Looking down into Lake Superior from a high bank above the water. Photo by P. DuPont.
P made her annual trek to Menominee for my birthday, and we spent a day in Munising, on the southern shore of Lake Superior. It was beautiful, and I was delighted to prove to her that the U.P. does have mountains (as I call them) or at least rolling hills. Below are two views she took of ”Miner’s Castle,” a sandstone formation on Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Hills or mountains aside, there are some great natural sights in Menominee, too.
Before P got here, I had to renew my driver’s license, in person, at a Secretary of State (SOS)’s office. I wanted to get an “enhanced” driver’s license so I can walk amongst the Canadians on their own soil if need be. There’s an SOS office about a mile from my house, so I figured it would be easy enough to bop in there with all the required documents in plenty of time to get the new license before my birthday. The office shares a little building with Stephenson Bakery—one of many odd juxtapositions around here.
I set out at 3:00 in the afternoon on a Wednesday, but I arrive right in the middle of their Wednesday lunch hour. (All other days, it’s 12:30-1:30.) I take care of some other business downtown despite the beckoning bakery, which is leering at me through its windows as if to dare me to come in for just an itty-bitty snack. (“You’re already here,” it seems to be crooning, “and you have to wait anyway”), but I am resolute. I go home empty-handed and empty-mouthed.
I come back at 4:30, there’s no one in line ahead of me, and a pleasant young woman wearing purple eyeshadow greets me. I’ve put all my documents in a plastic envelope, so I start dumping everything out on the counter and then discover, O damn!, that I took my wallet out when I was doing the other errands and didn’t put it back. I gather everything up again and head back to the house. I run upstairs (I use the word “run” very loosely), and my wallet isn’t where I usually keep it. Damn again! Then I have a terrible feeling. I run back downstairs and check the plastic envelope, and there it is, hiding below the fold as it were! What an idiot. I drive back down to the SOS and start presenting my documents again. I haul out the “Notification of Birth Registration” that I’ve been carrying around for just shy of 65 years. Purple Eyeshadow brings it to a faceless bureaucrat in a back office who, after making a phone call, sends her back to me with the news that they can’t accept it, because it’s not a true birth certificate, it’s only a “souvenir.” Who would want to keep a useless piece of paper that doesn’t even prove your baby exists? My parents, that’s who. It’s an original, highly creased and yellowed document with my whole name, place and date of birth, my parents’ names, and a “State File Number.” On the back in big capital letters it says, “IMPORTANT—READ CAREFULLY.” It states that my birth certificate is permanently filed in the Bureau of Records and Statistics, Michigan Department of Health, Lansing 4. The following clinches it, in my opinion: “This notification should be carefully preserved. It is a valuable document” [my emphasis].
But no, it’s not good enough for the SOS. Eyeshadow tells me I can go down to “the courthouse” and get something-something that’s more official. (I don’t even know where the fucking “courthouse” is, there’s an old one that’s been there since the Cleveland administration, and then there’s a new set of municipal buildings about a mile away.) I yearn to tell Eyeshadow to “bite me”—yeah, I know she’s just doing her job, but I’m too pissed to care—but I just sigh dramatically and roll my eyes and hand her my old driver’s license and my brand spanking new Medicare card. She says I can’t use the Medicare card as proof of my Social Security number, even though the number on my Medicare card is my Social Security number with an apparently distracting, corrupting “-A” at the end of it. She starts telling me what I need to give them to prove what my SSN really is, but I curtly turn and barge out of the office. I almost head into the oh-so-conveniently located bakery (is that why they’re still in business, to cater to the pissed-off citizenry who can’t produce acceptable documents?)—but I’m beyond even crullers at that point. And that’s saying something.
I get home, look for the metal file box of my Mom’s that I can’t remember the contents of, and—lo and behold—discover that I have a “real” certified birth certificate in a nice folder that I got back in 1986 when I needed one for some reason. Who knows if a 1986 certification will stand up to the high standards set by the SOS, but it’s the best I’ve got.
