Posts Tagged ‘death’

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 #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 random redux: #5 June 2000

January 28, 2010

Life has been so full lately. You got your broken eyeglasses, you got your vandalized car antenna, your lump in the armpit, your continued gastrointestinal disturbance without a gallbladder to blame it on, your “area of concern” on the latest mammogram, your carpal tunnel toe. You got your endless tome on immunopathology to edit, your continually crashing Internet connection, your hairball-expectorating cat, your estimated taxes due. You got your iron-poor blood—can’t even give it away.

In the plus column…. let me think…. well, the lump was nothing…. and I expect the “area of concern” will be nothing, too. (I’m reminded of one of my father’s favorite songs: “I got plenty a nothin’, and nothin’s plenty for me…”)…. and I survived the latest heat wave, which only lasted about a day and a half but felt like forever. It was easily 100 degrees upstairs where I spend most of my time—95 degrees on the downstairs thermostat, and as I walked up the stairs it was like going from the frying pan into the fire. I was so concerned for my computer that I shut it down around 5 p.m., a personal sacrifice on my part since it meant no more e-mail for the rest of the day. I tried to think how to cool off Pookie, but I couldn’t figure out the logistics. One enormous, hydrophobic cat versus me and a cold, wet towel? Forget it. Then, to my surprise, the heater came on! I thought maybe it had a secret air-conditioning feature that only kicked in when you really, really needed it—like a special surprise from the manufacturer. But the air coming out of the vents was hot, and the temperature went up another 5 degrees in 15 minutes. I had visions of being cooked in my own 3-bedroom oven by a furnace gone berserk. So I called PG&E, and they told me it was just the fan and how to turn it off. I slept on my big purple couch downstairs until 4 a.m., woke up with a complaining back, and grudgingly ascended to the still-stifling second floor to get a few more winks before the sun came up to torture me again. Did I mention I don’t like the heat? And my friend Barbara, whose motto is “No such thing as too hot,” is over there in f-f-frigid San Francisco, coveting what is making me miserable. Life is strange.

on hearing robert pinsky, poet laureate, read his poem “to television” on television

With all my petty and sundry complaints, I’ve been rather depressed, and my self-medication, in addition to the obvious quadrumvirate (it’s a real word—I’m as surprised as you are) of caffeine, sugar, salt, and fat, often takes the form of watching TV for hours at a time, zoning out with the remote in my hand, clicking away, creating my own diverse programming, the endless loop of odd and compelling snippets that I race through from channel 42 (Bay TV) down to 2 (Fox) and back again. I know where all the treasures are likely to be buried, so I hurry past the C-SPAN and foreign-language channels between 28 and 21 hoping to find anything but another John Candy movie on Comedy Central. Often, of course, the channels that are most likely to produce an amusing divertissement are showing commercials when I click by, but no worries, I’ll get back to them in the next go-round.

I can’t deny that I often get into a zombified state doing this, especially if the pickin’s are slim, as on Friday or Saturday nights. I’ll find myself watching things I would never choose to watch, simply because I landed on the channel and some small shiny-object-of-a-detail catches my attention and holds me until I realize I’ve been sitting there for 5 minutes watching liquefied fat being drained out of a man’s body and rising inexorably in a glass jar, and some dim shred of self-respect fights its way up from the depths and I click onward.

But the tendency of the cable channels to rerun everything to death provides unexpected benefits when they’re rerunning something I’d like to see again—like the guitarist Laurence Juber playing a mesmerizing version of “I Saw Her Standing There,” which I caught four times. I think that’s the record, but it’s amazing how many times I’ll come upon a rerun of a show I’ve never seen in its entirety and they’re showing the same scene I saw 2 weeks or 6 months before—giving me the eerie feeling that I’m in a Twilight Zone episode in which a socially isolated woman becomes so attached to the remote that she becomes the rerun while the TV watches her.

You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery channel. —The Bloodhound Gang

If you are what you eat, then you probably are what you watch, too, which may or may not explain my delight in happening twice upon an otherwise forgettable movie right at the scene where a 13-year-old boy is masturbating Laura Dern, the actress who played Ellen DeGeneres’s girlfriend in the coming-out episode, to a crashing orgasm. Now that was a great example of TV viewing as a found-art form. (I prefer that term to “channel surfing,” which is so, I don’t know, pre-Internet.) I haven’t seen much else of a sexual nature that appeals to me, including the barely dressed young women on MTV’s ubiquitous spring vacations. As Ronald Reagan famously said about the redwoods, you see one (thong bikini), you’ve seen ‘em all. And I don’t know what the Bloodhound Gang is watching on the Discovery channel, but I’m picky about which mammals I choose to see in compromising positions. But let’s leave the topic of how polymorphous is my perversity and move on to satisfactions of a higher nature.

What really makes it worth trilling up and down this do-re-mi scale of continually renewing imagery is that sometimes I’m jolted out of the mindless loop of political talking heads, music videos, so-called reality shows (“reality” being defined as human criminality, degradation, stupidity, or emergency), old obscure movies, new obscure movies, quiz shows, nature shows (Pookie enjoys seeing the close-ups—2-foot-high hummingbirds filling the screen as his eyes widen in wonder), late-20th-century sitcoms that have ascended to the perpetual motion machine of syndication, early-21st-century sitcoms that will never ever be shown again if there is a God, so-called women’s programming that seems to specialize in rape and child snatching as if nothing else could possibly be of interest to the fairer sex, proof of the origins of the universe and/or the existence of aliens in our midst (science fact/science fiction—equally implausible), biographies of increasingly obscure celebrities and reformed rock ‘n’ roll druggies, infomercials touting the yin-yang of gadgets for losing weight and other gadgets for making the food you shouldn’t eat taste better, screaming talk shows, news news news, sports sports sports, earnest pledge drives, stock market analyses, legal analyses, weddings, live births, continual retellings of Janet Reno’s or Bill Clinton’s latest exploits, and—BAM—unexpectedly, I’ll come upon Adrienne Rich, Fran Lebowitz, or Molly Ivins casting their pearls before swine (oink oink), or Coleman Barks speaking his version of the words of Rumi from 8 centuries ago, or Emmy Lou Harris singing “The Price You Pay,” something in her heartbreaking voice reminding me of my father and making me weep uncontrollably, or Drew Carey, dumb old comedian, on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, winning $500,000 for the libraries of his childhood, or stories of gay couples, struggling farmers, or black kids in the projects, and it’s all worth it, I get to laugh or cry or be mesmerized by the beauty of the human heart. This is true interactive television. Human contact is where you find it, and where I’m finding it in this moment is listening to the poet laureate of the U S of A read his tribute to the small screen (“Homey miracle, tub/Of acquiescence, vein of defiance”), from Sid Caesar to Oprah Winfrey, as he finds life and legitimacy in this most scorned form of American media, followed by a poem about Jesus that has me reeling, not the Bible story Jesus but a powerful evocation of this centuries-old mystery by a Jewish poet master, and I am stunned by the brilliance of human thought and language and the sheer ubiquity of divine love and fully glad to be alive.

swelled head

I saw a few of my friends from the painting group soon after the first issue of the mary’zine came out, and they told me how much they loved it and how much they looked forward to the next one. I was on cloud nine.

The next day I went out for groceries, and when I got home I noticed I had a little headache. The headache kept building, even after I took some aspirin. It felt sharper and more persistent than my usual sort of headache, and the worse it got, the more my mind went reeling in the direction of “brain aneurysm.” I even had some imagined genetic justification for this, because my uncle Ronnie died of one. I learned about his death in the usual way. I came home from school one day and immediately headed down the hall to my room. My father stopped me in my tracks with: “You know your uncle Ronnie?” I knew immediately he was dead. In my family, every death is announced with that ominous preface: “You know your aunt Edith? You know your friend Francis?” Anyway, he said Uncle Ronnie, who was barely 40 years old, went bowling one night, came home complaining of a headache, and was dead within hours.

