Posts Tagged ‘art’

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












door thing


self-explanatory (and very expensive)




glass fruit

mary’zine random redux: #33 Summer 2005

July 19, 2009

I’m slouched in my big red comfy armchair, enjoying the luxury of central air conditioning and trying to decide if I should (a) edit the paper on cytomegalovirus that came in last night, (b) take a nap (I’m halfway there, if you really want to know), or (c) eat lunch. Pookie is lying next to the chair in front of the heating—or in this case, cooling—vent. He hasn’t been feeling well, so I’m not sure why he wants to be blasted with cold air, but if any creature knows what it wants, it’s the Poo man.

pookie’s seizures

Pookie has had a rough time of it lately. I took him to a new vet to see what condition his condition was in. He’s been in renal failure for about a year, and lately he’s been having “seizures.” (I think they’re actually more like “episodes of loss of motor control,” but I’ll call them seizures anyway.) I’ll hear a thump! and look to see that he’s fallen over, limbs spazzing, body contorted. I scoop him up and hold him close for a minute or two until the spasms pass and he can get down and wobble off on his own. There’s a definite advantage to being a cat in this situation, because he just goes on with his life, leaving me to worry for the both of us.

The other cats in my family tree go to a clinic in Marinette, but Barb had told me that the best vet there, Dr. V, had recently retired, moved to Green Bay or something. Besides, I wanted to find one in Menominee to cut down on drive time…. specifically, drive time with unhappy mraw-ings from the back seat.
I didn’t have much hope, because Barb and K had both said that the vets over here mostly work on farm animals. Cows? In Menominee? I saw cows and horses every day while driving down the freeway in Marin County, and haven’t seen so much as a chicken here. When I told K this, she exclaimed, “Well, we don’t keep them in town!”—like I’m some hick who lets the pigs sleep in the dining room.

I checked the phone book, and lo and behold, the Bayshore Veterinary Clinic is barely a mile away. I called and made an appointment and brought Pookie in later that day. I hate going to the vet, partly because I’m embarrassed that Pookie’s fur is so matted. I pull clumps off him all the time, but I feel like the little bird that comes once every thousand years to the mountain and takes away one grain of sand, and when the whole mountain is gone, that’s when eternity will begin. When Pookie’s clumps are all gone, eternity will just be finishing up. I once took him to a professional, who got him de-matted all right, but he wouldn’t speak to me for 3 days and I hated to think of what she did to him to keep him from scratching her eyes out.

While we wait for the vet in the examining room, his assistant, a middle-aged woman, is checking Pookie out. I can tell she’s judging me for not having good cat hygiene, because she takes a comb out of a drawer and holds it up like it’s a rare artifact known only to the Rosicrucians, Veterinary Division. “You can get them at Kmart,” she says, helpfully. I say I have one, and she’s all disbelieving, “You DO?” Just then the vet comes in, and guess what? It’s Barb’s Dr. V! He hadn’t gone to Green Bay, he’d only migrated over the bridge. I mention Barb’s name, and he remembers both her and her cat and goes on to regale the assistant with the story of LaMew getting shot in the elbow.

Dr. V goes to work on Pookie, sticking a thermometer up his butt while checking his internal organs (?) by squeezing up under his belly. Pookie’s butt is in the air, his back legs are helplessly straddling Dr’s V’s arm, and his face has a look of complete horror as he realizes he has become Dr. V.’s bitch. While this is happening, the vet assistant is taking the comb and gently wisping it over Pookie’s back, removing approximately one cubic millimeter of fuzz at a time and dropping it carefully into the wastebasket. She has the decency not to say, “See how easy it is?” but this also robs me of the opportunity to counter with: “Yeah, well at home there’s no one to distract him by CRAMMING THINGS UP HIS ASS.”

Dr. V doesn’t know if the “seizures” are related to the renal failure; they could be a sign of “kitty dementia”—uh-oh, me and Ruth Fisher, sisters in bondage to the mentally ill—so he gives me a mixture of amoxicillin and prednisone to squirt into Pookie’s mouth twice a day. Oh joy. Oh frabjous joy.

After a few days on this regimen, Pookie starts vomiting and leaving little piles and dribs and drabs of diarrhea on my nice oatmeal-colored carpet. He’s also listless and unsocial, and I find him curled up in odd corners of the house, like next to the vacuum cleaner (his mortal enemy) in the downstairs bedroom. If I’m around when he has a seizure, I pick him up and press my face against his furry head and try to remember the feeling for when I don’t have him anymore. It occurs to me that I’ve been living in a state of grace for the last few years, since his near-death from a bladder infection, when I hardly cared whether he lived or died. If he had gone to his Maker then, I doubt that I would have felt more than relief. No love = no pain. No wonder so many people go that route. But I was given the gift of his return, along with the blessing and the curse of love, and now it hurts like hell to think we may be coming to the end.

baby robins

But where there is illness and the knowledge of certain death, there is also birth—three little robins on top of a light fixture on my back porch, in this case. Mère and Père Robin take turns bringing the little ones worms, which they drop into the gaping mouths that seem too big for their wobbly, fuzzy little           heads. I’ve never seen a bird family this close up. You haven’t seen beady eyes till you’ve seen a mother bird guarding her babies. And the feeding ritual seems a bit strange. Mère or Père flies up to the nest—the babies have had their heads sticking straight up and their mouths wide open for a good 30 minutes already—and drops a big wad of wriggling worms into one of the mouths (“Here, hold this”) and then takes them back a bit at a time, makes worm mash out of them, and feeds the other big mouths.

But gosh, the kids grow up so fast. One day the strongest of the three babies—its chest starting to fill in with orange tufts—was standing at its full height, flapping its wings like crazy. I hoped against hope that I was about to witness baby’s first flight, but apparently it was just a dress rehearsal. Can you imagine spending the first weeks of your life in a tiny spit-glued grass bowl with two siblings who are getting bigger by the day like you, and Mom comes home every night and squeezes in, too…. and then all of a sudden, you realize… “I’m born to FLY! I’m going to spread my wings and leave this two-bit nest behind!” Can you imagine the relief?  A few days later, the babies were all gone, and I was surprised at how let down I felt. Empty nest syndrome, indeed.

I’m flattered that the robins chose my porch to start their family on. It makes sense, though—I provide quite the little birthing center out there: fresh water, an ample supply of dry food (seeds) and wet food (the aforementioned worms), and, of course, shelter—everything but flying lessons and foot massage. And then there’s the “garden.”

The people I bought the house from had an aboveground swimming pool. So when they moved and took the pool with them, I was left with an unsightly patch of dirt in the lawn. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so K suggested I plant something there. We went to Erik’s Garden Center early one rainy Monday morning because she needed to buy her spring plants anyway. I was a little hesitant, because “Mary Mary quite contrary I may be, but don’t ask me how my garden grows, because it don’t grow shit.” But I was soon excited by all the different colors and types of plants. I ended up buying two hanging baskets of petunias—pink and white for the back porch and purple for the front porch—and, after much deliberation, two broccoli plants and a creeping phlox. (Because I follow my intuition, that’s why.)

K told me what fertilizer to get, we dug up the weeds in the dirt, and she planted the three little plants. Unlike the hard, dry piece of ground next to the patio at my condo in Marin, this dirt is really good, and we dug up many worms. More bisected worms than whole ones, but don’t they regenerate themselves? (Oh, the things I don’t know.) K saw some little maple treelings growing against the foundation of the house and said I should take them out. So I pulled them up by their roots and planted them in the dirt patch also. I never really expected them to live, so I planted them only about 4 feet apart. Could be interesting. Future generations can tell the story of how the hapless old lady who used to live here came to have Siamese-twin maple trees in her yard.

The robins aren’t the only satisfied customers out there. The bird bath is as busy as a public pool, and little birds flutter through the white-barked birch tree mocking the  jays and blackbirds that are too big to dine at the small feeder hanging there. There’s a whole flock of little birds that enjoy taking sponge baths in the 80% of the “garden” that has nothing but dirt in it. They squiggle themselves down and around until they’ve made a cozy indentation and then wriggle all over getting dirt under their wings and all over their bellies. Then they frolic in the broccoli forest or sit on top of the leaves and bite holes in them. I wonder if they’re completely delusional (look! it’s a lake!) or if they’re evolutionarily inclined to want to be covered in dirt.

home girl

One of the happiest outcomes of my moving here, so far, has to do with nephew Josh, K and MP’s younger son. K was having a rummage sale to which a lot of us had contributed our junk, and we were sitting around on lawn chairs in the driveway waiting for customers. Josh was feeling down because his dream of buying a house seemed to be on permanent hold. He and wife Jana lived in a trailer, and there was barely enough room for them to turn around. Even though Josh makes relatively good money as a ship welder, Jana works at Wal-Mart, which, ‘nuff said. They’d been looking at houses, all just out of reach financially, and were starting to think it would never happen.

I had bought MP’s original Ford Model-T running board, which is solid polished wood with a metal inlay. Josh offers to take it out to my Jeep, because it’s hella heavy and he’s a big strong guy. While he does that, I double-check with myself to be clear about what I’m about to do.

As he’s coming back from the Jeep, I go to meet him and say, “Let’s walk.” We walk around the corner, and I ask him exactly how much he needs for a down payment. It’s unclear, because he doesn’t know what they’ll have to pay for a house, what they can get for their trailer, etc. I explain that I don’t want to lend money to family: I don’t want to risk disrupting relationships if for some reason they can’t pay me back. Then I pause significantly and add, “But I’d be willing to give you $5,000.” He’s apparently having a delayed reaction to this news—or doesn’t trust his ears—because he says, “But then I’d have to pay that off, plus my other debts, and….” I stop and put a hand on his arm. “Josh. I’ll give it to you.” He starts to say “Noooo,” but mid-vowel I can tell he’s not going to waste time protesting. He wraps me in a big bear hug. “Thank you, thank you!” “I love you, Josh.” “I love you, Aunt Mary.” Then the music swells, and… wait, there’s no music. But I still feel like I’m in a movie.

This happened on the last day of April. I was surprised at how quickly they found a house they liked and made an offer on it. I guess you’d call it a “fixer-upper,” though they don’t use that term here—fixer-uppers are pretty much what you get. It’s in a pleasant neighborhood in Marinette, centrally located and not too far from K and MP. And it’s on Mary Street! When Josh tells people that I “made it all possible,” I quip that his moving to Mary St. was one of my conditions. I think they know I’m joking. And here’s another twist. When I moved back here last fall, Josh bought me a button that said “Mary is my homegirl.” Are we impressed with these tidbits of synchronicity, or what?

I’m thrilled that I was able to help them out. It feels a lot better than when I donated $1,000 to the Menominee High School scholarship program and found out the scholarship was awarded to the daughter of the financial advisor to the school district.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to handle having money when so many in the family are living from paycheck to paycheck. I haven’t really figured it out, so I just take it case by case. It’s still awkward to give a sizable gift to someone who can’t afford to reciprocate. I wonder if the saying “It’s better to give than to receive” isn’t the moral lesson we think it is, but rather a simple fact. Giving is a joy—though I realize it’s not everyone’s idea of a good time—but it can feel complicatedly ambivalent to receive: There can be shame that you can’t reciprocate; confusion about whether you’re supposed to try to reciprocate or merely accept the difference in circumstances; and fear that the other person’s generosity is masking an expectation or a form of one-upmanship… like now you owe them, regardless of what they say.

I think the economic disparity between me and other members of the family is still an issue, but I’ve realized that I can’t control anyone else’s feelings, I can only try to be clear about my own. I truly believe that it’s not important how much a gift costs—what’s important is the intention behind it. But we all grew up poor, and that can warp your sense of worth.

welcome to the dollhouse

Speaking of giving, one of the many things I appreciate about my sisters is that when they go rummaging, they’re always on the lookout for things I might like. Mostly, they’ll bring me crystals, crosses… anything different, colorful, or shiny to hang in my big windows. One day Barb called me from my driveway—that’s how she circumvents my request to “call before coming over”—and said they had a surprise for me. I had once mentioned that I’d like to have a dollhouse to make “dioramas” in the little rooms. Well, they had found a metal dollhouse that was exactly like the one I had as a little girl! I couldn’t believe it. I briefly wondered how they knew it was like the one I’d had, but of course!—they had played with it too—one of many hand-me-downs from me, first-born. I was touched that they had ceded it to me instead of one of them claiming it for herself or for a grandchild.

