Archive for June, 2010

mary’zine #44: June 2010

June 2, 2010

I have one foot in the grave and 3 feet on a banana peel.—“Fantastic Mr. Fox”

That was one of my father’s favorite sayings, but with 2 extra feet. Would that joke work with a centipede? I’m not going to chance it.


Unbelievably, it was 6 years ago that I arrived in my hometown to spend some time livin’ and learnin’ and seein’ if it would be feasible, desirable, or even possible to move back here, after 30-some years in the San Francisco Bay Area. I found that it was indeed all those things, so I took the plunge. Yes, there have been disappointments, some loss of the honeymoon sheen, but all in all I’ve been very happy. And I still am, don’t get me wrong. But life experiences that start out on such a high peak do tend to follow a certain downward, thorny path, and at some point the path disappears and there you are—dazed and confused and slightly bloodied—you know, from the thorns? So lately I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what I’m doing here, with these people I call “family.” What is my mission, now that I have chosen to accept it?

In these pages (on these screens) I feel as if I’ve gotten into the habit of alternating happy and not-so-happy stories of family life. I had some doozies to tell you this time. But I questioned the point of piling up the anecdotal evidence without taking a broader view of what’s going on. So I’ve spent some time thinkin’ and wonderin’ and talkin’ with my [don’t know what to call her] old, old friend and ex-partner P about “these changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes.”


I become enraged in two situations:

1. When I know something is despicable: Sarah Palin, the Pope, the UCSF Accounting Dept.

2. When I don’t know what’s going on but I’m having frustrating, conflicting feelings and I think I should know, not only what’s going on but what to do about it: My family.

Although I’m the one on anti-depressants, it’s my family who seem drugged, who seem to have filters in place, blinders securely fastened, intent on bringing nothing new into the room. The women talk about their cats, household purchases, and the weather. And the men blow hard all the livelong day—except when they’re playing prima donna and refuse to speak at all. As for me? I’m a ticking time bomb in my (sister’s) recliner every Friday night, often seething with ambivalence over what is worth bringing up and what should be shoved under the rug. (I was wondering what all those bumps were under there.)

So I try to tune out but mostly can’t. My brother-in-law (MP) and my nephew (JP) are still going on about how we had to go to war in Iraq to “pay them back” for 9/11. I pipe up, “They’re not the ones who did 9/11.” They pay no attention. Now they’re at the part where we should have “bombed the shit out of them.” I say my bit again. When I finally get their attention, I add, “They [the 9/11 attackers] were from Saudi Arabia, and so is bin Laden.” Of course they have nothing to say to that, the facts aren’t really the point. And to keep the peace, my sister brightly changes the subject. There’s a lot of subject-changing around there, further putting me off.

After the health care reform bill passed, they ranted about the government and our “lost freedoms.” My nephew says: “I predicted this, and it’s not my fault, because I didn’t vote.” To which his girlfriend, surprisingly, points out that it could be considered his fault because he didn’t vote for “the other side,” and MP reveals for the first time that he voted for “Palin and that McCain guy.”

I try to consider the subtext here. What is it that’s fueling their rage? They’re “white men,” but they’re not the white men who rule the world; they’re working-class men who work hard at physically demanding jobs for little money and who get none of the benefits they’re convinced are showered on “non-European-Americans,”  to put it delicately. They feel powerless, thus they have no empathy.

But I can hardly get mad at them for their rage without acknowledging my own.

“Rage” is an intransitive verb, thus basically impotent. You can’t “rage something,” you can only rage at it, about it, around it, you can rage up one side and down the other, but you can’t directly rage it—unless, of course, you climb the bell tower and start shooting. Even then, the true target is inaccessible, invisible… perhaps internal.

I’ve been thinking about Xeno’s Paradox. Basically, it says that if you move toward a goal in stages but only go half the remaining distance each time, you will never get there. Or you will, but only after Infinity finally bestows on you a “Close enough there, eh?” dispensation and you call it a day. Thus it is that my attempts to reach the goal of changing my family into thoughtful, responsive, intellectually and politically aware citizens falls short and will always do so.