Headache or no, I had work to do, so I sat down to edit a chapter called “Sizes of the Escherichia coli and Human Genomes.” With one part of my brain, I pondered the ponderous prose, and with another part, I planned my memorial service and all the wonderful things my friends would say about me. I thought how cruel it was that I would die so young (if 53 can still be considered young, and I think it can), with just one issue of the mary’zine off the presses—hardly a major mark to have left on the world.

I was thinking all this as matter-of-factly as if I were composing a grocery list—while continuing to make little superscript marks and deletions and coding the headings for the printer—spending possibly my last day on earth trying to decide such weighty matters as whether to use caps or lowercase for the index entries. And I wondered if maybe all those nice comments of my friends the night before had literally gone to my head, swelling it beyond endurance. Maybe I would be the first person to actually die of self-aggrandizement. I happened to be listening to bluegrass gospel music at the time (what—you thought I was an opera buff?), and Ralph Stanley was singing, “Jesus on the mainline, tell ‘im what you want to,” and I thought, “Jesus? Is that you? Are you a-comin’?”

I’m so curious about death—what it’s going to be like, how and when it will come. I’m fascinated by news stories of sudden death, especially when it could have been me… like the woman driving on 101 in Marin whose car was smashed by a truck that fell over the side of the overpass…. or the woman who was killed on the Golden Gate Bridge when a man having an epileptic seizure crossed the center line and hit her head on. I’m not so curious that I want to kill myself to find out—don’t get me wrong—but I’ll be very interested to see if I wake up from this life as from a dream. There’s so much we don’t know about consciousness (like—everything). The physical world is so incredibly detailed and complex that consciousness itself—the dreamer that created this world and creates our experience every moment—must be even more so.

A hundred years ago, Einstein proved that the world is not what it seems. The physics of Newton’s time—the falling apples, the balls rolling down boards, the feathers dropping from towers—was forever changed. Yet most of us still think of ourselves as separate entities moving around in the obvious three-dimensional world of our senses. Except for the crazy goings-on in outer space or down at the subatomic level, what we see seems to be what we get. You push me, I fall down go boom. But despite how solid our tables and chairs, our roads, the earth itself may seem, science tells us that the molecules that make up these things are only miniscule nonentities—now a wave, now a particle—spinning in vast regions of space relative to each other. There is literally no there there.

It’s as if we play-act our drama called Life on a remarkable stage set—so multidimensional, so convincing, so bloody real. But what if all this glorious detail exists only at a certain frequency—just as we tune in our radios and TVs to receive transmissions that exist only on that channel or at that position of the dial at that precise time of day? We have become inured to technology, we think nothing of watching events on TV that are taking place half a world away—we know that the New Year’s Eve celebration we’re seeing in London is not happening in our living rooms; and if we see a replay of the same event the next day, we know it is now “in the past.” And these tricks of space and time have been created by us barely evolved humans—imagine what consciousness itself is doing!

What if our senses are the filters that allow us to distinguish only the “things” of this frequency—just as we see a solid oak desk in front of us and not a bunch of swirling electrons? Death may be just the turning of the dial to one of an infinite number of other frequencies, other “realities,” other universes with their own laws, their own physics, their own variety of consciousness. And dreaming may be our practice for encountering these other realities.


OK, let’s come back to earth for a little bit. When my mother was dying, I stayed alone in her house for two weeks—she was in the hospital in a kind of waking coma; that is, she couldn’t communicate, and we couldn’t tell if she understood what we said to her. Also, she would cry at almost anything. I had lots of dreams during that time, some of them involving earthquakes and waterfalls—pretty obvious images for the emotional turmoil I was feeling. One night I dreamed I was in bed, in the room I was actually in, and I wondered about my father alone in my parents’ room—Who was taking care of him now that my mother was in the hospital? I went in there (still in the dream), and he was sitting up in bed, looking absolutely beautiful. He said, “I’m healing,” and my heart melted. When I saw my mother the next day (in waking life), I told her the dream. When she cried, I had no way of knowing if she understood, or if the tears were a result of the cancer touching into some emotional center in her brain.

My father had been dead for 20 years. Was the dream image really him, finally healing after a lifetime of strife and illness? Or was time healing my relationship with him? Or was it my mother, one parent removed, borrowing his image to convey the knowledge that she was “healing into death,” in Stephen Levine’s phrase?

The morning after my mother died, I woke up with a feeling of ecstasy. It’s hard to explain, and it didn’t last, but in the peaceful relief of her long-time passing, I experienced the warm, sunny June day as a world in which she was no longer trapped in suffering. I didn’t feel her absence; on the contrary, I felt her immense presence, all around me—and not her cantankerous lifetime presence but the life force that had propelled her, that was now liberated into wholeness.

I remembered this experience years later, when our friend Dot died. I wrote the following to the painting group:

One of the rafting people who spoke at the service said he stood on the cliff near where Dot had drowned and felt her spirit expanding so that she was as big as the cliff. The truth of that hit me hard. I had been thinking she had disappeared, but in fact she just got bigger, encompassing everything. What a wonderful way to see the death of an individual manifestation—that the specificity of the form expands to the universal—as if we are all God scrunched into our quirky, separate selves until the mold explodes and we become the One.

As I petted my mother’s cat Charlie, who rolled over, back and forth, in a pool of sunshine, I was pierced with the knowledge that, in some fundamental way, nothing had changed. There was no rent in the fabric of reality; the world was still seamless, nothing missing. Obviously, my mother’s death had a profound effect in my little world, but in life itself, there was no loss. No gain with birth, no loss with death. Not a closed system so much as an irreducible whole.

And I felt acutely that Charlie knew this truth. I know that most people would say that Charlie was merely a typical self-centered cat who didn’t even notice that his human companion of 10 years was gone. One female person with access to a can opener was as good as another. In the popular imagination, cats are euphemistically “independent” to the point of complete indifference. I say we don’t know a damn thing about cats, or any other animals—or much of anything else, for that matter.

In the first months after my mother died, I dreamed about her often. At first, she appeared very confused, as if she had completely lost her bearings. More than once, I had to break the news to her that she was dead. In one dream, I tried to tune in a car radio to reach her, and she asked for help but then we lost the connection. Another time, I had died and got lost in a large building with no windows and went up and down in elevators and through long hallways asking, “When do we get to die?” Obviously, I didn’t know anything about the world she was in, either—but I always felt, on awakening, that I was providing some kind of stability or guidance for her. In life, she had been very involved in church affairs but was not spiritually inclined. It was as if she saw the church as a form of community but had no patience for that “holy” stuff, the romanticism of the Roman Catholics. Maybe that’s the legacy of Martin Luther, a kind of anti-religiosity, all bare-bones practicality. Though she was a stalwart warrior in life, I can’t imagine anyone less prepared to wake up in the afterlife.

One night I had one of those dreams that feel completely real. In the dream, I got out of bed and went downstairs, where I heard some people talking. My mother was sitting on the couch. (I knew she was dead.) She looked very uncomfortable, as if the light hurt her eyes. She said she couldn’t do this for very long. Some other people were there, including Michele, who I thought of as my spiritual teacher at the time. Then my mother was sitting in shadow under the stairs, where she seemed less exposed, less frightened. I asked her if she had sent me a message the other night (in another dream). She asked, “What did it say?” In that dream she had “run away” and left me a message saying, “I’m sorry I’m gone—it’s a journey.” So I repeated the message to her in this dream, only I said the message was, “I’m sorry I’m gone—the journey is over.” When I told her that, her face lit up and she said, “Yes, I said that.” Suddenly—poof! she disappeared, and I started screaming—keening—with my whole being. Michele calmly offered me some comfort food from my childhood, canned Mary Kitchen’s Roast Beef Hash.

Over the months, I continued to dream about my mother, but less and less about her death; it was as if we were both making a transition, adapting to a new reality. One night I dreamed she was happily playing right field in a softball game (I would have thought she’d be out in left field—ooh, that’s mean) and singing a song called “It Was a Good Thing.” Later, I dreamed I was looking into a dark house through a screen door. She appeared as a little flash of light (like Tinkerbell) that moved rapidly toward me and through the door over my head. I said, “Mom?” and reached up, trying to go up with her, but I stumbled. She said my name, in the most loving voice I had ever heard, and was gone.

