mary’zine #60: January 2013

January 4, 2013

Flying to San Francisco for a painting intensive is a lot like taking my cat to the vet. In both cases I think I can handle it, but there are certain things over which I have little or no control: (1) the cat; (2) United Airlines.

Either I’ve let down my vigilance or Luther has increased his. I had to take him in for a very simple procedure: to remove the stitches from his MTF surgery (male-to-a-gash where his privates used to be). I usually have no trouble grabbing him and sticking him in the carrier. But he had been watching and learning: he would get suspicious when I put socks on, or when I closed both doors to my bedroom (so he couldn’t hide under the bed). I try to remain calm and not give off any vibes of “I am about to pick you up, cat,” but he’s very sensitive to nonverbal cues. Let’s face it, he has nothing else to do all day. So this time he figured it out, and I kid you not, I spent one-and-a-half hours chasing him up and down the stairs. (It was a low-speed chase on my part.) He would wait at the top or bottom of the stairs until I almost reached him and then he would take off. He got behind the washer and dryer and tucked himself into a hole in the dry wall. I couldn’t move the appliances, and pleading with him in a reasonable tone of voice didn’t work, so I got out the vacuum cleaner and flushed him out with the sound he likes least in the world. Then it was up the stairs again, and on and on. About an hour into this fiasco, I stopped to catch my breath, leaning on a short stand-alone bookcase and looking down at Luther who was lounging on the other side. He averted his eyes, so I knew he knew he was being a very bad boy. I explained to him, “I can’t do this all day, you know. You’re going to have to give up sometime, because I’m not going to!” With that, we took up the chase again. I finally trapped him in the upstairs bathroom.

United Airlines is even more difficult to deal with, because you’re completely at the mercy of snow, rain, wind, fog, missing planes, late planes, planes that won’t move, planes that can’t move, mysterious demands from the air traffic controllers (inadequately explained by the pilot), mechanical difficulties, missing crew members, not enough food on board, an overhead bin that won’t close, a missing sticker on the pilot’s control panel. This last one happened to my friend P in October. FAA regulations would not permit the plane to fly without this sticker! I asked her if it was a happy face, or maybe “My honor student can beat up your honor student.” There is no end to the excuses for why a plane cannot go when it’s time. On my most recent trip, there was a 45-minute delay at O’Hare because some plane that was in our way needed a “pusher.” That’s when I learned that a plane can’t go in reverse (wouldn’t that be a sight in the sky? backwards-flying airplanes?), it has to be pushed out of the gate. There was also much yelling back and forth over the heads of the waiting passengers between two employees at the far ends of the gate, white phones to their ears, trying to convey information or questions either to the other gate person or perhaps to the person at the other end of the other gate person’s phone. It was impossible to determine what they were talking about, and whether it was good or bad news for us, the passenger/hostages. But once we got going, the flight to S.F. was uneventful and, I have to admit, they served a delicious tomato soup in first class.

[As I write this, I’m half-watching the “KittenCam” on YouTube. Brutus sometimes watches it with me and will look behind the laptop to see where the kitties are. Poor dumb animals, there’s so much in life they don’t understand. The mother cat is lying on top of a rudimentary cardboard castle, and there’s a wide entrance for the kittens to get inside. I hear a lot of scratching, and I look over to see that one of the kittens has managed to climb up the back of the castle and is lying next to mom, oh bliss to be the only child for a moment. One of the other kittens is trying to figure out how to climb up there too, but he/she gives up and leaves the castle to lie on a blanket in front of it. The blanket is blue; is it meant to represent a moat? Am I giving this too much thought?]

At the baggage claim at SFO, I was waiting in vain for my luggage to come down the chute when a United employee came up to me and asked if I was looking for a purple hard-sided suitcase. He said it had come in on an earlier flight, so it was waiting for me in the Odd Sizes area. I asked him how he knew it was mine, and he said he remembered my name from the wheelchair list (I get ferried around O’Hare and SFO). Which really didn’t explain it, but I guess my cane gave me away. So I claimed my suitcase and schlepped up to the air train with all my stuff: suitcase, heavy carry-on bag, painting tube, and heavy wool coat. (I don’t understand the architecture of that part of the airport. I had to take an elevator up and then another elevator down.) I picked up my car at the Rental Car Center and was delighted to see that Alamo was much more efficient than Avis ever was.

I’d brought along my GPS, so before proceeding to the flat in Bernal Heights that Terry had rented for us, I typed in “Golden Gate Park” so I could stop at Andronico’s for supplies, maybe pick up a burrito at L’Avenida. Complacent with the smooth way the trip had gone so far, I proceeded onto the freeway in the heavy rain and dark, pretty much remembering the way over to 280 but figuring it wouldn’t hoit to use the GPS. It wasn’t until I saw the “380 to 280” sign out of the corner of my eye that I realized that Gloria (Positioning System) was guiding me onto 101 North. Very soon I discovered that she was trying to make me go over the Bay Bridge! Her demands became more and more insistent until I finally unplugged her and decided to fly (so to speak) solo.

I wasn’t sure how to get away from the dreaded bridge and find the heart of the city. There used to be a sign that said, “Last exit to S.F.,” but  I didn’t see it this time. At one point, I thought, “I could die tonight.” The crowded freeway was a nightmare, especially when I had to change lanes, and the city streets, when I finally got to one, were almost worse because of all the pedestrians and bike riders and still too many cars. When one car started backing toward me without regard for the Pauli Exclusion Principle (no two objects can occupy the same place at the same time), I leaned on the horn, and a guy on a bike riding by called out, “Chill, lady.” I tried to think of a biting retort, but I didn’t have the energy. Besides, it was probably good advice. At a stoplight I tinkered with the radio, got it turned on, and almost got blasted out of the car it was so loud. Then I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. Not for the first time, I thought, “Why do I do this to myself?”

To make a long story not much shorter, I managed to find Polk St., then Pine, and drove across town to L’Avenida (it was closed) and Andronico’s, where I bought water, Frappuccino, eggs, butter, English muffins, and capellini with artichokes and pine nuts. Oh, did I forget to mention the lemon tart? By 9:00 I made it over to the flat, which is on a nice quiet street across from Holly Park. After meeting the “hosts” and getting a tour of the premises, I ate half the capellini and the lemon tart and retired early. Terry wasn’t flying in until the next day, Friday.

I woke to darkness and still-pouring rain. The mattress was so soft that I couldn’t turn over: an inexorable gravity-like force kept pulling me to the edge. When I reached for my cell phone on the night stand, I fell out of bed! The phone hit the floor, too, and broke apart, the three pieces scattering. It took several minutes of sweeping my cane under the bed and a chair to find the battery. Besides being bruised by the fall, I had a sharp pain under my right heel when I tried to walk. I think that was from the schlepping I had to do in the 3 airports the day before (the wheelchair rides get you only so far), not from landing on the floor.

To say that I was discouraged at that point is a vast understatement. Each time I go to these painting intensives, I’m six months or another year older (and deeper in debt), and my mobility is increasingly compromised. Every movement is difficult, and every new environment seems designed to stymie me. Here is a perfect example. The bathroom door would get stuck on the bath mat when I tried to open or close it, so I had to bend down and pick the mat up to move it out of the way. The first time I did this, it wouldn’t come up, and I finally realized that I was leaning on it with the cane in my other hand. This also illustrates my complicity in my other, nonphysical problems, I’m sorry to say.

Terry was also having a trip from hell, which I didn’t know about until after I’d had lunch with Barbara. We got burritos from La Corneta in Glen Park and ate them at her lovely outer Mission apartment. I once speculated that eternity is the “time” between meetings with the other painters, because it never feels like time has passed, we pick up where we left off. I got a text from Terry saying she was stuck in Philadelphia. (I wanted to work in W.C. Fields’ famous epitaph, “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” but it turns out to be apocryphal; damn!) She finally got in late Friday night.

On Saturday morning it was old home week at the painting studio. Only 4 of 25 painters were “new” (not known to me). Some of us have been painting together for over 30 years. I was delighted to see that Diane L. and Diane D. were there, also Sima, who had lost her job the day before and so was freed up to paint. Greeting everyone, hugging and exchanging gladness at seeing each other again, went a long way toward turning my travel woes on their head and making me see that “it was all worth it.” All weekend I was high on the people, the ease of painting, and the realization that I seem to have “gotten out of my own way” (the cane pinning down the bathmat notwithstanding), able to accept my mistakes, petty thoughts, and social awkwardness. It’s so easy once you know how: if you accept yourself and your imperfections, you can note what happened and then move on, rather than spiraling down into the useless, self-fulfilling prophesy of self-judgment.

Yet despite this, part of me wondered if I was getting too cocky, if I was going to get my comeuppance. And it did come, but not, I think, as a punishment for feeling good about myself. Accepting yourself in general doesn’t mean you will never fail or flounder; it works on the other end, when the worst has already happened. On the third day of painting, I had a sudden insight that I wanted to share in the group, even though it was in response to someone else’s sharing. Barbara’s attempt to bring “painting consciousness” into our relationships with one another in the group is fairly new and difficult to carry out in practice. The painting itself feels completely natural, because you do exactly what comes to you. But in the sharing, you need a higher level of awareness so that you honor each person’s space to speak without responding, giving advice, or going off on your own tangents. The sharing is not a discussion group or a casual conversation, and in that sense it feels unnatural… to wait and consider one’s intentions before blurting something out, for example. I seem to be the main blurter in the group. Back in the day, I was so shy that I could never think of anything to say or, if I did, could not bring myself to speak up. Now I’m kind of a loose cannon, putting myself out there, taking risks with what I say (an avocational hazard of being smart and funny), and getting caught up in meta disagreements with Barbara about trust, permission, rules, authority, and approval seeking. I seem always to be seeing a naked emperor in front of me, rather than another sensitive human being who is doing the best she can.

It’s a painful process—pushing the boundaries, getting pushed back, afraid to give in to authority, afraid of “group think.” My earlier experience in a certain group can explain this, but it’s difficult to let go of that reflexive need to challenge when my hackles start rising up. So Barbara and I went back and forth for a while, I completely closed down in despair at not being “understood” and left to go to the bathroom so I could compose myself and blow my nose. (“I can’t keep my snot in my nose” was my elegant way of excusing myself.)

What happened when I rejoined the group was quite amazing, though I didn’t fully realize it at the time. My defenses simply let down—not because I was trying to be conciliatory, not because I had been persuaded by internal or external arguments—they just fell away, as if I had set down a heavy, unwieldy load. I told the group that I was “melting into not knowing.” This happens in painting, too, but it’s a completely new (to me) way to deal with interpersonal conflict. You can sharpen your verbal sword, parse your arguments, thrust and defend as long as you want, but the source of the problem cannot be reached until those defenses come down. When you see that there’s no intellectual road map, that only honesty and humility will change the dynamic, the problem dissolves. It’s an extraordinary thing to just give up, to be there with your whole self, not denying, not defending, just being, being open. Conflict dissolves with trust of self and other, not with the defeat of one over the other. Could this be women’s gift to the world? Barbara later said that these things (my rude rebellions) “need to come out” and that she “needs” me for that, so, once again, all was well that ended well.

Now that the heavy part is out of the way, I’m going to meander amongst my memories and relate some of the other interactions that happened during the week. There was so much humor and insight, coming from so many directions, that it was intoxicating. Even when no one was speaking, the silence throbbed and the feeling of connection and love was palpable. It didn’t have to be personal, which is the most amazing part of it. I love the personal, don’t get me wrong, but the discovery of connection through our common humanity can be just as strong.

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Microscopic photo of Krameri erecta (purple heather) by Rob Kesseler. I love the heart shape and the protrusions… the hackles of the heart?

One of the people I felt especially connected with this time, both personally and in the larger sense, was Jan E. She had the most amazing experience of love that came, she said, out of painting “nothing”: trees, blackness. There was an odd lack of correspondence between what she was painting and what she felt. She was at the painting table at the same time as Claudia and suddenly was overcome by the realization, “I LOVE Claudia!” Then, “I LOVE Penni!” There was a purity there, in that eruption of affection. “I never loved Gene [her husband] that much!,” she exclaimed. Her description of this experience was so funny and felt so true. (Believe me, I am not doing it justice.) She was also having experiences outside the studio, such as wanting to hug the man sitting next to her on the bus, and noticing the beautiful face of a child in a schoolyard (she had never really “seen” children before: “I mean, I knew they were there….”).

Jan also brought poems to read aloud in the group. From having no interest in “mystic poetry,” she had become fascinated by it in the past year. Here’s one she read, by the Sufi poet Hafiz:

With That Moon Language

Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them,
“Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud;
Otherwise,
Someone would call the cops.
Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying,
With that sweet moon
Language,
What every other eye in this world
Is dying to
Hear.

Years ago I went through a long period of spiritual longing, of appreciating the mystic expression of God as “the Beloved.” It’s intoxicating, gives one hope, is beautiful and romantic. But I came to associate this beauty with a teacher who was selfish, manipulative and dishonest, and I distanced myself from this romantic view as I distanced myself from her—but now I feel more open to it, though still skeptical of the idea of “worship.” But Jan’s stories of spontaneous feelings of love clearly came from a place of innocence, and I was very touched. That night I e-mailed her to say, “I LOVE you.”

Jan also read Hafiz’ poem “Cast All Your Votes for Dancing.” Best title ever.

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Liat had to report for jury duty that week and was not happy about it, fearing that she would get picked for a jury and would miss the rest of the week of painting. She was gone one morning because she had gotten “the call,” but she came back to the studio after lunch, explaining that they hadn’t put her on a jury. At the courthouse she was so happy about it that when she got on an elevator, there was another woman there to whom she said, “I really want to hug you right now.” The woman replied, “I don’t know how I feel about that.” This was hilarious, because we knew exactly how she felt but also how the other woman felt. Can the world survive our spontaneous expressions of love?

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One morning Alyssa came over to me and thanked me for helping her last night. I asked her what she meant. I had helped her in a dream: She had found a dozen dead mice in the oven and I took them out for her. She hugged me in the dream. I was very touched by this. She didn’t know what to make of it so I hazarded a guess: Was she by any chance trying to get pregnant? She gaped at me. “Why would you ask me that?” It was the oven, as in “bun in the oven.” And her word “dozen,” associated with eggs. “But the mice were dead!” And from my limited knowledge of dream work a là Jeremy Taylor, I said, “All dreams come in the service of health and wholeness.” I have no idea what it meant that I was there helping her, but I felt honored.

Later, at the paint table with her, I noticed that she was using a lesser quality of white paint and pointed out that there was a thicker, nicer white available. She said, rather dismissively, “Oh, this is just for my mom’s hair.” I loved that.

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I was painting near Martha, with whom I shared long hours of absorption in our own paintings that were suddenly broken by a sudden eruption into play and laughter. Diane D. told me I seemed “awfully chipper” one morning, and Martha immediately christened me “Chipper” and revealed that her own moniker was “Gidget.” She said it would be doubly ironic when we “got really dark” (as is our wont). I said, “Chipper is feeling moody today.” She asked if I thought the name was wrong. I said, “I’m not really feeling moody, I just thought it was funny.” I paused. “I lost several loved ones in a train wreck last night.” I sighed and put the back of my hand to my forehead. Martha said, “Oh, Chipper,” in the most sincere way possible. We laughed our heads off for a while and then went back to our paintings.

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One day after lunch with Diane, Diane, and Terry, we stopped at a small market down the hill from the studio so I could get something sweet. There were several young Arab men outside, and an Arab man and woman, presumably married, inside. The man immediately tried to hustle me into buying more than the ice cream bar I had settled on. “We have sandwich, candy bar, we have hummus and baba ganoush.” I was feeling completely copacetic, so I just smiled and said, “This is all I want, I just had a big lunch.” He kept selling at me, but I think he knew I was a lost cause. Then Diane L. came in and asked if they had baba ganoush. The man was ecstatic. I walked outside and said “Hi” to the young men. I had noticed a sign for “Yelp” (the review website) in the window; it said “People on Yelp hate us!” I questioned the wisdom of hanging such a sign in their store, and the young men tried to explain that it was “a joke”—“it’s funny!” I replied, “Oh, it’s funny [not really]…. I just think it would make a bad impression on people who want to come in the store.” Then one of them pointed out a similar sign in the other window that read, “People on Yelp love us!” “Oh, I get it,” I said. It was such an innocent, happy exchange; I felt so open, so accepting of them and of myself.

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I got permission from the person involved to tell most of these stories, but this one will be anonymous because I don’t know if she’d want to be identified. During one sharing, the woman next to me started to cry. She’s very verbal, working class like me, heady… is usually a talker, with all sorts of ideas about herself and her place in the group. Finally, she just gave it up and started sobbing. For moments at a time I let myself feel her pain: It was excruciating. But I didn’t let it take me over, I just sat with her and admired her willingness to reveal herself so deeply. Later I told her this, and she said she could feel my presence next to her. What an honor, to be a witness to someone else’s pain and not freak out or plunge into my own, not be afraid or overly solicitous, not try to “help” or give advice. This is the whole point of not commenting on other people’s sharings, and this time I got it. The person who is revealing herself honestly has the space and time to truly feel it and let it expand or subside on its own. And, speaking from personal experience, the silence of the others is not off-putting, it’s the highest form of communion there is: witnessing without interfering—simply accepting, because we all know that it could just as easily be us feeling the depth of our own pain, that no one is truly alone in the group.

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Penni had brought copies of her newly published book, Hubert Keller’s Souvenirs: Stories and Recipes from My Life, which she had written “with” Keller. It’s a beautiful book, and I bought a copy for my friend P. Penni agreed to mail it for me so I wouldn’t have to schlep it home in my suitcase. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time, but our interactions about the book made me emboldened enough to say to her one lunchtime, “I want to tell you something that I’ve never told anyone else in my entire life…. You have a great ass.” She roared with laughter and hugged me. She said she had been aware that she was perhaps sticking it out a lot. I said, “That’s how I noticed! I didn’t go looking for it!” It was a delightful exchange.