Maybe that’s where rage resides: in the infinitesimal but uncrossable space between where you are and where you want to be.

It’s a fairly simple matter to react to my male relatives’ boneheaded opinions, but it’s worse when I feel cut off from my sisters. Barb jumps in to fill the slightest gap in any conversation, so I constantly find myself taking a breath to say something and she’s already moved on. Or I can get one sentence in, but two are too many. Meanwhile, she can fill the entire car ride from Marinette to Green Bay and back (100 miles) with detailed stories about her job, her cats, and her grandkids. K is quieter, but I’ve noticed that, when we’re alone and I try to talk about anything in my life from “before,” she invariably interrupts me, and the thing is, I don’t even think she notices. She admits that her attention span is short. Like the t-shirt says, “I don’t have A.D.D., it’s just that Oh look a bunny!” But it seems to be especially short where I’m concerned.

Do I give up too easily and retreat into victim mode? When I’m in my groove, I can enliven the place with quips and silliness. But I admit to being unusually laconic when I feel underappreciated. I get the one question just about every week, “What’s new with you, Mare?” It’s an open-ended question I’ve come to dread. If I don’t have something easy to relate, like “Paul finished putting in the garage doors” or “I had to take Luther back to the vet,” I usually say “Nothing,” because they don’t want to hear what books I’ve read or what interactions I’ve had by e-mail or phone with people they don’t know. “Work” is a safe topic, though. They’ll say, “Do you have work?” and I’ll say, “Yeah, I have a paper from Italy and a grant from San Francisco.” If they’re being really curious, or polite, they might ask if it’s a “big” paper or grant. I tried to explain to K once that I could tell them all sorts of stuff about my life, but… and she finishes the thought: “… it’s not worth it.” Well, that’s not exactly what I meant.

So usually I revert to either being silent or asking them questions, “showing an interest.” I’ve heard the stories about their respective long-term marriages dozens of times. No one asks about anything to do with my life in California—I’m here now, that’s all that counts. But surely the half of my life that I lived away from here is the more interesting half, at least to me.

I recently read an article in the New Yorker (4-19-10) by an American who lived and worked in China for many years before returning to the U.S. He wrote,

People in China didn’t like to be the center of attention, and they took little pleasure in narrative …. Many Americans were great talkers, but they didn’t like to listen. If I told somebody in a small town that I had lived overseas for fifteen years, the initial response was invariably the same: “Were you in the military?” After that, people had few questions…. At times, the lack of curiosity depressed me. I remembered all those questions in China, where even uneducated people wanted to hear something about the outside world, and I wondered why Americans weren’t the same…. In a small town, people asked very little of an outsider—really, all you had to do was listen.

So I guess I shouldn’t take it personally that my traveling to San Francisco once or twice a year for a painting intensive does not raise any interest at all upon my return. If I volunteer that I “had a good time,” that lets them off the hook and we can move on to what they’ve been doing. It reminds me of when my middle-class librarian friends in San Francisco could think of nothing to say to my then-partner P beyond a perfunctory “How’s work?,” because she had what they thought of as a lower-class job (claims adjuster) and thus couldn’t possibly relate to our heady discussions of intellectual freedom and political militancy. However, they were different from my sisters: They thought there was nothing of interest going on “beneath” their social stratum, whereas my sisters just haven’t been exposed to much “above” theirs.

You might be wondering if what’s really going on is that I refuse to open up despite their repeated attempts to engage with me. It’s true that I can be as passive-aggressive as the next person, but I really don’t know what to say. I get that they simply don’t know what to talk about with me unless they talk about themselves. But if I do consider mentioning that, say, one of my university clients is demanding that I get professional liability insurance, I imagine Barb waiting to jump in with her insurance stories, K just looking puzzled… and I don’t have to imagine what MP is thinking, because the minute he loses interest he un-mutes the TV and raises the volume. Subtle!

