Posts Tagged ‘dentist’

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: #37 April 2009

July 22, 2009

OK, so the snow is gone. But the first robin appeared, sniffed the air, and went back to its robin ‘hood, meaning it’s 6 more weeks of bare trees and temps of 35-50.

In other news…. I’m starting to look like Barney Frank. Pray for me.

My sister K and I went to Green Bay the other day. It was her last week of layoff until May, when she’ll have the whole month off. Sounds great, but of course it’s involuntary and she doesn’t get paid, except for unemployment. She needed to get a laminator cartridge, and I needed a new vacuum cleaner—have to keep my “cleaning lady” happy. (Don’t tell my niece I called her a cleaning lady.) I could have gone to the Sears in Marinette, a tiny little place, not even owned by Sears anymore, but they probably wouldn’t have what I wanted, and besides, I’m always looking for an excuse to go down to G.B. to eat at El Sarape, on the east side. I’m the chauffeur, and whoever comes with buys lunch. (“Comes with” is a Midwesternism that is interesting for its seeming lack of object; the “me” is silent. [But “I” won’t be silent on the topic of unsilent objects later on in this issue {don’t you just hate it when I tease you like that?}]). Usually, when Barb is along (she’s teaching today), after eating we’ll drive around town, trying to remember how to get anywhere that isn’t on Mason St. I have an excuse, I’ve been away, but considering they’ve been coming here all their lives, my sisters have only the faintest grasp of the geography of their closest thing to a big city. But they eventually remember where Military Ave. or Oneida St. is, and they’ll say, “Take a left at the top of that hill.” And I’ll look around, like, hill? what hill? And I have to bite my tongue not to disparage their idea of what a hill is.

I tell everyone about El Sarape, but Mexican food is a tough sell around here, unless you count Taco Bell, which I don’t. But when I was getting my teeth cleaned recently, I hit the jackpot. Not only does my hygienist love Mexican food, but she didn’t know about El Sarape. So we went on and on (or she did; I had my mouth full of her metal scraper, mirror, and gloved fingers) about burritos and enchiladas and whatnot, and we both got hungry, which is frustrating when the object of your gluttony is 50 miles away. Strangely, my hygienist’s name is Carna. Carna Asada, perhaps? Just free-associating, sorry.

Carna has to make small talk when she’s picking away at my teeth, of course, so she asks if I’ve had any “getaways” since I saw her last. She temporarily vacates my mouth. I never know what to say when the stock question, “So… going anywhere? been anywhere?” comes up. “No” seems a little curt. So I say, “My whole life is a getaway.” Carna laughs and says, “Don’t rub it in, Mary!” This cheers me up for some reason. Well, I know the reason. My droll comments don’t always get a reaction, let alone a laugh. And also, what I said is true.

The very next day, I have to go back to the dentist for a 2.5-hour appointment so Dr. A can begin work on my new bridge. (Do you think I could get TARP money for that?) He sawed off the old bridge and extracted the broken tooth under it a few months ago. I have him trained to be super-sensitive to my dental anxiety, so when there’s any work to be done that involves drilling, he gives me a prescription for Valium. I arrange the appointments for days when K can drive me there and back. (Must have an escort.) So the next day I show up having downed my 3 Valium, and they fit the NO2 apparatus over my nose (I’ve never felt anything from the nitrous, but the barrier of the apparatus helps to distance me emotionally from the goings-on), and headphones so I can listen to a Moody Blues CD, having decided last time that the Beatles are way too sprightly for the bummer experience that is getting orally penetrated by one or more people. I spend the requisite amount of time feeling ironic about listening to some of my favorite music from the early ‘70s way up here in the ‘00s and under very different circumstances. I don’t know if it would be wise to smoke dope before undergoing a day at the dentist, and I doubt I’ll ever know—unless there’s an upsurge (a surge, even) of support for dental marijuana.

Anyway… where was I? Nowhere very interesting, but I’m going to tell you anyway. I’ve come to trust Dr. A a lot, and I’m treated like a queen when I’m there, but let’s face it, it’s not a pleasant experience. As is always the case, I’m being stabbed with the assistant’s sucker, and she seems to be sticking a piece of rebar in there too, as Dr. A works away with his drill and pliers or whatever. I can’t really identify all the things in my mouth, and I can never catch sight of the assistant’s hands, I just know that several inanimate objects are trying to go down my throat, like a logjam about to break up. I have to flag Dr. A down at one point so I can take a little breather. My thoughts through all this are truly mad, and I don’t know if it’s the Valium, though I don’t think it works that way, but I go from feeling like I’m being waterboarded (not a laughing matter, but who said it was?) to thinking that if they really wanted to take my mind off what they’re doing, they’d rig up some sort of vibratory stimulus down in the forgotten region below my neck, below my… well, you know.  It’s the logical extension of their trying to make me so comfortable that I’m not even aware of being there, right? I’m surprised they don’t have someone giving me a shoulder rub or reading me bedtime stories. There are lots of visual distractions that aren’t all that interesting to look at after an hour or two—cute mobiles (skiers, sailboats), panels over the fluorescent light fixtures that simulate clouds in a blue sky on one and colorful fish on the other, and someone’s kid’s colored-in newsprint tooth suction-cupped to the window. My dentist in San Francisco had a TV monitor that played a continuous loop of movies without the sound—Cinema Paradiso, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Mr. Bean Goes Bananas (don’t know real title, don’t care). Mostly, the movies were a pleasant distraction, if Dr. P would let my head turn just enough to see the screen, but he was always tipping it back toward him. I’m easily confused by plot under the best of circumstances—I need sight, sound, and a friend to tell me what’s going on—so without any of those things I’m really lost.

