Posts Tagged ‘cat’

mary’zine #75: December 2015

December 27, 2015


Long time, no me.

I don’t write, I don’t call….

My writing energy has been going to the Painting Studio at (Center for Creative Exploration).




… and what a coinkidink, I’m going to write about painting here, too, along with some other stuff. And I’ll explain what “Mary Unmuted” means.


As I look back over the last few weeks, I think, “What a shitty month this has turned out to be.”


On Dec. 3, my 10-year-old cat Luther died.

Next day I got work, which is usually a good thing, but it meant I had to miss the first 2 days of the December painting intensive.

There were a few bright moments, even some profound moments, during the intensive, but at the same time…

I was having to be on the phone every day trying to save my health reimbursement account and my flood insurance, which is required to keep my mortgage. At least I had an agent to clear up the flood premium snafu, but for the other one I had no advocate. I called and e-mailed multiple people in three institutions: my former employer, an insurance exchange, and my health insurance plan. I was lied to, given wrong information, waited in vain for people to call me back, was called unnecessarily to tell me someone would call me later.

If it weren’t for misinformation and disinformation, I wouldn’t have any information at all.


The result of all this effort was that I lost funding for my account for 2016: $3,000 gone poof. And there is no appeal.


So now, I’m feeling depressed—it’s not S.A.D. or Xmas, it’s just the confluence of losing my kitty and a lot of money in the same time period. I feel like I should have a better attitude, be positive. Instead, I feel heavy, pulled down by emotional gravity. Plus, I worry about Luther’s brother Brutus. Either he’s depressed over losing Luther, too, or I’m projecting. It wouldn’t be the first time.


But… onward and upward!





For the first time ever, I did not attend the December 7-day painting intensive in San Francisco—at least, not physically. Until astral projection becomes a reliable form of transportation, I have to rely on a web conferencing service called Zoom. It’s similar to Skype. Anyone who can’t get to the studio for a class or workshop can “Zoom in” and paint at home while being able to interact with Barbara (our teacher) and the painters who are there. I did the May intensive that way and have been taking 2 classes a week all summer and fall. It’s a great privilege to be able to do this, but it is not without its problems.

The biggest downside for me, besides difficulty in hearing what people are saying during the group sharings, is that I have to be “muted” so as not to create static, feedback, or amplified cuss words if I yell at my cat. So I have to get Barbara’s attention before I can say something, and it kind of kills the spontaneity.


My physical travels to S.F. over the past 11 years have been traumatic, to say the least. You can read about them on; search “travel.” But this year I’ve had leg pain for several months and it’s not easy to walk, even with a cane. That leg is 69 years old; of course, so is the rest of me, but the leg is taking it extra hard. I think there’s a portrait of it in a closet somewhere, glowing with health.

So I felt I couldn’t deal with all the walking, the multi-drug taking, and the various demands on me physically and emotionally that result from my being in that now-foreign element, driving around a big city, having a strict schedule, and, of course, spending a lot of money to make it happen.


I knew that Zooming in to the intensive was going to be its own challenge. I have felt resentful at times about the distance—real and imagined—between me and everyone at the studio. I’ve likened it to being a brain in a jar; at other times, to a ghost who’s dropping a feather so the other painters will know I’m trying to communicate with them.


To make matters worse, I have several good friends who do the December intensive, and I was missing out not only on the hugs and conversations, but also on the lunches and dinners and the hanging out at the end of the day with Terry.





Luther had been sick for a long time—he’d had bladder problems his whole life—and now had renal failure, blood in his urine, and he was peeing in places other than the litter box. He had lost so much weight that he seemed to be disappearing ounce by ounce. But he was still wanting to be with me or on me all the time, purring, sleeping in my arms; he still ran to the window when he saw a bird, could jump from my armchair to the top of the cat tree, and would play with an empty toilet paper roll on the bathroom floor or rassle with his brother.


Except for the obvious signs, he almost seemed normal, even up to the night before he died. I found him dead the next morning and called the mobile vet, Dr. A., who came right away and took the body away. It was heart-breaking to lose him, but I was also profoundly grateful that I had not had to make the decision to put him down. I’ve only had one other cat who died peacefully at home like that.


So, when I finished my work and Zoomed into the intensive on Monday morning, I knew I was going to be painting Luther a lot. I did, of course, but I was startled when I realized that, had I flown out to S.F. for the intensive, all else being equal, he would have died just after I left for the airport. Then my sister Barb would have had to deal with the body, and Brutus would have been alone all week except for Barb’s daily visits. I’m not going to draw any deep conclusions from this, though it would be convenient and soothing to think that “God” or The Universe had planned it that way.



an interlocutor


I hadn’t had work in months (I’m a scientific editor), so, according to the laws of the Universe, or at least Murphy’s law, it was no surprise that I got two manuscripts to edit just before the intensive was about to start. Most of my clients are non-native English speakers and therefore non-native English writers. This is good, because I’m quite invaluable to them, but it can be difficult to decipher what they mean, especially since they’re writing about very technical (biological) things. So I spent the weekend working harder and longer than I wanted to, and I finished the paper at 10 p.m. Sunday night.








We painted for about 5 hours every day. Painting felt good, but I was ill at ease in the group sharings, during which I mostly watched my friends 1,836 miles away while they laughed, talked, and bonded as only we painters can. I was still technically a part of the group but felt marginalized, mostly unseen and unheard. This was something I had anticipated, and I saw it as a difficult but necessary lesson in being in myself rather than looking for recognition from others. I had sometimes had this feeling of alienation even when I was physically at the studio, but there was always someone to talk to there. Even making eye contact over the painting table was a form of communication. This week was a stark contrast.


I had painted Luther in the classes for a few weeks before he died. I painted the following on Nov. 14, Nov. 23, Dec. 7, and Dec. 11 (#1–4, respectively). So only the last two were painted during the intensive.



#1:  I’m holding Luther, Brutus is clinging to me, and previously ascended kitties Pookie and Radar are enjoying their peaceful or raucous afterlives.




#2:  Luther (center) displays the power and immortality of the Cat World. His coffin, an irrelevance, stands empty. I am in the upper right corner refusing to be consoled by Blue Cat Being.

























#3:  I am burning up from sorrow. A Being on the left is dispensing comfort and encouragement (to keep burning).

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#4:  I’m holding Luther, who is ascending. I’m still burning, and Luther’s golden coffin is still empty. On the right, a staircase leads up to a Royal Cat Being sitting on his throne, wearing a golden cape. Below the throne is the notation C.A.T., which I later decide means Consciousness And Transcendence.

























So these paintings felt good—even transcendent—to paint, but the contact with the group was bittersweet. I had to face the alienation and the loneliness, which were very real, despite my certainty that I am loved in the group. “Knowing” something, and feeling it when conditions are not ideal, are two different things. Terry, who had flown in for the intensive from Massachusetts, made it a point to check in with me now and then, and we talked on the phone a couple times after she got back to her rental place. Occasionally, if my name was mentioned, people would wave, but I mostly experienced the sharings as if I were watching a movie starring my friends. It was an odd sensation. It was as if I didn’t exist—or did, but only (like I said) as a ghost or pure gray matter. When someone addressed me directly, as a few people did, it was like getting a hit of energy. This was instructive.



On Monday night, I said good-bye to a few people and exited Zoom when the sharing was over, but on Tuesday night I stayed and watched the scene as some people left and others stood or sat around and talked. Sometimes it can be hard to leave that place after painting all day and feeling the love. Terry and Sandra were sitting by the laptop (on which my ghostly self was displayed), and we were able to talk and act silly like we used to. Then Terry asked if I wanted to take a tour of the studio. Sure! So she picked up the laptop, and she and Sandra walked me around. I said “Hi” to a few people, and I got to see a few of the paintings. I wanted them to prove that “my flag was still there”—the Tibetan prayer flag that I had painted for the studio’s 16-year celebration gala in November—and yes it was, hanging above the windows with all the others. When I was ready to leave, the others waved and yelled good-bye. The attention was intoxicating. Suddenly, my alienation was a memory and I felt special for attending the intensive in this virtual way. This thought, too, was instructive.


Another bit of unexpected attention I got was when one of the painters said in the sharing that she had read the studio’s “blog” online ( She quoted a line about the author’s feeling “dread” as she drove to the studio. She found this “helpful”—obviously, she could relate—and then said she didn’t know who wrote it. Barbara said, “She’s right here,” meaning me. That was rewarding, because I tend to think that no one ever reads what I post there. Once again, I felt special. Are we seeing a trend here?





During the Wednesday morning sharing, I asked to speak, Barbara unmuted me, and I told the group about the glorious tour of the studio I had been taken on the night before. But the attention I had so enjoyed brought with it the realization that I expect validation to come from the outside. I had honestly thought I was long past that belief, but those core feelings from childhood have a way of reasserting themselves when one is under stress. I love living alone and being alone, but feeling like a ghost or a brain in a jar had put into sharp relief my deep need to be accepted and reassured. My reactions during the week were showing me that I had trouble feeling comfortable even with a group of friends I normally feel very close to.


But one day—I don’t remember which day it was—I was speaking, and an interesting thing happened. Instead of the Zoom emphasizing my distance, I actually had the sensation of zooming toward the group on my own wave of connection. I felt like I was in the room with them; the screen, the frame, disappeared, and I was no longer an onlooker. That had also happened one time in a class, so I know it’s within my power, I can’t blame the technology for my alienation. I can’t make it happen on command, though. It’s like the painting itself, it comes alive when it’s ready, when I forget myself.


Wednesday was a half day for painting. The studio provided a pizza lunch, Alyssa made her signature kale salad, which of course I didn’t get to eat, and people either painted or left for parts unknown. I was looking forward to a long winter’s nap in the afternoon, but instead I spent hours on the phone pleading with insurance people not to drop me from my HRA and (different insurance people) not to drop my flood policy, which I had been late in paying.


That night was our traditional night (me, Terry, Diane D, and Diane L) for dining at the Buckeye Roadhouse in Marin. The last two times we were there, I had the Crab Louie. I’m hardly a salad person, but I love theirs—the crab, the hard-boiled egg, avocado, tomatoes, lettuce, and of course the dressing. It was probably the healthiest thing I ate all week. But this year it was not meant to be.


On Friday, the last day of the intensive, Barbara asked us each to speak about something that had touched our heart during the week. Several people mentioned the presence of Amanda’s young daughter Maia, always the center of attention during the sharings. Terry spoke about the time a car alarm went off outside and people in the group started singing in harmony with it, “transforming noise into beautiful music.”


I talked about the night that Terry and Sandra took me around the studio. I told them about Luther’s dying and how over the weekend I had felt uncharacteristically lonely. And then, I was surprised to hear myself say that maybe I had been lonely all my life. It felt strange to say that, because I pride myself on never feeling lonely or bored when I’m alone. The fact that this is a source of pride tells me something. But as those words came to me, I thought of myself many years ago, especially after my little brother died when I was six years old. I felt as alone then as I have ever felt, before or since.


And I wondered if I had shielded myself from the grief by becoming a self-sufficient “loner.” A few years later, when I was 11 or 12, I remember walking down our road, inaptly named Bay de Noc, and giving myself a pep talk about life. I had decided it was inherently unfair, and that the only way to deal with the unfairness was to allow myself to say and do anything to survive. I was actually denying the concept of living with honor. If I had known curse words back then, I would have said, “Fuck that!” It felt like I was growing up and taking the pulse of the people around me and figuring out what I had to do.


And so that brings me to the “present,” which is also my past and my past’s future, when I may finally be able to reverse the ignorant but self-protective armored stand I took back then. Self-knowledge, I’ve discovered, has many layers, and you have to be diligent in opening to the next beautiful, painful realization. Even at the age of 69, with or without my bum leg, which may be living a better life in that idealized closet, there is time to “change,” which is, in a way, to stop changing, running, maneuvering, rationalizing, and just being still and being myself.


I’ll let you know how that goes.




(Note: If this is published with all the weird spacing I see in the preview, I will throw down my keyboard and admit defeat. WordPress changes its way of doing things every time I write a new post.)


mary’zine #66: March/April 2014

April 16, 2014


winter wrap-up

I’m feeling pressure to finish this issue before my winter theme falls hopelessly behind the times. We in the upper Midwest are dying to stop complaining about cold weather so we can start complaining about the wind, the brown lawns, and the humidity of springsummer (no longer separate seasons). But considering that it is snowing as I write this (on April 16), it might not be a problem. Temperatures are straining to rise into the 40s (with the 50s surely not far behind), but you never know in these parts. You just never know.

Yes, it’s still winter in the U.P., despite what the calendar says and despite the photos of beautiful flowers and sunrises the West Coasters are sending our way, on the pretext of assuring us that spring will someday come to us as well.

My winter stories this year have not been ones of clumsy, comical falling down in the snow. I have fallen down (clumsily), don’t get me wrong, but it hasn’t been very funny at all … (see mary’zine #31 for some knee-slappers.) … partly because I have an even harder time getting up than I used to. I fell on the back steps but had the railing to hold on to as I hauled myself up. I fell at the end of my front walk after attempting to shovel a narrow (1 shovel-width) path for the mailman. Fortunately, the mailman happened to be standing right there, and when I stuck my hand out to be pulled up, he really had no choice. As I harp on constantly, the city snowplow comes through and shoves the snow off the road and onto whatever surface happens to be in the way, preferably a surface that has already been cleared. And there’s a general understanding—or maybe it’s a law—that you’re not to dump what is now your snow back into the road.



this was taken somewhere in Canada; so yes, it could be worse.

The driveway poses a bigger problem than the front walk, because, though it’s not very long, my mighty Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo doesn’t have a lot of traction when the snow is deep or the icing on the cake is actual ice. My usual method of making the driveway passable is to power through with the Jeep, back and forth until the tracks are deep enough to guide me in and out of the garage. But with the massive snowfalls we’ve been getting, combined with the city plow’s habit of building snow banks in front of every egress, an oddly sturdy hump of snow and ice has developed at the end of the driveway, so when I power out, there’s quite a stomach-lurching backwards drop at the end. I always have to remember to quickly move my foot to the brake so I don’t go too far and get lodged in the neighbor’s mound of road snow.

The other day I had to clear out three areas: front walk, driveway, and a circle in the back yard to dump a bag of sunflower seeds so the birds and squirrels don’t have to make snow tunnels to try to get sustenance. I was exhausted after doing the front walk, so I went inside and took a 3-hour nap. Then I forced myself to do some major shoveling at the end of the driveway, but the snow had gotten pretty high. The spirit was willing, but the flesh it took to shovel the snow out of the way of the Jeep tracks was weak. Actually, the spirit wasn’t very willing, either. Then I went to do the power-out thing. I managed to go back and forth a couple times, but when the Jeep slid out of the tracks, I panicked and managed to lurch into the side of the garage door and it was good-bye, passenger side view mirror.

An even bigger problem is that the ground has frozen way farther down than is usual. There’s a danger of the pipes in individual houses freezing, but even worse is the possibility that the entire water relay system will freeze up. Therefore, we’ve been told to keep water running from one faucet continuously, even after warmer temperatures make us forget all about our hoary winter.

I got a postcard from the city about this, but only after the citizenry debated in the newspaper and on Facebook what was going on and what exactly we were supposed to do about it. Various people “heard” things, such as that households south of 38th Ave. did (or did not) have to keep their water running. Someone posted that she lives north of 38th Ave. (as I do) and was told that she had to keep her water running. So I called what is euphemistically named “Infrastructure Alternatives” but is really “Waste Water,” as the man who answered the phone wearily confirmed. He asked for my address and told me I didn’t have to keep my water running. But the buzz grew louder that the whole town was supposed to keep their water running, and I eventually got an official postcard saying as much.

So then the question was: How much water? Word went out that the stream should be “the width of a pencil.” That didn’t sound right, because in the olden days it was always described as a “trickle.” Then I came across a website from a Green Bay TV station that said it should be the width of “a pencil lead.” That’s a very different thing. But apparently no one else noticed the discrepancy, and the “pencil” people won out over the “lead.” This policy is in effect until further notice, since warm weather above ground won’t do enough to thaw the earth below. We’re still having the occasional snowfall and single-digit temperatures. And I still have a ski jump at the end of my driveway.



seeds of gratitude

The birds must think they know
That the Bird gods blessed them with this bounty
Spread upon the hard snow.

Do they take it as their due to grow?
Or do they feel a burst of love
When they spot the seeds below—
This mysterious gift—unbidden—fallen with the snow?

Or am I the one who’s grateful for us all—
welcoming with a glad eye the
who comes alone at dusk
and cautiously, disbelieving, approaches
the abundance, a surfeit of love and trust.



I don’t claim to be a poet, but sometimes I can fake it pretty good. The first poem I ever wrote was also about a bird. For high school English I wrote a rambly true story in free verse about going for a walk and finding a dead bird. It was sentimental—of course—but at least there was feeling in it. My friend, a wannabe sophisti-cat, made fun of me for it, as did the fat girl who wanted to replace me in his affections. This was the era of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, and anything less than howling did not a poem make. Mid-‘60s, it just seemed that all the artists, writers, and poets were men, and 90% of them were tortured existentialists. I had a teacher in college who was such a man, an extremely intense man who moonlighted as a shoe salesman, and he wrote all over my essays with great passion in red pen. Sometimes I think my whole college education was an apologia of 1950s existential guilt and penile hubris. I would still be an English major today, but I’d get to read a wider swath through American and world (and female) literature. But I digress.


strung out on epiphanies

There will be clouds of course. At least that’s what I’ve heard. That you fly through them.
     —a Dutch woman contemplating what her first airplane ride will be like

During my first airplane ride (Menominee > Lansing, 1964), I had what may seem like a mundane epiphany: that the sun is always shining, despite the low cloud cover that seemed like a permanent part of my world. I “knew” this already, of course, but some knowledge has to be experienced directly.

Recently, I had what seemed like a profound epiphany, but it’s hard to hold on to. I can tell you that it had to do with love, but what hasn’t already been said about love? An epiphany is sudden and starkly real. It’s an experience. I can still feel the effects of this one, but I’m afraid that trying to describe it will just lead to a hackneyed greeting card sentiment fit only for Hallmark’s Sarah Jessica Parker collection.

But I have a cool metaphor to offer, take it or leave it. If I were a string of Christmas tree lights… stay with me… the bulbs shine brightly, but between them are lengths of unglamorous infrastructure to hold them together. Sometimes you’re the bulb, sometimes the cord.

For months now I’ve been thinking about love, sex, anger, forgiveness—what I want, what is (or isn’t) wanted from me—and it’s been a pretty tortured, confusing time. I have deep feelings, but I often don’t know what to make of them, how to accept them, where to direct them. All felt up and nowhere to go. That didn’t come out right.

I described the situation in mary’zine #65: I had a wonderful sexual experience with an old friend, but she declined to take it farther, for very good reasons. I knew I had to accept her decision, but how were we going to continue our friendship? I felt stuck: couldn’t go forward and couldn’t go back. I kept telling myself that it wasn’t about her at all, I was responsible for my own feelings—but how often do you work through something by thinking endlessly about it? In the midst of the emotional muck, I just tried to stay “real” and not push myself in one direction or another.