Late one night I felt inspired to do a sand tray (sans sand) with it. At first I was a little intimidated by the emotional baggage represented by this dollhouse. The fact that I was “playing” with it 50-some years later, a few blocks from my then-home, was a little mind-boggling, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a “Twilight Zone” episode with this plot device…. doo-doo-doo-doo…. Woman plays with childhood dollhouse… After she puts all the dolls in it, they come alive and she becomes the doll! OK, Mare, get a grip.

So I started putting things in the rooms. It was physically more difficult than I’d expected, because, man, those rooms are tiny, and I’m so much bigger now. Duh. And I was really self-conscious at first—I was afraid I was going to keep such rational control of the imagery that I wouldn’t be able to forget myself and just let it flow. But sand trays always take you somewhere you didn’t know you were going to go, so I just… went.

In one of the upstairs bedrooms, I put three little pink rocking chairs in a row with a “bomb” in each one. (Me and my sisters?) A baby lay on the floor in front of them, and a red rubber skeleton hand edged into the room. Men (action figures, a.k.a. dolls) were climbing the sides of the house, trying to get in the windows, which have little open squares cut in the metal, so their arms reached through. In the bathroom I put a skeleton on top of a pile of knives. The living room filled up with tangled red wire, with a soft plastic skull stuck in the middle. A rescue squad vehicle sat halfway into the room. Little green soldiers on the outside took aim at the house.

I put a little pink baby on a makeshift bed in the other bedroom, surrounded by empty blue rocking chairs and a couple of skeletons standing like sentries at the front opening. The baby felt like my little brother Mike who died of leukemia. At that point I knew I was emotionally engaged. I put another baby in one of the rocking chairs, with no idea of who it could be. I didn’t worry that I was orchestrating the scene anymore, because my crafty conscious mind had let go. My “story” had been successfully interrupted, and I could do anything.

I put men climbing on the roof and trying to come down the chimney. One man was caught in a kind of metal mesh cage. There were chains hanging off the roof, black and red wire coming out of the chimney, a large skeleton hand, snakes, and an old light bulb filament. I wrapped the house in long strings of white beads. Long black rods poked through windows and bifurcated some of the rooms.

By now, the only room that had nothing in it was the kitchen. My parents weren’t even represented (details, details)… but all my energy was going to my brother. So into the kitchen went a little yellow crib with a baby in it, red and white flowers, a red plastic heart, and gold Christmas ornaments. The feeling of doom from the upstairs rooms (and the roof and the windows and the whole house, actually) was changing, and I felt a deep, unexpected pulsing of joy in my chest. I grabbed a small jointed skeleton with blue rhinestone eyes and laid it on the floor in front of the crib, and the “sand tray” felt somehow complete. It was then that I noticed that the skeleton had lost one of its eyes. My heart skipped a beat… then another. My brother had blue eyes and had to have one removed when he was a year old. I had often painted him with one closed eye and one bright blue one, and the image has always stayed with me.

This is what happens in the creative process. The mind holds on as long as it can, and then it lets go like a tired swimmer slipping under the waves. From the mind’s point of view, all is lost. But the giving in allows the power of the Mystery to take over. And then the mind has the grace to acknowledge and even feel gratitude for that all-embracing force and the surprising gifts it brings.

Actually, the feeling of getting in touch with the creative force, the Mystery, is not limited to “art.” At times I feel strongly—almost supernaturally—touched when I’m out in the neighborhood or even driving and fully take in the green of the big leafy trees, the lush carpets of lawn, the yellow-green light during a half-sunny/half-darkblue-stormcloud daytime thunderstorm. At those moments I feel swathed, or swaddled—held or holding, I hardly know which—by everything that is. I’m all alone and yet so big—amorphous—that there’s nothing and no one outside “me.” Just as when I’m in the creative flow, I’m only another form through which the prism of sensory experience is being filtered.

July 4

On the weekend before the Fourth of July, I asked Barb if she and Brian and Deb and the kids were going to have a cookout down in the park. She consulted Brian, who thought it was “a great idea.” So Barb went and bought most of the food, and Brian got a pork roast to grill for shredded pork sandwiches. I thought it was just going to be the six of us, but when I arrived, Deb’s brother and his girlfriend and their baby, two friends of Brian’s with their kid, Brian’s live-in and visiting kids, Barb’s daughter L and her husband with their two boys, and K and MP were all there. Deb’s nephew Devon, who’s barely 4 years old and small for his age, was making big circles around the park on a tiny motorcycle. MP was helping Brian dig up some dead rose bushes. Women bearing food were streaming into and out of the house like a line of ants.

K thought she should be helping set things up, but I told her we should take advantage of our elder status and sit out on the deck and have a drink. I’m a terrible influence on her.

Before the food was ready, it started raining, so they set everything up in the garage. The smokers stood at the open garage doors smoking and looking out at the rain. The radio was tuned to the oldies’ station, where every song seemed chosen for the weather: … listen to the rhythm of the falling rain… pitter patter pitter patter… oo-oo-ooh…. We sat on folding chairs awkwardly eating hot dogs and deviled eggs and chips and cupcakes on paper plates on our laps and trying to keep track of whose drink was whose. The kids—I think there were nine of them altogether—raced around the garage, weaving in and out among the adults, who were themselves constantly up and down getting food or going into the house or to their cars for something. Food and drink were spilled, napkins distributed, and second helpings helped. When the rain let up, Sarina and Devon went out and threw rocks at the puddles across the road. I went out to watch and realized that when I’m around kids, I constantly think something awful is going to happen—they’ll hit the neighbor’s cat with a rock… they’ll get too close to the road and get run over—and I’ll be left standing there, powerless. (Why this should be is a whole ‘nother story.)

While we were eating in the garage, I felt like a ghost—or close enough to a ghost, socially speaking, not to quibble about whether I was actually alive or dead. I felt like Scrooge watching the world go by without him (The Ghost of Great Auntie Present). None of the middle generation, the late-20- and early-30-somethings, so much as glanced in my direction. And how could I blame them? They have their kids and their houses and their jobs and their future to worry about. Deb’s family is unusually close-knot (ha! Freudian slip—close-knit), and all the brothers and sisters and the parents are in constant touch and routinely babysit each other’s kids and help build each other’s garages, redo bathrooms, whatever needs to be done. They’re like a giant, well-oiled family machine. It struck me that “family” is inclusive by being exclusive. Barb is one of the grandmas and Brian’s mother, but K and I are fairly expendable twigs on that limb of the family tree. I figure my only hope for feeling comfortable in that situation is to get in solid with the kids. Kids’ attention is fickle at best, but if I have enough one-on-one time with them, I’ll at least have a real connection there and not just be Grandma Barb’s peripheral “sister from California,” whose story is rapidly becoming yesterday’s news.

Here I am talking about connection, but I want contradictory things. Time goes on and one adapts, even to a miracle. But I want to retain the “disconnect,” the “synaptic gap,” the cognitive dissonance of wow, can you believe it, between life as I knew it a year or so ago and life as it appears to me now. I want to be immersed in the experience, but I also want to stand a little apart to maintain an awareness of what’s really going on here… what’s the deeper meaning there…. how does the past inform the present or the present redeem the past…  I’m interested in difference—the strange blessings and contradictions of life—and in trying to express what I see.

At one point, Barb says to me, “This is all because of you,” and I think, You mean no one else thought to have a Fourth of July BBQ? Odd, since I hate the Fourth of July! I’d just wanted to eat hot dogs and deviled eggs.

the grand-nieces

As much as I enjoy the grandkids, I’ve resisted babysitting them. As a teenager I hated being responsible for other people’s precious darlings and was beset by paranoid fantasies (if a man comes to the door claiming to be a relative of the parents, do I let him in or run and hide under the bed?). So I told Barb that I would invite the kids over for a sleepover in my attic room sometime, but she’d have to come with. Over the summer, when they’re not in school and their regular babysitter isn’t available, Barb has been watching them one day a week. I’ve taken to dropping by, taking them out to lunch, and playing a game or two until I desperately need to return to my solitary (big red comfy-chaired) existence. On one of the days that Barb was supposed to have the kids, she had an appointment, so I agreed to watch them for the 1 or 2 hours she would be gone. As the time got nearer, I began to regret my decision. I was afraid I’d just sit there in previous-babysitting-trauma-induced paralysis, one eye on the clock, too stiff to talk, let alone be an engaging companion–slash–loving great auntie.

The first 5 or 10 minutes alone with them were pretty much as I’d expected, until I realized that kids inhabit worlds of their own, and there wasn’t anything special I had to do. Sarina suggested playing dominos, so we did. We played the game where you start with double nines and progress through the double eights, double sevens, etc., until you run out of numbers. We had only got through the first couple of sets before both kids were lying face down on their chairs and playing the game from the floor. To give me a domino to play on the table, they had to go through numerous contortions to get the right one on the table and slide it over to me without being able to see. This gave them the giggles, and they kept up a chatterfest under the table about I know not what. At one point, Summer calls up from the floor, “Aunt Mary, look in the drawer.” I was sitting at the end of the table where there’s a small drawer, so I opened it and found the domino Summer had placed there. Gee, talk about resourceful… I guess when you challenge yourself to play dominos on two levels, you have to think on your feet, er, stomach.

When they got bored with that game, Sarina wanted to play Bingo, so she and I did that while Summer made bead bracelets. Bingo lasted about 5 minutes. Sarina won, so I think it was a case of quitting while she was ahead. Then she brought out Chutes and Ladders, which I knew was a famous kid’s game that I must have played before, but for some reason I couldn’t get the hang of it. The kids thought that was hilarious, especially when I tried to move my piece up the chute or down the ladder.

Next, it happened to be less hot than usual that day, so we went outside so they could play on their jungle gym. They showed off all their acrobatic tricks on the swings and with the hanging rings and did cartwheels on the lawn. I know it’s a cliché, but wow, the flexibility in their thin limbs! Their unflagging energy! Part of the jungle gym structure has ladders and a simulated “rock climbing surface” to climb up to a kind of treehouse, so I made a feeble attempt to follow them up while they squealed, backing up to the opposite side of the platform as I grabbed at them while teetering 12 inches off the ground. This led to their christening me the Lava Monster. (Don’t ask me why Lava.) They went running through the yard, and every move I made in their direction evoked genuine—or fake/genuine, if you see the distinction—terror and screams. I did indeed feel monster-like, roaring and occasionally grabbing hold of a passing arm and wondering what a Lava Monster was supposed to do if she caught one of them. Their shrill screams made me drop them pretty quickly anyway, so as to prevent permanent hearing loss (mine).

Finally, the grandma cavalry arrived. Though I hadn’t been having a bad time, by any means, I was grateful for the rescue. Barb was just in time to take us all to lunch at the Downtown Sub Shop in Menominee. On the way, we saw K and MP riding around in their truck, and they joined us for ice cream.

The kids have another “Aunt Mary,” their mother’s sister, so when we were driving back from lunch, Summer said, “There’s our ‘normal’ Aunt Mary’s house,” and Barb cracked up while I howled. “Normal?!” Poor kid just meant “as opposed to ‘Great Aunt Mary’.” Summer had endeared herself to me earlier by saying, “I hate not knowing things.” I really like smart kids. Four-year-old Sarina is smart too, but she’s still illiterate. I’m looking forward to being in their lives for a long time to come.

the flagpole of now

Pookie started feeling better when I stopped giving him the medicine. He still sits on my lap at the computer and watches the screen avidly as the colorful symbols of Alchemy pop up and move around. He still scratches my knees bloody trying to make himself comfortable. We’re taking it one day at a time, or I am. He’s just living.