After an hour and a half, the drilling is done and I’ve half-swallowed the goop out of at least three different metal trays. (In dentistry, you get more than one chance to make a good first impression.) Usually, this is the hardest part for me, but I know to think about my nose and not the idea of a handful of slime sliding down my throat. So this time—multiple times—I don’t gag or twitch or otherwise dislodge the tray, and the impression is declared a success. It seems like a good time to request a bathroom break, and as they remove all their equipment and sit me upright so I can gather my wits and climb out of the chair, I turn to Dr. A wearily and say, “I feel like I’m doing all the work.” To his credit he laughs—“What?”—but he has this comical look of confusion on his face. So I shrug and spread my hands and acknowledge that I know he’s “helping, but still….” Is it the drugs talking again? Maybe he thinks so, but no, it’s just my natural drollery (as opposed to the earlier droolery) coming out. The assistants are easier to joke with, either because they’re women and in a subservient role and therefore feel it’s their job to humor the patient, or because they’re women and know what’s funny when they hear it. I also point out to Dr. A that I had to do “half” of Carna’s job the day before, because she couldn’t get the floss threader under my lower bridge and I had to do it for her. Sometimes I wish I had the brazen confidence (and maybe a loud, jolly laugh) to be perceived as obviously joking instead of this deadpan delivery, but I’m not sure the droll ever get to be anything other than what they are: super-serious, super-subtle, super-misunderstood.

This isn’t what I was going to write about. Remember when I started out by saying that K and I went to Green Bay? Well, when we were happily chowing down on our enchiladas, K suddenly asked, “Do you ever regret moving back here?” I didn’t have to think twice. “No,” I said, “do you?” (ever regret my moving back here). She says no, but she clearly has something on her mind. She says she and hubby MP have talked about moving to Florida when they retire… and it would be ironic if I moved back here to be with family and then family moved away. It took 5 full days for this to hit me. What if I were left alone here, with only one nephew and one niece to make the occasional obligatory phone call or visit to check on their old auntie? My other “relationships” in town would hardly be enough to nurture my fragile sense of belonging. Several people seem to like me, but no one has shown any sign of inviting me over for a BBQ or out for a drink. The core unit here is the family. Even when there are 13 brothers and sisters and half of them hate the other half, they don’t usually replace estranged family members with non-blood-related friends. Our family is one of those with more people unaccounted for than are held in the family bosom. One of my cousins “might” be in prison in Colorado. One of my nephews “might” be in jail in southern Wisconsin. One of my uncles left for California, was thought to have married a girl with the same last name, and was never heard from again. A father of six split to Texas “to start a new life” and makes the occasional phone call to his unhappy children. If you subtract the moved-away and divorced adults and the children who have gone with the mother, my family unit consists of Barb, K, MP, one nephew, one niece, one nephew-in-law, and 2 kids. And that’s kind of stretching it, because I rarely see the kids.

The only consistent gathering of this little clan is on holidays and every Friday night, when the four adults over 50 eat a takeout supper together and watch TV or a movie. What’s weird is that I usually spend the entire week from Friday to Friday needing no personal attention from them whatsoever. But when I imagine life here without them, it feels completely different. In an ideal world (=unlimited $), I might move back to the Bay Area. But the world is not ideal, and I do like living here—thank God for that. I know there’s no point worrying about it now—retirement for my sisters is still several years off, and farther still if the economy doesn’t recover. It’s just weird to think that I left here long ago, partly to be done with family, and now I may end up being left by them.

My aunt Judy—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—oops, too late—who’s just a little older than me and was one of my best friends as a young child and a pre-teen, still lives here, but she’s made it clear that she’s not interested in me. It’s my own fault, because whenever I’ve seen her over the years, I clumsily try to connect by reminding her of when we used to play “office” with some old business forms someone’s dad gave us. It’s always the thing that comes to mind when I see her. (Playing office was really fun, although I couldn’t tell you exactly what it entailed.) But then she always says, “And now I’m doing it for real,” i.e., she didn’t go to college and has been doing administrative work in the factory where my sister K does… the factory work. For all she and my other aunts know, I’m just a bookish snob who fled to California and stayed away for 30+ years. (Well, most of that is true.) One of my cousins once, with a touch of resentment in his voice, asked, “If you live in California, why don’t you have a tan?” The obvious answer—“I don’t go outside that much”—didn’t seem to satisfy him.

I suppose it doesn’t help that I was attracted to another aunt, Pat (one of Judy’s six sisters), when I was in the process of coming out in the early ‘70s, and I probably wasn’t too subtle about it. Pat was very glamorous and sexy, had a deep voice and a rich laugh. She lived in Madison and married a Jew (a first—and a last—in the family) named Norman Goldberg who invented something for NASA in the 1950s. The fact that we were blood-related didn’t faze me in the least. She might even have been my first Woman Crush. When I was 6 or 7 and she and her first husband lived across the highway from us, my cousins and I would splash around in their kiddie pool, and I remember one day, for the first time ever, feeling self-conscious about not wearing a top. A harbinger, perhaps? To this day, hearing a woman with that kind of voice, that laugh, brings a smile to my face, though I no longer project my half-naked thrill at Aunt Pat’s attention onto every such woman I meet. Therapy, folks. It really works.

By the way, getting back to my earlier topic, did you know that researchers in the field of dentistry always say “oral cavity,” never “mouth”? Maybe they think it sounds more scientific. But couldn’t it be confused with, you know, cavities? One of my clients is in the School of Dentistry at UCSF, but she never writes about the oral cavity, only the vaginal cavity (as it were), in its role as the purveyor of the placenta.

I have nowhere else to go with that, so I guess I’ll move on.

twitter me shimbers!

I’m a late bloomer in most things, so I’ve just recently surrendered to the inevitability of Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere.

Twitter turned out to be a disappointment because no one I know seems to use it. At first I was “following” well-known people like Tiny Fey, Mika Brzezinski, and Frank Rich, but of course they didn’t want to “follow” me back, so what was the point? Mysteriously, Terry Gross from “Fresh Air” (NPR) started “following” me, and I couldn’t figure out why until I remembered I had contributed $50 to saving her old shows that were disintegrating on magnetic tape or whatever old-fashioned medium they had been recorded on (as if today’s soon-to-be-old-fashioned medium is any more protected from Time’s ravages). So at first it felt like some kind of weird compliment to be “followed” by Terry Gross, but I really doubted she was actually reading my occasional tweets, written in the spirit of one who puts a note in a bottle and throws it out to sea. Actually, the bottle-note would have a better chance of being found and read than my Tweets-to-No-One. Then a couple of people unknown to me started “following” me, but there was absolutely no way of knowing who they were, someone called “sjm39665” or whatever, so I eventually stopped everybody from “following” me and stopped “following” anybody. I have to admit I still check it every now and then, just in case, by some miracle, my notes in the Twitter bottle have washed up somewhere and been read and savored by a stranger on the other side of the computer screen.

