mary’zine #46: September 2010

my body, my selves

It was my first time in a doctor’s office since the spring of 2000. The nurse’s first order of business was to weigh me—while I was fully clothed and wearing wooden clogs. So I figure 10 pounds of that were not me. Then she took me to an examining room where there were two chairs against the wall to my left, and she told me to sit in “the first seat.” Have I mentioned that I sometimes feel like Rain Man without a feel for numbers? Here is exactly what passed through my mind when faced with this seemingly simple command: Well, it depends where you start counting, doesn’t it? So I did a rapid calculation—too rapid for the ordinary human brain to comprehend—and chose to sit in the farther chair. This made perfect sense to me at the time, but of course she meant the chair closer to me, i.e., “the first seat.”

It’s as if my brain responds to cues that are completely generated from within. A person of normal intelligence would immediately know that “the first seat” was the first one she came to. I, on the other hand, had to turn it into a complex binary equation-cum-philosophical query into the order of numbers, and I don’t even think there is such a thing. In the 2 milliseconds I spent trying to work this out, I did not take into account the situation and the environmental cues, such as the fact that there was a small table next to “the first seat,” where the nurse was obviously going to sit to take my blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate. But no, I was operating in an intellectual vacuum. And I felt like an idiot when she made me move to the other chair. Now I contend that mistakes like this may be evidence of high intelligence (I’m only half joking): People with “smart people’s disease” see ambiguities where the average person sees only the obvious. I’ll bet you that if I were editing IQ tests today, I’d find many such ambiguities, as I do in papers on cardiac surgery or asthma. “Book-smart” people are often mocked for lacking in common sense, and this may be part of the explanation. Look at me, turning lemons into lemonade! I know I sound terribly full of myself, but I readily admit that my E and S Q’s (Emotional and Social quotients) are sadly below average.

I hasten to clarify that people of high intelligence who have no trouble distinguishing the obvious from the inexplicable are blessed with a refined sense of their surroundings and should be thankful instead of judging me for looking for a silver lining.

I’m not sure if the following is evidence for or against my theory. Lately I’ve been noticing that I use the phrase “didn’t occur to me” an awful lot. I bought a product at Mighty Pet that you add to your cat’s drinking water to keep his teeth clean or give him better breath or something. The directions said to add a capful of the stuff to 16 oz. of water. I didn’t have a big enough water bowl to hold 16 oz., so I bought a bigger bowl, but my cats wouldn’t drink out of it. My sister Barb asked if I tried putting half a capful into 8 oz. of water, and I had to admit it “didn’t occur to me.” One day I locked my keys in the car at a farm market. When I told P about it later, she said, “Good thing you have AAA.” And I thought, Damn! It didn’t occur to me! (A nice policeman helped me out.) Even after this realization, I started to worry in advance about my Jeep’s gears freezing in the Green Bay airport parking lot while I’m in San Francisco for the painting intensive in December, like they did last year. Finally, I remembered, Oh, yeah, if it happens again I can call AAA! I haven’t used my AAA card in 20 years, and somehow I had stopped connecting the $48 annual fee with actually needing the service.

Am I embarrassed to be making these revelations? Yes, a bit. But I’m more interested in observing the wormholes in my personal “brainscape.” (That word, which I thought I made up, is actually the name of “a database for resting state functional connectivity studies… [for] mapping the intrinsic functional topography of the brain, evaluating neuroanatomical models, and investigating neurological and psychiatric disease.” The website has a drawing of a brain with colored splotches on it, and it looks like a painter’s palette! Think of the connections!) I’m not a scientist, and I couldn’t be more surprised at what I ended up doing for a living (editing for scientists). Quirky writing and metaphorical exploration are much more fun for me.

As I chart the waters at the horizon of the flat earth of my life span, wondering if I’m going to fall off the edge or pursue the horizon as it gets farther and farther away—or, less poetically, as I get closer to oblivion—I’ve vowed not to repeat my mother’s mantra in her later years, “It’s hell to get old.” She was talking not only about the body complaints but about the brain blips that I am now very familiar with, the “I walked into this room and now I have no idea what I’m doing here” natural loss of short-term whatchamacallit, memory. She died before she got dementia, thankfully. I hear that dementia is frightening, but would it have to be? I hypothesize (i.e., wishfully speculate) that it may be possible to keep one foot, or two tippy toes, on a safe spot while surrounded by confusion and loss of identity. Could I have myself a laugh while the aides at The Home tut-tut about my wearing panties on my head? Not knowing which chair to sit in will be small potatoes indeed. Could self-acceptance go so far as to allow one to celebrate being painted into a corner, having given up real estate but found the perfect place to preserve the brain’s eyes and ears and low-level functioning? My doctors and alternative healers never knew that I cured myself of agoraphobia and lower back pain through reading self-help books. So can I take my night dreams of death-acceptance and my autodidactic survey of self and my experience of painting beyond anything in the known world and create my own befuddled but privately cherished corner of the universe? I almost look forward to testing this out.