Finally, I dreamed that I was driving a car and saw her in my rear-view mirror, driving behind me. As I watched her in the mirror, she turned off, waving gaily at me. It felt like our journey now was truly over, that she—or whoever “she” was now—had moved on.

Maybe all those dreams were just reflections of my own grieving process. Maybe I wasn’t guiding her after all, maybe it was just about me traversing this new terrain of motherlessness. Maybe I was the one who had moved on. I just don’t know. Death is a mystery, and aren’t you glad you read all this way for that pearl of wisdom?


As my reverie passes, so too does my headache—no brain aneurysm for me today—and I go downstairs for lunch. I turn on the radio and there’s Bob Marley singing one of my favorite songs, “Could You Be Loved,” which we danced to on our painting groups’ “prom night” a few years ago. So I take five minutes out of my day (my memorial service already forgotten) to dance wildly in my living room, in the bright-eyed company of Pookie, spiritual descendant of Charlie… imagining myself giving a public reading of “the best of the mary’zine” and performing my own dance numbers for the parts of my story for which there are no words.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine #38 May/June 2009

June 8, 2009

Spring in the U.P. made it just under the wire. As I write this it’s almost June, and the leaves on the trees just popped green about a week ago, closely followed by a spike in temperature to 82°. I’m sure UP’ers were celebrating all over the place, but I was miserable. I thought, Oh great, spring has sprung right over into summer. But then it went back down to 48° and all was forgiven.

Can you tell I don’t like summer? I do have air conditioning, so I can stay relatively cool unless someone makes me go outside. But I’m still paying over $100/mo. for gas & electric ($300+ in the dead of winter), and it would be nice to get that bill down further before turning on the A/C.

jetsam, dreams, painting, death, the almighty $

I’ve been mildly depressed lately, mostly because this is the week of the May painting intensive in San Francisco that I had intended to go to, back when I didn’t realize that my little editing business would be affected by the global financial crisis (Think globally, lose money locally). Ironically, my best client, at UCSF, is getting so much money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that it’s making her “crazy” (I guess with grant applications? administrative details?) and she and her lab group don’t have time to write papers. A few jobs have trickled in from Italy, but nothing like in recent years. In the meantime, I sit here, the little birdie on the back of the hippo, and the hippo isn’t doing a damn thing for our symbiotic relationship. I forget what the birdie is supposed to do. OK, I looked it up [] and added a few editorial translations.

One version of symbiosis is the relationship of certain birds and hippopotami. In this relationship, the birds are well known for preying on [editing] parasites [errors] that feed on each hippopotamus which are potentially harmful for the animal [s career]. To that end, this hippopotamus openly invites the birds to hunt [edit] on its body, even going so far as to open its  jaws to allow the birds to enter the mouth safely to hunt [edit, sometimes very close to the esophagus]. For the birds’ part, this relationship not only is a ready source of food [money], but a safe one considering that few predators [credit card companies, mortgage holders] would dare strike at the bird at such close proximity to its host [client].

At the end of the first day of the intensive, Barbara e-mailed to say she missed me, and that made me feel a little better about it. In fact, I went into a flurry of activity and ended up taking most of the stuff out of my long walk-in closet that was literally stuffed to the gills (well, “literally” if closets had gills; let’s just say it was jam-packed right up to the door). I had the idea of digging out my old “Painting Letters” that I started writing to the group at the studio (CCE, nee Painting Experience) in late 1995. I’ve become obsessed with posting my writings on my website, For some reason there’s now a glut of books on the market titled “… Before You Die” (recordings you have to listen to Before You Die, books you have to read Before You Die, places you have to go Before You Die). I’m not generally paranoid, but it’s starting to get to me. So now my Before I Die project is to pour my thimbleful of outpourings into the ocean of literacy to be, in all likelihood, lost forever, or maybe to join the masses of flotsam (jetsam?—let’s just call it garbage) that is swirling over the earth’s watery surface. That (the garbage in the oceans) started out to be a metaphor but is unfortunately a fact, but at least my own teaspoonful of thoughts, stories, and rants will take up nothing but “bandwidth,” which I assume is very close to being metaphorical itself…. or at least can’t float on the ocean or wash up on desert islands populated with cartoon characters with straggly beards hoping for rescue. A recent cartoon in The New Yorker had one of these guys opening a bottle with a note in it and saying, “I wish they’d quit sending my financial statements.” Apparently no cartoonist has ever thought of putting a woman on that island—I guess because man is the default human and woman is only good for sexual or nagging-her-husband jokes. There are some excellent female cartoonists—Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel—but let’s face it, women just aren’t funny, or so I constantly hear from male comedians—whereas the Three Stooges and farting, now that’s funny!

Where was I? OK, so I started lugging all this stuff out of the closet, including eight large cartons and five portfolios stuffed (to the gills) with my paintings since 1979. I’ve weeded them out a few times, but there’s still a lot for my “heirs” to toss when the time comes. Over the years I’ve given several of my paintings away in the dim hope that they will outlive me. So maybe some of them won’t get thrown overboard with the rest of the jetsam. (Flotsam = “floating debris”; jetsam = stuff “cast overboard to lighten the load in time of distress.”) I’ve asked my peops, should I die first, to put some of my paintings up at the funeral home in lieu of the photographic montage that reminds or educates the mourners about the one who has passed on. I would love-love-love to be hovering over that gathering, watching the shocked reactions to my shocking paintings (“Mary, we hardly knew ye!”)—but I’d rather not see all the crying, and I definitely don’t want to see all the laughing and chatting—I expect my death to be taken seriously!

Since I’ve stumbled onto this topic, let me go a little further. I’m curious to find out if painting will have prepared me for the spooky projections that the Tibetan Buddhists say will greet each of us in “the bardo” when we die. I don’t think I was aware of being born; I want to be awake for my death. And I dare my inner projector to find scarier images than the ones I’ve already seen on other people’s paintings and on my own.

I’ve had several lucid dreams over the years, when I knew I was dreaming, and a few super-lucid ones that felt exactly like what we call “real life.” In one of the super ones, I heard people walking up the stairs to my bedroom. It was a man and a woman, and I somehow knew that they knew M. Cassou (larger-than-life painter/teacher). The man said, “We’ve heard about you.” At the time, I was really into the “afterlife” (so much more appealing than the “duringlife”). So I clung to that dream/experience as some sort of guarantee that there is an Order to it all. I’ve since lost the need to feel immortal, if only in spirit form, but the one thing I truly believe I have going for me is that when Death comes, I will go toward Him, Her or It without reservation. I’ve somehow learned through dreaming not to shrink back from scary images (I push through them and they dissolve) or from falling (I fall even faster and then swoop up and fly) or even from death that I “know” is imminent. This is it, go-go-go, I actually dream-think to myself. And someday it will really happen.

Death… to be cont’d.

the stuff of memory

As I was taking stuff out of the closet, the cats were in heaven, especially Brutus, who has long wanted to explore the marvelous peaks and valleys and tunnels and crevices that make up my “not wanted now but someday…” accretions. I sweated and heaved and carried and pushed and pulled my way through the narrow passageway between two old bookcases that will henceforth be exiled to the garage. I knew that my old painting writings would be way in the back, in an unmarked box, and they were. So I hauled them out and spent hours going through them and selecting several pieces that I could conceivably post on my website (“In the bardo,” “Party time,” “The thief, the policeman, the devil & I,” and other oldies but goodies). As always happens when I try to “declutter,” everything I’ve dragged out of hiding is now very much in sight and under foot. If I didn’t expect my niece to come clean on Thursday, I could happily leave it there until inspiration strikes to put it all back. But she is my cleanliness/clutter conscience, so I will probably have to do something with it all before then. [Update: Didn’t happen; she cleaned around it.] There are still several large storage boxes of old books and feminist/lesbian magazines from the ‘70s in there, which I’m sure will be of interest to somebody, someday; I can’t bear to throw them out. There’s also a trunk containing old letters and writings  dating back to at least college—it’s the trunk I took to college—and I’m sorry, but I don’t subscribe to the idea that you should throw away anything you haven’t used or looked at in the past year. I will haul that shit with me until the day I die. It’s my life, man!