At a certain point—being open to whatever the truth turned out to be—the clouds cleared and I knew what the problem was. My ego was having a tantrum. I could count on one hand (with a couple fingers left over) the times that my friend had gone against my wishes. My ego was wounded, and all I knew to do was to hide behind the well-used, patched and puttied wall that had been my go-to place for licking my wounds for as long as I could remember. In the past I couldn’t have been so open to seeing a less than flattering side of myself. But years—many years—on this planet have taught me something after all, and I was actually relieved to know the truth.

When I allowed myself to own this truth, my feelings of anger and resentment just dissipated. My other friends were astonished to hear me express such a mature attitude. It’s an ongoing process, of course. Part of me didn’t want to give up my defenses. It was a big deal to me, and I didn’t want to just drop it and never speak of it again. So much for my mature attitude. I wanted to keep her on the hook, I didn’t want the elephant in the room to become invisible. I felt a bit like George Costanza on Seinfeld, when he didn’t get credit for buying the “big salad” for Elaine because George’s friend handed it to her and was graciously thanked. The genius of that show was that it highlighted the pettiness we all feel at times. On Seinfeld there was famously “no hugging, no learning.” But the universality of the characters’ selfishness was a lesson for the viewers if we were willing to take it in.


I have often wished, frivolously, that the birds who come to my back yard to dine and bathe would come to trust me and not flee when I open the back door carrying a heavy bag of seeds and a watering can. In an ideal world, they would realize that I’d never harmed or threatened them, that I was the source of their bounty. As in the Disney world of Snow White, they would fly chirping around my head as they crowned me with garden flowers. I know it’s just a harmless fantasy. But if I’m feeding them out of love, it makes no difference that I’m not being thanked or seen as the giver, the provider.


Without warning, I had one glorious day when I got it. I glowed with the feeling, with the knowledge, the long-sought epiphany. Love isn’t to be found outside myself, it’s in me, it is me. I don’t love X, Y, or Z: I love. In our hearts we are like those worms that are both male and female. Each one of us is holographic, we embody everything. Looking for love in all the wrong places? It’s all right there, in you! You can put it out or you can take it in, but you don’t need to be thanked, appreciated, affirmed, over and over again. You are the source, or I should say the conduit. If we can just be, love exudes from us like the fragrance of a flower. We think we can shut it off, but it can’t stay shut for long. It can be a deluge, a downpour, an outpouring—or it can be like the pencil-width stream that continually trickles down the pipes to thaw the frozen earth—or heart—on which we live.



love, everywhere

It’s one thing to have a private epiphany and the feelings that go with it, but then there’s the world and other people: Real Life. My money where my mouth is.

In the almost 10 years since I moved back home (“Back in the USUP”), I’ve often lamented that I don’t have friends here. It’s great to spend time with my sisters, but it’s nice to have other connections as well. I’m friendly but not quite friends with a number of people: my contractor and his wife, a server at my favorite restaurant, my haircutter, my dental hygienist (now that’s a first!), various people who I’m happy to see and who seem to be happy to see me. I’ve been limited in my idea of what a friend is. Leaving my cozy nest and going out into the world, I don’t always have a great experience, but I’m often surprised at the connections. My last two encounters with Karna, who cleans my teeth, have been delightful. I’m at a disadvantage in that situation, of course, because I often can’t talk because her hands are in my mouth, but believe me, I take advantage of every time she pauses or turns to look at my chart. And even when I can’t form words, I can laugh in response to her funny comments and stories. I don’t even remember what we talk about, but in one of our sessions I told her, during a 3-second break in the action, “I’m having fun!” And I could tell she was too. Last time, referring to my sense of humor, she told me, “You are dry, Mary.” I was saying I maybe shouldn’t have told Dr. Aschim that one time that I felt like I was doing all the work. But I have this quirky, risk-taking side, which my mother also had (you might be surprised to hear this if you’ve read my “autobiography” of her). It means that I might say something inappropriate at times, but the risk is usually worth it. I may leave in my wake a number of people who are shaking their heads and thinking to themselves, “That’s a weird one,” but since my heart is in the right place, I’m coming across more people who “get me.” Isn’t that the ultimate in relationship, regardless of what level it’s at?

The computer and the phone are essential parts of my life here. I have regular conversations with my faraway friends P, T, and B, and online a strange thing has happened: Among my Facebook friends there have emerged some real friends, even though I haven’t met them in person. Even in “social media,” feelings come through loud and clear. A lot of it involves bantering: I can spend more than 2 hours having a conversation on private messaging with one person at the same time that I’m responding to 2 or 3 other people who are Liking or Commenting on or Sharing things I or they have posted. The range of connection covers the whole spectrum of human relationship, from barely conversant to casual to intimate. You may dispute the possibility of intimacy, but it’s there. Many connections are based on politics, cats, street art, the weather, commiseration over common problems, and bonding over joys and triumphs. I used to think that all interaction on Facebook had to be superficial by definition… but people find each other. The beauty and the voluntary nature of contact allow for freely made associations and surprising discoveries.

One of the people I’ve connected with responded enthusiastically to one of my paintings, some of which I’ve posted online. We had already established that we’re kindred souls, so I told her I sometimes give away my paintings but the person has to ask. I gave her an out by saying that she might like the painting a lot but not want to have it on her wall. The requisite “are you sure”s and “what do you want for it”s were quickly dispensed with, and finally she said, “I want it. And I want it on my wall.” So after tearing apart one room and two closets looking for it, I sent it to her the next day. She loves it. She’s happy. I’m happy. She doesn’t live here, so I may never meet her in person, but I feel like I have a friend for life. Lesson learned: If you put yourself out there, friends and meaningful connections can pop up not only in “all the old familiar places” but in unexpected places as well.


and sometimes… love hurts

My cat Luther just bit my thumb as I was trying to balance him on my lap so that I could reach the keyboard. I try to keep my fingers away from his mouth and firmly remind him, when he gets too close, “No biting!” But he hasn’t gotten the message. He doesn’t seem to do it out of anger, it’s more that he just finds me delectable. If I were to collapse at home and die, I would fully expect him and Brutus to gnaw me to pieces… not out of malice but out of whatever animal logic tells them it’s the right thing to do.

Luther has a chronic bladder infection and has had at least 3 surgeries to remove jagged stones. After the last one, about a week ago, Dr. A said he wouldn’t survive another one. This is devastating news, of course. I now have to wait and see what happens and decide when his quality of life has declined irreversibly. He’s been through a lot and is not exactly welcome at the vet clinic. One female vet told me, when I brought him in for an emergency after hours, that she and Luther “don’t like each other” because he’s “nasty.” Through angry tears I said, “He’s not nasty, he’s scared to death!” She apologized, but I could tell she wasn’t convinced. But ol’ Dr. A takes him in stride.

When I got Luther home after his latest surgery, he couldn’t walk straight for several hours, and when he could, he tried to get away from me by scooting under the bed. At about 24 hours, I petted him and said his name gently. He always responds to his name, but this time he turned his head away. I don’t know how much of his behavior is emotionally based, or if I’m just imagining what he’s feeling. At one point I went to check on him, and he was splayed out in the litter box. When he realized I was there, he pulled himself halfway out, presumably to escape from me again. I know it’s not really personal, but it’s hard to take. I was telling one of my friends on Facebook how he’d been acting since coming home, and the minute I sent the message, Luther came walking over to me and rubbing on my leg and purring. I wanted to think we were having a mind meld where he knew what I had just written about him. Anthropomorphism: a chronic state in which animal lovers can’t let their pets (or their backyard birds) be who they really are. We try to impose our feelings and expectations on them, as though the actual bond, visible or not, between us and them isn’t enough. I am going to try to be with Luther for the time he has left and not dwell on the inevitable. Easier said than done. But he’d better not bite me again.






in love and gratitude,






mary’zine #64: November 2013

November 8, 2013

baltimore love

Update: The highway is my byway once again. After many months of man-hours and dirt and noise and inconvenience, the road called M35 is now paved with good intentions. Fortunately, Hell, MI, is in the Lower Peninsula. My hat is off to the fellas who do this grueling work. It must have felt like Hell all summer. On the other hand, their brothers who work in our few remaining factories might envy them the sort-of fresh air, if not the annoyed drivers trying to get from A to B.

And though my wonderful contractor, Paul K, did not work the roads, he was busy all summer putting on roofs (rhymes with hoofs) and remodeling mobile and immobile homes and is finally freed up to do my bidding. Although I no longer have the ready cash that I used to throw around like confetti (as every once-poor person does who gets a windfall, thinking that it will last forever whether you spend it or not), I need to replace the shag carpet in Brutus and Luther’s room. There are so many stains from their throwing up (and worse) that I don’t even go in there barefoot anymore. So Paul is going to replace the carpet with vinyl, making me and my goddess-next-to-cleanliness niece, if not the cats themselves, happy and care-free. My task now is to pick out a color that will go with the blue, green, and lavender pastel walls that my sister K painted many years ago. The room has become a cat-chall (ha) for art supplies, boxes of old files, assorted tools—hammers, screwdrivers, a drill, a whatchamacallit (thing with a bubble in the middle to make sure something is—oh, level; good thing I wasn’t called upon to name it when it was first invented), two orange metal sawhorses that I bought just for color, a long table, half of which is topped with a comforter for a dedicated cat lookout spot, and a desk with shelves holding reams of xerox paper, on top of which sits a dollhouse exactly like the one I (and eventually my sisters) played with as a kid (which my sisters found at a garage sale), which is not outfitted with dollhouse-size furniture, oh no, it’s a house of pain, sand tray-style, with skulls and other oddities inside and toy men with bad intentions climbing the roof, and on the wall above it is a quilt hanging my mother made me that purports to be a representative pictorial of my life—an embroidered road along which a series of bonnet girls traverse the peaks and valleys from age 0 to about 30, and the weird thing is that most of what she considered valleys were actually peaks for me (like my publishing the Alternative Press Index in Northfield, MN, for no money) and vice versa. At the top she had embroidered “Pilgrim’s Progress” and at the bottom, “The Slough of Despond, the Delectable Mountains,” and got mad at me because I didn’t know the reference. On the opposite wall, above the orange sawhorses, is a larger quilt that my friend Diane L gave me that depicts a colorful series of snakes, not lifelike, alternating with geometric shapes, very cool. In a corner stands a dress form that has been dolled up with one of my shirts, a skull wearing a cap that says Scotch Lobster, and on and on.

Wanna come help me move all that stuff out of there?



If you’re terribly averse to metaphysical speculation, you might want to skip this part. But I hope you’ll give it a look-see, anyway.

I sent my friend P this quote from Robert Lanza, MD (author of Biocentrism; How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe):

Our consciousness animates reality much like a phonograph. Listening to it doesn’t alter the record, and depending on where the needle is placed, you hear a certain piece of music. This is what we call “now.” In reality, there is no before or after. All nows, past, present and future, always have existed and will always exist, even though we can only listen to the songs one by one.

P replied:

Interesting, so where does “free will” come in—deciding where to place the needle?

So I pontificated, based on my limited (or no) understanding:

No one decides where to place the needle. It’s all happening at the same time and it’s just “what is” at any given point. Like, when I’m dreaming, I’m “there,” and when I wake up I’m “here.” I didn’t travel between the two places or decide where to be, when. When I have a very vivid memory (like you and me passing each other at dusk before we met but when we knew who each other was), I’m there. And when it “actually” happened, we were both there. (One could see memory not as a later recapitulation of a real event but as the needle coming down on that spot again.) “Free will” is a myth that we tell ourselves so we’ll feel like we’re in charge. We can make the little choices, like whether or not to eat the doughnut, but forces much larger than us are joining together (but without intention) to manifest the really big stuff (who we are). Back to the record: We think we are the record, and that we start at the beginning and play until the end. But as in Lanza’s analogy, any number of things can happen that don’t follow the linear “track 1,” “track 2,” etc. You can skip tracks, play one over and over, or even put them into other songs by sampling. For that matter, the people who played the music on the record probably didn’t play it in exactly that order. And they may be “dead” now, but we still experience them as “alive.” Or they went on to make other records. Or several people are listening to the “same” record at the same or different times. It’s more 3[or 4 or 10]D, as opposed to our 2D conception of “born, live, die” on a linear time line.

I’m making this stuff up as I go, obviously, trying to springboard off Lanza’s comments. But that’s fun for me.

along the same lines…


love is a higher organizing principle than time, but its organization is hidden

I was lying in bed one night, playing solitaire on my Kindle, and a feeling of near-euphoria began to creep over me. There was no apparent reason for this, as I had not been taking any recreational drugs (unless you count chocolate chip muffins, and I do) and it hadn’t been a “wonderful” day or anything. After a while, I started to think about time. (Solitaire is not necessarily a waste of time, it’s a good way to keep the surface mind occupied while the depths are allowed to roam: free-range thinking, thinking without words.)

Time seems to be one of the few constants in our universe. It’s so obviously a linear, one-way phenomenon. So I’m thinking this while I idly tap on the cards, and then, again idly, inwardly, I see, as a little graph in the middle distance, first, the straight line of time, and then, off to the side, seemingly scattered and unclassifiable… love. I gasp out loud. I’m not sure what I have yet, but I know it’s something. Time to put the thinking without words into something more tangible.

Time isn’t really linear, it just feels that way. We “time-travel” all the time. (I can’t avoid using the word “time” in these two ways: the sacred and the mundane.) Time travel is remembering, misremembering, trying to pin down “the now”: Is it ever really “now,” or is it “now” all the time? We speak easily about “tomorrow,” but it never feels like tomorrow, does it? When “tomorrow” comes, it’s still now. So what if, like those turtles, it’s “now” all the way down? a through line rather than a clothesline?

It seems obvious that we grow, both physically and mentally, even as we decay and atrophy. It’s all very pat, this time thing. In 1945 I did not exist. But was I “dead”? When I become nonexistent “again,” what will be the difference (to me)—between nonexistence “after” life and nonexistence “before” life… between 1945 and 2033 or whenever I shuffle off. There’s really no “before” and no “after.” It’s all illusion.

Unlike time, love seems completely malleable, unreal or changeable, unorganized, given away and taken away, hardly eternal, rarely unconditional, no direction (home) let alone one-way-linear. No straight lines in love.

An old friend e-mailed me recently. We used to write each other daily—long, funny letters with paragraphs and everything. But in the past several years we’d hardly had any contact. Time kept on “slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future.” When I apologized for being so out of touch, she replied simply, “Love has no boundaries.” Cliché? Not when it’s true. This happens a lot with my painting friends. If I saw Ann again after, what, 30 years?, one of us would surely harken back to our fabulous night of dancing at Esalen. That was an eternal moment in our relationship—a moment beyond either of us. It existed—exists—without us. At the painting intensives, this happens all the time. Time does not factor into our relationships, because we have seen and held each other out of time. If I see a Facebook post from Madeleine, the love is fully there “again,” below the surface but never lost. And so on.

Love seems erratic. If you look back on your life, you can easily make a timeline, establish events all along the line, draw conclusions (on the wall). Time is what happens to you on the outside. The love you have experienced is not in the past tense, it exists outside time, where the structure is invisible, the organization chart non- hierarchical. It is alive, apart from your memory of it, apart from your loss of the other person, physically or mentally. It’s like the letters that pile up on each other when your typewriter key gets stuck. (I mean, got stuck; typewriters are definitely of time, and now fully out of it, except for some geezer authors who can’t let them go.) Love is all in a moment, an eternal moment. Sometimes you feel (like a nut), sometimes you don’t. But feeling is not everything. Love has a paradoxical solidity, an effervescent presence, that time will never have. It’s the organizing principle of our lives. Time is horizontal. Love is vertical. When the timeline of our physical self is cut off, time also stops. But love is perpendicular to time. It is not affected by time. No love is ever lost. No time is ever gained.

the requisite cat tales


 Pookie lives! Luther and Brutus are still babies! (see gray heap in the center of the comforter)

Diane and I were talking about my cats “lolling”—meaning “lounging around”—but “lolling” looks like they were laughing out loud! But no—they laff on the inside, all the goddamn time.

One morning I was opening the blinds, and I stood looking out the window with my hand on the cat tree. Suddenly, I felt a furry object slam against the side of my face, the tree rocked, and Brutus jumped for the ottoman. I was struck by a wide-body cat! I think he was a little freaked out, like what the heck just happened?? We just looked at each other for a long beat. Then it was over. (He always jumps from the floor to the top of the thing, and it always rocks a little. I’ve been waiting for it to tip over when he does that. I never suspected I would be involved.)

Some of the worst times in my life have been when a cat of mine died or, worse, when I had to decide to put him or her down, to spare it from pain. Radar, who had feline leukemia, died in the night. I waited to take Tweeter to the vet until her tumor broke through the skin. I like to think that Pookie and I agreed on the time for him to be released from his painful lack of kidney function. Toward the end, he weighed next to nothing. We were both sitting on my bed one day, and we just looked at each other. I’m not saying the look we exchanged was conscious on both our parts, or that we had a mind meld or anything. But we had come a long way, Pookie and I. Almost 20 years. When I would return after 10 or 12 days at a painting intensive, his cry of welcome was one of sheer bliss. One of those times, when I arrived home after midnight, I sat for over an hour just petting and combing him, talking to him. He would look back at me over his shoulder and just beam, radiating pleasure and love. Yes, I call it love.

You can’t take time away from a cat. A cat is not trying to hold on to life, like we humans do. We think of life as a quantity—more is more. A cat is always now. It’s for ourselves that we try to keep them with us, sometimes long past the time they need to go.


from the sacred to the deeply philosophical


My friend Liz, who posted this cartoon on Facebook, commented,
“This is so deeply philosophical, had to post.”  I agree.

my “diz-zies”

My world was turned upside down for 9 days—part literally and part metaphorically. On day 1 I got out of bed feeling dizzy. It’s not a pleasant feeling, but I figured it would pass in minutes. It didn’t. It wasn’t vertigo—when the room seems to be spinning around—I had had that for a few hours about a month before. Never knew for sure what caused it, but possibly I inadvertently took a double dose of Zoloft that morning. This “diz-zies” was all on the inside, and it was positional. If I stood or sat without moving my head, I felt fine. Ah, the perfect state I’ve been longing for my whole life: no physical movement except for my eyes and hands. (I half expect I will end up like the Twilight Zone character who was the only one left on earth with nothing but time and no distractions to take him away from his precious books… but then his glasses broke. Not sure how that will play out for me, but I’m of the half-glass-empty persuasion.) I obviously couldn’t drive. So my sister Barb had to chauffeur me around, which I know she was more than happy to do (well, maybe not more than happy). I was grateful for her help but also uncomfortable with it, because, like all old people, I fear losing my independence.