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One morning while painting, I saw Karine in the sharing room crying pretty hard and writing in a journal. She spent the whole morning out there, it seemed. Someone asked me if I knew what was going on with her, and I said I didn’t but that it seemed serious, like a break-up or someone had died. But we found out what it was on the last day of the intensive, when she read the group a poem she had written—her first ever. An encounter with a mosquito in her bedroom the night before had brought a flood of feelings and insights. “[A] mosquito was my gift last night,” it begins… “a valiant hero i could not vanquish with righteous rage / who wouldn’t let me sleep thru this life.” It’s extraordinary what the urge toward creation will call us to do.

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Early in the week, I had a laughing fit that started at lunch with the usual suspects, at Chloe’s. Well, first there was a whole thing about my bag, my carry-on bag that I was using as a purse. Diane L. kept teasing me about it, there was nowhere to put it, what did I need such a big bag for. So I was kind of propping it on my lap against the table, and, I couldn’t see this, but the silverware that was closest to it started being drawn to the bag and sticking to it. Diane D. removed a fork, and next a knife glommed on. We speculated on how it would be a perfect way to steal silverware. (I guess it was static electricity?) Anyway, it was bizarre. We all laughed about it, but for me it triggered one of those “can’t stop laughing” experiences that are way more fun for the laugher than the laughees. The others also teased me for always ordering the same thing there, a BLT with avocado on rosemary toast. I don’t see what’s so wrong about ordering what you want, but this time I was already laughing and feeling a bit wacky, so when the waitress came around and it was my turn to order, I said (through tears of hysteria), “I’m going to try something new for a change.” I could hardly get the words out, I was laughing so hard. Then I ordered the same-old BLT with avocado, and for some reason I found this so funny, and of course no one else could see the humor in it, which made it funnier yet. Later that afternoon, while painting, I started to remember this, and the laughing fit got going again. I couldn’t stop. It almost seems more acceptable to be crying than laughing in the group, because no one questions why you’re crying, but if you’re laughing (the whole world laughs with you?), no, people are desperately curious to know why. Right in the middle of this self-induced hilarity, my cell phone rang, and it was my sister Barb texting me, “The boys say ‘Hi’!” (She calls my cats “the boys.”) This sent me over the top, and I had to go outside to compose myself. I think that was the day that I later made the faux pas in the sharing (interrupting/commenting). I guess I got so loose from laughing that I forgot to pay attention.

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One day I was in the bathroom when seemingly the entire group in the studio burst out singing: “My Cherie Amour / lovely as a summer’s day / My Cherie Amour, distant as the Milky Way / My Cherie Amour, pretty little one that I adore / You’re the only girl my heart beats for / How I wish that you were mine.” When I got back to my painting, someone explained that a car had gone by blasting that song. It was a lovely burst of spontaneity.

on driving in the city

I had many unnerving experiences while driving in the city that week, and you can imagine how much more unnerving it was for my hapless passenger, Terry. She would alert me to pedestrians who had just stepped into the crosswalk, or to bikes and cars that suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Strangely, I managed fine when she wasn’t in the car. The scariest time was one night when I was trying to get from the east end of Golden Gate Park over to 6th Ave. For some reason I thought I was on the street that merges into Lincoln Ave. going west, but turns out I was on the other side, and when I “merged,” I discovered that I was driving directly toward a sea of headlights a couple of blocks away! T calls out, “Get on the sidewalk!,” which, “No shit!” and I blithely drive up on the sidewalk at a driveway cutout, and continue to the end of the block where I could turn onto 6th. A guy up ahead was riding a bike toward us, and my maneuver sent him off the sidewalk into the street. I thought, “You want to share the road? Go ahead, I’m taking the sidewalk!” It was surprisingly pleasant to drive on the sidewalk, I must say. Later, this story became the highlight of many conversations, and when I defended myself by saying I’ve never had an accident, Diane L. pointed out that her 90-something clients who want to keep driving say the same thing.

 

my painting

For like the third or fourth intensive in a row, the painting was easy. I can’t explain it, but it feels so good. After a couple of fast, warm-up paintings, I started one with absolutely no idea what I was going to paint. I started with my body, lying horizontally as in a bathtub, and as I was painting it, I sensed water under me, then blood, and finally I saw that she/I was dead! I’ve painted myself dead before, it was no big deal, but all the other times the body was still, devoid of life: still life. This time I became aware of all the biological processes that continue after the person dies. We like to say that death is a part of life, but life is also a part of death. We think it’s the end when the brain and heart stop, but there is so much else going on! I had a blast painting the organs rotting and the skin deteriorating and being consumed from within, some of it by fire, because of course the decay is very active—alive—and other creatures feed on the by-products.

So I painted water and blood and then a Being who was just there, observing and holding and honoring. It didn’t feel macabre at all; it was exciting to have this insight that seemed obvious when I thought about it but had never occurred to me before.

That painting put me in the groove, and when I started a new one I absolutely felt like it didn’t matter what I painted or even whether I knew what the images were: like a flower/vagina growing out of my dead body’s neck: no need to explain! (As if I could!)

I think Jan sent me this poem. It feels especially true in painting, but I can also feel it in my daily life.

Late, by myself, in the boat of myself,
no light and no land anywhere,
cloudcover thick.  I try to stay
just above the surface, yet I’m already under
and living within the ocean. 
 —Rumi

good times

Our little dining-out group held fast to our traditions: Lakeside for lunch on Saturday, dinner that night at Clement St. Bar & Grill, Alice’s on Sunday, Chloe’s on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday. Wednesday and Thursday were special, as I’ll explain.

Terry and I had a wonderful week together. Our morning routine was that I would get up first, take a shower, and make breakfast. She would then take her shower, we would eat, and she would clean up. She found out when garbage pick-up day was and volunteered to put it and the recycling out the night before. This was on Wednesday, our half day of painting, when we had a pizza lunch provided by the studio. After we finished eating we were treated to belly dancing by Claudia, amplified flute by Barbara accompanied by Alyssa’s beautiful singing, and then I-forget-what-it’s-called, a group poem? where we passed around the mic and added to the poem or made lovely or raucous sounds. I usually don’t feel comfortable during these purely social gatherings—harking back to high school cafeteria days, afraid no one would want to sit with me. I keep forgetting that I’m not 14 anymore. But Alyssa sat down next to me, Kate and Penni were close by, and we had rousing conversations in different configurations.

Terry wanted to do some laundry that afternoon, so she asked around for where there was a laundromat… only to be told that there was one across the street from the studio! We had obviously seen it for years but never took it in. While she did her laundry, I went back to the flat, which was only about 3 minutes from the studio, and told her to call me when she was done and I would come back and get her. My intention was to read and then nap until she called, but instead I decided to put the garbage out myself. It wasn’t a big deal, but when I picked her up later, I told her I had a surprise for her but that it wasn’t a material object. She looked around the flat, puzzled, didn’t know what to look for, and I finally asked her what she had been planning to do that night. She mentioned a couple of things and finally said, dubiously, “Well, I was going to take out the garbage…. Oh!” And she went and looked in all three wastebaskets and started doing a combination victory/gratitude dance that included elaborate bowing with both arms while tiptoe-dancing. It was highly amusing and very satisfying for me. If you haven’t seen Terry dance, you ain’t seen nuthin’. We had so much fun together, all the time.

That night we met Diane, Diane, and Gloria (Diane D.’s friend, not G. Positioning System) for dinner at the Buckeye Roadhouse in Mill Valley. It’s my favorite restaurant in the Bay Area. We had a delightful time in a beautiful setting, lots of Christmas lights, and they’ve taken down the mounted animal heads that used to adorn the place when it was a hunting lodge. I had a vodka lemonade, some excellent bread (and I’m not usually a “bread person”), a Dungeness crab Louie salad (best one I’ve ever had), and a slab of coconut cream pie. Heaven. I can’t get crab at home, just “krab,” which is a faux version that I’ve never tried for fear of being desperately disappointed. Will I be writing down this meal in my “diet diary”? No way!

On Thursday, Kate and I had lunch at Eric’s, a Chinese restaurant on Church St., and had a nice time talking about painting, editing, and her upcoming move to the East Bay.

After painting that day, Terry went to see the movie Life of Pi with Diane L. Again, I had the plan of reading and sleeping, but I turned the wrong way going back to the flat, tried to “go around the block,” and got completely lost. I found myself on a street with trolley tracks, and dark buildings rearing up high on both sides. I felt like I was in Gotham. Eventually, I found my way out of there. We needed eggs for the next morning, so I was going to get some at Andronico’s and hopefully get a burrito at L’Avenida, but it was closed again. I never did get to go there. For some reason, the thing I most covet at Andronico’s is their jumbo artichokes. They sell them back home, but they look terrible and taste like nothing. On an impulse I decided to buy two and take them home, either in my luggage or in my painting tube. Well, they were way too big for the tube, but I managed to fit them into my suitcase along with a couple of Henning Mankell Wallander books I’d bought there and some cute gifts I’d received from D, D, and T.

the love offerings

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For our final sharing on Friday, we each brought in a “love offering.” A few people sang (Carol: “I’m a Believer”) or played a song on their iPod (Linda: “Love Shack”); some read a poem, told a story about their lives, or showed their paintings from the week. Polly walked around the circle with her painting and told a sweet story about it, but unfortunately I don’t remember a thing. The variety and creativity of the offerings was inspiring. I had downloaded “Home” by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, which Terry and I had heard on the radio as we were driving to the studio that morning. I introduced it by saying I dedicated it to everyone in the room. “Home is whenever I’m with you.” Terry and I hadn’t heard it all the way through, so I said if there was any reference to making love, they could ignore that part. A rush went through me when it started to play.

That day we had our final lunch at Chloe’s. Earlier in the week we had discovered that our favorite waiter, T.J., who had quit a few years before to move to Thailand, was back. He is the sweetest man. As we were tallying up our money to pay the bill, he came by and gave us a brownie with fresh strawberries to share. I had been about to order carrot cake, so he brought that too, and turns out he didn’t charge for either dessert. I wanted to hug him—not for the free dessert but for who he is. As I wrote on my Facebook page recently, I love men sometimes. When they’re good, they’re very very good. The rest, you know.

After all the sad good-byes at the end of the day, Diane D., Terry, Carol and I went out seeking a last group experience. As we did in May, we started out at the Bliss Bar in Noe Valley and ate at Pasta Pomodoro. It was quite late when we got back to the flat. I only got 2 hours’ sleep that night, because….

the final push

Up at the crack of 2:00 a.m. Saturday, Terry and I managed to get our luggage and ourselves out of the flat without waking up our hosts. GloriaPS took us on a somewhat convoluted route to the Rental Car Center, and I had many moments of panic during which T kept encouraging me and confirming where I was supposed to turn or not turn, and when we got there she said, “Good job, Mare!” Still, I felt shaken. As often as I’ve made that trip from SF to SFO, I’m never completely sure what lane to be in and what exits to take.

I turned the car in—again, a much easier procedure at Alamo than at Avis—and we made our way back to the air train. We were leaving from different terminals so said our good-byes on the train. I laboriously made my way to the United check-in area, where there was a very long line (one of those double-back kinds) even at 4 a.m. I eventually got to the front of the line and was told that first class check-in was farther down the hall. No signs, of course. So I dragged myself and my stuff down there, got my bag checked, and said to the guy, as I always do, “I’m going all the way to Green Bay…,” because they always only mention Chicago. “Right,” they always say.

The flight to Chicago was great. I slept most of the way, waking only to accept my hot towel, hot nuts, and unidentifiable “breakfast”: mound of yellow, triangle of white, puck of brown. Also, we must have had quite the tailwind, because it only took about 3.5 hours. O’Hare was easier to navigate, too, because for some reason I didn’t have to go all the way to the F concourse to catch the smaller plane going north.

So all was hunky-dory until I got to Green Bay, prematurely thanking God, the universe, and United Airlines for getting me “home” (or at least within 50 miles) in one piece. I say prematurely, because my lovely purple suitcase had been left behind. As it dawned on me that my car keys were in the suitcase, my heart sank. The next flight from Chicago wasn’t due for another 6 hours or so. Fortunately, the sun was shining, and it was only mid-afternoon, so I called my sister Barb, who didn’t hesitate when I asked her to come pick me up. She’s nervous driving on the highway, but at least the big snowstorm wasn’t supposed to come until the next day, so she made it in record time. Usually a strict observer of the speed limit, she said she went as fast as “63 or 64 miles an hour!” (Actually, the speed limit is 65 for most of the way, but she was clearly pushing her own limits.) I appreciated her so much for doing that.

Terry and I both have painting tubes that Barb made for us. They’re colorful, covered (and laminated with Contac paper) with images that she found online, with our addresses and a strap so we can carry them over our shoulders. The tubes got a lot of attention at the studio, but T had told me that some of the TSA people had also been intrigued by hers. One of the guys called it “artsy.” No one had said anything about mine when I was traveling out there, but in Green Bay, a United employee who’s always really nice saw me and said, “What have we here?” He admired the tube, wanted to know what it was for, and finally said it was “artsy.” I haven’t heard that term since, like, high school. But apparently it’s the final word on Barb’s creations. I tried to interest him in my no-show-suitcase dilemma, but it was out of his hands.

I was told that the airport delivery service would bring the suitcase to my house when it came in. So at midnight, a haggard-looking middle-aged woman struggled up my front steps with it. I wondered how many deliveries she’d had to make that night, and I felt sorry for her having to do what has got to be a thankless job, so I gave her a $20 tip. She was clearly shocked, said, “Well, you brought a smile to my face! Not many people tip.” It made me feel good.

Barb’s son Brian, who lives in Chicago now, was home for the weekend. He had assured me that if I ever got stranded in Chicago, he’d drop everything and “take care of” me. That wouldn’t have worked this time, because, well, he wasn’t there. But on Sunday he drove me and Barb back down to the airport. The “big snowstorm” was just getting started. It was a treat to be a passenger for once. I sprung my Jeep from long-term parking, and instead of rushing home to avoid the snow, we decided to go to El Sarape for lunch, like, what the hell. The snowplows were out, and the highway is usually kept pretty clear, so we made it home without further incident. Barb asked if I was coming back that evening to watch our Sunday shows (Homeland and Dexter), and I thought, Oh shit. I was beyond exhausted. But when we got to her house I decided to watch the ones I had missed, then save the newer ones for later in the week. I relaxed into her recliner, she put a fuzzy blanket over me, and I missed at least half of both shows. Every now and then she would ask if I was awake and rewind to the last part I had seen. My baby sister takes such good care of me.

When I got home, I noticed that a luggage tag Diane L. had given me, which said “I’m not your bag” (dual entendres there) had come off. Damn! I figured it was stolen, or maybe I hadn’t attached it securely enough. I e-mailed her to tell her this, and she replied that she was laughing about it… “Life is just strange.” What a mature attitude. I’ll have to work on that.

Shoutout to Kerry and Dewey! When Kerry had volunteered to read the ‘zine online instead of on paper, Dewey somehow never got to see it. So now I’m sending them a paper copy and hope they both enjoy it.

I’m sorry I couldn’t include everyone by name in this tale. So much happening, so little remembering. But I meant what I said about how everyone in the group felt like “home” to me. Love you! Love you all!

Mary McKenney

mary’zine #59: November 2012

November 18, 2012

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I’m listening to my iTunes library, at less volume than I would prefer in deference to the cats’ sensitive eardrums and complete lack of music appreciation. These are the last few songs I’ve heard (a là shuffle):

Title Artist
Bloodbuzz Ohio Oh Land
Some Other Time X
You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome Miley Cyrus
Epic Calexico
Map of the World Mariachi El Bronx
Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool Connie Francis
Most of the Time Bettye LaVette
One of a Kind The Spinners
Chain of Fools Aretha Franklin
Mother Mother Tracy Bonham
Viva Sequin / Do Re Mi Ry Cooder
Please Please Me Mary Wells
Gangsta’s Paradise Coolio
Mind Eraser The Black Keys
Time Is Tight The Clash

I’m arbitrarily stopping this list at 15, though I would love to fill up the next 10 pages with song titles and artists as they come up on iTunes. But I’ll spare you.

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The best part of October for me was my old friend P’s visit. She took 3 airplane flights to get to me from Oregon to celebrate my birthday. We had a good time, very low key. The main goal was to find ways to imbibe the World Series games, because the Giants were in it. After they handily won it in 4 games, the next goal became ingesting the Packers game on Sunday and the 49ers game on Monday night. I did not mind this, because she in turn allowed me to nap whenever I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. “I’ll just go read,” she’d say. She read 4 or 5 books in the week she was here. Of course we ate out a lot (The Landing, Schussler’s, Mickey-Lu’s, Jozwiak’s, Brothers Three, El Sarape), and twice she made dinner for us: tacos one night and a vodka-and-sausage pasta dish another. She, my sisters, and my niece spoiled me rotten with cool birthday gifts. (As did Terry from afar.)

One pleasure that I seldom get anymore is telling P something about my life that she doesn’t already know. This time I came up with two things: (a) I had one red bedroom wall when I was a teenager. (b) My dream was to attend Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a small private liberal arts school where you got to do independent study, study abroad, etc. It was so out of the question financially that I didn’t even apply.

OK, I have to tell you this. A few weeks ago I found a guy blogging online who is not only from Menominee and went to MHS but went to Antioch! The synchronicity was just too much to ignore, so I wrote him an excited e-mail, thinking he was, you know, just some guy named David. He knew the Mars family who lived in the cove (on the bay) at the end of our street when I was a kid, so I told him about that and gave him a brief synopsis of my life and times. I also sent him a friend request on Facebook. The next day I realized what I had done. I hadn’t taken his last name into consideration: This was no regular guy, this was someone from Menominee’s upper crust; yes, we have one of those. (Even the smallest pie can have a crust.) I was amused, and bemused, to think that I expected him to giddily “friend” me back and read my blog too so we could compare notes. Well, I might have lived close to the rich people in the cove, and I might have walked the same hallways and had some of the same teachers he had, and I might have had a classmate with his surname, but that would be the extent of our “connection.” When he didn’t write back immediately, I thought, “I knew it!”

