Archive for January, 2010

mary’zine random redux: #6 August 2000

January 28, 2010

I’m having a really hard time writing this issue. I have lots of ideas, images, some great analogies, but they’re scattered around my brain like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle—where the puzzle is of a polar bear in a snowstorm—or, more appropriately, a can of worms that someone has unwisely opened and now worms, worms everywhere. I’m blaming the chaos on my current state of caffeine deficiency, but I’ll be really depressed if I get through the withdrawal period and still can’t rub two thoughts together to make a fire.

As everyone knows, the way to start a jigsaw puzzle is to find and snap together all the straight-edged pieces so you at least have a frame of the picture. That’s supposed to be the easy part. But unfortunately, life doesn’t come with straight-edged pieces—or in a box with a picture of itself on the cover, for that matter—so I’m just going to have to wing it.

***

In what universe is caffeine not a drug? —Jon Carroll, S.F. Chronicle

I’m on the coffee wagon. I mean, not the latte and bagel kind, but the metaphorical kind you fall off of. The other night, I was sitting here at the computer at 12:30 a.m., feeling ridiculous. I tried to go one whole day without ingesting caffeine in any form, and I almost made it. But I spent the day nodding off in front of “Oral and Pharyngeal Reflexes in the Mammalian Nervous System”; taking frequent breaks and three (3) naps; growing a headache as the day progressed, until I couldn’t stand it anymore—knowing relief was as close as the little green plastic bottle on my desk—and swallowed two Excedrin at 9:00 p.m. (Excedrin contains 65 mg of caffeine.) Of course, my headache disappeared, I became euphoric, and I was wide awake in the middle of the night wondering if there’s such a thing as Caffeine Anonymous.

I’ve tried quitting before—usually when my stomach is bothering me and I’ve narrowed the list of culprits down to one. The withdrawal is brutal… the headaches, the depression, the logy feeling that lingers all day…. So before I know it, I’m sneaking an Excedrin or two for the caffeine hit. I say “sneaking” even though there’s no one here to care—Pookie, knowing which side his cat food is buttered on, turns a blind eye to my drug habit. But when I’m falling asleep at my desk, or the headache is driving me crazy, or I don’t want to live, I have to concoct a good enough rationalization to drown out the little voice that says, “If you stick it out, you’ll feel better eventually.”

It’s the same thing with food. The part of me that thinks I shouldn’t have the forbidden fruit (+sugar+pastry) is easily overpowered. I’m like the classic 99-pound weakling on the beach. But instead of the bully kicking sand in my face, he comes along with a dessert cart. “Oh no!” I squeal, “Don’t make me eat that cherry pie!” And so I get to put on my little show—“I really shouldn’t!”—before succumbing to the inevitable.

I’ve been known to come up with a pretty good rationalization—“If I don’t eat (drink/take) it now, I’ll just keep thinking about it, and I know I’m going to eat (drink/take) it anyway, so I might as well get it over with so I can get some work done.” What’s the rebuttal to that? There is none, except “I really shouldn’t.” So I’ll say, “Good one, Mare!,” and it actually makes me feel better about what I’m about to do. I know it’s a trick, but I’m half-convinced in spite of myself. And half is plenty.

I’m not the only one who’s ever thought of the Excedrin solution. One day I was with a friend, nutritionally correct in most things, who asked her kids after lunch, “Who wants an Excedrin?” I laughed my head off (OK, I smiled), and she looked a little miffed, as if she thought I was judging her, but in fact I was just relieved to know I was not the only one who used Excedrin as a pick-me-up. I wonder about the kids, though. Aren’t parents usually trying to calm them down?

So one day I’m sitting there with the Excedrin bottle in front of me, weighing my options, and I’m not sure if I should take a whole one, in case it bothers my stomach. My compromise is to take half—which is like deciding to eat half a cookie, the ultimate in self-delusion—can the other half be far behind? So I tap one lonely little pill with the big E on it out of the bottle onto my desk, and with a paring knife I attempt to cut it in half, hoping not to (a) crush it into a powder or (b) send pieces of it careening around the room. At that moment I feel two things. One: I am every bit as creepy and desperate as someone shooting up heroin with trembling fingers. And two: I am ridiculous, centering my addiction drama on a substance that is socially acceptable and readily available in liquid, pill, or capsule form. Good thing I haven’t had much exposure to the hard stuff. WILL YOU JUST TAKE THE DAMN PILL?, the bully cries out in frustration. So I do.

***

It all started with my mother. (And what didn’t?) She saw coffee drinking as a sign of maturity—so much so that the switch from milk to coffee as one’s primary beverage denoted a coming-of-age, a kind of Lutheran bat mitzvah.

From the time I went off to college, my mother would ask me every time I came home, “Do you drink coffee yet?” I’d say no, and she would sigh; what a disappointment I was. Of course I didn’t mention that I was drinking scotch on the rocks and smoking marijuana on a regular basis—oh yes, I’m an adult, substance-ingestion-wise, don’t you worry about that, Mom.

When I finally took the plunge into caffeine dependency, in my late 20s, I was pleased to make the announcement on my next visit home: “YES, I’ll have coffee!” My mother heaved a sign of relief—her little girl had become a woman at last. That’s when I discovered that her coffee was so weak as to be undrinkable. I took to leaving the house early in the morning on some pretext so I could go down to the donut shop for my daily fix. The coffee was pretty pedestrian by Starbucks’ standards, but it did the job. And to this day, I prefer coffee shop coffee to the fancy stuff. You can take the girl out of the U.P….

Come to think of it, I gave up hard liquor and marijuana years ago, but the bearded, turbaned man on the red Hills Bros. can still calls to me. Mom would be proud.

***

So… I was going crazy, playing these little games with myself—I’ll just have 0.75 of an Excedrin today, or two-thirds of a cup of coffee, or some other ridiculous copout, and I finally gave myself over to my higher power—my therapist, J. (Just kidding, J!) And she made a practical suggestion. Usually, I hate practical suggestions; I’d rather analyze the problem to death. But I was willing to listen when I heard the magic words, “This will keep you from getting headaches.” The suggestion was to drink green tea until I get through the withdrawal period. I knew I needed more help than that, so I pushed her to be more directive with me. My fantasy was that she would march over to my house and take the coffee mug or the Excedrin bottle right out of my hand if she suspected I was cheating. J was not about to play Attila the Hun with me, but she agreed that she would like me to quit and that she’d be disappointed if I didn’t give the green tea a fair trial, but it wouldn’t affect our relationship. I latched on to that word, “disappointed.” The desire not to disappoint (the mother figure) is a powerful motivator.

So I embarked upon my withdrawal. The tea helped, but of course, the little bit of caffeine I got from it didn’t work any magic. As J had warned, “It will keep you from getting headaches, but it won’t make you HIGH.” And yet, to me, HIGH is the whole point! I wonder if people who drink this stuff for pleasure have ever tried coffee.

***

Making a cup of green tea, I stop the war. —Stephen Levine

In his book Healing into Life and Death, Stephen Levine has a chapter called “Stopping the War,” by which he means being present in each moment rather than waiting for the next thing to happen. “Waiting is war. Impatience is war. The moment is unsatisfactory, and there is no peace to be found.”

He describes the act of making a pot of green tea without waiting, without wanting something more than this moment:

Watching, noticing, tasting the desire for tea as the hand extends to the teapot. Feeling the cold metal of the teapot handle in the warm flesh of the hand. Feeling the texture of the handle…. Feeling the floor beneath your feet as you walk to the sink.

He goes on like this for two pages.

…feeling the changes in the musculature of the arms as the pot is tilted toward the cup….

By this point I want to scream. This is not how making green tea makes me feel. After all, I’m only in it for the 25 mg of caffeine. I’m caught ‘twixt the words of spiritually unredemptive coffee and life-affirming, war-stopping tea, wanting the one, dutifully sipping the other, but resisting the precious awareness of every bend of knee or touch of metal on flesh on bone….

Finally, he asks, “Reading this story, do you stop the war, or do you continue it?” And I say, “Damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead!”

***

I can resist everything except temptation. —Oscar Wilde

My twin “addictions”—food and caffeine—go together like–well, like pie and coffee. Maybe it’s stretching it to call them addictions—technically, caffeine doesn’t cause addiction, just dependency. And you do need food to live—but possibly not chocolate éclairs. But there’s some sort of compulsion going on here.

It makes me feel like a big weenie to be so lacking in willpower. Driving home from the supermarket, so many times I “come to” and realize that, whereas I went to the store to get, say bing cherries (a healthy snack), I have come out with a four-pack of Frappuccino, blackberry scones, and a bag of “99% fat-free “ (yeah, right) potato chips. What’s surprising about this is that I’m always surprised—astonished, really, that I could have such resolve on the way there and then just somehow gloss over the moment when my hand plucks up the brownie or the peanut butter cookie and plops it into my basket, while my eyes—silent co-conspirators with the hand—turn away like a security guard friendly to the local pickpockets. “Hm? What? How did those chocolate muffins get in there?”

This is denial at its best. This is denial as an art form. This is grabbing the Renoir right out from under the museum guard’s nose. This is ridiculous.

I try to tell myself in advance to be “present” during those moments of temptation, as though I could transform myself into a good little Buddhist and be just so gosh-darned self-aware that I wouldn’t even want those goodies anymore. (I saw a bumper sticker, “Do something that would make the Buddha happy,” and I thought, Would it make the Buddha happy if I refrained from eating anything fattening today? Didn’t think so.)

But telling myself to be present is like going into battle armed with a feather. I saw this with my own eyes one day when I witnessed the telltale moment. As I stood at the deli counter waiting for my quarter pound of ham to be sliced, my eyes drifted down to a dazzling array of individually wrapped desserts that looked up at me like—well, I was going to say, like kittens begging to be taken home from the shelter, each mewing and romping and competing for my attention—but no, their appeal was less innocent, more lascivious… moist hunks of carrot cake with their voluptuous, creamy white icing… deep-dish fruit pies spilling their luscious juices out from between golden latticework crusts… lemon bars so thickly yellow, so purely lemony that I started salivating on the spot—and I watched myself pick up—yes, the lemon bar—and drop it into my basket. As I did so, I said to myself, “Yes, that’s how it works. The hand just puts it in the basket. Nothing could be simpler.” No guilt, no rationalization, just a bow to the inevitable. My kingdom come, my will be done, on earth as it is in Andronico’s.

So self-awareness hasn’t helped me yet. And policing myself definitely doesn’t work; it’s just playing one side off the other, and I have a feeling the criminal mind thrives on the game of cops and robbers.

I think it must be the reptilian part of my brain—we all have one, don’t look at me like that—that is responsible. It’s so old, so primitive, so “Me want cookie NOW” as it defies the more civilized neural add-ons, the Johnny-come-latelies with their grandiose ideas about deferred gratification. What’s deferred instead is the inevitable moment when She Who Made the Decision Not To Eat Dessert Today wakes up and wonders, “What happened?”

I was in the grocery store the other day and saw a mother and daughter in the coffee and tea aisle. The mother was standing in front of a huge display of Slim Fast (located conveniently across from the cookies). The daughter asked, “You drink that stuff?” and the mother said, “I’m going to try it.” I looked at her. She must have been a size 3—or a 2, if they have 2’s. She needed Slim Fast like I need a hole in the head. But it made me realize I’m not the only one who experiences grocery shopping as positively primeval—all those deep cookie instincts aligned against the forces of self-deprivation, American-style.

My mother looked down on alcoholics, as if their weakness before the bottle were a moral failing. She never made the connection with her own weakness before a lemon meringue pie. I make the connection but wonder what good it does me.

***

When I saw J again, 2 weeks into my caffeine withdrawal, I fully expected her to praise and commiserate with me. I didn’t really know where the conversation would go from there, but my agenda was definitely similar to that of a cat who brings home a dead mouse and drops it lovingly at the feel of her mistress.

To my surprise, J had bigger fish for me to fry; she had never cared that much about the caffeine drama in the first place. I was the one who had pushed her to play Mommy. She matter-of-factly took in the information that I had lasted the 2 weeks, but she was more interested in what lay beneath the surface. She wanted me to see that my energy doesn’t come from outside, from a substance, that there are other ways to get it—breathing, movement, etc. I was mostly into being a victim—so tired all the time now, blah blah blah. She was challenging my belief that I was nothing without the artificial high. And I was all: “Leave me alone, I’m going to be depressed for the rest of my life. If only I could drink COFFEE, waaaaah.”

After the session, as I was winding my way tearfully through Albany to the freeway, I childishly planned how I was going to go straight home and make a pot of coffee. “Oh, she doesn’t care, does she? Well, I’ll show HER.” I dimly realized that this was ridiculous, but I let myself indulge in my little revenge fantasy. A lot can happen between Berkeley and San Rafael.

Sure enough—somewhere over the Richmond-San Rafael bridge, I got it. It really isn’t about the caffeine! All the drama I manufacture around substances is a diversionary tactic that has no value. The point isn’t the means by which I run away from myself, it’s the fact that I run away from myself.

When I focus all my attention on the battle between indulgence and deprivation—the elusive high and its inevitable aftermath of penance—I can’t see where my energy really comes from, where desire and meaning come from.

I wanted caffeine to be the substitute for my own life energies. When that didn’t work anymore, I wanted J to embalm me in her unconditional positive regard. I wanted her to take away the pain, I wanted her to stop the war. I didn’t want to see myself as the kamikaze pilot of my own life.

We’re in green tea territory now.

And yet—as soon as I got home—I made a pot of coffee. My motive was no longer to spite J; I just had a dim feeling that I needed to test my insights. You could argue that a purer test would have been to do without, but too bad—you weren’t there. I drank one cup, and I got my long-awaited “high,” but I knew even as I was feeling the wired energy erupt in my veins—It’s not about this! It’s just a physiological thing!—what it does to me when I drink it, how I feel when I don’t, but it’s not the truth about my life. I have more important things to think about! This drama is not worthy of me! Imagine if Shakespeare wrote all his plays about whether to have a cup of coffee or not and had no time left to be or not to be!

***

Well I won’t have to chop no wood, I can be bad or I can be good, I can be any way that I feel, one of these days. —Emmy Lou Harris

It’s not as if this insight gave me an instantaneous feeling of peace and purpose, but sometimes the war slows down a bit. Midmorning, I take a break from my work—a paper about hospital statistics written by an Austrian doctor (you haven’t lived…)—and sit out on the sunny patio in a lawn chair with my feet up, drinking my tea and watching Pookie roll on his back or nibble leaves. At times, the scent of honeysuckle or a whiff of the ocean fills all four of our nostrils, and we both put our noses up in the air, catching the perfumey breeze. Pookie occasionally hunkers down by the fence, straining to see under it, as though calculating how much dirt he’d have to displace to make his escape (a lot). These moments of grace are rare, but when they come, I try to enjoy them. Try to keep from hunkering down under my own (self-created) fence, plotting my own escape. Try to make the Buddha happy.

parallel what?

Did you see the article in the paper about the new theory in physics? I was too lazy to cut it out, and now it’s gone to recycling—but the idea was that there are parallel universes next to ours that are sort of folded over one another like a ham sandwich (??? I distinctly remember the ham sandwich part—of course—but I’m not sure how the metaphor works). All these universes exist just nano-somethings away from us, but we can’t perceive them.

This comes pretty close to some of my own theories, if I do say so myself.

The most chilling—or thrilling—part of the article was that we might all be on this side of an infinitesimally thin membrane that separates us (doing our innocent grocery shopping in a clean, well-lighted place for food) from the bottom of the ocean floor of a completely alien universe. My heart practically leaped out of my chest when I read that. To me this is scary-exciting and a lot more believable than little green men with big heads flying around in saucers.

The physicist quoted in the article seemed to think that this theory, if true, is on a par with humans finding out the sun doesn’t orbit the earth, that we are not the center of the universe, but indeed even smaller and less significant than we thought. But I have a different take on it. The idea of these ham-sandwich universes makes me feel BIG, like I’m an integral part of something massively weird and strange and powerful—like a surfer who may look like a meaningless dot at the mercy of the huge waves but who embodies that power and mystery and is energized by it.

In fact, I’m getting my “high” right now from contemplating that mystery, from writing about it. It’s a feeling of elation that comes from way down deep. (Do you think every cell has its own universal counterpart of cellular ham sandwichness?)

Without the caffeine crutch, I feel like I’m scrabbling along on the ocean floor of my own weird universe—but it’s my universe, it’s my ham to some unimaginable parallel slice of bread—the universe(s) encompassed in a food metaphor, I love it!

***

You don’t really think I’m going to put all those puzzle pieces together at the end here, do you? The magician pulls the rabbit out of a hat, but you don’t ask him to stuff it back in. The can of worms, the raging battlefield, the coffee, the food, Mom, my relationship with J, the universal deli—I mean, dilemma— Stop me before I metamorphize again, I mean metaphorize. I’m out of control, it’s true. The can of worms I mentioned early on is spilling in all directions. And as Hemingway said, if a can of worms is opened on page 1, the worms had better be dispersed by the end of the story. Actually, he was talking about a shotgun, but I’m sure it’s the same principle.

Well, it’s not going to happen. It’s all worm soup at this point. (Though I must interject that our physicist friend John told us the worm was the first creature to have a heart—precursor of our own—so we owe an enormous debt to our squiggly brothers and sisters.) There’s no grand snapped-together puzzle or theory that will finally vindicate and explain our lives. I love explanations, but they don’t help me live in my own wormy heart.

I have reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland. —Paul Simon

I don’t know if we die and meet up with the old folks in the light at the end of the tunnel, or we slip through the nano-thin veil and join the new world order of a whole different universe. Regardless of our final destination, I suspect we don’t have to be thin or caffeine-free to go there. And if Graceland is right here, right now, I’d better get to work on stopping that damn war.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #5 June 2000

January 28, 2010

Life has been so full lately. You got your broken eyeglasses, you got your vandalized car antenna, your lump in the armpit, your continued gastrointestinal disturbance without a gallbladder to blame it on, your “area of concern” on the latest mammogram, your carpal tunnel toe. You got your endless tome on immunopathology to edit, your continually crashing Internet connection, your hairball-expectorating cat, your estimated taxes due. You got your iron-poor blood—can’t even give it away.

In the plus column…. let me think…. well, the lump was nothing…. and I expect the “area of concern” will be nothing, too. (I’m reminded of one of my father’s favorite songs: “I got plenty a nothin’, and nothin’s plenty for me…”)…. and I survived the latest heat wave, which only lasted about a day and a half but felt like forever. It was easily 100 degrees upstairs where I spend most of my time—95 degrees on the downstairs thermostat, and as I walked up the stairs it was like going from the frying pan into the fire. I was so concerned for my computer that I shut it down around 5 p.m., a personal sacrifice on my part since it meant no more e-mail for the rest of the day. I tried to think how to cool off Pookie, but I couldn’t figure out the logistics. One enormous, hydrophobic cat versus me and a cold, wet towel? Forget it. Then, to my surprise, the heater came on! I thought maybe it had a secret air-conditioning feature that only kicked in when you really, really needed it—like a special surprise from the manufacturer. But the air coming out of the vents was hot, and the temperature went up another 5 degrees in 15 minutes. I had visions of being cooked in my own 3-bedroom oven by a furnace gone berserk. So I called PG&E, and they told me it was just the fan and how to turn it off. I slept on my big purple couch downstairs until 4 a.m., woke up with a complaining back, and grudgingly ascended to the still-stifling second floor to get a few more winks before the sun came up to torture me again. Did I mention I don’t like the heat? And my friend Barbara, whose motto is “No such thing as too hot,” is over there in f-f-frigid San Francisco, coveting what is making me miserable. Life is strange.

on hearing robert pinsky, poet laureate, read his poem “to television” on television

With all my petty and sundry complaints, I’ve been rather depressed, and my self-medication, in addition to the obvious quadrumvirate (it’s a real word—I’m as surprised as you are) of caffeine, sugar, salt, and fat, often takes the form of watching TV for hours at a time, zoning out with the remote in my hand, clicking away, creating my own diverse programming, the endless loop of odd and compelling snippets that I race through from channel 42 (Bay TV) down to 2 (Fox) and back again. I know where all the treasures are likely to be buried, so I hurry past the C-SPAN and foreign-language channels between 28 and 21 hoping to find anything but another John Candy movie on Comedy Central. Often, of course, the channels that are most likely to produce an amusing divertissement are showing commercials when I click by, but no worries, I’ll get back to them in the next go-round.