The soonest I could see the doctor was on day 3. Barb drove me there, waited around for more than an hour, and then drove me to the pharmacy, the grocery store, and then lunch at Schloegel’s. The doctor gave it her best shot, but no diagnosis seemed to fit the symptom. She did some hands-on neurological tests, such as having me lie on my back with my head hanging off the table then held my head at a 45-degree angle as I sat up. We went through all the requisite questioning about what could have caused the diz-zies, but there were no answers. She checked various possibilities on the computer, but nothing seemed to fit. She said it was quite possible that it was “viral.” I thought, Does that mean I’m going to be famous on the Internet?? Thankfully, I didn’t share that pearl of humor with her. I keep learning that not everyone finds me funny, or indeed comprehensible. Many times when chatting with, say, a young woman who’s checking out my groceries (“Is this garlic?” she asks; oh honey, you have a lot to learn), I’ll try to make a wee funny and I usually get a blank stare in return. Like maybe she says, “I have a long drive home, so when I get off work at night, I have to eat or drink something on the way.” I comment that I don’t restrict myself to eating and drinking at night, I do it all day long. Stare. Blank. Maybe they don’t hear me, since I tend to mumble. Also, I’m sure I look really old to these young whippersnappers (and let’s face it….). Who would expect a specimen such as myself to try to relate through humor?

So… with a prescription for meclizine, a motion sickness pill that did absolutely nothing, and a date for a follow-up with the doc in 2 weeks, I spent the next 4 days trying to keep motion to a minimum. I was a motion minimalist. It was awkward when I had to clean out the cats’ litter boxes, and when Luther flopped on his back and rolled over in front of me, I couldn’t lean down to pet him, which made me feel strangely guilty. He would recover and then lounge there trying to look blasé about being rejected. I don’t treat my cats like they’re human, oh no. I mean, just because I will sit in an uncomfortable position with my left arm aching or having to go to the bathroom but unwilling to disturb their sleep….

I stayed home until day 7—lost at least 2 pounds because I had no access to potato chips—and then Barb offered to stop at the store for me and then get us both some lunch and bring it back to my house. I made a list—broccoli, eggs, milk, and a few other necessities, using all my self-control to not ask for chips or a muffin but hoping she would intuit that I would need some snack therapy. She didn’t… but she chose the broccoli crowns very well, which I’m really picky about. Then she drove back over the bridge to Menekaunee for fish fries and showed up chez moi with my very own meals on wheels. She stayed for a while as we ate and talked, but soon I felt like I was fading fast and I went back upstairs to nap in my chair. I kept thinking I could just sleep it off.

The previous night I had made the mistake of lying down for a few hours instead of slouching in my chair. When I woke up, I was so dizzy that I couldn’t take the garbage out to the road for fear that I would fall down outside. This wasn’t good news. I imagined this becoming a permanent condition.

On day 9 (Sunday) Barb came back to take me to her house to watch our shows: Homeland, Orphan Black, and a couple of new sit-coms. I had recovered from the intense diz-zies and was feeling hopeful that my long national nightmare was coming to an end. I was feeling more normal (or as close as I ever get) and enjoyed the chicken salad sandwich, chips, and Coke I had while watching TV. It’s the chips, I swear! I refuse to believe they are bad for you! I’m only half-joking!

Sure enough, I felt fully recovered by the next day, so I e-mailed my doctor’s office to cancel my follow-up appointment. I wish there had been a way to e-mail my job when I was feeling poorly or just needed a “me” day; it would have eliminated a lot of theatrical morning hoarseness during those awkward phone calls to say I wasn’t coming in. But that’s neither here nor there. It’s in the past. I have not lost my independence—in fact, I have gained a great deal of it, in that I can do my work in my own time. I now have the perfect work life, except for not getting paid very often. Hey, nothing’s perfect!


what nightmares are made of

Every day you read the news or surf or stumble through the Internet, and there’s always some new atrocity, some stupid [Republican] opinion, some scary prospect, some fearful new law. I get tired of having to up my disbelief level to meet each new horrible challenge. Outrageous! Unbelievable! I become the girl who cries Wolf, but there’s always another Wolf around the corner. I’m going to print something here, in its entirety, from, November 5, 2013. You may have seen it, but I think it’s worth another look. It’s a scary indicator of what America has come to, or is going toward, full speed ahead.

This news report out of New Mexico is so disturbing, it’s hard to imagine this could happen in America. Talk about an unreasonable search.

            The incident began January 2, 2013 after David Eckert finished shopping at the Wal-Mart in Deming.  According to a federal lawsuit, Eckert didn’t make a complete stop at a stop sign coming out of the parking lot and was immediately stopped by law enforcement.      

            Eckert’s attorney, Shannon Kennedy, said in an interview with KOB that after law enforcement asked him to step out of the vehicle, he appeared to be clenching his buttocks.  Law enforcement thought that was probable cause to suspect that Eckert was hiding narcotics in his anal cavity.  While officers detained Eckert, they secured a search warrant from a judge that allowed for an anal cavity search.  

            Initially the doctor on duty refused the search, citing it as “unethical.” Unfortunately, after several hours, hospital personnel relented and did the search.

            Here’s what happened to David Eckert at that hospital:

            While there, Eckert was subjected to repeated and humiliating forced medical procedures.  A review of Eckert’s medical records, which he released to KOB, and details in the lawsuit show the following happened:

            1. Eckert’s abdominal area was x-rayed; no narcotics were found.

            2. Doctors then performed an exam of Eckert’s anus with their fingers; no narcotics were found.

            3. Doctors performed a second exam of Eckert’s anus with their fingers; no narcotics were found.  

            4. Doctors penetrated Eckert’s anus to insert an enema.  Eckert was forced to defecate in front of doctors and police officers.  Eckert watched as doctors searched his stool.  No narcotics were found.

            5. Doctors penetrated Eckert’s anus to insert an enema a second time.  Eckert was forced to defecate in front of doctors and police officers.  Eckert watched as doctors searched his stool.  No narcotics were found.

            6. Doctors penetrated Eckert’s anus to insert an enema a third time.  Eckert was forced to defecate in front of doctors and police officers.  Eckert watched as doctors searched his stool.  No narcotics were found.

            7. Doctors then x-rayed Eckert again; no narcotics were found.  

            8. Doctors prepared Eckert for surgery, sedated him, and then performed a colonoscopy where a scope with a camera was inserted into Eckert’s anus, rectum, colon, and large intestines. No narcotics were found.  

            Throughout this ordeal, Eckert protested and never gave doctors at the Gila Regional Medical Center consent to perform any of these medical procedures.

            Think that’s outrageous? David Eckert has since been billed by the hospital for all the procedures and they are threatening to take him to collections.


The Tent

Outside, the freezing desert night.
This other night inside grows warm, kindling.
Let the landscape be covered with thorny crust.
We have a soft garden in here.
The continents blasted,
cities and little towns, everything
become a scorched, blackened ball.

The news we hear is full of grief for that future,
but the real news inside here
is there’s no news at all.



mary’zine #63: September 2013

September 19, 2013

I really appreciate how the Internet fine-tunes the ads for me so I see exactly what I’m most interested in buying.



 ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????my way no highway

I live a block from Hwy M35, which is in the process of being dug up, someday to be restored to its former glory as a thoroughfare  par excellence or at least par ordinaire. There’s no other way out of my neighborhood, so it’s been a daily challenge to find a place to cross without getting stuck in a sandy morass or intimidated by heavy machinery hulking down the road. It would be useful to have signs that indicate where it’s possible to cross the construction zone to get to passable streets, but there are only those that state the obvious: “Road Work Ahead” or “Road Closed to Thru Traffic.” One sees the “road work ahead” quite clearly, and one must be able to go “thru” to the other side if one wants to leave the neighborhood for any reason. I go out daily to scout for access, to reenact the rite of passage, praying that the way back via U.S. 41 and a numbered avenue will deliver me past the upheaved and ruptured roadway to my home.

One day, the water coming out of my faucets looked kind of brown. So when I see another big-machine-and-crew doing something down by the bay, I go out to ask if they’re working on the water lines. I feel like Alice in Wonderland as I approach a huge truck with a man sitting high up in the driver’s seat. I call up to him, “Are you working on the water lines?” “WHAT?” “Are you working on the water lines?” “YOU’LL HAVE TO ASK THE GUY IN THE….” He points at a large bulldozer that’s moving incrementally back and forth in the dirt while a bunch of other guys stand around watching. So I mince through the dirt and mud, feeling like a very small female person indeed. Everyone stops what they were (or weren’t) doing, and I approach the man in the very tall earthmover and yell up to him, “Are you working on the water lines?” Again with the “WHAT?” I glance to my right and am startled to see the first guy standing inches away from me. I must have jumped a little bit, because he explains that he’s there to “protect” me. From what? “In case the equipment moves.” OK. Earthdozer guy isn’t saying anything, so this guy tells me they’re digging a trench for a culvert to drain water to the bay. At least that’s my interpretation: All I really got from him was that water was going to be going toward the bay, not the other way around. I thank him and go back in the house feeling not only small but really, really not-a-man.

The good thing about all this construction is that it provides work for the locals.  For example:


my new part-time gig

Someday, the heavy hand will write and, having writ, will move on. To 14th Ave., I hear.

only God can take a tree

We’ve been blessed with an unseasonably cool August, with some heavy thunderstorms, one of which plucked a large limb off a tree in my backyard. I have several trees, and I love them beyond all measure. The ones on the south side of the house have leafed out to the point where I can sit in my big comfy chair by the upstairs windows and remain out of sight of any passing walker, stalker, or would-be talker. A mighty fortress is my pad. My lawn service came and took away the offending branch and all was right in my little world.

Then: Another thunderstorm, with whipping winds. I’m awakened at 3 a.m. by the sound of a branch creakily detaching itself from the mother trunk. I go out with a flashlight and try to find which branch, which tree. It occurs to me that I shouldn’t be out there walking into a possible death trap. So far, none of the limbs have hit my house, but there’s no guarantee that I won’t get caught under one. It turns out that the enormous tree in my front yard had lost two big limbs from high up.


As with the other tree, I thought it would be a simple matter for my lawn people to cut off the broken limbs and haul them away. They aren’t tree experts, but, except for needing a ladder, what would be the big deal? It rained a lot that week, so they missed the weekly lawn cutting, and I waited in limbo—ha! limb-o!—not knowing if I had to call an actual tree service to do the deed.

Two weeks later, the lawn guys show up for the usual mowing. I had left them a message to ask if they could take down the broken branches or if it was too big a job for them. So there they were, but when they’re finishing up, I see that the branches are still hanging there. Then my doorbell rings. A guy I’ve never seen before says, “We can take down those branches for you and haul everything away.” “Yeah, that’s what I was hoping.” “A tree service would cost you $500,” he says, “but we’ll do it for half price, $250.” I say yes because I’d prefer to deal with the people who’ve been taking good care of my yard for 9 years now. The guy says that he and his “foreman” will come by on the weekend to do the job.

It slightly bothered me that I didn’t know this guy, but I couldn’t pick any of them out of a lineup: 6 or 7 guys descend on my yard, and in less than half an hour they’re gone. So the owner of the company (T for Tony) returns my call about the tree, and I describe the guy who said he was going to do the work: short, full beard, the word “monkey” on his t-shirt. T says, “He’s not one of our guys.” So then I think that some ne’er-do-well has pulled up just as the legit lawn guys are leaving and has taken advantage of my assuming he’s with them. There’s precedent for the workers around here trying to go behind the boss’s back. A few years ago, my sister Barb was having the roof (rhymes with “woof”) on her garage replaced, and one of the guys came to her and said he could do another job for her, something to do with the siding, I think. She agreed, of course, and a few days later the boss of the original crew called her up, drunk, and yelled at her for giving work to this guy—she should have gone through him. Well, of course, Barb didn’t know that. She tried to explain, but the guy told her to fuck off! The wife of the guy later called to apologize for him, and I think she sent Barb flowers. Imagine her (the wife’s) life for 1 second.

So… I worry for the next two days. What am I going to do if illicit short monkey beard guy shows up Saturday morning and starts hacking away at my tree?

Oh, I forgot to mention that T said the tree “needs to come down.” “WHY?” “It’s rotten.” I’m shocked. The tree is more than twice as tall as my house, and I’m going to have nothing but a stump out front? Some people across the street recently had 3 or 4 huge trees cut down, I thought because they interfered with power lines, but maybe they were rotten, too. I’ve been feeling sorry for them. Now I’m to join their sorry stump club? (Update: I was paying the breakfast bill at Schloegel’s one morning, and the cashier said we’re neighbors. I didn’t know her from Adam, but she recognized my face. Hmmm. Anyway, she said that the son of the old people who’d lived in that house, who had since died, took down those majestic trees because he “didn’t like them.” Is this a male thing, this hatred of nature? Another XY I know is the same way: no room for trees, must put down more and more concrete to accommodate cars, SUVs, trucks, motorcycles, trailers, ATVs, RVs. You don’t think it’s fair for me to take a sample of 2 and extrapolate to the entire male population? You’re right, but I still think I made my point.)

So T says he’ll find out who the mystery guy is, and he’ll call someone named Dan to assess the tree situation. But I haven’t heard back from him by Saturday morning, and I’ve resigned myself to sitting downstairs by the front windows all weekend so I can catch the imposter in the act. I feel like the little not-man with the construction guys again, only this time I’ll have to deal with a guy wielding a chainsaw. I call T, not expecting to reach him at 9:00 a.m. on a Saturday, but a woman answers and says she’ll have him call me back. And he does, hallelujah! He says the guy with the monkey shirt is one of his guys and that he told him no, he couldn’t borrow the company’s ladder to do the job. That’s a huge weight lifted off me; at least I won’t have to fight off a rogue tree trimmer. (But, T—could you have called me 2 days ago to tell me that?) Dan the Tree Man is out of town, but T assures me he’ll get in touch with him and they’ll come over and look at the tree.

All’s well that ends well. Turns out I got two other enthusiastic recommendations for Dan, from my niece and my sister. He came and took down the cracked branches while I was away one morning. Apparently the tree isn’t rotten after all. I feel blessed to have several trustworthy men in my life. I couldn’t be a home-moaner without them.


Speaking of nature, I’ve been derelict in looking after the wildlife that perch on my hanging feeders and paw and peck at the ground. When I run out of birdseed and “critter food,” I am loath to make a special trip to another state (5.9 miles away) to get supplies, so days can pass before I get off my ass (oh, “I’m a poet and don’t know it; but my feet sure show it: they’re Longfellows” [sh*t my dad said]). I am never more happy than when I see the birds and furry rodents feasting upon the seed and nutty riches I lay out for them. Besides making the birdbath to runneth over, I’ve put down a ceramic bowl that I fill with water for the ground creatures, though I don’t know if they partake. (Update: I sat out on the back porch the other day to watch the goings-on. It was slightly too cool to be out there in shorts and a t-shirt, but I was roughing it. It took several minutes of sitting absolutely still before the creatures that had fled when I opened the back door returned to the bounty. At the most populous point there were 2 mourning doves, a blue jay, a squirrel, 3 chipmunks, and a cardinal, mostly coexisting without incident. But one of the chipmunks chased another one around the yard and out of sight until it reappeared, the apparent victor. I got an answer to the water bowl question when another chipmunk came out of nowhere and ran toward it, stood up on its tippy toes, and leaned over the edge to take a very small sip of water.)

I was happy to see this. I thought how cool it would be to take photographs of some of this action, but I cannot seem to operate a camera. I did take a halfway decent picture of Luther with my cell phone (to show the people at the vet that he is not always a savage beast), but now I have no idea how to upload it to my computer. Anyway, these times when I sit outside—not exactly in nature, but nature-adjacent—and watch the wild ones are very precious to me. In my youth I did the whole tromping through forests and up mountains thing, but the microcosm of my back yard is just as satisfying to me now.

We anthropomorphize animals, we just can’t help it. I’m always dreaming up explanations for why Luther seems to know when I’m getting dressed to leave the house without him and when I’m about to grab him and take him to see ol’ Doc Anderson. Recently, he had to get more “crystals” (stones) removed from his urethra and, true to form, he hid until I tricked him by tapping the cat comb on a ceramic cup. (The slightest touch on that cup brings both cats running.) Luckily, I managed to grab him. The experience is traumatic for him, of course, since it involves a forceps and his urethra. But it’s no picnic for me, either. Apparently this is going to keep happening, at >$300 a pop. But there’s a happy aftermath. When he recovers fully from the anesthesia, he can’t seem to get enough of me: He follows me around, wants to sit in my lap, and rolls on the floor from side to side, seemingly for my amusement. This may be more anthropomorphism, but I say he’s grateful to me for getting him out of that hell hole and doesn’t hold it against me (or forgot) that I was the one who brought him there in the first place. After about a day and a half, he goes back to normal and sets down his gratitude like a heavy valise and goes off to play-wrestle with his brother.

We know that certain animals are “intelligent” (however that manifests), but are we any good at assessing it? I saw a video the other day that blew my mind. An elephant was shown at an easel, painting what the description said was a “self-portrait.” (The trainer gave her the brush with paint on it, and she held it with her trunk.) It was uncanny. As the figure took form, looking more and more like an elephant—observers in the video whispering “oh my god” and other words of amazement—the elephant, whom we learn is named Hong, completes the painting by adding a flower held in the painted elephant’s trunk.

I didn’t know what to make of this. I figured the picture probably wasn’t a “self” portrait, but maybe elephants had the ability to depict their fellow creatures just as early “man” did on the walls of caves. This would be extraordinary in itself—that animals would have the skill and especially the intention of making pictorial representations—but what if the painting came out of some subconscious animality that equaled humanity in its depth and expression. (In which case, the trainer should really take a few classes at the Center for Creative Exploration in San Francisco to understand that Hong could have gone much farther with encouragement. “Could anything else come into or out of the painting?”)

It turns out that the trainers, well, train the elephants to make certain strokes with the paint. In the age-old way, they give them treats to reinforce what they want them to learn.



I’m so happy in my fortress, with my kitty cats, the Web as Wide as the World, an endless supply of books (some Kindled, some inert) and music (iTunes is my master), regular phone calls and FaceTime with friends, and visits with sisters. I’m living a fair approximation of the life my mother enjoyed for 3 years after retirement and before colon cancer. She was so angry at the end, her bliss cut short at 69—weird to think I’m only a few years from that point myself. I don’t think I’ll be angry when I face the inevitable. I’m so grateful for the unexpectedly full and rich life I’ve been given, against all odds (and many ends).


(do you think this is overkill? hahaha)

This is where my health stands now:

I had diabetes for about 5 minutes, but now I’m “normal” again, though at the high end. I am seriously overweight; there’s a skinny person inside me who’s not even trying to get out, because she believes she’s still thin. I weighed 112 in college. My mother called me Olive Oyl when I was a teenager. I ran 10K races in my 40s. But after I retired from my job at age 50 and no longer had to walk several blocks from Golden Gate Park and hike up the hill to UCSF, I was doomed.

I recently had a follow-up appt. with my doctor. The nurse takes my blood pressure, which is 146/70. I say, “That’s not too bad, is it?” She allows as how “it could be worse.” I agree: “I could be dead.” She giggles. I like to leave ‘em laffin’. My doctor is très jovial, which I appreciate, but she’s a little scattered. When I first started seeing her, she’d ask every time, “Are you still not smoking?” “Not since 1971!” I should never have mentioned that I smoked cigarettes for 1 year back then, but I cannot tell a lie. (None of the many doctors, including two psychiatrists, I’ve seen have ever asked about my recreational drug use. I find that odd.) So anyway, on this “visit,” the doc casually refers to my “arthritis,” and when I say I don’t have arthritis, she looks back at the computer screen and says, “Oh, I just saw ‘osteo-‘ and thought….” (So what did that “osteo-” mean? I didn’t think to ask her.) A couple months ago, she asked when I’d had my last mammogram and then wrote down my (wild) guess. She has all the information in front of her!

