mary’zine #56: July 2012

 I’m just a person trapped inside a woman’s body.—Robin Morgan

Girlhood is a cruel joke played on those of us who did not come into the world obsessed with princesses and the color pink. In the 5th grade I realized that the 6th grade girls—like canaries in the coal mine of femaleness—had completely changed. They were getting all… girly… their whole focus was on their hair, clothes, behavior and appearance, which is to say on boys. I liked boys fine; but I had enjoyed a freedom with them that wasn’t based on my appearance or, god forbid, any semblance of demure behavior. I played sports, climbed trees, and all that. Yes, I was a “tomboy”—which only means that you’re granted the freedom of a boy up to the point where you’re supposed to turn into a “real girl,” like a bizarro-world Pinocchia who wants nothing of the sort.

I do believe that many or most children are born into biologically consistent “feminine” or “masculine” sex roles—that girls want their dollies and boys their trains and trucks, even before they’re encouraged in those directions by parents and society. But lots of us are born another way. It bugs me when lesbians (and tomboys) are considered to be aping male behavior—“penis envy” apparently arising from girls’ discovering they have nothing “down there,” whereas boys have something. (That’s an interesting theory. Use the same logic on other body parts. Is a mouth “nothing” and a nose “something”? Which would you rather do without?) No, we’re doing what feels natural, just like they are. To me, femininity, with its dress code and limited interests and second-class status, is a complete artifice. Many gay men are also into artifice—playing the highly exaggerated female or male. And of course there are “lipstick lesbians” and “bull dykes.” Everyone is just trying to fit in, to be themselves… to find a role that makes sense in a highly gender-based society.

And frankly, I think lesbians and gay men are a harbinger of where we could go as a species if we took the radical step of acknowledging the feminine and masculine qualities that everyone has to some degree, instead of insisting on the rigid sex roles that are still the norm. It’s true that all evolution “cares about” is propagating the herd… so in that strict sense, all that matters to the species as a whole is making more babies. You + me + baby makes 3. But humans have gone far beyond that basic math. And we need both women and men to use all the faculties at their disposal. It’s ridiculous to claim that “If everyone were gay, the species would die out.” (a) Not everyone is going to be gay, and (b) if we ever experience a shortage of humans, all people except the old and infertile have the ability to make more—and an amazing number of us, gay or straight, want to.

The following photos show the evolution of a girl from freedom through femaleness and on to personhood.

age 10, when I was still free (with Lana, a neighbor girl)


age 15, in full defeat (my mother took this picture with her usual disregard for what I would consider “humorous”; but I must say, it expresses a kind of truth about my situation; I certainly felt trapped between icy weapons of ma’s destruction)


age 23 (?), on my way to self-definition, though I didn’t yet realize that my family (and thus I) was working class.



age 44, fully myself, helping in the demolition of the space that would become the Center for Creative Exploration, A Painting Studio (330 Chenery St., San Francisco, CA  94131)



  (cf.  ) Image






                                F A M I L Y

It’s weird how fast things can change. An innocent gesture, a passing comment, the smallest thing can mark the beginning of the end. In my family there has been a major rift in the time–space–recliner/couch continuum. The end has come for me and my brother-in-law, MP.

I first met MP at my father’s funeral in 1969. He and my sister K have been married for something like 39 years. But the longest I’ve ever been around him has been the last 8 years that I’ve lived back in my hometown in the U.P. It hasn’t always been easy, but I did think we had a bond of sorts. When I moved back here, K confessed that she was afraid MP and I would clash. I understood her concern, because he takes pleasure and pride in confrontation. He calls this “telling it like it is,” and “if you don’t like it, that’s your problem.” He’s alienated almost everyone he’s ever known, including his own family. And I—as you may or may not know—do not suffer fools gladly, so in a way ours was always a match made in hell.

But, for K’s sake, I did everything I could to make it work. I could almost always make him laugh, and when I couldn’t, I tried to overlook his mood—or challenged him when he went too far, such as the time he claimed to be “the boss of the family” and thus of me. While my sisters sat by in silence, I let him know in no uncertain terms that he was not “the boss of me” and if there was going to be a boss, it wasn’t going to be him: I was the oldest, he had married into my family, and if we were going to have a boss, it should be K, because I didn’t want the job.