So I got all sweaty and tired doing that, and I had earned a rest, so I fell back into my big red comfy chair by the open window and inhaled the delightful smells brought in by the breeze and listened to the birds—I had just fed them that morning—and watched Brutus and Luther run from window to window to catch sight of the pigeons cooing (shitting, fornicating) on the roof. The temperature was a perfect 62° (San Francisco weather!). There are so few days like this, when I can have the windows open and enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of nature.
(I’m not in nature, but I’m nature-adjacent.)

In Barbara’s e-mail she said I wasn’t “where [I] was supposed to be” (painting on a tripod near the door where I could get the occasional hint of breeze) but then hastened to add that I was where I was supposed to be, just not where she wanted me. And though I wished to be there too, I knew that if I were, I’d be dealing with physical privations and fears of people, process, and planes. And yet the experiences I have there are like nothing else in my life… so deep, so meaningful, so touching the core of the little me and the big I. The world within those painting walls is the whole world when 20 or 25 of us are painting all day for 7 days in a row. The energy and sublime quiet in that room, the giggles and the tears, Barbara’s words floating through the air (not at all like flotsam) as she talks to each of us in turn are powerful beyond imagining. It’s a place where strong feelings come up and you don’t have to pretend not to be feeling them. And the camaraderie—but more than that—the rapport, affinity, intimacy, affection, love—often with the unlikeliest people (“new” people, the impossibly young, those with whom you’ve had un petit conflit), but also with the longtime companions you’ve been painting with, exploring with, undergoing upheaval and change with, for 25 or 30 years. Of course, there have also been the strange, unwanted encounters with people who push your buttons big-time, or you theirs, and it’s all in the mix, the connections and the dysfunctions, the getting thrown back on yourself, whether in the group or on the paper. So easy, it would seem, to apply paint to paper, so complex and difficult in the execution, every painting a self-portrait in a way, but a self you barely recognize or, worse, recognize all too well and want to rip off the wall. But there’s no escape, and in that twisting, sometimes agonizing aloneness and confrontation with yourself, you find love underneath it all and a great expanse of spirit, a letting go. And when you turn and face your painting companions at the end of the day, you’re raw, you’re bleeding grace, but you’ve survived. That’s when you can look in someone else’s eyes and see that, beneath the differences of physical body, country and culture, age and experience, you are one.

I am so missing you right now. (You know who you are.)

some jog, some blog

It’s strange that I suddenly feel like writing. I went for how long—a year and a half?—without having the urge, or at least the stamina, to make a ‘zine out of a long list of half-told tales. And now I wonder if I’m going to overwhelm you—“oh God, not another zine! I don’t have time for this!”—or just deteriorate into telling you what I had for breakfast this morning, or that I’m just getting over a cold, like a Twitterer intent on announcing her every move. You could say I’ve always done that anyway, and you could be right.

I feel like I’m straddling two worlds: (1) the heartfelt world of little Midwestern (or West Coastern) stories xeroxed, stapled, and mailed to a few friends and (2) the vast, personal/impersonal, wasteland/gold mine/font of everything and nothing-of-value—the Internet, where I can post an innocent, throwaway comment about Stonehenge (they figured out it was a burial ground, big deal) and get back a response from the U.K. less than an hour later, by the author of a book on the subject, gently chastising me for buying into the media’s glib pronouncements.

The size of the Internet world seems way out of proportion to that of an individual sitting at her typewriter-like object plugged into the wall, in a small town in a remote part of the country where most of the residents are blithely unconnected to anything larger than their big screen TVs. It seems both as wonderful and as not-quite-believable as when humans were first able to cover long distances in a matter of hours rather than days or weeks, via the magic flying machine, the airplane—which is no longer magical but only tedious in the extreme, to the point where you wish you could hop in a covered wagon, hook up the horses, and get there already.

Like those first awed airplane passengers, I have easy access to a world beyond my local environment—I can communicate instantly with a writer in Seattle, a bookseller in Kentucky, a scientist in Austria, friends all over the country, and, of course, my sister a town over. I suppose the computer is just an extension (so to speak) of the telephone, which still feels like the original technological miracle to me. The car is like a faster and more durable horse, but the telephone is the sine qua non. Imagine telling your great-great-grandparents, We have this machine with numbered buttons on it that you touch and you can talk to someone who lives 5 (500, 5,000) miles away! It’s absurd that this is even possible… or that airplanes can stay up in the air, for that matter…. Am I dating myself yet? So the Internet is more or less a glorified telephone where you use the written word instead of voice  to reach strangers far, far away, and you don’t even have to specify (dial up) these strangers, they just see what you’ve written (or recorded or filmed) in the privacy of your own home and then can answer you, correct you, or berate you, as they see fit. (If you read the “comments” pages on most websites, you will despair of humanity, I assure you.)

As you know, I’ve been posting old mary’zines and some previously “unpublished” material (“best of the mary’zine that never made it to print”) on I see this mostly as a practical means to get my precious words out there to the masses who don’t yet know they’re dying to read them, like those scientists who broadcast Buddy Holly or Elvis songs into outer space in case Someone is out there receiving signals and simultaneously having the first clue what music is. (If those Someones are anything like most human adults in the 1950s, they’ll just cover their ears, if they have them, and wonder what that “noise” is.)

But I was looking at one of my postings the other day and realized that it reads differently on the screen than it does on paper. The paper version fits the way I ramble in a leisurely fashion while deciding what I want to say—and what I want to say is often just the build-up to the ramble; you know, the journey not the destination—she said, as if she knew what the destination was, let alone how to get there. When you’re reading online, the eye wants to go fast, skip over whole sentences and paragraphs, get to the gist, the grist, the meat of the matter, and click on to something else if satisfaction is not immediate. I suppose I could try to make the writing in the ‘zine punchier, have lead sentences for every paragraph, organize my thoughts like a pyramid and get them out there, BAM!, like a journalist on a deadline who expects most people to read only the first paragraph or two. But no. Instead, I will have to rely on the likes of you: my slow… old… perhaps bedridden… readers out there who are willing to curl up with some good old-fashioned prose on paper…. or read it on your electro-screen if you must. And if little green men start leaving advanced-civilization-type comments on my blog, I’ll know that my ‘zine-waves-to-nowhere have done their job.

condo made of stone-a

In the fifth grade we studied ancient Egypt. I loved learning about the beginning of civilization—the images, the strange writing, the pyramids. It was my introduction to world history, and to the concept of something outside myself—vast and mysterious—irrelevant to my family’s pain and my own. That was the year that I was shocked to read about the burning of the Library of Alexandria (in aught-1st century B.C.), for all the knowledge that was lost forever. It was the year of editing the class newspaper, of writing plays for me and my classmates to perform, of being chosen to sing “Bonnie Banks O’ Loch Lomond” in the high school auditorium. It was the year I became a Girl Scout and dreamed of all the badges I was going to earn for tying knots and marking trails with little piles of stones. I loved playing basketball, football, and baseball with my boy cousins. I loved the woods and the shy little flowers. I read all the “boys’” adventure books—Hardy Boys, Jack London, deep-sea adventures, stories of proud Indian tribes—and I longed to own a typewriter and a desk and a bookcase.