I can’t deny that I often get into a zombified state doing this, especially if the pickin’s are slim, as on Friday or Saturday nights. I’ll find myself watching things I would never choose to watch, simply because I landed on the channel and some small shiny-object-of-a-detail catches my attention and holds me until I realize I’ve been sitting there for 5 minutes watching liquefied fat being drained out of a man’s body and rising inexorably in a glass jar, and some dim shred of self-respect fights its way up from the depths and I click onward.

But the tendency of the cable channels to rerun everything to death provides unexpected benefits when they’re rerunning something I’d like to see again—like the guitarist Laurence Juber playing a mesmerizing version of “I Saw Her Standing There,” which I caught four times. I think that’s the record, but it’s amazing how many times I’ll come upon a rerun of a show I’ve never seen in its entirety and they’re showing the same scene I saw 2 weeks or 6 months before—giving me the eerie feeling that I’m in a Twilight Zone episode in which a socially isolated woman becomes so attached to the remote that she becomes the rerun while the TV watches her.

You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery channel. —The Bloodhound Gang

If you are what you eat, then you probably are what you watch, too, which may or may not explain my delight in happening twice upon an otherwise forgettable movie right at the scene where a 13-year-old boy is masturbating Laura Dern, the actress who played Ellen DeGeneres’s girlfriend in the coming-out episode, to a crashing orgasm. Now that was a great example of TV viewing as a found-art form. (I prefer that term to “channel surfing,” which is so, I don’t know, pre-Internet.) I haven’t seen much else of a sexual nature that appeals to me, including the barely dressed young women on MTV’s ubiquitous spring vacations. As Ronald Reagan famously said about the redwoods, you see one (thong bikini), you’ve seen ‘em all. And I don’t know what the Bloodhound Gang is watching on the Discovery channel, but I’m picky about which mammals I choose to see in compromising positions. But let’s leave the topic of how polymorphous is my perversity and move on to satisfactions of a higher nature.

What really makes it worth trilling up and down this do-re-mi scale of continually renewing imagery is that sometimes I’m jolted out of the mindless loop of political talking heads, music videos, so-called reality shows (“reality” being defined as human criminality, degradation, stupidity, or emergency), old obscure movies, new obscure movies, quiz shows, nature shows (Pookie enjoys seeing the close-ups—2-foot-high hummingbirds filling the screen as his eyes widen in wonder), late-20th-century sitcoms that have ascended to the perpetual motion machine of syndication, early-21st-century sitcoms that will never ever be shown again if there is a God, so-called women’s programming that seems to specialize in rape and child snatching as if nothing else could possibly be of interest to the fairer sex, proof of the origins of the universe and/or the existence of aliens in our midst (science fact/science fiction—equally implausible), biographies of increasingly obscure celebrities and reformed rock ‘n’ roll druggies, infomercials touting the yin-yang of gadgets for losing weight and other gadgets for making the food you shouldn’t eat taste better, screaming talk shows, news news news, sports sports sports, earnest pledge drives, stock market analyses, legal analyses, weddings, live births, continual retellings of Janet Reno’s or Bill Clinton’s latest exploits, and—BAM—unexpectedly, I’ll come upon Adrienne Rich, Fran Lebowitz, or Molly Ivins casting their pearls before swine (oink oink), or Coleman Barks speaking his version of the words of Rumi from 8 centuries ago, or Emmy Lou Harris singing “The Price You Pay,” something in her heartbreaking voice reminding me of my father and making me weep uncontrollably, or Drew Carey, dumb old comedian, on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, winning $500,000 for the libraries of his childhood, or stories of gay couples, struggling farmers, or black kids in the projects, and it’s all worth it, I get to laugh or cry or be mesmerized by the beauty of the human heart. This is true interactive television. Human contact is where you find it, and where I’m finding it in this moment is listening to the poet laureate of the U S of A read his tribute to the small screen (“Homey miracle, tub/Of acquiescence, vein of defiance”), from Sid Caesar to Oprah Winfrey, as he finds life and legitimacy in this most scorned form of American media, followed by a poem about Jesus that has me reeling, not the Bible story Jesus but a powerful evocation of this centuries-old mystery by a Jewish poet master, and I am stunned by the brilliance of human thought and language and the sheer ubiquity of divine love and fully glad to be alive.

swelled head

I saw a few of my friends from the painting group soon after the first issue of the mary’zine came out, and they told me how much they loved it and how much they looked forward to the next one. I was on cloud nine.

The next day I went out for groceries, and when I got home I noticed I had a little headache. The headache kept building, even after I took some aspirin. It felt sharper and more persistent than my usual sort of headache, and the worse it got, the more my mind went reeling in the direction of “brain aneurysm.” I even had some imagined genetic justification for this, because my uncle Ronnie died of one. I learned about his death in the usual way. I came home from school one day and immediately headed down the hall to my room. My father stopped me in my tracks with: “You know your uncle Ronnie?” I knew immediately he was dead. In my family, every death is announced with that ominous preface: “You know your aunt Edith? You know your friend Francis?” Anyway, he said Uncle Ronnie, who was barely 40 years old, went bowling one night, came home complaining of a headache, and was dead within hours.

Headache or no, I had work to do, so I sat down to edit a chapter called “Sizes of the Escherichia coli and Human Genomes.” With one part of my brain, I pondered the ponderous prose, and with another part, I planned my memorial service and all the wonderful things my friends would say about me. I thought how cruel it was that I would die so young (if 53 can still be considered young, and I think it can), with just one issue of the mary’zine off the presses—hardly a major mark to have left on the world.

I was thinking all this as matter-of-factly as if I were composing a grocery list—while continuing to make little superscript marks and deletions and coding the headings for the printer—spending possibly my last day on earth trying to decide such weighty matters as whether to use caps or lowercase for the index entries. And I wondered if maybe all those nice comments of my friends the night before had literally gone to my head, swelling it beyond endurance. Maybe I would be the first person to actually die of self-aggrandizement. I happened to be listening to bluegrass gospel music at the time (what—you thought I was an opera buff?), and Ralph Stanley was singing, “Jesus on the mainline, tell ‘im what you want to,” and I thought, “Jesus? Is that you? Are you a-comin’?”

I’m so curious about death—what it’s going to be like, how and when it will come. I’m fascinated by news stories of sudden death, especially when it could have been me… like the woman driving on 101 in Marin whose car was smashed by a truck that fell over the side of the overpass…. or the woman who was killed on the Golden Gate Bridge when a man having an epileptic seizure crossed the center line and hit her head on. I’m not so curious that I want to kill myself to find out—don’t get me wrong—but I’ll be very interested to see if I wake up from this life as from a dream. There’s so much we don’t know about consciousness (like—everything). The physical world is so incredibly detailed and complex that consciousness itself—the dreamer that created this world and creates our experience every moment—must be even more so.

A hundred years ago, Einstein proved that the world is not what it seems. The physics of Newton’s time—the falling apples, the balls rolling down boards, the feathers dropping from towers—was forever changed. Yet most of us still think of ourselves as separate entities moving around in the obvious three-dimensional world of our senses. Except for the crazy goings-on in outer space or down at the subatomic level, what we see seems to be what we get. You push me, I fall down go boom. But despite how solid our tables and chairs, our roads, the earth itself may seem, science tells us that the molecules that make up these things are only miniscule nonentities—now a wave, now a particle—spinning in vast regions of space relative to each other. There is literally no there there.

It’s as if we play-act our drama called Life on a remarkable stage set—so multidimensional, so convincing, so bloody real. But what if all this glorious detail exists only at a certain frequency—just as we tune in our radios and TVs to receive transmissions that exist only on that channel or at that position of the dial at that precise time of day? We have become inured to technology, we think nothing of watching events on TV that are taking place half a world away—we know that the New Year’s Eve celebration we’re seeing in London is not happening in our living rooms; and if we see a replay of the same event the next day, we know it is now “in the past.” And these tricks of space and time have been created by us barely evolved humans—imagine what consciousness itself is doing!

What if our senses are the filters that allow us to distinguish only the “things” of this frequency—just as we see a solid oak desk in front of us and not a bunch of swirling electrons? Death may be just the turning of the dial to one of an infinite number of other frequencies, other “realities,” other universes with their own laws, their own physics, their own variety of consciousness. And dreaming may be our practice for encountering these other realities.

***

OK, let’s come back to earth for a little bit. When my mother was dying, I stayed alone in her house for two weeks—she was in the hospital in a kind of waking coma; that is, she couldn’t communicate, and we couldn’t tell if she understood what we said to her. Also, she would cry at almost anything. I had lots of dreams during that time, some of them involving earthquakes and waterfalls—pretty obvious images for the emotional turmoil I was feeling. One night I dreamed I was in bed, in the room I was actually in, and I wondered about my father alone in my parents’ room—Who was taking care of him now that my mother was in the hospital? I went in there (still in the dream), and he was sitting up in bed, looking absolutely beautiful. He said, “I’m healing,” and my heart melted. When I saw my mother the next day (in waking life), I told her the dream. When she cried, I had no way of knowing if she understood, or if the tears were a result of the cancer touching into some emotional center in her brain.

My father had been dead for 20 years. Was the dream image really him, finally healing after a lifetime of strife and illness? Or was time healing my relationship with him? Or was it my mother, one parent removed, borrowing his image to convey the knowledge that she was “healing into death,” in Stephen Levine’s phrase?

The morning after my mother died, I woke up with a feeling of ecstasy. It’s hard to explain, and it didn’t last, but in the peaceful relief of her long-time passing, I experienced the warm, sunny June day as a world in which she was no longer trapped in suffering. I didn’t feel her absence; on the contrary, I felt her immense presence, all around me—and not her cantankerous lifetime presence but the life force that had propelled her, that was now liberated into wholeness.

I remembered this experience years later, when our friend Dot died. I wrote the following to the painting group:

One of the rafting people who spoke at the service said he stood on the cliff near where Dot had drowned and felt her spirit expanding so that she was as big as the cliff. The truth of that hit me hard. I had been thinking she had disappeared, but in fact she just got bigger, encompassing everything. What a wonderful way to see the death of an individual manifestation—that the specificity of the form expands to the universal—as if we are all God scrunched into our quirky, separate selves until the mold explodes and we become the One.

As I petted my mother’s cat Charlie, who rolled over, back and forth, in a pool of sunshine, I was pierced with the knowledge that, in some fundamental way, nothing had changed. There was no rent in the fabric of reality; the world was still seamless, nothing missing. Obviously, my mother’s death had a profound effect in my little world, but in life itself, there was no loss. No gain with birth, no loss with death. Not a closed system so much as an irreducible whole.

And I felt acutely that Charlie knew this truth. I know that most people would say that Charlie was merely a typical self-centered cat who didn’t even notice that his human companion of 10 years was gone. One female person with access to a can opener was as good as another. In the popular imagination, cats are euphemistically “independent” to the point of complete indifference. I say we don’t know a damn thing about cats, or any other animals—or much of anything else, for that matter.

In the first months after my mother died, I dreamed about her often. At first, she appeared very confused, as if she had completely lost her bearings. More than once, I had to break the news to her that she was dead. In one dream, I tried to tune in a car radio to reach her, and she asked for help but then we lost the connection. Another time, I had died and got lost in a large building with no windows and went up and down in elevators and through long hallways asking, “When do we get to die?” Obviously, I didn’t know anything about the world she was in, either—but I always felt, on awakening, that I was providing some kind of stability or guidance for her. In life, she had been very involved in church affairs but was not spiritually inclined. It was as if she saw the church as a form of community but had no patience for that “holy” stuff, the romanticism of the Roman Catholics. Maybe that’s the legacy of Martin Luther, a kind of anti-religiosity, all bare-bones practicality. Though she was a stalwart warrior in life, I can’t imagine anyone less prepared to wake up in the afterlife.

One night I had one of those dreams that feel completely real. In the dream, I got out of bed and went downstairs, where I heard some people talking. My mother was sitting on the couch. (I knew she was dead.) She looked very uncomfortable, as if the light hurt her eyes. She said she couldn’t do this for very long. Some other people were there, including Michele, who I thought of as my spiritual teacher at the time. Then my mother was sitting in shadow under the stairs, where she seemed less exposed, less frightened. I asked her if she had sent me a message the other night (in another dream). She asked, “What did it say?” In that dream she had “run away” and left me a message saying, “I’m sorry I’m gone—it’s a journey.” So I repeated the message to her in this dream, only I said the message was, “I’m sorry I’m gone—the journey is over.” When I told her that, her face lit up and she said, “Yes, I said that.” Suddenly—poof! she disappeared, and I started screaming—keening—with my whole being. Michele calmly offered me some comfort food from my childhood, canned Mary Kitchen’s Roast Beef Hash.

Over the months, I continued to dream about my mother, but less and less about her death; it was as if we were both making a transition, adapting to a new reality. One night I dreamed she was happily playing right field in a softball game (I would have thought she’d be out in left field—ooh, that’s mean) and singing a song called “It Was a Good Thing.” Later, I dreamed I was looking into a dark house through a screen door. She appeared as a little flash of light (like Tinkerbell) that moved rapidly toward me and through the door over my head. I said, “Mom?” and reached up, trying to go up with her, but I stumbled. She said my name, in the most loving voice I had ever heard, and was gone.

Finally, I dreamed that I was driving a car and saw her in my rear-view mirror, driving behind me. As I watched her in the mirror, she turned off, waving gaily at me. It felt like our journey now was truly over, that she—or whoever “she” was now—had moved on.

Maybe all those dreams were just reflections of my own grieving process. Maybe I wasn’t guiding her after all, maybe it was just about me traversing this new terrain of motherlessness. Maybe I was the one who had moved on. I just don’t know. Death is a mystery, and aren’t you glad you read all this way for that pearl of wisdom?

***

As my reverie passes, so too does my headache—no brain aneurysm for me today—and I go downstairs for lunch. I turn on the radio and there’s Bob Marley singing one of my favorite songs, “Could You Be Loved,” which we danced to on our painting groups’ “prom night” a few years ago. So I take five minutes out of my day (my memorial service already forgotten) to dance wildly in my living room, in the bright-eyed company of Pookie, spiritual descendant of Charlie… imagining myself giving a public reading of “the best of the mary’zine” and performing my own dance numbers for the parts of my story for which there are no words.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #20 January 2002

January 28, 2010

Scientifically proven to be the World’s Funniest ‘Zine! (also the Second Funniest)

… with occasional commentary by Pookie: Proud to be a Feline-American (watch for comments in italics, lowercase, no punctuation, plenty of sarcasm)

I can honestly say that this issue of the mary’zine is the world’s funniest ‘zine, because it contains the “world’s funniest joke” as determined by scientists in London. I kid you not. A professor at the University of Hertfordshire devised an experiment in conjunction with the British Association for the Advancement of Science (so you know it’s real science), in which 100,000 people around the world voted on the world’s funniest joke. Here it is:

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go camping, and pitch their tent under the stars. During the night, Holmes wakes his companion and says: “Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you deduce.”

Watson says, “I see millions of stars, and even if a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like Earth, and if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life.”

Holmes replies: “Watson, you idiot. Somebody stole our tent.”

To lay claim to also being the second funniest ‘zine, here is the joke voted second funniest:

Two hunters from New Jersey are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing. The other whips out his mobile phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps out to the operator: “My friend is dead. What can I do?”

The operator in a calm soothing voice says “Just take it easy. First let’s make sure he’s dead.”

There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says: “OK, now what?”

No one asked for my vote, but here is one of my all-time favorites:

Q: How do you know when an elephant is having her period?

A: There’s a dime on your purse and your mattress is gone.

I guess you have to be old enough to remember sanitary napkins to get that one.

***

OK, enough frivolity. Happy Y2K+2, everybody! It’s hard to believe we’ve already come this far into the brave new century. If only Edward Bellamy were still around to update his vision for the future. In 1888 he wrote Looking Backward, a utopian novel that describes the U.S. in the year 2000 as “an ideal socialist state featuring cooperation, brotherhood, and industry geared to human need.” And how right he was! No, wait, I must be thinking of Brave New World, “a nightmarish vision of a future society.” Or Nineteen Eighty-four, which continues to echo down through the years. On second thought—never mind. Let’s stop trying to imagine the future and just learn how to be in the present, shall we?

I mean, look at what we thought 2000 had in store for us. I still have my bag packed from 2 years ago. Still haven’t read that Patricia Cornwell novel I stuffed in there. The underwear and t-shirts surely don’t fit me anymore, and the aspirin probably expired months ago. The survival food bricks in the earthquake kit in the trunk of my car must be even more similar to real bricks by now. It’s hard to believe in preparing for the future when the most significant disaster we collectively experienced in the past year was unpredicted and seemingly unpredictable.

Well, at least—partly as a result of 9/11—I now have a cell phone that I can carry with me instead of the clunky AAA phone I had to plug into the cigarette lighter in my car. I haven’t had a real use for it so far, but I’ve made a few gratuitous calls to Peggy when I was driving home from the city. One day she called me back when I was on the Golden Gate Bridge—it was thrilling, my first call—and we basically spent 20 minutes reporting on our respective whereabouts.

M: Where are you?

P: Van Ness.

M: I’m on the bridge, ha ha. [we were both going north]

[Five minutes later]

M: Where are you now?

P: The Waldo Tunnel.

M: I’m at Paradise Drive already!

Do you think I could get a screenplay out of this material?

We did talk about other things, of course—like the weather.

P: Is it still raining where you are?

M: Yeah, but I can see blue sky!

P: So can I.

M: I wonder if we’re looking at the same clouds.

P: Probably.

M: I feel so close to you right now.

P: O-kaaaay.

And our respective physical states.

M: My arm isn’t very comfortable holding this thing.

P: Really? My door armrest is right at the right place.

M: I can’t turn corners very well with one hand.

P: That’s because you’re a pantywaist. [She didn’t really say that; I’m just trying to spice up the dialogue.]

After exhausting all the possible conversational topics specific to driving while on the phone, we hung up.

So my worst suspicions about cell phones have been confirmed. Not only was the call completely unnecessary, but my attention was, shall we say, frequently compromised. But too bad, we are now living in the apocalyptic 00’s, and we’ll take our anytime minutes any damn time we can get them.

***

It was a quiet Christmas in Lake Wobegon. Had a wonderful dinner at P&C’s and played with their kitties, Willie and Coco. Came home with catnip on my collar, but Pookie pretended not to notice. He’s long since decided that, in Ann Landers’ famous words, he’s better off with me than without me. He knows there are Other Cats, but as long as he doesn’t have to hear the gory details—the scratching of the tummy, the cooed endearments—he can deal.

Besides, I brought him home an armload of tissue paper, which now covers my upstairs hallway. It’s like swishing through a pile of autumn leaves every time I walk through. He hides his “cat dancer” with the furry mouse under the paper and then pounces on it and wrestles it into submission. He’s completely bored by the mouse when it’s in plain sight. Substandard intelligence is bliss, eh, Pookie?

Eh, Pookie?

dont bother me im napping

My friends and I didn’t help out the Xmas economy very much. We loosely followed the “white elephant exchange” model by bringing anonymously wrapped $5 presents and taking turns either choosing a wrapped gift or “stealing” one that someone had already opened. It’s a fairly new tradition that is acquiring more rules and more controversy every year. Do you get to choose a gift you brought yourself? Does the one couple in the group get to use a tag-team approach to claim their own gifts? (“I can steal this; she bought it.”) Can an unwrapped gift be stolen more than once? Forget how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, these are tough questions.

You think you can’t buy anything for $5? I came away with a bottle of organic olive oil, a wooden spoon set, one of those chocolate-orange balls that you whack to separate the wedges—it sent signals to me from the kitchen cupboard {{EAT ME}} until I had to give in—a vanilla-scented candle, some cool cocktail stirrers, a “nitelite” (the English language is going to hell in a handbasket), and the pièce de resistance, a lipstick holder, which I promptly took home and transformed into a coffin for a tiny skeleton. I am nothing if not

weird

I thought you were napping.

zzzzzzzzzz….

***

What a difference therapy, psychiatric drugs, painting, dream work, and human relationships make. I’m feeling 100% better than I did the last time I wrote. The impotent rage is gone, or at least it’s retreated back into its cave in my inner Afghanistan. I don’t know if it was the “inner work” or the extra Zoloft, but it’s a blessing to be in this lighter state. I suppose the rage will always be a part of me, but it doesn’t have to be front and center all the time. “You can be angry at some of the people some of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t be angry at all of the people all of the time.”