Facebook is more satisfying because most of my “friends” there are friends in real life. I initially thought I was too old for this newfangled mode of sociability: Notifying my online friends “what I’m doing right now” seemed really lame. (I fully accept that I am lame, but that’s not the point.) The young are excused for things like writing cute comments on other people’s virtual walls, but the boomelders (boo-melders? no, boom-elders) feel a little silly about it. And I wasn’t sure if my godchild, for example, and her gazillion friends would all abandon the site en masse because people her parents’ age were trying to take it over, like we do everything else.  But Facebook is booming with sprightly oldsters using it to get back in touch with old friends and acquaintances. Let the kids have their impressive roster of friends and display photos of their exotic trips and make obscure references to great parties they’ve danced and gotten high at. Jealous? Mais non. I wouldn’t take my youth back if you handed it to me on a silver platter. Here’s a little couplet I penned:

Life’s best-kept secret is being “old.”
There’s so much more to it than the fearful young are told.

For a while now, I’ve thought I could die happy, nothing more to prove, etc., etc.,  but I’ve finally found something to live for. No, I don’t want to travel around the world or jump out of an airplane. I want to post all the back and future issues of the mary’zine on my blog, (you’re here!). Last year I paid $200 to get hosted, or whatever they call it, by a company online that gives you templates and instructions for creating your own website. And I bought the rights to and Alas and alack, I found it to be the most frustrating, confusing process I’ve ever tried to master. I really didn’t care about having a fancy site anyway, so when I happened to come across and saw that they offer free blogging (and just $15 to take “WordPress” out of the URL), I jumped at the chance. I managed to post several issues of the ‘zine (t)here and even uploaded a photo of the nearby shoreline that Peggy took when she was visiting me last fall. But now, when I want to do a few extra things to make the site easier to navigate, I’ve realized that I am not an intellectual heavyweight when it comes to even such soft-core technology. (Self-knowledge: better late than never.)

There are hundreds of thousands of blogs on (and millions in the world), so my puny output does not equal even a grain of sand in the grand scheme of things. But my attitude is, as long as the mary’zine is out there and available to anyone who wants to find it, or merely trips over it, then I’ve done my bit. Once it’s out of my hands it’ll have to sink or swim on its own. And I’m not going to stand there on the beach and watch its tiny form get farther and farther away. Hasta la vista, baby.

Well, that’s the theory anyway. In reality, I’ve become obsessed with checking the stats and seeing how many views it’s gotten. The problem is, the stats are pretty meaningless, because there’s no way to know, first, if it’s really other people viewing it and not me somehow not logging in right so that the computer thinks I’m a fascinated reader instead of the frustrated author. And if all those numbers actually represent “viewers,” there’s no way to know if they went there on purpose or by mistake, spammed their way to it, went and didn’t like what they saw, or what. (The stats say that someone got to my site by searching for the phrase “peed in my bed,” so what the hell does that mean? [but yes, that phrase does appear in #17]). So I’m obsessing over nothing, which is not an unfamiliar feeling for me. I announce each new(old) posting only on Facebook, so my huge posse of NINE friends must account for all the viewings. Who knows?

By the way, in case you’re put off by the idea of reading things you presumably already read 8 or 9 years ago, I’ve posted one “best of the mary’zine that never made it to print” fantasy called “the art of housekeeping.” I fear there will be no more “bests” because I’ve already cannibalized most of my life to feed the maw of the mary’zine beast.

I googled myself recently to see if my blog showed up in the results, and there was one entry that really surprised me. I had gone on Netflix to complain about the fact that they had mailed me an instant-watch movie (i.e., it was free to watch on my computer at any time, at no extra charge). And since I’ve downgraded to receiving only 1 movie at a time, it seemed like a complete waste of time and postage. Netflix now has no way to write to them except about the topics they deem appropriate. But I found a place to make a “comment,” and the comments were mostly about the fact that you can’t write to Netflix except about the topics they deem appropriate. So I posted my comment about the pointlessness of sending me an instant-watch movie, not expecting a reply because none of the other comments had one. But there, among my Google results, was the answer to my comment! It was bizarre. If I were a paranoid schizophrenic, it would have seemed like proof that the computer was monitoring my every thought. And for a kid who thought the TV was watching her when she was 4 years old (though in my defense, the children’s show host on the TV told me as much: “Susie, Johnny, Mary, do the Clean-Up March! I can see you!”), it wouldn’t be much of a leap to think the computer monitor also monitored her. (Sodden thought: Do today’s paranoid schizophrenics still use aluminum foil to ward off unwanted transmissions?) Anyway, the answer to my Netflix question was that, since I had left the instant-watch movie in my queue, they of course mailed it to me, because some people… blah blah blah.

Actually, I was joking about the paranoid schizophrenics, because of course I know nothing about them, but I’ve been watching the antics of the Leftover Republicans—the weirdos left on the scene after the criminals were booted out (criminals = Bush, Cheney, etc.; weirdos = Michele Bachman, Michael Steele, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, etc.)—on the Huffington Post, and there was one video of a gathering where the right-winged nuts were planning their “teabagging,” and this guy stands up and starts shouting about the brainwashing that the government and the schools are doing. “Take your kids out of college, they’re being brainwashed!” A woman off-screen yells, “Burn the books!” and the camera guy or reporter asks her, “You’re not serious, right? Which books would you burn?” And she says, “The brainwashing books!” And it’s either hilarious or scary-as-hell that these odd, one-winged birds are getting their feathers in a bunch because of… what? “Raised taxes”? What? I’ve gotten a slight increase in take-home cash, and I’m sure most of them have, too. I don’t know if we’ve underestimated these people, or if they’re just Nature’s way of preferring absolutely anything to a vacuum.