Those memories from when I was 10 years old carry with them the innocence and hope with which I scanned the skies of infinite knowledge, expecting to learn more and more until I knew everything there was to know. Now, I look back through the other end of the telescope, and I see that I made my choices through time and never did get back to learning more about Egypt or so many other things. I’m a dilettante or, to be kinder to myself, a generalist. As I pore over the site, hopping and skipping from one recommendation to another, I end up ordering books such as Zero (The Biography of a Dangerous Idea); The Irony of American History; Decoding the Universe; The World Is Flat; Gödel, Escher, Bach; The Limits of Power; This Is Your Brain on Music. I’ve read some of all of these books, and all of some of them—you can’t read all the books, all the time. And yet, dipping my toe into the deep waters of quantum physics, U.S. foreign policy, biology of the brain, and globalization seems like too little too late. Why, now, go into depth on the big issues, the sciences, the histories? I loved Latin in high school… should I take it up again? Should I renew (or make) my acquaintance with Stonehenge and the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Muslims? I still have eyes to read and ears to hear, but now I’m on the other side of the immensity of all that is known—not because I know it all but because it seems increasingly pointless to learn facts.

At the age of 10, I wanted to know everything, but I had no interest in the unknown—what was there to know about that? And of course now I know that the unknown is the most important thing of all. It may be the only thing, because what do we really know for sure? Basically, we take everything on faith: gravity, birth, death, and our separate personhood, which may be the greatest illusion of all.

We are so small in the vast universe, so unschooled in the face of all that has come before and the more that will come after, so fully human and thus inadequate to the task of inhabiting, embracing, and containing all that life appears to offer. The view keeps changing, we see the big we cannot reach and reach for the small we cannot see. The hubris it takes just to write these sentences, as if I’m some Girl Shakespeare, reincarnated—and if it turns out that Francis Bacon wrote all those plays after all, I will be pissed: Who would aspire to be Girl Bacon? Maybe I’ll have better luck next time, or in the no-time, the whatever-it-is out there or in here.

Since it’s not something I can figure out, I’ll just keep following my little path and doing my little thing—typing my past and future thoughts into the computer and loading them up onto my blog so I’m no longer burdened by the need to disseminate myself personally, going from door to door or mailbox to mailbox. When I die, the books, the knowledge, the kudos, the joy and terror of writing, the connections, the ever-important follow-up and begging for scraps of praise will matter not at all; I will have been just one more little twig on the tree of life, one more ripple in the infinite river of humanity. So I try to be present, be alive, enjoy what I can and do what I must. That’s life, eh? On the TV show “Numbers” recently, one character says to his overwrought brother, the formerly boy genius who’s afraid he’ll never fulfill his childhood destiny: “Forget destiny. Just do what you want on any given day.” I second that emotion. The tree and the river don’t need me, gravity won’t remember me, birth and death will be behind me, and personhood? Poof.

epilog: Milk and more

The other night, the name of an old friend whom I lost touch with more than 20 years ago popped into my head, so I decided to google her to see what she was doing now. The first result that came up was her obituary. She had died a year ago. And while this was surprising news, it wasn’t exactly devastating, since I had been out of her orbit for so long. But it was odd to have her back in my thoughts again, to have all the memories of our times together right there, retrieved without effort as if it all happened yesterday—the glory days in San Francisco in the mid ‘70s, fighting for all the good things, observing and writing about the explosion of new political thought, the liberation of women and gay people, marching bravely (tremblingly) through the gauntlet of strangers in the Gay Pride parade. Back then I lived in the Castro (as did my friend), and we were all stunned by the murder of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. That night, my partner and I and thousands of others walked the long walk to City Hall holding lit candles, and listened to Joan Baez sing heartbreakingly on the grand steps, a memory fossil that will exist through time.

I was touched by the movie “Milk,” though the story it told wasn’t mine—unless you consider that I was in the march scene (real footage, not a reenactment). But the memories that attach to the movie, to the old friend now gone, to the people from that time and place who are still in my life, those memories stir and stir, and the pot runneth over. In life there’s no neat ending, no credits rolling or director commentating, no special features, no previews, trailers, or conversations with the actors. No actors. Just one person stumbling along, half-blind and the other half blindfolded, no clue what’s going on until she reaches a ripe old age where some things are revealed and others will remain a mystery forever.

R.I.P. Celeste West.

Death does not matter, says Krishnamurti.  I look forward to finding out why not.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #24 October 2002

April 29, 2009

Life, death, guilt, redemption, the F word, etc.

Dear friends. Well, I had this issue pretty much worked out—in my carefully planned but intermittently spontaneous way—when events interrupted my carefully planned but intermittently spontaneous life and I had to fly back to the Midwest for a funeral.

My brother-in-law Skip died of a heart attack. This is the brother-in-law I wrote about in January, to whom I hadn’t spoken in years. I was painting him last year when a verse from The Merchant of Venice, “The quality of mercy is not strain’d…,” started running through my head. After that, I felt better about him, but we never reconciled directly.

I had been dreading this trip back home, on a number of levels, ever since the last time I was there, 11 years ago. After my mother died, there seemed no more reason to go—I didn’t feel the same obligation toward my sisters. And I had no desire to see Skip, who had been emotionally intrusive to me when my mother was dying and then, in the following months, became even more possessive and demanding of my time and attention. When I tried to set boundaries (this was pre-J, when I barely knew what boundaries were, let alone how to enforce them), he withdrew, I got pissed, and it’s been a stalemate ever since. When I asked my sister if she wanted me to come for the funeral, she said it was up to me, but I knew she’d want me there. So I arranged for Pookie to be looked after, made my plane reservations, and called J to cancel our next appointment; when I told her I didn’t want to go but felt I had to, she said, “That’s what families do for each other.” And I whined, “Well, I guess they’re my family….”

I’m a little concerned about how I’m going to come across in this story, because I have certain expectations (and thus project them onto you) about what should have happened if I were truly a Good Person. First, I should have made up with Skip when he was alive—isn’t that some sort of Good Person rule, like never going to bed angry? Plus, funerals are supposed to be all about pain and regret. There’s supposed to be a lot of crying and not very much laughing. In extreme cases, there should be an attempt to throw oneself onto the funeral pyre.

I don’t know where I got those ideas, because my father’s family had classic Irish wakes. As adults, his 12 brothers and sisters only saw each other at weddings and funerals, and except for the bride and groom in the one and the casket in the other, you wouldn’t have known which was which. Maybe there was a bit more crying at the weddings. My mother and I always sat on the sidelines, dour-faced, uncomfortable, with an unwanted brandy and Coke in front of each of us. I wished I could be more like my partying aunts and uncles, but I knew implicitly that it would be a betrayal of my mother to trade her Scandinavian reserve for their Irish lack of inhibition.

Since the age of 14, when I rejected God, country, and motherhood (but not apple pie), I’ve sneered at the idea of family (Family is the F word), as if I were too smart for such a mundane commitment to people with whom I believed I had little in common but a few genes and a name—and not even a name anymore, since my sisters and their children are now K___’s and P___’s. The only McKenneys in our hometown are my father’s nephews and their wives, with whom I have no contact at all.

But on this visit home to my roots (rhymes with foots), for a variety of reasons, I was ready to embrace the clan, though I didn’t know it until I got there. When my mother was alive, I had to tiptoe around her moodiness and narcissism. Then Skip took up where she left off. Like her, he knew instinctively how to dominate by passive aggression and how to trip the guilt fantastic. Gee, maybe there’s a reason my sister married him.

I was a little concerned about flying—it was the 1st anniversary of 9/11—but the flights were uneventful and security was fairly minimal. I expected a long delay at SFO, but they only pawed through one of my carry-on bags and inspected my shoes; they didn’t touch the knapsack with the crucifix jackknife hanging from the zipper. In Chicago, where I had to transfer to a tiny DC-something to wing northward, they pulled me out of line, passed a wand over every square inch of my body, and pawed (it’s the only word for it) through both bags, still overlooking the potentially lethal crucifix. (I didn’t remember it was there until much later. I would have hated for it to be confiscated, since it’s a beautiful, quirky work of religious art and a gift from Tee.)