*

I’ve written before about having odd sentences pop into my mind when I’m in the twilight zone between wake and sleep. Recent example: “We had to resign from school all the way in.” And a more colorful one: “We would definitely become topless bitches.” What goes on in there?

*

You’ve heard of “Overheard”? Well, this is a new feature: “Overread.”  In Bob Dylan in America, Sean Wilhentz quotes someone saying that Dylan wasn’t stoned in a session, he “wasn’t hooked on anything but time and space.” Am I the only one who finds this  hilarious?

back to my body

Because I’ve been AWOL from the medical-industrial complex for so long, I now have to get lab work, X-rays, and a full physical, including a colonoscopy, a mammogram, and a vaginal invasion. Oh Lordy. The sky over the doctor’s office is dark with chickens coming home to roost. Back in 2000, my last doctor “visit” (as if you sit around chatting over a cup of tea: “How you been?” “Good… you?”) had culminated in gallbladder surgery, a shot in the dark by a doctor who had no idea how literal my mind-body connection really is. (When I googled “mind-body” to find the noun that goes after it, a listing on the first page of results was for “pole dance classes.” I decided not to try to figure out the connection—ah, the word I wanted!). Like a whole string of other physical problems that were actually based in emotional trauma, sublimation, ignorance, or stress, the tightening band of pain around my abdomen was still there after the gallbladder was gone, and I think in the past 10 years I’ve hoped that I’d meet my maker by getting hit by a bus or falling out of a window before I had to go back into the belly of the beast.

The reason I was finally forced to return was pain in both knees that came on all of a sudden as I was walking down the stairs. The pain lasted for 6 or 7 weeks, and I could no longer talk myself into the “That’s OK, I’ll probably die of bird flu before it becomes a real problem” avoidance tactic. My sister Barb likes her doctor, so I decided to go to him.

I tarted myself up by shaving my legs (first time this century) and wearing my “Olds Cool” t-shirt so he’d know I’m hip and happenin’ despite my chronological age. I had to run over to Walgreen’s the night before to buy a shaver. That was a waste, because I didn’t have to take my clothes off for the “visit,” and the hair is just going to grow back. It didn’t occur to me (there it goes again) to shave my armpits. For my physical, which is in a week or so, I’ll be sure to do all the appropriate personal grooming.

“Dr. T” is youngish—early 40s, I’d say—and a handsome devil. He assured me that “we live in America” so I don’t have to do anything he recommends. What a switch. Doctors used to browbeat us about giving up caffeine and losing weight, and airlines barely registered our existence. He dictated all my vital information into a recorder as I was sitting there so I could confirm or correct it on the spot. However, I suspect that he adds an addendum after the patient leaves, because he didn’t reveal his first impressions of me (“Patient is a 63-year-old woman with bad skin, dykey haircut, weird taste in clothes, and overweight due to wearing heavy clogs”).

In my provincial, West-Coast-leaning way, I had figured that doctors in the Midwest would be subpar because, Why would they want to live here? But so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the competence and friendliness of everyone I’ve encountered. I had spent several hours at the hospital—which they insist on calling “Bay Area” Medical Center (“BA”MC)—when my sister K (ironically) had knee surgery last month. It was one big happy family as RNs, LPNs, and MDs stopped by her room to say hi to the three members of my family who have been going to them for various ailments over the years. My sisters introduced me, and I’ve finally lost the label “sister from California.” I have gone native at last.