And then… he did write back. I was pleased, but also embarrassed that I had succumbed to my prejudices. He was very nice; told me the highlights of his life, where he had lived in Menominee, news of his younger sister whom I knew, etc. He then said he had read several of my ‘zines… and subscribed!! And here I was ready to wage class warfare—or was already waging it in my head, as I have done my whole life.

I had another—more bizarre—“reach out and touch someone” experience. I was at the Motor Co. waiting for my Jeep to get an oil change, and another woman who was also waiting sat with me and we started talking. I’ll call her “D.” I liked her immediately. Amazingly, we spent the next hour and a half (Jeepie also needed a new air filter, so it took longer than usual) telling each other all the major beats of our lives. When we discovered that we both know someone who works at Waupaca Foundry, we figured out from the family name that D used to work with my niece’s mother-in-law and that my niece’s younger son attended her grandson’s recent birthday party at her house. So it was a “small world” moment. It might not seem that surprising, since we do both live in the [Green] “Bay Area.” But there are still thousands of other people here, and even my sister Barb, a long-time teacher in Menominee, rarely runs into people she knows.

So anyway, one of the things D told me was that she had had a gambling addiction, which she overcame 2 years ago. She quit with the help of “the good Lord” and is very happy these days. When my car was ready, we exchanged names and phone numbers and agreed to get together for coffee sometime.

When I got home, still feeling the glow from our encounter, I decided to see if she was on Facebook. Her page came right up, and I was shocked. Her entire page consists of online gambling sites—games she has played, points she has won… and she had played very recently. It seemed to me that you can’t be “over” your gambling addiction and still gamble, even if it’s not for money. Also, I was troubled that she had lied to her husband a lot when she was gambling, and that she considers herself a “good liar.” Hmmm, I thought. Maybe I should rethink this potential friendship. I have a tendency to either freeze people out from the get-go or fall right into an enmeshed relationship with them. I’ve had many great experiences doing that but also some unwanted dramas. I wrote her a message on Facebook, telling her of my unease, but I wasn’t sure if she went there often, or at all, because the gambling sites post automatically. By the way, she’s not rich, far from it. I find that, despite my glorified “cow college” education (ha!), I’m really most comfortable with working class people. When I left Menominee at age 17, I wanted nothing more than to become a bigger, better person and hang out with bigger, better people. Now that I have reconnected with my “roots” [rhymes with “foots”] I’ve realized that I have a bond with these people that doesn’t always exist with those who grew up with lawyers or doctors as parents. (And yet, some of my best friends….)

But here’s where it gets weird. I e-mailed Barb about our encounter, and the next day she wrote me the following: She had been in line to check out at her local mini-mart, and she was carrying one of the chicken feed bags (with handles) that her daughter’s mother-in-law makes from, well, chicken feed bags. The cashier and the woman in line behind her were exclaiming over it and asking how they could buy some for Christmas gifts. Barb and the other customer walked out to their cars so Barb could give her the information. I think you see where this is going. When Barb told her who made the bags, D said, “I used to work with her! And you know, I was just talking to someone about her, who was that?” and Barb, who knew the whole story, said, “That was Mary, my sister.” “Oh yes! Oh my!,” D exclaimed. (They had a lot of ‘sclaiming to do.) Now I ask you, isn’t that weird?… To meet my sister the day after she meets me, and the same information gets passed back and forth because Barb’s connections are even more direct than mine? Barb even asked her if she got my Facebook message, and D said yes, she had, and she was still thinking about how to respond. She said she only plays online for free, but she could see why I would be concerned. Then she wondered about my “status.” “She’s never been married?” “No.” “But she had a partner?” “Yes.” “Why didn’t they get married?” “It was the ‘60s, people didn’t believe in marriage back then.” I strongly doubt that she’s a homophobe, but that may be the next chapter in our new friendship, if that’s what it’s going to be.

***

So back to P’s visit. We talked a lot and laughed a lot, as is our wont, and it was very relaxing and comfortable. Then, toward the end of the week, I began to feel the deep inner rumblings of an old, old feeling, one I thought I had escaped forever. To tell you about it, I first have to get in the wayback machine and give you some waybackground, some of which may be familiar to you, because I can’t seem to stop writing about it.

fear

The least reassuring words I’ve ever heard are FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” As if fearing “fear” is small potatoes, practically impossible, a simple matter of semantics. Believe me, I’ve had a lot to fear in my life, both from external sources—attackers (both boy and man)—and from “God”—dead brother, invalid father, intrusive mother—but the worst of my fears have been those that I’ve created out of my own brain and body.

I’m not sure when it started, but by the age of 13 I was afraid of my own thoughts, afraid of confiding in a parent or teacher, afraid that they would send me away. That’s how little trust I had in adults. Having been driven to school on the first day of eighth grade by my molester, I felt like I was going to throw up, and that’s when I realized I was trapped. One of the tragedies of adolescence is that you may have a small piece of information about a large problem but not the piece that would solve it. You don’t know what you don’t know, as one D. Rumsfeld so disingenuously remarked. Now that I am much older and wiser, I suspect I was right to hide what was happening: I don’t think anyone would have understood. I read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden with the stark and terrifying realization (for fear creates its own reality) that it was my fate to end up a patient in the Newberry State Hospital–Michigan State Asylum for the Insane. (Just think about that name.) One of my cousins did end up there, but not until he was an adult; so I was not so far off in my fearful imaginings, assuming a genetic link: His father, my mother’s brother, was clinically depressed and/or bipolar his entire life. One of my favorite movies is Ordinary People, partly for Mary Tyler Moore’s performance, and partly for the therapy sessions that illustrate my point exactly: The boy whose brother died had only a partial understanding of the event. (If Judd Hirsch had been available to me as a counselor, instead of Mr. D., who was widely rumored to be a letch, I might have gone.)

My mother rarely took any complaint of sickness or injury seriously. If you thought you had cancer because your breasts were sore and John Foster Dulles had just died of cancer, better not bring that to her—she had much bigger fish to worry about. If you told her (which you didn’t) that your cousin was molesting you, or that you were afraid of throwing up in school, or that you had fallen on a bar on the backyard swing set and felt like you had seriously injured your vagina (you had shooting pains there for months), she would have had no sympathy. She often opined that it was hell to get old, but she had forgotten the hell of being young, as I think most adults do.

Once I believed that I could not control the fears engendered by my own brain and body, life became a landmine of horrible possibilities. Any situation where it would be difficult or embarrassing to get up and leave—a classroom or assembly, getting stuck in the middle of a row in a theatre—became an occasion for nausea and terror, followed by more nausea, more terror, and on and on. The very definition of a downward spiral. The meta explanation for my fear was that I didn’t trust what would come out of me, in all possible senses.

***

Sidebar: One of the most terrifying experiences I endured in high school was when I won an essay contest and a $500 scholarship (when $500 was a lot of money) from the Michigan Bankers Association. To accept the award, I had to attend a banquet at the Ludington Hotel in Escanaba. And I had to give a little thank-you speech. Someone told me that the hotel served steak that was bloody rare, and the chef would get mad if you didn’t eat it. (Or did I make that up?) I had never eaten steak in my life. There was so much to worry about beforehand that my worries had to stand in line. My mother drove me there, of course (Escanaba is 50 miles north of Menominee). As you can imagine, my worst fear was not a bloody steak but the idea that I might be seated in the front or middle of the room where I couldn’t get out if I thought I was going to be sick. A close second was that I had to give that little speech, which, if you think it was hard to come up with valid reasons for “preferring a full-service commercial bank” when I had never even written a check, it was even more difficult to figure out what to say besides “Uh, thanks.”

So we get there and we’re waiting outside the banquet room, and there’s a second-place winner from somewhere else in the U.P., a girl my age, and a chatty one at that. She and my mother carried on a sprightly conversation while I sat there near-paralyzed with fright. My mother didn’t recognize this demeanor for what it was, because I had been shut down (to her) for several years by then. We were finally escorted to our table, which I was relieved to see was near the exit, so that was a big help. I don’t remember the food, but I don’t think it was steak. After the MBA held their whatever-it-was, business meeting(?), I was introduced as the scholarship winner and got up and—considering I was deathly afraid of speaking in front of more than 2 people at a time—pulled a thank-you-I-appreciate-your-generosity-and-interest-in-education out of my ass, and then it was over. All the way home, though I was practically pissing myself with giddy relief, Mom never did know what I had gone through.

***

The fear=nausea problem, which was a little easier to deal with in college (no compulsory attendance or assigned seating), expanded into new territory when I began my first serious relationship, with P. Although I was thrilled to finally discover that someone could love me, I began to fear that I wouldn’t love her enough, or, more precisely, that my fear of not loving her would make me not love her and I would thus lose my only love, if you can follow that (psycho)logic.

I was very naïve about relationships anyway. The problem with being 25 is that you have no idea how young you really are, how inexperienced. Since I felt like an adult at age 15, I already felt quite old in my mid-twenties. As time went on, fear continued to rule my world and my relationship. I tried to explain it to P, but she was young, too (23 when we met) and I’m sure it wasn’t easy to see it as my problem that had little or nothing to do with her.

Although my issue was far from anything she herself had experienced, she’s the one who found me a self-help book that addressed and allayed my fears. It was Hope and Help for Your Nerves, and its sequel, Peace from Nervous Suffering, by Claire Weekes, an Australian doctor. It was like a gift from heaven, because I immediately knew that she was describing what I had—official name, agoraphobia—and exactly what I needed to do in order to get over (through) (past) it. I was ecstatic to discover that I had a common, easily remedied condition in which fear feeds on fear so that you literally fear “fear itself.” My relief was great, though it manifested at first as a band of pressure around my head. P was understandably not comforted when I told her that, but I knew it was a sign of something letting go. It took me quite a long time to learn to “go toward the fear” rather than cringe from it and become caught up in the vicious cycle I had become so familiar with. These books were so important to me that I felt like spending the rest of my life traveling the world telling people about this solution, because no one else seemed to understand it.

***

Sidebar #2: Years later I had the same impulse after I read the books that cured my severe lower back pain, Dr. John Sarno’s Mind Over Back Pain and Healing Back Pain. Sarno’s approach is basically identical to Weekes’, though the symptoms are different. But the cure is the same: Don’t react to it; face the fear; go through it. It’s almost impossible to convince someone with back pain that “stress” or “fear” could cause and sustain it, especially when there seems to have been a distinct physical cause for the pain. For me, it was lifting a stack of heavy books at the UCSF Medical Library. The fact that my mother was dying at the time didn’t seem to be related, and I went through a year and a half of mainstream and alternative treatments until I found the Sarno books and saved myself a lifetime of fear of sitting, walking, running (when I could still run), bending, you name it. (When I was first reading the books, I dreamed about a book called Mind Over Brain Pain. This book existed only in my dream, but it seemed apropos.) When my back “goes out” now, I don’t panic; I know it’s temporary. I used to drive down to Ojai to visit my Krishnamurti friends, and one time when I was still using a pillow for back support and taking 1,800 mg of Motrin every day, I found Sarno’s second book in a local bookstore. After reading it, I removed the pillow from my car seat, left without taking Motrin, and drove the 8 hours home to San Francisco without even a twinge of pain.

***

The power of the mind-body connection: It can fuck you up royally, but it can also bring you back to your senses and to a semblance of a normal life. I now see my fear response as a chronic condition that I have to be mindful of, probably forever. Even with the anxiety-lowering drugs I take, I’m still very sensitive to fear manifesting as a physical symptom. In the past few years, I’ve had pain in just about every part of my body, but I’m getting better at recognizing it for what it is and refusing to take it seriously.

So… I keep interrupting my story. Remember P? Her birthday visit, which we were both enjoying? Our relationship is as solid as it can possibly be, but again, fear does not answer to reason. When we were together-together, my birthday was also our anniversary. It’s been 41 years since we met at a small liberal arts college in Maryland. In those days I spent many an October 30 crying over my birthday dinner in a restaurant because of how fearful I was about our relationship and my seemingly hopeless mental problem. I knew I was pushing her away with my weird reactions, but I couldn’t help it.

This year, my birthday was the day before she was to return home, and as it approached, I became more and more aware of forces from the past gathering in me like a threatening storm. It was a feeling of unease that I couldn’t identify. My first impulse was to run from it, try to stuff it down, distract myself, just fake it till I dropped her off at the airport. But of course that’s exactly what you can’t do. And by this time in our relationship, there was no way I could pretend not to be having feelings.

P had already given me my birthday presents: a GPS for my car and several smaller gifts, such as four skull shot glasses. (Other people acquire a reputation for liking frogs, cats, or other animals; I am the Skull/Skeleton Person.) These gifts already exceeded my expectations. But on the morning of my birthday, I got an e-mail from Amazon informing me of a very generous gift card that she and her partner C had bought me. In that moment, something broke down, some defense I didn’t even know I had been mounting. My self-absorption was cut short when I “came to” and “remembered” that we love each other very much, that our relationship is no longer about the old dramas. Over the dining room table, eating breakfast later that morning, I said simply, “On a serious note…,” and proceeded to tell her of my epiphany… not in as great a detail as I have done here, but the basics. All residual or potential tension drained from the air between us and did not return. If you think of the unconscious as the below-water bulk of the iceberg that is your mind (and I do), this could be the way out of the dilemma of reacting to forces you don’t even know are in play. The vast iceberg of the self is accessible if you’re willing to face it, come what may. It feels like this has been my true life’s work: being an autodidact of my own psyche.

***

“Knowing that you are the person you were put on this earth to be—that’s much more important than just being happy.”—Bob Dylan

I’m not sure about this “person you were put on this earth to be” rhetoric. It implies that you were put here, first of all, and that you have a grand purpose. Maybe some people are, and do. I feel like I have lived the life I was “meant” to—if you take the word “meant” with several grains of salt. But I’m also aware that my little life, my little personality and collection of thoughts, beliefs, and memories, means nothing in the end. I have had a strong, mostly positive, effect on a few people, but in 100 years, as Anne Lamott says, “all new people,” none of whom will have heard of me. And that’s fine. I’m not looking to continue on and on, in the same or different form, incarnating my ass off, earning whatever it is you’re supposed to earn as you climb, lifetime after lifetime, up the hierarchy of beings, from bacteria to bodhisattva. I think we’re all temporary structures made of cells, organs, and a thought process that comprises memory, thought, fear, and a tendency to want to know “the future.” None of it is real, or if it is, it’s fleeting: We see the proof of that simple fact every day. As a culture, or a race, or a species, we protect and perfect our deniability, building and constantly adding to our fantastical theories of “life after death,” as if we’ve already solved the many-faceted dilemma of life before death. We’re trying to throw the ball back before we have it firmly grasped in our glove—to use a sports metaphor that is not my wont but quite timely, go Giants. In other words, instead of staying in the Now, which I believe is where Eternity resides, we’re trying to rush past the present to ensure our seat at the game, the table, the musical chair.

I may be completely wrong about all of this, but I accept the limitations of the human brain, especially mine. I’m just doing this for fun, you know. It’s not deadly serious to me. Let the boys with their mighty brains wax on before they wane, flow until they ebb. I don’t have a horse in this race, to go with the sports metaphor again. Life is bigger than me. It will (as if it hasn’t already) completely undo me—taste me and spit me out—because I don’t really exist in any meaningful way. I said something similar to a scientist friend whom I love to shock with my nonscientific hypotheses, and he exclaimed, “You mean you don’t have a life?” “That’s right!” I said. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.

And the words “mean”… “meaning”: What’s the meaning of life? That question was my mantra 24 hours a day when I was young. What does this poem mean, what does this painting mean? The search for meaning is the attempt to add an extra layer to what is already complete. Life is what it is. A poem means nothing other than itself. (See poem at the end of this screed.) A painting is what it is. What does bread mean when you’re hungry? We can make a meal of ideas, attitudes, beliefs, proofs, suppositions, but none of it means anything beyond the thing itself, life itself. Without this superfluous (or meaningless, if you want to be solipsistic about it) search for “meaning,” we are free. No need to translate, to put it into other words—no need, either, to make metaphors or argue points of philosophy or the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, except for fun.

So I can have my fears and my comforts, I can understand everything or nothing, I can make mistakes, make a fool of myself, say and do the wrong thing in any given situation. I just don’t have to defend, apologize, or collapse in a heap of tears, for fear of who does or doesn’t love me, or what I’ll be remembered or forgotten for. This is good news, sisters and brothers!

I asked Barbara (painting teacher) recently why she thinks I tend to cry voluminously on the last day of the intensive. I don’t see other people doing that. She thought about it and said, “It’s tenderness; you’ve been tenderized.” I don’t cry because I’m upset, or even that I don’t want to leave or that I’ll miss my friends, although of course I will. I’ve just been broken down—not in a bad way, but like I just got pounded from within like a piece of meat until I could no longer maintain my resistance. It’s embarrassing, but it’s also freeing. Now here’s that poem:

“Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish (1926)

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,Dumb
As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown –

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind –

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea –

A poem should not mean
But be.

Next: Some things that are not dreamt of in our philosophy, Horatio. (I told you I was doing this for fun.)

 

Image

“CatGod” by Delme Rosser

 

“The Final Blow” by Eric Joyner

 

 

Plague doctor (source unknown)

 

“Bird’s mother” by AnnMei

mary’zine #58: October 2012

October 12, 2012

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This photo was taken on October 11, 2012, a few hours north of Menominee. Winter! Bring it on!

 
 

Also, on 10-11-12, a child was born. She is the beautiful daughter of my dear godchild Kelly and her lovely husband Duncan. She has not yet been named. I’m rooting for Paloma Zapata, but I doubt it will make the cut.