So I adopted an attitude of strength, nonjudgment, and respect; it was sometimes difficult to maintain, but I genuinely enjoyed the banter that was our most frequent way of relating.

ImageThen this happened. We were over at K&MP’s house on a Friday night. These occasions have devolved from going out to eat together every week… to getting together every week but eating take-out… to going over there only by invitation… and now to Barb and me eating beforehand because, according to MP, it was “a hassle” to have the conversation about what everyone wanted to eat. (He never had to go pick up the food, so it was hard to believe it was really that big of a deal.) Anyway, Barb and I were invited over one night to see the Prowler travel trailer they’d just bought, and we spent the rest of the evening listening to our nephew rant about everything in his world: his girlfriend’s son, the school, the school bus, other drivers, his coworkers, his boss, and on and on. He used to be the sweetest person but has made himself over as a tough guy, apparently in his dad’s image.

At 9:00 we’re all standing around their tiny kitchen, getting ready to leave, and MP tries to get past me to get to the sink or whatever. Reflexively, I move back slightly so that he can’t get by. Yes! This is the kind of hijinks (“unruly and often hilarious but troublesome fun” [Urban Dictionary]) we North-Mid-Westerners like to get up to! But instead of saying “Ha ha, now move your ass,” he starts pushing me. I’m in stocking feet so slide right across the floor and up against the stove. I’m trying as hard as I can to push back against him, while K cries, “Don’t break my stove!” I’m laughing, I still think we’re having some good clean fun, or hijinks, as we have countless times before. But suddenly MP lets go of me and steps back. All my momentum has been going in his direction, so of course I fall and land on the floor hard, on my tailbone. I’m shocked, I can’t believe what has just happened. I’m going “Ow, ow.” K comes to help me up, but I tell her, “Give me a minute.” My nephew and his girlfriend take this opportunity to duck out the door, because what do they care, apparently. With some effort I hoist myself up by gripping the table and the countertop. I gather my bag, keys, and water bottle and mince toward the door. I don’t look at MP, but I kind of wish I had. What would I have seen on his face: a smirk? a look of concern? He had to have known I would fall when he let go of me.

K’s face as she hugs me good-bye is stricken. I don’t hear what Barb is saying to MP, but she later tells me: “This is where you say, ‘I’m sorry, Mary, I hope you aren’t hurt too bad’.” He just stares at her. Then Barb and I are out by our cars, she’s asking me if I’m all right to drive, offers me an Advil, hugs me a couple times. K and MP are standing in the doorway, MP looking contemplatively off into the distance, thinking who knows what.

Later that night I e-mail K to say, “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.” She thanks me for letting her know, because she was “worried sick.” I also e-mail Barb to tell her I made it home OK and am “fine.” I knew I’d be sore for a couple days, but I was still having intermittent pain 2 weeks later. I’m pretty sure you can’t break your coccyx (pronounced cock-sicks) without knowing it, but it was still a little worrisome.

Through the weekend, I kept thinking I was going to get a call or an e-mail from MP, apologizing—probably with a minimum of sincerity, but at least it would be something. On Sunday, I half-expected them to show up at my door, as they sometimes do when they’re out driving around the park. I don’t hear anything for the next week. Barb sees K when they go rummaging, but I don’t know if they talk about what happened. I finally decide that if I stay quiet about it, everyone will think it was no big deal and will breathe a sigh of relief that I have chosen not to rile MP, which would make life harder for K. It’s in no one’s interest for me to make a scene, even a mild one, because we are a family whose substrate is a rug bulging with the many interpersonal issues that have been swept under it. But I have chosen to consider my own interest for once. I will not and cannot let this stand.

So I write an e-mail addressed to both K and MP. I say I could accept that what he did was due to a momentary brain malfunction but that not apologizing is unacceptable. I hazard a guess that he might have been embarrassed and didn’t know what to say, but “I’m sorry” would be a good start.