tech-no-no-how

I don’t have a smart phone, but it’s still a devious little thing. It lives in my pocket and connives to perform various functions when I am leaning forward, squatting down, or otherwise causing one of the buttons on the front of the phone to ping. It might turn itself off (then on), go to my contact list, try to send a text message, come this close to going online. Once at 4 a.m., I heard the telltale ping in my pocket, and I took it out to see what it was up to. Nothing was pressing against it, so I didn’t think my body language had sent any unintentional messages. When I looked at it, the screen was showing my contact list at M. P—. Before I could press End—like grabbing the cat before it escapes out the door—it rang. I press Talk and there’s nothing. I say, “M—“? and my sister K says, “This is his wife, can I help you?” But if I called him, why did my phone ring? I quickly say, “It’s Mary!” and we have a confusing back-and-forth about why are you calling, why are you calling? I explain that it was my cell phone’s doing. As we’re about to hang up, K says, “Thank you for not being ‘the other woman’.” We giggle and say bye. Later, MP refuses to believe that my phone called him all by itself. I have since learned that this is called “pocket dialing.” You would think that the geniuses at Apple or wherever would have come up with a way to prevent this. Flip phones are still popular on TV shows, because they make a dramatic and satisfying snik when they snap shut. But with my slide phone I pay extra every month for junk text messages (received, not sent) and “Casual Data Usage,” whatever that is.

Later that day, I force myself to leave the house and drive the seemingly interminable 5.83 miles (per Mapquest) to Shopko to get a prescription filled. I pull into the parking lot and find a spot near the door to the pharmacy. The car next to me is just starting to pull out. I get out of the Jeep, lock up, and turn to see that the driver of the other car is my other sister Barb. Now, this might not sound that unusual, but I rarely see anyone I know when I’m out and about. In the 6 years since I moved back to my hometown, I’ve run into K maybe 2 or 3 times at Angeli’s, Barb once before at Shopko, and MP a few times on the road, where we wave and grin maniacally at each other as we pass, as if it’s the most amazing thing in the world. (To defend myself against the charge of not recognizing my sister’s car, she got rid of the big purple truck and now drives a generic black SUV.)

So my brain puts these two unlikely events together—the errant phone call and the precise juxtaposition of Barb’s and my shopping trips, and I think, This has got to mean something. I’ve never really believed in coincidence. I’ve been determined to make sense out of the world (or, if necessary, impose sense on it) since I was first capable of wishful thinking. I’ve gone through periods when absolutely everything seemed like a message from The Universe. One day in the 1980s I found a dime on the ground in each of three different counties: San Francisco, Marin, and Alameda. Instead of just glorying in my 30-cent windfall, I set the parameters for significance. Surely there must be a meaningful pattern here? But then what could I do with that information? Unless some psychology grad student was going around dropping coins all over the Bay Area to study, I don’t know, dime migration, there was no way to decode the mystery. (Strangely, each dime had a little metal tag on it… now I’m just being silly.) I think a mathematician would say that each dime-finding was a separate event, with separate odds. But I insist on taking geography and time into account, making it one multi-event with supposedly low, low odds. This is why I’m not a mathematician: the rules! the absolutes! Plus, no feel for numbers.

It was lovely when I took Deepak Chopra at his word that “The universe is infinitely correlated.” I can’t know definitively that it’s not, but it’s suspiciously comforting, like the idea that Jesus is waiting for us up in heaven—or is he coming back here first? I’m not clear on that. I’ve had a long love affair with synchronicity, but it presupposes an order that is not necessarily there. So I’m down to not believing in anything, really—not in a nihilistic, depressing way, but just standing here on the edge of the Unknown, open to possibilities and opportunities, without trying to fit scenarios onto it like it’s a paper doll with infinite wardrobe choices.

*

Here in the U.P. and N.E.W. (Northeastern Wisconsin; I didn’t make it up), the stories keep rolling in. A formerly close friend of the family robs a Cash&Go (Check&Go? Well, Rob&Go, now) across the street from his house, to which he drives right after the heist. An ex-wife gets arrested for shoplifting at WalMart. A long-lost brother is discovered after supposedly jumping out of a 7-story building in California. The police have identified him from his fingerprints, but there is still some suspicion on this end that it may not be him because “it’s not that hard to fake fingerprints.” It’s not? I feel like I’ve lived such a normal, unassuming life up to this point, but back here in my “boring” Midwestern hometown these bizarre happenings are commonplace, as if the real action takes place in the middle of the country while people on the coasts sit around reading books and thinking great thoughts.

People around here divorce and move their kids to Madison or Texas while the other spouse moves also and then bemoans how far away the kids are. Or lives closer but resents being invited to the ex’s new place only to find that he is expected to babysit while the ex goes out. This is considered unconscionable, even after I retort that he’s the father. People take drugs and deal them, start fights in bars, go deep into debt (“How can you afford that trailer, Brian?” “Go into debt!” [an actual quote]), lose track of their grown kids. A 37-year-old man is estranged from certain family members over his involvement with a much younger cousin; he got out of that situation only to move in with a man he supervises at work and then took up with the guy’s 21-year-old daughter, who now lives with them. The roommate is threatening various things. The “drama queen,” as he is now known, calls home to Mama, who can only give him advice he should be able to figure out on his own.