 
 

long day’s journey into Neenah

                         Neenah, Wisconsin      

 

Once a year I have to drive down into the belly of the once-great state of Wisconsin (before Scott Walker et al.) to have a 15-minute session with my psychiatrist so he can determine if I’m still (in)sane enough to be taking two psychoactive drugs (sertraline and lorazepam). Mostly I tell him I’m doing great, he asks how my work is going (“It’s going going gone, doc”), and we make semi-small talk for the remaining minutes.

Last year I had borrowed Barb’s GPS to help me find his new office, but this year all I had was a primitive mapquest map showing an entirely different route that involved going farther down the highway, exiting, skirting 3 roundabouts, and then turning north again for what looked like several miles. I hadn’t thought to bring a real map with me, no, that would have been too easy.

I was deadly sleepy the whole way down there, 92 miles. I wanted to sleep so bad, it was all I could do not to give in to it. I sang along with a classic rock station, to the sort of music I haven’t listened to in decades: “Smoke on the Water,” “Rebel Yell,” “Hot Patootie/Bless My Soul,” “Riders on the Storm.” Actually, I still like a couple of those. I sang, I shouted, I made up nonsense lyrics—like to the tune of “The Rubberband Man” (The Spinners, 1976):

Hey, y’all prepare yourself
For lorazepam… man
You never heard a sound
Like lorazepam… man
You’re bound to lose control
When lorazepam man starts to jam

Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo….

I finally got off at exit 129, made it through 3 or 4 roundabouts (stopped counting at 2), and clearly missed the one where I was supposed to veer north again. So I’m driving, driving, and instead of turning around and searching for roundabout #3 and the road I was supposed to turn on, something with Breeze in the name, I decided just to randomly drive north for a while, then randomly drive west and, you know, maybe I would just run into the place. So I took a tour of Neenah, then found myself in Menasha, which was definitely not part of the plan. I had been looking for a cluster of president street names because I was pretty sure I needed to find Harrison St. (questmap had blown off console onto passenger side floor), but I only saw trees, Oak, Elm, then oh look, there’s Washington, and Lincoln, and… Franklin. Benjamin Franklin was never president, was he? I tried to put myself in the eager, intuitive state of a tourist who is lost but sees it as an opportunity to open up to the thrill of adventure. But I was not in Gay Paree…. Neenah was rapidly receding from me, or I from it, and I could end up in Appleton—or worse, Lake Nebagamon (hmm, sounds familiar)—if I didn’t look out. (Lake Nebagamon is a real place.)

Finally, I stopped a friendly mailman on the street, and he tried his darnedest to tell me how to get to Harrison. I was to “go up here and turn right”—then that street would turn into Commercial and I would see signs for 41 or maybe 117 and I should turn right again, then something about a viaduct (?) or an aqueduct (?)—do they still have those?—and then something-something Winneconne… and then he got confused and started over. “Go up here….” When he got to the Winneconne part, he forgot the name, and I, idiot savant, was actually able to come up with it, and he chuckled at the irony. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to follow his directions, but I thanked him anyway and started off. Amazingly, I did get to Harrison St. But then I wasn’t sure what came after that, and the time of my appointment was drawing near (fortunately, I got to town ‘round about 45 minutes early). By then I seemed to be in some godforsaken part of Neenah with a train yard and smokestacks. So I pulled off on a side street and called Dr. V’s office. Thank God for cell phones! The person who answered asked me where I was, and I said “Harrison and Jackson.” She said “Jackson?!” in a tone of voice that told me she had no idea where that was, but she quickly rallied and told me to go south on Harrison, and I would see “JJ’s” and then “Otto’s” and then some “trees and water” and then something-something, turn left or right, I was already at my limit of what I could remember. So then I start driving south on Harrison, and it occurs to me that if she wasn’t sure where Jackson St. was, maybe I was already south of her and I should be going north! There were lots more trains, a country road, what looked like a cement factory, not that I know what a cement factory looks like, and suddenly I see JJ’s! Then Otto’s! I was ecstatic. Then there were “trees and water”! Then I saw the sign for Jewelers Park Drive, drove right in like I knew where I was going all along, and arrived at #40, sweaty but triumphant, right on time for my appointment.

The two women in the office and I bantered a bit about my roundabout way of getting there, and they asked me where I was coming from. I said Menominee, Michigan, and one of them said, “We were just talking about Menominee, Michigan, at lunch.” Really? Yes, someone had recommended a Thai restaurant on 10th Avenue that was to die for. (I thought, “I bet.”) Then we had to do the insurance thing. I always just hand over what cards I have and expect people behind the counter to know what to do with them. But one of the women pointed out that there’s a phone number for “Behavioral Services” on the back of my Anthem card, but not the “Behavioral Health” that I apparently used to have. “Do you not have ‘Behavioral Health’ anymore?” she asked. “I don’t know, I guess not… whatever it says on the card.” She kept pointing at the name on the file sheet and asking the same question. I didn’t know how to say I don’t know any more clearly, I’ve had the same insurance for 16 years. But she says it again as she points to the name in a sort of clandestine way, as if the walls had ears or I was supposed to say the magic word and the duck would come down and I would win $50. So again I said “I … don’t … know.  I … guess … not” and threw in a “if … you … say … so” for good measure. She gave up on me and said they would figure something out. “Oh good,” I thought, “so I don’t have to go to insurance school and find out the difference between two names with “Behavioral” in them and then get back to you with my findings?”

(Now this is strange: Several days later, I happened to look at my insurance card again and it says right on there, “Behavioral Health Services.” Am I losing my ever-lovin’ mind?)

At that point Dr. V. came out to get me, which… saved by the psychiatrist. In his office, I asked about the roundabouts. Someone had told me they had removed one of them. No, he said, they’re making more and more, and the reason is that they apparently cut down on fatal accidents. As if no one minds if they get into a nonfatal but pain-in-the-ass accident.

I hadn’t decided whether I would bring up the Problem-in-law (in a very special episode of “CSI: U.P.”), but it popped right up when I told him that the lorazepam worked really well for restless leg syndrome but I was needing to take a lot more of it lately. Of course he asked if I’ve been under unusual stress, and I said YES, then told him the story of my fall-by-brother-in-law as succinctly as possible. I only had 15 minutes to set the stage, identify the relationships, and tell what happened and the range and intensity of the feelings I’d been having about it ever since. He said that I’m “doing all the right things,” that I have a form of PTSD, that it’s OK to take the lorazepam as needed. PTSD sounds rather dramatic for what I went through, but it doesn’t have to entail active traumas; it’s about reliving the disturbing feelings over and over… watching a dog get hit by a car, running over a cat myself after failing to rescue a friend’s dog from the pound because they had already killed it. And it doesn’t have to fit anyone else’s definition of trauma. Being betrayed is slower-acting, but it affects all the organs and nerve endings, makes us question our perceptions and shake our trust. I think this is reflected in the dream I had shortly after the incident, when I was standing in the entryway of my childhood home and the basement (foundation) was completely gone and I questioned the stability of the spot where I stood. When I let my mind wander and don’t try to be completely rational, I think what happened has even wider application than this relationship, which I don’t miss at all. My brother who died of leukemia when he was 2 years old had the same name as my Other-in-law, and during my best times with MP I thought of him as a brother without the hyphenated suffix, the closest I would ever get to having a grown male sibling. R.I.P. Michael William McKenney.

I’ve since realized that, 2-3 months later, I have fewer thoughts about the incident itself but often have a generalized feeling of dread and nervousness, and I can’t pin down what I’m afraid of. I think it was a bigger deal than I thought at first (and at first I thought it was a very big deal). So I have all these emotions, but at least my intellect is glad that it was a serious enough offense that I don’t have to justify staying away from the No-in-law forever. Can an intellect be glad?

After Dr. V and the office people explained in great detail how to get back on the highway, I achieved the task easily. Somewhat encouraged by the session and no longer sleepy, I drove to Green Bay, had lunch at El Sarape, then drove the rest of the way home. I love that feeling of being physically tired and all I have to do is sink into my big chair with my kitties, my Big Book of 500 New York Times crossword puzzles, and a bag of peanut M&Ms, which I’ve been craving lately though I hadn’t thought they were “worth the calories” for many years. Later, I looked up my psychiatrist on Facebook, found him, and messaged him that it was probably inappropriate to “friend” him but I wanted to thank him for his help. So I’m done being shrunk/evaluated/prescribed for another year. Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible for me, so I’m grateful to have a couple of good ones, and a nice guy with a fancy degree to keep an eye on me even though he’s so damn far away.

Oh, also. When I got home I took off my shirt to put on a fresh one, and there was a huge black BUG smashed on the back of it. I threw the disgusting thing down the toilet right away and didn’t get a really close look, but I thought it looked something like a combination wasp, fly, and June bug, super-sized. It freaked me out. I wondered when and where it had got on me, and why no one had noticed it and told me about it. I was reminded of Jung’s patient who was telling him about dreaming of a golden scarab when a scarab beetle rapped on the windowpane, and I thought, Is this gross giant bug a symbol of my inner self? I couldn’t get a nice ladybug? Oh well, I thought, as I settled in with my peanut M&Ms and other comforts and forgot all about the bug, and my day, and had many pleasant dreams.

 
 

the local nooz

(source: my niece)

Police called to high school again. My niece, L, came to clean my house the other morning, and she was upset. Two years ago, her then 15-year-old son had been caught up in a hostage crisis at his school. One of his best friends had brought in several guns and had kept the class from leaving for several hours. Eventually, the police burst in and the friend shot himself to death. This day was different, but still scary. There was an unknown “situation” in a house right across from the school, and 7 police cars were there, several of the officers outside with guns drawn. L couldn’t reach her son on his cell phone, and she couldn’t help thinking the worst. I went online and found a small news item about it on the website of a Green Bay TV station. The school had gone into lockdown, and finally all the students (just under 1,000) were bused to a college field house a couple miles down the road. Within an hour or so, the police had taken someone into custody, and all was well that ended well. L’s son sent her a text saying that they hadn’t been allowed to bring their cell phones with them to the field house and that he thought the whole thing was “no big deal.”

We are rising up! L also told me that her 21-year-old nephew had gone to Walmart the night before to buy a camouflage cap and gloves. The woman at the checkout counter asked him if he was buying them for hunting or just to keep warm. He said for hunting. Then she went into a diatribe about hunters and how could he kill those poor animals, did he need to prove he was a big strong man? She continued in this vein for awhile. This was a Walmart employee speaking to a customer. And of course Walmart sells hunting equipment. The boy was so taken aback (and probably not the most refined person in the world; I don’t know him) that he told her to “shut the fuck up.” Then the woman behind him in line lit into him about using “that kind of language” and joined in the employee’s attack on him for killing animals. She actually said this: “Why don’t you buy your meat at the store like everybody else?” (Does she think they grow it in the back room?) She said she was a member of PETA, that there was a PETA chapter here in town, and they were going to “rise up” and stop the hunters. L is married to a gentle man who comes from a long line of farmers and hunters. They raise chickens and turkeys, and in hunting season he takes the two boys (11 and 17) out with him; both boys have guns, know how to use them and how to care for them. They eat everything they kill. I’m not thrilled at the thought of Bambi or Bambi’s family members getting shot, but I have long since made peace with my hypocrisy. My meat comes from the store in a plastic-wrapped package, and I don’t want to think about what it is or where it came from. My niece actually “appreciates” this (that I own up to my hypocrisy). I have a visceral dislike of PETA, dating from their attempts to storm the labs at UCSF and release the laboratory animals. I think their “concern” for animals (with no thought of consequences, apparently) is a bit misplaced. Years ago I read a quote by a young man who thought that the world would be better off without his taking up oxygen and other scarce resources. This is extreme in a way that my cohorts in the ‘60s—at least those who didn’t blow themselves up accidentally—could never have matched.

Fowl play. And now for the lighter side of the news. L was bringing bread out to the chickens, whom she calls her “girls,” and one of the girls grabbed a loaf of French bread right out of her hand and took off with it. The girls are not an egalitarian society, it’s very much every hen for herself. The chicken was holding the loaf sideways in her mouth (the way a flamenco dancer holds a rose between her teeth), but one side was farther out than the other, so her head and body were tilted to that side trying to hold on to her ill-gotten gain. Hence, she was slower moving than the other chickens, so they quickly caught up with her and started pecking at the bread from both ends. But this gal was out for bear and not inclined to share. In a last, desperate burst of speed, she outran the other hens, turned the corner around the barn, and was never seen again. She did leave a trail of bread crumbs, but that’s another story. The moral? Don’t count your chickens before they snatch.

(This story is true up to the part where the bread-wielding chicken got away.)

 
 

I paint, I am; do I dare say “therefore”?

Terry and I were talking about painting (as we are wont to do), and marveling at what our lives would have been like if we had never found it. Neither of us could imagine it. This intuitive, non-result-oriented way of painting used to be called “the painting experience,” but it occurred to me that it goes way beyond the experience and touches into our actual existence. It cannot be done half-heartedly, or from a false premise. It is common to try to avoid facing ourselves, but painting with even a partially opened heart takes us to all the necessary places. So in that way, painting is existential.

Another thing: There has been a painting diaspora, if that’s not too charged a term: the distribution of one’s paintings to friends and maybe even gallery owners. I’ve given away several and did not keep accurate records. But they’re out there somewhere: with Diane, Barb, Diane, Susan, Peggy, Terry, Alice, Kathy, Polly, and probably others I can’t remember. It’s sort of like putting a message in a bottle, to be retrieved perhaps at someone’s garage sale someday, when we all have passed on. The price will be minimal, but in this way our work will carry on in the world without us… very much the way it carries on in our own homes and in our hearts. It’s not about “the painting,” as we always say, but I’ve seen the reactions of some… how shall I say… regular people who encounter our “footprints” as it were, and I think there can be some value in that, maybe even inspiration. When I offered Barb her choice of paintings several years ago, she took all the photos I had lent her and enlarged them on a machine at Walmart. A woman in line behind her saw them and exclaimed at how wonderful they were. I’m not braggin’, just sayin’. I think everyone is capable of responding to honest expression, to true passion and creativity, and there seems to be little of that in the art world, and less in the department store art whose sole function is not to clash with one’s furniture.

Speaking of value and inspiration, or their opposite, somehow the now-famous painting of Jesus that was “repaired” by the woman in Italy is grotesque to me… not because of the loss of one more religious painting in the world, but the image itself, I don’t know what it is about it, but it’s an abomination. I’m not going to reproduce it here, you can look it up.

 
 

new doctor

Did I tell you that my wonderful doctor, Dr. T, up and left his practice? No one, not even his staff, seems to know the why and the wherefore. Soon after that happened, my wonderful dentist, Dr. A, was out for 6 weeks with some sort of shoulder injury. Could it be? Did both docs take off together like Thelma and Louise, and only one returned? No, probably not. But I thought, Are they all going to abandon me?? I’ve had 2 dentists (whom I’d been seeing for years) and at least 2 doctors retire on me while I was under their care—one went crazy, one had debilitating back pain, one was old, and one wanted to give up doctoring to grow roses and visit France. (She’s the one who went oui, oui, oui all the way home.)

So Barb found another doctor, a woman who’s bright and peppy. Before we met her, I saw her picture, she’s a little on the heavy side, and I insensitively asked Barb if she chose her because she wouldn’t come down so hard on her about her weight. But I was thinking about myself, really, because I’m definitely on a one-way train to don’t-bother-saving-those-old-jeans-ville. I signed up with Dr. P too and liked her. But it seems doctoring has changed in recent years. Dr. T. told me I didn’t have to listen to any advice he gave me, and Dr. P asked me if I “wanted” a hearing test and a pap smear. (I think there are few worse combinations of words than “pap” and “smear.”) No thanks, I shrugged, and I waltzed out of my physical without even taking my clothes off. Well, no, that’s not true. Dr. P walked me through a “Welcome to Medicare!” questionnaire and told me that I could get a one-time free (!) EKG, so one of the nurses hooked me up and cardiographed me on the spot. I went in the following week for blood work. Later I’ll have to get a mammygram and an ultrasound of my abdominal aorta because I have very high levels of C-reactive protein. I used to edit papers about C-reactive protein and never dreamed it would mean anything to me personally.

 
 

hard times

From huffingtonpost.com  9-20-12

[Mitt Romney] was born to a wealthy and powerful family. While his father was governor of Michigan, the son attended an elite boarding school. His father also paid for his undergraduate education and his graduate study at Harvard Business School. His father then bought the younger Romneys a beautiful house in Massachusetts, lending them $42,000 in the 1970s. “We stayed there seven years and sold it for $90,000, so we not only stayed for free, we made money,” Ann Romney noted in 1994.

The Romneys have described their early years as ones of real hardship, hardship they overcame through hard work—and income from stocks.

“They were not easy years. … [W]e moved into a $62-a-month basement apartment with a cement floor and lived there two years as students with no income…. Neither one of us had a job, because Mitt had enough of an investment from stock that we could sell off a little at a time,” Ann Romney told the Boston Globe in 1994. “We had no income except the stock we were chipping away at. We were living on the edge….”
 
I love that humble-braggy admission: “no income except the stock we were chipping away at,” as if they were valiantly subsisting on a block of government cheese.

Most of us can look back and remember the hard times, the lean years. My family of 5 lived on $66/month in the 1950s. If it hadn’t been for the veterans disability benefits and a fake Santa who came by once a year with a sack full of toys and canned food, I don’t know what we would have done. I paid for my entire education through work-study jobs, loans, and scholarships. The loans (which I promptly paid off) came from the government, but the scholarships came from MSU and the Michigan Bankers Association (I won an essay contest). I think I can safely say that I earned every penny.

A few years ago, there was an article in the New York Times (2-17-08) about the former Plaza Hotel in New York City, which was being transformed into condominiums. Few of the buyers had moved in yet, and a woman who bought two apartments in the building—including a one-bedroom for $5.8 million and a two-bedroom (price not stated) “for themselves, their children and the grandchildren”—was bemoaning the fact that it’s hard to make new friends when there are so few people about.