ImageI had already begun writing about what happened. One of my favorite parts of preparing the ‘zine is looking through the images on for possible illustrations to use. I start by looking for a cartoon of a boy pulling a girl’s pigtails, because that junior high dynamic seems like a possible explanation for MP’s actions. After much searching, trying different terms, I find a delightful image that personifies how I was coming to see the incident: a bizarre pas de deux between two old folks making fools of themselves, but all in good fun (until it wasn’t).

But I was jolted out of this hopeful fantasy when I got the replies to my e-mail.

K said she was tired of being in the middle (defending MP against others, and others against him), that he and I were both at fault, she loved us both, and she couldn’t choose sides.

I guess I understand the part about its being partly my fault. I was standing where he wanted to be, yes, and I resisted when he pushed me, like the uppity dyke I am.

MP’s response was in all caps and very hostile, along the lines of: YOU STARTED IT! and IF YOU THINK I’M GOING TO SAY SORRY, FORGET IT!  Actually, I thought it was interesting that he didn’t use any profanity. Was he restraining himself (as I was) for K’s sake? I hear tell she confronted him after I left: “What were you thinking?

Was he feeling emasculated? I have no patience for that claim. When they aren’t lording it over us, they’re having a pity party about their precious balls. Which are broken oh so easily, by us. I’ve read that women’s greatest fear of men is physical, whereas men’s greatest fear of women is being ridiculed. They don’t want us to have any weapons whatsoever! And since I must say it every time, by “they” I don’t mean all men, I mean those who have no respect for women. I’m not saying MP was consciously trying to hurt me, but what he did was deliberate and had easily foreseen consequences.

It’s not uncommon for the accused to turn the situation around and blame the victim. A man caught cheating on his wife cries, “If you hadn’t taken that job, I wouldn’t have gotten angry, and none of this would have happened!” (Army Wives, 7-15-12)


I’m in shock for a few days. The feelings come and go (talking of Michelangelo). Every so often I get a fleeting sense of something else, a breath of fresh air. To have the truth out in the open, no more straining to keep my cool, to keep my mouth shut “for K,” to suffer in silence, or occasionally to stand up and say what I have to say… but always with the fear of capsizing the family boat.

During that time, contrary to my “bulging rug” metaphor (and the family boat, for that matter), I have this dream:

I’m standing in the small back entryway of the house I grew up in. There’s the outside door, the door into the kitchen, and the door to the basement. Except the door to the basement isn’t there… nor is the basement!! There’s nothing but Void. The outside door doesn’t have a lock on it, so there’s no way to keep anyone else from falling into the Void. Then I wonder how stable the floor under my feet is.

It only took me a few days more to become almost giddy with the realization that I no longer have to tiptoe around the elephant in the room. What if he apologizes, you ask? He won’t, trust me. It’s inconceivable. And even if he did, it would have to be in a parallel universe where I’m thin, can eat whatever I want, and the sexes are mutually respectful (to cite the three most important qualities of a parallel universe I’d want to be a part of). No, the die has been cast. Barb and I helped K celebrate her birthday recently, so I’m hoping the three of us will occasionally be able to get together on our own, “just us girls.” Then it will be K’s problem to deal with MP.

It’s no longer mine.


Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, I feel free. I feel free. I feel free. I feel free. I feel free. I feel free. I feel free. I feel free. I feel free.

            —Cream (“I Feel Free”)


p.s: I was talking on the phone to P, whose yard is being professionally landscaped. It’s taken longer than expected, but she was pretty sure they would be done “today,” or certainly by tomorrow. I pointed out (as is my wont) that, according to my favorite ancient paradox, if they only did half of what they had to do every time they came, they would never finish. Eventually, they would be bringing one grain of sand. Then they’d have to find a way to cut each grain in half. When they got down to the atomic level, they’d have to go over to Switzerland and use the Large Hadron Collider to make smaller and smaller particles. If this were a fully developed joke, there would be a punch line. Alas, it is not.


Mary McKenney

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