So…. I’d like to have more friends on Facebook, but most of my real-life friends are too old or set in their ways or just have better things to do than to mess around with an online “community.” I understand the reluctance to expose oneself to possible scammers, spammers and other evil-doers out there, but it’s too late anyway, your every move is being filmed and recorded, your purchases are being monitored and exploited for targeted advertising, and putting your name on do-not-call lists or wearing a tinfoil hat isn’t going to keep anyone from finding out everything about you if they really want to.

family circus

Nothing’s changed. I still love you… oh I still love you, only slightly, only slightly less than I used to…
—The Smiths

I think that writing about my sister in the last issue actually helped me retreat a bit from my obsession to change things (people) that cannot be changed. The last two Friday nights with the peops have been quite pleasurable. I’ve found myself suddenly thinking, during the WBAY newscast (for some reason, Wisconsinites are killing one another in record numbers) or the inexplicably selected Disney channel (why are we watching “Herbie Fully Loaded”? MP is the remote controller and often dozes off—or fakes it—and we “girls” sit there like compliant bumps on a log because, in a way, watching TV with them really is just watching the TV, a value judgment-less activity similar to looking out the window and seeing who’s driving by and then somebody saying, “There’s Brian” (cop friend of MP’s) or “Look, Al and Doris are back from vacation, they’ve been gone 2 months!” It’s life as a passive observer, one of my favorite (non)activities. At one point the Dish TV repair guy finally shows up (K has been waiting in the “window” for 7 hours), and then we watch him go in and out of the house several times and then cheerfully declare that he’s authorized to switch the “622” to the “722,” and then MP, for no reason I can fathom, moons us (not the Dish guy, he’s in the next room) like the 10-year-old brat he really is. Boy, this paragraph is getting complicated. I’ll try to find the thread. Oh yes, in the midst of all this I’ll suddenly think, “I feel completely calm inside, I neither want something in particular nor don’t want something in particular.” This is progress, yes? Or I’m becoming slowly lobotomized. Either way, it allows me to take part, or not, in the family dynamic without my previous self-consciousness (I am the smart one, I must educate the familial masses or at least shame them), to the point where I get up to go to the bathroom and MP asks, as he always does, where I’m going, and, having used up all the standard, noncreative responses (“to the bathroom”; “nowhere”; “crazy, wanna come with?”), I stop at K’s Easter display in the bow window and put my arms around the two 4x-life-size plush rabbits and pretend to whisper sweet nothings in their large floppy ears, then throw a plastic egg at MP and another one down the hall for the cats Putty, Orfie, and Psycho to chase down. At some point (MP is laughing his head off; my sisters are probably shaking theirs slowly from side to side) I think, “This is so dumb,” but it really doesn’t matter. If your brother-in-law can show his bare ass or belch and fart simultaneously while pretending to be asleep, I guess I can do a spontaneous pantomime with the celebratory rabbits without caring a whit what anybody thinks. Later, I’ll get retroactively annoyed at things my sister has said, but in the moment I feel liberated from being the Judge Judy-like arbiter of what these other blood- or marriage-related folks are up to. They are not me! I am not them! Hurrah! To paraphrase Krishnamurti, I am in the family but not of the family—or at least slightly less than I used to be.

pronouns, pro-verbs

I want you to want me.
I need you to need me.
I’d love you to love me.
I’m beggin’ you to beg me.
—Cheap Trick

When I was retyping the Sept./Oct. 2001 issue of the mary’zine for my blog (once again: You’re here!), I was struck by the repeated pronoun “you” in the poem by W.S. Merwin. Here’s the last stanza:

with all the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

“Thank you” is the recurring refrain, but the poem is titled just “Thanks.” And I started thinking about the “you” in “thank you.” I doubt this is Mr. Merwin’s interpretation of his poem, but it occurred to me that one can be a grateful, awestruck, life-loving, morally, ethically, and emotionally honest human being and not be invested in there being a “you” in the form of God, Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, or “the Universe.” Like the “me”-less Midwesterner’s “come with,” is it possible that “thank,” or “love”—like “be”—can be an intransitive verb, that is, not requiring an object?

It’s understandable that the first people—and the second and third and fourth people through the millennia—had to find a way to explain natural phenomena such as birth, death, thunderstorms, and crop failure, and, not having advanced to such concepts as “synchronicity,” naturally looked up to the sky (source of rain and sun) and imagined a Being or Beings somewhat like themselves but of course a lot bigger, Someone or Something they could exhort through ritual—prayer or sacrifice—when they wanted some control over their lives. And I suppose they started with different Beings, one for each identifiable phenomenon, until eventually someone thought to conjure a One God who had control over it all.

Note: This is not an anthropology lecture, so don’t expect a sophisticated historical analysis, OK? I’m riffing.

And, as humans became scientists and learned about bacteria and other invisible causes of outward effects, we modified our belief systems. Some went the way of “there’s nothing but material reality, even if some of it requires special instruments to see or understand,” and others maintained that there must be some overarching force, a Being who created material reality. And now, more than a hundred years after Nietzsche declared that “God is dead,” some of us have the same abject desire for a kind of ultimate security, some greater meaning with which to frame our lives and answer the question, why? Why me, why here, why now? People who argue for “intelligent design” believe that there must be some One who created all this—as though the mystery and magnificence of nature, including human consciousness, could not possibly be explained in any other way. This is what you call wishful thinking. Despite everything we know about curved space, elastic time, and quantum mechanics—probably the merest A or ½ A of the alphabet that makes up our physical world(s)—we have a childish desire to inflate ourselves to immortality as the progeny of either a literal Father/Mother God or a vast, knowing Universe that somehow sees our every move and raises us one. (Poker metaphor.) When something profound or amazing happens that we can link with earlier events, we feel that our lives are somehow synchronistically monitored from afar, or within, pick your adverb. Like noticing 11:11 on the clock more often than chance would suggest, we pick and choose what we consider meaningful and ignore the rest. If we dream of Grandma the night she dies, we ignore all previous dreams of Grandma and choose to believe that this one is a sign of some greater, meaningful communication. And that allows us to hope that we will see Grandma on “the other side”—that nothing truly ends. Anything to beat the one unbeatable foe (besides taxes), because, if death is truly the end, we are thrown back on our own wits, our own meager existence that is dwarfed by the vastness, the multiplicity, the Mystery.