Ms. Ruland said meeting people is hard simply because it’s hard to tell the residents from the help. One neighbor cast his eyes away from her one day when she walked through the lobby with a mop and bucket. [my emphasis] She said she felt like telling him her family owns two apartments in the Plaza.

Ms. Ruland and her mother hope their new neighbors at the Plaza will share their interests.

… And presumably their stock tips.
 

I sure hope that poor, I mean rich, woman was able to track down the neighbor who saw her in such a compromising position so she could regain her proper status in his eyes. Maybe she should henceforth transport her cleaning supplies through the common (haha) areas while wearing a ball gown and red ruby slippers.

Where I come from, working with a mop and bucket is nothing to be ashamed of. Though my family were not cleaners, they worked in a hospital cafeteria, a foundry, a furniture factory, the service department at Montgomery Ward, and similar low-paying jobs. Work was hard. When I was 16, my mother made me apply for a job as the society page writer at the Menominee Herald-Leader, for which I could not have been less suited. I didn’t get the job, to my great relief. She also drove me around to apply at all the factories in town, including Prescott’s foundry where my father had worked before he got sick. I was aiming a tad higher and hoped to get a summer job at Spies [pronounced Speez] Library, but they hired another girl from my class who was surely less qualified than me but not likely to leave town for a glamorous dorm room downstate. So my fate, if I hadn’t gotten the financial aid to cover my years at MSU, could have been far worse. Is there a parallel “me” out there who is getting all dolled up in her poodle skirt and fuzzy pink sweater and making the rounds of all the high society doin’s? Or another who is tending a hot furnace or inspecting machine parts on an assembly line, then stopping for a cold one at Dino’s Pine Knot after work and stumbling home half drunk to my put-upon wife and 3 kids… oh wait, I’m getting a little carried away here. I don’t think I would have survived the factory job, but you can see for yourself that I would have had a shot at hobnobbin’ with the upper Upper Peninsula classes by searching this site for my “society column.”

My mother was naïve about class. She joined the AAUW (American Association of University Women) because she loved to read (and she had, by then, graduated from college), and discovered that the women there were gossipy snobs. In a way, her naivety helped me, because I was raised to believe that I could do anything I wanted based on merit. I have since learned that there’s a lot of non-merit-based careering going around, but I stayed out of that pool by being proficient as an editor and working in academia and publishing. I did it my way, like Frank S. and Pookie M. And I’m proud of that.

 
 

(this is already dated material, but whatever)

I finally got to sit outside on my back porch…

…drink my coffee, and watch the birds. It was too hot all summer, and now it’s verging on too cold. But I got out my winter jacket and was able to enjoy the sunshine, the brisk breeze, and the comings and goings of birds, squirrels, and one brave chipmunk. I had bought safflower seeds for the first time, and darned if the cardinals didn’t figure it out and descend on my yard within a day. How did they know??

On the porch I sit tucked into the corner where no one can see me unless they come looking. I’m mainly looking at grass and trees, though I can see part of a neighbor’s garage across the way. I live in town, but the only sounds I hear are branches swishing, birdies chirping, and the tinkle of a large chime that hangs on my porch. I share the space with a wasp’s nest and its occupants. I keep thinking I should get some poison and spray them dead, but they don’t bother me so why go all commando on them.

There’s a common complaint, “Is this all there is?” But sitting here, I think instead, “How is it that there is even more than this?” If this were all there is, I could easily sit here for eternity. Just keep the birds coming and the coffee flowing. (Do they let you have caffeine in the afterlife?) Like the handmade sign on the way north from Green Bay that asks, “How will you spend eternity?” and the Japanese movie I told you about in the last ‘zine (After Life), it occurs to me that I could choose this moment—or all such moments condensed into one continually renewing one, like an endless seamless loop—for my eternal repeating experience. I’ve had more excitement in my life, more fun, more intensity, more feelings of love and connection, but there is something so completely fulfilling about the birds, the trees, the warmth, the coffee, the breeze…. I’m not rejecting the human element, I just feel most myself when I’m alone. And somehow it seems that all the more intense emotional depths I’ve experienced would inform that quiet reverie-cum-birdsong. So there wouldn’t be a lot of thought involved, just direct observation and pleasurable contemplation. Nothing would be required, no action, no memory, no words, no math or science, just simple existence through and through.

Amen.   


 
 
(Mary McKenney)

 

mary’zine #57: September 2012

September 9, 2012

When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.—Mark Twain

Well, summer is over. Can’t wear white anymore, had to hang up my bikini, am pre-mourning the loss of leaves from the trees. It’s not the snow and cold I fear, it’s the sight of those lacy sticks against the sky, strangely beautiful if you want to look at them that way, but so melancholy, seemingly bereft of life for what feels like half the year. I was surprised to see Halloween candy in the stores already, but then I happened upon an entire swath of Christmas paraphernalia in the back of Hobby Lobby, waiting for the signal to start creeping toward the front of the store and taking over everything with its raucous demands that one celebrate the birth of the pretend deity of our choice, or at least do one’s part as a consumer of commercial traditions. Most of our calendar-dictated celebrations are not personal, they merely fit the mold we’ve always known and are continually reminded, in cell phone ads and other heart-pressuring spiels, to fully commit to. And one limps along, having one’s own life that’s lived off the calendar, amid expectations emanating from screens that we’re pretty sure, by now, are one-way mirrors into our living rooms or (eliminating the middle man) our brains.

I do have a few things to look forward to: my birthday, P’s annual visit, no mandatory family celebration of Thanksgiving because it turns out we have a little less to be thankful for this year, and 7 days in San Francisco doing the painting thing, aka the feeling thing.

the wisdom of Deadwood

Dan: I’m older, and I’m much less friendly to fuckin’ change.

Al Swearengen: Change ain’t lookin’ for friends. Change calls the tune we dance to.

Calamity Jane: Every day takes figurin’ out all over again how to fuckin’ live.

I’ve always treated time like it’s just something to get through, always with my eye on the future (in my mother’s words, “wishing my life away”). In graduate school, I moved into a dorm room for one and decided to leave a box of books on the one chair in the room rather than unpack them because I’d be out of there in a short 9 months. Of course I finally had to give time its due and settle in just a bit more. Although I miss school, the concept and experience of books and classes and teachers, I wouldn’t want to repeat that year, 1969-70. I was miserable. I’d chosen that option over having to search out a so-far illusive career. I enjoy nostalgia as much as the next old person, but I don’t delude myself that those were the “good old days.” The only reason I can separate out the good times—like the friends I made there—from the sad experience of having to take classes like “Selecting Books for a Public Library” (as if we, mostly English majors in our undergraduate days, had to be taught how to analyze plot, character development, and other literary devices for the reading public) was that I know how it turned out. The worst part of any bad experience is not knowing the outcome, when it will end, how it will end, will it end? So I can sit back and think fondly of the anti-war demonstrations (mostly the running away from tear gas and of course the strong sense of righteousness), April and Nancy and Randy and the poor one-eyed Jim, the first inklings of women’s liberation in Us Magazine of all places, working with Kathy and, briefly, Evelyn Waugh’s daughter in the business school, the best chili dogs I’ve ever had. In my reverie, I can skim over the one and only time I ever threw a wineglass against a wall—while listening to the best rock ‘n’ roll record of all time, Let It Bleed. Well, maybe it wasn’t the best, but the Stones spoke, sang, and bled for me in that year at the tail end of my youth, if by youth I mean school, and I guess I do. For another couple of years I got to play at pseudo adult jobs involving the underground press and a tragically wrong-headed radical college library, but ultimately I found my niche.

 

after life

At a way station somewhere between heaven and earth, the newly dead are greeted by guides. Over the next three days, they will help the dead sift through their memories to find the one defining moment of their lives. The chosen moment will be re-created on film and taken with them when the dead pass on to heaven. This grave, beautifully crafted film reveals the surprising and ambiguous consequences of human recollection.—Netflix

A few years ago I saw a Japanese movie called After Life, in which the dead are counseled to choose the “one defining moment of their lives” to relive for all eternity. I tried to think of mine, but it was surprisingly difficult. I’ve had so many sweet moments sprinkled in among the chaff, but maybe they wouldn’t be so sweet without the contrast. I remember saying I had had the “best time of my life” exactly twice: once in 7th grade when I drank a 10-cent Coke in a diner with a couple of classmates. The girls thought I must be joking, but I was serious. To have money (a dime, at least until I ordered that Coke) and friends (can’t imagine who they were, now) in a public eating establishment, gossiping about other kids and teachers, an unopened pack of Wrigley’s spearmint tucked into my new little blue purse, feeling like maybe I could brave this new world of high school 2 miles from home.

The second time I designated as the best time of my life to that point was the last night of the teacher training at the painting studio, when we danced and laughed and celebrated our bond and the end of our purgatory / sometimes comical hell, and I continually shifted to turn my back on the teacher, a “spiritual abuser,” about whom I could write a book, and maybe still will.

But then there was also the “perfect day” Terry and I spent in the wilds of West Marin, going for a nature experience, which turned out to be the two of us on the beach, bent at the waist, sand blowing in our faces, straining to take a step into the wind and mostly failing. We retreated from our plan and, needing to get gas, spent a lovely half hour or so in the food section of a gas station, just goofing around and picking out snacks. It was quite a lesson in how to have a good time where you find yourself and not necessarily where you had planned to be. We drove on through West Marin, visited Kerry in the Inverness (?) library, enjoyed the view along the shore of San Francisco Bay, had a delicious meal at the Buckeye Roadhouse, and caught a movie at Larkspur Landing, Billy Elliot, which made me sob at the end for the beauty of the final scene (spoiler alert), Billy as an adult, dancing, triumphant. I tried to stop the tears, not only because I hate crying in theatres but also because suddenly there appeared said spiritual abuser in the row in front of us, who made a show of talking up Terry because I was no longer willing to respond to her. And still I deemed the day perfect. Built-in contrast, to somewhat prove my point above.

Lately, now that I live in my hometown, my memory goes all over the place, and there’s no end to the sweet days and moments. I loved group and family picnics in Henes Park, an end-of-school picnic in the sand road near our house in the third or fourth grade, just about any picnic I’ve ever been at, actually. Then there were the only times I enjoyed the family camping trips (all across the country, my own long national nightmare), when we would find a campsite near a lake. I loved swimming and playing baseball more than anything until about the 10th grade, when I discovered literature. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice. (Not really.)

It’s so easy to take one’s life for granted until you’ve made a change and can look back and choose specific, closed-ended experiences to shudder at or delight in. The delight is usually strong enough to survive its end, and the shuddering is just a tad acceptable because it too is long gone and one has lived to tell the tale and is seemingly none the worse for wear. I happen to think I am plenty the worse for wear, but at what point do you give up trying to make the puzzle come together, with so many pieces lost or eaten by the dog, no cover picture to go by, no ultimate judgment or conclusion unless life turns out to be like the movie Defending Your Life, which I seriously hope it doesn’t. I feel I have fully accepted my death, though that’s easy to do when it doesn’t feel imminent.

I keep reading about how “time is a construct of the mind,” and that nothing is as it seems. Everything is, at bottom, nothing but swirling atoms and sub-atoms (which I picture as little atomic subs, with tiny periscopes through which the submariners, whoever they may be, try to see what’s going on in the land and sky portion of the world). The last time I was anesthetized for a medical procedure, a colonoscopy, I was newly struck by the experience of losing consciousness immediately (in my perception) before waking in the recovery room. Even when you awaken from sleep on a normal day in your own bed, you have the sense that you’ve been out for a long time… I guess because you know you’ve dreamed? But there was no time constructed in my mind when I was “nowhere” while the doctors and nurses and my sister knitting in my hospital room endured (or enjoyed) whatever time they had, feeling the passing seconds, minutes, as if proceeding through a substance: air, water, life, whatever. I didn’t have that feeling because I didn’t have time. It was like being in a film in which “I” was edited out and there’s no apparent gap in the story because it wasn’t really necessary to show me lying there comatose for however long. If I’m not going to feel the time, why should the audience have to sit through it?

There’s obviously no point in worrying about the future, whether it’s death or the 2012 elections or the final 8 episodes of Breaking Bad, but that is how one lives. Looking forward, looking back, breathing in time as if it’s as real as air, speculating on one’s final years when there might not even be years ahead, maybe just a moment before one wakes, feeling that no time has gone by, or remains in the non-experience between losing and regaining consciousness, wherever consciousness goes or morphs into.

***

I want to recommend a book, The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers. The story is told from the point of view of an American soldier in Iraq, and it’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read: beautiful in words, yes, but ultimately in truth, and in pain.

***

I don’t usually talk politics, but it’s been hard to avoid lately. After the Republican convention, I joined the plethora of liberals on social media condemning the outright lies that were told. My friends and I posted articles and spoke in disbelieving terms of what the Republicans thought they could get away with. Then I realized something. They tell those lies deliberately! They don’t care if they’re called out, because their followers don’t care and even their opponents will presumably forget, or be too meek and mild to do anything about them. They lie because it works. How many times has it been pointed out that Obama is not a Muslim (or a socialist, or a foreigner)? People believe it anyway because they want to; it suits them for some reason. (I happen to believe the reason is racism, all dressed up as genuine political disagreement and nowhere to go.) Dinesh D’Souza, who made the anti-Obama movie 2016: Obama’s America, based on his 2010 book The Roots of Obama’s Rage, “… [is said to] reject birtherism, the contention that Obama was born in Kenya and is hence not an American citizen; but he replaces it with a back-door, or metaphorical [my emphasis], birtherism when he characterizes Obama as an alien being, as a fifth-column party of one who has pretended to be an American, and technically is one, but really is something else.” This analysis is according to Stanley Fish in the New Yorker online, August 27, 2012.

I was stunned by this breathtaking, dizzying shift from lie to metaphor, which the principals haven’t really figured out yet (but they will, they will), and I realized that metaphor is far more dangerous than outright lies. I never thought I’d say this about my best linguistic friend, but metaphor can be put to nefarious use: Rather than making a point more clearly and colorfully, it can obfuscate the lies unearthed by the dreaded “fact-checkers.” (Interesting how such an obvious and honorable activity can be characterized as petty and partisan.)

You can explain away any false portrayal, trend, or belief by saying it’s metaphorical. The Mormons (not coincidentally) do this too, or at least some of them do, at least according to Wikipedia:

the literal exegesis

There are many governing heavenly bodies, including a planet or star Kolob which is said to be nearest the throne of God. According to the King Follett discourse, God the Father himself once passed through mortality like Jesus did, but how, when, or where that took place is unclear. The prevailing view among Mormons is that God once lived on a planet with his own higher god.

the metaphorical exegesis

A metaphorical interpretation suggests that Kolob may be construed as a metaphor for Jesus rather than as an actual planet or star. The symbolic interpretation was explained by Hugh Nibley in The Temple and The Cosmos. Advocates of the symbolic interpretation believe it harmonizes better with other LDS beliefs, and with beliefs in the greater Christian community, as it DOES NOT REQUIRE THAT GOD HAVE A PHYSICAL THRONE WITHIN THIS UNIVERSE.” [my emphasis]

Talk about a belief that is just begging to be metaphorized! As Iain McGilchrist says in another context, such an interpretation is “comfortably metaphorical” and therefore “easy to disown.”

when bad things happen to good kitties

My cat Luther is a sweetheart, but he’s cost me a lot of money over the past 7 years, since his rescue by P on the banks of the mighty Green Bay.

He often greets me by flopping down on the floor and rolling over, back and forth. I time the rolls and say, “Can you roll over for me?” so it seems like he’s doing it at my bidding. Well, he is doing it for me. Not for food, but just to announce his joy in my presence, my flinging open the French doors of the bedroom at long last, allowing him to bask in my attention. I wince as I try to bend over far enough to pet him along the long slope of his back. Slightly dizzy standing up again.

He has a bad reputation at the vet’s. He’s a samurai with lethal weapons, those tiny swords, his claws. At home he’s a pussycat—I want to say “literally,” but you already know that. But when Dr. A and his assistant come into the exam room and start to unlatch the top of his carrier, he throws himself against the lid snarling and hissing. Throughout the building ring the cries of animal handlers and miscellaneous staff as if in one voice: “Luther’s here!”

Dr. A imagines that I have a wildcat on my hands when I get him home. “It must take you several hours to calm him down.” Au contraire. He’s docile all the way home, and when I take him inside and open the cage door, he’s out of there like a shot and often celebrates his freedom by giddily running around the house. I can relate to that because it’s how I felt when I would come home from a piano lesson in the 6th grade. However, after a particularly trying experience, such as surgery and an overnight stay in a cage with the dog and cat hoi polloi, and who knows how many shots he’s had to endure, he sulks and stares martyredly into space. Brutus won’t go near him because he smells like “that place.” But he gradually unwinds, settles down, comes to believe in the illusion that he is home, now, forever, never to repeat the dreadful experience, never to see those martinets at the bad place who coo so softly but carry a big syringe.

One of my finest moments was when Brutus had surgery for having a blocked “cul de sac” in his abdomen. He eats everything and is especially fond of inedible items such as plastic, paper towels, and (for the occasional light snack) toilet paper ripped from the roll and dipped in his water dish. When I went to pick him up, I had one of the most gratifying experiences involving a cat and an audience. I approached the cage he was in, and he rubbed up against the bars. One of the vet assistants said, “He does that for us, too.” She opened the cage, and I picked Brutus up and he calmly allowed me to carry him upright, like Cleopatra on a barge or a flying carpet, or however she got around. The assistants were amazed: “He’s a different cat!” I know it’s absurd to be proud of this, but don’t we all take it personally when an animal seems to take a shine to us?

So, early on, it seemed that Brutus was going to be the problem one, but it turned out to be Luther instead. He developed some sort of allergy, which no one can identify, so I have to take him in to get a shot every month or so, when his eyes get red-rimmed and he scratches holes in his neck trying to relieve the itching. Later on, he started peeing in the bathtub. I didn’t know this was a sign of a bladder problem (and neither did the vet, I must point out) until they took X-rays. He had surgery, and Dr. A took several sharp crystals/stones out of his bladder. Less than a year later, he was blocked again, and fortunately I happened to be cleaning out the litter boxes when he squatted for several minutes and couldn’t pee at all.