In December I was blessed to take part in a 7-day painting intensive at the CCE (www.ccesf.org). Even though the studio is in San Francisco and I go home every night, painting for so many days in a row feels like total immersion. It’s a very powerful thing to spend several hours a day in such intimate contact with yourself—especially in the company of other people who are doing the same. Far from being alienating, being with yourself without distraction creates bonds with other people that go very deep. By the end of 7 days, the thrumming in my chest that means I’m in contact with a Source that shall remain Unnamed extends to everyone in the group and beyond. The intuitive painting process strips away the masks we wear with others and even with ourselves. It’s a sometimes painful but also exquisitely beautiful and reassuring process—and what it comes down to is the knowledge (in the midst of so much unknowing) that we are all born of that Unnamed Source. (“Sources high in the Deity said today….”)

Painting in this way leads inevitably to a change in perception. When I go out into the world between painting sessions, I connect more, I feel more, I take in more. I see beauty in unlikely places—like the complicated network of chimneys and vents on the tops of buildings. Everything that happens is fascinating. I share a laugh and a few words with a man at the deli counter in Andronico’s. It feels intimate, in a nonthreatening way; I’m more open to friendly vibes in this state. At the other end of the spectrum, a young guy tries to claim the parking space I’m waiting for. He lifts his middle finger in the rearview mirror just as I’m wondering if I dare to lift mine. He roars off in a burst of testosterone and fossil fuel, and I feel alternately relieved (to have won the parking space) and hurt (by his digital insult, which pierces my crumbling armor). But I see the mirroring that has just taken place: my “thought” finger anticipating his “real” finger; my parking greed played out in his manly aggression. We are the same force in different forms.

It’s like being in a lucid dream where you know everyone is a version of you and everything that happens has great significance. You see the interrelatedness of things. Three times during the week, twice at the exact same intersection near the studio, I heard a song on the radio with the lyric “Right here, right now; there is no other place I want to be.” And my chest started thrumming. In other words, you get to see how you create the world around you by what you notice, what you take in. Of course, the world also exists independently (doesn’t it?), but the perception with which you view it is crucial.

As with the angry parking rival, this hypersensitivity can be disconcerting. On day 4, I’m driving to the studio, and I hear on the radio that Vinnie of the morning show on Alice 96.3 radio is at the Any Mountain store in Corte Madera taking contributions for Toys for Tots—an annual event at which Marines collect money to buy Christmas toys for needy children in the area. The reports on the radio are all about how thrilling and lively the scene is, with listeners driving up to hand over checks or cash or toys to the rousing thank-yous of the radio people and the Marines. I get caught up in the spirit of the thing, and it seems like serendipity that I’m right near the Corte Madera exit. So I impulsively turn off and drive to the little shopping center where Vinnie and the Marines are waiting to cheer my Christmas spirit.

I expect a long line of cars, with helpers running out to the drivers’ windows to collect the contributions in high excitement. On the radio they say they’re handing out free t-shirts plus coffee and pastries. A party atmosphere, no doubt. But when I locate the Alice truck, mine is the only car there. Out on the sidewalk, shivering in the morning cold, are a few Marines standing around a table. I stop in front of them, but no one makes a move. I get out of my car, cash in hand. A guy holding a stack of t-shirts is standing right by the curb but doesn’t say anything. I mutter under my breath, “Who do I give it to?”

I approach the table feeling like I’m walking out onto a stage in front of hundreds of people. The Marines have become a blur of uniforms, but I recognize Vinnie. He’s not looking at me, which seems odd since I’m the only “civilian” around. Unlike my other experiences of heightened perception during the week, my gaze now is completely turned inward. I don’t look at the table at all; there might be a donut (doughnut) there with my name on it, but all I can think about is getting off that stage.

I walk up and hand Vinnie my $40, saying softly, “Hey.” Apparently, many other female listeners have been showing Vinnie their breasts or pinching his butt or at least screaming a little bit. But I feel like I’ve just walked into a time warp. I realize with a jolt that I don’t exactly fit the demographics of this station. I’ve never really thought about the fact that the DJs and most of the listeners are 20-somethings, or 30-somethings at the most. I have reached the age of something-something, and no matter how young at heart I may feel (no moldie-oldie station like KFOG for me), my image and persona in the world are quite different. The curse of being “old” in this society is that no one can see you for who you really are, or at least who you think you are (ouch). But that’s a diatribe for another time. Vinnie gives me a warm smile and says “Thank you,” but I can’t shake the feeling that he and the Marines are going to talk smack about me after I leave. “How did she hear about the toy drive? From her grandchildren?”

I accept the free t-shirt, which is from AAA and sports the message, “Santa Claus is coming to town—don’t hit him.” And then I get back in my car, shaken by the disconnect between my inner world and the world out there—although I’ve since realized that I was only doing my usual projecting. What do I really know about what any of the other players on that stage were thinking? I’ve come to value projection highly; it teaches you a lot about yourself if you can catch it in time. And a painting intensive is the perfect time to do that.

My fellow painters are also having some interesting perceptions this week. Diane L. tells how she arrived home the night before, and her boyfriend, a man of entrenched routine, wasn’t there. So she was sure he was dead, but she still walked down to Walgreen’s to get him some beer, because she was holding both things in her mind, that he was dead and not dead. But considering Schrödinger’s classic thought experiment in which the cat in the box is both dead and not dead until the experimenter opens the box, she was completely in tune with subatomic principles. In fact, I think that’s where both the “contact” and the “disconnect” come from when you paint. Painting puts you in touch with the world beneath the usual senses, so you perceive both the inherent beauty of things and the gap between your everyday idea of “objective reality” and the many possible interpretations that arise when you’re in a flowing state of perception.

do you really think anybody is still reading this psychobabble

I refuse to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed cat.

oh youre funny

Do you like living indoors?

zzzzzzzzzzz….

***

On day 1, Barbara had stated that she was “not in charge,” that it was up to all of us to create the experience of the 7 days together. I remembered this on day 5, when I drove to Irving St. to get a burrito and saw some graffiti on a wall—in those curly, hard-to-read letters—that I thought said “Change is in Charge.” I was so impressed with this example of synchronicity. Yes! How true! Barbara’s not in charge, change is! When I got back to my car and drove past the graffiti again, I saw that it said “Charles is in Charge.” So much for synchronicity.

Barbara had also reminded us that we never really know what’s going to happen, even though we constantly act as if we do. That night as I drive home, I think about that. I see her theoretical point, of course, but I believe that I do know what’s going to happen this evening. I’m going to eat some oatmeal and ice cream and curl up in bed in front of NYPD Blue. After painting all day I don’t cook, I don’t work, I don’t read. When Pookie comes around to “say his prayers”—Give us this day our daily tuna-flavored laxative—I pet him, but I feel too wiped out to engage. Luckily, Pookie makes very few demands. Either he’s extremely content, or he’s planning my assassination, it’s hard to tell with him

heh heh

Anyway, contrary to expectation, I arrive home to find a message on my answering machine. It’s my sister Barb, and she’s crying so hard I can hardly understand her. I freeze. Someone must have died, probably her husband Skip, who’s in very poor health. I strain to hear what she’s saying. Yes, Skip has had a heart attack, but he’s still alive. They don’t know how bad it is yet. She hangs up, and I curse the creator of this unpredictable world. Whose bright idea was this concept of constant change? I’m sorry, Charles, but Change really is in Charge.

I spend the evening in a terror of what may lie ahead. If he dies, I’ll have to go back to Michigan for the funeral. It’s the dead of winter, and I don’t have the clothes for it. I haven’t seen snow in 30 years, but I remember it in every excruciating detail. Worse, I’ll have to reenter a family drama that I have been avoiding for the past 10 years. I don’t feel comfortable telling the whole story here, but basically I became estranged from Skip at a time when I was overwhelmed with grief at my mother’s impending death. At the most vulnerable time in my entire life—as he was driving me to my mother’s deathbed, my first visit to her in 2 or 3 years—Skip confided a deep secret to me and then spent the next 2 weeks cornering me to talk about it at every opportunity, with a stunning lack of clue about what I was going through. This was before I started therapy with J, before I had any idea of how to deal with other people’s intrusiveness. At the best of times, my boundaries were easily shattered, and at that point they were like a flimsy fence that had been completely trampled by my inner cattle stampeding out and other people’s inner cattle surging in.

My mother died soon after, but Skip wasn’t about to give up his new confidante. Months later, when I finally reached a breaking point—he was calling long-distance twice a week and expecting me to talk for hours at a time—I tried to explain to him that I “needed some space.” Then he’d call and say, “I’m going to take some of your space now.” After I wrote him what I thought was a tactful letter explaining my feelings, he got angry and withdrew—shades of my mother. So of course I withdrew, too—mother lives on in me. We have both refused to acknowledge each other’s existence ever since.

So that’s the background. I tried to call Barb the morning after I got her message, but she was at the hospital, so I called my other sister, K. We have little in common—she’s a factory worker, married, with children and grandchildren, and never left the area where we grew up. She’s 6 years younger than me, and we rarely talk or even write. But we have a bond that I always forget about until something happens to throw us together again.

Since 9/11, every time I heard that “we are all cherishing our families now more than ever,” I wondered why I had no such impulses. But as K and I talked, I felt that bond keenly. We talked about work, we compared middle-age maladies (hair falling out, for starters), and when her husband came home for lunch and found her talking on the phone while lying on the bed naked, holding her toothbrush, we laughed like sisters, like women who passeth the understanding of men.

***

The next morning, day 6, I’m grateful to have 2 full days left in which to confront my feelings about Skip in the painting process. I had never even painted my sisters before, except once or twice as little children, because they weren’t part of the primeval family drama of me, my brother who died, and my parents. (That my sisters had their own primeval family dramas going on never really occurred to me.) But on this day, I paint my sisters and their husbands, their children, and myself. I paint Death standing behind Skip, ready to claim him. Skip’s heart is being struck by lightning, and Barb’s heart is connected to his with strong ties. I paint little energy lines that eventually go from each person to every other person in the painting, and I feel the power of that energy that courses through all of us, beneath our conscious awareness.

As the hours pass and I get deeper into the altered state that is the hallmark of the painting process, I realize that some words are going through my mind, over and over. It’s a quotation from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d;

It droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

The feeling that is coming with these words is so strong that I can hardly contain it. I have been painting drops of white coming down on all the figures in the painting, and I have added paper on top to paint God’s heart. Suddenly everything falls into place, and I know that the drops are mercy coming from God’s heart, and that it falls on all of us, regardless of our thoughtlessness or our boundary-overstepping. The realization is beautiful as only truth can be. I’m not sure why “mercy” is exactly the right word. “Forgiveness,” “compassion,” and even “love” are not quite right. I realize that I’ve been withholding mercy from Skip for 10 years, and that by withholding mercy from others, I withhold it also from myself.

In the afternoon sharing, I talk about the mercy painting and about the words and understanding that came to me. Later, Bonnie says one of the most astonishing things I’ve heard in a long time. First, she says that I’m “honest.” It’s always embarrassing to hear that, because I feel like such a fraud. Moi, honest? But that’s not what is astonishing. Bonnie also says that, the way it looks to her, my “honesty” shows that I love myself.

Are you reeling with me, dear reader? LOVE myself? How can that be? I am the Queen of the Bad Self-Image! But Bonnie’s words have stayed with me and have, in fact, created or encouraged a wave of self-love in their wake—the very best example of self-fulfilling prophecy. When I saw Jeremy recently, he also found self-acceptance in my dreams—including the I-have-a-giant-penis dream I described in the last issue. In a “dream joke” about how men equate the size of their penis with their self-worth, I discover, via this massive organ, that my self-worth is far in excess of what I had thought. Maybe it’s just the Zoloft, but I feel as if I’m being reborn—or, rather, reclaiming a knowledge from very early childhood that subsequent tragic events and my own fears and doubts have hidden from my conscious mind all these years.

***

One of the things I got to observe during the painting week was my jealousy. Kate and Jan and Kerry had come from out of town for the intensive and were staying with Barbara. In my imagination (and probably also in reality, let’s face it) they were all having a rollicking good time back at B’s house every evening, and old feelings of being “out of the loop” came rushing back to me. On the last day of the intensive, I tried one of my patented, transparent methods of getting reassurance when I “joked” to B that I was afraid she no longer loved me. I’ll never forget what she said. “That’s just human love, when you love one more than another.” It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, but I saw the truth of it. (B doesn’t even remember saying this, so let the mary’zine be the publication of record for what really happens at these painting events.)

Got love? That human craving never really goes away. But thanks to a beautiful poem of Jan’s that she read to us on day 7, I realized that I do have a choice about which world I want to live in—the one where I am engaged in an endless, irresolvable cycle of conflict over a succession of pointless worries and judgments, or the one where I am free to accept myself and others as the Unnamed Source made us. As Jan’s poem (“The Lover”) asks, “…what kind of lover do you want?… [One] will always guard you against invasion, protect you from strange enemies and the unknown, a valiant soldier and bodyguard never leaving your side.” But “There is another lover…/The true you is the one he adores/He will leave you unprotected, sure in the trust of truth/He will delight in you wandering the unknown/This lover wants you to be yourself….”

I feel closer to choosing that second “lover” than I’ve ever been. Or maybe I’m just realizing that I’ve already made my choice.

***

On the last night of the intensive, after going out for a Kahlua drink and a fish sandwich at an Irish bar in the Mission with Diane L. and Diane D. (geez, I never mentioned how much fun I had with them this week), I dream that Barbara has file folders with lots of my old stuff in them, including several old pairs of glasses. It does seem as if the painting process—with the help of Barbara and my fellow painters—has taken away some of my old ways of seeing.

***

The next day, at home, like the proverbial morning after, I feel hung over. I wander from room to room in a daze, trying to remember what I normally do with my life. Taking some time to get back into my routine, I dawdle over the newspaper. The events that have taken place in the world in the past week are unreal. The story about John Walker, captured while fighting with the Taliban—the world cannot be that strange. They’re going after a fanatical foreigner and they come up with a kid from Fairfax?

Wandering around the house some more, I investigate the fridge. There is little there besides half-empty soda bottles (oh, OK, half full). Part of an old burrito. Green beans from another life. Clearly, I need to buy groceries. I’ve been pigging out, I mean eating out, no I mean pigging out, all week, so now would be a good time to start eating sensibly, ah-hahahahaha.

The house is a mess. The carpet is crunchy with cat litter bits that lodge between Pookie’s fat toes and drop like bread crumbs wherever he goes. And during the painting week, I have not had “time” (i.e., inclination) to clean up the stains from his latest barf episode, so there are tissues covering all the spots. I’ll never be one of those old ladies who keep dozens of cats, because I can’t even keep up with one.

But I have to put off my housekeeping duties for a while longer, because I promised Daniel, a doctor in Zurich, that I would edit his paper on perioperative transesophageal echocardiography this weekend. I find it pleasurable in a somewhat masochistic way—rather like driving while stoned—to try to comprehend the words of this German speaker as he explains the intricate workings of medical machinery and the human heart. But today scientific and even regular English words are escaping me. I have to use a thesaurus to find the word he means when he writes “stand against.” Hinder, block, impede, foil, parry, defeat, frustrate, thwart. Nothing works. I finally find “prevent,” and I realize that I’m the victim of dueling brain hemispheres. My right brain has been king of the hill all week and wants to retain its dominance. But my left brain is the half that brings home the proverbial bacon and must reassert its control. My solution is to alternate serious medical editing with rambling stream-of-consciousness riffs into my microcassette tape recorder, playing Pong with my fluid consciousness, or, I should say, being Pong as played by the Unnamed Source.

***

Skip is doing OK. A few days after he got home from the hospital, he left a message on my answering machine, thanking me for my concern about his health. With that reconciliatory gesture, and the softening toward him that I’d been feeling since painting him, a tremendous burden was lifted from me. My horoscope in the Sunday paper that week read as follows:

If you’ve neglected someone close, now’s the time to heal the split, Recognize that resentment may be justified on both sides, but you can afford to be generous. After all, you’re supposed to be the spiritual, enlightened one. Be honest with yourself. How much are you capable of giving? Then go for it—no more, no less!

***

Well, Pookie is still napping—quelle surprise—so I’m going to tiptoe out of here now. I want to be sure I get the last words in—it’s called the MARY’zine for a reason. Happy new year to all, and to all a good night.

dont let the bedbugs bite

heh heh

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #11 pt2 February 2001

January 25, 2010

I was a teenage beatnik wannabe

“You had friends in high school??” —my therapist J, sounding just a bit too incredulous

At the end of a 5-day painting intensive, a woman who was fairly new to the group said she had been nervous about coming. “I thought it would be like high school,” she said. “A clique running the ‘school’ and me on the outside like always.” I knew what she meant—you’re never too old to feel like a dorky freshman in a new group—but I wanted to say, “Honey, if this were like high school, I wouldn’t be hanging out with the popular kids—don’t worry about it.”

Back in ’61-’64, my friends Jerry and Gordy and I were on the cutting edge (in our own little small-town way) of the coming countercultural heyday that came to be known as “the sixties.” But the cutting edge is not always the place to be, when you see yourself as potentially infinitely cool for listening to Bob Dylan records, reading J.D. Salinger and the Saturday Review of Literature, and longing to have your own “pad” in New York City—while the rest of your little world sees you as three dorky musketeers, twerps in sheep’s clothing. The literary magazine we started as seniors—we called it Review IV because it was our fourth year of high school—hardly made a ripple on the local scene, but the aspiring poets who read our bulletin board notice at City Lights Bookstore in the magical city of San Francisco sent us their earnest young compositions, never the wiser about who we actually were. I still have the original submissions in a box somewhere, but unfortunately I haven’t unearthed any hidden gems from now-famous poets. Most of the poems we got from that ad were along the lines of “Here are a few of my favorite things/puppy dogs and sunshine…” (the women) or else raw cries of existential angst (the men).

I shouldn’t talk—I was writing truly terrible poetry at the time. One poem started, “All life comes in a-sordid colors.” I was so proud of that pun, I couldn’t really get past it. Unbeknownst to me, I actually made a start in the right direction when I wrote a long, free verse poem for senior English about going for a walk and finding a dead bird. Of course it was hokey, but it was at least from my heart and in my own voice. But pre-1965, the literary world was the ultimate boys’ club, and the boys were still caught up in the postwar heroic despair of looking for meaning in a meaningless universe. And believe me, dead birds were not the way to go. Jerry made such fun of the poem that I stopped writing poetry then and there. Not that he ever wrote anything, but he was a born connoisseur of literary excellence, just ask him.

Long before the days when student rebellion was as de rigueur as sock hops and football games, Gordy and I staged little defiant acts that centered, in those more innocent times, on dress codes. Being the girl, I played the supporting role. Boys were required to wear belts to school, and we all had to stand for the pledge of allegiance every morning. So Gordy rebelled against two birds with one stone. As the rest of us heaved ourselves out of our chairs for the obligatory nationalistic display, he ostentatiously removed his belt and handed it off to me. Then he slouched smugly in his seat while I stood there with my right hand over my heart and my left hand clutching this symbol of (Gordy’s) chains of oppression, feeling like a doofus in my mother-enforced frizzy hairdo, pink-rimmed glasses, and unredeemably dorky Montgomery Wards rust-colored skirt and blouse. As a teenager, the distance between how I felt and how I was allowed to present myself was infinitely large. I was primed for “the sixties” like you wouldn’t believe.

***

Jerry turned out to be gay. He’d had season tickets to the civic symphony since he was 12, which definitely made him “queer” in the general sense, but no one around there knew what “gay” was, least of all me. So all through high school I waged a pointless battle for his romantic attention. He was every bit the ugly duckling I was—painfully thin, unruly hair, glasses; his father worked in a print shop, and they didn’t even own a car—but Jerry was way, way above such considerations. He was my mentor in all things cool because he was so sure of himself, for no reason any of us could figure out. He was a terrible student but saw himself destined for great things. He moved to Indonesia right after college; he was a misfit here, but he lives like a king surrounded by nubile houseboys over there.

I spent so much time with Jerry—hatching our literary aspirations (I was going to be the William Faulkner of the U.P.), listening to classical records he got from the library to educate me—that my mother said to me bitterly when she came to pick me up one day, “Why don’t you just marry the guy?” I didn’t get it then, and I don’t get it now. I knew she was jealous of my crush on my English teacher, Ruth, but I know of no reason why she wouldn’t want me to be friends with this perfectly harmless boy.