I thought of something when I was writing about my brother-in-law. There’s an earthiness to working class life that is disturbing to people who weren’t raised that way—as if polite language and holding one’s pinkie up while sipping from a cup of herbal tea (as opposed to guzzling from a can of Mountain Dew) are the epitome of “class.” Conveniently (for them), the word “class” is used to mean both (a) personal integrity and grace and (b) having been born into a family who already had money, regardless of how it was acquired. So “class” = “having more money” = “being superior to the peasants who sell us our cars, or make tractor parts in our factories, or bring our consumer products to market in big, noisy, trucks.” There is a basic belief in this country (but not often acknowledged, unlike in class-conscious England) that if you work at a low-paying job it’s because you’re not smart enough to get a better one, or that (like gay people) you somehow chose that “lifestyle.” If you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you enjoy advantages that are completely invisible to you—you’re taught (maybe not in so many words) that you just deserve them somehow. And though you may understand that something ugly is going on when it comes to race… that racial minorities are disadvantaged for lots of reasons having nothing to do with the character or intelligence of individuals…  you still might group together lower-class white people as “trash” because… well, because you can.

Class isn’t just about money, it’s about different ways of life and different expectations, different opportunities, different goals. Being working class is as clear-cut a distinction as being a racial minority. Like the glass ceiling that keeps women from rising higher, at least in the numbers that would correspond to our actual intelligence and talent, there’s another kind of ceiling—plastic? something cheap and unprestigious—that separates the doctors, the lawyers, the doctors’ wives, and the lawyers’ wives from the people who work in grocery stores or hospitals or make boxes on an assembly line. But there’s so much wealth below that plastic ceiling—in personal dignity,  in intelligence (yes!), in humor and hard work and basic goodness. And they toil in obscurity, either out there in public—waiting on your ass, obeying your orders—or behind closed factory doors or far away in the bean fields.

And yes, I lose my sense of humor when I talk about this, because it’s so galling. And I struggle with my own attitudes learned while trying to fit in, in those higher strata, trying to fake being one of them, denigrating myself because I wasn’t raised with the things money can buy, like nice clothes, good dental care, the poise that comes with exposure to polite society, access to wealth and opportunity through business or social connections, the security of expecting an inheritance or marrying into money—various forms of a financial cushion upon which to rest my sweet ass. As much as I complain about my family’s provincialism and set myself apart because I know things they don’t know and have lived in places they’ve never seen, now that I walk among them (no Messiah complex intended), I feel more comfortable in my body and in my life. I’m no longer a fish out of water, just a fish that looks a little like Barney Frank and cracks up the other fish sometimes, annoys them often, and enjoys the hell out of the stream of life.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #1 February 2000

March 30, 2009

Welcome to the first issue of my vanity rag (all Mary all the time), the result of wanting to expand beyond the reach of my process letters to painters. It does feel a little unseemly to project myself so shamelessly into your mailboxes like this, but something is pushing from within and it appears I have no choice.

To use the lingo of the day, this is a ‘zine, not a newsletter, and it’s content-driven. (In the new world order, writers have become “content providers.”) That means there won’t be a lot of snazzy design elements. I’m just a content provider sitting at a keyboard, hoping someone out there will want to input my output. I don’t have a web cam trained on me at my work station, or even a website to send you to. So 20th century. [2009 update: Well, it only took me 9 years to get a website.]

The other day I woke up, stumbled downstairs to make coffee, and turned on the radio. I had forgotten to change the station away from NPR (I’d rather hear music in the morning than reports on starving refugees), so the very first sentence I heard was, “Time does not exist.” I mulled this over as I squinted in the bright kitchen light and poured the water for coffee. The speaker went on to say that, although we constantly make the inference that there was an “earlier” and will be a “later,” there really is no such thing—everything that happens is really like a snapshot. I turned off the radio and trudged back upstairs to check my e-mail. Sometimes the Unknown is just pushing too hard for comfort, and I have to bring myself back to the simple truths: Coffee is good, time is a useful construct, and we are just floating in a great big Mystery anyway. (Literally! I woke up one night with the in-my-body stark realization that we live on a BALL suspended in midair!)

I am an editor and I work at home, alone. I listen to the radio, watch TV, read books, have the occasional out-of-house experience, and think many profound and silly thoughts—all of which I have plenty of time to process between work sessions. Let’s face it, I am easily amused. And I like to share my observations and quirky thoughts, preferably in writing. I write a lot of e-mails, but something in me wants to go to the next level. I write about painting for the painting group every couple of months, but there’s a lot more buzzing around my brain. You are about to find out just how buzzy it is in there, and I hope it doesn’t come as a shock.

I’m not terribly interested in the conventional Writer’s Way, which is to send one’s hopeful prose stylings off to publishers or magazines, trying to fit someone else’s profit-driven idea of what people will read—how about another article on baby boomers turning 50? If this is a copout, I will find out: Truth has a way of getting in my face when I’m making other plans. So in the meantime, dear reader, I am undertaking this experiment, putting my literary toe in the water and waiting for further instructions. These pages are snapshots of my reality and of the nonexistent time in which I wrote them.

You are a hand-selected audience, and this reaching out is a gift. If it’s the kind of gift you could do without, like the crocheted Kleenex box covers your grandmother sends you, please politely decline further mailings. If you are in favor of remaining on my list, I welcome your comments, questions, requests, petty complaints, and personal anecdotes. Feel free to share these writings with anyone who might be interested. I am not much of a self-promoter, but if any of you enjoy promoting others, feel free.

This first issue consists of three personal favorites from my writing archives. Enjoy.