This was around noon on a Friday, and I was able to get him in without an appointment. Dr. A kept him for a few hours to do blood work and insert a catheter, and for some reason he put him in a larger carrier to go home. When I picked him up that afternoon, Luther was still wobbly and zombie-like from the anesthetic. He had needed an extra dose, because when he was supposedly “out,” Dr. A was cutting his nails and he twitched and tried to pull away. He was pitiful when I got him home. He cried and hissed when I carried him upstairs (should have left him in the carrier, damn!) and then just lay on the floor without even putting his head down for hours, staring straight ahead. The catheter was still in, and later I discovered it had leaked on the bathroom rugs and probably other places I haven’t found yet. By 3:00 in the morning he looked a little better, and his disposition and mobility improved throughout the weekend. He tried to do his rolling over thing, but when he got halfway over, he cried out. By Sunday he was able to do it without pain. He even got up on my lap and (stinking to high heaven) leaked on my shirt a little and on the ottoman a lot. I was dreading the next day when he would have to have surgery to remove the stones, but I had no idea how frustrating it would be for both of us.

Early Monday morning I tried to put him in the big carrier and he absolutely balked, hissed, fought, and got away from me. Of course he headed straight under the bed, which he can barely fit under, rendering him unreachable by me. I was reduced to trying to poke at him with a long reacher thing, verbally coax him with false cheer, and make his much-beloved comb tink against the ceramic mug to trick him into coming out. My niece was here, so I asked her to come upstairs with the vacuum cleaner. Just hearing her lug the thing upstairs made Luther scoot out from under the bed, but then I wasn’t able to grab him under the desk and he made a frantic dash for the little area behind the big red chair in the corner, but I got him. I brought him downstairs and put him in his regular carrier with only his usual fuss. At the vet’s I was shaking so much I couldn’t sign my name straight.

He was in high dudgeon when I picked him up on Tuesday morning. I e-mailed my friends and family: “Luther’s home but is holding a grudge. He’s hissing at me, he’s hissing at Brutus, Brutus is hissing at him. I’m the only one not hissing at anyone.” I concluded, “$1,000 later….”

Barb responded: “For $1000 you should be hissing at the vet.”

About 8 hours after getting home, Luther deigned to flop down on the floor next to me when I was on the toilet, and for about 10 seconds he allowed one of his hind feet to rest lightly against one of my feet. I took this as a huge sign of progress.

Then, in the middle of the night, he either forgave or forgot. He came to my desk and rubbed against me and did his patented somersault/rollover. I rewarded him with a good brisk combing, concentrating on his back down by his tail. He was mine again, and I was once more the queen of the castle, in spirit if not in reality.

The aftershocks from the recent quake I experienced are happening with decreasing but still alarming frequency, following some sort of emotional physics that could be charted on a graph if I knew what the x and y axes were. Actually, XY is the problem, but now I’m getting into biology. I don’t know why I insist on using scientific and mathematical metaphors when I really don’t know what I’m talking about, but I like being able to “disown” their interpretation. Many writers expose small or huge swaths of their lives by writing memoirs, confessional poetry, or romans à clef (novels in which real persons or actual events are thinly disguised). God knows, my swaths are small potatoes compared to, say, Truman Capote’s or Anne Sexton’s, but the issues and consequences are similar. My little-read blog has a narrow application but runs deep within those who are written about. I am speaking to the public, or a very small part of it, and so unless I want to write the ‘zine in disappearing ink and mail it to each of you individually, I can’t control who reads what.

I’ve considered starting a new blog that would be private—read by invitation only. I need to feel safe to write what I want. Maybe it will replace the mary’zine, or maybe there will only be sporadic communiqués when I’m feeling particularly vulnerable. My proposed name for the new blog/zine is “readitorite.” Or maybe “Little Read Blog,” evoking not only my tiny readership but also Little Red Riding Hood, Chicken Little, and, obscurely, Wallace Stevens. (In fact, the sky does seem to be falling, and many is the wolf that masquerades as a caring relative. The wheelbarrow and rainwater are completely beside the point.)

And with that, I shall turn my back on the subject.

One of the unanswerable questions I love to ponder is: If there’s no time and everything is happening at once (as any nuclear physicist will tell you), how does it work? They must have figured it out mathematically, because just trying to imagine it makes my head spin. A science fiction standby is “time travel,” but what if no travel is needed? (at least physical travel, like getting into a machine and going from “now” to “then”). What if everything you feel now (for instance) affects everything else in your “past” (or future)? I’ve often thought this would explain how I came so close to so many disastrous events—and survived the ones I did have to go through—but emerged more whole than I ever thought I would. My nadir was ages 19-21, strangely. I was out of the house, which should have counted for a lot. But I was also on the verge of (I was going to say “nervous breakdown”) adulthood, with no idea of how I was going to support myself, and no reason to think anyone would ever love me. I vividly remember a night when I had gone for a ride with this guy Chet who was always trying to get me into bed, and I was so tongue-tied that I asked him to take me back to my apartment. While I was sitting in the passenger seat with no idea of how to talk to him, he carved “all the lonely people” from “Eleanor Rigby” on a styrofoam cup. I was mortified. In that hyperbolic way that teenagers and 20-somethings think that everything bad that happens is the end of the world—and why wouldn’t they? It’s the most stressful time of life, without even the satisfaction of looking back at how it all turned out—I thought that my encounter with Chet was proof that I would be alone forever. (I had already been in love with a woman, a few scant years earlier, but I didn’t even consider that option, since my feelings seemed so particular to her.)

I was never seriously suicidal, but I did think about it, as one does, around that time. And I like to think that something—it’s odd to think of it as being from the future—knew better than I did. And now, as I think again about “the future,” being on the cusp of another huge Unknown—old age and death—I have to believe that I can trust the “everything is happening now” conceit to show me the way. And yet… we label certain experiences “huge Unknowns,” but isn’t every second we breathe a step into the Unknown? We put the big Unknowns out there and take for granted that we will not die in the next 10 minutes, that we will live to see our friend who’s coming to visit in October, that we blithely talk about a future that may never come.

I just thought of another theory I’ve had for a while. I have had the experience, as I’ve written about before, of becoming “one” with another person, not because we had anything in common but because we were each feeling something deeply that was basically the same for both of us. So ever since then, I’ve had this image of the larger consciousness that Krishnamurti says we are all a part of (“It’s not similar,” he stresses, “it’s the same.”), which I’ll call the big “I.” But we are so identified with our bodies that it’s almost impossible to imagine we are anything other than the little “i.” OK. So the little “i” (the person) dies. Is that little “i” then gone? Or do we still wake up the next morning thinking we are a different little “i”? It’s not reincarnation, it’s just that nothing is subtracted, because everyone has that sense of “i.” So there would be no death per se, because we’d always be someone. And there are infinite “i”s to be. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it all depends what “i” is. This is very different from believing in an individual soul that somehow continues outside the realm of time. We want desperately to believe in the soul, because the thought of losing everything that we are… the “i”, which to us feels like the ultimate self… is so devastating. But all the little “i”s that wake up think they are unique, that “i = I.” And no one wakes up without that sense. So if “i” wake up as a little boy in China, there’s no connection to the editrix in the U.P.; all manifestations of life ultimately have the same root.

some gratuitous images from the interwebs

New York artist Tom Fruin’s outdoor sculpture Kolonihavehus in the plaza of the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen. [I want to live there, where it’s cold and they have an appreciation for art.

 

 

Bonne chance to all people of leftish persuasion come November…

(Mary McKenney)

mary’zine #56: July 2012

July 24, 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)

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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)

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

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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)

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  (cf.  ) Image

 

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F R A C T U R E D

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                                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 dreamstime.com 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”)

Image

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

mary’zine #55: June 2012

June 9, 2012

The other day, a Friday, I actually had stuff to do. My days usually consist of drinking coffee, eating, napping, eating, napping, and so on until it’s the next day. But this day I had to pack up and ship some lingonberries to my friend Diane, take Luther to the vet for his allergy shot, get groceries, and stop by my sister Barb’s annual garage sale.

The garage sale was fun, (a) because I didn’t have to do any work, and (b) because my other sister K was there, and I rarely get a chance to talk with her one-on-one. Niece Lorraine did the heavy lifting, Barb collected and kept track of the money, and I alternately chatted with K and people-watched: a little girl delightedly paying for a hair ribbon with her own money; a man picking up a whole set of G.R.R. Martin books; a father sifting through boxes of HO train parts for his son; a man buying country music tapes for his mother; and a middle-aged woman buying a loose-leaf binder with paper and tabs in it. I was intrigued by the woman for some reason, so I tried to tease out of her what she was going to do with the binder: She didn’t look like a student. When I showed an interest, she hesitated, as if gauging how sincere I was. And finally she shared that she volunteers at Rainbow House (a local shelter) by helping the women there, whom she said she understands because she “used to be one of them.” I felt compassion for her, for her mature innocence and willingness to serve, in addition to the pleasure of giving attention to someone who might not get a lot of it. Sometimes I feel this is my real work in the world, to make these brief connections, like touching a wire to another wire and causing a spark. In most cases, the spark is just that. But I have been deeply affected by tiny acts of generosity or humor or courtesy, and so I hope I have done the same for others.

I’ll have to be careful, I might turn into an extrovert yet. It used to feel like an impossible burden to connect with a stranger, but I’m finding that it’s effortless, really, you don’t have to do anything in particular, just have an open heart and keen receptors. The main thing painting for process has done for me is to make me willing and able to go deeper with people (if they want to), even if the encounters barely last a minute. When you’re guarding yourself all the time (as I have been wont to do), you try to keep interactions to a minimum. But it’s wonderful to give of oneself: better than receiving, as they say.

On the first day of the sale, Barb, K, and Lorraine collectively made over $1,000. I made a quarter. That’s because I only brought a few paperbacks over for the sale, and sold one. Barb is consistently, insistently, fair and will pay me that quarter if it’s the last thing she ever does.

I got the lingonberries shipped off, bought broccoli, garlic, avocado, and cream soda at Angeli’s, and made it to the 4:00 vet appointment right on time. Luther had disappeared from all of his usual spots just as I was getting ready to go, but then he blew it by showing up. So I grabbed him, stuck him in the carrier, and we were off. We go to a clinic where there are several vets, but one of them is afraid of Luther. In fact, I’d go so far as to call him a pussy. Luther’s reputation for hissing, clawing, and launching himself out of the carrier at the nearest hand or face precedes him. But another vet, whom I’ll call the Cat Whisperer, has a gentle touch and gives the injection, instructing the assistant not to try to hold Luther down. He does it with just a towel laid lightly over Luther’s body rather than the lead-lined (I’m guessing) gloves, blanket, and strong-arm tactics of the Pussy Vet.

Barb has cat-sat for Luther and Brutus at least once a year for the past 8 years that I’ve been back here in the U.P. But when I went off to San Francisco for a painting intensive last month, she erred, and not on the side of caution. Thinking to entertain the lonely boys, she brought along a “fishing pole” cat toy, jiggled it in Luther’s direction, and he freaked out and ran under the bed. He continued to hide under the bed whenever she came over, so what did Barb do? I’m sure what anyone in her position would do: She lay down on the floor next to the bed, trying to coax him out, talking and singing to him. I asked her what she sang. You’ll never guess. “Jesus Christ Superstar.” This is an image that will be with me for a long, long time. I suspect that Luther felt more invaded than serenaded, but who knows. Anyway, I appreciate how she goes above and beyond. I will treat her to dinner at The Landing to say thanks.

***

The night I got home from San Francisco—as exhausted as I’ve ever been—I had catastrophic dreams. In one, I observed a pharmacist embezzling, and he threatened to kill me if I didn’t get out of there. Then I was there again with my sister, who thought it was all a  joke. I kept yelling at her, “This is really serious! He means it!” but she wouldn’t believe me. I got up around 6 a.m., had coffee and watched some of Mad Men, but then went back to sleep for several hours. The pharmacist had stolen my car (or so I surmised), so my sister and I and one of my cats were trying to flee on foot. We got to a town and spotted a courthouse, so I went inside to try to find a judge to do something about the pharmacist, but I couldn’t find the judge, there was only a phalanx of women who didn’t believe my story—one said my face was too calm-looking, even though I was yelling that it was a matter of life and death. Turns out that both the men and the women in the courthouse were corrupt and/or jaded. No one believed me or was willing to help me. (I don’t know where this sense of martyrdom is coming from.)

The dreams continued for the next 3 or 4 days. Was my brain letting go (or freaking out) after 10 days of physical strain, struggle, and intense immersion in the Unknown? One would love to know. One does not. (I meant “one” to mean “I”—I would love to know, I do not know—but it reads as if there are two, one of whom wants to know and one of whom does not want to know. That could be true, too.)

When I got up again at 11 a.m., I was still dog tired and still there was no resolution to the pharmacist problem. I gamely tried to put a few things away—or at least dump my dirty laundry out on the floor—but was so tired I didn’t even want to watch the rest of Mad Men. I discovered that water had spilled in my bag, all over a book I had just bought, and shampoo had leaked into my suitcase, neither of which I was in the mood to deal with, so I went back to bed.

The day of my flights home had been very long. After 3 hours’ sleep, I got up at 2 a.m. to get ready to go to the airport with Terry. (My plane left at 6 a.m.) We got lost somehow, and when we did find 280 and proceeded onto 380 to get over to 101, I hit a raccoon. It ran right out in front of the car, I cried “Oh no! Oh no!” and then “Fuck!” when we heard the thud, and I wanted to just sit and cry. But I knew I had to get us to the airport safely, so I didn’t have the luxury to spiral down into emotional chaos, as is my wont. (I have been using the term “wont” a lot lately, because I finally looked it up to see how it’s pronounced—like “want.” You don’t know what a useful word it is until you start using it.)

Believe it or not, for the second S.F. trip in a row, I had no major problems with the airlines, at least as far as the actual taking off, flying, and landing went. It was complicated, though, because part of my trip was on U.S. Airways, and the other was on United, and they are now avowed partners but not well coordinated. So the right airline never knew what the left airline was doing. Still, I made it onto all scheduled flights, and the only downside of the “first class” flying experience was that first class is not what it used to be. If you have to turn right as you enter the aircraft, you know you are not headed for the lap of luxury. The laps of luxury are all located on the left side, which none of my aircraft had. It was still better than coach, I’m not complaining, just sayin’.

The worst part was the 4-hour layover in Chicago. With no certainty that the 6 p.m. flight would actually take off (I have witnessed a lifetime’s worth of canceled flights going north), and no place to rest my head, I just sat there in a stupor and kept reminding myself that each minute that passed was taking me closer to home. I hoped I was not trapped in Zeno’s Paradox, which states that if you always go half the distance to your destination you’ll never get there. And I was pretty sure that not going any distance wouldn’t help either.

I arrived in Green Bay after a wildly bouncing flight in and around thunderstorms all up the coast of Wisconsin. You think Wisconsin doesn’t have a coast? Think again. I managed to drive the 50 miles home, kept awake by phone conversations with Terry and Barb. I contend there is nothing better than returning home after a time away… no matter how gratifying the away time was.

Luther and Brutus were wary of me when I walked in the door, reeking of a foreign land, but they quickly recovered, and before long the three of us were sacked out together in my big chair and ottoman. It was as if we had all come back from the vet and could forget about how anxious we had been.

“odd dark beauty”

The painting intensives are challenges that cannot be directly met, because there are no terms, no methods, no way of knowing what will happen or what will be expected of you. This can make it a nerve-wracking experience, especially in antici…

pation, but there’s also a beauty and a simultaneous excitement and silence of the heart as we sit together in a circle and prepare (without preparing) to step into the Unknown. This sounds a bit grandiose, but I assure you, it is factual and real. We come together for just that purpose, but it is daunting. No matter how many intensives you have experienced or how long you have been painting, there is no sure way to do it, the beginner is on a par with the most experienced painter, it’s back to zero all over again. This zero is not empty, the proverbial goose egg; au contraire, as with the real goose, it is filled to bursting with actual and potential life.

Throughout the 7 days, the painting was easy for me. But it was disconcerting to find no words for it on the last day, when we went around the studio to see everyone’s paintings and to hear what each painter had to say about her process. Many people had things going on in their lives that naturally came out in their paintings: a new relationship, a break-up, a pregnancy, a death in the family. Real life, in other words, expressed without forethought but with a direct experience of joy or difficulty. It’s not therapy—where you put a problem into words or pictures and search for a resolution. It’s more a mirror in which you paint what comes and see what is reflected back. Any resolution is a by-product, the real “work” is in staying with yourself, sidestepping judgment and being vulnerable and open to whatever wants to be revealed.

When it was my turn to show my paintings, I had nothing to say. I knew it wouldn’t be useful or interesting to just point to the various images and tell which came first, second, and third. All I could say was “I don’t know why I painted that,” “I don’t remember what I felt painting that.” Me, wordsmith! Lacking an explanation or an insight into my experience. Wondering if I had an experience at all: where was I when all this color and these shapes and images were being applied to the paper?

I cried a lot on that last day—for many reasons, I suspect, but in this case it was frustration at not being able to perform the “task” of talking about my process. Barbara said some kind and encouraging words, not that I remember them, and when I was done she came over and held my hand. I was so moved by that. It was only an hour or so later, when we were saying the final good-byes in the circle, that it hit me. I didn’t have a “story” going on; my life is fairly placid and does not provide much fodder for drama. None of what I painted felt personal, unlike all those times when I have painted my family or other worldly or spiritual relationships or fantasies. What I realized in a blinding flash of insight was that I didn’t know what had happened in my process or even my feelings, because “something” had told me what to paint at every step; “I” was not really involved.