He’s living, and I’m thinking. In fact, I’ve been thinking about thought. Many years ago, I heard an amazing talk by Krishnamurti in which he said that time, thought, and fear are all one thing. I noticed with Pookie that if I stay completely in the present with what’s actually happening, I don’t have all the anxiety associated with my projections into the future. He’s on my lap now, he’s purring now, he’s scratching my knees bloody now. Anything that I imagine might happen—or worse, believe will happen—is completely unreal, hypothetical. Several years ago, I spent months playing out in my mind the imminent death of my little black cat Radar, who had feline leukemia. As it happened, he died peacefully in his sleep, with his head butted up against a wall, and I had a friend visiting who helped me bury him, quite illegally, in front of my apartment building. I didn’t shed a tear. It was all just what it was.

So here’s how I picture time = thought = fear. We are sitting on a flagpole (whether it’s all the same flagpole or we each have our own is beyond the scope of this discussion). No, I’ll simplify and say I am sitting on a flagpole, which is the present moment, what is. If you think about it, there’s no flagpole “back there” (past) or “up ahead” (future), because it’s always now. I may think about “tomorrow,” but when “tomorrow” comes, it’s today. No way to get off that flagpole unless we’re sent into space and come back 200 years later while aging only 2 weeks on Earth. I don’t even want to get into that.

OK, so I’m sitting on the flagpole of now, and because of evolutionary developments in the brain, I can imagine things that aren’t real, i.e., aren’t happening now, on my flagpole. When we imagine those unreal things, we are extending our reach beyond the flagpole, forward and back, but those extensions are completely imaginary, a product of our brain capacity. Brain development, per se, is a fine thing, because it can be useful to have a memory (of the best season to plant crops, say) and to make reasonable predictions (if I plant corn now, I’ll have some in late summer). And yet, all that is pure speculation; everything that actually happens is happening now. Late summer may never come, capiche?

When we project these speculations into the “past” or the “future,” that is the nature of thought. We can think about what’s happening, but the thought is never the thing itself. Obviously, that’s also the nature of time, because projection in thought, by definition, is in time and not in the present moment.

Here’s the crucial bit, which is what I realized with Pookie. It’s impossible to have fear in the present. We think we do, but really, fear always comes before or after the fact. In the moment, whether it’s confronting a snake on the path or holding the poor cat while the vet “puts him to sleep,” there’s nothing but this flagpole, then this flagpole, then this flagpole (which are all one flagpole, you understand).

(I sure hope my flagpole analogy is holding up, because if not, you’re probably feeling really irritated right about now.)

So…. everything that our brains project (or “remember”) into the air in front of or behind our “flagpole” is the same thing: thought = time = fear.

QED, n’est-ce pas?

Pookie’s having up to three “seizures” a day now. Be in the moment for him, in whatever way feels right to you, would you?

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #26 January 2003

June 28, 2009

I’m like a book. I want to be read.
—D. Dworkin

merry lu’s holidaze

Dear friends and home-ies, I want you to know me,
my Christmas, December, intensive (remember?),
my old friends and new, and relatives too,
but all of it’s swirlin’, I ain’t no Merlin
magician gone fishin’,
can’t tie it all neatly in parables sweetly,
so forget the flappin’, hold off on the rappin’,
I’m about to stop rhymin’ and see what’s been happenin’….

I feel like I did when I saw my therapist, J, a few days after the 7-day painting intensive. There was so much to tell her that I veered between fast-talking the details and throwing out a few insights like a lifeline to a drowning man, but the only one drowning was me. She thought I was in the middle of something, and I thought I had already gone through it, even though I couldn’t say exactly what “it” was. We almost didn’t make it, she was trying her hardest but I was way out there,
past her lifeline and mine, or maybe the drowner was throwing the line
to the one on shore and wondering what she was waiting for.

The rhythm is still with me, can’t stop it or drop it,
so please bear with me while I make the transition,
I’m rockin’ my chair but can’t get transmission,
I wish I could mind-meld, directly deposit
the thoughts in my closet, but I guess that’s what language is for,
to awkwardly say what no man has said before…

I’m still straddling two worlds, like a tale of two cities, or make that one suburb and a remote small town, which in its own way is also the center of everything. What is remote to one is birth, life, and death to another—so there’s really no such thing as remote, or even “other,” just gazillions of centers all dancing on the head of a pin with how many angels.

My sister K has read all the ‘zines now and passed them on to hubby MP. After reading “Lost weekday” (#11), about going to the dentist and pukin’ and peein’ myself (her favorite story, go figure), she and Barb and I got to bond in a sisterly way over our shared peed adventures. Barb writes:

K said she feels our lives are pretty mundane but you probably enjoy knowing that we pee our pants too, and you are normal in that respect.

I love that my main claim to being normal is that I pee my pants.

MP is reported to have “mixed feelings” about the ‘zine (he was shocked, shocked by what I was into when Mom was trying to get me to drink coffee), but he keeps reading, so way to go, bro!

Later, Barb reported that, after reading them all,

MP said to tell you, you don’t need a psychiatrist because you have us. Then again maybe you do because you DO have us.

Everybody’s a comedian.

My Christmas was very different this year. Usually I bah-humbug my way through December and then, on Christmas Eve, literally at the 11th hour, I get suddenly sentimental, turn on the choral carols on the radio, and wish I had done more for my fellow human. This year I got started early by sending a check to Barb to buy presents for my little nieces and nephews. Only problem is, I forgot about the ones I haven’t met yet, so it’s eight not four little ones, but B stretched the check to cover them all. P&C, my usual Xmas cohorts, were out of town for the holiday, so it was a vicarious Christmas chez Maree and Pookee. Late Xmas Eve, I got an e from Barb, who described in great detail the planning, the giving, the receiving, the smiles, the surprises, the love, the love. About the little ones:

I made sure the kids knew which presents were from their Great Aunt Mary and it was repeated several times with Wyatt saying “This is the Aunt Mary I haven’t met yet,” and Summer triumphantly announcing, “I have.” … You were even talked about when they were sitting in the kitchen eating their lunch after all the present opening was done.

It’s weird knowing these people, having them know me, as if I’ve gotten remarried and started a new family, except the new family is pretty much the old family with a few deletions and several add-ons. P thinks I’m “in love with the idea” of having reestablished the connection with my UPeeps; sure, I do love the idea, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. I always knew the connection was there, it was just a matter of the planets getting realigned or something. It’s not about “going back” in any sense, back in space or time, it’s about being right where I am and letting the treasure that’s been there all along reveal itself. (I hope I didn’t use that exact same sentence last time, but if I did, c’est la vie, déjà vu, tant pis, pommes frites, oo la la.)

It’s no surprise to me that my sisters are generous and funny. It’s just that I was trying to put my own jigsaw puzzle together over here, not realizing that my pieces were part of the mixture, fitting neatly into the bigger picture created by my family, my friends and neighbors, my town, state, and country, my world, my universe. I’m only one center, just a renter who thinks she’s an owner, we’re all on loan here, but it’s still all mine and all theirs and theirs, multiplied multiple times… but finally I get it, the dimensions are infinite, the holographic whole is at once a goal and a done deal, nothing to reveal, just return to the One from which we all sprung, our ashes to AshLand or dust to rust. Doesn’t mean I have an answer to take to the bank or save me from cancer, no book deal or contract or stardom or fame, just me and my name, my rhymin’ so lame, the ‘zine, the queen-of-the-table game, it’s all the same. Wave or particle don’t really matter, we’re neither here nor there but everywhere. No doubt. Love in, love out.

This Christmas I went on a tipping spree. That’s dollars, not cows, for you Wisconsinites. I figure that rewarding the working people will have a ripple effect. Jon Carroll has an annual column in the Chronicle about his own invention, the Untied Way. It’s “untied” because it’s random. You take as much money as you can spare out of your bank account and give $20 bills out to the first however many people ask for money on the street. This is fine. I’ve had some good encounters on the street myself, when I gave willingly and not out of fear or guilt. A couple months ago, I came across a guy selling the Street Sheet in downtown S.F. He was sitting in the doorway of the (closed) restaurant I had wanted to eat lunch in. He was polite and cheerful, and when I passed him two or three times over the next half hour, we greeted each other and he told me about Lori’s Diner up the street, where I ended up having lunch. I had given him a dollar on our first encounter, but he was exuding such good cheer that after lunch I went back and gave him $10 “for the next 10 people who don’t give you anything.” He was inordinately pleased, considering it wasn’t exactly a fortune. But it felt to me like a true exchange, as if we were rewriting the equation of desperate beggar + reluctant passerby = resentment all around. This was more like real person + real person = humanity.

But at Christmas I refocused my efforts and gave extra (or first-time) tips to the person who delivers my Sunday Times, my pleasant and conscientious mailman, a couple of waiters and valet parkers, my new haircutter, and even my favorite grocery store clerk (Nanette at United Market—tell her Mary sent you). The wind might get taken out of my sails when I have my taxes done and realize I’ve been thinking of all the money in my bank account as mine, when a large portion of my income this year didn’t have withholding taken out. But I still like the principle. It’s only a few dollars extra to me, but it’s meaningful to them, in both tangible and intangible ways. If a smile can send someone on her or his way with a lighter step, think what $20 can do.

The first song I heard when I turned on the radio on Christmas morn was by the Flaming Lips:

Do you realize… that everyone you know someday will die?
Do you realize… that we’re floating in space?
Do you realize… the sun doesn’t go down, it’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning ‘round?

I’d have to say Yes, Yes, and Yes, but it’s good to be reminded. The next song was some cock-schlock by a band called, with eerie accuracy, Disturbed. I switched to Alice and then to KALW, but they were all choral and Crosby, so I had to disrespect the Bing and settle for a silent morning. Decided to compose my own soundtrack on the Mac: ‘Zine attack!

December was especially notable for all the human contact. I was with people for, like, 10 days straight! I handled it pretty well, but I did have to bail on a brunch in Tiburon because I was starting to come unglued. Terry and Jean were here from Massachusetts, and they had to cancel their trip up the coast because of the rain, so we got to spend more time together. It was fun, fun, fun till Daddy took the T bird away (and the J bird). Besides the daily lunches during the intensive, we dined with Diane L. and Diane D. at Garibaldi’s in the city, and T, J, and I had our farewell dinner at the Buckeye in Mill Valley, where I take all my painting lovelies. I wore my blue hair for the occasion, praying it wouldn’t rain—blue rivulets running down my face, not the look I’m going for. We had a sweet-sorrow good-bye, but it’s so much better to be sorry to see someone go than to be relieved you’ve got your blessed solitude back.

Next fall, P&C will retire early, move to Oregon, and spend their declining years reclining in a house they bought on the Rogue River. P has been trying to get me to move up there too. When I complain about the Caveman ambience of Grants Pass (Caveman Motors, billboards with Cavemen dragging Cavewomen by the hair, etc.), she counters that I could settle nearby in the more refined community of Ashland, the Shakespeare festival place.

P is the executrix of my will, so every year or so I revised my detailed instructions to her regarding the distribution of my worldly goods. But I’ve never figured out if I want to REmain or CREmain, as it were. So one night I say to her, “I still don’t know what to do about ‘the body’.”

P (casual as can be): “I’ve already decided.”

Me: “Oh?”

P. “You’re going to Oregon.”

I howled, “That is SO against my EXPRESS WISHES,” and she just laughed.

A few days later, when T&J and I were having our farewell dinner (smoked pork sandwiches, onion rings, chicken salad, butterscotch crème brûlée), Jean said she wished they could put me in their suitcase and take me back to Massachusetts. I had just told them the story of P hauling my assh to Oregon, so I said, “Maybe you could get P to split the ashes with you.” Ha ha ha. One of them pointed out that I’d be happier with them because they live in ASHFIELD, get it? It only took me 2 days to realize the alternative is ASHLAND, so I’d say it’s a wash. That doesn’t even take into account my sisters’ possible wishes. Barb, in fact, protests, “Why Oregon? What is in Oregon? Will I have to say Mary gone to Oregon?… Or will it be Mary moved her ash to Ashfield?”