Y2K (how passé did that term seem by about January 4?) was, to not coin a phrase, a wake-up call. I’m grateful that the uncertainty about what was going to happen on 1-1-00 moved me to buy some extra cans of chili, assorted energy bars, enough water to take up most of my downstairs bathroom, a sleeping bag, and a duffel bag, which I packed with items that seemed, on December 31, to be at least remotely useful should I find myself in a Red Cross shelter or hiding out in a friend’s spare bedroom. The bag is still packed, as I’m reluctant to dismantle the preparedness fantasy. It’s such a great feeling, this illusion that exactly the right emergency will happen in such a way that I’ll be able to make a clean exit with this nice new shiny nylon bag containing many of life’s essentials, including aspirin, toothbrush, and a printout of my address book. I was looking for something in it the other day, and the extent of my preparations was embarrassing. Some t-shirts and pants I don’t usually wear, that’s OK, but a roll of toilet paper? two radios? I tucked the bag back in the space between the nightstand and the dresser—maybe someday it’ll come in handy, along with the crowbar and the light stick, the extra pair of shoes, and the all-important wrench for turning off the gas (a necessity in the event of eaRthQuaKe). Oh, and then there’s the paperback book I bought especially to keep in the bag, by an author I don’t read anymore because she’s so gory—Patricia Cornwell. I guess I figured that in an emergency, huddled over a plate of beans on a cot somewhere, I’d be grateful for the diversion of a story about rotting corpses being autopsied.

Anyway, I wrote the following true story several years ago, and it’s as relevant as ever. Still crazy after all these years.

1. preparing for the earthquake

I’ve been living in the Bay Area for 27 years, and for 16 of those years I was utterly unprepared for a major earthquake. Like a lot of other people, I would read the slew of articles about earthquake preparedness that ran in the papers every April (because that’s the month the ’06 Big One happened), and I would worry. I wouldn’t do anything about it, but I would worry. I didn’t like to feel so unprepared, but on the other hand, the fact that it hadn’t happened during the previous years made me feel somewhat justified in not having bothered. If you did everything you’re supposed to do in this life, you wouldn’t have time for anything else.

Finally, in April 1989 some company makes it easy for me by marketing a kit of the necessary items and displaying it at a booth where I work. All I have to do is pick up a brochure and order. When the kit arrives, I am thrilled; now I have all the necessary provisions and accouterments in one handy knapsack. I stash it in the trunk of my car and drive it around for the next six months. At last, I am prepared.

On October 17 at 5:04, I am about to leave work and go to the hospital cafeteria for dinner before my weekly painting class. Suddenly, the building starts to lurch. I grab onto my friend Rick and hold on. In a few seconds it’s over. Although it’s the biggest quake I’ve ever felt, I don’t take it too seriously. The lights go out in my building, the cafeteria closes, and there are little groups of people standing around listening to transistor radios as I walk to my car. But the sun is shining and everyone seems to be in a good mood. An earthquake produces euphoria after the initial terror, because it’s over very quickly and you find out immediately if you’re OK. My everyday mind keeps insisting that I still have to eat dinner and go to my class. It’s as if a little part of me is saving the knowledge, or foreknowledge, of what has happened for a later time. Soon it will say to me gently, “Sit down, dear, I have something to tell you.”

I drive to my friend Barbara’s house, which is only a few blocks away. She is home and glad to see me. We mill around, exchanging our little stories. Then I remember my survival kit. In high excitement, I go out to my car and retrieve the batteryless radio/flashlight I had specially ordered on the assumption that I wouldn’t have working batteries by the time the disaster came. Preparedness in action.

Back at Barbara’s house, I set about reading the instructions and cranking up the radio. The flashlight comes on, but the radio will only stay on while I’m cranking, and it’s hard to hear it over the cranking noise. I finally give up, deciding that I’ll try it again in a “real” emergency. Barbara finds her roommate’s Walkman, and we take turns listening at the headphones.

Then the foreknowledge starts growing wings and sprouting. A house in the Marina blowing up! Fires! Bay Bridge! I suddenly remember my two cats at home in Marin. What’s happening over there? I commit the sin of using the phone. The painting class has been canceled. I get through to some friends in Marin, and they agree to go to my condo and check on the cats. I’ll meet them there as soon as I can.

There are many stories of heroism from the earthquake. Mine is one of blatant self-interest. I lose my enthusiasm for sitting around with Barbara, speculating on bits of news. Suddenly I have to get home! I run to my car and head for 19th Avenue. By then it’s a sea of cars being parted at every intersection for the sea that goes the other way. All the traffic lights are out, and we have to rely on ourselves and others not to panic and create gridlock. I sit in the interminable traffic wondering (a) whether the Golden Gate Bridge is still standing, and (b) what I will do if I have to go to the bathroom. At what point do social conventions break down and allow you to pee in the street? Could I pee in the street?

I make it home in an hour and a half. The cats are fine. A large bookcase has fallen down, breaking some Mexican pottery. My friends and I eat burgers from Jack-in-the-Box and listen to the radio.

The next day I sit around in a complete stupor. What to do about lunch becomes a problem of enormous proportions. When I finally figure out that I can go somewhere and buy it, I leave the house without money. My brain is denying the news of some darker foreknowledge that is working in me.

I decide to step up my preparedness plan. I pack 3 days’ worth of old clothes and my sleeping bag in the trunk of my car, in case I get trapped in the city next time. I buy a regular transistor radio, two flashlights, and extra batteries. I close every barn door through which a horse has gone.

Over the next year I am struck now and then by the nagging thought that I’m not quite as prepared as I should be. For instance, what if I were separated from my car keys? They could be buried in rubble on the floor beneath me as I sleep. (I would—hopefully—end up on top of the rubble—with just the small problem of the roof over my head being really “over my head.”) On the first anniversary of the quake, I step up the plan another notch. I imagine being at home when the Big One strikes, with just enough damage that I won’t get buried but will need to evacuate in 15 minutes. I make a little stockpile of clothes, radio, flashlight, and shoes next to my bed. In a closet I pack a bag of food that will be slightly more palatable than the energy bars in the survival kit: a box of Raisin Bran, some crackers, two small packages of trail mix they gave me at the blood bank, three of those sealed-in-a-bag dinners that will last forever, some dried chicken noodle soup and hot cocoa that are past their expiration dates, a gallon of water, and a third of a bottle of vodka that I’ll never get around to drinking otherwise. I attach a note reminding me to retrieve the bag of processed cheese, mixed nuts, Hershey bars, and extra batteries I’ve stashed in the freezer. I put the two cat carriers in the closet too, with 3 days’ supply of dry food and a plastic dish. What about litter? Well, I’ll try to grab one of their litter boxes if I can. I put two portfolios of my paintings in the closet, choosing them out of the many I will have to sacrifice. What about valuable papers? My will, passport, credit card information, addresses, photographs? How can I be sure to find stuff I use every day, like my checkbook, money, sunglasses?