The saddest thing for me in this flurry of dissolution and dislocation is that I lost my connection with two of Barb’s granddaughters (who are sisters). They have different fathers and now live with their mother and another man who is not the father of their new little sister. When I saw them frequently, one of them told me she wanted to take an after-school gymnastics class at the Y in Menominee, but her parents said they couldn’t afford it. So, using Barb as a go-between, I offered to pay for the class. Word filtered back to me that she couldn’t go anyway, because she had no way to get there (2.74 miles). So I offered to pick her up at school and drive her to the Y, then back again when the class was over. It was only twice a week, and I had nothing better to do. There was no word and no filter after that, just a big silent door slam. Were they suspicious of my motives? That could just be my paranoia, but I’ll never know. I do know that people without money are innately suspicious of others’ generosity, seeing it as lording it over them. No one wants to be beholden. You have to have something of your own to believe that someone with more is not trying to humiliate you. With my grandniece, I just wanted to help out my extended family. But the family did not extend itself to me.

*

I love my mostly solitary life, but some days are packjam with human contact, and those are nice, too. One day I had delightful visits (real ones) with my niece Lorraine and my haircutter Lois. Later, I stopped off at Barb’s house to help her with a problem she was having with her computer. Then I lay down on her couch and found it overwhelmingly comfortable, so I stayed while we watched 5 episodes of “Nurse Jackie” and ordered a pizza. Finally, I stumbled on home to find an e-mail from a second cousin, Sharon, who was offering scanned images of old photos of my mother’s family. Over the next few days, we corresponded about the photos and traded family stories. It was slightly disconcerting to realize that I had never really thought about any of my ancestors beyond my grandparents’ generation. But here was evidence that I did not emerge full-blown from the forehead of Grandpa Larsen: a photo of my great-grandfather Pieter Larsen, sitting at a desk back there in the 19th century. It was humbling.

Although it’s perhaps natural to think of oneself as the glorious culmination of thousands of years of procreation, it also occurred to me that, in the great pantheon of life as lived by the great-great-greats, none of it has much to do with me. Let’s say I’m a drop of water in a tiny creek in a cow pasture. (My sisters and I played in one across the road from our house.) As that water drop, I’m all about the creek, the cows, the trees, the changes of weather. Then I find out about the rivers in the area—the Menominee and Peshtigo rivers and their tributaries, Wausaukee, Pike, Pemebonwon, Little Popple, Pine, Popple, Brule, Little Peshtigo, Thunder, and Rat. Then there’s Green Bay off Lake Michigan, and all the Great Lakes, and it just goes on and on. You could argue that, as a drop in a tiny creek, I am not a product of these larger bodies of water but an antecedent, and you wouldn’t be wrong—but if the creek dried up, the other bodies would not be affected at all. So there you have it: my watery analogy for the significance, to me, of my untold myriad of ancestors: I am but a drop (or a drip). So if I were found to be distantly related to, say, Captain Lars Larsen of the Viking Navy, it would add barely a molecule of significance to my life. I admit I’m curious about the McKenney line too, but I’m not going to search it out. I’d rather explore my more immediate influences—the creek waters of which I am a part, the stones in the creek, the cow pies—do they go in the creek too?—the spring flowers, buttercups, violets, the splashing of summer and the frozen rigidity of winter. My ancestors are part of the geologic/physiologic past that formed me, but I’d rather stay in the present than search for remnants of self in those long-ago, many-times-diluted family ties.

*

So, the X-rays of my knees came back with the diagnosis, “degenerative changes,” meaning arthritis. When I was having lower back pain for a year and a half in the early ‘90s, I read about a study in which the X-rays or MRIs of people complaining of back pain were no more indicative of degeneration than were those of people who had no pain. The inescapable conclusion was that doctors see structural changes and then attribute the perceived pain to those changes. The book that cured me of my emotionally based pain (Healing Back Pain, by Dr. John Sarno) includes several references to knees. So now I have my work cut out for me: If I can banish the pain in the next 2 weeks, I won’t have to get a cortisone injection and/or be crippled for life. The power of the mind (and the duplicity of the body) is strong indeed. But I plan to wrestle my errant brain cells to the ground, saving the few that will keep me babbling incoherently at The Home while chuckling up my sleeve in my safe corner, free to think and ponder the secrets of the universe to my heart’s content.

You are here. Which is “the first” number?

[Mary McKenney]

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