I’ve been concerned about my high CRP (C-reactive protein) level for several years now, and no one can tell me what it means, except “inflammation somewhere in the body.” Even my previous doctor, the one I liked so much who disappeared off the face of the earth, maybe caught up in his own personal rapture, had no answers for me. Neither does my present doc. But she decided to have me do a treadmill test with “echo” to see if the inflammation is “cardio.”


I walk on my treadmill for 15 minutes a day, so I wasn’t too worried about the test. There was a lot of prep, because the ultrasound tech had to take images of my heart while I was resting so there’d be a basis for comparison afterward. She told me everything that was going to happen (more than once), kept asking if I had any questions, and finally said, “I’ve been throwing a lot of information at you, don’t you have any questions?” I wanted to say, “I must be smarter than I look.” When it was finally time to get on the treadmill, another tech told me how high my heart rate should go, and there was a monitor so I could watch that and the time. The first 3 minutes was easy… about what I do at home. But then at minute 3, the tech ramped up both the speed and the incline. After 30 seconds of that, my legs were killing me and I almost couldn’t keep up. I thought I was going to tread myself right off the back of the thing, like Bill Murray in some movie or other. The tech asked if I could make it to 4 minutes. I did, just barely. Then I had to quickly get over to the cot and lie back down so the ultrasound tech could take more images. I thought I would never catch my breath. A cardiologist went over the results, and I got the word that my heart is fine. So the high CRP is still a mystery.

By the way, I had a problem with the questionnaire I had to fill out ahead of time that mirrored my confusion over which chair in the exam room was “first” (which I wrote about several months ago). Most of the questions required yes or no answers, and, appropriately, there was a blank box next to each answer. But then there was a series of questions about diseases, and instead of “yes [blank box], no [blank box],” there was only “yes [blank box] no.” Maybe you were supposed to write Y or N in the box? That didn’t even occur to me at the time. I ended up circling the vertical line of “noes” but boy did I feel dumb. Or perhaps too smart for my own good, which sounds a lot better.

In the same vein, I was filling out an insurance form and had to make an appointment to speak to a benefits counselor. I set up the appointment, and in the confirmation it said that I would be calling the counselor on October 16 at “1:00 Central Standard Time.” Well, we’re still on daylight saving time on Oct. 16, so I spent a few minutes wondering what they meant by calling it standard time. Clearly, they just hadn’t thought about it, because in another communication they called it simply “Central time.” So it occurred to me, not for the first time, that I was cheated out of several points on my IQ test in high school by questioning things that the makers of the test never even considered. Now that I edit for scientists, I know just how careless even smart people can be in writing. You may call this “overthinking,” but I call it “thinking.” The IQ test has been called biased because of cultural assumptions and references that minorities might not be familiar with. I say it’s also biased because it doesn’t take into account people who are too smart for their own good (and/or born editors).

This wasn’t my medical adventure, but I played a small part in my sister’s colonoscopy by driving her to the hospital at 6:00 a.m. I sat with her during the taking of the medical history and the failed attempt to teach a nursing student how to insert an IV needle. “Tom,” who introduced himself unforthcomingly as “head of a unit downstairs” and “also a professor,” was there to teach a male nursing student how to hook up an IV. Tom explained to him how to insert the needle as if he were flying an airplane: first, go in at a 15 or 30 degree angle, then level off like when the wheels are dropping down. I rather doubt that the student had ever piloted a plane. Barb suffered through all the jabs, and at one point she said, “Would it help if we made airplane noises?” I thought that was hilarious, but Tom merely said, “No.” Eventually, he had to put the needle in himself. (Aha! a reading comprehension test: In whom did he put the needle?) I felt bad for the student, but even more so for Barb.

Barb also weighed in on my anthropomorphic imaginings about what goes on in Luther’s mind when he thinks I’m going to take him to the vet. Sometimes he hides under the bed, and sometimes he acts completely unconcerned. I was telling her that he sat in the middle of the room as I was getting ready that morning, not reacting at all to my going up and down the stairs, getting dressed, etc. (He seems to get most suspicious when I put socks on.) Barb’s suggestion was, “Well, it was still dark out, and he knows the vet isn’t open at that hour.” That, indeed, is my favorite explanation.

more odds, more ends

In dismal news for editors and editrices, the word “literally” is about to get another definition in the dictionary: It will also mean “metaphorically,” since just about no one uses it correctly. I guess that’s one way for language to evolve. But when that happens, we lose a perfectly useful distinction. “Literally” used to mean something. Now, people will be able to say, “I literally died laughing”—and get away with it!

Conversely, we maintain distinctions that have no meaning, such as “the exception that proves the rule.” Once upon a time, “prove” meant “test,” so exceptions test the rule. This isn’t just a matter of semantics. Writers are using a concept that doesn’t exist when they say, “well, that’s the exception that proves the rule,” as if exceptions to rules actually show that the rule is valid. They don’t!


After about a 3-week spurt of work, I’m idle once again, spending many hours a day reading for fun instead of profit. I tend to have several books going at once, and at one point I was reading two mystery novels, both of which had major characters named Amber and Kirsty (which is strange in itself). Whenever I encountered either name, I had to do a little mental calculus to remember which Amber and Kirsty I was reading about: the two killers, or the insomniac and the mentally disabled child. To make matters worse, the Amber and Kirsty in the two-killer book had changed their names so their crime wouldn’t follow them through life, and their childhood names were used interchangeably with the new names, so I had to remember each time that Amber=Bel (or Annabel, just to confuse me further) and Kirsty=Jade. I never finished the book, and now you know why.

I’ve now started reading another mystery novel in which the main activity is playing poker online, so the real names of the players are interspersed with their nicknames—and even those fake names change according to which avatar the player has chosen for that round of play. So you have Chip Zero chatting online with Second Gunman, and sometimes they call each other by their real names, which, no, I am not going to go through the whole book looking for examples.


I came across a phrase in something I read recently that I have never seen expressed in quite this way: A character was talking about his dying father, and he (the son) referred to the feeling as being “suspended over the abyss of anticipatory grief.” This phrase exactly expresses what I felt when my mother was dying of cancer. I had never before had the (almost literal) feeling of looking into the abyss. I was feeling it in my body and “seeing” it in my mind’s eye. And yes, it was “anticipatory,” because I felt very different after she died. Just as she did with her crossing, I had traversed the abyss in a way, by going through the actual experience and not just fearfully imagining it. Afterward, I had more navigable feelings, such as peace and catharsis, and strong (sometimes lucid) dreams.

all’s well that ends

There is a word to describe the state of bodies in perfect chemical equilibrium with the outside world. That state is called “Death.”
—Paul Tobolowsky,
Stardust Dancing: a Seeker’s Guide to the Miraculous

I was kind of blown away by this quote. I immediately had the image of a person standing upright in the chemical swill (or ground of being, to be fancy about it), and by that posture considered to be “alive.” Instead of a parallel reality, this would be a perpendicular one. The flat surface would be the “undifferentiated”—complete harmony and oneness. Anything standing perpendicular (seemingly “apart”) to that would be the “living,” a seemingly separate entity.


you are the glass ball, distinct and yet reflecting everything around you


dead?   the cosmos remains, but you are no longer a visible or self-conscious entity

(And no, I don’t think you get to take your glass ball and go home, i.e., there is no individual soul. You are soulful because you are part of everything that is.)

When I went to to find the image(s) to match my first thought, I couldn’t seem to find the right search term. So I browsed more widely, and the glass ball came up. I think it’s a more eloquent illustration of aliveness than my idea of a stick figure standing (alive) and then lying down and blending in (dead). I love this process. It’s not just the writing, it’s the challenge to be open-minded and find what I need without imposing too many prejudgments on it.

the end

thanks for reading!

p.s. I cannot get the hang of the layout, spacing, etc., for these posts. Sometimes—and I fear that this might be an understatement—I am too dumb for my own good.

mary’zine #57: September 2012

September 9, 2012

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

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

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

the wisdom of Deadwood

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

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

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

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


after life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

the literal exegesis

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

the metaphorical exegesis

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

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

when bad things happen to good kitties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

some gratuitous images from the interwebs

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



Bonne chance to all people of leftish persuasion come November…

(Mary McKenney)

mary’zine #55: June 2012

June 9, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“odd dark beauty”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May your life be full of them.

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

Mary McKenney

mary’zine #50: July 2011

July 21, 2011

It isn’t necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can do no other, it will writhe before you in ecstasy. –Franz Kafka, Zürau Aphorisms

Everywhere I turn lately, it seems I’m getting a message about silence. Even the comedians Marc Maron and Garry Shandling talked about it on Maron’s podcast—the beauty and significance of it, the desperate need for it, both onstage and in real life. Something is drawing me to notice these references. Maybe it’s because The Painting Studio in San Francisco was holding its 7-day spring intensive the week that I started writing this. After painting for a few days, the silence is palpable. Thoughts may pass through, like the 36 Teresita bus that comes rumbling past the studio several times an hour—odd how the inner silence can flourish in less than ideal urban conditions—but they gain no purchase. Image and color are your only tools, “all ye know and all ye need to know,” like Keats’s truth/beauty.

It’s not that silence is empty. In silence is everything. What silence silences is the mind, that chattery, self-interested, superficial retainer of life’s minutiae. The mind comes in mighty handy when you need to remember something, like how to get home from the store, but it is limited. It is limited in exactly the ways that it would need not to be limited for it to understand what goes on beyond itself.

The mind will chatter on, but it has no power if you (i.e., the mind itself) aren’t afraid that it is all you have, that the chattering and worrying and faux planning (as if there truly is a thing called “tomorrow”) is all that supports and proves its existence. I worried a lot about death at an early age, when my brother died and I couldn’t understand how he could be under the ground—forever. I would lie in bed trying to imagine forever… better than focusing on under the ground, I suppose… this long and this long and then still dead. It was like trying to hold my breath indefinitely, the mind was not up to the task of imagining such a thing. Even if death didn’t enter your life as a child, you put the same expectation and fear of the future on the unimaginable changes that would have to occur for you to become what they called an adult. I worried that I would stop getting toys as presents, unable to imagine not wanting them. In the 3rd or 4th grade, I saw that my older cousin had to read Time magazine for his 6th grade class. I couldn’t imagine being asked to comprehend anything so complex. Adulthood seemed to me like a never-ending series of requirements, disappointments, and “pills to swallow,” because I had no way to imagine being other than who I was.

And that’s what I think the fear of death is in adults. We can’t imagine not having the mind, personality, and characteristics that we have now… we can only imagine having (No More)Time magazine to somehow comprehend… receiving “gifts” we don’t want, longing for and holding on to the life we know, rejecting the new reality because only the old reality is familiar or even credible. Religious people convince themselves that we will somehow remain “ourselves”: veritable children playing with our toys and reading our Beginning Reader books instead of complicated magazine texts requiring an ability to comprehend beyond our present state of semi-literacy.

In my analogy of the misapprehensions of children imagining adulthood, at least as children we have models for the coming transformation—our parents and other adults who claim to have once been “our age,” though we can’t imagine them as children; even photographs of them looking much like us aren’t compelling evidence, because it isn’t quite believable—the alchemy of growth, like metal into gold, yeah, right: How could there have been a world without my mother as herself (i.e., as my mother) in it? So the algebra of “child is to adult as life is to death” seems to break down, because the irreligious adult has no model for what comes “later,” not even photographs. There is no believable future that can be accommodated by our childish adult minds. We think we know all the possibilities: placed in the ground, or burned up and scattered, or existing (if you can call that “existence”!) as ashes in a jar on somebody’s end table. Our limited minds lead us, as our limited child minds once did, to fearful projections based on unrealities and unknowables. This throbbing litany of fears is the mind acting on itself, trying to escape itself, out-think itself, imagine itself as no longer existing technically but still somehow self-aware. Even if you reject the traditional promise of heaven or the threat of hell, the “spiritual” promise is an equivalent bargain in which you still expect to be yourself in some theoretical state—sacrificing the body if only you can retain your sense of identity. I happen to have experienced the level above the personal for a few brief moments (though even referring to “levels” and “above” or “beyond” is misleading), and it’s not as if I can come tripping down the mountain with stone tablets that explain everything in 10 simple bullet points, it’s more of an evanescent memory of a certainty—perhaps the only true certainty I have ever experienced—that not being me is not a contradiction or an impossibility.

So I do believe that silence is the irreducible core of our existence, but it’s not as if I myself forgo the silence-fillers of eating, drinking, listening, watching, reading, thinking. Sometimes, when weather permits, I’ll sit out on the back porch and watch the birds, but I’m not sure that qualifies as silence either, because it’s like watching the Discovery channel: There’s still content. But it’s just more detritus of the mind to worry about what one is or isn’t doing to fulfill some assumed criteria, as if the mind can bargain with the depths (God/etc.), “I’ll sit still for 30 minutes a day,” “I’ll stop eating meat,” “I’ll only read spiritual books.” You can’t get there from here. You can’t create or mimic it, or punish yourself for thinking, faking, avoiding. “You” are the vehicle, not the fuel, the origin, or the destination. (The painting is one of my first, from 1979 or ‘80.)

Bird Bath and Beyond

At last, I am enveloped and enriched by the green, green flames of leaves that I sorely missed all winter. It’s funny how you change in ways you could never have predicted. By the time I left home at 17, I hated the color green, partly because of its ubiquitousness in the environment (the U.P. was green way before it was fashionable) and partly because it was my father’s go-to color for painting everything around the house, including the lawn furniture we built in the basement and sold in the front yard to people in (hardly ever) passing cars. Now it feels as if, without the color green, I would only be half alive.

There are new kids on the block, birds of and of not a feather—a red-headed woodpecker looking like a painted image—a bird-shaped Mondrian, perhaps—and the usual suspects, the little yellow finches, bright-red cardinals, iridescent pigeons, dull-brown (but lifelong loyal, they say) mourning doves, blue-blue jays, and those little brown and striped sweeties that are still (to me) UFOs—along with a couple of chipmunks that run like the wind when my shadow darkens the glass in the back door. The neighborhood crows finally figured out that the lawn at 4216 4th St. is paved with gold (and dried corn), so they come strutting across the grass or dive bombing like F-18s, scaring off all the other critters.

Indoors, my pampered darlings, Brutus and Luther, live their lives of Riley, barely moving except to find a more comfortable position on the “family bed” (armchair + oversized ottoman). Brutie’s favorite thing lately, and I don’t know what he gets out of it, is picking up one of my old slip-on shoes that I leave by the front door and lugging it all the way across the living room and the kitchen and up the stairs, where he dumps it and then ignores it until I bring it back downstairs and he retrieves it again. Tag team Sisyphus?

By the way, I’ve come up with a U.P. version of the famous line after which he was named:  Eh tu, Bruté? or Brute, you tu, eh? (Words are fun.)


The weather is odd, as always. Between one day and the next, the temp can go from 90 degrees to 40. I suppose it has something to do with the Great Lake that borders our flank. Right now (well, “now” when I started writing this—I’m always at least a month behind in my weather observations) we’re in a very small window during which, speaking of which, I get to keep my windows open rather than spending money on either heated or cooled air. Would that this would last. Have I told you that Menominee is in a “banana belt”? And yet, No, we have no bananas. It’s probably the safest place on earth, from both Old Man Weather and Young Man Terrorist… at least until those Canadians start getting uppity. One of my favorite novelists is Steve Hamilton, who writes about the way-UP north by Lake Superior and the Canadian border. But he makes me feel lacking in UP-ness. Down here with the faux bananas, we’re neither fish nor fowl nor “Soo” denizens nor Wisconsinites, whom we resemble most closely as fans of the g.d. G.B. Packers. The small talk that figures into any medical visit or restaurant meal usually starts with, “Are you going to watch the game?” or “Did you watch the game?” or possibly even, “Are you watching the game right now?” No one ever has to specify which game they’re talking about, because there’s only the one. When I was a lass, the Milwaukee Braves were my dad’s and my team, despite being even farther away than Green Bay. I still remember many of the players’ names: Hank Aaron (of course), Eddie Matthews, Warren Spahn… OK, not that many. If I’ve told you this before, you can skip ahead. One of my favorite childhood memories was going to an actual Braves game when I was about 10. (I swear, age 10 was perhaps the best year of my life, at least until about 40, when I realized that life was actually getting better; that 30-year in-between span was hellish.) I think it was just Mom, Dad and I who went to the game, because my sisters were very young. Dad was still in the navigable phase of his MS. I was amazed when we entered the stands and everything on the field was so brightly colored! I’d only seen baseball (or anything else) on our black-and-white TV. The green was so green, the red was so red, you get the picture. I don’t remember the game itself, or even who won, but I cherished the baseball bat-shaped pen-and-pencil set Mom bought me from one of the vendors. Of all the sports I played as a kid (in the driveway, in the road, at the Grant School field), I loved baseball the most (I’m quite sure we used real baseballs, not softballs). In junior high, PE was usually the near-nadir of my school day (actual nadir was trying not to vomit in 1st period)—unendurable gymnastics; nausea-inducing dodge ball (not strictly psychological as when I was in class; the continuous running made me sick), awkward and uncoordinated folk dancing, embarrassing (1) and scary (2) swimming (1: trooping past the PE boys in my bathing suit; 2: getting cannonballed on by a klutzy girl while trying to hold my breath underwater)—odd that I joined GAA, the Girls’ Athletic Association, in the 9th grade, but that was for fun, not a way for our dyke gym teacher to humiliate the likes of me—am I still in the same sentence? BUT… the only really wonderful day or days of the year in PE were in the spring when it was nice enough to be outside and we would play actual baseball games. The other times I got to play were in the summer when there were group picnics in Henes Park, usually sponsored by the VFW or similar militaristic organizations. I learned a few things about myself at those picnics: 1: One of the guys manning the food tables (hot dogs! Nehi pop! Heaven!) asked me my name and then disingenuously replied, “Oh, are you Skip’s daughter?” He was trying to catch me in a lie, which I really resented. My dad’s name was Bill. Uncle Skip didn’t belong to the VFWhatever. I guess I hold a grudge longer than even the meanest crow, because I’ve always hated being accused of lying or being tricked in any way. 2: I also discovered that I was very good at avoidance: In a game in which each kid had a balloon tied to the back of their ankle and had to try to pop the other kids’ balloons without getting their own popped, I won. I just instinctively knew how to make myself small or functionally invisible and to never turn my back on anyone. Huh. Funny how those traits get revealed at such a young age.

Ah, where was I? I thought I was talking about birds. Or trees. Well, I have one more thing to say about baseball. I couldn’t possibly care less about watching other people play it, but I deeply miss playing it myself. I saw on Facebook that one of my sister’s granddaughters (who’s 10, not coincidentally) loves, well, softball. That brought it all back and caused me great pangs of… is it nostalgia, or just missing something I can no longer do? Or are they the same? I definitely don’t want to go back there, I would just love to play like that again. Another “sport” (unorganized) that I truly miss is ice-skating… from the same era, when they flooded the field at Grant School and my sisters and I would skate in the evenings. I thought I hated winter (turns out… not so much), but I loved skating and was good at it. (It’s weird to remember how I used to love being physical.)