I had brought along an unfinished painting from last December. I had painted myself in the center of the painting, bursting out of my grave below ground. But as I didn’t have the same energy for it now, I went about painting lots of circles and dots and trying this and that. It was satisfying—no thought, just doing. In the top left corner was a blue head that I barely remembered painting, but when Barbara asked me who it was, I said “God.” She asked if there could be anything coming out of or going in anywhere, so I painted white breath coming from the mouth of “God.” Then I was finished and had a blank sheet of paper on the wall in front of me. The new painting came to me in an instant. “God” was blowing his breath on me where I was sitting deep underground. I was in the lotus position, holding a baby. I didn’t know who the baby was, or the black figure I painted on the left, who also had white trails of something coming from her chest. I didn’t place a lot of importance on this painting, I just did whatever felt good: lots of circles, dots, and finally some fish swimming along on the bottom. I had the unoriginal “insight” that I could paint anything. It’s something we know all the time but somehow rediscover at odd moments. It’s as if the brain short-circuits while trying to set some rules, paint the familiar, find a pattern that works and stick with it. Then it gets jolted out of its brain patter (patter is part of the pattern) by a seemingly uninteresting occurrence like painting fish that don’t logically fit with the God’s breath, a baby, or a crevasse.

During a break, I noticed one of the flyers for children’s painting classes that showed a painting of a large fish, along with the little boy who had painted it. I was amused by the anatomical accuracy with which he had painted the fins and other whats-its on the fish’s body, whereas my standard way of painting a fish is to make a sort of infinity symbol, cut off one end to make the tail, and add eyes and a fin on top.

My next painting came to me as quickly and easily as the previous one had. God was on top blowing breath down on me, but this time the crevasse was in the ocean and I was being burned on a cross, with fagots (kindling) stacked beneath it. I was separated from the water on both sides by a barrier, which was in danger of being breached on the right by a large yellow fish that was about to devour 3 smaller fish; it had teeth and a tongue, lots of holes on its sides, jaggedy scales, slanted eyes, and a sharkish fin.

After we stopped for the day, a mother and her son happened to come by to pick up the little boy’s paintings from a previous class. Barbara delightedly introduced me to the boy who had painted the fish I had seen on the flyer. I asked him if he had a fish at home, thinking that was how he knew what fish actually looked like, but he said no. Barbara had joked that she brought in a fish in a bowl for the kids to paint, like life nude drawing except the nude was a fish. (This was funnier than I’m making it sound.)

The boy was 7 years old, well mannered and soft spoken. He walked into the studio proper where he looked around at the large colorful paintings on the walls and breathed, “These are actually rather amazing.” Barbara told him about my noticing the fish he had painted, so I brought him over to my painting. At this point the painting consisted of “God,” me burning on the cross, and the big yellow fish about to devour the little fish. Some of the images we paint are not suitable for children to view, but this seemed OK. In the meantime, a few of us chatted with the mother. As they were going out the door with his paintings, the little boy looked at me and said, “Your fish is cooler than my fish,” and I said, “No it isn’t!” though I was of course pleased as punch to hear that high praise. Afterward, someone told me that when we were talking to his mother he had gone back to my painting and studied it for a long time… I don’t know to what end.

***

The next day I continued to paint with no hesitation; everything was obvious, from the “fabric of the universe” (which Diane L calls “plaid”) to underwater circles and sea plants and a couple of lizard beings who were presumably trying to break the barrier to get at me like the big fish on the other side. A round fish with protruding extremities (that looked like snakes) appeared, also.

Needless to say (?), there was no apparent correspondence between what I was painting and anything in my life. But being open to any shape, color, or image that wants to appear makes it ridiculously easy to paint, because you’re not trying to force it or make sense of it. The correspondence is with your feeling, a deep, undemanding sense of rightness—no ambition to make a beautiful product, no censorship of images, no need for interpretation.

During a group sharing, Martha said that she appreciated “beauty”—which puzzled me until she amended that to say, “odd dark beauty,” and that phrase has resonated with me ever since. The beauty of our paintings and our interactions with one another is not a matter of artifice but of a deep, rich truthfulness and grace. It’s the essence of going beneath the surface to find what is truly beautiful no matter how odd-looking or dark-seeming. We are not in the business of painting calming landscapes or, in our interactions, of saying only the polite, meaningless thing. The atmosphere is so truthful that it throbs in silence but can erupt into laughter (or tears) in an instant.

if x = G + U, where G = God and U = Unknown, then solve for x

Obviously, I can’t tell you anything about the “Unknown.” It’s just a word we use, like “x” or “God”—though you can put “x” into an equation, and most of the time you can solve it. But the Unknown is real, like dark matter, the dark side of the moon, like odd, dark beauty, so I’m just going to riff here about what has come to me as I paint and disappear into that Unknown.

The Unknown is a strange place—though not a “place,” of course. And it’s not empty, not by a long shot. In it, you lose yourself, but not really. Your everyday mind still functions perfectly, but it’s not in charge; at most, it’s the copilot… like if you have to wash a brush or blow your nose or eat an apple. But actually, that everyday mind/traffic controller is way in the back of the “plane” (of existence!)—maybe the lowest-ranking flight attendant, maybe a secret air marshal or the last customer to buy a ticket who has to sit in the very last seat.

When you are painting in a state that we call “the Unknown,” “something” (another vague word that stands for something very real; oh dear, the semantics of this is just impossible)—“something” tells you everything you need to know and nothing you don’t. And we say we want this: the ease of painting “whatever” with no sense of confusion or trying to think (but not think) of the next image. Because the Unknown is not the same as drawing a blank or not knowing what to do. It’s not uncertainty, but it’s not certain, either. It’s not at all like traveling on a dark road in a strange land. It’s a source, and a resource.

And yet, we fear it, or the idea of it. Why is that? It can be daunting and even painful when you want to get from here to there. It feels like you would be free if not for that stubborn mind of yours, struggling for control with the big bad Unknown. But you can’t get there from here. You can’t will it, control it, wish it near, or wish it away.

“Sometimes it feels like light, sometimes like bone,” said Kate about one of the images on her painting. The oddness of that, the apparent contradiction, struck me. We don’t know what we’re dealing with when we paint. But it’s a reality like no other.

***

As the painting has been coming more easily, so have my interactions with other people. As a group, we’ve been finding that painting is not the end-all and be-all; it’s just as important to learn how to relate with others in the same way, from intuition and compassion to (though it sounds contradictory) risk-taking. I had meaningful interactions with nearly everyone in the group. And I cared about them for who they are, not from any “criteria.” In other words, I wasn’t judging them: They just all seemed beautiful in themselves. This sounds like a cliché. So shoot me. It’s a radically different way of seeing people.

There were also social times galore. Diane L, Diane D, Terry, and I had lunch just about every day, and a few dinners. On the first night, we invited Kyle, a new painter whose 25th birthday it was, to join us for drinks at the Clement St. Bar & Grill. We decided to have dinner, too, so we ate in the bar. We had a rollicking good time. Kyle seemed comfortable with us despite our advanced ages, and Diane D was on fire like I’ve never seen her before, very funny and relaxed. We rocked the house. Again with the clichés.

Our foursome spent most of our lunch breaks at Chloe’s, our traditional haven. We were waiting outside for a table one day when one of the waitresses came out, saw me, and said excitedly, “We have carrot cake today!” I couldn’t believe she remembered me—from December! I guess I had made kind of a big deal about their running out of carrot cake several days in a row. So I got carrot cake for dessert… couldn’t let her down, you know. The next day we went back, and I didn’t order carrot cake. But when we finished our lunch, the waitress came out with a bag for me: carrot cake! “On the house.” I was floored. Of course I thanked her profusely, and when I opened the bag and saw the smiley face she had drawn on the box, I was really touched. It was an amazing feeling to have been remembered, and rewarded, for something that would never have occurred to me. Truly, we don’t know the effect we have on people.

T and I eschewed the Laurel Inn this time for a “vacation condo” high above the studio on Miguel St. It was much cheaper than the hotel, had free parking and a view of the city, lots of light, a kitchen, and 2 bedrooms. We came to enjoy it very much but were struck by how uncomfortable all the furniture was. The main selling point of the condo was the view; why would you care about your sore back? I ended up borrowing an air bed from Diane L, which helped a lot.

We still had to drive down to the studio, because even though it was close as the crow flies, I could barely walk a block, let alone attempt a hill. I had a cane with me, but every physical move during the week was an effort. I couldn’t stand for long, could only walk a short distance, and had to take regular breaks.

One night, after eating at El Toreador in West Portal, T and I decided to see the movie playing across the street: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It was really fun. Afterward we stopped in at a nearby bookstore. I get almost all my books from Amazon.com, having no real alternative, but I like to browse in a bookstore when I get a chance. When I brought a poetry book to the counter to pay for it, the bookseller, a handsome young fellow, started quizzing me about my favorite poets. At first I drew a blank, but finally I thought of Kay Ryan. Then Bob Hicok, Philip Schultz, Sandra McPherson. The guy recommended several books to me, and even had me read some poems. I ended up buying A Journey with Two Maps (Becoming a Woman Poet), by Eavan Boland, and Beautiful & Pointless (A Guide to Modern Poetry), by David Orr.

In the bookstore there was a dapper-looking man, perhaps in his 40s, who approached me and asked about my cane. He admired it, said he had been looking for one like it for a long time. I was surprised, because it’s the most rudimentary sort of cane, wood with a curved handle, that was my father’s in the 1950s. The man pointed out that it was too short for me. Well, I wanted to say, what would you have me do? We had quite an extended conversation about canes and the need for them. He had bought his cane at Walgreen’s and they just don’t make ‘em like they used to. I was pleased with the encounter. I felt like a flower that could open at a touch of the sun but could close up again if need be. What a lovely and useful ability.

It was a week of chance encounters, silly and serious conversations, and quite a bit of singing. For some reason, everything reminded me of a song. We turned onto Chenery St. one day, and I knew there was a song in the name. I kept saying “Chenery, Chenery. Is there a song called Chenery?” After a few hours it came to me: “Henery, Henery, Henery the 8th I am, I am, Henery the 8th I am.” So at every chance I got, I sang, “Chenery, Chenery, Chenery the 8th I am, I am, Chenery the 8th I am.” I’m sure this did not get on Terry’s nerves one bit. She’s a real trouper.

As I said, the last day of the intensive was emotional for me, I wasn’t even sure why. I was disappointed by my “process” talk, and afterward we played a song I had suggested to Barbara: “It Is Well with My Soul,” a hymn by the River City Singers. It’s a beautiful song that made me cry, but also the group was starting to feel scattered, like everyone was too tired to truly get into anything. Saying good-bye is always difficult, it’s kind of a madhouse with the cleaners finishing up and everyone getting their paintings and other belongings together. I didn’t get to say good-bye to everyone, and at a certain point I just wanted to get out of there. Diane L and Diane D had suggested going for a drink after, but I was in “gotta get home” mode, and the condo had by then become the quintessential home away from home.

But then T and I were walking to our rental car when we ran into Diane D. She had been looking for us and greeted us with a big grin. I was persuaded to go out after all, so the three of us went to the Bliss Bar on 24th St. It was very dark and had cozy seating arrangements where you could be by yourselves. After a while, though, the noise from the other patrons became too much to bear. We were hungry by then so walked down the street to Pomodoro. It’s a restaurant that has improved greatly since the days back in the ‘90s (?) when it first opened: I had a delicious pasta with chicken and broccoli. The three of us had our closure, grateful for the chance to talk about the day and the week with good friends. Nothing beats that, I tell you what.

This has been a disjointed account, but when is it ever jointed?

I’ll leave you with one last bit of wisdom, which I read off a clock in the salon where I get my hair cut: “Life’s moments make the best memories.”

May your life be full of them.

(Special thanks to Terry and Barbara, whose generosity made it possible for me to attend the intensive. And shoutout to Sima and Josie, may you both be well.)

Mary McKenney

merry’zine #54: March 2012

March 10, 2012

You’ll notice something a little different this month. I’m coming in like a lion, who knows how I’ll go out. On a whim, yes, I’m a whimsical lion, I’m changing the name of this whatever-it-is to merry’zine, maybe forever, maybe not. Why must we be merry only at Christmastime? And who’s truly merry then anyway?


 
 

painting letters

On my 49th birthday, I wrote my first Painting Letter to my friends in the teacher training at the Painting Experience studio in San Francisco. After a few months I expanded the scope of the Letters to include any other painters who wanted to contribute. I’m only bringing this up because I wanted to show you the cool drawing that Terry made for the February 2001 issue. And I wanted to show it to you for two reasons: (1) So you can see what a cool drawer (and person) Terry is, and (2) So there’s visible proof that I have taken a good picture at least once in my life.

And that’s not the only walk down memory lane I’ve taken lately….

who paints?

I was doing the unthinkable the other day—sorting and filing the bills and other papers on my desk, the earliest of which were from November 2010—when I came across the manuscript for Who Paints?  I had written it in, oh, the ‘90s, I think, when I thought the world needed another book about process painting. I no longer had an electronic copy of the manuscript, except possibly on some no-longer-readable disk—maybe wait 1,000 years for the Dead Sea Floppy Disk Scrolls to be found and decoded—so, thanks to good old paper, I was able to reread my pearls of wisdom.

I had done quite a lot of editing for M. Cassou, and her publisher, Jeremy Tarcher, had praised my work. I asked MC how he knew what I had done, and she said she had sent him some of her writing that I hadn’t edited. Ah. So I took advantage of the slight name recognition and sent him my manuscript. He said he couldn’t publish it without a section at the end of each chapter with “how-to” tips, in other words, I should turn it into a self-help book instead of a paean to the process. I think I’m pretty good at writing paeans, especially paeans to the process, but I think “how to” in this process is completely pointless, maybe even pointzeroless. So I dropped the idea of getting the book published, and now, 15 or so years later, I’m going to self-aggrandize, I mean, self-publish it by including selected chapters in this merry/mary’zine.

When I reread the manuscript, I discovered that it’s not bad, not bad at all… but I found myself bored by the expository parts (“What is process painting?”). I perked up when I read some of the stories about actual painting, so I started putting those chapters aside. Below is the first one that grabbed me.

 

Daddy and me, 1949 (I was 3).

My cartoon of those early days.

painting my father (a Who Paints? excerpt)

Sometimes it seems like I’m doomed to paint the same thing over and over again: me, Death, my immediate family. This time, I’ve started a painting in which Death is holding me above his head while he wades waist deep in the Sea of Disappearance. When I want to paint lots of anonymous bodies floating in the sea, Barbara asks the simple question: “Do you know any of them?” and it’s like, Nooooo… I am so sick of painting my family!

But I know what I have to do: When creation tells you to jump, you ask “How high?” So I paint Mom, Dad, baby brother (who died), and a cross with the name McKenney on it. Instead of the romantic-sounding Sea of Disappearance, it’s a rather pedestrian version: the Green Bay of Disappearance or the Menominee River of Disappearance—a small cove off the big waters of Death, Upper Michigan division. There’s no escaping the family ties.

It goes well, but when I think I’m done, Barbara persists with her pesky questions. What more could I do? It comes to me that there are strings of matter unraveling from the bodies. I realize I’m willing to paint death as long as the bodies are peacefully mummified and whole, but the thought of their actual disintegration strikes me hard.

Painting the strings streaming out of my father’s body, I get increasingly irritated. At first, I locate the source of irritation outside me. A new painter, an art therapist, is humming. I find that distracting under the best of circumstances, but now the erratic, low hum is stretching my nerves as thin as the strings of matter I’m painting. I finish them and then paint little cuts and splits on the body itself, the beginnings of disintegration from within.

I’m getting more and more agitated. I’m painting next to an open window, and a bee flies in and then can’t find its way back out. It just buzzes and buzzes and beats its little body against the upper part of the window. How stupid is nature sometimes!, I think, as I transfer my irritation to this innocent creature. Can’t you figure it out, go down, go down! The buzzing and the humming together are now like a discordant symphony in my brain as I keep painting the little cuts and fissures in my father’s flesh. I think of the famous story in which a patient of Jung’s is telling him her dream about a scarab (beetle). While she’s telling the dream, an actual scarab taps on the window—thus illustrating (or precipitating) Jung’s theory of synchronicity. So anyway, I try to see that the buzzing bee is my version of the scarab and that it and the humming art therapist are forces of nature teaming up to bring forth the expression of whatever is in me that is driving me crazy.

I finally go and find a paper cup and a book, with which I capture the bee and throw it out the window. Would that the buzz within me (or the art therapist without me) could be dispatched so easily. Returning to my painting, I feel physically weak, as if I’m in anaphylactic shock. There’s no physical explanation for this. Plus, the irritation is now more like rage. It’s a debilitating combination.

Finally, I add 2 + 2 and see where all this feeling is coming from. My father had multiple sclerosis (MS), and I had “known” for a long time that the disease made him feel weak and angry and out of control. But I had never put myself in his shoes, never considered what it might feel like—not only the symptoms of the disease, but to be deprived of his physicality, masculine control over the family, ability to earn a living, and freedom to go out drinking for 3 days at a time. I’ve painted my father hundreds of times but had never felt so attuned to him, on a psychocellular level, so to speak.

(I also wonder what might have happened to the family if he hadn’t gotten sick but had continued in his alcoholism: He had already put his fist through a window when my mother locked him out. But that’s another story.)

So I keep painting. As the body becomes covered with the little cuts and unravelings, I’m startled to see that it isn’t disintegrating, it’s coming alive! The body seems to be jumping off the page. I realize I’m painting (and feeling) the electrical nerve impulses that are another symptom of MS. Richard Pryor (who also had MS) once talked about the humiliation and physical discomfort of having no control over his body; his arm would just shoot up, and there was nothing he could do about it. My father had some control over his arms, but his leg (the one with the shrapnel in it from WWII) would start shaking and jumping until he had to beat it into stillness.