Gordy, on the other hand, had a motorcycle and would take me riding while my mother fretted at home. This at least made more sense than her disdain for Jerry, but for someone who supposedly wanted me to have a social life—she’d counsel me before school dances (to which I went alone, of course), “Just walk up to a boy and say, “Hi! I’m Mary McKenney!”—she had a funny way of showing it.

Gordy was not gay but was so shy that it took me a good 15 years to realize that he had been waging a small battle for my romantic attention all through junior high and high school. Once again, my life takes on the aura of an O. Henry story. By the tenth grade, I bore the scars of years of being the ugly girl—boys making fun of me, snickering to one another when they had to dance with me during a “ladies’ choice,” Vernon Lemke holding me at arm’s length, one hand in my armpit to stave off any closer contact. So when Gordy became part of Jerry’s and my bohemian clique, I still saw him as the squirrelly kid who had pulled my hair and grabbed my purse in junior high. He had beautiful straight black hair, cut like the Beatles’, but he was short and swarthy (I realize now that he looked a little like Prince, but that look was way ahead of its time) and terribly insecure. We were both Jerry’s intellectual protégés, so in going after Jerry, I was, in effect, choosing the “alpha male,” such as he was.

I was so far from being able to imagine any boy being interested in me that I completely ignored the clues—that Gordy and I would lie on my bed in the dark, at his insistence (where was my intrusive mother?), listening to Bob Dylan or Peter, Paul and Mary records; that he gave me a wagon wheel he had burnt half-black with a torch and attached a rusty chain to (he was the artistic one of the trio—his bedroom had a fishnet draped from the ceiling, black walls, and lots of Chianti bottles with candles dripping multicolored wax all over them); that he once pulled his jacket over his head and threw a ring at me, in an apparent bid to make me his “girl.” I laughed it off, not having even the faintest idea that he could be serious. In my rare moments of feeling empathy for teenage boys in their quest for female acceptance, I think of Gordy. And even now, I wonder if I could be imagining the whole thing.

After high school, Gordy disappeared somewhere and later surfaced in Maui, where he lives to this day, as far as I know. Jerry and I both went to Michigan State; we saw each other on campus occasionally, but he had bigger fish to fry. He collected a series of beautiful, emotionally unstable gay men he took home to Menominee for visits, his mother glad he had so many “friends.” I learned about lesbianism from the first joke I heard in college. One roommate says to the other, “I want to be frank with you.” The other says, “No, I want to be Frank.” (I had to have this explained to me.) In my sophomore year, there were two lesbians in my creative writing class. I would see them walking on campus while surreptitiously holding hands behind their backs. I was totally creeped out and said contemptuously to Jerry that I had seen some queers. He was so deeply closeted that he didn’t say a word.

***

… she might well have wondered what there could be but a future of pain for a woman who cannot be a part of conventional society. Poor Elvira! Think of the anguish, being on the fringes of real life, not having a family, not producing roly-poly grandchildren, going from spiky-haired woman to spiky-haired woman, marching in so many parades, spending vast sums of money on therapy, keeping a houseful of cats. —Jane Hamilton, Disobedience

Then I fell in love with my roommate. BR (her name was Barb, but I don’t want you to confuse her with my sister) was a beautiful, voluptuous girl from Detroit who was acting out like crazy, in retaliation (I surmised) against her psychologist mother. She would sleep with men on the first date and then come back to the dorm and get in bed with me and weep on my chest. Unfortunately, we were total closet cases. We joked about “being Frank” all the time; we held hands, I sat on her lap, and she gave me excruciatingly so-near-and-yet-so-far backrubs, but neither of us had the nerve to go any further. When I realized what I was feeling, I looked up “lesbianism” in the library and was not put off in the least by all the declarations of “perversion.” (Remember, in 1965 no other interpretation was available, at least in mainstream sources. We have indeed come a long way.) I was already in counterculture mode and was relieved to find out why I had always felt “different.” Now I know that there’s a whole slew of reasons for my feeling of differentness, but at the time it was a liberating discovery.

My desire for BR was stronger than anything I had ever felt. My pursuit of Jerry and my crush on my English teacher were nothing in comparison. I can still see her creamy white breasts gleaming in the moonlight as she swept into my room, robe flying apart, but I could no more have touched her or spoken about my feelings than I could have flown to the moon—which we also didn’t know was possible in those days. All I could do was watch her and suffer in silence, letting Peter & Gordon’s song—“Woman, do you love me?”—express the unsayable.

BR and I planned to drop out of college after our sophomore year and move to New York City, where her autoworker stepfather could get us secretarial jobs in the union office. But in the meantime she acquired a boyfriend, Jim, whom she tried to get me to sleep with (Freudian much?), and went to the college counseling office for help in making her choice. The counselor told her to choose the man, and she did. She married and quickly divorced him, then married another guy. In one of her later letters to me, she revealingly said, “He’s fun, but he’s not you.” I’ll always wonder what would have happened if I had declared my interest. But something tells me I would have been just as unsuccessful with her as Gordy was with me. If you’re not ready for something, you can’t see it even when it’s standing right in front of you, its jacket over its head, tossing you a ring.

As it turned out, I dropped out of college anyway, but I didn’t run off to New York, I just hung around East Lansing with my remaining roommates, getting stoned out of my mind and celebrating—ironically—the Summer of Love.

***

If you come to a fork in the road, take it. —Yogi Berra

When I was in the tenth grade, a few of us nerdy types started a literature & philosophy club called PhiLi. We met in the popular kids’ hangout, a funky little restaurant at the intersection of Highways 41 and 35 that everyone called “The Pit.” We did not meet at the same times that the popular kids did. (Once, I was invited to The Pit by the popular kids after a rehearsal of the school play—I was a makeup girl, believe it or not—and I remember just sitting there frozen, speechless, having not the faintest idea of what to say to people who had it in them to be homecoming kings and queens.) In PhiLi, we read William James and debated some of the eternal questions, such as: If you’re walking around a tree on which a squirrel is scrambling around the trunk, are you also walking around the squirrel?… and … (of somewhat more immediate interest): Are we governed by fate, or do we have free will? i.e., did we each make a free decision to come to The Pit tonight, and what if we had come halfway and then turned around and gone home, would that mean it was fate that we didn’t come, or that we had exercised our free will?

The club didn’t last very long.

But the question about fate vs. free will is, of course, always with us, and I still wonder if the forks in the road we come upon really represent choices or if there’s some inner compass that causes us to forge ahead on our One True Path regardless of other so-called possibilities. Is my present life merely a consequence of not becoming lovers with BR, of not going to New York? Is it only because these things didn’t happen that I became a librarian, that I met Peggy in my first (and last) library job, that I moved to the Bay Area and started an editing career, that I was led to a fulfilling, creative life through painting….? To this day, I’ve never even been to New York. Is there a Mary in a parallel universe who lives in the Village, who became an editor in a publishing company instead of a university, who rides the subway instead of the ferry? Or was I destined to come to the Left Coast, to ply my trade and write my little ‘zine (far, far from the literary pretensions of Review IV)? It’s not as if these questions keep me awake at night, but when I’m between work assignments and have spent the afternoon napping and reading the latest John Grisham novel, and the sun is setting pinkishly through the window above my computer, and I have pan-fried filet of sole to look forward to for dinner (pan-fried for me by the chefs at Woodlands Market)… what the hell?

***

Lately, I’m continually bombarded with images from random moments of my past, as if I’m flipping through a photo album of my life, or spinning a wheel of fortune that lands briefly on this or that person or scene. I’m beginning to see why old people spend so much time thinking about the past. You spend your 20s and 30s building your life, having relationships and making a career—thinking you’ve escaped whatever gruesome childhood and adolescence you endured—and then when you turn 50 or so, there it is, staring you in the face again, demanding to be acknowledged, like a slo-mo version of your life flashing in front of your eyes. It seems as if the past doesn’t get more and more distant, as logic would dictate. It curves, maybe, like space, coming back around again, feeling like yesterday. Maybe when you die, your life is revealed to have been lived all in one “day,” all as accessible to you as what you had for breakfast this morning.

I was sitting at my desk the other day, editing a book about all the horrible things that bacteria can do to cheese, milk, meat, vegetables, grains, i.e., every food item we hold dear—there’s even a “cocoa and chocolate” chapter—and I had a visceral kind of insight, an undeniable sense that we think in terms of horizontal, i.e., time “going by,” linear, us floating in it—when actually our experience is vertical—nothing moves, we are like pillars standing in time, and what “happens” to us is all happening at the same “time,” like when the laser printer messes up and all the letters of your sentence pile on top of one another. We think our lives are like sentences, paragraphs, like we’re volumes in a great library of never-ending rows of shelves. But actually it’s as if there’s a plumb line going from God, down through our center into the earth and beyond. Everything’s happening on this line. All our experience is equally present (if a bit compacted), there’s no such thing as “movement.” Which is why, I suppose, we’re exhorted by the Buddhists to “live in the moment,” because there’s nowhere else to be.

I know this is abstract, but when I had this insight, I was thinking about our December painting intensive and of some of the wonderful moments I had with people there, and I realized that those moments are still alive—even the moments we had last year, or 3 years ago—they are not “lost in time,” any more than loving someone who lives 3,000 miles away is diluted because of the space between you. The profound experiences I’ve had are all here now; all the people I’ve ever loved (or not) are here, patiently waiting their turn in the line at the memory bank, ready to make a deposit or a withdrawal, nobody’s going nowhere.

It’s like nothing is ever lost. And maybe the body itself is the memory bank—the bricks&mortar/flesh&bone institution that organizes the experience. So maybe it’s not about choosing roads more or less traveled by but about simply being. I don’t think I missed out on my “real life” by not recognizing Gordy’s interest, or by BR not recognizing (or acting on) mine. I did finally meet someone, we recognized each other’s interest, and the laughs and tears ensued. Maybe it always looks “meant to be” when you look back on your life, but I can’t help thinking it’s a true perception. You start out as an acorn, end up as an oak tree; where does “choice” come in?

I don’t know if anyone else is interested in these crackpot theories, these half-baked intuitive fantasies of what the world is really like. I suppose I could take a poll of my readers and see what percentage wants to read about: (1) cats, (2) travel, (3) food, (4) “physics,” or (5) sex (eek!), but don’t fence me in, you know? Sometimes I feel like a kitten chasing a ball of yarn, I just like to see it all unravel.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine #42: January 2010

January 21, 2010

The decade began with Y2K and ended with WTF. —Andy Borowitz

Where has the time gone? I started writing this ‘zine 10 years ago, as the world held its breath in anticipation of the great computer disaster of all time. On December 31 I was partying like it was 1999 (cuz it was) when a client in Austria e-mailed me to say that his midnight had come and gone with no apparent problems. The first crisis of the new century averted (the only one, seems like).

I have mixed feelings about being old(ish). I’m glad I’m not just starting out in life, facing the dearth of jobs and the imminent loss of the polar ice caps (5 years, according to Al Gore). But I would be very curious to see what Earth and the human race will look like in 50 or 100 years. In the New York Times Magazine’s “The 9th Annual Year in Ideas,” I read about “building a forest of artificial carbon-filtering ‘trees’…” and creating “leafy-looking solar panels that could one day replace ivy on buildings.” These “treelike devices… resemble giant fly swatters.” The illustration that accompanies the article looks like a landscape from a video game, and it occurred to me that nature itself might be the ultimate endangered species. If life as we have known it—we lucky old-timers from the first 200,000 years on the planet—is found to be unsustainable, then our future environment could consist exclusively of manmade landforms. When all the wild places are gone, the wild animals will follow. Humans will be so conditioned to living and communicating by means of breathtaking, unimaginable-to-us technologies that what used to be known as “the outside world” or even “the human body” will become quaint memories, like the time before mass transportation. For years we’ve taken for granted eyeglasses and dentures and artificial hearts, but the possibilities of replicating Life in ever more efficient ways must literally be endless.

Most visions of the future are dystopian, all doom(sday) and gloom: Humanity will be reduced to its most crass, selfish tendencies (i.e., the Republicans will win in the end). Computers will inevitably enslave us, like Hal in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But I like to think that the good in people outweighs the bad—and that our future counterparts will still be “painting for process” in 100 years, or, if it has become a lost art, that the paintings and writings we generate now will be found, or intuited, or recreated, simply because the expression of deep feeling in form and color will always be part of the human experience. Recently, the oldest known art rendering of a penis was discovered. And are we still portraying that overdetermined, ambiguous organ in our art works today? You betcha!

snow banks too big to fail

Here comes the [snow] again
Falling on my head like a memory
Falling on my head like a new emotion

Doesn’t it seem like just yesterday that I was regaling you with stories of shoveling, tipping, sliding, and slipping in the great white world of winter? Well, it’s baaaack….

When I returned from the 7-day painting intensive in San Francisco, the world was white, with black tree branches standing out in stark relief against a grayer shade of pale, the sky. My sage green house provided a soothing spot of color.

The birch tree in my back yard, which has three trunks, was bent over three ways, almost to the ground, by the weight of the snow and ice. I had to go out and clear a spot on the ground to sprinkle seeds, nuts, and berries for the birds and other critters. I haven’t been able to plug in the bird bath heater because the outlets on my porch are frozen.

My unemployed nephew had plowed my driveway and front walk (and half the lawn) to a fare-thee-well with his new ATV, so Jim Anderson Knows Best has lost himself a job.

***

Home never felt so good. The cats gave me a somewhat bemused reception, alternating happy romping with sudden disappearing and then coming closer and sniffing. Finally, Luther curled up in my arms in my big red chair, squirming and kneading and purring and waving his lobster claws at my face and neck, as I downed 2 Aleve and settled in for a long winter’s nap. Brutus was a little more standoffish but finally settled on the ottoman, and the three of us basked in our togetherness-at-last. When I woke up in the dark, I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. Pulled out my trusty cell phone. Ah, it was 5 a.m., so I happily padded downstairs to make coffee.

Now, you’d think that I would have experienced some degree of culture shock when I returned home to the land of trees and snow and unsophisticated kin, but that didn’t happen. In my heart I held both the urban/creative joys I had experienced in S.F. and the down-home ones I returned to in the U.P. I was glad to hear Barb’s voice when I called to let her know I was on my way home from the airport. MP had had knee surgery while I was away, and a complication had sent him back into the hospital (which they have the temerity to call “Bay Area Medical Center”). When we all congregated in his hospital room for a  visit, it felt completely right to be in the company of my sisters and brother-in-law. In fact, I had them all in stitches (though MP already was, haha) describing various aspects of my trip, including feeling embarrassed to have gotten so fat compared to my friends. I said I felt like the Homer Simpson balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and I mimed not being able to buckle my seat belt on the plane—I was going to hold on to the two seatbelt ends like controls on a jetpak and take my chances, but the flight attendant made me attach an extender that would have been sufficient to connect the pilot with the passenger in the last row.

During MP’s hospital incarceration, they had forgotten about their own wedding anniversary, and K said they weren’t going to do anything for Christmas, it’s “just another day.” But since Christmas was on a Friday, when we usually get together anyway, I mentioned that I could contribute some precooked frozen cheeseburgers, and K said well, in that case, she could make potato salad, and when Barb stopped to think about what she could bring, I made the case for deviled eggs.

As it happened, I got sick as a dog on Christmas Eve and so missed out on all the festivities and, most important, the deviled eggs. I was starting to feel better on the 27th, when Barb had her whole grandkid gang over for chaos and the opening of presents, but by then my back was in spasm and I could barely hobble around the house with a cane.

this little piggy went to S.F.

I was dreading the travel part of the trip, as always, and there was plenty to justify my fears. Green Bay to Chicago was quick and uneventful, but then I waited in O’Hare for 9 hours before they got their hands on a plane that worked. The first one was delayed for some reason—the day was bright and clear, so they couldn’t blame the weather—and someone later said that they had taken “our” plane to haul some other people to their destination, but who knows. It’s not like you get a full accounting later. You just keep moving forward, or trying to. After an hour or so, a plane appeared, and we all filed onboard. We sat there on the ground for I don’t know how long, but I didn’t mind that so much because (a) the seat was more comfortable than the ones in the terminal, (b) I could direct the overhead air vent at my face, and (c) I learned that you can indeed use the toilet when the plane isn’t in the air…. I had always wondered about that.

After time had been rendered completely meaningless, the pilot came on the blower and said the plane had no food or beverages on board. Oh no! And I was so looking forward to that 6-course meal! More time… drifting, drifting… and then he came back on and said that the cargo door was “bent.” So we all had to get off the plane and go back to sitting in the hard plastic seats. There followed many hollow announcements of apology and thanks for our patience. I don’t know that patience is the right word for it. They should say, “Thank you for not advancing on your captain and crew with pitchforks and flaming torches.”

I had a weak moment when I wished with all my heart that I could just get on a northbound plane, get in my Jeep and go home. I called Barbara and told her that the delay was surely a sign that I shouldn’t come out there this time. She talked me down, but I knew I wasn’t serious anyway. I’m pretty good at resigning myself to fate when I have to. While we were on the phone, a teenage boy with a bright blue Mohawk walked by, so I said to B, loud enough so he could hear me, “There’s a beautiful young man with a blue Mohawk here.” He turned and gave me a goofy grin, which kind of made my day. I loved that just about everyone waiting for the flight to S.F. looked like they belonged there. Like the San Francisco diaspora returning to the homeland.

All right, plane finally arrives, flap flap flap to S.F., and I get into the city at about midnight local time. The Walgreen’s near my hotel is closed, so I go looking for a store that’s open all night so I can get some supplies. I drive around and around, but they’ve rolled up the sidewalks like some hick town. I finally go all the way over to the Safeway on Market, where the dark parking lot is full of men sitting in cars, surely up to no good, and the store is dimly lit. It feels like one of those dystopian futures, though there is plenty of food and drink, and I don’t have to sell my body in exchange for the last 4-pack of Frappuccino. In fact, I brazenly move among the late-night denizens in my skull-and-harlequin t-shirt, feeling oddly safe and untouchable.

***

The painting week was strange but compelling, as always. I seem to understand less and less about this process the longer I paint. I don’t even know how I’m going to describe what went on. But here goes.

All week my conscious mind was lagging behind whatever was happening on the inside. At one point I told Barbara I wasn’t interested in what I was painting. We sat down together, and she asked “if there could be some feeling under there.” I had absolutely nothing to have “feelings” about, but my eyes immediately flooded with tears. It was bizarre. I used to have explanations for why I was crying. I went back to my painting, and suddenly I was hit by the thought that if my family were all to die, I would be alone in a way I’ve never been before. It felt so primal, something about my biological ties being cut. So I painted my 3 closest family members dead in their graves and cried like a motherless child. I couldn’t believe there had been no feeling on the surface and then POW, something completely unexpected popped up. It was the first of many times when I realized I had no idea what was going on.

Something is triggered in me when I leave my secure, cozy life in the U.P. to head for San Francisco for these intensives. Even though I take the same bloody airline, stay in the same hotel, and rent the same car, there is an essential quality of the Unknown in the experience. Of course, the Unknown exists in the U.P., too, but in my own home it’s easier to delude myself that I’m in charge. When I drive down to Green Bay, leave my Jeep to weather the elements, and enter the bizarro world of air travel, I am embarking on 10 days of adventure, which to me is just another word for lack of control.

There’s also the matter of sensory overload. To go from the bucolic quiet of a small town to the stimulation of the big city—plunging right into traffic on 280 in my rented Chevy Cobalt, joining the dense stream of cars down 19th Avenue—is exciting, even after 18 hours “on the road” and 4 Dramamine, but I’m looking ahead to 7 days of painting, which is as unpredictable as anything I’ve ever done—even a roller coaster has a defined route and a safe landing. And regardless of how well or badly the week goes, I then face the trip home, with its inherent insecurities. So I’m both thrilled and terrified and not entirely sure why I decided to do this at all.

As the days went on, I became increasingly overwhelmed by everything I was feeling. Being away from my familiar routine… having to sleep and eat according to a schedule not of my making… seeing more people in a day than I usually see in a month… it all just seemed like too much. But aside from the various stressors, I was enjoying being with friends I hadn’t seen in a year or more. Knowing the time would be over soon, I would gaze at Diane(s) or Barbara or Terry (etc.) and try to be here now (an imperative from the ‘60s). But there was no way to capture the experiences and hold on to them, except in dim, useless memory. Then there was the food—burritos from L’Avenida!… mu shu chicken at Alice’s Restaurant!… fettuccini carbonara at Bella!… quesadillas at Lakeside!… avocado BLTs at Chloe’s!… beef skewers and Caesar salad at Asqew!… pasta at Osteria!… more pasta at a bistro in Hayes Valley!… Stop me before I spend the next 5 pages talking about food!