The “nostalgia,” or whatever it is, continues. It’s all about age 10, 5th grade. I looked forward to the town librarian’s coming to our school once a week; I read lots of library books, but my favorites were the Hardy Boys. Once, I helped the librarian by alphabetizing the check-out cards, and (more shades of the future to come) she was astonished that I had made no mistakes. I must have been the first among dozens or hundreds of previous speller-attempters to get it right. I was not impressed myself, since, you know, I had known the alphabet for some years already. But it stuck in my mind, 1, because I was and am vain about my felicity with language (and desirous of praise from authority figures), and 2, because it was such a perfect prefigurement (it’s a word) of my adult vocation. I love spotting the seeds of what I was to become, and I urge anyone who hasn’t yet figured that out for themselves to look back to childhood and see what really thrilled them. (Contrary to expectation, I didn’t become a professional athlete, but after 9th grade my path veered sharply into the language arts and philosophy, and away from everything requiring a body with moving parts.)

And now I am led, inexorably, to the memory—skipping a few years to 12th grade—of my lifelong attachment to my English teacher, Ruth, who did more for my self-esteem in a scant 9-1/2 months than I ever would have dreamed possible. In one of life’s cruelest lessons, I had to learn the hard way that being a protégé is stage-specific; you can’t have the same relationship with your mentor when you hit your 40s as you did when you were 17 and she was barely older than you at 29. (Likewise, my male 5th grade teacher, whom I adored for similar reasons, was 25 to my 10.) That teenage infatuation, to which I clung and later attempted to transfer to other female teacher-guru types, was obviously a maladaptation, but does anyone get through life without a maladaptation or two? I’ve ceased getting down on myself for my unmet infant needs. They’re still there—aren’t everybody’s?—but I accept the fact of them. In that sense, I’m no longer avoiding getting my infantile balloon stomped on (see above picnic; game; early life lesson), I’m just dragging the spent plastic around—popped by life, there’s no avoiding that—like dirty, ripped pant cuffs, aware of the time that’s gone by and the struggles that have taken up so much of it. Why begrudge myself the years of illusion, confusion, exclusion, intrusion, reclusion, and failed relationship hoo-hah that took up the vast majority of my mid-life? Now that I’m nearing the end-life, I feel like Judy Collins reflecting on the both, the many, the all sides now, just in time, right on target for my demographic boomer cohort. For all my vaunted contrarianism, I’ve marched right along with my contemporaries, going through each life stage more or less in lockstep, though ‘twas lockstep that I freely entered into. I regret nothing, as they say. Well, of course I regret un peu, but I did it all in good faith, how else could it have been? I only now see the ridiculousness of thinking that one can be someone other than oneself, that one can choose in a broader sense than just “I choose pie” or the like. My life feels whole, I have inclusion to add to the list. Does that mean I have finally gotten too big for my britches—oh snap, I have, but that’s not what I meant—as I claim to now embrace the whole of my life, even the pain that took place a mere 2 blocks away in an upstairs bedroom, or in a cedar grove across town, or in a college town beyond my UP boundaries, or in that delightful Shangri-la, San Francisco?

But what did my point start out to be? Well, on one of my recent trolls up and down the intertubes, looking for proof of Ruth’s continued existence, I discovered the opposite, her death. Nothing too specific, just an asterisk by her name in documents from Calgary, her lifetime home after Menominee. After confessing to me in a letter that I was “always [her] favorite [student],” I foolishly tried for more—when what more could I have asked for?—and got nada back in return. I tried humor (“You have a delightful sense of humor!” she wrote on the first paper I wrote for her), honesty, apology, the first 2 or 3 issues of the mary’zine, but I could not extract another bite past the whole enchilada she had already generously given me before disappearing from my life forever… leaving behind the 40-year-old going on 17, looking for a reprise of the closest-to-fulfillment-of-infantile-need I have ever experienced*, a need that is more intransigent than the desire for alcohol, sugar, or glory. I could call myself(ishness) merely greedy, but it was a perfectly understandable desire to repeat perfection once achieved but tragically undefined and ill understood at the time. Who can be blamed for wanting such a thing? I have now learned the true delayed life lesson of the popped balloon, the burst, irretrievable delusion of infancy, the poof of the certainty of my ability to avoid.

*Not true, actually. I achieved the ultimate in that department with my ex-therapist J… an even better example of the impossibility of continuing self-centered bliss in the unconditional positive regard of an older (well, 6-months-older in this case) mother surrogate. I’ve cycled through my allotment of mothers and mother substitutes, only to be left to my own maternal devices in my own behalf. Je regrette un peu, but again, that’s a balloon that will never lose its fill of air because it lives in the belly of my own beastly breast and breath. (I should have been a 19th century lady poet.)


wild thing

My cat Luther is a wuss. A wimp. His brother Brutus antagonizes him, and he just takes it. He waits to eat until Brutus is finished, even though there are two bowls of food, and he follows me around and makes the French doors rattle when I shut myself in my bedroom. He’s a big baby full of needs that can never be fulfilled. I know how he feels, but it’s frustrating to be on the other end of that. Anyway, I have to take him to the vet every 5 or 6 weeks to get an allergy shot. We don’t know what he’s allergic to, but he scratches his chin and the skin around his eyes bloody. It’s never been a pleasant experience, but now it’s starting to resemble the apocalypse.

At the vet’s, we always have to wait past the appointment time to get into the exam room. There are no apologies, no “It’ll just be a few more minutes,” just the interminable passing of time, like No Exit for animal lovers. The waiting room gradually fills up with cats and dogs—the cats in their carriers, the dogs strutting about, straining at their leashes to get at one another and the cats. This last time, we waited for at least 35 minutes. It was torture for both of us, because we were intruded upon by a huge panting, stinky dog. This dog, named Kitty (how clever), insisted on being up on the bench about 2 feet from me, and she continually strained at her leash in my direction. I understand why people love dogs—I do—but they certainly have an entitled attitude. Most dog owners will intuit from my leaning as far away as possible that I’m not interested in being slobbered on, but this woman was a little light in the vigilance department. She would tug on the leash and castigate him casually just before he was about to get at me, keeping me in a constant state of tension. Every now and then Kitty would get down off the bench and walk past Luther’s carrier, sneezing on it, raking the side of it with her toenails, oblivious to Luther’s hissing through the air holes.

The bench where Kitty clamored and cavorted was quickly covered with puddles of drool (which her owner laughed merrily to see), which made me wonder what dried animal residue I was sitting on and whether they ever cleaned the bench. I finally got up and stood by the door because I couldn’t take it anymore. It was somewhat reminiscent of my visit to the dentist a few days before, when every muscle in my body strained to guard against the possibility of the drill’s hitting a sensitive spot. (I was not pampered with Valium or nitrous this time.) Even though there was no pain per se, there was a lot of noise from the drill, water spattering my face and glasses, and the suck stick doing its sucking and sticking, usually when it no longer mattered because I had already swallowed. Every muscle was wound as tight as anything, and though I tried to relax, my whole body would constrict again immediately with the sheer physical unpleasantness of it all.

Back to the vet…. I was relieved when we finally got into the exam room, but I knew there was going to be trouble when I started to unsnap the things on the side of the carrier to open it up and Luther hissed at me—a first. Fortunately, the vet and the assistant are good sports, but as soon as they took the top off the carrier, Luther went ballistic. He lashed out, he hissed and yowled, he practically launched himself out of the carrier at the assistant. (The vet knew to stay out of reach.) Luther fought for all he was worth, got covered with a towel and quickly stabbed in the butt, but he wasn’t going down without a fight. They tried to put the top back on the carrier, but he was still lashing and slashing and trying to get out. The assistant tried to get his attention down at the far side of the carrier while the vet struggled to get the door back on. We were all sweating by the time it was over, and the vet suggested I give him pills next time.

Then we had to go back in the waiting room until someone came out with the paperwork and the pills, but at least “Kitty” was gone and there were no further outbursts from Luther. We got home, and all was copacetic except for his eyes following me with suspicion whenever I came near him. I had a mad fantasy during the whole thing in which I imagined going wild myself—in the dentist chair or on the bench next to the stinky dog—starting to thrash and lash and hiss like crazy…. Needing to be covered with a towel and having one or more professionals try to keep their hands away from my sharp claws (if I had sharp claws). Maybe someday, when I forget who I am and lose my need for approval and don’t know why I’m being made to sit still and get shots or endure other indignities, I’ll fight like a wild thing and scare the bejesus out of everyone around me.

update on the folks

Recently, the sisters and brother-in-law and I had a rare Friday evening of no TV, just desultory conversation, no pressure, nothing of importance, but several fits of laughter among the womenfolk. I love making my sisters laugh. (Why is it always described as “making” someone laugh? Sounds kind of coercive.) So much silliness… Somehow the question arises: Do snakes have tails? They’re all tail. Well, they have a head, they must also have a tail. Then I mime throwing a snake up in the air and slapping it down on the back of my other hand, then peeking at it. “Call it,” I say. “Heads or tails?” We decide that the tail (or head) is going to be hanging down, so it’s a pretty easy call to make. I become enamored of myself doing this mime—in my opinion it’s way better than pretending to be stuck in a glass box. Barb says it’s like a Gary Larson cartoon… but his snakes tend to wear old lady glasses and have serious expressions on their faces. (Do snakes have faces?) (Why are we talking about this?)

While we burst into laughter over our silly word plays, the manfolk sits in his recliner like a stump, not appreciating our funny bones (do snakes have bones?), or possibly envious of our bond(s). This is us at our best, when no one’s giving a long-winded status report and no one else is parsing the goings-on. Just batting the conversational ball around (do snakes have balls?). Nothing serious, like I said, just whatever comes up….

… K’s work in the yard… A guy from the Eagle-Herald photographed her building a stone wall, and her picture appeared on the front page of the paper.

… Cars need washing. I calculate that I haven’t washed my Jeep (I mean, taken it through the car wash) since September ’09. The simplest things evade me sometimes. Before I had someone to clean my house, it would take me 6 months to spend 5 minutes cleaning the refrigerator. My mantra lately is “I do what I have to do,” but guess who’s deciding what “has” to be done? I feel like a mythic hero(ine) when I take out the garbage and fill the dishwasher and get the dirty laundry out of the way before my niece comes over to clean. Add to that the enormous task of carrying heavy bags of bird seed out to the back yard and filling the feeders. A semi-retired homeowner’s work is never done.

… A retelling of the whole plot of the season finale of “The Mentalist,” which I haven’t seen because… (another mantra) “I don’t have a TV.”

… Garage sale purchases… who made a haul, who didn’t find anything. It’s a lot like gambling. But the rich don’t put out much of any value because (I suppose) they’re keeping it, and the poor don’t because they don’t have anything of value. Baby clothes and double strollers seem to be big this year. Has there been a mini baby boom? But Menominee’s population has gone down to below 9,000, so I guess as soon as they’re born they start planning their escape. Few of us move back. Shore Drive with its 20 or so sales, too far to walk up each long driveway. I’d go with if they didn’t start at 7 a.m.

But I’d rather not have used stuff anyway. I’ve always been like that, even when I had no money. I want(ed) new books, new clothes, new toys. My sisters got my leftovers. I always forget that, so I’ll describe a rust-colored skirt and blouse outfit that I hated, or a gray felt poodle skirt that I sort of liked, and K will say, “Yeah, those got handed down to me.” They had to play with my handed-down dollhouse and listen to my 45 rpm records: Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Association. We each bring up memories, but rarely do we all remember the same things. One of us is always saying, “I didn’t know that!” “I don’t remember that!” I secretly suspect that my sisters’ memories are so bad—or their child gullibility so extreme—that they’re passing off imagined or joking comments as gospel: like our grandfather telling them that he was in the circus when he was a kid. Grandfathers say things like that, but does that make them true? A lot of things they bring up happened after I left for college at 17, put my family in my rear view, and drove away.

… What colors were the walls, who had a twin or full-size bed? Who dried the dishes while Dad washed, and who got in trouble when Mom found out he was teaching us to take two wet dishes at a time and dry the top of one and the bottom of the other, then switch. Men are forever inventing new ways of escaping household drudgery, much to the chagrin of their control freak wives. One of the things that prevent men from taking over their share of the household duties is the woman’s fear of the man’s lack of “doing it right.” (“Easier to do it myself,” which is fine with the guy.) Way to go, guys! I will add this seemingly anti-feminist proviso, though: Women who want their men to do their share of housework and baby diapering tend to be strangely reluctant to do the “man” things like getting the car repaired or climbing up on the roof to fix the antenna. I’ve never seen this addressed (by women). Although I hate the argument that men and women should have fixed gender roles, I do have sympathy for the guys whose wives don’t want to cook or sew but don’t want to do the other stuff either. Of course I mean the women who don’t work outside the home.

Why do I care? One of the beauties of same-sex relationships is that each partner gravitates to doing what they mind the least. Not that there are no “male-female”-type divisions of labor, but there’s still freedom to, say, prefer to cook over doing the dishes, or rake leaves rather than vacuum. You make it up as you go along.

But again: Why do I care? I have to do it all, except for what I can get other people to do for money. It’s not that I feel I’m above doing dirty tasks—remember that garbage gathering and that dish(washer) washing—I’d just rather look at words on paper than do even the slightest form of physical labor. And I’m helping the e-con-o-my!

… Gossip about my nephew’s ex-wife’s second divorce, so satisfying to he who went through the trauma of her manipulations and criminal behaviors, such as forging his name on checks that were intended for him. He was a saint, supposedly, and she was a lying, cheating bitch. And the other nephew’s ex makes him drive to her town to “babysit”! The mothers of sons have a unique perspective on these things.

We’re still playing Friday nights by ear, Barb and I waiting to be invited over. I whip myself into a lather over my brother-in-law’s apparent dislike of having us around. (After previously whipping myself into a lather over his never letting K come with us without him.) He refuses to go with us to Schussler’s for K’s birthday dinner. I don’t want to go back to their house afterward but do anyway, because that’s what we do. MP is out on the deck, still seemingly avoiding us. After a while he comes in and plops down in his recliner next to me, and I deliberately don’t look at him or say anything to him for maybe half an hour. I don’t think anyone notices, but I could be wrong. The TV stays off, a minor miracle. At one point K mentions what they do when they get up in the morning at the ungodly hour of 4 or 5 a.m.—they kneel on the couch together and watch the birds through the picture window. Something about this image melts me right out of my mood, and I turn to MP and say how sweet that is. And from that moment on, we talk to each other like normal human beings and I realize how much I like him when he’s not being a dick (or when I’m not trying to out-dick him). This misunderstanding—or whatever it is—that has made us cut down on family time seems necessary but kind of sad. I’m still glad when just Barb and I go out on a Friday night to a decent restaurant and then watch a movie at her house and don’t have to strain to make small talk with the 200-pound gorilla in the room whose moods are so unpredictable. Hopefully this will all get straightened out in due time. Sometimes I wish I had just played along for the past 7 years and never spoken my mind and never riled anyone (the gorilla) up.

Sodden thought: Maybe I’m the gorilla. MAYBE I’M THE FUCKING GORILLA.

Mary McKenney

mary’zine #48: January 2011

January 4, 2011

to San Francisco and partway back

[Guide to my itinerary: Menominee to Green Bay by car, G.B. to Chicago O’Hare by puddlejumper, Chicago to San Francisco by 747, 1 day of lounging and 7 days of painting, then S.F. to Chicago again, and for the rest you’ll have to read on.]

I can’t claim there were no humorous moments on my United Airlines flights last month, but the only one I can recall is when the pilot coming into Chicago on my way home turned off the seatbelt sign at the gate and announced over the PA, “All rise.” Pretty funny. But anything would have made me smile at that point, because I had only a short hop to Green Bay and an hour-long drive ahead of me and then I’d be home! My travel nightmare was almost over.

Or was it…?

I had arranged to get a wheelchair at O’Hare to ferry me between terminals, because the one for the big plane is far, far away from the one for the little plane, even though they’re both United. I was so happy to be going home that I gave the wheelchair pusher a $20 tip. “Merry Christmas!” I cried, in the spirit of the season. But I spoke too soon. One minute before we were set to board, they canceled the flight. How I love those empty apologies: “Sorry for any inconvenience.” They have to put that “any” in there, in case someone experienced no inconvenience whatsoever. Sure, they were justified in blaming the weather this time—it was right at the beginning of the Great Winter Storm of 2010, before winter had even officially started!, and Chicago was at the leading edge—but United is no more reliable when the skies are clear and flocks of angels are ready to guide the plane safely onward. Last year, during a 6-hour delay in the same airport, the gate agent announced that “It’s not our fault.” So she didn’t even have to offer the empty apology. I’ve never known an organization so hostile to its paying customers.

So I was stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again. Without my luggage.

Do I sound bitter? I was pretty… pretty… pretty… bitter. But I should explain why I was in that situation. I flew out to San Francisco for the annual December 7-day painting intensive at the Painting Studio ( Flying is always a dicey proposition for me, partly because of the Dramamine I have to take, which knocks me out, but it was worse this year because my knees have been killing me, and I was really concerned about sitting in coach for hours and trying to navigate not only the airports but the streets of the City. So when I was making my reservations online, a window came up that offered me a one-time-only opportunity to upgrade to First Class. Wow, First Class! I felt daring, out of my league. Not only was I the first person in my family to go to college, but here I was the first one to fly in the company of rich people, or at least men wearing suits! It was going to be the experience of a lifetime!

So on December 2, I drove from Menominee to the Green Bay airport and left my Jeep in long-term parking. I know the airport and I know the security drill, and the TSA people there are perfectly nice because—what do they have to worry about? We got to O’Hare on time, no problem, and when I boarded the 747 to S.F. I almost gasped: I had this large, open, curved cubicle all to myself. I could sit down and stretch my legs all the way forward without hitting anything. There were built-in trays, and shelves on which to stash your bag, none of that “under the seat in front of you,” because there is no “seat in front of you”! The seat itself was very comfortable and had more positions than the Kama Sutra. I never quite got the hang of turning it into a bed, but that was OK. Before we even started taxiing, a parade of flight attendants marched through with beverages, hot nuts (not sure how heat is supposed to improve them), and anything else you could think to ask for. Later, there was spinach lasagna for lunch that wasn’t bad, not bad at all.

Do you sense a “but” coming? Maybe not, but here it is anyway. Almost as soon as we got in the air, I got the horrible restless leg feelings, which I assure you are no joke. I was absolutely miserable, even in that lap of luxury, even knowing it would have been 10 times worse in coach. I writhed and squirmed my way through the whole 4 hours, and even the snacks, lunch, and breathless service didn’t help.

The bigger “but” (don’t say it) came on the way back from S.F. to Chicago. (I’m telling this out of chronological order, try to keep up.) The plane was smaller than a 747, and I was shocked to see that what they called First Class was barely distinguishable from coach. There was a little more leg room and a console between you and your seatmate, but getting up out of the seat and out to the aisle was as awkward as anything I’ve experienced back with the hoi polloi. And I again had the restless legs, made worse by the close proximity of a very nice British man who politely ignored my constant squirming and twice uncomplainingly turned off his movie, put away his laptop, took off his headset, and stood up to let me by to get to the toilet. I had selected an aisle seat online, but they (as is United’s wont) had switched planes, so now I was stuck by the window.