Quiet geek in Lake Oregon… Has a nice ring to it.

Barb pointed out that there are still three family plots in Riverside Cemetery where Mom, Dad, and baby Mike are buried. Mom’s ashes are tucked in at the foot of Mike’s grave, so there’s plenty of room left for me to have my “space.” I’m considering it. Having overcome my anti-hometown sentiments, I’m verging on the gung-ho (ya think?).

In fact, this just in… I’ve made my decision—or the decision that was a foregone conclusion unknown to my former illusion has come into view: Post-this-life, I’m headed back to the U.P. to rejoin my original nuclear family, yes, the prodigal electron comes whirling back into orbit, knowing, finally, that it can be the orbiter and the orbitee, hello Menominee!

It seems appropriate that I’ll end up getting’ down with the three people I’ve painted over and over for the past 20+ years, and not always in a flattering light. If there’s an After to this Life, I hope they’ll understand. When I get to the bright light at the end of the tunnel, I don’t want any angry ghosts on my hands. Part of my rap-prochement with the past is realizing that the key elements that have “defined” my life are not the deaths, the illnesses, the poverty, the illicit touching, the adolescent pain, the adult relationship pain, the pain the pain the goddamn pain. Flip the foreground and background—like that picture that looks like a death skull one way and a woman brushing her hair the other way [so sexist, but never mind that]—and you see the love, the sacrifice, the generosity, all the quiet invisible parental intangibles that created the offspring of William H. and Louise L. McKenney, and all the lives that have sprung off from each of us (in utero or de facto), and you know that the good far outweighed the bad.

The 7-day painting intensive was amazing, as always, packjam with insights and outtasights, real painters and painted realities, mysteries and surrealities, connections and discords, selfs and others, sisters and a coupla brothers, I’ll never do it justice so let’s just take a look at some highlights and lowdowns.

I was the only one it mattered to, and then I wasn’t there anymore.

This line has stayed with me, because it’s one of the best descriptions I’ve heard of what happens in painting. You spend the day obsessing about this, that, and the other thing—not knowing what to paint, not liking what you painted, what’s going on in the room (“Everyone is into it but me”), what about this relationship or that work problem, what’s for lunch, will this day never end, etc. etc. Brain diarrhea, wontcha put me out of my miserrhea? And then… “you’re not there anymore.” Can you relate, dear reader? You’re not unconscious, you’re fully aware, you just aren’t “there,” Gertrude Stein-wise, in that petty, whiny little ego way with its long self-life and short half-life, it’s only half-living but we think it’s all there is. When we factor in the life after, our petty little head don’t want to be dead. No more ME. All we want is to continue to live (will there be a surge in the basic séances when the Boomers start moving to Ash Land?), but what if release from the body is like cracking through the egoshell and suddenly you’re “gone” but you still be with all the Gods chillin’?

After painting all day, when we’re all aglow, neither here nor there with our souls laid bare, all epiphany, happily happily, do we ever want to go back to the angst and torture of “nothing to paint”? No, we don’t. So why cling to our earthly fling, spend 80 years obsessing about this and that (and the other thing), knowing it matters only to us and then we aren’t there anymore but we’re so much more? What more could we ask for?

One day in the sharing, Pi-te (one of the sweetest men on earth) waxes poetic about the arrangement of flowers in the studio bathroom. He had followed the blooming of the gladiolas throughout the week and describes the buds, the careful unfolding, the luscious colors. The rest of us are thinking, “Geez, I never noticed any of that! All I see in there is the ordinaire, the “12 double rolls same as 24 regular rolls,” not exactly poet matter. Finally, Kate comes up with the answer. “He pees standing up!” The flowers are arranged behind the female behind, and the double (same as twice as many undouble) rolls provide the only distraction besides urinary satisfaction.

We have our laffs, that’s for sure.

As always, some strange things happened during the intensive. It’s like you don’t even know yourself after a few days of painting. The firm grasp you’ve been keeping on your identity starts to crumble, and you realize that your true self has no need to grasp—and there’s nothing to hold on to anyway. At various times I got agitated when I thought I had no reason to, and then was perfectly calm and collected when by rights I “should” have been upset. I got tired of hearing one of the painters harp about judging: “I judged, am judging now, trying not to judge, the judge says this, the judge says that, all is judgment, oops I’m judging again.” It was as if judgment were her identity, her badge or excuse, her comfortable pool of helplessness in which to wallow and never change because there would always be something to judge—it’s an endless loop, the judger is the judged, the observer is the observed (so that’s what Krishnamurti meant!), how would she ever see beyond it? I couldn’t stop myself from saying some of this in the sharing, in a shaky voice, not wanting to attack anyone but needing to say something, and everyone ignored what I said (or, I suppose, had their own things to say, imagine that) so I had to jump in later and say that I felt “hung out to dry” and that I “hated everyone” in the group for not responding. The general consensus was that I had merely been “thrown back on myself,” which is one of those things that sound good in theory but suck when it’s happening to you.

Barbara, of course, points out that I’m doing the same thing that I find so irritating about this other painter (I, too, am judging the judge), and says it’s useful to look at what we see in one another—or, to quote Byron Katie, “Judge your neighbor.” Use the judgment. You can only see in others what already exists in you.

One of the hardest things for me to deal with during a long intensive is not being able to nap at will. I’ve been spoiled rotten by working at home and setting my own schedule. So if I can catch a few winks in my car or on the couch in the sharing room after lunch, it really helps. I was sound asleep one day when a fellow painter, with the very best of intentions (thinking I may not have intended to go to sleep—clearly, she doesn’t know me very well), spoke my name softly and touched me on the shoulder. I CATAPULTED off the couch, yelled JESUS!, and my glasses went crashing to the floor as I rapidly tried to assess what was going on. As I sat there for a moment, head in hands, trying to bring down my heart rate, my FP (fellow painter) apologized profusely, but I was amazed to discover that I bore absolutely no ill will. I didn’t have to force myself to be polite for her sake, or overcome (or indulge) my true reaction. She said, “I made a mistake!” and I said (hardly recognizing myself), “It doesn’t matter! It’s like in the painting!… It’s all right, really, I’m not mad at all.”

This isn’t about my being a “good person,” it’s just something that happened. I never knew that things like that could go right through you, I’ve always held tight to any slight while believing I had no choice but to fight. When I told this story later, someone said we need to “work on” those reactions in our daily lives, and I found myself saying NO. No work! Not about working! It happens! It happens to you or through you when you are being truthful and not banishing the bad feelings. That’s why painting “works.” As Krishnamurti said, “The very fact of being aware of what is is truth. It is truth that liberates, not your striving to be free.” Painting truthfully (though difficult), sharing truthfully in the group (though more difficult), and especially being truthful (and true) to yourself takes you out of the realm of trying (to be a better person), working (on your issues), and processing (personal interactions). Instead, you feel irritated whether it makes sense or not, you feel forgiveness and love whether that makes sense or not, you paint what you paint and judge it or not, and it’s all part of what is, nothing special, no preference. You want to drive the train with your engineer brain, but Life maintains a seamless, trackless terrain. I guess it’s what the Buddhists have always said. Krishnamurti again: “Remembered truth has no value; you have to discover it each time. But each time you discover it, it’s the same.”

Let’s get back to my post-painting therapy session with J for a moment. Having struggled through most of the hour unable to be in the present, consumed with the past I wanted to present to her and even wondering, scarily, if I’d come to the end of therapy, I say, “I feel as if I used to sit in the audience in the dark theater and watch the movie [Life] on the screen. Now I’m in the movie, people can see me from all angles, I can see everything in 3-D too, and I don’t know what role I’m playing or where the story’s going.” No wonder I was having trouble knowing which character, action, or plot line to describe to her, like a movie reviewer in the middle of the show instead of the middle of the row.

I felt more in touch with J (and myself) after that, and it was past time to go, but I still wanted to show her my paintings from the 7-day. She loves to see them, and I don’t feel constrained in my prah-cess by allowing another’s eyes to gaze upon them. So I showed them to her in order and explained how I had gone into the intensive knowing I wanted to paint my sisters and maybe even my whole new-old family. I did paint B and K right away, but it didn’t feel anything like I thought it would. I had assumed that the warm loving connection from real life would flow onto the paper, but instead I stood there, thinking, “Who are these people?” When I paint my parents, they’re recognizable to me as images projected by me. But I couldn’t tell what I was projecting onto my sisters; it was as if I had painted two strangers. Both Barbara and later J thought this “mystery” mirrored my ongoing discovery of K and B as adults. It’s intriguing.

By day 2 or 3, I had started painting bodies from the inside out—first the bones, then fat, then flesh, with the skull staring out from the face. It was so intense that I felt like I was in one of those movies where someone’s trapped in a room and the walls are starting to move toward each other. I illustrated this to Barbara with my left hand in a fist meeting the irresistible force of my open right hand. She said that instead of fighting the intensity, I needed to SPLAT. No clues on how to accomplish that.

Barbara teaches like a Zen master, stopping at nothing to jolt us out of our mental ruts. She asks where more skeletons could be on my painting, and I point out that all the bodies already have them. She inquires innocently, “Oh? Can only bodies have skeletons?” I’m thinking, Yes. There aren’t even any more things to put skeletons in, and again she asks, “Can only things have skeletons?” At that point I give up and paint a “blob skeleton” inside a random shape. And somehow that propels me into painting the molecular structure of the people’s faces. Don’t ask me how.

On the final painting, I don’t start with my sisters, I start with me, and I’m big, with arms stretched wide at shoulder level. Skeleton + fat + flesh, I construct myself on the page with intense blue eyes, open mouth, strong golden lights beaming out of my heart tubes, more golden lights emanating from my midsection, which is intricately organed and celled, molecularly dense, no wispy spirit for me. The image feels so alive that I think it could almost get up and walk off the paper. (That would be a good excuse for taking a break: Can’t paint, my image is out having a cigarette.) I find myself retreating to the sharing room, where I take a deep, fast nap. The intensity is what we all say we want, and then when we get it, it’s almost too much to bear. Finally, I paint my parents on either side of me, pale-fleshily, looking at me dubiously. Who is this person who came out of us?

As I’m showing the paintings to J, she turns to that last one, and she is blown away! “We should have looked at this sooner!” she exclaims. She can’t get over the difference in the way I’ve painted myself. “And you say you’re not in the middle of something??” She mentions the wire sculpture “body” I made years ago: the exoskeleton constructed in wire on a floor lamp doubling as the spine, with a plastic skull, a rubber heart, ribbon- and bead- and flower-spangled innards, and skeleton hands. I had shown her a photograph, and she had marveled that it looked so much like my real body’s somatic posture, downward-sloping shoulders and all. So now she’s gazing in amazement at this painting, contrasting it with the earlier wire soma, pointing out the strong shoulders, solid bones, steady beams of light, intense gaze, so full of life yet self-contained.

What’s especially weird about her referring to the wire sculpture is that it had fallen down recently, and I had reluctantly decided I would have to take it apart. The skull was cracked, the chain and red skeleton hand had fallen off the heart, the yellow fluff that was a “flame” in the chest wouldn’t stay put, and the “neck” (a glob of Sculpey modeling compound to hold the skull on) had dried up and fallen off, so that was that. Nothing lasts forever. I thought it was sad at the time, but after what J said, I realized it was stunningly appropriate that my “old self” would crumble just as the “new self” was asserting itself on and off the paper.

Writing about this is tricky, because in the prah-cess we know not to comment on people’s paintings or to take any of the content to mean anything about us—not to mention the hubris of declaring ourselves to be shedding the old and becoming the new. The paintings are like light traveling for millions of years on a journey to nowhere in particular. By the time light is visible from Earth, the star it came from is dead and gone. So, in our case, what ends up on the paper—which to an “artist” and the “art”-worshiping world is the whole point—is really the detritus, the shed skin of the snake of creativity. The real art is in facing the Void with honesty and vulnerability.