***

At one point I was painting a building that started to look like a mosque, and I told Barbara I was painting a religion that “wants to kill everyone who doesn’t believe in it.” I became quite worked up over it. I took my notebook into the sharing room and scribbled down an emotional rant, which began: Open Letter to the Muslim Terrorist Brotherhood: FUCK YOU. (The Anglo-Saxon words are still the best.) But when I talked about it in the group later, I realized that my strong feelings weren’t really about the terrorists: Something else was going on. “Something else” was always going on! I could have ranted just as vehemently against American bankers: These days, their arrogance inflames me like nothing else.

Whenever I tried to hang my feelings on some external hook, I discovered I had no idea what was really happening. I bemoaned the fact that “I”—the “I” I think I know and want to keep abreast of any inner tectonic shifts or volcanic activity—wasn’t getting anything out of this. It’s putting the cart (you) before the horse to think that the important change ought to happen to the cart, that the cart is in charge and the horse be damned. But if you’re sitting in the cart and the horse is taking off for parts unknown, what are you supposed to do with that? All you know is the cart! You know, intellectually, that the horse is also “you,” but it’s a “you” that has a mind of its own and doesn’t necessarily stop to graze by a stream and let you catch up and rearrange the halter around its neck. In other words, you can take your horse to water, but you can’t make yourself drink in the reality of life on the tip of this iceberg—that “you” are only the visible tip sticking out of the water, and the horse is the rest of the iceberg, if icebergs could be equine animals. Forgive me for the mixed metaphors, but I think those metaphors need to be shaken up now and then. By the way, if you stare at the word “mix” long enough, you wonder how it ever ended up in the English language (15th century, from Latin mixtus).

Where was I? Oh yes. Painting, feeling, overwhelm. Mid week, Barbara had me paint on 8 taped-together sheets of paper, making each painting a little larger than 4 x 6 ft. I did four of those paintings over the last 3 days of the intensive, with little sense of its doing me any good, though Barbara kept saying I was having “huge movement” in my process.

intensive care

But in the midst of all the confusion and the mysterious highs and lows of my emotional thermostat, I felt loved and cared for all week. I received so many gifts, some physical but mostly emotional. The kindness of friends. When I discovered that Chloe’s café wasn’t serving Coke anymore (“No Coke! Pepsi!”), DD went across the street to a small market and bought me one. On the way back to the studio we visited a new gourmet chocolate shop (Saratoga) at 16th and Sanchez, and after I had already picked out 3 truffles, DD declared she was buying. Whenever she drove, she and DL had to help me get my seatbelt fastened. I felt like a big, bundled-up kid or a semicompetent adult on a day pass from the Home. One day we stopped to browse in a cookbook store (Omnivore) on Cesar Chavez nr. Church, and DL was inspired to buy a cookbook of lemon desserts. She went home that night and made some wonderful lemon biscotti for the whole group, and a few days later made another batch for me, T, and DD to take home.

Terry, of course, was endlessly helpful, generous, and a joy to be around. We had good times laughing our respective asses off in her hotel room, where we noshed, watched TV, and checked our e-mail on her laptop. On our way to and from the studio, she helped me avoid killing numerous pedestrians, who would saunter past my car at stop signs in the night, wearing their all-black clothes, and of course many bicyclists, who blithely streak through stop signs while exhorting motorists to follow the rules of the road. Whenever I seemed oblivious to a person in the middle of the street or a car pulling out in front of us, T would gasp and then apologize, but I told her it was better to warn me than to remain silent. I fear that she took years off her life, riding with me.

DD’s hilarious “Table for one!” when I got too rambunctious at lunch still makes me giggle.

One day at the Lakeside Café I was seated facing the windows, and I interrupted by own diatribe (topic lost in the mists of time) to note that a truck with “Wolves Heating” on the side was going by. D and D, both social workers, pointed out that I was “stimulus bound,” meaning that my attention is constantly being diverted by new sights, sounds, or thoughts. I think it’s one of my most endearing traits, actually, but then I doubt I’m fully aware of the difference between endearing and annoying when it comes to my own traits. But it was fun to imagine people huddling up to wolves to stay warm.

Lately, I’ve been noticing that “multitasking” is suddenly considered a bad thing. It’s as if one-track-mindedness got itself a publicist. In the past, we were assured that being able to juggle several tasks at the same time was a useful skill. Now all I hear is that multitasking makes you less efficient at everything you do. I’m suspicious about this. It seems that women are the ultimate multitaskers, to the point where we can be carrying on a conversation in one booth in a restaurant while eavesdropping on the people in the booth behind us. Men, on the other hand, are the ultimate one-track-minders. In the 1970s, women were said to be suited for only the lowest-paying jobs because we’re “good with details.” (Women were librarians; men were library directors.) Well, who decided that details are important when, say, cataloging books but not when writing computer code or launching missiles into space? I’m not saying it’s a conscious conspiracy that women’s natural gifts keep being downgraded, but there seems to be a male-engendered biological “law” that keeps a distance between men’s and women’s status in society at any cost. The latest appeal to tradition and male hegemony is the cry that “men are being turned into women,” like god forbid. As if women, those powerful shrews who have been pretending to be downtrodden all these years, have been pulling the strings all along! All those mothers of young sons, all those female elementary school teachers, with their emasculating rules and biases, are finally succeeding in their quest to turn men into weeping wimps! Where will it end? With women in the driver’s seat? Making decisions in society? Acting—what—all independent??? Well, I have known a few men who have made giant strides toward not being assholes, and they didn’t do it by becoming wimps and crybabies. Masculinity is not lost when a man respects women, when he doesn’t rely on some mythical “superiority” to justify throwing his weight around.

***

All week my body was in protest mode. My back and legs hurt whether I was walking, lying down, or getting in and out of cars. Just stepping up on a low stool to paint the highest parts of the big paintings was painful enough to elicit a tiny, ladylike grunt. When I made the mistake of sitting on the stool to paint on the lowest parts, it took forever to haul myself off it without sprawling on the floor. I blamed the long flight and the hotel bed, but I suspect I’m just entering that lovely time of life when everything hurts, always. I’m reminded of those experiments they do with high school kids where they bundle them up and simulate blindness and deafness so they’ll feel compassion for the oldsters, but I fear this is no experiment, this is real life.

And emotionally, I was torn between the desire to have more time with my friends and wanting desperately to be home. I seem to equally crave the security of habit and the excitement of the new. In a way, it’s been the pattern of my life, but I’m feeling it more acutely now. Considering how much I complain about painting and about the anxiety-provoking air transport to get me to S.F. and back—and the money, of course—it’s amazing that I continue to do it. It’s not all good food and good times. But it’s the only place I feel that strange, compelling mixtus of mystery and challenge and love that gladdens my heart even as it puts a strain on my body. Even though I can’t mindfully retain the experience, there is a lasting impact down deep that even United Airlines can’t destroy. Following close on the heels of my great relief at being home again with my kitties, I started fantasizing about going back for the May intensive. I’m crazy, yes. But you knew that.

Being newly sensitive to how I shouldn’t “comment” on other people’s experience shared in the group, I regret that I cannot relay some of the more hilarious and touching moments that took place during the week. Can I just name some people, and they’ll know of what I speak? Alyssa, Amanda, Martha, Sima…. OK, this won’t do. There’s no way to convey the richness of it all, and the more specific I am, the more I’m aware of leaving people out who were just as essential to my experience.

On Thursday night, I had an out-of-painting experience when I met my friends Peggy and Cally (who were stopping over on their way to London, lah-de-dah), Jean, godchild Kelly, and Kelly’s new husband Duncan for dinner. It was a short but sweet evening, and I was relieved to find that I liked Duncan, whom I had never met. I don’t think I embarrassed myself by getting all painting-weird, but my friends are used to me after 20-30 years, and Duncan has read the ‘zine so you couldn’t say he wasn’t warned.

On the last day, the painting was easy, our foursome had our final lunch together, and we had our final group sharing, which generally consists of multiple expressions of gratitude to Barbara, the rest of the group, and “It”—the creative process itself, the “indefinite antecedent” that no one can truly define. It’s a two-edged sword, this final sharing, because sometimes you finish the week feeling happy, fulfilled, and in love with everyone, and sometimes you’re left feeling out of sorts and impatient with the long slow process of listening to everyone else talk about how happy they are.

As it happened, I was feeling uncomfortable, somewhat estranged from the group, thinking about having to get up at 2 a.m. to start my long slog home—in other words, already gone. As the feeling built, it became more and more physical. I started to feel nauseated, so I got up and went to the bathroom, locked the door, and started crying hard. Again, I had no idea why I was crying. It wasn’t as simple as (a) I want to leave or (b) I don’t want to leave, but it was probably a combination of the two that tried mighty hard to defy natural law and occupy the same space at the same time. I won’t go into the Archimedes Principle of Displacement, aren’t you glad? (I like how I blithely cite scientific principles without having the slightest idea what I’m talking about.)

When I finally came out of the bathroom, the group was disbanding. The time after the final sharing is always chaotic, with people gathering up their belongings and their paintings, cleaning their palettes and brushes, and saying good-bye to everyone. I blubbered my way through all that, and when I finally came face to face with Barbara, she took one look at me and said, “Finally! I knew it had to happen sometime.” Of course, she couldn’t tell me what had to happen, what it meant, or what I was supposed to do now, but at least the locks had been opened and the boats were rising (your basic dam metaphor).

this little piggy went oui oui oui all the way home

All week, the weather reports from back East had been horrendous. One report said Wisconsin had taken all snow plows off the roads because the snow just blew back after they plowed it. I had no trouble conjuring every possible horrible outcome.

I got up at 2 a.m. in order to get dressed, eat a hard-boiled egg I had saved from the day before’s continental breakfast, return the rental car, and get past security to the gate for a 6 a.m. departure. I highly recommend this schedule. The 2 a.m. part is hard, but the airport is nearly empty in those wee hours. However, I had been used to airport staff being everywhere, herding me and others into the proper lines and following the proper procedures.

Sidebar: I just had a brilliant idea. They should hire Temple Grandin, the autistic woman who made slaughterhouses more humane by seeing the process from the point of view of the animals, thus reducing their anxiety. Since we feel like cattle in airports anyway, why not streamline our process?

When I had successfully navigated 101 to the rental car center—having managed not to be fooled by the tricky San Bruno/San Bruno Ave. split—there was not a soul in sight. I followed a sign pointing “through the glass doors and to the left,” but when I got there, no one was there either. So I followed another sign that directed me to go up one floor, which I did, and then I had to go back almost as far in the opposite direction to reach the main car rental area, where the Avis counter was empty as Jesus’ tomb…. (did you know you can find a recipe online for Empty Tomb Cookies?….). I was already sweating profusely, my legs hurt, and my big toe was about to turn gangrene from walking in new shoes all week. I decided to hobble down toward Budget where a few people were hanging around. When I got to the very end of the Avis counter, there sat a quiet little employee whom I hadn’t seen because he was blocked by a big sign saying I don’t know what, but I don’t think they “try harder” anymore, and when he greeted me—did he not hear me galumphing along with my rolling suitcase and dropping my painting tube and cane?—I said, “You don’t make it easy.” I didn’t bother to explain, but then again, he didn’t ask.

I had had an epiphany the day before that I was only responsible for getting myself through each step of the process, I could do nothing about the airplane or the weather, so that cut my worry by 2/3, at least in theory. I next took the air train back to the terminal and hobbled downstairs to the United check-in counter, where there was a line of passengers but no employees in sight. Slowly, slowly, the workers started trickling in, and I managed to get a luggage tag and a boarding pass. On to “security,” which is the Unknown with X-rays. (Remember when “security” meant feeling safe?) I put my shoes, jacket, bag, painting tube, cell phone, and cane on the conveyor belt (I wished they had a conveyor belt for me), successfully passed through the metal detector, and was specially chosen for an extra pat down! I spread my arms out for the TSA lass, who said something I didn’t hear except for the word “up.” So I looked up, and she half-giggled and said “PALMS up!” I am such a dork. But at that hour of the day you can get by with a lot by stating the obvious—“It’s so early!”—as if, “You should see me mid afternoon, I’m quite the Einstein!” The pat down revealed nothing more extraordinary than my sweaty armpits and flabby love handles, so I was allowed to proceed. I made it home by 4:00 that afternoon. Sweet, sweet homecoming.

addendum

A few days ago, we had a rousing good time at my family’s Friday night get-together. Yeah, I was surprised, too. It started when my nephew and I got into a ridiculous argument about prison overcrowding. My solution was to stop incarcerating people for simple drug possession, and his was to shoot everyone on sight who wasn’t “useful to society.” I don’t know why I kept trying to reason with him (“Someone could decide that you’re not ‘useful to society’”), because he kept coming back to his favorite point, which was that drug users will eventually/inevitably “kill a family of 4” either by breaking into their house in their desperation to get money for drugs or by plowing into them on the highway while under the influence. Voices were raised, gunshots were simulated—POW! POW!—and I finally just got silly and agreed—“Kill ‘em!”—whenever he raised his hypotheticals. I did assure him I’d come to visit him in prison, though. At one point K ostentatiously tried to redirect our attention to something on the TV, and of course that got my usual dander up, and I said, “At least we’re having a ‘discussion’ for a change, it’s better than just sitting here!” She said she didn’t want “the tears to come” (mine, presumably). And from there, we left off the drug&killing talk and went on to enjoy a rollicking evening of outbursts, blowhardy opinions, off-color commentary, and humorous asides—and I occasionally let the others get a word in, too. MP was feeling a lot better since his knee surgery, so he joined in on the hilarity instead of falling asleep in his recliner. He told us a few things about his time in “Nam,” but it wasn’t heavy (he’s my brother-in-law), it was mostly about how his knee got fucked up. K finally joined in, too, and so did my nephew’s girlfriend. I want to be more specific, but it’s mostly a blur—I only know there were more dick jokes than mindful, meaningful communication, and MP claimed to be “scared” by my paintings, and K brought out a long cardboard tube she had gotten from work, and visual humor ensued from that. MP and Joshua talked about all the “assholes” in town who put a plow on the front of their too-small “light trucks,” complete with hand gestures showing what happens to the truck and its ball bearings. There were riffs about heating bills, temperamental energy-saving bulbs, physical therapy, really really fat people, the right way to cook “brats,” health insurance, the sports teams of our youth, and a two-lane bowling alley behind a bar on 13th St. that I had never heard of. Barb cracked herself up with a long joke about the Minnesota Vikings and shared a teaching moment involving oil reserves and a pile of Starburst candies. The important thing is that we talked. It was stimulating and fun, and I daresay a good time was had by all.

The evening also gave me further insight into our respective roles in the family. Barb is a monologist (every room is a classroom to her); K is a hall monitor/peacekeeper; I’m a performer; and the guys do and say whatever they want. Barb and I clash when either of us hogs the floor; K is happy as long as no one disagrees about anything; and the guys do and say whatever they want. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux #21: February 2002

January 6, 2010

This was my horoscope for the week of February 10, 2002:

Scorpio: A home office of sorts stirs your fancy. Maybe a suite, maybe a small corner. Whatever the size, time and effort spent there can change your life. Family matters are tricky, possibly bittersweet. Maybe you’ll use your home office for a little writing.

Yeah, I wish. I already have a home office, it’s no suite, and yes, the time and effort spent there have changed my life. (Plus, family matters are indeed tricky.) But I wish I had more time for “a little writing.”

I had high hopes for this issue. I usually write on Sunday, my one “day off” (if you don’t count housecleaning, bill paying, tax return preparing, large batches of spaghetti sauce making, etc. etc.). So I spent one whole Sunday chasing down filaments of thoughts that were begging to be woven together into a coherent, warm garment of prose. But now I don’t have time to follow up on all those threads, so I figured half an issue is better than none.

The good news/bad news is that I’m in overdrive, workwise. One of the publishers I’m working with makes its freelancers practically typeset the book; every paragraph, every heading, every bold or italic word, every superscript and subscript character has to be coded for the right format: e.g., PO{sb}4{end}{sp}3{-}{end}. The authors are two Brazilian professors, both very sweet, very learned, but not exactly up on their English syntax. (But to be fair, my Portuguese is terrible.) And the book—on histology, the study of the “minute structure of animal and plant tissues as discernible with the microscope”—is huge and has drawings and photomicrographs galore, with cryptic instructions by the Brazilians that I have to figure out and translate for the art studio. Oh, don’t get me started.

I’m editing another book for a different publisher, this one about microbes and fun diseases like anthrax and an even worse one called guinea worm disease…. I am doing you a big favor by not describing it to you.

Also, there are research papers, reports, and grant proposals coming in over the e-wires from Portugal, Italy, Austria, and right across the bay. I’ve been self-employed for a little over 5 years, and this is the most work I’ve had to juggle at one time. And when I’m not complaining about it, I’m thrilled. That’s the weird part, the saving grace. I love this. I wouldn’t take a regular job now. What used to be the scariest part of self-employment—not knowing where my next dollar was coming from—is now a source of pleasure, because now that I know I can count on fairly steady work, it’s exciting to know that my “next dollar,” or next 500 dollars, could come from anywhere at any time.

So instead of plumbing the depths of meaning and existence, the past, the future, the nature of everything—hey, maybe next time—I’m going to riff ‘n’ rant about a couple of things, share some wacky correspondence, and call it a ‘zine.

***

One of my favorite nicknames for Pookie is Goofball—a classic case of projection, I’m sure. I thought of this when I happened to catch a glimpse of myself in the full-length mirror before leaving to go for a walk this morning. Here’s the picture, from bottom to top: white Nikes, baggy black twill pants, gray t-shirt, green zippered jacket that could have been worn by my father in the ‘50s when he was fixing the car, dark “movie star” sunglasses, and a baseball cap with “Marin General Hospital” on the front. The glasses were the only cool item, but they didn’t help the ensemble one bit. Or rather, it’s my body that can’t pull off the neo-working-class-dyke look anymore. (My friends are divided on the appeal of those sunglasses anyway; most make the movie star connection, but last winter when I was walking with a cane because my back was in spasm, one friend asked in all seriousness if I was going blind.)

And I realized that it’s only going to get worse. When I’m old, I mean older, I’m not going to “wear purple” like the poem says. I’m going to look just like my mother, who also had a short dykey haircut and made odd fashion statements by not caring about fashion whatsoever. Believe it or not, I do care—but not enough to do anything about it. Pudgy face, pudgy body, it’s only a matter of time before I start putting my few remaining hairs up in curlers and wearing flower-print housedresses with white ankle socks and sensible shoes.

Hi, my name is Mary, and I am a goofball. I am not cool. I am going to be doddering soon. I think it’s time I learned to live with it instead of pretending to the world that “I’m not how I look.” The world had me pegged long ago, and why should I care? I’ve got my posse, and they love me just the way I am.

But I must get back to work now! Fortunately, I was able to pillage my voluminous files and find this story about a shopping incident from the not-too-distant past….

the Long’s way home

One day I drop into Long’s Drugs to make a quick purchase. All I need is one of those Glade deodorizers that you plug into a socket—I’m on a crusade to mask the aroma of eau du Pooké, if you know what I mean. After much aimless wandering around the store, I finally find the shelf with the confusing array of Glade Plug-InsR-related products—your Scented Oil (“an exciting breakthrough in home fragrancing”), your refills, your extra outlets. It’s hard to know if the Scented Oil is the thing itself, or if maybe it’s just the exciting breakthrough that you attach to the thing itself. But I don’t find anything that looks more like a basic unit, so after eliminating the refills, the snowman novelty warmer, and the extra outlets, I decide that the Scented Oil (“NEW WARMER Uses only ONE Outlet”) is indeed IT. Then I have to decide which “enchanting, no fade scent” I want. I choose the one called Vanilla BreezeR, on the theory that Country GardenR would be too cloying and “vanilla” at least implies an olfactory connection with baking. (I am so gullible.)

With my selection in hand, I proceed briskly to the express line, which is clearly labeled “9 items or less” (“or fewer,” I mentally edit). The woman in line ahead of me seems to have more than 9 items, so I silently count them. Stop at 10, get all indignant.