So I’ve already told you about landing in Chicago and finding out that I couldn’t get home that day, which was a Saturday. Fortunately—in a rare moment of thinking ahead and taking action—I had called the Chicago Airport Hilton from my S.F. hotel room to make a reservation, thinking it was worth it for my peace of mind even if I lost the $129 if I didn’t need the room. So at O’Hare I got another wheelchair ride to the hotel, which is theoretically in the airport but still a long, long way from anything that truly qualifies as the airport. I had cash on me but had to stop handing out the exorbitant tips. My room was much nicer (and a lot cheaper) than the one at the Laurel Inn—no offense, Laurel Inn!—so while I was unhappy about the layover, I was grateful to have the resources to afford that option. I ordered room service a couple times (another never-before luxury for me), and the food was damn good and only a leetle overpriced: $31 for a cheeseburger, fries, and Coke, once they added on all their fees and taxes and gratuitous gratuities. I watched mostly regular TV (lots of Weather Channel) but did splurge by purchasing the last two episodes of “Dexter” that I had missed ($6.95 apiece) and the movie “The Town” ($14.95). But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The smartest thing I had done besides reserve a hotel room was to bring my cell phone charger in my carry-on bag. I was getting frequent recorded messages from the airline, which kept me apprised of what was happening (mostly after I already knew, but still). They automatically rebooked me on a flight for the next morning, though I had little hope of flying then because the storm was still looking bad. But I called the recording at 5 a.m. Sunday, and the flight was still scheduled to leave on time. I took all my stuff with me, including my key card in case I had to come back to the room, and set out to find the gate at least 2 hours before departure time. I have a little piece of advice for whoever makes those recordings. When you pronounce “Concourse C” and “Concourse E” exactly the same way, and to my ear I think you’re saying Concourse C when there is no Concourse C in Terminal 2, you are going to cause me a world of hurt. I hobbled off in the direction of the airport with my father’s old wooden cane and couldn’t make heads or tails out of the signs. Also, the “moving” sidewalk that would have eased my progress was not moving. I’m sure the airport was terribly “sorry for any inconvenience,” but it was fortunate for the homeless and/or travel-stranded men I saw sleeping on it. There are at least 3 levels in the airport, reached variously by escalator, elevator, or stairs, and as I followed signs that led nowhere or dumped me back in the same areas I had just covered, I felt a close kinship with Franz Kafka. I expected to metamorphose into an ungeheures Ungeziefer (literally, monstrous vermin) at any moment, if I hadn’t already. But no, I seemed to have all my human appendages. When I finally found the United Airlines counter, it was devoid of human life, and a handwritten sign directed my weary wayward self to Terminal 1, which was supposedly “down this way and to the left.” There was a “this way” but no “left,” and the surly uniformed lass who was sitting there told me I had to “go outside” (she points behind her, which is not where the doors are) or (and?)  “take the train.” I had no idea what she was talking about, where this train was or where it would take me. Mostly, I just needed a wheelchair and some confirmation of where the gate was, so I hobbled downstairs again, looking in vain for Concourse C. The United employees were presumably swilling their morning coffee and cracking jokes in some Shangri-La I had no hope of finding.

So I continued to hobble up and down (I’ll have to find another word for hobble), trying to get my bearings. I finally found a long line waiting to get to Concourse E, and I remembered that my previous flight had been supposed to leave from gate E4. So I joined the line, and the nice man ahead of me said I was in the right place, because the tiny United Express planes leave from Terminal 2, not Terminal 1. Good to know! (I routinely found fellow passengers more helpful than airline or airport staff.)

I think I have adequately expressed how physically miserable I was, but I soldiered on and finally arrived at security. I was on the verge of tears and beyond common courtesy at that point, so instead of smiling politely at the man who checked my ID, I just inched my way forward like the cow or monstrous vermin I truly was. At least they didn’t have those new body scanners, and I didn’t see anyone being patted down, so thank God for small favors. I wobbled down to look at a departures board, only to discover that the flight had been canceled. I have to give myself this: I didn’t completely freak out. I whispered a frustrated “FUCK” and found somewhere to sit down and figure out what to do next.

Naturally, I called the United Airlines recording to see what could be done, and for some reason I wasn’t able to give the required answers in the allotted time. He/it would ask for my Mileage Plus number, and as I started to say “zero…,” he would say, “For example….” or “and then touch the star key.” All communication would break down, because when I finished giving the 11-digit number, he would repeat it back to me with an extra zero, I would say NO, and he would fakily, mechanically apologize, though, I must say, he sounded more sincere than any of the live humans I’d dealt with. I went through this 3 times and finally managed to spit out the requested number to his satisfaction. Then he told me that the wait time to speak to a human was “60 minutes.” FUCK.

(This is hilarious: According to United Airlines, my name is “MARYMS MCKENNEY” [they put the “Ms.” in the wrong place]. So when saying my name, the recording robot pronounces it “Mary Mil-seconds MICKinny.” I’ve always wanted a nickname: how about “Mil-seconds”?)

I found a gate agent who cursorily informed me that all flights for the rest of the day and the next day were sold out. I was now fully in tears—tears for fears. (Did you know that the “Tears For Fears” band name came from the book Primal Scream by Arthur Janov, “tears as a replacement for fears”? In my case, tears just joined the fears, they didn’t replace them). So he reserved a seat for me on an early morning Tuesday flight. It seemed like forever to me. Whoever heard of getting stuck in Chicago for 3 days??

To avoid spending more money on tips, I throbbled back to the hotel—at least I was starting to get my bearings, but I had taken 2 Dramamine already and was seriously fried. From my room I called down to the front desk to see if I could extend my stay by 2 more nights. The person I talked to said she would check and “call [me] right back.” I waited in vain for 2 hours to hear back from her. I spent the time counterproductively worrying that I would be thrown out on the street and have to fend for myself, or sleep on the non-moving sidewalk. For all I knew, the “hundreds” (according to the gate agent) of stranded travelers had filled up the Hilton and all surrounding hotels, and I would have to rent a car and drive into the storm and die in some snow-filled ditch, frozen and clutching my dead cell phone. You see where my mind goes.

I finally called back downstairs and the woman said yes, I could stay 2 more nights. If I could have jumped in the air, I would have. Instead, I fell back on the bed with relief. She called back a minute later to say, “Oh I forgot,” the rate had changed from $129 to $209/night. All the staff have been trained to say “My pleasure” whenever you thank them for anything, but it was a bit odd to be told how much “pleasure” she took in informing me of the outrageous price hike.

Long story even longer: On Monday I took the hotel shuttle over to Terminal 1 to get a boarding pass for my flight the next day. After I did that, I didn’t know how to get back, so I checked the “Visitor’s Information” kiosk to maybe find out the shuttle’s schedule, but guess what? Of 15 or so hotels, the Hilton wasn’t listed! Ha! Was I surprised? Fuck, no! I ended up whrobbling back to my room. I was surprised that the room hadn’t been cleaned yet, so I found the housekeeping person, who told me she had me marked down as checking out that day. I straightened it out with the front desk and went down to the restaurant to have breakfast—some excellent chilaquiles (eggs scrambled with tortilla strips, queso fresco, and salsa). I thought it would be cheaper than room service, but with orange juice and coffee and a tip it still came to $31.

When I got back upstairs, my key card didn’t work. I asked the housekeeping person what to do, and she called security. He showed up finally, interrogated me about my identity, and wondered why a person named “Yvette” had been given my room. After he opened the door for me and checked the bathroom to be sure no one was hiding in there, I called back downstairs. The witless front desk person (not the original one) cheerfully told me that it would be “[his] pleasure” to extend my stay for another night.

I told him to be sure to charge me for 3 nights, not 4. His pleasure. But when I got my Visa bill, I was surprised to see that I had been charged a grand total of $1,069.25. He had indeed put me down for 4 nights. The bastard.

Tuesday a.m., I thrwobble back over to the gate—by this time I know exactly where I’m going, hurrah!—and get in line for security. All the special people—troops, etc.—are allowed to go ahead, so we stand there without moving for half an hour. Finally, they open another line. I go through the motions—dumping shoes, bag, coat, cane, cell phone in the bins—and await deliverance. The TSA performs its ritual of checking the number of ounces of lotion, hair gel, and toothpaste I am carrying and gratuitously tosses my gel. But in her zeal to deprive me of manageable hair, she doesn’t notice the 7-inch metal dental instrument with two sharp hook ends that was wrapped in a paper napkin in the same plastic bag. So I was thwarted from slathering my fellow passengers with hair gel, but I could have done some serious damage with that pick.

We are hunting bin Laden by pawing through my purse, as if I’ve hidden him there, have hidden a wire in my shoe, a liquid in my pocket, a bomb in my underwear. We lost our way in the dark but are looking for it under a lamppost because the light is better there.

Anyway, this plane managed to get off the ground, my luggage was waiting for me at Green Bay, and my Jeep started right up in the bitter cold. The kitties were happy to see me, I think, though they may now prefer my sister, who read to them every day while I was gone. It was heaven to be home.

Brutus (front) and Luther, posing for the cover of their first album, “U.P. Catz.” Photo by P. DuPont.


forget the journey, here’s where I talk about the destination

One of the best things about the painting intensives is seeing old friends again. Diane L., Diane D., Terry and I dined out just about every day in our old haunts, especially Chloe’s, a little café on Church St., and started a couple of new traditions: On Saturday night, T and I met DD, DL, and DL’s man Chris at the Clement St. Bar & Grill. I have a horror of trying to park on the streets of S.F., especially on a Saturday night, but we easily found a spot and joined our friends for a rousing urban outing: pasta, burgers, wine and black Russians, jostling in the aisles, attentive waiters, and shouted conversation. It’s what I miss most about the City, I think. Well, first, having friends available to go out, and then knowing people who know interesting places to go. Later in the week, we headed over to the Buckeye Roadhouse in Marin, in the rain, me driving, trying to remember how to get there. Either they moved the road (unlikely) or I didn’t know where I was going (ya think?), and I ended up having to turn around on Tennessee Valley Road. But then, in a burst of glory, I drove into the parking lot, handed my car over to the valet, and we entered the bright, shiny world of the Buckeye. Drinks (the raspberry lemonade was superb), ahi tuna and spicy pork sandwiches, lots of hoopla, again an urban-style experience made more special by the sparkly decorations and holiday spirit in the air. I love you, D, D, and T.

In the middle of the week, the studio always springs for a pizza lunch, which we eat in the sharing room. This time the pizzas came from an Indian place, which, no thanks, but there was also a really good pepperoni pizza, and Alyssa had made a raw kale salad. I don’t think I have to tell you that I do not eat this kind of thing, so I can’t believe I even took some, but it was great! I even got the recipe from her later. You can find “Chef Alyssa” at She is amazing, and not just for her mad food skillz. She had us in stitches with her story the morning after seeing Roger Waters The Wall Live.

More shout-outs: I was going to name others with whom I had special moments, but that can be tricky because of whom I might leave out, so: You know who you are. I loved painting and being with you all. And I have a special shout-out to Sima, but you’ll have to read on for that.

On Friday night, at the end of the intensive, I went out with my friends from Oregon, who had driven down just to have dinner with me, P’s and my godchild, and the godly child’s husband and mother. It’s always somewhat bizarre to go from the intimacy of the painting studio and my friends there to my “other” world. We went to a noisy Italian restaurant south of Market, and it was both overwhelming and gratifying to banter and catch up with one another. Plus, the food was excellent. Then P&C brought me back to my hotel, and I got a few measly winks before having to get up at 2 a.m. to leave for home (ha!).


It’s easier to write about the obvious targets—the airlines, security, and hotel staff—and the fun times than to put words to the indescribable experience of painting for process, but I will do my best.

“I hear the paint falling…”

Barbara was telling us about someone dropping a container of paint, but I heard poetry. In my world, a lot was falling: rain outside; tears on the paper and on my face inside; mercy, mercy everywhere….

All week I painted a young man who had killed himself after holding a room full of high school students, including my great-nephew, hostage. No one else was hurt, unless you count scarred-for-life. During the stand-off, my fearful thoughts were of course for my great-nephew and his parents, but when I came to paint, suddenly there he was, the 15-year-old boy who couldn’t even say what he wanted, who had no demands, except possibly the demand for attention, to be taken seriously, who knows what goes on in the mind of a teen-age boy? So I painted him with the gun to his head, in the grave, as a spirit rising from the grave. Mind you, I didn’t know him, but his tragedy was the vehicle for 7 intense days of painting.

At first I painted a lot of guns, bullets, blood. The boy (I know his name but don’t want to name him, I don’t know why) was a hunter, as is my great-nephew, so I painted deer as targets, then deer pointing their own guns. Sometimes the imagery becomes so satisfying to paint that you get carried away. I told Barbara I wanted to paint a forest with hunters, deer, mayhem. She got me to focus on the painting in front of me, to see what could be coming in or out. So I connected all the beings on the painting with white cords, felt the connectedness of life whether the ties are visible or not, and still she asked what could be connected. But there was nothing else, just shapes! just colors! I had made the obvious connections, she was asking me to do the impossible. But it turns out that how you face the impossible is kind of the point: Finally, I was neither fighting nor holding back, and though I didn’t think of the word at the time, I had “surrendered.”

At some point a quotation from “The Merchant of Venice” started running through my mind. It was the same quote that came when I painted my late brother-in-law many years ago.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

I painted tears falling from the faces on the painting and from the unknown sky above. I didn’t know where the feelings were coming from, what they “meant,” why I was focusing on this boy. The teacher and the other students had done their best to keep the boy calm, talking to him about hunting and fishing, and then the SWAT team came busting in and it was all over, the boy shot himself. My great-nephew seemed to be OK immediately afterward, and his mother, my niece, was euphoric that he survived, but post-traumatic stress had come, predictable as clockwork.

I was far enough removed from the story that I knew virtually nothing objectively, but my feeling state was a projection of the boy’s loneliness, despair, lack of choices, forced into a corner, thinking the gun and the attention of the other students would tell him what to do now, how to go on, whether to go on.

As happens when you paint so intensely for so long, the story faded away and I just followed the mysterious feelings for the rest of the week, painted whatever came next, not like clockwork but like some organic heartbeat leading me on.


an intruder in our midst

There was one man in the intensive, among 22 or so women; we’ve had them before, it’s not a big deal. But this one seemed different from the gentle souls who had painted with us in the past. On the very first day, someone referred to being (psychologically) “naked” in front of the painting, and he offered that she “had [his] permission.” That was rather jarring, this male insistence on making everything about sex, but no one said anything. He (I’ll call him “Dick”) made a few other comments over the next few days, joked about how he could paint his penis as long as he wanted. I wanted to say to him, “You know, Dick, it’s not about the length, it’s the girth.” But we’re not supposed to comment on other people’s sharings, so I zipped it, no pun intended.

One of the painters had been doing some very sexual paintings, and she talked about feeling exposed, wondering if she was doing the right thing, not wanting anyone to see—questioning what was going on with her, as we all do when the mind is not in charge and imagery seems to have its own power and direction. Sexual imagery can feel very liberating to paint, but it brings all the baggage with it, one’s fantasies and fears, the expectations from the culture. So at one point, “Dick,” who had been painting near her, shared that he had “wanted to watch” and that he could “feel the excitement” from her corner, and he said these things in the group while looking intently at her, a burst of inappropriate, unwelcome testosterone, entitled and insistent, flooding the room. The rest of us, the women, the targets of male entitlement in and out of “safe” places, sat there as if stunned, as if shot with a paralyzing agent, not lethal, not like he put a gun to our heads, but stunned into silence and submission. Barbara reminded the group at large that we were not to comment on one another’s paintings, and apparently the point was not lost on Dick. Afterward, things were said in private, apologies were made, epiphanies may or may not have been achieved, but I wasn’t part of all that. I just felt the reverberations from his statements, his obvious glee and sexual response, and a lifetime of unwelcome comments and advances made me furious that we had to endure this kind of thing in our “sanctuary.” But sanctuary is not necessarily what it seems. The painting studio is a sanctuary in which to feel unsafe, to take risks, to not know what we’re going to feel, let alone say. It’s a contradiction wrapped in an enigma and all that.

When we reconvened for the next morning’s sharing, the women’s voices started to come forward about what had happened. It was unusual to have a “meta” talk like that, and it was disturbing, especially considering the tender feelings that we encounter, in ourselves and in one another, when painting for so long. After a few people had spoken, I realized I was practically quivering with a phrase that had come to me in the night. It seemed that to say it in the group would be like dropping a bomb in the middle of a marketplace, blowing myself up along with everyone else. But it was so strong in my throat to voice it: I said that the aftermath of Dick’s comment the day before had been like “passive little girls being word-raped.” No one seemed to know what I was talking about. What?? Repeat that. Explain that. It’s always strange to put something personal or explosive into words, whereas you can paint literally anything and no one will be shocked.  I was afraid that what I said was too strong, too (God forbid) “feminist” or “man-hating” or any of the other shields that women use to deflect just or unjust criticism of men. Barbara engaged me, encouraged me to see where this was coming from in me, what more I could say, didn’t let me just drop my bomb and disappear. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but after a while I paused and said, “But… I’m having so much compassion for this boy who killed himself, whom I didn’t even know.” And my energy changed from reacting against one man to feeling for another man, and there was no more contradiction, just an appreciation for the complexity of our beings, and for Barbara’s skill in bringing me to a truer place than mere reaction. (Barbara, I am more grateful to you than I can say.)

Here’s my Sima shout-out. I happened to be wearing my “Bitch Is the New Black” t-shirt that day, and after the morning sharing she came over to me and said, “Brave Is the New Bitch.” That was so cool! I had thought of another t-shirt I wanted to make for next year, with a phrase I had seen on a car that morning: “It Don’t Matter to Jesus.” I have since learned that it’s a quote from “The Big Lebowski” (one of my favorite movies, actually), not an illiterate paean to the son of God. But I guess it can mean whatever I want it to mean. “It Don’t Matter to Mary”? The only problem with wearing these t-shirts is having to explain them to people, such as my “Not here today, not gone tomorrow” original. Contact me if you wish to purchase.


One of the things Barbara wanted to explore in the sharings was how to make use of the extraordinary opportunity to relate with one another in the group the way that we paint—not just sharing details of our day or our individual feelings, but to speak in the same spirit that informs our paintings. But while painting, we’re in our own worlds, backs to each other, no one really knowing what’s going on with anyone else unless we overhear them talking with Barbara. And it’s hard to know how to “relate” when we’re not supposed to make judgments or offer advice. We all have a tendency to want to help someone who’s feeling bad, but there’s a freedom in just being able to express ourselves without being bombarded with well-meaning suggestions. Even so, the feeling of connection in the sharings is just incredible: the silence so deep that it vibrates.

We talked a lot about what it meant to be “inappropriate” while speaking in the group. Later in the week, I’m not sure how it came about, I was probably going on about the contradiction of having “rules” in the sharing that we don’t have in the painting. So Barbara invited me to “say something inappropriate.” I had no idea what to say, and I usually freeze when put on the spot like that. But then it popped into my head to ask, “Can I speak to a person?” Barbara hesitated but said OK, and I looked at Dick and said… [I imagined the room holding its collective breath] “I was going to ignore you for the rest of the week, but I got over it and now I know it’s not about you.” Barbara beamed, “That’s good!” She asked Dick how he felt about what I had said and of course he was fine “…since it’s not about me.” I’m not sure if he learned anything from the whole experience, but I learned that if I’m honest about my feelings, I can get past them.