Suddenly I realize that I’m not just taking a few practical precautions in case I’m in the right place at the wrong time. I’m trying to create an entire parallel universe, duplicating my life with a weird combination of essentials and odds and ends, ready for any contingency but the one that will surely come. They say there’s a 60% chance of earthquake. Well, there’s a 100% chance of death. But that is foreknowledge that I’m not ready to taste just yet. I’ll keep building my stash, making my plans. I see myself living in the room nearest the back door, surrounded by everything I hold dear, wearing the sturdy boots and work gloves and dust mask, the cats ready to go in their carriers, listening and watching for the first sign of disaster so I can escape with everything, lose nothing. Yes, there I am, under the dining room table with the gas wrench in my hand, itching to get at those Hershey bars.


2. adventure day

Adventure Day was so-named because I spent it going to the dentist. Normally, going to the dentist is no big deal, but on this day I was in for a molar extraction and bridge-sawing, and, worse than that, I had to drive the Monster Truck into downtown San Francisco.

I was driving the Monster Truck because my car broke down because of some mysterious “fuel contamination” which it was taking AAA forever and a day to analyze. Fortunately, I had been able to borrow a friend’s Ford pick-up—an unassuming little thing from the outside, but high up in the driver’s seat I felt very butch, like I should be wearing work boots and a flannel shirt and smoking a cigarette. It also required me to be very Buddhist-like “in the moment” to do the fancy footwork on the clutch, be aware of the greater space I occupied, etc. Butch and Buddhism, interesting combination.

Much timing and thought went into this trip to the dentist. I awoke at 3:30 that morning, realizing that I was not about to drive the truck up the steep Gough hill—shades of 20 years ago when I had to drive a VW bug around the city and sweated out every slight grade that had a stoplight at the top. So I got up an hour early, drove to UCSF, where I worked, and parked in Golden Gate Park. I dropped some manuscripts off at the office first and then took Muni downtown to the dentist’s office. I just barely made it there in time, arriving at the stroke of 9:30.

So far, so good. But my careful planning and mindfulness broke down as I found myself lowered into one of the rings of dental hell. First, the chair was moved back and down until I was practically standing on my head, and my gentle dentist loomed over me with two fistfuls of gleaming instruments. After innumerable shots of lidocaine, he set to work. The assistant seemed to be new, and I had a feeling she’d been warned that I’m “sensitive.” (A strange idea my dentist got from the fact that I broke down and cried the first time I met him.)

Time becomes ALL PRESENT TENSE from here on.

I detect a note of panic in the way the assistant is handling the sucking tube—she stabs at my inner cheeks, searching for saliva that isn’t there because it’s hidden on the other side of Dr P’s hand and the giant doohickey that is propping my mouth open. So I am being stabbed and sucked on one side while rivers of saliva cascade down my throat on the other. As I am about to drown in my own juices, I manage to call time-out (by struggling and grunting… ever the lady) and get myself into a sitting position and swallow—no easy feat with the doohickey in place. I am crying and trembling. I suspect some of the trembling is due to the lidocaine, but that doesn’t make me feel any more dignified about it.

After a brief respite, I’m lowered back down into my rightful position as helpless infant. Dr. P goes to work again in my unnaturally small mouth with several steel instruments that clang against each other, bang my teeth, and split my lip. The assistant sucks and stabs while the dentist yanks and tugs, crooning, “Pressure, Mary, pressure, pressure….” This reminds me of the Jimmy Cliff song, as if he’s about to burst into reggae, and I want to giggle. But being in the dentist’s chair is like being in the womb again, no way to express yourself.

I am desperate to laugh, sing, shout, do anything but sit there immobile with my mouth propped open with a 5-pound door stop. Buddhism comes to my aid again, bringing me the phrase, “Chop wood, carry water.” This helps keep me focused, or at least in the chair, in an Isness/Suchness kind of way. I try to think of an appropriate verb/object to complete the phrase. “Chop wood, carry water, yank teeth”? Nothing quite works, but it gives me something to chew on besides Dr. P’s glove.

My next attempt at self-possession is to tell myself it’s Adventure Day, after my favorite Wonderful World of Walt Disney episodes. For some reason, naming it helps me bear it. “I am in pain. Well…. it’s Adventure Day. I can handle anything on Adventure Day.”

I must return to the PAST TENSE for a moment, to achieve some therapeutic distance.

The actual extraction (the bridge-sawing turned out to be a piece of cake) was horrendously painful. All time stopped. Unfortunately, it stopped at exactly the moment of greatest pain. If this had been a movie, there would have been a 5-minute close-up of my gaping mouth, my bulging eyes and gurgling throat, Dr. P. crooning as sweat popped out on his brow, struggling and wrenching and twisting as if to remove a vertebra from my spine, and, finally, the sound of a redwood crashing in the forest where, as luck would have it, there was someone to hear it fall because it was falling in her mouth.

I had naively thought I’d be able to go back to work after this experience, but I quickly see the folly of that as I stumble out of Dr. P’s office with my chipmunk face and bloody gauze and NO-CAFFEINE-YET incipient headache. (I had forgone my usual morning coffee so as not to be at the mercy of my bladder.) I then have to take the Muni back to work to collect the truck but am insanely, undeservedly lucky that there are no delays or incidents, despite a mental landscape that is ripe for trains being derailed or homeless drifters falling onto the tracks.

So I make it back to UCSF, scurrying into my building through the basement entrance like a rat, feeling totally incapable of using the left side of my brain or face. I do the very barest minimum of chores: fill out my time sheet, deliver some chapters to a coworker, collect the mail. When forced to speak, I emit strange vowel sounds and scurry away, hiding my swollen, bloodied cheek from the humans.