Now I know how Barack Obama feels—well, except for the wars and the Republicans and stuff.
I have received dozens of communications from the Social Security Administration over the years—all those statements that verify that in my first year of full-time employment I made a grand total of $4,104. So I pull out the file and start going through it. And guess what? The SSA is loath to put the recipient’s full SSN on their documents, because they want to “help prevent identity theft”! Great! Looks like they will also “help prevent the SOS from giving me a driver’s license.”
I finally come across two documents mailed to me by the local SSA office in Marinette. One is a computer printout, not on any letterhead, that states “MY NAME IS…” and “MY DATE OF BIRTH IS…” and “MY SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER IS….” This “IMPORTANT INFORMATION” about my “CLAIM FOR SOCIAL SECURITY RETIREMENT INSURANCE BENEFITS” is signed by a “Mrs. Seefeldt,” but I’m not at all sure that this document will hold up under the intense scrutiny of Purple Eyeshadow and her shadowy boss.
The other document is a “Voluntary Withholding Request,” a “Form W-4V” (the SOS instructions say that a W4 form is acceptable for proving SSN). This form has been filled in by computer, but couldn’t I have gotten hold of a blank form and filled in the LYING, CHEATING FALSE INFORMATION myself? There, in black and white, it says: “2. Your social security number,” and indeed my actual social security number is typed in there as bold as anything, without the offending “-A” from my Medicare card. But the form is red-stamped “COPY.” Will a mere copy be acceptable to Eyeshadow, Shadowy Boss and the SOS her- or himself? We shall see.
After perseverating on it for a few days, I realize I have to get this taken care of sooner rather than later. But I dread going back there. I envision a string of irrational demands that I can’t fulfill. I mean, how do people with falsified documents do it? I was born in this very town, and I have “proof” galore that I am who I say I am. But finally I go back, and it couldn’t have been easier. Eyeshadow waits on me again, and when she sees me I think she gets a little tense, doesn’t look me in the eye as she says, “What can I do for you?” Yeah, I’m that much of a badass, I had sighed at her and didn’t say thank you. First thing, I say, “I’m sorry about the other day,” and she says that’s OK. Then it’s like we’re best friends, we’ve been through so much together and I get to show her the calm, sane, reasonable person I am down deep, and I can see she appreciates it. When I tell P this later, she wonders how this faceless, eyeshadowed bureaucrat would even remember me. Honey—this is not the San Francisco DMV, it’s down and personal, or UP and personal. Like once when I approached the deli counter at Angeli’s, and one of the clerks asked me, “Do you want egg salad today?” and I’m a little taken aback. Why does he remember me? It’s hard to know how personally to take these commercial interactions. I’m usually “nice”; I strive to have a persona that makes the clerk think, when she sees me coming, “OK, this one doesn’t cause any trouble,” but I think I prefer being anonymous. My new documents meet the high standards of the SOS and Eyeshadow and her now visible boss, who looks to be about 23 years old. I feel ancient, but not quite as ancient as the really old woman at the other window, who is surrendering her license. When asked if she’s an organ donor, she quips that no one would want any part of her body anyway. I have to say, I can relate to that. Oh, she meant after she dies. I had not been looking forward to the eye test, but it’s a very quick matter of reciting the perfectly legible letters displayed in a little machine. Likewise, the photo-taking is innocuous, you stand right there a few steps away from the counter, and Eyeshadow tells you to smile if you want to, which I appreciate. The picture comes up on the screen and she asks if I’m happy with it or do I want to try again, and I say that it’s not going to get any better than that… she chuckles… she’s probably never heard that one before… yeah, right… and indeed it’s probably the best driver’s license photo I’ve ever taken. For the next couple of days, as I do errands around town, I feel almost attractive. We finish our business, she tells me to have a nice day, I say “You too,” gather my stuff together, and surprise her by saying “Bye!” She founders a bit—does no one else have the decency to utter a friendly farewell?—again says “Have a nice day,” and voilà, I have rehabilitated myself in her eyes, and in my own.
patient does not wish to share…
Had my annual visit with the handsome Dr. T. The front office person always asks me if I want to authorize anyone to call them to get information about me, and I get confused and always say no. They have my power of health attorney, or whatever it’s called, on file, but they never seem to want to trust what they already have, it all has to be new. So I had to sign a paper that said, “PATIENT DOES NOT WISH TO SHARE ANYTHING WITH ANYBODY.” I think that’s a bit harsh.