Also, technically, the painting isn’t “finished,” meaning I haven’t gone to the very end and squeezed every last drop and dot out of it that I can. Which makes what happened next even stranger. (BK, avert your eyes!)

J says the painting moves her deeply—I can even see tears welling up (usually that’s my job)—and I’m moved by her response. There is a difference in my body/mind/being, and most of that difference stems from the work we’ve done together. So it feels perfectly natural when she says, If there’s any way I could get a copy of this… to say, I’ll give it to you. She protests at first but finally says simply, “I would be honored.”

I’m “breaking all the rules,” of course—I have never given away a painting before, especially one that isn’t finished. But as Barbara would surely say, There really are no rules except the ones we create, and we learn by testing them.

As so often happens when I start the hour begrudging the “artificial” format of therapy, questioning its usefulness at only 2 hours a month, something unexpected and perfect has happened. I had felt worlds apart from J, and then—SPLAT. I had assumed that the SPLAT, when it came, would be a collision, like a KO in the third round, but instead it’s a beautiful moment, so light, so effortless. At such a moment, I’m in love with life—the surprise and depth of it, the endless mystery, the light traveling toward us as though drawn onward by our grateful eyes.

On the last day of the intensive, Kate has the idea of getting a wedding cake for Terry and Jean, who were ceremonially united in domestic committed partnership (or something like that) in Vermont earlier in the year. Of course it wasn’t a “real marriage,” as it would be if they were a man and a woman who met in a bar in Las Vegas and got hitched the next day by an Elvis impersonator while jumping out of an airplane—oh no, how could their love and 20 years together possibly be “real” compared to the inherently holy union of male + female?? [end rant]

So there was much secrecy and whispering and plotting, and we searched in vain for two little bride figures for the cake. Kate says we can draw the figures instead, so she comes to me in the afternoon and asks if I’ll do it, and I say, “No, I can’t draw!” We look around, trying to think who among us can draw—pretty weird, for a painting group. Kate finally recruits Pi-te, and he does a wonderful job. Kate cuts the figures out like little paper dolls (they’re naked with rosy red nipples, a nice touch) and arranges them on the cake with flowers, and at the end of the day brings the cake out while we sing, “Here come the bridezzz…” and it’s great to watch Jean and Terry looking around in confusion, like “Who…?” It was a wonderful moment, especially because it wasn’t the work of a cultural subgroup honoring their own, it was just friends honoring each other.

heavy petting

Pookie has a new forbidden pleasure, and it’s all my fault. He often comes up beside me when I’m working and makes this little squeaky meow, so I pet his head, murmur some sweet nothings, and go back to what I’m doing. That used to be enough, but then he started presenting himself back end first, and one day when I was feeling especially generous I scratched his back down by his tail, and he got all blissed-out and tried to lick himself on the chest (not sure what that’s about). I frequently comb him with a spiky comb that’s like a bed of nails with a handle, and he likes that too, but there’s something about my stumpy fingernails that really gets him going. And I, being picky about where my stumpy fingernails have been, get all icked-out and have to wash my hands immediately—or at least rub them on my pants. (I’m Ms. Cleanliness-Is-Next-to-Godliness unless I don’t feel like getting up.)

Also… don’t tell the IRS, but… I think my home office is being “repurposed.” Pookie seems to be rallying his forces for a coup, or a koop (pook spelled backwards, huh, huh?). All his stuff used to be out in the hall, but I see it’s now spreading like a virus into my official tax-deductible work territory—his bed, tissue paper, toys, cardboard, catnip heart, ribbons, combs, chair (with towels, for on and under), ad infinitum. I admit I have a hand in this, because he doesn’t have any of his own (hands, that is), but he must be beaming commands into my brain or something (ha! yeah, right). And it’s not as if I have a lot of extra room in here. As I approach my desk, I have to negotiate several noncarpet surfaces: swishy, slippery, crunchy (sounds like the 7 dwarfs), spiky (that bed-of-nails comb is hell on bare feet), and that’s not even counting the litter crumbs, the clumps of fur, the kitty vomitus, and even the occasional turdlet. I ask you! When he starts running around the house frantically, I know there’s something hanging out of his ass that he can’t dispose of in the usual manner.

Well, I could go on and on, right, Pook? But let’s wrap this baby up and put it to bed.

[mutter mutter] get no privacy whatsoever.

jump around! jump around, jump up and get down!

Long Night’s Journey into New Year’s Day

3:00 a.m.: I’ve been listening to party music on Live 105 since 8:00 and don’t want to go to bed and miss any of it. It’s the perfect mix of every upbeat song you ever knew and loved, or didn’t know and get to discover, from the ‘50s to the ‘00s, a whole lifetime of the rock and the roll: James Brown, the Kinks, a dash of disco, Abba, the Clash, Sex Pistols, Oingo Boingo, the Cure, hip-hop, rap rock, electroclash, techno. The oldies are goodies, and the creativity of the new is awesome. Sampling and remix and turntable DJ’in’—it’s recycling that sounds like anything but—the perfect re-use of the musical environment, like a spangly new jacket made out of old tires. They play a techno remix of the Eminem song in which he proclaims, “Nobody listens to techno!” and of course that line is sampled over and over until the joyful irony imprints itself on yer dancin’ jones and yer party bones.

3:30 a.m.: They play an infectious hip-hop number called “Jump Around!” and I can’t help myself, I haul my middle-aged ass out of my chair and get out on the tiny dance floor (again, don’t tell the IRS)—“Jump around! Jump around, jump up and get down!” Pookie, who’s sprawled in the middle of the action, gives me the evil eye—it’s the middle of the night, for Christ’s sake! But I think he secretly enjoys it, and, besides, love it or leave it, eh tu, Pooké?

Next there’s a rap by a guy named Humpty who likes women with big butts. (By the way, when did the ass become so popular?) There’s a dance with this one, too, called the Humpty Hump, but I think I’ll humpty hump my derrière off to bed instead.

Love, Emelem

hi youse guys… ksjf87ffnvks*jlf.. what did she do, oil the wheels on this *@!&k% chair? first of all the pook-coup has already happened.. ive got her doin my biddin. I lift my eyebrow, wait do I even have eyebrows, never thought about it before. I twitch my whiskers and she scratches my back or gets me fresh tissue paper to lie on and thinks its her idea!!! im nuthin if not diabolical—eee-ah-hahaaaa!!!!!! have u noticed ive been practicin on the shift key, I almost have it mastered, just wait til I start typin in ALL CATS {oops, freudy-cat slip, oooh I crack myself up, teehee!}

No doubt! Pookie, butt out!

[Mary McKenney]

#2 in a series… the best of the mary’zine that never made it to print…

April 25, 2009

sodden thawts

Would it be weird to start a collection of blank books and never write in them? I’m close to doing this very thing, as I stare at my “cart” page on where I have taken the first step toward purchasing three small (6″ × 4.25″) blank books with gorgeous reproductions from Eduardo Paolozzi’s Moonstrips Empire News on the covers, in an attractive slipcase yet!, for $18.95 plus shipping. Could there be anything less justifiable in this time of 40% less nest egg and 50% fewer editing jobs? Yes, the heart wants what it wants, but how to know when it’s OK to let yourself go and throw good money after something completely inessential? I have bought some really interesting and beautiful art in my day, and seeing it on my walls along with my own crazy-cool paintings doesn’t seem gratuitous at all. But to buy and display a bound book that has no excuse for being, or at least no excuse that I plan to use…?

I love blank books, especially now that there is a plethora to the nth power of beautiful, bizarre and unique ones available. For some reason, I wouldn’t think it strange to collect crosses, or anything else that has aesthetic or mysteriously subjective value, but these books are meant to be written in. Yet their practicality is often beside the point of their design, the look and the feel of them, the glossy, colorful (or leather or marbled) cover, the ribbon or elastic place marker, the gridded or lined or virgin white paper, etc.

I used to write in a journal daily and voluminously—with coffee, it was by far the best part of my day. Inspired hugely by The New Diary by Tristine Rainer, I had no rules, no expectation of sharing or even reading it again, just riffing about everything and nothing, drawing, making lists, sticking in or taping notes written elsewhere or articles I cut out of the newspaper, exploring my feelings, writing FUCK FUCK FUCK over and over again for several pages if that’s what it took. My favorite journals back then had black hard covers with red corners and opened flat with roomy, lined pages and came straight from the People’s Republic of China via Modern Times bookstore in San Francisco, until the Chinese stopped producing them or at least stopped selling them to us.

Occasionally I have succumbed to buying a blank book that I just can’t resist and have written in it for a well-intentioned page or two and then abandoned it on the bedside table or under a pile of papers on my desk because I just don’t enjoy that way of writing anymore. Now I funnel all my stray thoughts into the ‘zine (lucky you) or at least into the multitude of potential story files that will never see the light of day unless I get really, really desperate for material. Here are a few cases in point:

•    How My Body’s Production of Oxytocin after Intimate Surgical Procedures Made Me Want to Surrender Myself Utterly to Two Different—Both Extremely Unappealing—Male Gyno Doctors

•    How a Teenage Girl Held Me Hostage by Using a Hidden Phone Jack in Her Room a Block Away That Was Inexplicably Hooked into My Phone Line, Making It Impossible for Me To Dial Up {shudder} the Internet When She Talked on the Phone All Night to Her Boyfriend

•    Snowing and Blowing: Episodes 237-251

•    Reading a Year Ago That Scientists Have Discovered the Secret of Stonehenge—It Was a Burial Ground, Duh—But People Act Like It’s Still a Big Mystery

•    All the Ambiguous, Urgent Sounds Created by Electrical and Electronic Devices in the Home (“Is that the doorbell, or is my laundry done? Do I have mail, or is an ambulance pulling into my driveway?”)

•    The Millennial Generation’s Contribution to the Language by Changing the Spelling of “The” to “Teh” Because It’s Just Too Much of a Hassle To Keep Correcting the Typo

•    And a Corollary: Captioning Cute Pix and Videos of Animals with a “New Language” Called Lolspeak That Far Surpasses English in Conveying katz (& other aminals) thawts (“Wutebber u do, doan mesz wid teh kitteh”)

•    How My Long Career of Reading About Some Pretty Creepy Diseases Did Not Prepare Me for the Term “Cancer Cell Nests”—picture interlocking spiders or writhing snakes. How did such a nice word become the go-to metaphor to describe disgusting things in tight groups? And how does that change one’s mental picture of “nest egg”? When it comes to cancer cells, I prefer an empty nest.

•    Writing a New Alphabet Book in Which the Letters Aren’t A, B, and C, but A-word, B-word, C-word, etc. My thesis is that it won’t be long before our entire language (if it doesn’t succumb to Lolspeak first) will consist of nothing but euphemisms such as the ubiquitous N-word, and anyone who says the real word for N-word will be summarily arrested even if she’s talking about the word and not the people, and answering the question “Have you ever said the N-word?” will be as self-incriminating as “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

•    Finding a Beefcake Calendar That Was Hung (so to speak) in the Stall of a Women’s Bathroom at Work and Creating a Storm of Controversy by Taking It Down as a Mild Protest Against Heterogemony (hey! I thought I just made that word up, but someone beat me to it: “Heterogemony: A term that defines the hegemonic nature of heterosexuality, which, as the basic assumption of the dominant sexual group, invisibilises alternatives” [wow, “invisibilises”—I wonder how a kitteh would say that])

•    Radio DJs Talking About a Webcast They’re Watching on a Computer and Taking Calls from Listeners Who Are Also Watching and Who Are Writing Comments on the Website, and What They Are Watching Is a Guy Sleeping (so 99% of the comments are “When is he going to wake up?”), So I—Sheep, Lemming, Pick Your Metaphor—Go to the Website and Watch the Guy Sleeping, Too—Oh Wait, He Just Woke Up and Is Talking on the Phone with a Reporter About His Webcam! Ain’t This Internet Thing Grand?