Here is a tiny, odd annoyance: On Friday nights, when MP falls asleep in his recliner, my sisters invariably nudge each other, then get my attention, and point at him with indulgent smiles, like what could be cuter? I cannot fathom their fascination with this, so I either ignore when they do this or say “So what?” They do the same to me, I’m sure, because I do on occasion “rest my eyes.” What’s so goddamn cute about that? I mean, cats are cute; an adult with eyes closed is not. This practice probably originated with our mother, who once took a picture of an uncle who’d fallen asleep during one of her vacation slide presentations and then included it in subsequent slide shows. (She was an avid documentarian of our family trips, but when you’ve seen 20 slides of Yellowstone and we still have to get to California and back….) So I guess it’s a family tradition to make a big deal out of someone falling asleep in front of “company.” But if the company weren’t so darn soporific….

And yet, I can be surprised. K asked me earlier this month, “Don’t you usually go to California for your painting right about now?” I couldn’t believe she remembered! Or on the way to Green Bay I’ll tell Barb about a new theory of the universe that postulates that the world is literally inside our heads, a projection of our senses, and that if we’re not perceiving something in the moment it’s not there! (Biocentrism by Robert Lanza.) She remembers this, and on the next trip she’ll say, as we’re whizzing past Peshtigo on the new highway bypass, “Too bad Peshtigo isn’t there.” I’m pathetically grateful for these moments of connection: “You heard me, you really heard me!” But I’m starting to see that I’m not just a passive object of their nonattention: I’m contributing to the situation, too.

I know I make them into cartoon bad guys who are not on the same page as me: I’m culturally and politically aware, I read books that aren’t vampire fantasies. Hell, I read books. K said she’s read three books in her life, all assigned in high school. She already feels inferior to the rest of us in brain power, but she’s not stupid. And I’m an ass for wishing I could get her to read. But do I have any real sense of what goes on in her head? No. I’ve made the convenient assumption that a world without books is a pale planet indeed. But her world and her heart are still whole, making it possible for us to connect in surprising ways. We meet in laughing eye contact, in the memories of a complicated childhood, we meet on the fringes, at certain strange crossroads when one of us says what she’s thinking and the other says, “I was just thinking that!” When we’re watching TV, she invariably questions the same things I do, looking for the glitch in logic, the bad writing, the fake acting. “Why doesn’t she call somebody?” “How did she get in the house if he took the keys?” “They could have chosen any name for him, why ‘Jane’?’’ One night on “CSI” we watch as an actor drops a “dead” woman to the ground, where, instead of falling naturally, the actress carefully eases her head down. K and I glance at each other; yes, we both caught that.

It’s one thing to spot the easy targets they present. But the rage really flares up when I see my own intolerance, or when I realize that I do the same thing I’m accusing them of doing. “How can she eat that big piece of cake and ice cream when she just announced she was ‘stuffed’ from dinner?” Yet I know I’m no better. If only I could stay on my high horse, smugly separate, certain of my own inviolability, confident that I have an answer for everything. (It would help if I were skinny.) I’ve been moody, entitled, and unkind—but also generous and loving. And I can’t seem to accept that they too are made up of both extremes.

When I moved back here 6 years ago, I thought I was leaving my urban-suburban/high-crime/high-traffic world behind for one with a better fit. I thought I was entering a simpler world of down-home food, easy parking, and quaint customs—sort of like Canada. I thought I knew my family and accepted them as they were. I thought I didn’t have to bring anything with me that would make them uncomfortable. I never saw myself as challenging them or trying to change them. Therefore, I never thought that I would be challenged, or changed.

I tend to think that relationship is about “talking it out” and forcing people who are not big into self-examination to relate on my terms, to learn and respect my point of view, as if I can turn the whole living room TV-watching thing into an encounter group, at least until I’m satisfied that they’re under my all-knowing thumb and I can go back to watching “The Mentalist” or “CSI” while idly pondering which snacks to pick up on the way home. I want to commandeer the situation, inform the atmosphere with my experience of talk therapy—would they like to learn some somatic ways of dealing with stress?—take control, get everything off my chest and onto theirs, air my grievances as though it’s the Paris Peace Talks and I’m the world power stacked up against those little people from halfway around the world. I’m all Henry Kissinger except for the accent and the aphrodisiacal power. I must toughen up for the upcoming war (or Peace) and yet be soft-bellied enough to be sincere and caring, let everyone have their say, use a talking pillow or a yoni stick so everyone has a chance to speak.

