mary’zine random redux: #18 November 2001

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]

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