Dr. T. is his usual charming self. He congratulates me on my 25-lb. weight loss and says he’d smile bigger but he’s afraid he has a piece of carrot in his teeth. My laff of the day.
Then he kind of takes the wind out of my sails about my 0% calcium-in-my-arteries test result from earlier this year, because there can still be “soft” plaque and I still have high cholesterol. So I have to double down on my cholesterol medicine.
I’ve written a lot about my personal experiences and outlook on this site, but now I feel like revisiting some of the influences on my reading, writing, and editing life. Maybe “influences” is the wrong word, implying that external forces shape who we become. Ever since I read that Picasso was kicked out of school at the age of 10 because “all he wanted to do was paint,” 1 I’ve found it fascinating to look back at the “acorns” that have turned me into the tall, strong oak tree I am today. Ha! Anyway, the point is, I’m not an existentialist (“existence precedes essence”)—first, because it’s a bleak world view that seems peculiarly male (all abstract, Man Turned Hero in the Face of an Uncaring Universe sort of thing), and second, because I do think we are born with an “essence” that manifests throughout our life. When looking back from the vantage point of great age, or even medium-great age, I think it’s possible to see that, in a way, things were meant to happen the way they did. “Meant to happen” is a loaded phrase; I don’t mean that an old man in the sky decided what sort of life to give each of us and marked all the plays on the blackboard with X’s and O’s like John Madden and then BOOM that’s who we are. I see it more as if an internal engine or fire (a fire engine?) pushes us to blaze or blunder down a path that we appear to create as we go, but that is truly driven. We see it after the fact, when it manifests. Until then, we can only perceive the fog of the so-called Future as we stand on the edge of the ever-Present cliff, every nanosecond new and impossible to predict but also in some strange way making total sense.
I once asked my painting teacher if the painting—the paper with the paint on it—“mattered.” Her answer: “It does and it doesn’t.” Which sounds like a non-answer, but I knew what she meant. In one sense, the process you go through while painting is what matters the most, but what shows up on the paper is the mirror to which you respond, stroke by stroke. And later, looking back at your paintings can help you track your journey—at least in theory. My paintings, many of which I have framed and hanging on my walls, still seem as mysterious to me as when I painted them. They radiate feeling and intensity but don’t necessarily give up their secrets. Which is fine with me.
Likewise, one’s individual life matters and yet it doesn’t. In the grand scheme of things, we are but dust in the wind, and other song lyrics from the ‘70s. From what we can tell from this side of the life/death divide (if there is a divide, or only a full stop, a colon, or even an em dash—who knows what punctuation will ultimately define us?), we may matter to a few or multitudes of other people, we can accomplish magnificent things for which our name will live on forever (J. Christ, S. Jobs), or we can be known to only a few, but deeply known and loved. We will live on in their hearts until they too pass on, and then at some point, if we don’t make the history books, there will be nothing left of us. But as we are living it, Life is everything, no matter how small its manifestation appears to be.
I don’t remember my mother reading to me, but I know I must have had Little Golden Books, because the way my stomach drops when I see the illustrations on the paperboard covers with the gold spine, it’s a sense memory from way back, from little Mary Lou still intact within me, like a nested doll.
When I was very young, my aunt Dagmar gave me a book called Dear Heart. The only thing I remember about it is the sentence, “You can’t be too careful.” I puzzled over what this meant. It was the first time I remember thinking about language and wanting to know how it worked. Later, I spent the summer after 7th grade pondering the use of the subjunctive: if I were, not if I was…. It was definitely a WTF moment, if only that expression had existed at the time.