It’s only now becoming clear to me that I’ve set myself apart all along. Even my ecstatic re-entry into family life was a measure of how long I’d been gone and how novel this “simple” relational structure was to me. I’d grown up watching “Father Knows Best” and bemoaning, even at 6 years old, the distance between TV and reality. For my sisters, “family” is not just a fuzzy concept, it’s experienced on a sliding scale, from a low of obligations and challenges to a high of overindulging grandchildren. So I drop into the mix wearing my rose-colored glasses and oohing and ahhing over the quaintness of small town life and the novelty of family-centered holidays.

I’ve looked at family from both sides now, and surely they’ve also gotten a closer look at me and my book-learnin’ attitudes that I once so naively claimed to have given up: “Don’t mind your grammar around me, I won’t judge!” Now it’s “Really? ‘Her and her husband’ went to the movies? Would you say ‘Her’ went to the movies”?” By now we’ve all seen each other at our worst, and we know pretty much what to expect. I have my roster of complaints about them, but I know that I hold my education and my worldly knowledge over their heads. When we’re watching “Jeopardy” or “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” I feel an unholy competitive spirit come over me, as if I have to prove my superiority by shouting out the answers—as if I should know them all, which of course I don’t.

I suppose it’s a simple matter of expansion and contraction, like accordion bellows (my dad’s instrument). I’ll feel all warm and fuzzy one week and the next I want to bite somebody’s head off. MP and I are the moody ones; K and Barb are more even-keeled, or hide their angst better. They try their best to think of benign conversation, but when MP and I are on fire, wow. Schussler’s is often the backdrop, because who can complain over food and spirits? We went there for Easter brunch, and I—mellow from mimosa—and MP—the same from a plate of meat—did our dueling smartasses thing. He waxed on about how he “used to be an asshole.” He told about his son JP recently buying new tires for his truck and giving the old tires to MP, who found someone to buy them and gave the money to JP. Though he would have liked JP to give him “a little something” for his trouble, of course that didn’t happen. And MP couldn’t get over the fact that, at one time, he would have been royally pissed off, but now he just shrugged it off, like, oh well, what’re you gonna do?

So I say, “You’re too good, that’s your problem.” [smirk] Then: “I’m surprised you didn’t try to get rid of me.”


“When you were an asshole.”

And the saving grace of my sisters’ laughter keeps us from getting into it further.

But when one of us is feeling testy, you don’t want to light a match around us. One night I wanted to find out if K would be willing to paint my upstairs bathroom. She’s the resident wall-painting expert. She recently calculated that she has repainted the same five rooms in her house 46 times. She had painted almost every room in my house when I first moved in, and when I tentatively approached her about taking money for it she’d said, “I knew you were going to come with something like that.” So I didn’t want to insult her by not asking her, but if she agreed to do it, I wanted to pay her. So I start to ask her about it and, as always, MP jumps in and tries to answer for her. “What color? What have you got in there now?” I’m not looking for technical advice, I want to know how K feels…. So I turn to MP and do that quick point to him then to me then to him then to me and say “…Were we…?” meaning, “Was I talking to you?” but not, I thought, in an overly insulting way. He, however, takes it badly and sulks through the rest of the evening, even as I try to humor him into compliance and appeal to his sense of the absurd by calling him “ole man” and other terms of endearment. When I ask him a direct question—“Did you record ‘Justified’ for me?,” he refuses to answer. I’ve been called stubborn, and not without cause, but this guy…  I could never beat him in a staring contest. An hour or so later I try cajolery again, and he comes out of his punishing sulk long enough to gesture to Barb to tell me why he’s upset. She promptly clues me in that I had basically told him to shut up. Thanks, Barb! Whose side are you on?