As I start the next painting, I know I have to paint my father big, in “flesh” color—not the black, somewhat abstract form I usually paint. I can’t remember ever feeling so resistant to painting an image. I plod between the paper and the paint table and back again. I paint the big strokes of yellowy-pink doggedly, unenthusiastically. I can only wonder what joys await me further down the line in this painting. Finally I have this massive, fleshy, almost life-size body in front of me, and I feel like I’ve painted a wall I can’t penetrate.

Barbara helps me see that I have to get inside the body, which is the last place I want to go. I was used to painting all kinds of things on the outside of bodies, but I’d never painted insides. I finally paint big flapping openings in the chest and head, through which I can see organs with tubes and veins and unnameable inner workings. I feel so intense painting them! A medical illustrator I’m not, but it feels so good to invent my heart, my brain (I mean, his heart, his brain) as I go. But my upper back hurts with all the tension and intensity, I’m barely breathing. And I wonder where all this is going, how much I’m going to have to feel, how I’m going to get safely back to the shores of stillness and my own separate identity. I feel like I want to beat these feelings back the way my father beat his jumpy leg. That self-hatred, hatred of the body and its betrayals. Fierce ambivalence about the family and its betrayals.

At the end of the workshop, I tell this story in the group, and someone suggests that I’ve been storing these feelings in my body for  years. While painting, I was afraid that I was somehow “getting” the feelings from my father, but if so, I “got” them a long time ago. I’ve spent most of my life being afraid that I would get MS too, or that I would become an alcoholic. Anything, I think, not to acknowledge my true legacy from him, an exquisite sensitivity to pain and circumstance.

When I got home that night I was exhausted. I lay down on the bed, and when I woke up half an hour later, my whole body was pulsing, even the soles of my feet. I felt like I had rappelled my way down inside a deep cavern, in a journey to the center of my father, myself.
 

‘Nam like me

As I’ve mentioned before, my brother-in-law has finally gotten some attention from the VA. He’s now receiving a disability check for his injuries sustained in Vietnam, both physical and mental, and has gotten counseling, surgery, and other perks. He had a follow-up appointment for his recent foot surgery, and he told us about feeling uneasy as the tiny waiting room filled up with other patients, how he’s always looking over his shoulder, needs to sit with his back against the wall in any establishment, etc. The verdict, I gather, is that he’s had some form of PTSD ever since he got out of the Marines some 40 years ago. That could explain a lot, actually.

But as he was talking, I kept thinking, “Fear of closeness, check”; “Fear of being followed or attacked, check”; “Thinking I see something out of the corner of my eye that isn’t there, check.” And I blurted out, “That sounds like my childhood!” I suppose it’s the ultimate sacrilege to compare an American woman’s experiences on the ordinary streets and byways of this country to a combat veteran’s heightened sensitivity and fear acquired in the jungles and deserts of war… but still. I may be an exception, but I have had a low- to medium- to high level of fear (of men specifically) since I was a very young child. I know some of it is based in reality—I was attacked or threatened or coerced sexually several times before I reached adulthood—and some of it comes from that gray area of psychological attunement, which spawns fear in an otherwise benign situation. The psychological parts may have stemmed from my mother’s mistrust of men, as when one of my father’s drunk Army buddies came into my room in the middle of the night and asked if I wanted a drink. I was 4 or 5, and according to my mom, she rushed in there and dragged him out, probably roaring like a mother bear protecting her cub. And I, cub, though I don’t remember the incident, might have learned the lesson, Don’t trust them, in that precise moment. But I didn’t make up the many encounters with lone men in cars slowing down as I trudged home from school down a country road and asking me if I wanted a ride. I don’t know how I knew that their intent was not that of a Good Samaritan, but I was very sensitive to nuances even then. Likewise, one of my sisters still dislikes a certain make of car because when she was out trick-or-treating one Halloween, a man beckoned to her to come up to the car—she expected to be given candy—a “treat”—and he asked her if he could fuck her. Who can downplay the devastating effect of this very common experience on young girls and women?

So why don’t most women experience the symptoms of PTSD that many male war veterans do? I think it’s because we have lived with this reality all our lives. It’s part of the culture, taught in our homes by our own parents, taught in the streets by predators. We understand that we cannot stroll freely through a dark night or a bad neighborhood without paying the price.

Always, this topic makes me defensive, because many or even most women have either not had these experiences or have weighed the negative and the positive and come down on the side of the “few good men” they have married or birthed or know in some other way. So I always have to add that I have known and liked and respected several heterosexual men who are good people, some even great people. And I have known or known of several women who are not good or great people. Those are my disclaimers, and, frankly, I think it’s awfully mature of me to be willing and able to discern the goodness of the good men. In fact, I almost appreciate them overly much because of my generally low expectations—just as many straight women melt when seeing a man pushing a stroller. The bar is that low. I’m sure that the good men greatly outnumber the bad ones. But that doesn’t help me in certain situations: like, in college, walking from Lansing to East Lansing alone, late one Saturday night, because I was afraid of the guys (strangers) I had gotten a ride from. That may have been the most terrifying night of my life, because I felt utterly and completely at the mercy of the men in passing cars. As I trudged along, praying to a nonexistent god, trying to stay in the shadows, trying to walk fast and look inconspicuous, one lone man drove around the block several times, coming up to me repeatedly and asking if I wanted a ride. A bunch of young guys in a car yelled out the windows at me and called me a whore. I just kept pressing on. I was absolutely vulnerable. Since “nothing happened,” I could look back and say, “Oh, they were harmless,” or “I should have just yelled back or firmly and confidently refused the ride,” or never have gone with (or left) the first guys in the first place, or never gone out after dark, everything coming down to what I did wrong. There’s no question I was naive and did do stupid things, like go to a motel with my roommate and two guys we had just met, and as the guys were strategizing in the bathroom, Kathy and I realized what we had gotten ourselves into and made an excuse and got the hell out of there. So I was lucky. And I’m not saying any of those guys were actual rapists. But it was difficult at the time (pre-women’s movement) to negotiate the line between party time and danger. And maybe it still is.

Lest you think that story was just the result of being a vulnerable college girl, I encountered a group of 5 or 6 young men in Golden Gate Park when I was out jogging in broad daylight—in my 30s—who called me a dyke and other threatening endearments, and I held my breath until I was past them and they had given up their little game. Because this is what we learn: to pretend to ignore what’s going on. To endure. One of my sisters had to deal with a car mechanic whose erect penis was sticking out of his jumpsuit as he worked on something under the dashboard of her car, and all she felt she could do was pretend she hadn’t seen it—even questioning her own perception that he was doing it on purpose.

By the way, I don’t think my experiences “made me gay.” From a very early age I was not interested in dolls, hated wearing a dress, loved “boy” games (basketball, football, baseball, building roads in the dirt for little cars; in the fifth grade I loved drawing Ford cars with their spiffy fins and whitewalls). Although I appreciated some of the female characters of the American West, such as Annie Oakley, I was much more taken with the Cisco Kid, Hopalong Cassidy, and the Lone Ranger. I read a lot of Westerns (on both sides of the mythological fence: cowboys/Indians) and other adventure books, especially ones about deep-sea treasure hunts, all with boy heroes. Coincidentally, my mother’s favorite author as a young girl was Zane Grey, a classic writer of Westerns. But when she grew up she put her tomboy past behind her, and I never did. Until I knew there was a “lesbian option,” I longed for a boyfriend, mostly as a form of status, but when I fell in love with a woman it was absolutely amazing, the “real deal”… though in 1965 it was still the love that dared not speak its name. So despite everything else I’ve told you, I did not so much reject men as I realized that my true emotional and spiritual connection is with women. And that has been the greatest blessing of my life.

to hell and back, computer-style

I feel like I’m 100 years old in computer years. I was there in 1970, when I had to keypunch data into a mainline computer as big as a big room. I was there a decade or so later, when I had to learn UNIX on a Sun workstation. My boss wanted to “drag me kicking and screaming into the 20th century,” but I feared he also wanted to replace me with a rudimentary grammar and spell checker; he was easily impressed by technology and just as easily unimpressed by my superior human editing skills. I finally embraced the dying century when I got my first personal Mac and was rewarded by not having to type and retype my writing, then obliterate the words with circles and arrows and X’s and retype again. In the day of The Typewriter, I had fantasized about some form of magic that would allow me to revise and move paragraphs at will, having no idea that it would ever come to pass. The downside of this miracle was having to learn the inner workings of the thing and spend hours or days trying to diagnose problems and wangle solutions out of tech support—unlike, say, when you bought a car or a vacuum cleaner, which were presumed to be used by ordinary people.

Things have gotten much better over the years: Software basically installs itself; warnings and instructions often tell you what to do in almost humanoid language; and there’s no more inserting of foreign bodies containing viruses, as if you were having disk-sex with every computer into which they had been previously inserted.

Still, nothing makes me feel more helpless than trying to fix a computer that has gone awry. In January I had to buy a new MacBook Pro because my old one went black and no amount of coaxing and trying different things could get it to work. All the king’s horses, etc. At 9:30 in the evening I called my sister Barb to see if I could use her computer, because I needed to notify an author and a couple of friends who might need to get hold of me. I had also decided to order a new computer, because I can’t work without it. I had already researched them and knew what I wanted. It wasn’t just the fact that I couldn’t get my old one going—after 3 years the operating system was teetering on the brink of not supporting any new software… so if the machine doesn’t fall apart, they make it so you can’t use it anyway because 10.5.whatever “is no longer supported.” (I like the passive voice there. “Gosh, something must have happened and left 10.5.whatever completely useless”—like the kitty hanging from the ‘hang in there’ branch on a popular poster.)

Before giving in and calling Barb, I had attempted to use my dumb (i.e., not “smart”) cell phone to get online. Considering that it has no trouble pocket-dialing the Internet without my knowledge, it was curiously uncooperative when I actually wanted to get there. That 1 or 2 minutes of (failed) “data usage” ended up costing me $30.

Unfortunately, Barb is not a Mac, whereas I am a McKMac (paddy whack), so it was beyond frustrating to get anything going on her PC. I’ve also been using a trackpad for several years now, and it was an annoyance to have to get used to a mouse again. Worse yet, I had forgotten to bring my close-up glasses. But I managed to get to “iris,” where I checked my e-mail and shot off a few clarion calls to announce my absence on the e-lines… felt like I was announcing my own impending death… and then went to MacConnection to order a new laptop… not that I can afford that expense right now, but when has that ever stopped something expensive from giving up the ghost.

The 17-in. laptop I wanted was not in stock; I e-mailed the company to find out when it would be available, and they replied that it would be 10 days, give-or-take. I couldn’t fathom being without my lif-e-line for that long. Barb generously offered to let me “come and go as I pleased” to use her PC, but it was still a dismal prospect. When I got home that night, it felt so weird. I kept going toward my desk and then remembering. It wasn’t as if I really needed to check Twitter or Stumble Upon anything, but I still felt bereft.

The next night, Barb and I went to dinner at Schussler’s and, oh, as long as I was right there, dropping her off, I might as well go in and check my e-mail. Not much was going on except a notice from something called Keek that had a 36-second video of Adam Carolla doing something or other. It’s odd how the media forms are getting shorter and shorter, I suppose to match our attention spans. If I want to watch a clip of “The Daily Show” or a video of a kitten romping with a crow, and it lasts 7:35 minutes with a 30-second commercial at the beginning, I will usually skip it. It’s a wonder I can still read whole books.

I had ordered the computer and settled in to wait the interminable give-or-take for it to arrive, and so I was amazed to find it sitting on my front porch 2 days later! I was in heaven! I spent 11 straight hours setting it up and reconfiguring my configurations. Found out I also had to buy a new printer, because mine was 10 years old and “no longer supported” (of course). Planned obsolescence has never been so… planned… and yet, strangely, you never hear that term anymore. Also had to buy new Quicken software for the same reason and somehow lost all my financial data up to November 2011. The new OS has many gratuitous changes and fancy names for things I still don’t know what they’re for… Launchpad… Mission Control… FaceTime… Terminal. Also, I can never remember which exotic animal it is: Leopard? Jaguar? Wildebeest? (If you had a wildebeest, you’d have to call it Oscar.) But at least I had e-mail and Internet and a half-formed idea of how to use the new Quicken. So all was good…

…until the next day. I had hooked the wilde thing up with the power adaptor, but the manual said that you could extend the reach by plugging the power cord into the adaptor, then into the wall, etc. etc. Which I did. Everything seemed copacetic, but I didn’t notice until hours later that it was going to shut down in 2 minutes because it had been on battery power all day! The connector’s light wasn’t lit, even though I had plugged all the right things into the right things. So then I was frantically trying to check the manual and get to Apple Support to find out what to do before the battery gave out. I tried everything. I should trademark that phrase: “I tried everything(TM)”. I kept plugging and unplugging the adaptor, then exchanging it for the power cord again, and nothing worked. I even tried to reset the SMC! which I have no idea what it is, but it didn’t work anyway. The beast went black.

In the midst of all this, my cat Brutus, who is fascinated with cords and wires, kept getting in my way and I was getting increasingly frustrated and yelling at him to the point where I ran out of curse words. I had all my desk stuff plugged into a surge protector, which appeared to be working fine, because my desk lamp was plugged into it and it was still on, but as a last resort (or a penultimate resort: the last resort would be calling Apple, which I hope never to do again in this lifetime) I went and got the surge protector that was protecting my bedside lamp and radio. Had to untangle the cords in the dark because of course had to unplug the lamp… and Brutus was trying to get in the middle of everything, swatting at the cords that were dangling that I couldn’t see. It’s very hard for me to get down on my knees, but I rigged up a pillow and a footstool so I could get under my desk and exchange power strips. Brutus “helped.” I could barely reach the wall outlet and kept fumbling with the plug. Finally got it in, then had to move all the plugs to the new power strip and then claw my way back up and plug in the connector to the laptop, and VOILA!, the charge light came on and the power came back on, and I was limp with relief.

It took me another day to discover that my landline phones didn’t work. I will spare you the boring details of what I went through before giving in and calling TimeWarner, and also the paces that the tech support person put me through before she figured out that I had failed to plug in one of the phone cords between the modem, the computer, the wall, and at least one body orifice. (I’m kidding about one of those.)

news from social media

  • gazelle.com on Facebook: “People don’t say tissue anymore, they say Kleenex. Apple wants that for its iPad. It worked for its iPod.” (I don’t know, I’ve heard “tissue.”)
  • Kotex is on Twitter. I just can’t think of anything to tweet to it about. Maybe: “Suggest u change name 2 iKotex. Cross-ref. from iPad.”
  • I tweet: “How it feels to get old. Receptionist at dr’s office: ‘Oh you brought a book [to read while you wait]. It’s a BIG book!’ ” (Well-meaning condescension: better than the other kind?)
  • I tweet: “(1/2) In my hometown, growing up, you’d say ‘go to the store,’ ‘go to the show’ or ‘go to the drive-in’ and no one had to ask ‘which one?’ ”
  • I tweet: “(2/2) Now you still don’t have to ask which store, which show, but you have to specify McDs, BurgerK, TacoB, Arbys, ad nauseum (literally).”
  • Best title ever: “OMG: Stories of the Sacred” @TheMoth
  • Michael Moore tweets: “Every Michigander counts – even those who live an hour behind us on the WI border and root for the Packers.” (I reply: “Hey, don’t rub it in.”)
  • Albert Brooks tweets: “If I were president I would allow poor people to drink 1% milk.”
  • My only Twitter follower is my friend V. Well, I have 3 others, but they’re strangers and I can’t figure out why they would follow me. One day I checked out V’s Twitter page and was puzzled to find maybe 200 short tweets that didn’t seem to make sense. Found out later that she and her son were working companionably on 2 computers in the same room. She habitually utters her thoughts, random musings, and observations out loud, so, unbeknownst to her, her son opened a Twitter account in her name and tweeted everything she said while browsing on eBay and CNN. The tweets are hilarious when you know what was really going on. Here is a small sample:

—Wait a minute here…what happened?Wait a minute…Wait a minute..Uh oh.Oh-it’s there.False alarm.Never mind.[singing]Never mind,never mind.

—Oh yes, it is, oh, yes, I’ll say so, yes, indeed, uh-huh. I would say so. I would. I would say so.

—Utah has named an official state firearm.

—Let’s put this here. Let’s put that there. Let’s put that there.

—Ahhh-HA. Ahhh-Ha. Ahhhhhhh-Ha.

—That is very sweet… very cute. Forty dollars? I don’t think so.

—Uh-buh-buh-ba-ba-ba-ba-buhm.

—BART train falls off track. What?

—Oh, I’m going to have to get off my butt – I hate that!

—I did it! I got off my butt! I decided it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t so hard!

—Well, look at that. They’re getting a new library card. Oh, Okay. Ahh, the plot to bring down the British Empire, okay.

—Oh! Bingo! Zingo! Dango!

—Every day I’m still amazed I can move.

—[singing] Miiiinistrone. Miiiinistrone. Miiiinistrone. Miiiinistrone. Miiiinistrone. Miii-iiin-istro-ne.

—Goodness, gracious, I’ve GOT to get something accomplished today!

—All right, that’s it. I should do this. And I did this. I did this. And I need to do this. And what was i doing here? Was I reading this?

—I think if all Americans sat down & watched Donald Duck on Christmas eve it would unite us and wipe out all the animosity in our society.

  • By the way, you can follow Twitter on Twitter. You can also follow Facebook on Twitter. But can you “like” Twitter on Facebook? Yes, you can!! It’s a brave new world after all.

                                                                       

                            …follow me, I’m tweeting!

Mary McKenney

 

olds cool

February 18, 2012

One (Young@Heart Chorus)

To me, this is the definitive version of the U2 song.

old skool

February 18, 2012

and… the definitive version of “Hound Dog”

right now I’m drunk on color and design. truth comes later (May 19-25)

February 18, 2012

Here are some of my favorites on fab.com.

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rug

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poster

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poster

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print

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paper

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door thing

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self-explanatory (and very expensive)

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wallet

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glass fruit


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