Over the years I visited Spies Library every week, taking out the maximum number of books, and I was finally let up in the adult section around the age of 12. I already had my heart set on going to college, so I found all the books I could that had college as a theme. It seemed like the most glamorous life.
The first witticism I remember making was when I was 10 and hanging out with my cousin Donny. He gave me a cherry Lifesaver, and while I was still savoring it, I announced that I had to go home (next door). I half-seriously told him, “I hate to eat and run,” and he laughed. It was the first time I felt the power of humor, and the inkling that I might be good at it.
(When P was visiting, I often had to point out that I was joking. She said she used to be able to tell, but now I don’t have an “affect.” I said, “I’ve never had an affect,” but it’s possible that I’m taking “deadpan” to an extreme: merely dead.)
Some of the most significant reading I did was in the World Book Encyclopedia, which my parents bought me when I was in the 5th grade. I would read the difficult entries and practically will myself to understand them. It’s exactly the same way I now approach the editing of scientific manuscripts, especially when I’m not familiar with the subject: take one word at a time and just figure the damn thing out.
In 6th grade I heard about something called Pocket Books, which was a publishing company that sold books for fairly cheap. I had never heard the term “paperback,” so I went into a dime store and asked if they had any “pocket books.” So they ushered me over to the ladies’ purses. I was so disappointed. It must have been that Christmas that my mother somehow got her hands on a publisher’s catalog and ordered me a large box of paperbacks, in all styles, reading levels, and subject matter, from Elephant Toast to Robinson Crusoe to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to The Call of the Wild to Journey to the Centre of the Earth (possibly my favorite book of all time) to Julius Caesar. It’s the single best gift I received in childhood, from a parent who could barely afford to put food on the table. I guess that goes a long way to making up for her ghostwriting my autobiography the year before, come to think of it.
At that point, the library couldn’t hold me. I wanted my own books. In 7th grade I had to start going to the high school, about 2 miles from home. I usually took the city bus, which cost 12 cents each way. But when I discovered that Everard Drugs sold paperback books on a revolving rack, I would walk to school and back and save the bus money until I could afford the 25- and 35-cent books. I got some pretty racy books, because I hadn’t yet learned how to judge a book by its cover. (Or maybe I had.) I remember reading about a boy who showed a girl his “wiener,” and I haven’t felt the same way about hot dogs ever since.
I joined the Detective Book Club, subscribed to the Saturday Review of Literature, and devoured all the reading assigned in my English classes, except for Charles Dickens, whom I hated at first read. BLEAK House, good choice of adjective, Charles. Once, I brought one of the Erle Stanley Gardner (Perry Mason) books to school—The Case of the Calendar Girl—and this cute boy who would never have talked to me otherwise asked to look at it. Of course I was thrilled, but he was obviously just looking to see if there were any dirty parts in it. There weren’t.
Just as often as I would happen upon a classic like Seventeen by Booth Tarkington, I was drawn to books based on TV shows. My 9th grade English teacher, Mr. Eidt, who had also been my mother’s teacher (so you know how many decades he had on him), shamed me when he did a locker check and found a Leave it to Beaver book in mine. I turned the shame inward but didn’t understand exactly what was wrong with it. It was like being pre-sexual (though I was already post-)—you’re just going along, doing what feels good, and suddenly the Adult World starts judging.
I joined the Adult World when my friend Jerry turned me on to The Catcher in the Rye. I still have my original paperback copy, which might be valuable by now, but I went through and underlined all the funny parts; one doesn’t have a sense of “This will be worth cash money someday” when one is 15. It’s a cliché now, but I cannot overstate the significance of that book to my world view. I was done with Beaver and Wally; started reading “real” books and listening to Bob Dylan records. I had no idea that I was falling into step with my generation. I wasn’t aware of having a generation. But when I got to Michigan State a few years later, there was a whole culture, counter to the established one, that felt tailor-made for me.