So K pipes up and directs me to tell MP I’m sorry “and will never do it again” and commands him to accept my apology. She says this in a light-hearted way and I know she’s well intentioned, but it kind of irks me, because… really? I’m supposed to apologize for trying to ask my sister a direct question without her husband barging in and talking right over her? But I go along with it and say to MP, “I’m sorry, and I’ll probably do it again but I’ll be sorry then, too.” Naturally, he doesn’t say his part, and I only know he’s “forgiven” me when he later makes some gratuitous statement with a glance in my direction—the nonverbal vernacular of no-fault remorse.

I never did find out what I wanted to know from K.


In my family—maybe in everyone’s?—not everything that’s meant is said, and not everything that’s said is meant. Navigating this terrain can be treacherous, but the rest of them are old hands at it and seem to be able to interpret the nuances, or ignore them. But I’ve been away for 30 years and it drives me crazy to have to figure out whether and when the spoken word is code for the agreed-upon unspoken truth… which makes me a blunt instrument indeed, unable to do the Midwestern dance of evasion, insinuation, and equivocation, all under the guise of benign niceness (at least by the women—the guys don’t bother with guise [!]). But when I do try to tunnel down and find out what’s really going on, I find that the reality is as mushy and indeterminate as my desire for clarity is cold and hard, like a diamond glinting in the winter sun. (Oh, brother.)

To stay with the winter metaphor, which I realize is anachronistic at this point, navigating this mysterious terrain is like skating…. no, like sitting on thin ice in your ice-fishing house, dangling your line in the hole, having a beer and minding your own business, when the hole starts widening and you’re scrambling for safety—let the cooler and the space heater go, this is serious—and you somehow manage to get to your Ford F150 and drive the hell out of there before the whole bay crashes in on you. (Does it surprise you that an ice fisherman would have a space heater in his ice house? My niece’s husband has a recliner in his deer blind. We are a hardy but comfort-loving people.)

When my nephew goes on another rant about those who are “not-white-like-me,” Barb keeps her mouth shut, whereas I jump in and am openly skeptical and, yes, judgmental, and ask him where he gets his information. I may be kidding myself, but it occurs to me that maybe he’s never heard the other side. Since then, he and I (him and me) have been eyeing each other over the barricades, and when I (or Barb, for that matter) walk in the door, he glances up and then away again, as does his girlfriend. This sends me into a frenzy of resentment, so I take his abuse and raise him one by not saying good-bye when they leave! So there! Whereas Barb has now ramped up her enthusiastic greetings to him, as if he’ll get the hint that he’s being rude—in her own mind she’s a freakin’ diplomat. But he doesn’t notice or doesn’t care.

So, to abandon the ice metaphor for something even more dangerous, it strikes me lately that I’m walking a thin line in that group, maintaining my balance on the high wire with the long pole of contempt for their shortcomings. And, believe me, I have not been trained in this performance art. I’m like a Flying Wallenda who flew the coop early on and is now back in the fold, blithely acting like I belong, swinging across the Big Top, assuming that someone will be there to catch me at the other end. I did grow up down the road from the Wallenders—but they were not Flying Wallenders.

When I start adding up the perceived insults and assaults from family members, I get pissy and distant, which makes matters worse. I know that. I drift farther and farther away from the honest communication I claim to want. It’s like I can’t navigate in the actual waters of relationship, I want to patch any leaks in my raft on the shore, by myself, and then bring my repaired self back to the party, no one the wiser. Since I’m mixing my metaphors anyway, I’m going to run another one up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes.

One of my favorites is Archimedes’ postulating that, given a place to stand, he could move the world. He was talking about the simple mechanics of the lever, but for me the idea of standing apart and manipulating a situation—on a separate planet if need be, or at least in my own head—perfectly describes my way of thinking. If I can’t be physically separate—if I can’t beg off Friday night by coming up with a good excuse—work or a headache—then I duly arrive and take part in the negotiations over supper and watch whatever comes up on the teevee, and leave at 9 or 10 p.m. none the worse for wear (usually), and stop and buy my snacks and revel in the solitude + cats that is my real life.