I really want to be on my way with my 1 measly item, so I weigh my options. The other lines are likely to be worse, and if I say something to the woman about being in the wrong line, it will be completely pointless, because now—I’ve waited too long—the clerk is ringing her stuff up  (v e r y  s l o w l y—there’s a reason they call it L o n g ‘ s). It will also be petty. Do I just want to make this woman feel bad? Well, shouldn’t she feel just a little bad? We live in a society. It has rules. My usual tactic in this situation is to stand there and seethe and hope the pissed-off molecules radiating off me will penetrate the object of my scorn. They rarely do, but I’m eternally optimistic. So I look pointedly up at the sign and back at the woman, and I will her to hear me silently screaming, DOES THAT LOOK LIKE 9 ITEMS TO YOU??

For whatever reason, probably just generalized hostility, I decide to go for it. I say to the woman, “express line you know.”

She turns and looks at me, confused. “What?”

I mutter into my chest, “express line.” (My rage is big and bad when it’s seething inside, but it deflates on contact with the air.)

The woman looks up at the sign, and there’s a moment when our relationship—fleeting though it may be, and defined only by our proximity and the fact of my 1-item virtue compared with her profligate spending in the wrong line—can go either way. It’s a fork in the road of the social construct known as the “point of purchase,” where everyone is in a hurry, even if they’ve just spent half an hour poring over all the possible choices of deodorizers.

The woman, bless her, takes the road less traveled by when she says, “Oh, I’m SORRY. I didn’t see that. I just saw the sign that said they take ATM cards.”

Of course, when someone responds that way to a mild-mannered complaint, you completely forgive them and want to rush to assure them that it’s perfectly OK—even when, as I now realize, it turns out she’s returning something and the clerk has to write the equivalent of the Magna Carta on a tag and then again on the box, and the woman has to run her ATM card through the little machine twice because she’s flustered, having racked up $135 (!) worth of more than 10 items while I’m standing there waiting to buy my little Glade Plug-InR.

So by now I totally want to save her further embarrassment—whereas, if she had reacted snidely, I’d be writing this story up as a curmudgeonly rant about her probable ownership of an SUV and her self-centered life in general. So, as we watch the clerk labor over her chore, I say in a comradely manner, “This is the slowest place in the world anyway.” And she replies that Thrifty at Northgate is even worse, and I respond, “Yeah?,” and we go back to waiting, and I look in the other direction at the end-of-aisle specials—the Pillsbury cake mixes and the elaborate plastic water Uzis—as if I’m fascinated by all the wonderful things for sale and completely unconcerned by how long this is taking.

After another minute or two, she says again, “I’m really sorry,” and I say, “That’s OK.”

The geologic clock is ticking, but the clerk manages to complete the transaction before the next Ice Age arrives. The woman gathers up her bags and says one more “I’m sorry” for the road. As she’s rushing off, I call to her, “That’s OK, you were really nice about it.” And she turns and gives me a genuine smile and says, “You were, too,” and I smile back, and I feel as if little bluebirds are twittering around our heads and bunny rabbits are frolicking at our feet just like in the happy part of “Snow White.” As simple and seemingly mundane as our interaction was, we succeeded in modeling right relationship between strangers, possibly the only hope for humanity in these perilous times of road, air, and store rage, not to mention ye olde terrorism and hockey-dad furiosity.

Of course I’m not saying that the war on terrorism or even the war on rabid sports fathers will be won by our all being just a little nicer to one another. But I do believe in the profound effect of tiny actions and tiny choices. The microworld of matter—bacteria, atoms, quarks, and God knows what else—is a real force in the world we can see, so how could the microworld of consciousness not be at least as powerful?

So I recommend that we extend ourselves just slightly beyond our own boundaries and put ourselves in someone else’s place when we can—not to usurp them, not even to move them, but simply to call a moment’s truce in the middle of the battlefield of life and to hear the cartoon bluebirds come twittering around our heads in cheerful abandon.

p.s. Here is my review of the Glade Plug-InR: The “long-lasting rich fragrance that unfolds throughout your home for a full 60 days” is so strong and so sweet that you feel as if you’re being prematurely embalmed. If you enjoy that sensation, by all means, go for it.

fan mail from some flounder

As author, editor, and publisher of the mary’zine, I get some interesting mail. (Not enough, but what I do get is great.) The other day, amid the usual snail’d collection of junk and bills, I received something unique, to say the least. It appeared to be a letter from my old friend K in Michigan, but there was a name I didn’t recognize in the return address: “Skelly, c/o….” Inside, nestled between two sheets of notepaper, was a soft-plastic skeleton, about 4 inches high, and the following carefully printed letter:

Dearest Mary—

Have I found a home at last? When my mistress K— read that you keep tiny skeletons in lipstick cases, she was certain that you would not turn me away. She has been looking for an appropriate—and loving—home for me ever since the little daughter of her best friend (who also once gave her a much treasured lipstick case… but she keeps lipstick in it, if you can imagine) gave me to her for Halloween.

K—, who is marking her poor, failing aunt’s underpants tonight with the name “R—“ in big black letters so she can take them to the retirement home tomorrow, wants me to tell you that Michigan isn’t really so bad, despite Skip et al. In fact, she and D— enjoy vacationing in the very geographic area (well, the U.P., that is) that you fear to return to (or rather, to which you fear to return). She also wants me to tell you that she ordered the back pain book and has read every word… and thinks there may be some sense in it. Well, I certainly don’t need to worry about my back too much. What color lipstick case might I call home do you suppose??

Skelly

P.S. I love cats… and K— may soon get a DOG……

P.P.S. I hope the P.O. doesn’t think I’m anthrax or something.

Well, as you might imagine, this was quite a surprise, but I was more than happy to give the wayfaring—nay, banished—bony little stranger a home. Later, in my e-mail out-box, I found the following letter that Skelly him/her/itself wrote to K—:

Dear K—,

Just thought I’d drop you a line to say I arrived chez Mary safe and sound and none the worse for wear, considering the long journey. I have to admit I had my doubts when you stuffed me in that envelope and sent me off to take my chances in those brutal postal machines—fortunately I’m already flat. I stayed very still so they wouldn’t suspect me of being a bacterium.

Anyhoo, now that I’m here, I’m happy as can be. You wouldn’t believe the weather! It’s practically balmy! You can take your snow and shove(l) it, my dear! WOOOOO-OOOOO…. Sorry, I’m getting a little carried away.

Mary is SO NICE. And her house is full of my people!—all shapes and sizes, doing all sorts of interesting things. I don’t know where I’m going to bunk yet. I’m too big for a lipstick case, that’s for sure! She’s been giving me a tour of the place and trying to decide just where I’d be most comfortable.

The Cat is kind of intimidating, but his meow is worse than his scratch. He’s even taken me under his paw and showed me how to use the computer.

Well, gotta go. Thanks again for caring enough to find me a good home, one where I would be truly appreciated.

As always, Skelly

p.s. Mary thought my letter was pretty funny and wanted me to ask you if she could print it in something called a… zeen? As you recall, I made a couple of personal remarks about you, not to mention your poor aunt, so she will understand if you want to remain anonymous and unheralded. But thanks to you, I’ve discovered that I really enjoy writing, so I may take knucklebone to keyboard again sometime, if the Cat doesn’t mind giving me another lift up.

The next day, I was lucky enough to intercept K’s reply:

Dear Skelly,

I am relieved that you have at last found a cozy resting place, despite the cat. (Now that you’re gone, we’re thinking of getting a Corgi—and you know how puppies love to chew.) You never did look very comfortable in the old ashtray in the cupboard.

Tell Mary she can reprint the letter, although I can’t remember most of it. Did you even show it to me? If you mentioned my aunt’s rather unusual last name, perhaps she will change it or use just the first letter or something. Who knows how many R—s might be out there in that state. In fact, her father spent a bit of time gold prospecting there in the 19th century—maybe he left bastards behind.

Well, I must return to some BORING citation editing. Give Mary my best and thank her often for her kindness.

Bottoms up. K

Skelly now resides in my home office, pinned to a bulletin board where I can rest my weary eyes upon him/her/it as I’m toiling away. If s/he doesn’t like it, s/he knows where the mailbox is.

……………………………………..

is she gone

yeah, that pin was ridiculously easy to pull out. give me a boost up, will you… thanks.

no problem… youre a skinny little thing arent you… so how do you like her royal highness so far…

well, other than her weird sense of humor, she’s really cool… so thoughtful and kind… why are you laughing?

all in due time, my bony little friend, all in due time

and she’s got a point. i am he/she/it. i am beyond sex roles and of course sex itself. i am truly trans-sexual.

dude… youre a hunk o plastic

maybe… but i represent the foundation and the future of embodiment… the flesh is weak but the skeletal structure goes on Forever.

hey how did you make that capital letter

all in due time, my fat furry friend… all in due time.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #25 December 2002

January 6, 2010

play tell

A quiet week in, like, Woebegone? No way! I’m gone like daddio, long gone. I’m gone and I’m down, I’m goin’ downtown, so watch me rhyme and turn on a dime.

My musical tastes change periodically, every 10 years or so eventually, the osmotic mass tedium does its thing and I’m no more medium I’m hot on the wing. Just call me M, I’m all about Michi-gan and Eminem. He’s from the thumb, down De-troit way, prob’ly never been Up where I come from but that’s OK.

Never thought I’d see the day but I gotta say/ Life’s too short to be all snooty, what am I, a goody-goody? Eminem rocks, I gotta be sayin’ it/ Music’s so fine I got to be playin’ it/ 8 Mile’s the bomb-a slice of Detroit dram-a/ Eminem is hearable, sometimes unbearable/ I wish he’d lay off the ho’s on the cock talk, but he’s from that walk/ It don’t make him a bum necessarily just an accessory to the hip-hop legacy/ He’ll grow out of it, there’s no doubt about it/ Cuz he ain’t dum and he loves his daughter, it’ll get harder to be her father and rag on those bitches, he’ll find his niche(s), his growth as an artist/ I’m tryin’ my hardest but got to get me sum funny fore I lose you, honey/ I can’t stop I really mean it/ hip-hop on the brain/ I’m bein’ it/ If I’m goin’ batty least I got a beat, got it from my daddy…O!

Act my age? I’m in between/ The boomers span the X, Y and ‘Zine/ You new generation with all due veneration we ain’t dead yet you wanna bet? You’ll get your turn when we’re spinnin’ in our urn/ We’ll haunt you 4-ever, wait till you’re makin’ fun of gens A B whatever/ We all gotta die but we don’t gotta lie down and take it/ Dylan Thomas himself may be rappin’ down under/ Hippin’ and hoppin’ his pomes like thunder.

I say music with a beat, no matter how primitive is just as neat as the old masters’ sheet/ John Belushi on SNL doin’ his Beethoven jive. He be sittin’ at the piano in his freakin’ white wig, composin’ like a 19th century prig, but nothin’ sounds quite right/ Then on comes the bulb of light and all of a sudden he break into a Motown gig, baby o baby I don’t mean maybe, you dig? It always made me wonder why rock’n’roll couldn’t have been invented a coupla centuries younger. Why did it have to be so evolutionarily gradual? I guess your ears have to become more accustomed and agile to hear certain rhythms and rhymes. Good times! It ain’t all about bein’ young, son, where you think you come form?

Last time I didn’t rhyme, I wrote about my trip back in time to my place of origin (POO) to see my family of origin (FOO) for my brother-in-law’s funeral, who? Skip to my Mary Lou, I’m happy to report that my feelings of connections were not an illusion (sometimes these conversions can be a short fusion).

That’s right, peeps, I’m all about the U.P. It’s like a dam burst and let out the part of me that never left the hood or the sticks or the roots (don’t fail me, foots), I been shunnin ‘em so long, I never questioned my attitude or my latitude. Know what? They call Menominee-Marinette the Bay Area too, and I live in Marin the big sis of Marin-ette where my l’il sis gets her due/ And now at plus 55 I realize I just been keepin’ my prejudices alive. I’m still rather stunned by this fork in the road, I’m almost undone. But Barb and K it don’t faze ‘em none. I told ‘em when I was there, “I feel like I got my family back!,” and they don’t say jack, I guess to them I never left, or I been gone so long it looks like up to them, that’s just who I am—Mary from California who’s so gay she has to eat three times a day. As a McKenney, this temporal disconnect is one of many, like when you disappear for a year or more then show up at the door, yer car idlin’ in the drive while the missus goes inside, you just take up where you left off and then you up and leave again/ The roots don’t move but your bloomin’ head’s got to be groovin’ like dandelions a-blowin’ in the wind/ What you got to prove, that you know where you been?

I been there and back, I’m not off the track/ I am who I am at my core/ And more, my peeps are part of me, hellooo Menominee….

[2009 update: You’d think I’d be embarrassed to put this rhymin’ crap on the World Wide Map. But it’s quite liberatin’ to be old and irrepressible, not so much responsible. Forget that old saw, that anythin’ worth doin’ is worth doin’ well, I’m just huffin’ and puffin’ and playin’ to tell.]

***

My sister Barb and I have been e-mailing just about every day since my September visit. It’s humbling to realize how much goes on back there that you don’t know about if you live 2000 miles away. My mother used to write me all the time, but then it seemed like news from the Old Country. Coming from my sister, for some reason, it feels real and contemporary.

I’ve asked Barb for permission to quote a few of her e-mails, because they illustrate that life is rich, complicated, tragic, and comic wherever you are, whether your town has good restaurants and bookstores or not. Living in a small town—did I ever say? pop. 12,000 or so in Menominee (MI), 14,000 or so across the river in Marinette (WI)—and being close to your family can be a great existence. (Me, I need a little distance.)

(Notes indicated by superscript numbers follow the third e-mail.)

Subject: Local news you wouldn’t believe

Date: Sun, 13 Oct 2002 00:25:08 -0500

Dear Mary,

With all the other stuff I told you, I forgot to tell you of the excitement in town.

Thursday, it seems that a large ship, trying to get through the Menekaunee bridge, hit the left side of the bridge and then in trying to correct itself hit the right side of the bridge. The bridge, which is the one I take to work every day, will be closed for 2 weeks for repair. Estimated cost $60,000.

Friday, on my way home from school, it was announced on the radio that people should avoid going in the downtown area as a train had derailed that morning and the roads there were closed. Turned out they were two chemical tankers, but luckily they were empty. Scientists said the chemicals they would have been carrying would not have been lethal if they mixed, but they were below high power lines and that would have been a real problem.

Friday night, B announced that C (his ex-wife, who is the mother of _____ and _____ ) was held at gunpoint and shot at by her boyfriend’s dad. He had been drinking and apparently had a Vietnam flashback. He told his dog to watch his back and that he would watch his. She is OK, just shaken up some. B was pretty upset that she has brought _____ and _____ over there several times knowing this guy was not quite right.

That’s it. Take care. I love you.

Love, Barb

When Barb wrote me that she had baked 15 dozen chocolate chip cookies to give to friends and family who had helped with the roofing project, I replied, somewhat disingenuously, that I wished I had some. With my birthday coming up, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to drop a hint. (BAM! That’s the sound of my hint hitting the floor.) She came through.

Subject: Package coming of cookies

Date: Sun, 27 Oct 2002 20:41:10 -0800

Dear Mary,

My company of Lorraine, A.J., and Cody just left. I am about to go to the kitchen and start making your chocolate chip cookies. I will then Overnight them to you tomorrow so they will be nice and fresh. Please DO NOT wait until your birthday to open this package from me, as that will negate everything I am trying to do. There will be a couple of other things in there that you can wait until your birthday to open,1 but get to those cookies right away.2 I am sending a pet for your skeleton.3 Hope you enjoy the treat and your birthday.

Kay also found something you will enjoy,4 but is having a hard time finding a box for it, so asked me to tell you it will arrive a little late for your birthday.

I know you didn’t want to start the whole birthday thing going again, but it’s so much fun when you know more about the person for whom you are shopping. Ooooh, proper English.

Spent the day yesterday with Summer and Darien shopping and going out to lunch. We had a good time. Bruce and his son Andy came over today and we dismantled the park.5 Brian showed up just as we were finishing. Got it done in about 3 hours. Not too bad. Only nice day this week; 45 degrees. It is suppose to be below 30 for the rest of this week. Brrrr. Glad it’s done.

Love, Barb

Soon after, Death paid another visit.

Subject: Up and Exhausted

Date: Tue, 29 Oct 2002 23:56:27 -0800

Dear Mary,

This is the first quiet moment I have had all day. It is 10:57 p.m. Shirley just left. I’ll come to why in just a minute.

In this last week, I have just been beginning to feel like life might be half-way normal again. I had made arrangements to get the tractor picked up to have the lawnmower deck taken off and the snowblower put on with a tune-up done by JD Rental. I was having yearbook meetings. Then yesterday happened.

I had gone to the dentist that morning in Green Bay to have the root canal done. Lorraine brought me and when it was done, we mailed your package, went to Country Buffet for lunch, then to Sam’s for some shopping. I bought a few things, including a box of Mounds candy bars for Ray.6

After we got home at 4:15, I walked over to Ray and Shirley’s to give him the candy bars. He was delighted and commented how Skip and I would always bring him candy bars from Sam’s. He asked how much I owed him. I said nothing. He said you can’t keep doing that. I said yes I can.

In talking, I found out that Shirley needed to go to Menard’s to get some tar for their roof as it was leaking. I offered to take her. Ray wanted me to stay and eat pasties7 with them. I declined. When we went to Menard’s, Shirley told me Ray insisted I get some of that pastie and wanted me to come in and get some when we got back from Menard’s. We talked on the way there about how Ray was getting upset with Shirley raking leaves and said he would have to get back in his wheelchair and follow her around to keep her out of trouble. When we got home, Shirley told me I might as well come in and get some pastie because if I didn’t Ray was going to make her run over to my house with some. I went in and again made small talk with Ray. I went home.

About 8:30, I was talking to Judy on the phone and Kay called. I have call waiting. I interrupted Judy’s call to find Kay asking what was going on in the neighborhood: an ambulance had just been dispatched to Jacobson Street.8 I told her and Judy I would call them back and rushed out the front door. It was at Ray’s house. I rushed in the open door to find Shirley frantic, Randy crying, and Ray passed out on the bathroom floor. Shirley said, “He’s not breathing, I know what this is.” Ray was turning blue already. I called Ray’s sister Jerri and her husband Fritz, and his brother Donnie and wife Sue, to get them there as quickly as possible. Another neighbor was there trying to help too. We called her daughter Sandy, and soon Shirley had family around her. They headed off to the hospital, we neighbors waited in case Sandy showed up and promised to turn out lights and lock up when she was located.

Having done that, it was go home and wait. I called back Kay, Judy, then called Brian and Lorraine. Brian came over and we talked and waited. I left my porch light on so Shirley would know I was still awake. When I called Judy back, she said she had heard on the scanner that they had an irregular heartbeat, then a few moments later lost it and said they were starting CPR. It was his heart, not his lungs. He had a heart attack just like Skip. Ray had just mentioned earlier that Skip was lucky that he went so quickly and didn’t have to linger in a hospital bed for weeks with needles stuck in him and tubes hanging out of him. Shirley called at 11:30 to let me know Ray had died. She said she held his hand and said goodbye to him like I did with Skip.

I didn’t sleep well last night and was already exhausted from the day’s physical and emotional stress. When I went to school this morning, I felt tender and on the edge. I managed to tell my principal what had happened with just some quivering in my voice. Then Kay W., another teacher, came up all cheery and asked how I was today. I burst into tears. Some hugs and a short quiet time got me back together again and I managed to make it through the rest of the day. I explained it briefly to my classes and felt like I was in a fog all day.

After a yearbook meeting I had already scheduled, I rush home to find JD Rental already there, Brian showing up to help get that done, then staying to work on some bugs in this computer. He left and Lorraine came over with muffins, raisin bread, turkey, ham, and rolls to give to Shirley. We visited Shirley and she asked if I would help her do some picture boards9 for Ray like I did for Skip. I told her sure. I then went to Office Max to get the supplies. Just when I got back home, Bruce was there. Shirley came over and we began. Shirley just left and we got one board done. Two more to go. She had left some pictures and I have been running them off while I have been writing to you. We will build the other two tomorrow night.

The funeral will be Friday from 4-6 visitation and 6-6:30 service. I am glad it is on Friday so I have the weekend to settle back down again. Upset and reliving all of the emotions again? Yes. It is hard not to. I have to try and be strong for Shirley this time. Friday is going to be very difficult.