There was another time in the group when I said something that was very difficult to admit to, but I’m not going to go into it here. What I said wasn’t the important part anyway, it was my reaction afterward when I feared the judgment of others and couldn’t stop thinking about it. Back at my painting, Barbara urged me to feel, not think. As soon as someone tells you not to think, your mind thinks even harder: How do I not think, are you crazy? But somehow my defenses had been worn down, I was a soggy mess from crying, and I just kept going back to the wordless feeling whenever I found myself on the Think Train again. I kept painting, it didn’t matter what. And then it happened. It was as if the feelings, so deep, so heart-felt, so powerful and seemingly destructive, eased out and spread out as if on a broad plain, flooding all my defenses and finally dissipating into wordlessness, fearlessness. And then another “falling” quote came to me: “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.” And look, the word “pain” is right in there.


So the week of painting (and traveling) for me was about raining, flooding, cold particles falling, breaking the levees of self-protection, pure feeling rising, emerging with or without words, dissipating in riots of color and shape and image; and it was also the opposite: erecting boundaries, patrolling the perimeter, rifling through my own mental carry-on bags for dangerous implements of self-knowledge, thinking security will save me, in turn resisting and surrendering, tears fighting fears. It’s all related, we’re all connected, the hazards are everywhere, the target is indistinct and constantly moving, clarity is hard to find.

But in the midst of the chaos and the misdirection, our country’s loss of good faith in the pursuit of blind faith, we painters persist, 22 or 23 at a time, in facing the simplest and deepest truths in ourselves, which is to say, in humanity. The effect on our loved ones or distant strangers cannot be measured, but the painting energy goes out into the world and a little more light is shed, not where the lamppost stands but in the darkest corners where we struggle and cry, laugh and love, and live lives of quiet exhilaration.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #20 January 2002

January 28, 2010

Scientifically proven to be the World’s Funniest ‘Zine! (also the Second Funniest)

… with occasional commentary by Pookie: Proud to be a Feline-American (watch for comments in italics, lowercase, no punctuation, plenty of sarcasm)

I can honestly say that this issue of the mary’zine is the world’s funniest ‘zine, because it contains the “world’s funniest joke” as determined by scientists in London. I kid you not. A professor at the University of Hertfordshire devised an experiment in conjunction with the British Association for the Advancement of Science (so you know it’s real science), in which 100,000 people around the world voted on the world’s funniest joke. Here it is:

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go camping, and pitch their tent under the stars. During the night, Holmes wakes his companion and says: “Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you deduce.”

Watson says, “I see millions of stars, and even if a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like Earth, and if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life.”

Holmes replies: “Watson, you idiot. Somebody stole our tent.”

To lay claim to also being the second funniest ‘zine, here is the joke voted second funniest:

Two hunters from New Jersey are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing. The other whips out his mobile phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps out to the operator: “My friend is dead. What can I do?”

The operator in a calm soothing voice says “Just take it easy. First let’s make sure he’s dead.”

There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says: “OK, now what?”

No one asked for my vote, but here is one of my all-time favorites:

Q: How do you know when an elephant is having her period?

A: There’s a dime on your purse and your mattress is gone.

I guess you have to be old enough to remember sanitary napkins to get that one.


OK, enough frivolity. Happy Y2K+2, everybody! It’s hard to believe we’ve already come this far into the brave new century. If only Edward Bellamy were still around to update his vision for the future. In 1888 he wrote Looking Backward, a utopian novel that describes the U.S. in the year 2000 as “an ideal socialist state featuring cooperation, brotherhood, and industry geared to human need.” And how right he was! No, wait, I must be thinking of Brave New World, “a nightmarish vision of a future society.” Or Nineteen Eighty-four, which continues to echo down through the years. On second thought—never mind. Let’s stop trying to imagine the future and just learn how to be in the present, shall we?

I mean, look at what we thought 2000 had in store for us. I still have my bag packed from 2 years ago. Still haven’t read that Patricia Cornwell novel I stuffed in there. The underwear and t-shirts surely don’t fit me anymore, and the aspirin probably expired months ago. The survival food bricks in the earthquake kit in the trunk of my car must be even more similar to real bricks by now. It’s hard to believe in preparing for the future when the most significant disaster we collectively experienced in the past year was unpredicted and seemingly unpredictable.

Well, at least—partly as a result of 9/11—I now have a cell phone that I can carry with me instead of the clunky AAA phone I had to plug into the cigarette lighter in my car. I haven’t had a real use for it so far, but I’ve made a few gratuitous calls to Peggy when I was driving home from the city. One day she called me back when I was on the Golden Gate Bridge—it was thrilling, my first call—and we basically spent 20 minutes reporting on our respective whereabouts.

M: Where are you?

P: Van Ness.

M: I’m on the bridge, ha ha. [we were both going north]

[Five minutes later]

M: Where are you now?

P: The Waldo Tunnel.

M: I’m at Paradise Drive already!

Do you think I could get a screenplay out of this material?

We did talk about other things, of course—like the weather.

P: Is it still raining where you are?

M: Yeah, but I can see blue sky!

P: So can I.

M: I wonder if we’re looking at the same clouds.

P: Probably.

M: I feel so close to you right now.

P: O-kaaaay.

And our respective physical states.

M: My arm isn’t very comfortable holding this thing.

P: Really? My door armrest is right at the right place.

M: I can’t turn corners very well with one hand.

P: That’s because you’re a pantywaist. [She didn’t really say that; I’m just trying to spice up the dialogue.]

After exhausting all the possible conversational topics specific to driving while on the phone, we hung up.

So my worst suspicions about cell phones have been confirmed. Not only was the call completely unnecessary, but my attention was, shall we say, frequently compromised. But too bad, we are now living in the apocalyptic 00’s, and we’ll take our anytime minutes any damn time we can get them.


It was a quiet Christmas in Lake Wobegon. Had a wonderful dinner at P&C’s and played with their kitties, Willie and Coco. Came home with catnip on my collar, but Pookie pretended not to notice. He’s long since decided that, in Ann Landers’ famous words, he’s better off with me than without me. He knows there are Other Cats, but as long as he doesn’t have to hear the gory details—the scratching of the tummy, the cooed endearments—he can deal.

Besides, I brought him home an armload of tissue paper, which now covers my upstairs hallway. It’s like swishing through a pile of autumn leaves every time I walk through. He hides his “cat dancer” with the furry mouse under the paper and then pounces on it and wrestles it into submission. He’s completely bored by the mouse when it’s in plain sight. Substandard intelligence is bliss, eh, Pookie?

Eh, Pookie?

dont bother me im napping

My friends and I didn’t help out the Xmas economy very much. We loosely followed the “white elephant exchange” model by bringing anonymously wrapped $5 presents and taking turns either choosing a wrapped gift or “stealing” one that someone had already opened. It’s a fairly new tradition that is acquiring more rules and more controversy every year. Do you get to choose a gift you brought yourself? Does the one couple in the group get to use a tag-team approach to claim their own gifts? (“I can steal this; she bought it.”) Can an unwrapped gift be stolen more than once? Forget how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, these are tough questions.

You think you can’t buy anything for $5? I came away with a bottle of organic olive oil, a wooden spoon set, one of those chocolate-orange balls that you whack to separate the wedges—it sent signals to me from the kitchen cupboard {{EAT ME}} until I had to give in—a vanilla-scented candle, some cool cocktail stirrers, a “nitelite” (the English language is going to hell in a handbasket), and the pièce de resistance, a lipstick holder, which I promptly took home and transformed into a coffin for a tiny skeleton. I am nothing if not


I thought you were napping.



What a difference therapy, psychiatric drugs, painting, dream work, and human relationships make. I’m feeling 100% better than I did the last time I wrote. The impotent rage is gone, or at least it’s retreated back into its cave in my inner Afghanistan. I don’t know if it was the “inner work” or the extra Zoloft, but it’s a blessing to be in this lighter state. I suppose the rage will always be a part of me, but it doesn’t have to be front and center all the time. “You can be angry at some of the people some of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t be angry at all of the people all of the time.”

In December I was blessed to take part in a 7-day painting intensive at the CCE ( Even though the studio is in San Francisco and I go home every night, painting for so many days in a row feels like total immersion. It’s a very powerful thing to spend several hours a day in such intimate contact with yourself—especially in the company of other people who are doing the same. Far from being alienating, being with yourself without distraction creates bonds with other people that go very deep. By the end of 7 days, the thrumming in my chest that means I’m in contact with a Source that shall remain Unnamed extends to everyone in the group and beyond. The intuitive painting process strips away the masks we wear with others and even with ourselves. It’s a sometimes painful but also exquisitely beautiful and reassuring process—and what it comes down to is the knowledge (in the midst of so much unknowing) that we are all born of that Unnamed Source. (“Sources high in the Deity said today….”)

Painting in this way leads inevitably to a change in perception. When I go out into the world between painting sessions, I connect more, I feel more, I take in more. I see beauty in unlikely places—like the complicated network of chimneys and vents on the tops of buildings. Everything that happens is fascinating. I share a laugh and a few words with a man at the deli counter in Andronico’s. It feels intimate, in a nonthreatening way; I’m more open to friendly vibes in this state. At the other end of the spectrum, a young guy tries to claim the parking space I’m waiting for. He lifts his middle finger in the rearview mirror just as I’m wondering if I dare to lift mine. He roars off in a burst of testosterone and fossil fuel, and I feel alternately relieved (to have won the parking space) and hurt (by his digital insult, which pierces my crumbling armor). But I see the mirroring that has just taken place: my “thought” finger anticipating his “real” finger; my parking greed played out in his manly aggression. We are the same force in different forms.

It’s like being in a lucid dream where you know everyone is a version of you and everything that happens has great significance. You see the interrelatedness of things. Three times during the week, twice at the exact same intersection near the studio, I heard a song on the radio with the lyric “Right here, right now; there is no other place I want to be.” And my chest started thrumming. In other words, you get to see how you create the world around you by what you notice, what you take in. Of course, the world also exists independently (doesn’t it?), but the perception with which you view it is crucial.

As with the angry parking rival, this hypersensitivity can be disconcerting. On day 4, I’m driving to the studio, and I hear on the radio that Vinnie of the morning show on Alice 96.3 radio is at the Any Mountain store in Corte Madera taking contributions for Toys for Tots—an annual event at which Marines collect money to buy Christmas toys for needy children in the area. The reports on the radio are all about how thrilling and lively the scene is, with listeners driving up to hand over checks or cash or toys to the rousing thank-yous of the radio people and the Marines. I get caught up in the spirit of the thing, and it seems like serendipity that I’m right near the Corte Madera exit. So I impulsively turn off and drive to the little shopping center where Vinnie and the Marines are waiting to cheer my Christmas spirit.

I expect a long line of cars, with helpers running out to the drivers’ windows to collect the contributions in high excitement. On the radio they say they’re handing out free t-shirts plus coffee and pastries. A party atmosphere, no doubt. But when I locate the Alice truck, mine is the only car there. Out on the sidewalk, shivering in the morning cold, are a few Marines standing around a table. I stop in front of them, but no one makes a move. I get out of my car, cash in hand. A guy holding a stack of t-shirts is standing right by the curb but doesn’t say anything. I mutter under my breath, “Who do I give it to?”

I approach the table feeling like I’m walking out onto a stage in front of hundreds of people. The Marines have become a blur of uniforms, but I recognize Vinnie. He’s not looking at me, which seems odd since I’m the only “civilian” around. Unlike my other experiences of heightened perception during the week, my gaze now is completely turned inward. I don’t look at the table at all; there might be a donut (doughnut) there with my name on it, but all I can think about is getting off that stage.

I walk up and hand Vinnie my $40, saying softly, “Hey.” Apparently, many other female listeners have been showing Vinnie their breasts or pinching his butt or at least screaming a little bit. But I feel like I’ve just walked into a time warp. I realize with a jolt that I don’t exactly fit the demographics of this station. I’ve never really thought about the fact that the DJs and most of the listeners are 20-somethings, or 30-somethings at the most. I have reached the age of something-something, and no matter how young at heart I may feel (no moldie-oldie station like KFOG for me), my image and persona in the world are quite different. The curse of being “old” in this society is that no one can see you for who you really are, or at least who you think you are (ouch). But that’s a diatribe for another time. Vinnie gives me a warm smile and says “Thank you,” but I can’t shake the feeling that he and the Marines are going to talk smack about me after I leave. “How did she hear about the toy drive? From her grandchildren?”

I accept the free t-shirt, which is from AAA and sports the message, “Santa Claus is coming to town—don’t hit him.” And then I get back in my car, shaken by the disconnect between my inner world and the world out there—although I’ve since realized that I was only doing my usual projecting. What do I really know about what any of the other players on that stage were thinking? I’ve come to value projection highly; it teaches you a lot about yourself if you can catch it in time. And a painting intensive is the perfect time to do that.

My fellow painters are also having some interesting perceptions this week. Diane L. tells how she arrived home the night before, and her boyfriend, a man of entrenched routine, wasn’t there. So she was sure he was dead, but she still walked down to Walgreen’s to get him some beer, because she was holding both things in her mind, that he was dead and not dead. But considering Schrödinger’s classic thought experiment in which the cat in the box is both dead and not dead until the experimenter opens the box, she was completely in tune with subatomic principles. In fact, I think that’s where both the “contact” and the “disconnect” come from when you paint. Painting puts you in touch with the world beneath the usual senses, so you perceive both the inherent beauty of things and the gap between your everyday idea of “objective reality” and the many possible interpretations that arise when you’re in a flowing state of perception.

do you really think anybody is still reading this psychobabble

I refuse to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed cat.

oh youre funny

Do you like living indoors?



On day 1, Barbara had stated that she was “not in charge,” that it was up to all of us to create the experience of the 7 days together. I remembered this on day 5, when I drove to Irving St. to get a burrito and saw some graffiti on a wall—in those curly, hard-to-read letters—that I thought said “Change is in Charge.” I was so impressed with this example of synchronicity. Yes! How true! Barbara’s not in charge, change is! When I got back to my car and drove past the graffiti again, I saw that it said “Charles is in Charge.” So much for synchronicity.

Barbara had also reminded us that we never really know what’s going to happen, even though we constantly act as if we do. That night as I drive home, I think about that. I see her theoretical point, of course, but I believe that I do know what’s going to happen this evening. I’m going to eat some oatmeal and ice cream and curl up in bed in front of NYPD Blue. After painting all day I don’t cook, I don’t work, I don’t read. When Pookie comes around to “say his prayers”—Give us this day our daily tuna-flavored laxative—I pet him, but I feel too wiped out to engage. Luckily, Pookie makes very few demands. Either he’s extremely content, or he’s planning my assassination, it’s hard to tell with him

heh heh

Anyway, contrary to expectation, I arrive home to find a message on my answering machine. It’s my sister Barb, and she’s crying so hard I can hardly understand her. I freeze. Someone must have died, probably her husband Skip, who’s in very poor health. I strain to hear what she’s saying. Yes, Skip has had a heart attack, but he’s still alive. They don’t know how bad it is yet. She hangs up, and I curse the creator of this unpredictable world. Whose bright idea was this concept of constant change? I’m sorry, Charles, but Change really is in Charge.

I spend the evening in a terror of what may lie ahead. If he dies, I’ll have to go back to Michigan for the funeral. It’s the dead of winter, and I don’t have the clothes for it. I haven’t seen snow in 30 years, but I remember it in every excruciating detail. Worse, I’ll have to reenter a family drama that I have been avoiding for the past 10 years. I don’t feel comfortable telling the whole story here, but basically I became estranged from Skip at a time when I was overwhelmed with grief at my mother’s impending death. At the most vulnerable time in my entire life—as he was driving me to my mother’s deathbed, my first visit to her in 2 or 3 years—Skip confided a deep secret to me and then spent the next 2 weeks cornering me to talk about it at every opportunity, with a stunning lack of clue about what I was going through. This was before I started therapy with J, before I had any idea of how to deal with other people’s intrusiveness. At the best of times, my boundaries were easily shattered, and at that point they were like a flimsy fence that had been completely trampled by my inner cattle stampeding out and other people’s inner cattle surging in.

My mother died soon after, but Skip wasn’t about to give up his new confidante. Months later, when I finally reached a breaking point—he was calling long-distance twice a week and expecting me to talk for hours at a time—I tried to explain to him that I “needed some space.” Then he’d call and say, “I’m going to take some of your space now.” After I wrote him what I thought was a tactful letter explaining my feelings, he got angry and withdrew—shades of my mother. So of course I withdrew, too—mother lives on in me. We have both refused to acknowledge each other’s existence ever since.

So that’s the background. I tried to call Barb the morning after I got her message, but she was at the hospital, so I called my other sister, K. We have little in common—she’s a factory worker, married, with children and grandchildren, and never left the area where we grew up. She’s 6 years younger than me, and we rarely talk or even write. But we have a bond that I always forget about until something happens to throw us together again.

Since 9/11, every time I heard that “we are all cherishing our families now more than ever,” I wondered why I had no such impulses. But as K and I talked, I felt that bond keenly. We talked about work, we compared middle-age maladies (hair falling out, for starters), and when her husband came home for lunch and found her talking on the phone while lying on the bed naked, holding her toothbrush, we laughed like sisters, like women who passeth the understanding of men.


The next morning, day 6, I’m grateful to have 2 full days left in which to confront my feelings about Skip in the painting process. I had never even painted my sisters before, except once or twice as little children, because they weren’t part of the primeval family drama of me, my brother who died, and my parents. (That my sisters had their own primeval family dramas going on never really occurred to me.) But on this day, I paint my sisters and their husbands, their children, and myself. I paint Death standing behind Skip, ready to claim him. Skip’s heart is being struck by lightning, and Barb’s heart is connected to his with strong ties. I paint little energy lines that eventually go from each person to every other person in the painting, and I feel the power of that energy that courses through all of us, beneath our conscious awareness.

As the hours pass and I get deeper into the altered state that is the hallmark of the painting process, I realize that some words are going through my mind, over and over. It’s a quotation from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d;

It droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

The feeling that is coming with these words is so strong that I can hardly contain it. I have been painting drops of white coming down on all the figures in the painting, and I have added paper on top to paint God’s heart. Suddenly everything falls into place, and I know that the drops are mercy coming from God’s heart, and that it falls on all of us, regardless of our thoughtlessness or our boundary-overstepping. The realization is beautiful as only truth can be. I’m not sure why “mercy” is exactly the right word. “Forgiveness,” “compassion,” and even “love” are not quite right. I realize that I’ve been withholding mercy from Skip for 10 years, and that by withholding mercy from others, I withhold it also from myself.

In the afternoon sharing, I talk about the mercy painting and about the words and understanding that came to me. Later, Bonnie says one of the most astonishing things I’ve heard in a long time. First, she says that I’m “honest.” It’s always embarrassing to hear that, because I feel like such a fraud. Moi, honest? But that’s not what is astonishing. Bonnie also says that, the way it looks to her, my “honesty” shows that I love myself.