Despite having lived with P for 12 years, in the prime of my life and the prime of my stupidity, I don’t seem to have learned much about relationship. If I accept that I am who I am, I’m quite proud of having figured out the part about living alone and making forays out into the world for short-time relating, then back to cats and home and self. But being thrown into the pot with a stew of other people has me either clamming up or acting out.

One night, MP said that I had been “stuck in one place” (California) for 30-odd years, whereas he had been “everywhere.” Naturally, this was highly annoying. But to judge him for claiming to be more worldly than me is to show that I really think the reverse is true. And maybe it is, in some ways. But the real truth is that I don’t know him, aside from the obvious macho posturing and attitudes born of a poor education. I don’t know any of them, really. Whether they are deliberately hiding themselves (which I doubt) or are just living in worlds so different from mine that I have no tools with which to understand their experience, it is hubristic of me to sit there all entitled in my (sister’s) recliner and compare them with my friends from what I think of as the larger world—and who’s to say what’s “larger”? So one sister has worked a dirty job in a factory for 30 years. I can blow that off like a piece of lint: “But she doesn’t read books!” And my other sister has taught 7th and 8th graders for 30 years, big deal: “She has no critical faculty!” If you operate from the position that you are the norm—which I think we all do, to some extent—then anything else looks lesser because different.

Am I making this whole thing more complicated than necessary? One of my petty grievances is that they assume that reading, thinking, and “analyzing” are hallmarks of those who are not-really-living: i.e., you can’t “live” if you think too much, because “living” is about enjoying the simple pleasures, having kids, watching crime shows, going to Wal-Mart and Erik’s Garden Center on the weekend. K once said that she’d be “bored to death” in my house (meaning, in my life) with only books and silence to occupy herself—cuz that’s all she thinks I have. That’s the sort of thing that sends me scuttling back to my separate planet, my place to stand with lever in hand, to defend myself with walls and metaphors of my own making.

Given all that, it’s quite astonishing that we have those moments of hilarity and harmony when I’m just being a weirdo (but working-class rube at heart) making strange and often funny observations that they completely relate to. That’s probably because my sisters “knew me when”—I was always who I am but on a smaller scale. The larger mystery is how MP gets me at all, how I can make him belly-laugh even when he’d rather not, even when I use my “seventy-five-dollar words.” Is there a bit of my dad in how I see him, how K chose him? There was a huge chasm between my dad and me, first, because he got sick with MS and his personality and physicality changed radically when I was too young to understand, and second, because I was clearly on a path to college whereas he had left school after the fifth grade. By all accounts, including photos, we were very close before he got sick. But afterward, my mother became the dominant force in the household and he became, of necessity, both a victim and a helpless villain, wielder of empty threats. I often wonder if the loss of that close relationship at the age of 7 fixed me for all time with a certain attitude toward men, that they are alternately weak and predatory—well, that’s probably a big “Duh.”

Nature or nurture, I suppose we all end up where we were meant to be, and we bounce off each other like ping pong balls in the lottery hopper. Mostly we get to choose who we go through life with, our friends and lovers, but in the family we’re faced with the essence of human contradiction: sitting at the same Thanksgiving table (or in front of the same TV) perhaps, but wildly dissimilar in personality, motivation, goals and interests, even as we publicly celebrate the ties and values of blood.