In high school I joined the debate club, a really odd choice because I hated public speaking. I had a serious crush on the debate coach, Mr. Malechuk, so maybe that’s what motivated me. There is no more dreaded memory in my life than the mornings I had to get up before dawn and prepare to spend a winter day being driven to Houghton or some other way-northern town to (a) throw up and (b) debate. We won most of our debates, but I truly hated doing it. My specialty was taking the negative side, which may have been inevitable given the “Mary Mary quite contrary” mantra that I still hear to this day. Inexplicably—again—I took the $100 I had inherited from my grandfather and rode a Greyhound bus downstate to MSU one summer for a week-long debate clinic. Did I tell you this already? Well, long story short, my assigned debate partner broke his leg on the first or second day and got to sit out the rest of the week, while I had to take both affirmative and negative sides in every debate and got no credit for it whatsoever. I don’t remember much else about the experience, except that (a) a girl named Lois Lust was teased mercilessly about her name, and (b) the predominant flora on campus, especially around the student union, exuded the smell of loneliness. I’m not trying to be poetic, it was the oddest thing, like having synesthesia. That smell followed me through the 5 years I later spent there, and I can recall it perfectly to this day. Oh, and (c) the bus ride home was hell on wheels, because a dirty-old-man/evangelist sat next to me and tried to molest me in the name of Jesus… because I had to “open my heart,” you see, and he had to “help” by touching my oh-so-conveniently located heart-area. I didn’t dare speak up, tell the driver, or anything. It was just one more in a series of impositions that I had to endure, and that I never questioned.
I wrote a column in the Maroon News, the high school paper. It was a Herb Caen-esque gossip column that featured little news tidbits and jokes about my classmates. Just about the only words Nancy Hartz said to me in high school were about my question of who had dropped a penny during nap time in kindergarten and made the whole class stay after because she wouldn’t confess. It was her. I think she enjoyed being singled out like that. It was my first foray into ‘zine land, another territory that didn’t yet exist, except in the “inarticulate speech of [my] heart” in the words of Van Morrison.
Except for the kindergarten mystery involving Nancy, my jokes were often at the expense of others. I also drew comic books, many of which also made fun of friends and classmates. It was very satisfying to make other kids laugh that way (I was too shy to talk), and I never considered the effect on the kids I made fun of. I hope I have grown out of that unconscious cruelty by now. Humor can be a way to keep people at arms’ length. I’m not sure that’s the right way to describe it… something about keeping myself safe and separate, unimpeachable—protecting and distinguishing (simultaneously hiding and showing) myself.
In my senior year, I placed fourth in an essay contest with the theme, “What Freedom Means to Me” (my angle: I don’t know, because I take freedom for granted). The top 5 winners had to recite our essays into a microphone and be re-ranked according to the effectiveness of our oral presentation. This moved me from fourth to second place, surprisingly. Then we all got together with Mr. Eidt to polish our essays. The first place winner, Vicky Lundgren, who was beautiful and “rich” (middle class), had written a good essay, but her last sentence was clunky. I don’t remember what the problem was, but I suggested a slight rewording and impressed the heck out of Mr. Eidt… until Vicky persuaded me to tell him we didn’t want to read our essays to the whole school in assembly, and he never spoke to me again. That’s when I learned about the fickleness of “mentors” who drop you if you ever dare to question them. (I’ve experienced this many times through the years.)
As a freshman in college I was placed in an advanced English class with 10 or 11 students, one of whom was a 10-year-old boy genius (now a grown-up computer guy, gasp). I loved the professor, Perry Gianakos, who gave me an A+ on a paper I wrote about Death of a Salesman that apparently changed his mind about whether American literary characters could be tragic heroes according to Aristotle’s definition. I also joined the campus newspaper and wrote headlines that I then cut out of the published paper and mailed back to my favorite teacher, Ruth, eager to show her how well I was doing. I wasn’t really interested in journalism, though. I took many creative writing classes but never got the hang of making stuff up. In lieu of writing fiction, I wrote long, detailed, spirited letters that another of my mentors deemed belles lettres. Another precursor (unbeknownst to me at the time) of my eventual writing style.