I am glad you liked the cookies. I sent you 74 and kept a few back for me. That was a triple batch. When I gave one to Lorraine, Cody and A.J. tonight, Lorraine said to A.J., grandma makes cookies better than Mom’s, hey A.J.? He nodded his head as he munched. Lorraine said, “This is where you say, “Oh no Mom. Yours are the best cookies.” A.J. just grinned.

Hanging in there because I have to. Will write again soon. Always love hearing from you. Take care.

Love, Barb

Notes

1Including a video of a Jeff Daniels movie called “Escanaba in Da Moonlight,” which was filmed in the U.P. some miles north of Menominee. The accents of the characters are the U.P. equivalent of the Minnesota accents in “Fargo.”

2Needless to say, I got to the cookies right away!

3A gray stone kitty. She means the big skeleton that sits behind the desk in my living room, not little “Skelly,” the Michigan native who arrived by snail mail a few months ago.

4An Erector set from 1949! I’d always wanted one but always got girly-girl presents instead. Both Kay and Barb have been looking for years for a yellow dome-top lunchbox like the one I’m holding in one of the few pictures of me with my dad. (Yes, so the Boomers are into reclaiming their childhood. Wait till you get here, my young friends.)

5Barb explained later: “Don’t know if I ever answered your question about what we had to do to get the park ready for winter. Take down the patio lights, take down the signs and swing, unchain the picnic tables and lean them up against the wood piles to keep snow off them, take down the wind chimes and smaller bird feeders. Bring up the kerosene and lamps. Take in the statues.”

6Ray was Skip’s best friend.

7A folded (calzone-like) meat and vegetable pie, a U.P. specialty. That I can’t stand. They have rutabagas.

8They all have police scanners and keep track of everything that’s going on. I can hear the sirens of fire trucks a couple blocks away, and unless they roar up and park right outside my condo, I don’t even glance out the window.

9A new(?) custom at funerals; boards placed near the coffin showing a variety of photographs from the deceased person’s life.

***

When I wrote Barb for permission to quote some of her e-mails (slightly edited) in the ‘zine, I had to explain to her what the ‘zine was. She was intrigued.

Subject: Sure go ahead. Sounds interesting.

Date: Sat, 16 Nov 2002 23:27:38 -0600

… As far as your Mary’zine, I don’t mind at all. It’s nice to be a part of your life again. So here is an interesting incident I haven’t told you yet about the cookie package…. After the dentist that day in Green Bay, I went into Mail Boxes Etc. where they had a Fed Ex sign in the window. As bold as brass, I went in, put the package on the counter and said, “This absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” The guy behind the counter hands me 2 forms and tells me to fill them out. In doing so, I also had to declare the value of the package. I won’t discuss the price of the other gifts, but I figured I had about $10 in cookie dough. He went to the computer, punched in some information, and said, “You absolutely, positively want it there over night?” “Yes,” I said affirmatively. “OK, it will be there at 10:30 tomorrow morning guaranteed.” “Terrific,” I proclaim. “That will be $107.” I bit my lip, paid the man, said thank you, and walked out. My jaw and Lorraine’s too dropped when I got in her Jeep and told her about it. I guess when you walk in bold as brass, you better have the cahunas to back it up. Did your mouth just drop open? I am so glad you enjoyed those cookies so much. That made it all worthwhile.

***

I also sent Barb a copy of my Eminem rhyme, and she responded in kind:

Real cool and insightful too.

Enjoyed your rap and that aint no flap.

M is straight up with K and B,

One consciousness livin’ as three.


So now she’s rappin’ all the time, I ain’t lyin’:

Well it’s 12:49 and its getting late,

So I’ll leave this note and accentuate

That you’re our big sis, you will always be.

We love you much, that’s from K and me.

Barb is the designated family e-mailer and reads highlights from all my e’s to Kay—including the long Eminem rap. (I would love to have heard that.) Kay wonders if the ‘zine will make me famous… like Paul Harvey (conservative radio commentator, insanely popular in the Midwest, whose signature closing is “Good…………day?”). I don’t know if I’ll ever reach those dizzying heights of celebrity, but it’s good to know my own family supports me with alacrity.

(I feel like I’m showin’ pictures of my family tree and you’re trapped in here with me, oohin’ and ahhin’ ever so polite-ly.)

***

I am trying to get a grip here.

***

Of course, having told my sisters about the ‘zine, the next step was to let them read it. This made me nervous, because I’ve never thought of my family as part of my audience. For a while, I thought, why rock the boat? We get along great now; why reveal things that might divide us further? I didn’t want to put something in motion that would—not to put too fine a point on it—come around and bite me in the ass. I finally realized I was being patronizing, as if they were too Midwestern or just too long out of touch with me (or I with them) to follow my verbal flights of fancy.

So I finally sent them most of the back issues, figuring they can pick their way through them like a box of assorted chocolates, reading what interests them and leaving the ones that are too nutty. However, I held back #24, about my trip back there for the funeral, first because I thought it might be too soon for Barb to read about it, and second because I was afraid that, having written it for people who don’t know them, I might have been too facile in my storytelling. When you’re a writer, you use (and abuse) whatever material you have, for your own vile and humorous purposes. Complex people become characters, to be twisted this way and that, readily sacrificed for a laugh. So I call my dead brother-in-law a tranny wannabe. Way to be sensitive. Sometimes I think I should have my poetic license taken away for reckless writing.

But I guess I can’t protect my family from who I am. I’m committed to following through and opening up my (California) life(style), via the ‘zine, to the people who have known me the longest. I have kept the CA and MI parts of my life compartmentalized for so long that it’s a little daunting to think that I can be (and write like) one person and not be shielding the Left Coast from the Midwest parts and the Midwest from my oh-so-privileged-yupscale life. But when I was back there, I felt I could be completely myself—it wasn’t as if I had to turn off my brain and settle in with the home folks and talk only about the rain.

Gee, could it be true? I’ve always thought I had to be, not all I could be, but whichever part of me would be acceptable to whomever I was with—dole myself out in truncated form, keeping the rest of me on a need-to-know basis. A “spiritual” person with my “spiritual” friends, a middle-class professional with my middle-class friends, a down-to-earth no-pretense McDonald’s-going troll with my working-class friends and family. The question is, can I be ME, one consciousness livin’ as THREE or more? I underestimate people in all those categories—mostly by putting them in categories to begin with. J said I could be a bridge between the various worlds I live in. And here I’ve been thinking I was just the troll under the bridge, hardly daring to show my true face. When I was writing to Barb one day, I compared myself to an ostrich sticking its head in the sand. She wrote back to inform me that (“scientific fact”) there was no such thing. So I looked it up, and sure enough,

To escape detection, ostriches may lie on the ground with neck outstretched, a habit that may have given rise to the notion that they bury their head in the sand.

I still think that, metaphorically, the two images express pretty much the same thing. But now that my ostrich-related metaphor inventory has doubled, I can think of myself not only with “head in sand” but “lying on the ground with neck outstretched,” a useful posture, perhaps, both for “escaping detection” and for making a bridge between worlds—no toll, no troll, just a way to streeeeeetttttchh-a, you betcha.

boomer nation

Forty is the new twenty.

—Sheryl Crow, who must have just turned 40

Watch the Baby Boomers redefine the stages of life! If the nursing home is rockin’, don’t bother knockin’! Yes, my generation is accused of trying to remain young forever, of denying the realities of age and maturity and death, of competing with our offspring, if we have any, to be hipper and younger than them and thou. And there’s some truth to that. In some ways we had a very privileged youth at a very exciting time in history—especially those of us who were part of the antiwar movement, the counterculture, the underground press, and the beginnings of new, groundbreaking movements for women, gay people, and ethnic minorities. And then there’s the fact of our sheer numbers. So the media get to rag on us for being so plentiful, and no opportunity to make fun of us for getting old is ever passed up. It’s just plain old ageism, nothing new at all. And yes, I know… we didn’t trust anyone over 30 back in the day, and it’s coming back to haunt us. Wait till you see what your ghosts look like.

Middle age is when you stop criticizing the older generation and start criticizing the younger one.

—Lawrence J. Peter

So true.

But clearly, the trend of the eternally trendy is just beginning. If 40 is the new 20, I’m sure that 60 will be the new 30 for Generations X and Y—especially since they tend to be into healthful eating, bike riding, and tree hugging. (Kids today.) And with molecular regeneration of body parts on the horizon, future generations will be rockin’ far longer than we ever will.

According to Sheryl Crow’s math, I turned “28” this year. That’s getting up there—because, as we all know, there’s nothing worse than aging, or, as I like to think of it, continuing to live. You’d think that would be a good thing, but it’s a source of great shame, at least in our culture. If I and my peers, still crazy after all these years, could accomplish one last thing before our selfish dinosaur selves die out, it might be to convey the truth about being old vs. youthful. But I suspect it’s not useful. They’ll just have to find out for themselves that youth is great for some things but that getting older is the real blessing.

One sure thing about my generation’s march toward oblivion is that we’re all going to get mighty sick of the word “Boomer.” I got an ad in the mail from a hearing aid company that began its pitch, “HEY BOOMER!!” (I wanted to call them up and say, “My hearing may be bad, but I can READ JUST FINE”). I think the B word will have to be incorporated into the generic phrase for old people, just so we aren’t confused with “The Greatest Generation,” our suddenly sainted Depression-era parents. I always hated the term Seniors, unless you’re talking about high school students or underclassmen. But I’m guessing we’ll be referred to as some variation on Senior Baby Boomers—Baby Seniors—Senior Boomers—Senior Babies. Be the first on your block to coin the newest derogatory term for the elderly! But the Boom spanned a lot of years, from 1946 to 1964, so those of us who were the first products of the post-WWII unprotected-sex epidemic will have to be distinguished from our younger siblings as “Elder Baby Senior Boomers.” But since we’re not of Social Security age just yet, for now you can think of us as Junior Elder Baby Senior Boomers. (I knew I should have gone into marketing.)

***

So mostly I just ignore all this mass media nonsense and live my life, but it/they, the mass tedia, got to me the other day. I’m enjoying my newfound attraction to hip-hop, have bought a few CDs and started listening to Live105—so nice to hear some music with N-R-G instead of that ‘90s/’00s pap-pop-crap (crapopap—the next dance craze?). And then along comes Maureen Down [Freudian slip; DOWD], in the New York Times, to report that soccer moms across the nation are “surreptitiously smitten” with Eminem. They have to listen to his music in the car after dropping off their 11-year-old daughters, who are “repulsed” by him.

Frantic to be hip, eager to stay young, we are robbing our children of their toys. Like Mick Jagger, we want to deny the reality of time and be cool unto eternity. Eminem sings only about himself, which makes him a perfect boomers’ crooner.

Oh puh-lease! Honey, take your social analysis and your boomer crooner doom out of the room and slouch off to your own eternal-uncool tomb. Let people like what they want to. Sometimes a mid-life red convertible is just a cigar. You dig? She ends with this zinger:

He’ll have to be very smart and very wicked if he doesn’t want to hear himself in elevators.

Uh huh. And how do you think he got where he is? By being very smart and very wicked. He’s played American culture like a violin. Obviously, I don’t like everything he says, but he’s for real, and his verbal agility is awe-inspiring. If he’s the new Elvis, “ripping off the black man so he can get wealthy,” so be it. Elvis brought R&B into the mainstream, and Eminem is doing the same for hip-hop. (I think he’s generally regarded as the best. Here’s Charles Barkley: “You know it’s gone to hell when the best rapper out there is a white guy and the best golfer is a black guy.”) And his take on race relations is refreshing—a class-conscious view that doesn’t scapegoat working-class blacks, his natural allies. I wish he were more enlightened about women, but he’s all bitchin’ and ho-in’ like rap tradition demands. But I guess if he gave women as much respect as he gives black men, he’d lose all credibility. (Woman—still man’s natural enemy.) Maybe his street cred will turn his head around and let him come out with some real shockers, like women are people too, not just hos ‘n’ hookers. And wait till his daughter grows up and he sees the male-female thing from both sides now. Then let’s see who he calls a ho.

So analyze this, Maureen Dowdy. Say howdy. Do yer doody and don’t be so moody.

***

p.s. I heard from Barb this morning. She has

… now read ‘zines 1, 2, 3 and 4 and enjoyed them thoroughly. I wish to be included in future mailings.

Well, she hasn’t gotten to the “Mary’s porn” issue yet, but I’m somewhat assured that—gasp—she can handle reading both my deepest and most superficial thoughts.

So, as my horoscope says every few months, “you are on a collision with destiny.” Or maybe with the left and right sides of the bridge, to bring us full circle to the “local news you wouldn’t believe.” Whatever. Just picture me flat on the ground with my head outstretched, ostrich-like, trying to be all things to all people and wondering if—truly—the only way to get anywhere close to that is to be all things I already am.

No doubt. Peace out.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux #22: March-April-May-June 2002

January 2, 2010

“Such an intimate style, wavering between the incisive and the narcissistic….”

—said of CNN’s Aaron Brown, in the New York Times


Amazing, mysterious, bizarre, touching things always happen when you paint for several days in a row. By day 7 you’ve lost all sense of scale: the big and the small, the trivial and the life-changing, blend together like—

Barbara interrupts my intense scribbling. “No, no no! Go back to your painting!” With arm outstretched, she points to the painting room like Moses directing his people into the Red Sea.

I try to resist. “But the words are coming! This is the same process only in words!”

She cannot be moved. “The process is happening in the painting! The source is there! You’re trying to capture it! The words will wait!” Forget Moses, she has the force of authority of God Himself expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden. I tell her this, and she says she feels more like one of the ghosts in the Scrooge story. The Ghost of Painting Present, I guess.

I know the intensity has to be lived before it can be shared, but in this moment it wants to burst out of me in words, not images. She’s right, I want to capture it before it can escape.

Reluctantly, I return to my painting. “This is killing me!,” I cry, not overdramatizing one bit.

And then I go on to have an incredible afternoon painting my family as real and true as I have ever painted them. But the jury’s still out on whether the words have waited for me.

***

It’s been a long time, eh? When people ask what happened to the ‘zine, all I can say is, “It’s really quite interesting, but part of what happened is that I can’t write the ‘zine anymore, so I can’t tell people about it!” But I’m feeling stirrings in my writerly loins again, so here we go.

I was going to begin by saying “Long story short…,” but I doubt that very much. In the February issue (#21; not yet available online), I mentioned that I was so busy with work that I could only crank out a few ‘zine pages. But I still had the urge to do it, so it was fine. You can always find time to do what you really want. But when March came around and I thought about starting the next issue, I realized I was feeling kind of down, and had been for a while. The Zoloft didn’t seem to be working anymore. This was really disheartening, and I felt like an idiot for having had such high expectations. I thought, maybe it’s like a relationship—it starts out really great and then one day you wake up and realize the honeymoon’s over. Reality is always a downer, I should know that by now!

So the next time I saw my psychiatrist, I complained about how the Zoloft was no longer working. She had been trying for months to find the right combination of drugs so that I wouldn’t be so drowsy during the day. (Excessive napping—my cross to bear.) Now she thought we’d have to switch to a different SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor). She assured me that there were “lots of new drugs in the pipeline,” and I imagined the pipeline as a tube in her office, maybe set up on an IV pole right next to the couch, so I could keep sucking up mood-altering chemicals until I felt good again.

At the end of the session, as she was writing out a new prescription, I looked out the window as a new thought began dimly to form. I said, “But you know… I’m not as anxious as I used to be.” And that’s when I saw that what I’d labeled “depression” or “the Zoloft not working” was just the absence of anxiety. The feeling was so unfamiliar that I didn’t recognize it!

This made sense to Dr. P. too, so we decided I would stay on “Vitamin Z” for a while longer. Immediately, I felt the change in my veins, or wherever you feel things like that. I wasn’t doomed, I wouldn’t have to start over with a new drug and new side effects. The letdown I’d been feeling had been about missing something all right, but the something I was missing was anxiety.

***

My life seemed to change overnight. I started noticing all the ways that I wasn’t anxious anymore. The more I noticed, the better I felt. I was able to rest in the present moment, Be Here Now, instead of feeling two steps ahead of myself, as if there was somewhere I had to get (what my father would have called “going nowhere fast”). Subjectively, I had a lot more time.

One day in therapy with J, I was trying to explain the change, and she asked how I felt in my body. I focused my attention there, and all of a sudden I felt completely unself-conscious, as if my center was truly down in the center of my body instead of up in my chest, throat, and head. As much as I love and trust J, it’s always been hard for me to sit across from her for an hour and be the focus of attention, especially since she’s always watching for clues to my somatic state. I’ll make a gesture—a shrug, a wince, a tapping of my fingers—and she’ll say, “Do that again—but slow it down.” But on this day, I lost that sense of discomfort completely. I often worry about what I’ll talk about in therapy, but that day it didn’t matter. We were just there together. It was like being weightless, free of emotional gravity. J could feel the change in me and immediately went to that place in herself. We sat there grinning at each other, and I looked around the room in amazement as if I had discovered a new world (or as if I were stoned, if you really want to know). The phone rang, and she got up to turn it off. When she sat down again, she said, “Try walking around, it’s really something.” So I got up and took a few steps around the office. When I sat down, I felt the movement settling, like the “snow” in a snow globe that gets shaken and then falls gently back to earth. J said that’s exactly how it felt to her, too. It was amazing to me that she could “go there” with me, especially since she wasn’t feeling well that day. Actually, it reminded me of how I feel after painting sometimes, when it doesn’t matter what I say and I can just sit silently with other people.

Then I spotted some rubber balls in the corner and asked her if she wanted to play catch. So we tossed a ball back and forth, feeling the movement in our chests and shoulders, comparing bodily notes. I started throwing the ball up in the air and catching it, and then I stood up and bounced it on the floor and against the walls. Oops, almost knocked over that vase. I felt so free, it was so easy to move, to invent, to be spontaneous. I didn’t even have to talk! J said she’d never seen me like that, and I had to agree it was a first.

What struck me the most was seeing that “being free” isn’t about floating aimlessly, without anchor or boundary, it’s about being who you are. It’s easy to retort, “Who else could you be?,” but the truth is, a lot of us find it easier to play a role or to guard the Fort Knox of our true selves than to just be, for fear of being overwhelmed or overtaken—or of revealing ourselves to be as inadequate as we sometimes feel.

***

A few weeks before (when I thought I was depressed), J had urged me to “find a cause in the world,” and I had uttered the shameful truth, “I’m not really interested in the world.” But now I had spontaneous urges to follow up on things I would once have stuffed in the “someday” file. I subscribed to the international magazine Granta and to the Sunday New York Times. I stopped reading fiction. Spent $200 in 2 weeks at Cody’s, poring over the nonfiction shelves and coming up with books about psychobiology, Buddhism, mathematics (geometry morphing into particle physics—who knew?), the class system in America, and true stories from NPR’s National Story Project. Suddenly I was more fascinated by the real than by the made-up worlds in novels. This was not some self-improvement project—such projects are doomed because they come from the belief that you need to be a “better person,” whatever that is. It’s the same principle I learned years ago in painting, to go where your interest is.

Of course, some of my interest in “the world” was really interest in my own brain chemistry. I was sitting in my car outside Dr. P.’s office one day, with about 10 minutes till my appointment, and I picked up a book I had brought along to pass the time. It was Going on Being by Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist who uses Buddhist teachings in his practice. I was interested in his perspective, because for a spiritually semi-evolved (or is that self-involved) person like myself, one who shares the Buddha’s Enneagram number, no less, the drug-taking initially raised all sorts of questions about self-identity. Who’s the “real me”? If this is my brain on drugs, who am “I”? Where does the serotonin stop and I begin? Am I my depression, my anxiety? Who is it who suffers from these symptoms, and who is it who is relieved of the suffering by a pill?

So I started reading the Introduction, “How People Change,” and almost immediately I was plunged into a story about a woman, “searching for a spiritual life,” who was “suspicious of the role of psychiatric medications in today’s culture. It seemed like some kind of brave new world to have mood-altering drugs so readily available.” But this woman, Sally, “had been plagued with chronic feelings of anxiety and depression for much of her adult life, and despite a healthy investment in psychotherapy she still felt that there was something the matter with her.”