I once read an article by someone who wondered why literate people—your writers, your editors—often use all lowercase letters, irregular punctuation and bizarre wordplay in their e-mails. It’s because we love playing around with words! also Punctuation?! and cAps. A very literate friend of mine and I like to chat by e-mail about certain TV shows (“Damages,” “The Shield”)—questioning each other about confusing storylines and making up idiosyncratic descriptions of the characters, such as NEM (Name Escapes Me) or BeardedGlassesGuy, FBIguy, BitchLawyer or, say, Sheriff Bullock or Ted Danson. What this tells you, obviously, besides our joy in neologizing, is that we keep forgetting minor details like major plot points. And both of us being d’un certain age, we’re this close to losing our minds anyway.

I would love to write an issue of the ‘zine half in my version of Lolspeak (“Isch schnowin agin!”) and half completely off-the-cuff/off-the-wall abbreviations and made-up words, fanciful stream-of-consciousness, full steam ahead, don’t give a damn if anyone can follow it—and, oh yeah, it all rhymes, at least intermittently. But no one would be able to decipher it and wouldn’t enjoy it if they could (like absinthe, these things are better taken in small doses). I’ve already had complaints about my few attempted raps. Maybe it’s time to make up my own damlanguage. I mean, if JimJoyce could do it….

[Interesting side note: On Merriam-Webster Online, the first definition of “neologism” is “a new word, usage, or expression”; the second is “a meaningless word coined by a psychotic.” I’m not sure how to take that. Et tu, Merriam-Webster?]

I once read a book called Anguish Languish (I just googled it, and the first result was the complete text!) published in 1956 and read on “The Arthur Godfrey Show” (“Hawaii, Hawaii” [“How are ya, how are ya”])—you kidz have sure missed a lot of great entertainment by being born so late. Anyway, the author, Howard S. Chace, wrote this book in which he took fairy tales and folk songs and substituted words that sound like the real words. “Anguish Languish” is, of course, “English Language.” Here are some lyrics to a song called “Hormone Derange.”

Harm, hormone derange,
Warder dare enter envelopes ply,
Ware soiled’em assured adage cur-itching ward
An disguise earn it clotty oil die.

I once spent a good 15 minutes raving about this fun book and reading humorous passages from it to someone I thought was a fellow language lover, and she just stared at me as if to say, “How do I get away from this person without alerting her to my utter disdain and confusion regarding this retarded book and her bizarre interest in it?”

That’s it for laffs. Here’s a more serious (though equally improbable) topic from the story files:

•    Compiling a Poetry Anthology That Would Constitute a Cryptic Autobiography of Yours Truly. Here Are Two Examples from Louise Glück.

Age 7:

Long ago, I was wounded. I lived
to revenge myself
against my father, not
for what he was—
for what I was: from the beginning of time,
in childhood, I thought
that pain meant
I was not loved.
It meant I loved.

Age 10:

I’m tense, like a child approaching adolescence.
Soon it will be decided for certain what you are,
one thing, a boy or girl. Not both any longer.
And the child thinks: I want to have a say in what happens.
But the child has no say whatsoever.

I still haven’t decided whether to order the beautiful blank books. But you’ve helped me take my mind off it for a while. Kthx.

mary’zine random redux: #15 June 2001

April 5, 2009

(the underground sensation that’s waiting to happen… and waiting… and waiting…)

Saturday, May 12, 2001

I have the afternoon unexpectedly free, because I finished editing the latest Manual of Clinical Laboratory Immunology chapters, and more work isn’t due to arrive until Monday or Tuesday. This sort of lull always feels like a double-edged sword (if a lull can be compared to a sword, and I’m pretty sure it can’t), because there’s always that guilty voice in my head that says, You shouldn’t be lying in bed reading—or sitting at the computer typing—you should be sorting out the clothes you’ll never wear again (all those Levi’s with the shrunken waists) or dusting around the daddy longlegs that has taken over the bottom shelf of the bookcase (I’m the first person to actually live on a web site, ha ha). But for now, anyway, I’m going to ignore that voice. That’s one of the perks of living alone, or I should say, living with an animal companion who gives even less of a damn about housekeeping than I do.

I just got home from my little foray into the world. Usually, I try to avoid the world on Saturdays, because that’s when everyone else is in it, doing the chores that I could theoretically do any day of the week. It’s always a nightmare trying to find a parking place in Montecito shopping center on Saturday, but I manage to snag one next to an SUV that’s taking up two “compact” spaces. Why is it that you read annoyed letters to the editor in the paper every day about how much everyone hates SUVs, but whenever you leave the house, they’re everywhere? It doesn’t seem like there are enough people left to hate them. At some point, the regular car drivers are going to feel like manual typewriter enthusiasts complaining about those newfangled computin’ machines, and no one will care—not that they do now. To quote an SUV buyer who was informed of how much damage those things can do to a regular car in a collision: “All that matters is that my family is safe.

What I want to know is: Why is everyone so goddamn self-absorbed? Why do we insist on pulling around the wagons (or the light trucks) and seeing everyone else as the enemy? Why is the basic construction of social reality “us versus them”? “Us” can be a country, a political party, a state, a city, a school, a neighborhood, a block, a family. The square root of “us,” of course, is “me.” Me and mine. Screw you and yours. Does this antagonism toward “the other” stem from a childhood of choosing sides for Red Rover? Or is it our “selfish genes”? Are we trying to survive as the fittest by constantly walling ourselves off and defining ourselves as different from everybody else? It’s as if we’re all aliens with—instead of exoskeletons—exo-immune systems, wearing our star wars defenses on our sleeves as we go around attacking one “nonself” after another.

I include myself in this, never fear. There are the rare feelin’-groovy days when I can leave the house and more or less float on a cloud of good will and compassion. On those days, it feels like it’s my karmic duty—even my pleasure—to be courteous to other drivers, patient in long lines, solicitous of harried store clerks. Some days, I’m on the borderline, don’t know which way I’ll fall in a crunch. That’s when a friendly clerk or a bitchy fellow customer can make or ruin my day.

In the last issue of the ‘zine, I wrote about how we stereotype other cultural and racial groups. When someone makes a bad move in traffic, we check out the driver and think, uh huh, Asian. If someone’s driving too slow—uh huh, Hispanic. But when it’s someone of your own general complexion and geographic origin, you have to find something else to pin on them—uh huh, SUV, talking on a cell phone. Like this one—pulls ahead of me into the parking lot when no way is it her turn… then sits there blocking my progress to wait for someone else to pull out who hasn’t even gotten in their car yet, when she could have kept going and found another spot farther away from the store and would it have killed her to walk the extra 10 yards?? In our cars, we dehumanize one another on a regular basis—idiot! asshole! Maybe the true pollution of the planet is coming not from our exhaust pipes but from our toxic thoughts.

So at the ATM, I deposit the $15 “tax break” I received from the DMV. How stupid is government (or Republicans), that they’d rather give a dime to every man, woman, and child than fund schools, libraries, and fire departments??

Excuse me, I seem to have stumbled into the Department of Curmudgeonly Rants.

After making the deposit, which will swell my bank account hardly at all even as it bankrupts California’s, I go next door to Silver Screen Video to rent the first few episodes of “The Sopranos”—I have finally broken down and decided to see what all the fuss is about. [Thumbs way, way up!]

Then I drive down to Woodlands Market in Kentfield, which is an absurdly long way to go, but they have the best gourmet deli in Marin, and I’m addicted to their pan-fried filet of sole, chicken tacos, quesadillas, and even (gasp!) roasted vegetables. The problem is, I never know when they’re going to have my favorites, so I’m trekking over there every few days. I justify the extra mileage by reminding myself that at least I don’t drive an SUV. (Apologies to my dear readers who may be thusly vehicularly endowed; if it’s any consolation, I shall soon turn my attention to a group you probably have issues with, too.)

(As I was typing that last sentence, I saw a little bitty object floating by—the smallest spider I have ever seen. I grabbed the thread it was presumably hanging from—surely it wasn’t doing the Australian crawl in mid air—and started pulling it back in the other direction so it would drop to the floor and not into my keyboard. It fought me, flailing its little legs to keep going in it original direction, as if it had an important appointment on the other side of my desk. But I proved to be the victor in this little struggle between Woman and Nature. I flicked my fingers a few times to get the spider to drop, and now it’s probably crossing the desert of the plastic mat my desk chair sits on, cursing [in tiny spidery nonverbal epithets] the surface roads and me—that huge invisible [i.e., too big to comprehend] force that pulled it off its path. Of course, when this sort of thing happens, you can’t help but make it into a metaphor for your own out-of-control life and wonder what giant being is sitting at its cosmic computer typing the latest issue of the cosmo’zine when you float by, hanging by your own tenuous thread, thinking you know exactly where you’re going until you are plucked out of thin air and made to start over on much rougher terrain. Can you?)

In my high school, the reigning “pet peeve” was “people who think they’re better than other people.” I used to make fun of this cliché—I thought I was better than people who spoke in clichés—but I’ve come to believe that this is the universal complaint. Arrogant America hates arrogant China. Arrogant men hate uppity (arrogant for women) women. Arrogant bike riders hate arrogant car drivers who hate arrogant pedestrians. We are not our mode of transportation, as closely as we may identify with it at times—I mean, SUV drivers, if you prick them do they not bleed? But we all seem to be convinced on some deep molecular level that other people are the problem, when in fact the problem is us, and we are all, all of us, us. The next time you’re cursing the traffic, think about who you are at that moment—traffic. And sure, work toward alternative modes of transportation and all that, but how about addressing a root cause or two, such as our bloody insistence on separating self from nonself when there is no earthly reason to do so. Cooperation would get us across town more quickly and more pleasantly, but that doesn’t seem to occur to anyone. (Oh, how I exaggerate. There are plenty of mensches out there on the road, and whenever I encounter one of them, my gratitude is boundless.)

Being as self-centered as the next person, I hate all other operators of transportation—maybe especially the arrogant bike riders—who hate me for driving anything with a combustion engine, no points for fuel efficiency or, for that matter, physical limitations that make it impossible for some people—your aged, your infirm—to peddle to and fro morally superiorly. I barely notice the thoughtful, careful bicyclists, because I’m fixated on the ones who shoot through stop signs and force cars going in their direction to cross over the center line and risk head-on collisions so as not to run them over. And the thanks we (car people) get for not wanting to crush them under our wheels is to be excoriated as selfish road hogs and polluters, as if everyone who’s not 25 and physically fit and a vision in spandex and God forbid has to carry a passenger or several bags of groceries should just die now and leave the spoked-persons to live out their joyful green existences until they too turn 40 or 50 and have to start riding sitting down with the help of four wheels and a seat cushion and then we’ll see…. I find that one of the consolations of aging is that you get to see what’s in store for the young whippersnappers who think they invented youth (when everyone knows it was invented in the late ‘60s).

So Woodlands Market is overflowing with people—I really should have known better. And of course in my current frame of mind, I notice every inconsiderate shopper who leaves her cart sitting in the middle of the aisle or—worse—pushes the cart into the store and stops just inside the door to gape around at all the motion and color or to root in her handbag for her glasses or shopping list, then shuffle forward just as I’m trying to go around her. Naturally, I don’t see myself and my cart as a hindrance.

Well, the only item the deli has today that I want any part of is the flank steak quesadilla, so I manage to swim upstream far enough to get my number called and get waited on and then gratefully leave the main tributary for one of the smaller streams that will take me to the less-populated produce department where I can pick up my obligatory broccoli and bananas and gaze longingly at the raspberries, which are still $3.99 for a package of about 10.

I check my shopping list, pick up the Sunday Chronicle, and, right on cue, start hearing the siren call of the Mountain of Baked Goods over on the other side of the store. My cart weaves its way through the crowds, suddenly as agile and single-minded as a horse heading for the barn, and I spot some individually wrapped cookies and actually pick up and hold in my hand a huge, fat peanut butter cookie, squeezing it just enough to see that it’s soft the way I like them…. I will hate myself if I don’t buy it, but I’ll hate myself more if I do, so I heroically put it down and get in the checkout line like the martyr that I am. It would be nice to think that my act of self-sacrifice will really make a difference, i.e., produce weight loss, but nooooooo… the only thinness in my future is the thin moral victory of occasionally taking the high road and leaving behind the peanut butter or chocolate chip cookie, only to succumb to the key lime tart at the next stop. As I leave the store, I wonder, How can I believe in a God who created a world in which fat and sugar are both ubiquitous and off-limits? It’s the Adam and Eve story all over again—He puts temptation in your face and then punishes you for succumbing to it. “You call this Paradise??,” I cry in frustration. (If I’m struck by lightning before the next issue comes out, you’ll know I went too far with my religious humor.)

