hope you think I was on my way home to jump in bed with a beautiful woman. I hope I’m somehow a threat to your pathetic manhood, that you can’t stand to know there are women like me out here loose in the world.” As my chest inflates, my fists curl up. I sock the air. Take that, and that! I wake up inside. For once, I feel like a big dyke with a blue head—strangely beautiful—indelible—and I can’t go back.

[Mary McKenney]


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