So I arrive in Green Bay, and my two sisters and my other brother-in-law are there to drive me the final 50 miles to Barb’s house. I’m hopped up on goofballs (3 Dramamine) and forget about my suitcase, but fortunately K asks how I managed to pack everything into two small carry-ons, so we traipse back into the terminal to get it. Finally, we’re headed out on the flat stretch of Highway 41 coming out of Green Bay.

I recently read a review of a book about the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871, a catastrophe that, according to the New York Times, “remains somewhat obscure, due partly to its remote location [my emphasis] just west of the Green Bay, near Michigan’s Upper Peninsula….” That’s my home ground, folks, Remote is our middle name.

I could never live back there again [2009 update: Oh, how little I knew about myself], but as we drove north, I avidly watched the landscape for familiar sights and reminders of my childhood. (Traumatic childhood becomes wistful nostalgia; must be a survival mechanism.)

In Oconto, we pass our late uncle Al’s Riverside Tavern, still looking exactly the way it did 40-50-60 years ago. Throughout the area, I noticed that, while factories and businesses have closed and churches have been torn down, all the old bars are there—the Ogden Club, Dino’s Pine Knot, the Green Light Tavern. There’s always money for booze (she said, sounding exactly like her mother). But unlike my mother, I have a preternatural interest in those places. I don’t drink beer, but I collect Silver Cream (“The Cream of Beers”) bottles from the long-defunct Menominee-Marinette Brewing Company—probably because my father used to take me with him to bars when I was a preschooler. (That sounds worse than it was; he was mostly just socializing when I was along.) I still love eating in those old taverns. Proust can have his madeleines; I’ve got the aroma of deep-fried lake perch and stale beer to trigger fond memories.

In Peshtigo, we pass by another tavern that has a sign outside advertising a certain Milwaukee beer. I haven’t seen the name in years, so I blurt out, “BLATZ!” After a pause in which everyone else in the car probably thinks I’ve gone off the deep end, we all crack up.

I had thought that if I ever went back there after my mother was gone, I’d have to stay in a motel so I’d have my “space.” This is an unknown concept in the Midwest, apparently. When I used to tell Skip I needed my space, he’d call and say, “I’m going to take some of your space now.” But it was obvious that Barb didn’t want to be alone, so my niece fixed up a spare room for me, and I was able to have my space and eat it too (as it were).

Dramatis personae

Before I go any further, I’d better introduce the family:

Barb: Youngest sister, 48. Middle school teacher (math and science) in the town where we grew up. The new widow. Has heart of pure gold.

Skip: The deceased, 57. Estranged brother-in-law. Retired career Air Force/Vietnam vet/cross-dresser/tranny-wannabe. (This last used to be a closely guarded secret, but it seems everybody in town has known about it for years. A local store for plus-size women’s clothing sent flowers for the funeral. One of the unintentionally funny things the minister said during the eulogy was that Skip was “a man’s man.”)

Lorraine: Skip’s daughter, 31, from his first marriage, but Barb raised her from the age of 7. (Her mother died.) Funny, smart as a whip, lives on a farm. She takes care of three donkeys, a horse, at least one pig, lots of cats, and her two kids—A.J., 7, who wants to be a paleontologist, and Cody, 2, who has no career plans yet that I know of.

Aaron: Lorraine’s husband, who works on the “melting deck” of a foundry—a hot, dirty, exhausting job (same thing my father did). He’s quiet, very sweet, and is still Lorraine’s best friend after 10 years of marriage.

Brian: Skip’s son, 29, former n’er-do-well who finally responded to parental tough love and turned his life around. Unfortunately, fathered six children before doing so. Works two jobs as an appliance repairman. He and second wife Deb have a daughter, Sarina, and Deb has another daughter, Summer, who is half Thai. Summer, like A.J., is 7 and very smart. Sarina, age 2, is an unknown quantity. (I can’t relate to kids until they can form complete sentences.) Brian and his family live in a mobile home in a trailer park and so, in the minds of many Americans, are “trailer trash.” I saw a documentary on PBS about middle school kids. One snotty girl, surrounded by her fashionable friends, referred to a certain classmate with disdain: “We wear Abercrombie—he wears, like, WAL-MART.” If I were in charge, I would require two ongoing classes beginning in elementary school: (1) critical thinking and (2) socioeconomic class awareness.

K: Middle sister, 50, works in a factory. She makes couplings for tractors and such. Works a 10-hour shift 4 days a week and is an avid gardener and home decorator. She’s another one with a heart of gold. I guess our parents did something right.

MP: K’s husband, avowed (and proud) asshole. Fourth of 12 children and estranged from his entire family. Is a customer service rep, of all things, at a Ford dealership. Yells at the customers and dares his boss to fire him. Uses words like “nigger” and “faggot” around me, but I’ve learned not to rise to the bait. He loves my sister—they’ve been married 30 years—so I have to give him that.

“Little Mike”: K and MP’s older son, 25, with whom I bonded big-time when he was 14, the last time I saw him. Very sensitive and funny. (K said she didn’t know where he got his humor and brains; Barb said, “From his aunt.” [That would be me.]) He’s now an enormously large person, hence the irony of “little.” Works in Madison as a “fire equipment designer” (?), has two kids I’ve never met. He couldn’t get off work to come up for the funeral, so I didn’t get to see him.

Joshua: K and MP’s younger son, 21. Last time I saw him, when he was 10, we couldn’t relate at all. He was quiet, lost in little Mike’s shadow, but lo and behold he has come out of his shell, is almost as big as little Mike, wears several earrings and has a shaved head. We bonded on sight. He said I was a worthy replacement for his witty brother. Works at Marinette Marine, making parts for ships. Would rather be a long-distance trucker, but wife Jana is opposed.

The grand tour

On the morning after I arrived, we went out with K and MP to their favorite breakfast spot. K had called it a “dive,” but I didn’t see anything wrong with it, so I started to say, “Why do you think this place is a dive?” Fortunately, I noticed that the owner was talking to MP a few feet away. Whew! Open mouth, stop from inserting foot just in time. Afterward, we dropped MP off at home, and the three of us took a tour of our old homesteads. I had dreaded seeing the old neighborhood on Bay de Noc Road—I knew it had changed a lot, and I thought I couldn’t bear seeing strangers living in MY HOUSE and in my aunt and uncle’s house next door. (They sat with me at Mom’s funeral, and now they’re both dead, too.) But when I saw the man-made lake and the expensive houses that have replaced the woods where I spent hours in serene solitude, picking buttercups and violets, it was no big deal. It didn’t feel like mine anymore, but it was as if I’d already let go of it without noticing. It was just strange to consider that “rich people” (lawyers and doctors) now saw our old neighborhood as desirable. When we lived there, it was anything but. Our only neighbors—besides our aunt and uncle and their molester sons—were the Salewskys (on the land where my mother grew up), the Calcarys (house gutted by fire years ago, finally being remodeled), old Mr. Bael (in a little green shack), and Wallenders’ dairy farm.

I know this isn’t an original thought, but it’s too bad you can’t appreciate your environment more when you’re young. I loved the outdoors back then—the woods, the cedar grove, the sand hill, the sand road, the creek running through the cow pasture—but I only appreciate now how much freedom I had to wander and be alone.

We also drove over to North Shore Drive to see our first house, though I was the only one old enough to remember it. I wanted to stop and knock on the door and ask if we could come in and look around, but my sisters wouldn’t do it. It’s a nice two-story house at the corner of Highway 35 and a one-block street that ends in a tree-shrouded enclave called Northwood Cove. We drove back into the “cove” to check it out. The names of the three families who live there in luxurious seclusion are carved on a wooden sign at the entrance. How quaint. They have private beaches (on Green Bay off Lake Michigan), right next to Henes Park beach, where the hoi polloi go swimming. When I was a kid, I would cut through the cove to get to the public beach, and walking by the huge house where the Mars family lived, I was hardly able to conceive of having such riches. One of their kids, also named Mary, seemed as exotic to me as a character in a fairy tale. I thought she must have a perfect life.