Last stop, the post office to mail some invoices, a birthday card to my sister, and the last of the ‘zines. Arriving home, I look forward to a lazy afternoon napping followed by an evening watching “The Sopranos.” The red light on my answering machine is blinking, and I push the button, wondering why leaving the house seems to create a force field that attracts incoming phone calls. The message is from someone I don’t know who has found my ATM card in the machine next to Silver Screen Video. Needless to say, she didn’t have to interrupt her own busy day to look my name up in the phone book and call me, much less offer to meet me somewhere to hand the card over in person. When I call her back, she’s on a cell phone, no doubt cruising the area parking lots in her SUV, annoying everyone in her path. Maybe she already annoyed me an hour or so ago as I was leaving the shopping center unknowingly sans my ATM card, railing against her choice of transportation and her total arrogance and disrespect, never dreaming she would turn out to be such a decent person.

Opposite of the Life Force

Recently, I spent 5 days painting the Opposite of the Life Force. It’s amazing, the things you learn while painting intuitively for long periods.

For example, Death, contrary to popular opinion, is not the Opposite of the Life Force. The Opposite of the Life Force, at least in my world, at least for those 5 days, is or was a kind of sucking, dragging force that operates from within—like a parasite that attaches to a host and sucks it dry. It’s closer to what we call depression, which is an involuntary refusal to face up to Life and its demands.

Day 1: I have not been looking forward to this painting intensive, because I’ve been depressed, probably as a result of barricading myself (figuratively) in my condo for the last 6 months, leaving the house only to do battle with my fellow drivers on the way to the supermarket, where I fight a different kind of battle (in which the word “bulge” figures prominently). In the morning session I feel temporarily liberated, as if indifference to product can be equated with freedom, but that pseudo-confidence quickly breaks down. I spend the afternoon struggling, “trying to surrender” (an oxymoronic phrase if I’ve ever heard one). In the group sharing at the end of the day, I call it Mind Participation Day because I spent the whole day trying to keep up with or stay ahead of or stay on top of or in some other way be in control of the creative process. Barbara talks about “contraction,” and I feel the word echoing in all my dry and clenched parts. My whole life feels contracted lately, as I retreat into greater and greater isolation. And my body conveniently carries out the theme, with a sensation in my upper abdomen that’s like a fist, or a glacier—an example of my lifelong tendency to curl various parts of myself up into a tight, defensive knot.

Day 2: It seems like a good sign that I get weepy in the shower. Maybe my inner glacier is starting to melt. I arrive at the studio sodden with tears and tell Barbara half- (or maybe 10%) seriously that if I could kill myself but make people think it was an accident, I’d do it. Barbara shoots glances at me during the sharing, and I finally say a few words that I can’t remember now. The words aren’t important, anyway; what’s important is that I’m starting to shake and crack. My carefully constructed façade—“I am a rock, I am an island”—is falling apart. No one has yet been able to satisfactorily explain how standing in front of a sheet of paper all day, painting whatever wants to come out, reflects so faithfully what’s going on inside. But it does. The mind may run along behind, like a dog trying to catch a car, but the creative process goes from zero to sixty in nothing flat, and it’s good-bye to your carefully calculated avoidance.

I paint myself embraced by—or crushed between, is that the same thing?—my dead parents, the three of us bound together by golden ropes. Then I paint some of the other people I’ve known who have died—Grandma and Grandpa Larsen; Aunt Doris and Uncle Sonny; my baby brother Mike; Francis the drowned 10-year-old friend; adult friends Jo, Sue, and Dot—and finally I paint the anonymous dead. It’s soothing, believe it or not. (I’m taking a chance by writing about this for people who don’t paint, because it’s bound to sound weird. But it’s liberating to paint taboo or scary images. It’s as if exaggerating the fear collapses it, revealing the lie it’s based on.)

It feels good to cry while I paint, but at lunchtime I just want out of there, so I get in my car and start driving. It’s Bay to Breakers race day, and the city is inundated with people in tiny shorts carrying water bottles. It’s a beautiful, sunny, windy, foggy-over-the-Gate day, and I have the sun roof open and “The Sopranos” soundtrack on tape. I’m blasting The Lost Boys, Elvis Costello, The Stones, Bob Dylan, the Pretenders, Van Morrison, and the Eurythmics—like a real California girl, driving down the road with the wind in my hair and a song on my lips. Before I know it, I’m over the bridge into Marin. I have lunch at a food court in a shopping center, of all places—it’s surreal to walk among the Sunday shoppers in the 90° heat, as if I’ve been beamed to another planet. I’m close to San Rafael, so afterward I go home and take a nap. My 2-hour lunch has turned into 3, but somehow it’s what I needed—to touch base with the familiar. As I drive back to S.F. across the windy bridge, I hold tight to the steering wheel. It’s not so much that I want to live after all as that I don’t want Barbara to think I deliberately crashed if God does decide to take me in a head-on collision.

In the sharing at the end of the day, everyone is giddy with nonlinear thought, having abandoned the left side of the brain for 2 days in favor of this other, nonverbal language. What people are saying would sound strange to a nonpainter—“I tried to paint the flesh first but I had to paint the bone and put the flesh on after! And it turned out exactly the same!”—but everyone is nodding knowingly. It’s like discovering that words float on the surface of an ocean we’re usually not aware of. It’s only the second day and we’re already submerged deep in that ocean, waving to each other as we glide by, pointing and gesturing with words that work better on dry land but that carry our meaning nonetheless.

As always happens in a painting intensive, I connect with my old friends and discover one or two people I’ve never really noticed before. In the sharing, an Israeli woman talks about feeling “unsafe.” Later, I ask her what she meant, and she tells me about being born in Israel right after the Holocaust and feeling unsafe in the world as a Jew. Because I’m blasted wide open at that point (painting = an explosive force for good), I find myself responding from my heart, without my usual self-censorship.

I say, “I think this is the perfect place to be Jewish.” (My mind looks on in amazement: What are you talking about?)

Then I say, “I’ve always felt deeply connected to Jewish people.” (Oh Lordy, what a lame thing to say.)

But my words seem to touch her, and we hug and beam at each other. It’s a mystery and a gift how these sudden, inexplicable connections happen after a few days of painting. There we are, standing literally with our backs to each other all day, and yet when we come face to face afterward, it’s as if we’re looking into our own eyes.

The sky was dark with chickens coming home to roost.
—Line from some old movie

Day 3: I’m tired, wrung out. Trying not to pop an Excedrin for the energy boost. (Barbara has asked us to consider our unspoken beliefs, and I realize I believe that I can only get energy from caffeine.) It’s that horrible feeling of no escape. Barbara works with me to see how I can get my own energy going on the painting. She asks how I feel in my body, and I say it’s like a force dragging me down. I call it the Opposite of the Life Force. This sparks something in me, so I start painting the Opposite of the Life Force as a monstrous-looking, multicolored creature. My interest and energy level pick up immediately, but after I paint for a bit, I start to feel physically tortured, as if the Opposite of the Life Force (OLF) and the Life Force (LF) are using my body as a battleground. I can’t sit still, can’t stand still, my back hurts, I go outside, can’t stay there, lie on the couch, can’t lie there. I feel like I’m being mangled and battered and beat up. I tell Barbara this, and she says, in all seriousness, “That’s exactly what’s happening to you.”

If there are states of Grace in painting, when painting is sheer bliss, there are also states of Torture—which may be the same thing in the end. The only thing that keeps me going, besides the fact that there’s no rescue anywhere, no fucking Choice, is that I know it means “something is happening”—the iceberg is melting and the contraction is painfully releasing, at least on some level. It’s like some sort of visceral fight for life, the natural desire of the mind-body-being to live. I spend 2 or 3 hours in this physical torment, and there’s no relief even after I finish the painting. When there’s only about 10 minutes left in the session, Barbara works with me on how to start a new painting. We talk about various possibilities, and finally she asks how the OLF sucks the LF out of people. It takes me a minute to come up with the obvious: sucking tubes that attach to all the tender places.  So I start a new painting with another big OLF creature with all these tubes attaching to my body, and—I swear—I immediately become completely calm and quiet inside… it’s that dramatic. And a good thing, too, because it’s almost time for my friends Liz and Eric, who are visiting from Oklahoma, to come by and take me to dinner. I’m exhausted from the day’s battle, but instead of wanting to rush home and hide, or sleep, I look forward to seeing them.

the world—bring it on

It can feel strange to go out into the world after painting all day, especially in the company of nonpainters, but this time it’s exhilarating. We end up at Goat Hill Pizza on Potrero Hill, where’s it’s all-you-can-eat night, so it’s filled with pizza lovers partying like it’s 1999. We eat salad and pizza and drink wine and catch up on our news. I feel great, and I can’t explain why. I tell my friends about the OLF, and instead of my usual feeling that I have to portion myself out to suit the sensibilities of whichever “type” of friend I’m with, I realize I can be myself in all my complexities and contradictions, like an actor with a meaty, complex role instead of a walk-on part. What a gift.

Day 4: Now we come to the more challenging part of my story, because you’d expect me to be in painting bliss for the next two days, after my “breakthrough.” But I revert to depressed mode. I have a slight hangover and didn’t get enough sleep, still want the temporary boost from caffeine, and don’t feel up to another day of fighting the OLF. The thing about painting is that, though there can be periods of deep peace, you can’t know ahead of time which way it’s going to go. So there’s no choice but to keep painting and deal with whatever the moment brings. (Barbara has pointed out that, when we say we want to live “in the moment,” we usually have an image of “the moment” being all peaceful and serene—when actually, “the moment” is constantly changing.)

On my new painting, I enjoy creating gruesome combinations of colors—smears of blue, black, yellow, and red. Strangely, the uglier I try to make the OLFs, the more colorful, cheerful, and lively they look, as if they’re being transformed into their “opposite” as I paint them—the Opposite of the Opposite of the Life Force. Eventually, I notice that I no longer know what these creatures are about—they still have sucking tubes coming out of their bodies, but they also have crosses on their foreheads, and the image I’ve painted of myself getting devoured by them looks quite peaceful. It’s such a relief when you say good-bye to the duality of the thought process—all those either/or’s. Painting—to return to the ocean metaphor—is like submerging in deep waters, leaving behind the panicked, bobbing lifeboat of our surface lives. Such drama up there on the surface!—thinking we know what Life is all about—or that we’re supposed to.

At the end of the day, John Irwin, our beloved physicist friend, comes to talk to the group about life and the universe from a different point of view. As he tells us about cell division and the Big Bang and the “100,000 Club,” his words wash over me. More than the scientific facts, what I’m receiving is his deep love of studying the physical universe. I marvel at how we all have something inside that drives us to greater depths—none of us lives on the surface, not really—regardless of how different it may look from what drives other people.

Day 5: Painting is easy, but I get caught in looking for a result—not the result of a beautiful painting, which is what I used to want, but the result of having my physical symptom subside. It’s tempting to think of painting as a panacea, a switch I can turn on to eliminate whatever problem I’m having. In the afternoon, Barbara and I discover that I’m avoiding painting anything on the “peaceful me” that’s being “peacefully” devoured by the suddenly “peaceful” OLF. So I paint two black wedge shapes on the body at waist level (where I feel the pressure in my actual body), and I immediately know that Death is standing behind me with its “wings” gripping me from behind. So I paint the hooded, skull-faced Death figure, and I realize that death is not the opposite of the life force, that Death and Life are just doing a dance—they’re the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of the Universe (Life does everything Death does, but backwards and in high heels). But my stomach symptom is bothering me more and more. I’m disturbed that all my breakthroughs in the painting haven’t affected my somatic reality (at least not for the better), and so I climb on my “vicious cycle” and pedal back down the path of hopelessness.