When we meet up at K and MP’s to go to Schussler’s for Barb’s birthday dinner, I get annoyed right off the bat because MP is pretending to have no say over which “vehicle” we should take. He tells K she’s “an adult” and can “do what she wants,” but he, she, and we all know that he/she/we always do what he wants. Then I find out that JP and his girlfriend are coming, too. So K and MP end up riding with them, while Barb and I—like country cousins, not quite part of the inner circle—go in my Jeep. They get there before we do, of course, because JP, like his dad, drives like a madman, and MP smugly asks if we “went through town,” versus his far superior way of going farther down the highway bypass and then cutting across. I’m fuming while trying to rise above. It’s really hard to rise above, even when you know how ludicrous it is to be bothered by this stuff. Then Mark, the owner of Schussler’s, comes in the bar and says (which he always does), “There’s the P—–’s!” And I mutter (which I always do), “I’m not a P—–!” Three of the six of us are McKenney’s, or were. Yes, this is how low I’ve sunk.

So I take a seat at the bar, at the far edge of the group, determined to just wallow in my ill will. I give up any attempt to rise above, to be better than I am, better than I’m feeling, or cooperative or conciliatory in any way. I’ve let myself off the hook, not in the most gracious way perhaps, but I’m done striving. Deb the bartender is known for her margaritas, and I sip at mine in solitary splendor, while Barb tells the others all the stories she told me on the way there. Damn, that margarita’s good.

About halfway through my drink, I’m starting to feel better. Of course, you idiot! It’s alcohol! We all troop into the dining room, but I’m the last to arrive at our table and discover I’m sitting across from JP, whom I’ve been ostentatiously ignoring for a few weeks now. But in my slight alcoholic haze (I’m on margarita #2, my limit), I realize that it doesn’t matter, I’m not trying to be anything, I’m not trying to either continue the one-sided passive-aggressive war or commit fake camaraderie, I’m just feeling relaxed, and there is absolutely no issue between us. I find myself saying some nice things to him and his girlfriend about their couple-cuteness. I’ve been on a crusade to freeze out my poor nephew on political and racial-bigotry grounds, but now it seems too much like work to maintain this offended attitude toward him.

My friend P agrees that, ultimately, the “change” has to take place without the alcohol, but the point is that I can learn from what happened in the bar: If I relax and allow myself to be spontaneous rather than rigid, then there’s no war to fight, no point to pound home, no obligation to grab the young lad by his ear and steer him in the right direction. I can still wallow, as in the warm bath of an earlier metaphor, but the ill will dissipates when I don’t keep feeding it in order to maintain my prideful umbrage. P says that that was how we used to use “smoking”—to mellow out and see things more clearly and with less anxiety. I say that I don’t remember her ever smoking, and she exclaims, “Marijuana! Jeez!” Oh. Yeah. Now the only consciousness-altering substances I take (if you don’t count Zoloft, a big “if”) are the two margaritas or two Cosmopolitans I have at Schussler’s with my salad, steak, and potato. (In college I would have eaten the same meal, but with scotch on the rocks. It’s as if I never spent 30 years in a land of culinary bounty and variety.)


Well, looky here. This was supposed to be a grand summary of my situation, my position in the family, my raison d’être. I was supposed to have readdressed my mission and wrapped up all the loose ends, like a season finale, perhaps with a cliffhanger to keep you coming back for more: a package of Truth wrapped in a big bow rather than another assortment of anecdotal evidence, slanted in my favor despite my attempts to be fair.

Could it be as simple as this? That not everything needs to be such a big deal? I’m with them, I’m of them, and I’m a thing apart, all at the same time. I’ve been trying to control every situation, impose my standards on people who couldn’t care less, play the part of the prodigal sister, aunt, and sister-in-law, cling to my separateness like it’s a beloved teddy bear. I’ve been “all about me” all along, withdrawing or complaining and licking my wounds. They don’t understand me! They don’t ask me questions about my glorious past, boo hoo! But I’m not here to save anybody. I probably won’t improve my attitude any more than they’ll awaken to theirs. I’ll count on my sisters to change the subject, to keep the guys in check, to ease the fractiousness that can erupt within this ungainly family gestalt. I’ll let them do the heavy lifting while I float in my recliner “bath,” secure in my own righteousness, never meeting the twain, falling asleep when I can manage to forget that I’ll be the object of indulgent smiles and pointing fingers. Safe within the bosom of a family for whom I have unconditional love but very, very conditional like.

[Mary McKenney]

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