Of course we had to check out the park, so we drove in and made the familiar loop that gives you a stunning view of the bay after you round the first curve. (No picture, unfortunately. Peggy, you have to come back and take one.) The beach, which was my favorite place on earth when I was a child, now looks impossibly small.


Another view of the bay


(All photos by P. DuPont.)

A few nights before I got the call about Skip’s death, I dreamed that I was trying to go into Henes Park but there was a huge concrete wall blocking the entrance, and I could only see the tops of trees beyond it. There was a big sign on the wall that said, “DEAD.” I’m not saying it was a premonition, or at least not a premonition about Skip. I think it had more to do with transformation —the death of the past that I had constructed out of selected memories.

One of the great things about having siblings is retelling all the stories you remember from your semi-shared past. Since K and Barb are 6 and 8 years younger than me, we were always at different stages of development, so we often have different memories of the same event. K remembered when I babysat them and made homemade French fries and pulled them down the linoleum hallway on a rug. (“What a great older sister I was!,” I exclaimed.) Barb remembered me and K repeatedly tossing her Raggedy Andy doll up on the roof (rhymes with hoof). Mom had to keep climbing up there to get it down, until she finally said it could stay up there and rot for all she cared. And it did. Barb said she would stand there looking up at it and cry. I had to take it back about being a great older sister, even though I don’t remember doing such a thing and she could have been making it up.

I was surprised to learn that Mom always bought Barb and K the same items of clothing, except K would get it in pink and Barb would get it in blue. Funny, I always had to wear brown. Also, Barb got the Raggedy Andy doll whereas K got Raggedy Ann. I have no idea why K was dubbed the “feminine” one. She turned out to be a broad-shouldered hard worker who built her kids’ bunk beds. Barb is now the girlier-girl, with a house full of dainty, pretty things, but a lot of that was Skip’s doing. Maybe Mom was attempting to do some gender retraining, having completely failed with me.

After driving around for a couple hours, I suggested we stop at the local drive-in for a hamburger. Barb and K were incredulous. “When we eat breakfast, we usually don’t eat lunch.” I protested that I had to eat three times a day, which they thought was strange. From then on, whenever I heard Barb mention my name to people who stopped by the house or called on the phone, she’d be saying. “My sister Mary is here from California. She has to eat three times a day.” It became my freakin’ identity. I did convince them to stop for lunch, though all they had were malts and deep-fried cauliflower (!).

Later, Barb drove me over to the high school to meet the woman I’ve been corresponding with about the $1,000 scholarship I donated. I realized that it was that sudden brainstorm to send the money back there instead of donating to any number of worthy causes in the Bay Area that laid the groundwork for this very visit.

Barb and I stayed up until 3:30 in the morning most nights I was there, sitting in the computer room (the only cool room in the house) and talking about everything under the sun, from family gossip to probability theory. One of my fears had been that I wouldn’t know how to be with her, considering how much she loved Skip and… I want to say “how much I didn’t,” but that would make me look like a real jerk, so I won’t. But she didn’t have to be treated like a fragile doll. Skip had already survived four or five heart attacks and had been living on borrowed time for years. In fact, every morning when she woke up, she’d check to see if he was still breathing. So she was obviously grieving but not self-pitying or in shock. She cried and laughed as the spirit moved her, and we all just went with the flow.

One night we talked about the molestation K and I had suffered at the hands of our cousins. Barb hadn’t known about it, and said it hadn’t happened to her. She told me that one of the cousins was convicted of molesting his girlfriend’s daughter and is reputed to be in prison now. Later, I had an epiphany about the abuse thing: K and I, as adults, have pretty good lives. (I turned gay, and she married an asshole, but other than that….) We were obviously deeply affected by what happened to us, but our cousins are much worse off—between them, they’ve had several bad marriages, debilitating migraines, multiple sclerosis (like my father), bad employment histories, and at least that one putative prison sentence. This really messes with my assumption that the molestee is the only victim, that the molester gets off scot-free. This is huge, and I’m still processing it.

The funeral

The funeral was on Tuesday. Barb and Skip weren’t church-goers, so she asked the minister of some good friends of theirs to conduct the service at the funeral home. First, there was a 3-hour visitation period. Barb was busy talking to people, most of whom we didn’t know, so K and MP and I tried to stay out of the way. We sat together in a foyer to be less conspicuous, but Mike (being an asshole) and K (being a giggler) and I (being I) kept having to shush each other when we got too rowdy. Maybe it’s the McKenney influence, but I think it’s perfectly natural to go giggly after someone has died, even when you loved them. After my mother’s funeral, Barb and Skip drove me to the airport, and as we walked into the terminal, laughing hysterically about something or other, I realized that I had to present my “bereavement certificate” at the ticket counter to get the discounted fare. It was all I could do to keep a straight face as I said, “Um, my mother died….” Death punches all the emotional buttons, not just the socially acceptable ones.

At one point, K was saying how much she admired Barb for handling everything so well. She said to MP, “If it were me, and this was your funeral, I’d be afraid… [short pause]… that no one would come.” This was so true that we all started laughing, even MP. Then, of course, we had to sober up fast.

There wasn’t much to the funeral service except a long sermon masquerading as a eulogy. The borrowed preacher turned out to be a born-again. The bulk of his peroration was about Our Lord Jesus Christ and how we have to accept Him as our personal savior or go to hell. Naturally, he blamed Eve for everything. I wished he’d hurry up and finish, but he had an Agenda. He got most of the crowd to recite “The Sinner’s Prayer” with him. (I AM A SINNER….) I had never heard of it, and, strangely, he didn’t seem to know it by heart either. He said, “I don’t know the exact words, but it goes something… like… this…..” And I had this immediate, vivid fantasy of him taking a top hat and cane out from behind the lectern and dancing sideways past the casket, “Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gaaaal….”

The whole service was surreal, and it wasn’t all my imagination. Skip’s elderly aunt Dell was there, and she was the first to speak up and tell the minister he was speaking too softly. So he raised his voice but not enough, apparently, because every few minutes, she’d loudly announce, CAN’T HEAR ANYWAY. Instead of 100 people droning I AM A SINNER, I would have preferred that we all chant CAN’T HEAR ANYWAY. The cadence and repetition were quite pleasing, as long as you weren’t related to her and trying to keep her quiet. One of Skip’s cousins was sitting between Aunt Dell and Aunt #2, whose name I don’t know. This aunt kind of slumped down in her seat at one point, and Cousin whispers, “Are you OK?” Aunt #2 bellows WHAT’D YOU SAY? and Aunt Dell chimes in, WHAT’D SHE SAY? Cousin gets a piece of paper out of her purse and writes “Are you OK?” and shows it to Aunt #2. Aunt #2, naturally, wants to know, WHAT’S THAT SAY? followed closely by Aunt Dell, WHAT’S THAT SAY?

Finally, it was over. We had to hang around so everyone could go up and pay their respects to Barb again, and at one point the preacher came over to me and began a who’s-on-first sort of conversation. He wanted to know “who was the oldest.” I said I was. He said, “I thought Skip was the oldest.” I could see where this was going, but I said noncommittally, “Skip was one year older than me.” So of course he said, “How can you be the oldest if Skip was one year older than you,” and I had to point out that I was, in fact, Barb’s sister, not Skip’s. I wanted to add, “I have to eat three times a day.” He was embarrassed, but it was only the beginning of his humiliation, because I purposely drew him into a conversation about religion. I asked him all the hard questions, to which he had all the easy answers.

Me: What about the Jews?

Preacher: The whole Jewish Nation will have to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior or they will all go to hell.

Me: What about homosexuals?

Preacher: Sinners. They will go to hell also. Marriage is a holy union between a man and a woman.

That was basically his whole message: “Everyone but me and my fellow fanatics is going to hell.”

The surprise for me in all this, and the reason I kept the conversation going, is that I’ve always had a hard time having an “agreeable disagreement” with anyone whose beliefs are wildly different from mine—especially when their wildly different belief is that I’m doomed to burn for eternity. But I felt calm, contained, and fearless.