Again, writing for nonpainters, it’s hard not to feel like painting’s earthly representative, its priestess or pope, as if it’s my job to hand down the received wisdom from on high. If I were writing a propaganda tract to convince you to try it, I probably wouldn’t include such information as “I was just as depressed at the end of the 5 days as I was at the beginning.” This is one of the many mysteries of the creative process. You don’t put your quarter in the slot and punch the button beneath the treat you’ve decided you want. Like God, painting works in mysterious ways. Like prayer, it’s a surrender to a higher will, not a wish list you mail to Santa. What it does is to get something moving, and it may be weeks or months before you get a clue as to what was really going on.

In the final sharing, the woman from Israel who had felt “unsafe” earlier in the week talks about how strongly she had felt while painting that she was “stopping the war” with each stroke of the brush. (“Making a cup of green tea, I stop the war.”) She feels that by doing this deep inner work we are “in service of something”—though it seems impossible to name what that “something” is—a thought I’ve had before, too. As Krishnamurti said, “You are the world and the world is you…. You do not have similar consciousnesses, you have the same consciousness.” Though the mind has its place—like seeing how I project my own bad thoughts onto other drivers and shoppers and people in general—this knowledge has to be felt deep in consciousness, at some core level of being where there is only you (=the world), no escape, no choice but to respond honestly and fully. The reward is a deep feeling of connection with all of life. This is what I trust about painting and about the wonderful community of souls with whom I share it.

pookie sleeps around

It’s a mystery how cats decide where their favorite “spot” is and an even greater mystery why it changes from day to day or week to week. Pookie has a perfectly good bed; in fact, he has the mezzanine suite (upstairs hallway). His sheepskin bed is tucked in the corner by the water heater closet, and across from that are a large piece of cardboard and a couple of wine corks for his batting pleasure. The cat dancer dangles invitingly from the stair railing, but he ignores it unless the human motivator (yours truly) gets it bopping up and down and bumping against his back and swinging just out of reach of his paws. This is not a cat with a whole lot of get-up-and-go. (As my father would say, his get-up-and-go just got up and went.) Despite this perfectly comfy arrangement, he adopts various other sleeping spots, which I suppose, for one who sleeps 23 hours out of every day, is appropriate—[Note to self: Explore metaphor of Eskimos having lots of different words for snow—oops, someone’s at the door]—

ha who is she kiddin theres no one at the door and if there was she wouldnt answer it. shes as bad as howard hughes for gods sake. shes probably down in the kitchen trollin for snacks which believe me in this household are few and far between at least the ones that are any good. she hoards that tuna flavored laxative like it was gold. in case you havent guessed this is pookie god help me with such a name. it wasnt easy gettin up on this blasted chair its got wheels and its hard for me to balance   ohhnooooo… 23erghmffffbb blxxxxzz,,, sorry about that i almost took a tumble. ok ive got a lot to say and not much time so listen up. i am not the weird one in this family believe me. the stories i could tell… shes a wild one when no one is watchin no one except me of course not that i count for beans around here. youll have to fill in the exclamation points which believe me this paragraph is full of at least in my head but i cant seem to work the bloody shift key. oh oh here she comes xxzgaluuffffmmb…

Well, there was no one at the door after all, sorry about that [munch, slurp]. Now where was I? Well, one of his favorite afternoon sleeping spots is under a stepstool in the bedroom. I thoughtfully keep it draped with my clean laundry so he has the illusion of privacy, at least that’s my excuse for never putting my laundry away, ha ha! He thinks he’s hiding but doesn’t realize that his big furry rear is sticking out the side. Sometimes I’ll be looking distractedly in that direction and realize there are two big green eyes looking back at me from between the sleeves of the draped t-shirts. As soon as we make eye contact, he comes lumbering out, creaking like an old man, sometimes one leg buckling slightly under his considerable weight. [Hold that thought, I think I hear the mailman…]

hi its me again geez any excuse to go down to the kitchen eh// considerable weight can you believe that111111111111 big furry rear1111 you should see her in the bathroom in the mornin now theres a sight111. i mean if there was ever a case of the pot callin the kettle black … o shit njxkmv,bn/mbbf//,,,,

That’s funny, I could have sworn I heard the mailman [gulp, crunch]. Let’s see. Oh yeah, lately he’s adopted the cramped space between the dresser and the nightstand, where he lies on a bed of Kleenex (never mind how it got there), crammed in between the books strewn under the nightstand and the crowbar I keep for earthquake- and intruder-related emergencies. He has to climb over the duffel bag I still have packed from Y2K to get in and out of there… weird… [Now that’s got to be the mailman…]

who the heck is she kiddin///// what could she be findin to eat down there///// nkkkco886hfjfl;lsamd;;;/

Ah, that’s better. I feel quite refreshed after walking up and down the stairs a few times. Hmmm, how come my chair is moved every time I come back here? And what are those cat litter crumbs doing—POOKIE!!!!! OK, just for that, I’m going to dish some real dirt. You think the name Pookie is undignified? Well, how about I tell the nice folks what your previous humans called you, the ones who abused you. SQUEAKY. There, how do you like that? And furthermore, I’m done telling cute stories about you, you ungrateful little… hey!—NO FAIR—don’t you dare cough up hairballs at me! why I oughta… Get over here!!

i will not use the computer without permission
i will not use the computer without permission
i will not use the computer without permission
i will not use the computer without permission
i will not use the computer without permission


[Mary McKenney]

#1 in a series… the best of the mary’zine that never made it to print…

March 9, 2009

Scorpio [horoscope for Sunday, February 8, 2004]:
Listen a minute, Scorp. Your appliances, your furniture, the walls of your home are crying out. “Fix me! Fix me!” It’s pathetic! How much longer can you ignore their cry? The message is loud and clear: It isn’t enough to just capture the castle. You have to maintain it.

Anyone who has entered my home knows that my credo is: “I believe that housekeeping is an art.” To that end, I have constructed a Housekeeping as Art Installation Project in my condo that I call “I Was Just About To….” This installation was originally meant to be fluid and ever-changing—responsive to the vicissitudes of life—but it tends to stay pretty much the same, gathering dust (literally and figuratively), which I believe only adds to the authenticity of my artistic vision. In the sense that housekeeping can be seen as “keeping the house pretty much as it is,” I offer the following Installation Art ideas as the perfect hom[e]age to the house and to me, its estranged -wife.

Visitors, art patrons, and utility men (your PG&E, your SBC, your Comcast), should they be allowed to pass through the portal into my home-slash-gallery, are greeted by the sight of a modern-day vacuum cleaner, with all of its accoutrements, in the dead center of the living room. This is a bold statement that references the sheer futility of modern civilization’s obsession with cleanliness and the elimination of pathogens. “I Was Just About To Vacuum” is at once a comment on the good intentions of the Artist and the never-ending work of “keeping house” (as if it’s going to get up and leave if you don’t watch it every minute), especially since one of the Artist’s companions is a big old hairy cat. As part of the “Vacuum” project, tufts of Pookie’s hair are artfully placed (by him) in widespread patterns covering large portions of the once-tasteful, once-light-gray carpet, like a Buddhist monk’s mandala painstakingly created in colored sand—with the difference being that the cat-mandala is not destroyed immediately after completion. Supplementing the cat-hair arrangements are individual Kleenexes covering stains also produced by Pookie’s inner (and I do mean inner) process, some wrapped tightly in hair, others the raw materials of creativity, intestinal division.

Off to the side of “I Was Just About To Vacuum the Floor” [alternatively titled, “I Was Just About to Shave the Cat”] is an auxiliary installation called “I Was Just About To Do the Laundry.” It will come as no surprise that this project consists of two or more piles of dirty clothes, artfully divided into light and dark (symbolizing, of course, the duality of the material world), with a squirt bottle of “Shout!” standing at the ready. “Shout!,” of course, provides a fascinating subtext that can be analyzed on many different levels. This is an interactive exhibit, and the visitor, or patron, if she or he chooses, may apply “Shout!” to the many paint stains that are randomly distributed on the clothing worn to a recent—OK, not so recent—painting intensive.

Until the visitor, or patron, ascends to the second floor of this three-dimensional art installation, she or he does not realize that an ironic echo of the “I Was Just About To Do the Laundry” exhibit takes up a small corner of the Artist’s bedroom with “I Was Just About To Put Away Last Week’s Clean Laundry.” This of course illustrates the Cycle of Life, and any puns on “wash cycle” are heartily encouraged.

But before we go there, need I mention that the kitchen environment is rife with witty exhibits? “I Was Just About To Do the Dishes”? “I Was Just About To Empty the Dishwasher”? What’s slightly different about this display space is that it has the most “behind closed doors” exhibits, meant to be ferreted out and discovered anew by each visitor, or patron: Surely you can recite along with me: “I Was Just About To Clean the Refrigerator,” “…Take Out the Garbage,” “…Replace the Broken Light Bulb Over the Stove,” and so on and so forth.

There is a surprise in the small downstairs bathroom, where the visitor, or patron, is greeted by the striking juxtaposition of two rubber gloves with their “hands” in the sink, one of them gripping a heavy-duty sponge. An ambiguous shrine to indoor plumbing, it was the Artist’s intention that it subtly conjure the Ghost of Housekeeping Future. “I Was Just About To Clean the Bathroom” is as straightforward as it is witty. Again, interactive play in the form of putting on the gloves and scrubbing a bit of bathroom sink is highly encouraged.

I hesitate to catalog the contents of the downstairs “junk” room, because I haven’t got all day, but here’s a start: bags upon bags of cardboard for recycling [toilet rolls, Kleenex boxes], whole cardboard packing boxes [“I Was Just About To Cut Up the Boxes into Neat Flat Pieces”], bottles and cans, brown paper bags, junk white paper (“white trash”), shredded bills, newspapers, and the multi-sensory (sight, smell, crunch [litter bits popping under one’s feet]) installation of “I Was Just About To Clean the Cat Box.” In the corner, amid the bottles of Earthquake Disaster Water and Extra Rolls of Toilet Paper and Duct Tape is a small, poignant display, almost an afterthought, of an old red-handled hand saw (contributed by P. DuPont a là Her Ancestors on Her Mother’s Side) with two tattered gardening gloves gripping its rusty teeth in a silent indictment of my neglect of Patio Nature entitled “I Was Just About To Prune the Oleander.”

I forgot to mention that in the midst of the major installation currently being promoted are layers of previous installations, which are equally dusty though slightly less transparent in meaning: the life-size plastic skeleton wearing a University of Michigan baseball cap, seated behind a semicircular desk adorned with books, metal sculptures, D. Hullet original creations (a cloth beaded and milagro-festooned snake, a glittery star), and front display shelves with… geez, I’m getting tired of this inventory, let’s just call it: “I Was Just About To Tell You Everything I Have in the Skeleton Behind the Desk Installation and the Walls and the Bookcases and the Antique Chest and the Dining Room Table….” Let me just say that Ms. U.M. Skeleton is holding a large teddy bear with “Holiday Greetings” and “From Michigan” spelled out in glittery letters on the bottom of its feet. Can you top that, dear reader? I thought not.

The final installation, “I Was Just About To Take You on a Tour of the Upstairs But I Am Daunted by the Art-as-Function and Vice-Versa Layers of Work and Music and Play and Gifts and Criss-Crossing Strings of Paper-Lanterned Christmas Lights (a là K. Luna) and Bracelets Hanging from S Hooks (a là Ms. Luna and Sister B),” ends here, I’m afraid, where I sit amidst the rollicking decorative chaos that is my office, with the computer keyboard on my lap, ignoring Pookie’s attempts to get my attention from the shelf under my desk by sticking his head out and making his eyes big as saucers, and contemplating my next project, “I Was Just About To Get Back to Work.”

Prices are highly negotiable.

[Mary McKenney]


No, this isn’t Pookie… or is it??

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