Going to library school was a desperate measure designed solely to keep me in academia for another year after college. I went to the University of Michigan but disliked Ann Arbor and hated the so-called graduate-level classes. I was a radical brat and a terrible snob. One of the professors wrote on my evaluation that I “did not present a professional image and should be interviewed in person.” What, knee-torn blue jeans and surly looks weren’t considered professional?? It was 1969! Years later I met him at an ALA convention where I was accepting an award for a friend, and he said, “Oh, so you’re Mary McKenney.” My name had become quite familiar to librarians because of my reviews and articles in the library press. I still looked pretty much like I had in library school, but that was the beauty of the counterculture. We could have it all: do what we wanted, dress like we wanted. That has been my credo ever since.
I had to have a work-study job to pay my way through library school, and the UM library didn’t have any openings, so I was lucky enough to (“meant to”?) land an editing job in the Bureau of Business Research. I turned out to be good at it, and my non-librarian fate was (nearly) sealed. After classes and work, I wrote short reviews for Ted S., a professor who compiled several editions of his book From Radical Left to Extreme Right. I was thoroughly enthralled by underground newspapers and comix and loved writing about them. He paid me $5 apiece for the reviews, and when I asked for a raise he lectured me on how it was supposed to be a labor of love (sure, but he got royalties). The same thing happened when I wrote for Bill K., a library publishing professional who edited many reference books, including Magazines for Libraries. He didn’t pay me much more for longer reviews, and he dropped me when I asked for a small raise. I learned that I rarely get what I want by asking for it. A dubious-sounding lesson, but it seems to be true in my case.
After library school I couldn’t face the thought of working in a library, so I accepted a near-volunteer position at Carleton College (Northfield, MN) on a previously student-run publication, Alternative Press Index. In some ways it was a dream job: I spent most of my time in my tiny office reading underground papers and corresponding with volunteer indexers. I had an attic room in a house owned by the college, and I was thrilled to be living my dream of working in the counterculture. It paid $15 a week, plus government surplus food (canned bulgur: you haven’t lived…). The dominant credo of the time was to have no distinction between work and life… which is where I am right now, come to think of it. (I don’t know why I’m throwing the word “credo” around.)
Thanks to a radical publication called Vocations for Social Change, I got an actual library job at St. Mary’s College in Maryland, where I hobnobbed with the student and faculty radicals and became infamous for being one of the first “out” lesbians on campus and then for being fired and starting a student revolution (actually, I was a just figurehead wrapped in an enigma). I’ve written about this, too, so I won’t repeat it. I wasn’t really cut out to be a librarian. The mantra of my fellow librarians, even the radical ones, was “information.” I never cared that much for information as a goal. Weird that I ended up editing science, which is sort of the ultimate in information.
P was an older student at the college, and looking back it seems like a fateful moment when we passed each other on a country road, at dusk, no one else around. We knew of each other’s existence—we were the campus feminist matchmaker’s dream, an “angry Navy wife” and a “virgin dyke”—but didn’t speak. I can hardly believe that that was 40 years ago. After she graduated, we moved to the Bay Area and lived with her grandmother and great aunt for several months. We found jobs, moved to the City, and climbed the respective ladders in our professions.
I could go on and on (and already have), but that’s enough for now. For some visual relief, I present two photographs, taken by P (of course), of her cat Maddie.
A few postscripts:
- In one day’s mail recently, the only two things I received were a check for my editing work for $105 and a water bill for $105.11. I told P, who commented, “You’re losing ground.”
- The other night, I dreamed about my h.s. teacher Ruth (whom I recently found out has died). Unlike all previous dreams of her, this one was completely gratifying. She gave me a beautiful pin with my name on it, and I wept and hugged her 3 times. It felt upon awakening that I was giving myself back to myself, in a way. She gave me a great gift back then. My mistake was in confusing the giver with the gift.
- 1 Remember there was a footnote way back there? J. Hillman and M. Ventura, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—And the World’s Getting Worse.
- Below: View outside P’s new house. OK, so Oregon has some pretty sights, too.