Are you reeling with me, dear reader? LOVE myself? How can that be? I am the Queen of the Bad Self-Image! But Bonnie’s words have stayed with me and have, in fact, created or encouraged a wave of self-love in their wake—the very best example of self-fulfilling prophecy. When I saw Jeremy recently, he also found self-acceptance in my dreams—including the I-have-a-giant-penis dream I described in the last issue. In a “dream joke” about how men equate the size of their penis with their self-worth, I discover, via this massive organ, that my self-worth is far in excess of what I had thought. Maybe it’s just the Zoloft, but I feel as if I’m being reborn—or, rather, reclaiming a knowledge from very early childhood that subsequent tragic events and my own fears and doubts have hidden from my conscious mind all these years.


One of the things I got to observe during the painting week was my jealousy. Kate and Jan and Kerry had come from out of town for the intensive and were staying with Barbara. In my imagination (and probably also in reality, let’s face it) they were all having a rollicking good time back at B’s house every evening, and old feelings of being “out of the loop” came rushing back to me. On the last day of the intensive, I tried one of my patented, transparent methods of getting reassurance when I “joked” to B that I was afraid she no longer loved me. I’ll never forget what she said. “That’s just human love, when you love one more than another.” It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, but I saw the truth of it. (B doesn’t even remember saying this, so let the mary’zine be the publication of record for what really happens at these painting events.)

Got love? That human craving never really goes away. But thanks to a beautiful poem of Jan’s that she read to us on day 7, I realized that I do have a choice about which world I want to live in—the one where I am engaged in an endless, irresolvable cycle of conflict over a succession of pointless worries and judgments, or the one where I am free to accept myself and others as the Unnamed Source made us. As Jan’s poem (“The Lover”) asks, “…what kind of lover do you want?… [One] will always guard you against invasion, protect you from strange enemies and the unknown, a valiant soldier and bodyguard never leaving your side.” But “There is another lover…/The true you is the one he adores/He will leave you unprotected, sure in the trust of truth/He will delight in you wandering the unknown/This lover wants you to be yourself….”

I feel closer to choosing that second “lover” than I’ve ever been. Or maybe I’m just realizing that I’ve already made my choice.


On the last night of the intensive, after going out for a Kahlua drink and a fish sandwich at an Irish bar in the Mission with Diane L. and Diane D. (geez, I never mentioned how much fun I had with them this week), I dream that Barbara has file folders with lots of my old stuff in them, including several old pairs of glasses. It does seem as if the painting process—with the help of Barbara and my fellow painters—has taken away some of my old ways of seeing.


The next day, at home, like the proverbial morning after, I feel hung over. I wander from room to room in a daze, trying to remember what I normally do with my life. Taking some time to get back into my routine, I dawdle over the newspaper. The events that have taken place in the world in the past week are unreal. The story about John Walker, captured while fighting with the Taliban—the world cannot be that strange. They’re going after a fanatical foreigner and they come up with a kid from Fairfax?

Wandering around the house some more, I investigate the fridge. There is little there besides half-empty soda bottles (oh, OK, half full). Part of an old burrito. Green beans from another life. Clearly, I need to buy groceries. I’ve been pigging out, I mean eating out, no I mean pigging out, all week, so now would be a good time to start eating sensibly, ah-hahahahaha.

The house is a mess. The carpet is crunchy with cat litter bits that lodge between Pookie’s fat toes and drop like bread crumbs wherever he goes. And during the painting week, I have not had “time” (i.e., inclination) to clean up the stains from his latest barf episode, so there are tissues covering all the spots. I’ll never be one of those old ladies who keep dozens of cats, because I can’t even keep up with one.

But I have to put off my housekeeping duties for a while longer, because I promised Daniel, a doctor in Zurich, that I would edit his paper on perioperative transesophageal echocardiography this weekend. I find it pleasurable in a somewhat masochistic way—rather like driving while stoned—to try to comprehend the words of this German speaker as he explains the intricate workings of medical machinery and the human heart. But today scientific and even regular English words are escaping me. I have to use a thesaurus to find the word he means when he writes “stand against.” Hinder, block, impede, foil, parry, defeat, frustrate, thwart. Nothing works. I finally find “prevent,” and I realize that I’m the victim of dueling brain hemispheres. My right brain has been king of the hill all week and wants to retain its dominance. But my left brain is the half that brings home the proverbial bacon and must reassert its control. My solution is to alternate serious medical editing with rambling stream-of-consciousness riffs into my microcassette tape recorder, playing Pong with my fluid consciousness, or, I should say, being Pong as played by the Unnamed Source.


Skip is doing OK. A few days after he got home from the hospital, he left a message on my answering machine, thanking me for my concern about his health. With that reconciliatory gesture, and the softening toward him that I’d been feeling since painting him, a tremendous burden was lifted from me. My horoscope in the Sunday paper that week read as follows:

If you’ve neglected someone close, now’s the time to heal the split, Recognize that resentment may be justified on both sides, but you can afford to be generous. After all, you’re supposed to be the spiritual, enlightened one. Be honest with yourself. How much are you capable of giving? Then go for it—no more, no less!


Well, Pookie is still napping—quelle surprise—so I’m going to tiptoe out of here now. I want to be sure I get the last words in—it’s called the MARY’zine for a reason. Happy new year to all, and to all a good night.

dont let the bedbugs bite

heh heh

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux #21: February 2002

January 6, 2010

This was my horoscope for the week of February 10, 2002:

Scorpio: A home office of sorts stirs your fancy. Maybe a suite, maybe a small corner. Whatever the size, time and effort spent there can change your life. Family matters are tricky, possibly bittersweet. Maybe you’ll use your home office for a little writing.

Yeah, I wish. I already have a home office, it’s no suite, and yes, the time and effort spent there have changed my life. (Plus, family matters are indeed tricky.) But I wish I had more time for “a little writing.”

I had high hopes for this issue. I usually write on Sunday, my one “day off” (if you don’t count housecleaning, bill paying, tax return preparing, large batches of spaghetti sauce making, etc. etc.). So I spent one whole Sunday chasing down filaments of thoughts that were begging to be woven together into a coherent, warm garment of prose. But now I don’t have time to follow up on all those threads, so I figured half an issue is better than none.

The good news/bad news is that I’m in overdrive, workwise. One of the publishers I’m working with makes its freelancers practically typeset the book; every paragraph, every heading, every bold or italic word, every superscript and subscript character has to be coded for the right format: e.g., PO{sb}4{end}{sp}3{-}{end}. The authors are two Brazilian professors, both very sweet, very learned, but not exactly up on their English syntax. (But to be fair, my Portuguese is terrible.) And the book—on histology, the study of the “minute structure of animal and plant tissues as discernible with the microscope”—is huge and has drawings and photomicrographs galore, with cryptic instructions by the Brazilians that I have to figure out and translate for the art studio. Oh, don’t get me started.

I’m editing another book for a different publisher, this one about microbes and fun diseases like anthrax and an even worse one called guinea worm disease…. I am doing you a big favor by not describing it to you.

Also, there are research papers, reports, and grant proposals coming in over the e-wires from Portugal, Italy, Austria, and right across the bay. I’ve been self-employed for a little over 5 years, and this is the most work I’ve had to juggle at one time. And when I’m not complaining about it, I’m thrilled. That’s the weird part, the saving grace. I love this. I wouldn’t take a regular job now. What used to be the scariest part of self-employment—not knowing where my next dollar was coming from—is now a source of pleasure, because now that I know I can count on fairly steady work, it’s exciting to know that my “next dollar,” or next 500 dollars, could come from anywhere at any time.

So instead of plumbing the depths of meaning and existence, the past, the future, the nature of everything—hey, maybe next time—I’m going to riff ‘n’ rant about a couple of things, share some wacky correspondence, and call it a ‘zine.


One of my favorite nicknames for Pookie is Goofball—a classic case of projection, I’m sure. I thought of this when I happened to catch a glimpse of myself in the full-length mirror before leaving to go for a walk this morning. Here’s the picture, from bottom to top: white Nikes, baggy black twill pants, gray t-shirt, green zippered jacket that could have been worn by my father in the ‘50s when he was fixing the car, dark “movie star” sunglasses, and a baseball cap with “Marin General Hospital” on the front. The glasses were the only cool item, but they didn’t help the ensemble one bit. Or rather, it’s my body that can’t pull off the neo-working-class-dyke look anymore. (My friends are divided on the appeal of those sunglasses anyway; most make the movie star connection, but last winter when I was walking with a cane because my back was in spasm, one friend asked in all seriousness if I was going blind.)

And I realized that it’s only going to get worse. When I’m old, I mean older, I’m not going to “wear purple” like the poem says. I’m going to look just like my mother, who also had a short dykey haircut and made odd fashion statements by not caring about fashion whatsoever. Believe it or not, I do care—but not enough to do anything about it. Pudgy face, pudgy body, it’s only a matter of time before I start putting my few remaining hairs up in curlers and wearing flower-print housedresses with white ankle socks and sensible shoes.

Hi, my name is Mary, and I am a goofball. I am not cool. I am going to be doddering soon. I think it’s time I learned to live with it instead of pretending to the world that “I’m not how I look.” The world had me pegged long ago, and why should I care? I’ve got my posse, and they love me just the way I am.

But I must get back to work now! Fortunately, I was able to pillage my voluminous files and find this story about a shopping incident from the not-too-distant past….

the Long’s way home

One day I drop into Long’s Drugs to make a quick purchase. All I need is one of those Glade deodorizers that you plug into a socket—I’m on a crusade to mask the aroma of eau du Pooké, if you know what I mean. After much aimless wandering around the store, I finally find the shelf with the confusing array of Glade Plug-InsR-related products—your Scented Oil (“an exciting breakthrough in home fragrancing”), your refills, your extra outlets. It’s hard to know if the Scented Oil is the thing itself, or if maybe it’s just the exciting breakthrough that you attach to the thing itself. But I don’t find anything that looks more like a basic unit, so after eliminating the refills, the snowman novelty warmer, and the extra outlets, I decide that the Scented Oil (“NEW WARMER Uses only ONE Outlet”) is indeed IT. Then I have to decide which “enchanting, no fade scent” I want. I choose the one called Vanilla BreezeR, on the theory that Country GardenR would be too cloying and “vanilla” at least implies an olfactory connection with baking. (I am so gullible.)

With my selection in hand, I proceed briskly to the express line, which is clearly labeled “9 items or less” (“or fewer,” I mentally edit). The woman in line ahead of me seems to have more than 9 items, so I silently count them. Stop at 10, get all indignant.

I really want to be on my way with my 1 measly item, so I weigh my options. The other lines are likely to be worse, and if I say something to the woman about being in the wrong line, it will be completely pointless, because now—I’ve waited too long—the clerk is ringing her stuff up  (v e r y  s l o w l y—there’s a reason they call it L o n g ‘ s). It will also be petty. Do I just want to make this woman feel bad? Well, shouldn’t she feel just a little bad? We live in a society. It has rules. My usual tactic in this situation is to stand there and seethe and hope the pissed-off molecules radiating off me will penetrate the object of my scorn. They rarely do, but I’m eternally optimistic. So I look pointedly up at the sign and back at the woman, and I will her to hear me silently screaming, DOES THAT LOOK LIKE 9 ITEMS TO YOU??

For whatever reason, probably just generalized hostility, I decide to go for it. I say to the woman, “express line you know.”

She turns and looks at me, confused. “What?”

I mutter into my chest, “express line.” (My rage is big and bad when it’s seething inside, but it deflates on contact with the air.)

The woman looks up at the sign, and there’s a moment when our relationship—fleeting though it may be, and defined only by our proximity and the fact of my 1-item virtue compared with her profligate spending in the wrong line—can go either way. It’s a fork in the road of the social construct known as the “point of purchase,” where everyone is in a hurry, even if they’ve just spent half an hour poring over all the possible choices of deodorizers.

The woman, bless her, takes the road less traveled by when she says, “Oh, I’m SORRY. I didn’t see that. I just saw the sign that said they take ATM cards.”

Of course, when someone responds that way to a mild-mannered complaint, you completely forgive them and want to rush to assure them that it’s perfectly OK—even when, as I now realize, it turns out she’s returning something and the clerk has to write the equivalent of the Magna Carta on a tag and then again on the box, and the woman has to run her ATM card through the little machine twice because she’s flustered, having racked up $135 (!) worth of more than 10 items while I’m standing there waiting to buy my little Glade Plug-InR.

So by now I totally want to save her further embarrassment—whereas, if she had reacted snidely, I’d be writing this story up as a curmudgeonly rant about her probable ownership of an SUV and her self-centered life in general. So, as we watch the clerk labor over her chore, I say in a comradely manner, “This is the slowest place in the world anyway.” And she replies that Thrifty at Northgate is even worse, and I respond, “Yeah?,” and we go back to waiting, and I look in the other direction at the end-of-aisle specials—the Pillsbury cake mixes and the elaborate plastic water Uzis—as if I’m fascinated by all the wonderful things for sale and completely unconcerned by how long this is taking.

After another minute or two, she says again, “I’m really sorry,” and I say, “That’s OK.”

The geologic clock is ticking, but the clerk manages to complete the transaction before the next Ice Age arrives. The woman gathers up her bags and says one more “I’m sorry” for the road. As she’s rushing off, I call to her, “That’s OK, you were really nice about it.” And she turns and gives me a genuine smile and says, “You were, too,” and I smile back, and I feel as if little bluebirds are twittering around our heads and bunny rabbits are frolicking at our feet just like in the happy part of “Snow White.” As simple and seemingly mundane as our interaction was, we succeeded in modeling right relationship between strangers, possibly the only hope for humanity in these perilous times of road, air, and store rage, not to mention ye olde terrorism and hockey-dad furiosity.

Of course I’m not saying that the war on terrorism or even the war on rabid sports fathers will be won by our all being just a little nicer to one another. But I do believe in the profound effect of tiny actions and tiny choices. The microworld of matter—bacteria, atoms, quarks, and God knows what else—is a real force in the world we can see, so how could the microworld of consciousness not be at least as powerful?

So I recommend that we extend ourselves just slightly beyond our own boundaries and put ourselves in someone else’s place when we can—not to usurp them, not even to move them, but simply to call a moment’s truce in the middle of the battlefield of life and to hear the cartoon bluebirds come twittering around our heads in cheerful abandon.

p.s. Here is my review of the Glade Plug-InR: The “long-lasting rich fragrance that unfolds throughout your home for a full 60 days” is so strong and so sweet that you feel as if you’re being prematurely embalmed. If you enjoy that sensation, by all means, go for it.

fan mail from some flounder

As author, editor, and publisher of the mary’zine, I get some interesting mail. (Not enough, but what I do get is great.) The other day, amid the usual snail’d collection of junk and bills, I received something unique, to say the least. It appeared to be a letter from my old friend K in Michigan, but there was a name I didn’t recognize in the return address: “Skelly, c/o….” Inside, nestled between two sheets of notepaper, was a soft-plastic skeleton, about 4 inches high, and the following carefully printed letter:

Dearest Mary—

Have I found a home at last? When my mistress K— read that you keep tiny skeletons in lipstick cases, she was certain that you would not turn me away. She has been looking for an appropriate—and loving—home for me ever since the little daughter of her best friend (who also once gave her a much treasured lipstick case… but she keeps lipstick in it, if you can imagine) gave me to her for Halloween.

K—, who is marking her poor, failing aunt’s underpants tonight with the name “R—“ in big black letters so she can take them to the retirement home tomorrow, wants me to tell you that Michigan isn’t really so bad, despite Skip et al. In fact, she and D— enjoy vacationing in the very geographic area (well, the U.P., that is) that you fear to return to (or rather, to which you fear to return). She also wants me to tell you that she ordered the back pain book and has read every word… and thinks there may be some sense in it. Well, I certainly don’t need to worry about my back too much. What color lipstick case might I call home do you suppose??


P.S. I love cats… and K— may soon get a DOG……

P.P.S. I hope the P.O. doesn’t think I’m anthrax or something.

Well, as you might imagine, this was quite a surprise, but I was more than happy to give the wayfaring—nay, banished—bony little stranger a home. Later, in my e-mail out-box, I found the following letter that Skelly him/her/itself wrote to K—:

Dear K—,

Just thought I’d drop you a line to say I arrived chez Mary safe and sound and none the worse for wear, considering the long journey. I have to admit I had my doubts when you stuffed me in that envelope and sent me off to take my chances in those brutal postal machines—fortunately I’m already flat. I stayed very still so they wouldn’t suspect me of being a bacterium.

Anyhoo, now that I’m here, I’m happy as can be. You wouldn’t believe the weather! It’s practically balmy! You can take your snow and shove(l) it, my dear! WOOOOO-OOOOO…. Sorry, I’m getting a little carried away.

Mary is SO NICE. And her house is full of my people!—all shapes and sizes, doing all sorts of interesting things. I don’t know where I’m going to bunk yet. I’m too big for a lipstick case, that’s for sure! She’s been giving me a tour of the place and trying to decide just where I’d be most comfortable.

The Cat is kind of intimidating, but his meow is worse than his scratch. He’s even taken me under his paw and showed me how to use the computer.

Well, gotta go. Thanks again for caring enough to find me a good home, one where I would be truly appreciated.

As always, Skelly

p.s. Mary thought my letter was pretty funny and wanted me to ask you if she could print it in something called a… zeen? As you recall, I made a couple of personal remarks about you, not to mention your poor aunt, so she will understand if you want to remain anonymous and unheralded. But thanks to you, I’ve discovered that I really enjoy writing, so I may take knucklebone to keyboard again sometime, if the Cat doesn’t mind giving me another lift up.

The next day, I was lucky enough to intercept K’s reply:

Dear Skelly,

I am relieved that you have at last found a cozy resting place, despite the cat. (Now that you’re gone, we’re thinking of getting a Corgi—and you know how puppies love to chew.) You never did look very comfortable in the old ashtray in the cupboard.

Tell Mary she can reprint the letter, although I can’t remember most of it. Did you even show it to me? If you mentioned my aunt’s rather unusual last name, perhaps she will change it or use just the first letter or something. Who knows how many R—s might be out there in that state. In fact, her father spent a bit of time gold prospecting there in the 19th century—maybe he left bastards behind.

Well, I must return to some BORING citation editing. Give Mary my best and thank her often for her kindness.

Bottoms up. K

Skelly now resides in my home office, pinned to a bulletin board where I can rest my weary eyes upon him/her/it as I’m toiling away. If s/he doesn’t like it, s/he knows where the mailbox is.


is she gone

yeah, that pin was ridiculously easy to pull out. give me a boost up, will you… thanks.

no problem… youre a skinny little thing arent you… so how do you like her royal highness so far…

well, other than her weird sense of humor, she’s really cool… so thoughtful and kind… why are you laughing?

all in due time, my bony little friend, all in due time

and she’s got a point. i am he/she/it. i am beyond sex roles and of course sex itself. i am truly trans-sexual.

dude… youre a hunk o plastic

maybe… but i represent the foundation and the future of embodiment… the flesh is weak but the skeletal structure goes on Forever.

hey how did you make that capital letter

all in due time, my fat furry friend… all in due time.

[Mary McKenney]

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