Me: There are many major religions in the world that see things differently. Who are you to say that this book, written by men [and I should have said, translated by other men, from ancient languages about which there is much dispute as to the meanings of certain important words], is the one true word of God?

Preacher (opening his Bible, itching to read me some scripture): Because the Bible tells me it is!

Me (noting the tautology of his argument: the Bible is God’s word because the Bible says so): I have my own experiences, my own understanding, and my own beliefs. But I don’t go around trying to scare people by telling them they’ll go to hell if they don’t agree with me.

Preacher: I know it sounds narrow-minded…. [changing the subject] Evolution is a fairytale!

Me: I think what you’re telling me is a fairytale.

Despite our restrained and polite manner, this conversation really had nowhere to go. We would either devolve into a chorus of “Is not!” “Is too!” Or perhaps, on his part, “You’ll go to hell!” and on my part, “CAN’T HEAR ANYWAY.” I noticed Barb was gathering her things and getting ready to leave, and I was tired of playing cat with this clueless mouse anyway, so I said, “Well, I’m going to have to….”

But he was getting feverish, determined to save me from the inferno. He hit on a new argument.

Preacher: It MUST be a young earth, because in 1830 [somebody] measured the sun and discovered it’s shrinking by 5 feet per year!

Me: ????? I really have to go now.

Preacher: Can we continue this back at the house?

Me (in thought bubble over head: Shit! I forgot about the de rigueur post-funeral snacks!) No, sorry.

I stand up to make my exit, but he wants to sum up:

Preacher: Let me just say this: God loves you, and He has a plan for your life.

Me (thinking this through to say exactly what I believe): I know I am loved… and that there’s a plan for my life—can we agree on that?

Preacher (sly bugger): Yes—God loves you, and He has a plan for your life.

Back at the house, he left me alone and I sat out on the back deck with the (adult) kids who were smoking up a storm. We ate ham and cheese on buns and lemon bars and drank Cokes. I told Joshua my vision of the preacher with the top hat and cane, and he cracked up and said what a “cool aunt” I was. God, I love that kid.

Family—no longer the F word

On Wednesday, my last day there, we took Joshua and Jana out to Joswiak’s tavern for hamburgers and pizza (me happily inhaling the smell of stale beer). Later there was an impromptu grand finale just before dark when we all ended up down the road from Barb’s where Aaron was chain-sawing some tree trunks. A few years ago, Barb and Skip had been feeding the deer in a large vacant lot across the road until the city came and shot the deer. So they bought the land and created a park Skip called “Barbaraland.” They put in a huge lawn, picnic tables, a fire pit, and stacks and stacks of firewood. It’s mostly for their own family’s use, but now and then they host “A Day in the Park” for anyone to come and eat hotdogs and play games.

I hadn’t been down there yet, so we walked over to see it. K and MP, who live a couple miles away, rode by on their bikes and joined us. Skip’s cousin Bruce roared up on his motorcycle. Summer, the 7-year-old, and a whole passel of other kids came along. (Summer had finally started opening up to me. When Brian introduced me to her as “Aunt Mary,” she said, “I already have an aunt Mary” and ostentatiously ignored me. But then she and A.J. and the little kids kept ending up in the computer room with me, and we had a good time riffing about silly things and looking up Pokemon-related websites, and it was all of a sudden jolly good fun to be an aunt—a GREAT-aunt, no less.)

So we were all standing in the road, watching for the occasional car, as Aaron cut up the wood and threw it in the back of his truck, and except for the unbearable noise of the chainsaw and the multitude of mosquitoes, I felt this warm glow, like I was one of the freakin’ Waltons. Even better than that, I felt as if I had suddenly (after only 10 years of therapy!) crossed an invisible line and become an adult. Several years ago I told J that I didn’t see the appeal of being an adult. I wanted to be taken care of, wanted someone to look up to (wanted a mother, let’s face it). I saw adulthood as nothing but an energy drain, a vast wasteland of duty and obligation. But now it was a pleasure and a privilege to have this incipient relationship with 4 new little kids and a reconnection with my grown-up nephews and niece. I promised everyone I’d come back for a visit next June. And I can hardly wait!

A few nights after I got back to California, I was chopping broccoli for my favorite pasta dish; it was after dark, but I had the back door open so Pookie could go in and out; I was listening to “Fresh Air” on the radio, feeling at peace; and I realized that I HAVE EVERYTHING. I meant “everything” in the sense of, well, everything. Most of the things I have could be taken away—material things, relationships, health, life—but this was different. It was like having no boundaries, but with a core that was the “me” I know day to day. I felt BIG, and I remembered someone seeing a vision of Dot after she died in which she filled the whole sky. It struck me that I must be feeling something like the expansion that happens after what we call death, when it turns out (as I imagine it) that the universe you thought you were such a tiny part of is actually inside you. This may sound far-fetched, but it felt totally real, familiar, and deeply reassuring. It was a sense of being infinitely large and yet competent to navigate the small self with the proper boundaries, like with the preacher. Everything felt exactly right and in proportion—as if I could hold the world in my hands but also thread the smallest needle.

When I told this story to J, she immediately understood it as being an experience of “enlightenment,” however fleeting. When I told my psychiatrist, she immediately thought: bipolar. Such are the limits of the medical model.

Barb and I have been e-mailing almost every day since I got back. When she wrote me about her and K and MP celebrating MP’s birthday at Schussler’s and everyone in the restaurant singing “Happy Birthday” to him, I wrote back that I wished I had been there. And I meant it. Strangely, I felt the same way when she wrote me about her recent roofing project.

Yesterday Aaron, Lorraine, Brian, Bruce, and Brian’s friend Aaron H. worked on stripping the roof down to the bare wood. They managed to get the tar paper on as it was supposed to rain today. Today, Aaron showed up at 7:30 a.m. and was surprised when I said good morning to him. I was outside painting an oil base primer on the barn. The weather forecasters predicted rain by late afternoon and snow tomorrow so it had to get done. Bruce came over about 8:00 with the intention of helping me with the painting, but I suggested he help Aaron instead as that was the more difficult and important job…. He helped him until Brian and his friend showed up to pitch in and then Bruce helped me with the barn. The rain came once and we stopped, put the paint away, and only had half the barn painted. The rain was short-lived and so we opened the can and started up again. Lorraine came in and helped with the painting. The roof was on and the barn was painted before the rains came again. We cleaned up the mess in the rain while 6 grandkids played in the dirt pile and were muddy messes from head to toe. It cost about $500 in roofing supplies, pizza, subs, donuts, and pop so I have a roof that should last 20 years for a lot less than it could have cost. Aaron was so tired this morning that he told Lorraine his eyebrows hurt.

[2009 update: It wasn’t a barn-barn, it was a storage shed. No idea where she got the word “barn.”]

That was probably really boring to read. Sorry, but I’m making a point here. As recently as 2 months ago, I would have shuddered to think of such a gathering—not just the discomfort, the rain, and the threat of SNOW, but the enforced socializing, the “boring” conversation and concerns of people who aren’t highly educated, the bonds of family obligation. Home may be the place where (as Robert Frost put it), when you have to go there, they have to take you in, but I always thought of it more as where, when you violate parole, they make you go back in.

But now I’m something of a matriarch—or at least a sistriarch—and I’ve found that I can be seen and accepted there for who I am. They don’t see all of me, but they see what’s important. Anyone you can laugh with until you’re both in danger of peeing your paints is kin—or might as well be. And if I absolutely need to talk about my painting-related insights or, I don’t know, the use of the subjunctive among my scientist authors, I have plenty of friends who can hold up their end of those conversations. I felt like a fish that had been out of water for a long time and was finally back in the pond—and it felt good. The thing is, Thomas Wolfe was only half right: You can’t go home again to the place and time you remember, but if you’re lucky, “home” has metamorphosed into a living, breathing thing that will surprise you and make you want to go back for a visit as soon as the #@?!!#% snow goes away.

Rest in peace, Skip.

[Mary McKenney]

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