Sally had been taking a small dose of an antidepressant—Zoloft!—for several weeks and was

…finding that she felt calmer, less irritable, and dare she say, happier. She was planning on going to a two-week mediation retreat later that month and was wondering whether to stay on her medicine while she was there…. “Perhaps I should go more deeply into my problems while I’m away,” Sally questioned. She worried that the antidepressant would impede that process by making her problems less accessible to her.

[I’m trying not to quote the entire chapter, but it’s tempting.]

People who respond well to these antidepressants often… find… that they feel restored, healed of the depressive symptoms…. Less preoccupied with their internal states, they are freer to participate in their own lives, yet they often wonder if they are cheating. “This isn’t the real me,” they protest. “I’m the tired, cranky, no-good one you remember from a couple of weeks ago.” As a psychiatrist, I am often in the position to encourage people to question those identifications. Depressed people think they know themselves, but maybe they only know depression [my emphasis].

… The notion that we need to go more deeply into our problems in order to be healed is a prevalent one, and one that, as a therapist, I am sympathetic toward. Certainly ignoring the shadow side of our personalities can only lead to what Freud once called the return of the repressed. Yet it struck me that there was a remnant of American Puritanism implicit in Sally’s approach….

When people believe that they are their problems, there is often a desire to pick away at the self, as if by doing so they could expose how bad they really are. People think that if they could just admit the awful truth about themselves, they would start to feel better, almost as if they have to go to confession to be absolved of their sins. Going more deeply into our problems can be just another variant on trying to get rid of them altogether….

But to go more deeply into our problems is sometimes to go only into what we already know…. It can lead, at worst, to… a resigned negativity that verges on self-hatred…. I told [Sally] that at this point I felt she needed to come out of her problems, not go into them more deeply…. To be overwhelmed while on retreat would not be useful.

As a therapist influenced by the wisdom of the East, I am confident that there is another direction to move in such situations: away from the problems and into the unknown [my emphasis].

Reading this, I felt like a weight had been lifted from me. I was especially struck by the parallels with painting. People who understand that painting-for-process isn’t about “making art” often see it as a way to “work on their issues.” Indeed, we don’t shrink from the disturbing images that come up, but instead of identifying ourselves with them, we allow the act of painting to take us to a meditative level where we experience (not just “understand intellectually,” an oxymoron) that we are not that, we are not our problems. I had been exactly like “Sally” in thinking that if I wasn’t suffering I was “avoiding” or “cheating.” It was wonderful to get this point of view from a medical doctor who also has respect for the spirit.

***

Another change I noticed is that I felt more like giving. I packed up a box of books to ship to China and another box for the San Rafael Public Library. I checked out the Habitat for Humanity website to see about signing up for some hardhat action when they start building in Marin. I checked the Marin volunteers website, but the only thing that appealed to me was driving police cars to the repair shop at 6 a.m.; of course, I rejected that, partly because it was so early in the morning and partly because I couldn’t imagine driving a police car down Miracle Mile and coming upon a robbery in progress or having bloody or disoriented citizens lurch into the street, waving at me to stop and help them. (Do they have police cars that say “Not in Service”?)

I liked the idea of giving scholarships to poor kids, having been one myself. So I thought about donating to the Marin Scholarship Fund (there are plenty of poor kids here, despite the media hype about how rich the county is). Then I read an article about kids way up in northern California who don’t have many opportunities, and I thought, yeah, rural poor kids, having been one of those. Then the Obvious reached up and smacked me, and I realized I wanted to give a scholarship to my old high school in the U.P.! (U.P. = Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a virtually forgotten region of the country, known only to Ernest Hemingway and a few vacationing Chicagoans who like trees.) Believe me, this was a major turnabout. I had sworn for the last 30-some years that I would never have anything to do with that place again, but here I was, waking up to the awareness that there must still be kids back there who are smart and poor (and who want to be beatnik editors?) who need a ticket out. So I made inquiries through my sister, who teaches in the middle school in my hometown, and next year some lucky girl will be awarded a $1,000 scholarship, thanks to me and my newly un-reuptaken serotonin. Now I have to decide what to call it. It would be nice to rehabilitate the McKenney name around there, because most of the men on my father’s side were ne’er-do-wells, and my sisters got married and took their husbands’ names. So it’s up to the lesbian daughter to carry on the family name, if not the genetic line. (The genetics are marching on without me, and there’s nothing I can do about that.)

***

I’ve discovered that being emotionally healthy(er) is like having a lot of money, as in “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.” When you have greater resources—whether emotional or material—you have a foundation, a safety net, room to make mistakes, and enough abundance to think beyond survival. You can take a few losses and not go under.

***

If it appears that I’m giving all the credit to a chemical rather than to 20 years of process painting and 10 years of therapy, it’s because I’m amazed (note to self: dig out the thesaurus, quick!) by what feels like instantaneous change. Maybe it’s like the “overnight sensations” in the entertainment world who’ve been performing in obscurity for years and are suddenly “discovered.” In reality, I know that Zoloft is just the icing on the cake. The cake is therapy—or no, therapy has got to be the meat and potatoes. That would make painting the cake, Zoloft the ice cream… oh, never mind. The point is, it’s not that the drug is magic, it’s just that it helps clear away some of the emotional debris so that the real self, excavated and examined through the inner work, can emerge. People think these drugs put you in a mental state that’s like my image of Hawaii—beautiful but bland, same temperature all the time—when actually they put you wherever you already live, but with a clearer head.

***

But despite (or because of) my newfound emotional stability, I was dreading the 7 days of painting, partly because I never know what’s going to happen and that’s so uncomfortable, and partly because I wasn’t sure I would still have the desire or “ability” to paint. Although feeling better made me want to explore more, not less, I was afraid the painting urge might have gone the way of the writing urge, which seemed to have gone far, far away.

I had written the following to a friend who wanted to know what was up with the ‘zine:

I went to a new level with the Zoloft and am enjoying my life without the need/desire to share it in writing. Not to mention the fact that I’m having fewer neurotic reactions, which made up a large part of what I used to write about…. It’s weird, I’ve never felt like this. Like: Life is enough; you don’t have to prove anything or do anything special.

All well and good, but creativity is about going to the edge, pushing the envelope. What if my edges had been smoothed away? What if my envelope had already been sealed and mailed and was now gathering dust in a corner of the Dead Letter office?

After trying and failing to give J a complete news report on all my insights from the week, I realized I’m not a journalist, and so I will just write whatever I feel like and see where it goes (the driving principle of the mary’zine).

7 days in May

Day 1

Having spent most of my time since the last intensive by myself, I felt slightly overwhelmed by being with so many people in such an intimate setting. Checking out the people in the group, I was sure that several of them wanted something from me. And if someone wanted something from me, I had to give it. If someone had a problem, I had to fix it. I made a mental list of the things I felt responsible for: K’s silence. S’s self-hatred. G’s male ego. The feelings of everyone I like. The feelings of everyone I don’t like. Everyone’s lunch. (In my grandiosity, I thought I would be inundated by requests to go to lunch, but only from those who wanted something from me.) I was seeing how my mind works, and it was both repellent and fascinating, like Animal Planet during Shark Week.

My first painting was of me and J. We had been talking about ending therapy, and the thought not only made me sad—I couldn’t imagine giving up such an important relationship—but also (see above) I felt responsible for her feelings about coming to the end. When I went on to paint my mother, it was clear that my perceived responsibility for J’s (and everyone else’s) feelings was linked to my belief that it was up to me to make my mother happy, an almost impossible task. (Me and Tony Soprano.)

Then I painted a “monster” that I thought was going to be your everyday, normal monster (scary, dark, trying to get me), but it came out looking fearful and anxious—not threatening me but clinging to me—and I realized that the monster was indeed “my” fear and anxiety, now projected out of me in monster form. Seeing the monster outside of me, I had the insight that everyone I encounter is a form of me outside of me, and that the same is true for everyone else. We’re projecting our own shortcomings or idealizations onto one another all the time, so (psychologically) there is very little reality, just a lot of projected illusions walking around thinking that everything they see is real.

***

Here I want to give Bonnie credit for inspiring two possible titles for the book I may someday write about painting: In the Company of Monsters (the monsters in the painting, in one another, and in ourselves) and Radiant with Anguish, an apparent oxymoron that goes to the heart of why we paint—not to be in a constant state of distress, God forbid, but to go deeply inside ourselves where even fools fear to tread, and discover whatever is true there.

Day 2

Painted the “fabric of the universe.” Just so you know, the strands that make up the universe are interwoven like the potholders my sisters and I used to make, but they’re multicolored, not just red and white, blue and white, or green and white. I loved painting the “fabric,” but I had the strong feeling there was something on the other side that I couldn’t get to. I was stuck. I then painted several black figures and realized they were “sentries of the unknown,” blocking my way. I felt better just painting them. As M. Cassou used to say, “When you paint the wall, the wall comes down.”

Day 3

The sense of scale is beginning to blur. After an intense day of painting, I’m driving home and I see a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. It appears to say “Everybody Loves Firm Potato Brushes.” I go, ha-ha, that’s one of those things that turn out to be comically misread, like when “Change is in charge” was revealed to be “Charles is in charge.” So I come up behind the car at the next stop sign, where I’m able to read the bumper sticker clearly. It reads, and I quote, “Everybody Loses From Potato Bruises.” I am nonplussed, and believe me, I have never written or spoken that word before. My initial interpretation would work if the driver were a door-to-door potato brush salesman. But what does the real message mean? And is it true? Does everybody lose from a potato bruise?

Looking at the notes I took during the 7 days, I see that I’m getting the days all mixed up, but c’est la vie. That afternoon (one afternoon), someone shared that she felt so in tune with her painting that she almost felt an electric shock if she tried to paint something in the “wrong place.” I said that sounded like a good idea. If you go to the “wrong place” you get a shock; if you go to the “right place,” you get a Milk Dud.

Oh, I forgot to say that one of the things I noticed post-Vitamin Z is that it’s not so important for me to be funny. As with the “not interested in the world” comment, I had said to J a few weeks back that “I’d rather be funny than anything.” This shocked J because she hadn’t known that about me. Granted, therapy is not the best situation for getting off a lot of zingers, but I thought it was written all over me like a graffitied wall! I felt like the proverbial funnyman who makes people laugh because it’s the only way to satisfy his craving for love. Since Zoloft, it doesn’t feel like such a strong drive. I just sit back and hear the words fly out of my mouth, and if they’re funny, so much the better. There’s less at stake now.

But here’s an interesting postscript to my telling J “I’d rather be funny than anything.” After that session, I went home to try to write about it for the ‘zine, and I looked up “funny” in a quotations book. And the very first quote was from Woody Allen: “I think being funny is not anyone’s first choice.” It was one of those bizarre synchronistic moments: I declare that being funny is my first choice and then find out that one of the funniest people in the world thinks it’s no big deal. Maybe he thinks it’s too easy. That’s what I like about it—minimum effort, maximum reward. I don’t want to be Woody Allen, though, I want to be James Thurber.

OK, I’m getting off track here, and you know how I love to stay on track.

Day 4

My painting has no meaning, but it doesn’t matter. That evening, on the way home, I have to stop at a few places: ATM, grocery store, Rite Aid. As I’m standing in the prescription pick-up line at Rite Aid—usually my idea of Hell on Earth—I realize that it doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing. I’m still me, in the world. Waiting for the person at the head of the line to understand why her medications aren’t covered by insurance seems no different, really, from lying in bed watching TV. Imagine that.

Day 5

Diane and I have an idyllic lunch at Chloe’s on Church St. The food is good, the weather is perfect, and we both feel like we’re being held in the embrace of the universe. I tell her I’m looking for a new hat. (I’m trying to get used to wearing one—preparing myself for the day when I have two wisps of hair left on my head and can just switch to all hat all the time.) Diane tells me about one she’s seen in the gift shop at the Jewish Home, so we drive over there to check it out. It’s a baseball-style cap with the words “Gone Gefilte Fishing!” stitched across the front and “Jewish Home, San Francisco” on the side. Considering the corny “gone fishin’” reference, the cap is actually quite tasteful (canvas, neutral colors). If I had bought the equivalent “ethnic”-type hat in Michigan or Wisconsin—“Gone Lutefisk Fishing!,” for example—it would have been crocheted, with neon reflectors and a Budweiser can sewn into it. Actually, I don’t know that, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit, considering the “yooper” (U.P.’er) culture I grew up in—tasteless without a whiff of irony.

Day 6

In the morning sharing, Barbara asks what we could ask for in painting today, if we asked for what is pushing in us or what we most fear. I ask for antsiness because that’s where I’m at, and I don’t know the half of it. While painting, I get antsy, all right, but the feeling keeps going toward a full-fledged bodily scream that B encourages me to paint with a small brush. On the painting the stream emanates from my mouth, stomach, and genitals. Little holes appear in the “fabric of the universe” and then in the people (the triumvirate of me, Mom and Dad). Then the holes start to widen, and cracks form. The silent screams from my painted self don’t seem to go nearly deep enough, so I paint screams irradiating out of the holes in the fabric of the u. These screams feel like they’re coming from the deepest part of me, beyond the fabric, beyond the existence of everything, or perhaps just beyond the little that I know.

When I show J this painting later, she perceives the “holes” as “openings,” and I have to admit that feels right. It’s not that the fabric is being torn or that black holes are waiting to swallow me up, it’s just that openings are being created for me to pass through (or for something to pass through to me, I suppose). This was a typical turnabout in painting, as when I discovered that the “sentries of the unknown” that I thought were blocking me were actually guides, not guards. It’s fascinating to see that everything we think can be looked at in the opposite way.

Day 7

In the afternoon I call Barbara over, feeling stuck-stuck-stuck. I’ve painted my parents so many times over the years that it feels like all I have to do is paint a bare outline, fill it in with peach color, and add the requisite eyes, nose, mouth, and genitalia. But B says, “Look at the expressions on their faces—they really look like themselves!” It’s true. Mom looks pissed off and is reaching for me as if to strangle me. Dad looks shell-shocked, staring off into space, not even relating to me. When I complain that there is nothing else I can paint on or around them, B asks the fateful question, “What would you paint if they were you?” And we both feel the lightning strike of that question. She says she has never asked it of anyone before. But when I look at the figure of my mother and imagine she’s me, the brush explodes and she becomes fiery, black-hearted, riled up, bleeding from wounds. As I paint her, images from my childhood come to me, seemingly at random. I tell B I feel as if my life is passing before my eyes. I remember the summer I was 13 and had to babysit 6 days a week for the 5-year-old daughter of my cousin and how horribly trapped I felt, like the women in that dissatisfied-suburban-housewife fiction I would later read in the feminist ‘70s. I wonder if I’m tuning into the source of my mother’s anger at becoming the housewife/mother/breadwinner/caretaker instead of the quiet librarian/book reader/traveler she had always wanted to be. But this thought comes later. While painting, I just let my thoughts and feelings roam. I feel vividly the despair of spending the summer in my cousin’s old, grungy apartment, unable to stop the kid’s crying, praying she’d nap all afternoon, reading my cousin’s True Confessions magazines, soft-pornographic images that are still alive and repulsive to me—dirty old men with yellow teeth drooling over the naked breasts of unconscious young girls. There’s probably a whole lot under the surface of that particular memory, but that’s beyond the scope, as they say, of this discussion.

When I move on to the figure of my father and imagine him as me, I start painting his brain exploding, his heart pounding, his stomach roiling, and I have the half-coherent thought that the way I’ve painted his penis, it looks like a hand grenade. Suddenly I am him in World War II, being shot at by German soldiers, a flurry and fury of fear and pain all around me that are much like the feelings that surround my painted mother, but for different reasons. I have never identified so closely with him. That’s when I go out to the sharing room with my red notebook and try to capture some of the words that are finally wanting to come.

After being expelled back to my painting, I add my two sisters and my brother. Once again, when I’m stuck for what to do next, B asks me what I’d paint if they were me. And again I’m thrust into an intense reverie and feel I have become them somehow or at least can “read” them. I paint one sister being molested by our cousin, and she looks fiery and angry and tense, tolerating the invasion. (I tell B, “Everyone in my family was angry; it wasn’t just me!”) I paint my other sister helping my father pee in a bottle, her household chore at age 10 when my father could no longer control his arms. According to her, that’s when her “world stopped.” As I paint her swollen body, eyes drifting upward—the opposite of my other sister’s tight compression—I see there isn’t a lot of difference between my distress and the distress of everyone else in my family, except that we kids kept ours hidden—well, hidden like the purloined letter in the Edgar Allan Poe story, right out in plain sight, or maybe like the tell-tale heart beating under the floorboards.

Finally, I paint my baby brother in his coffin, paint the cross on it with his initials (instead of his name, Mike), and am inundated with sense memories of his funeral, when I thought the adults in the church were laughing at me. (My brother was 2; I was 6.) This is not a new memory—the experience was one of the turning points of my childhood, maybe the turning point—but painting it isn’t so much like remembering as reliving. I paint people all around the coffin laughing their heads off, heartlessly. It feels good to paint them, because they are clearly not me, so I can hate them freely. (I know the people at the funeral weren’t really laughing, but as I paint this projected image it’s as if I’m creating reality retroactively and taking my long-awaited revenge.) I tell B who the laughing people are, and she again asks her question, “What else could you paint on them if they were you?” I don’t want them to be me, but I obediently put myself in their place, and it turns out they do have hearts after all, along with sharp teeth in their midsections. Hearts are breaking in the air around them, and I know that “they” (that is, I) had very complicated feelings about the death of my brother, everything from pain and loss, to love, and probably guilt and repressed jealousy as well. (This last could be where the projected laughter came from.)

It feels so intense, so right, to paint everyone in the painting as me, or as me in them, or as them in me. B comes by again and asks, “Who else?” Who else could I paint more on as if they were me? I groan, because the only two people left are my molesting cousin and my peeing (probably humiliated) father. I paint lightning coming out of my father’s chest and a heart on my cousin, taking these projections, also, into the fold. But B is still there. She asks again, “Who else?” but there is no one else! I point to all the people in the painting, one by one—I did her and him and her and her and him and him—and then I see that I had forgotten about my brother. And that turns out to be the most poignant experience of all, as I paint him surrounded by hearts, feel the beauty of his baby soul (too young to have had all the complicated feelings of a 6-year-old), and notice that the initials I had painted on the cross earlier were M.M., the same as mine.

***

Being with 12 or 15 other people for 7 days, all of whom are facing themselves on the blank page and sharing their insights, fears, and joys in the group, seeing themselves in one another, taking reassurance that they’re “not the only one,” sometimes pushing one another’s buttons or getting their buttons pushed, is an intense experience. That kind of honesty (with ourselves first of all) and searching seem inevitably to lead to agape, the love for God and our fellow humans.

During that week, besides enjoying some of the friends I’ve made through painting, I made connections with two people I had seen at the studio for years but had never talked to before. It took so little to break that long-frozen ice. One person approached me, and after a brief conversation my judgments of her got turned on their head. It was like looking through one of those tiny holes/openings in the fabric of the universe that allow you to get a glimpse of the richness on the other side.

The other person was someone who stayed aloof from the group and seemed to make eye contact only with Barbara. I impulsively complimented her on her hat (my new life passion), and that tiniest of holes/openings widened to give us a special little hat-bond after that. (She was rather nonplussed—there’s that word again—by the gefilte fishin’ hat, but it was the first time I’d seen her smile.)

But love and honesty make strange bedfellows sometimes. I spontaneously proclaimed to a fellow painter I’ve known for years, “You are a complete mystery to me.” What I meant as an affectionate observation, she took as a huge insult. But that’s the price of taking this journey with one another. You can’t always get what you want, but I think you’ll find, sometimes, you get what you need. For a while I thought I had to make everything right with her, but I finally realized that giving up the responsibility to fix the whole world, one person at a time, allows me to be myself, which is, after all, the only thing I have to give.

***

And so I bid you adieu, not knowing what will happen with the ‘zine but fairly confident that I can have my proverbial cake and eat it too—live my life, extend myself in unexpected ways, learn more about the world and my place in it, see myself in others and them in me, and be able to write as the spirit moves.

***

p.s. Pookie is also enjoying life and showing less interest in adding his sarcastic commentary to the ‘zine. He spends as much time as possible outside, picking his way through the honeysuckle vines in search of the lizard who lives there, or lounging by the bird bath, trying to look like a harmless lawn ornament as the birdies flutter around. He’s lost his taste for tuna-flavored laxative and now begs for popcorn instead. We are becoming more like each other all the time—older, fatter, and grayer but with still a gleam in our eye and a spring in our step. When we aren’t napping.

[Mary McKenney]


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