At last I take the long walk back to where the truck is parked, carrying a heavy satchel full of new manuscripts. With every leaden step, as my cheek bulges and my gauze leaks, as I slog through gelatinous gray air (caffeine withdrawal coming on fast), I repeat my mantra: “Adventure Day, Adventure Day.” (“Chop wood/carry water” is now a thing of the past, I am stripped to the bare bones of inspirational thought.)

I finally arrive at the Monster Truck, and Adventure Day continues as I hoist and shift and crank and roil my way through tourist traffic, including a scary moment on the Golden Gate Bridge—me in the suicide lane, a line of cars to my right with brake lights popping red, back ends shimmering as if they are about to slide over and shove me (Adventure Day Person) into oncoming traffic. With each mile, my discomfort, pain, and general leadenness become more palpable. By now it is after noon and I need desperately to eat but don’t know what I could eat, even if I had food, since I am unable to part my jaws. I ask myself, “What would go good with the taste of blood?” Finally, I detour to Real Food for a protein juice smoothie, the perfect thing for sipping through clenched teeth. I fight on through the heavy air, the streets filled with hurtling vehicles, the constant shifts and clutches of Truckness Being Suchness…. Adventure Day… Adventure Day….

Finally I arrive home and therein begins my recovery, almost imperceptible in its beginnings and yet complete in its potentiality. Caffeine withdrawal defies a whole thermos of coffee to have the slightest vessel-expanding effect—and yet I know that it will not fail me, it is The Answer. Coffee has not taken me this far only to drop me now. So I dip, I slurp, I savor. And I am home, I am Free. Adventure Day has come to an end….

3. story looking for an ending

And they wonder why some people take everything so personally….

At the time of this story, I worked in San Francisco and lived in Novato, a town about 25 miles north of the city. One day on the way home from work I stopped to do some shopping at Macy’s in San Rafael, which is about 15 miles north. (These distances are relevant later on.) So I’m walking down 4th St. in downtown San Rafael, and no one else is anywhere to be seen except for this old man sitting in a wheelchair. He calls out to me, and I feel there’s no way I can just ignore him, so I stop to see what he wants.

He wants something very simple—for me to wheel him down the street to the hardware store to buy an alarm clock. I really can’t say no. I think it’s partly because my father was an invalid for a long time, and every man in a wheelchair reminds me of him. So I wheel him to the store and he asks me to wait while he picks out a clock. This process seems to take forever, but he finally makes a purchase and is then ready to be wheeled back to the corner (I think). I notice as we leave the store that various passers-by are greeting him as if they know him and throwing little smirks my way. This troubles me.

He then mentions that there is one other store he would like to visit, and I know I am caught. He knows I can’t say no, and he is going to be merciless about it. I push him around the corner, but we encounter some construction on the sidewalk that forces us into the street. I am now feeling like a character in a Greek tragedy (or at least a Roman melodrama), acting out my personal fate, pushing this stranger in a wheelchair through rubble, past cars that are rushing by just inches away.

Our shopping tour goes on for about an hour, maybe less, but time has become meaningless. I have been here before, held in some strange man’s sway, unable to break the social fiction and step out of the script he has written for me. Years before, a black man in Ann Arbor had kept me in “conversation” in a parking lot for what seemed like hours. I remember being rooted to the spot, waiting for a pause in his monologue that would allow me to say I really had to be going. He never paused (duh!), and I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt him, even when he told me about the Swedish stewardess who liked his “blue dick.” I had learned somehow that pretending nothing was happening was the best means of survival. I have no memory of how I got away.

Back in the present moment, the last stop is a liquor store, where the old man buys a bottle of vodka and asks me to help him hide it in his clothing. I am dissociating by now, unable to assess what’s a reasonable request and what isn’t. Is this the equivalent of the “blue dick” moment? I’m finally nearing the end of my patience, and I decide this is it. I’ve done my bit.

Sensing this, he asks for one last favor: to be wheeled home. Figuring that this at least signals the end, I agree. By now, I feel completely responsible for this helpless man. It takes me days to figure out that he had somehow gotten himself downtown in the first place, and probably not for the first time.

“Home” is uphill from downtown. But I am still dissociating, still thinking the only way out of this nightmare is to follow it through. So I push him up-up-up to this huge institutional-looking building, and then he wants me to lug him up the steep stairs so the authorities at the wheelchair entrance won’t find the hidden vodka. I know I won’t be able to do that, so I go off in search of someone to help.

When I get back, he’s gone, and I am strangely annoyed. I feel more abandoned than released. Somehow, I guess I’ve been expecting to be rewarded for my efforts, at least with a thank you. I feel empty as I face the fact that I have again participated in my own victimization, waiting for the victimizer to let me go rather than take a stand myself. I walk back down to Macy’s and buy my sheets or whatever, and I drive home, berating myself for my spinelessness.

About a month later, on Christmas Day, I decide to go out for a run. It’s a beautiful sunny day, and no one, but absolutely no one, is out on the streets. If you remember my set-up at the beginning of the story, I lived 10 miles north of the scene of the encounter with the old man. OK, so I’m running along. Far up ahead, I see a small figure. As I get closer, I see that it is a man in a wheelchair. An old man. MY old man! Alarm bells are going off, and all I can think is, GET AWAY! As I approach him, panting and panicking, he calls out to me, “Do you know if Lucky’s is open today?” Of course he doesn’t recognize me. I fly past him, afraid that some magnetic force will catch me in his field again. “I don’t know!” I wheeze, as I sail by.

His angry old trembly voice floats behind me on the crisp air: “You wouldn’t help your grandmother if she was dying!” (Side note: why grandmother and not grandfather?) I run and run, and run around the corner, and run and run some more until I get home. I don’t leave the house for the rest of the day.

What I want to know is: What does this mean? I’ve spent enough time in therapy to understand boundary issues, the victim mentality, etc.; I think I would react more moderately in both situations today. But here’s the thing: If the second encounter had been with some other old man in a wheelchair, I would just see the obvious lesson: that an inability to say no when appropriate leads to extreme aversion to saying yes in the future. The fact that it was the same old man is what has me shaking my head. The story is overdetermined, like a dream or a fairy tale. Is it possible that waking life is that finely tuned?

I don’t know the ending to this story. I still think about the old man now and then and wonder if he’s lurking around the next corner, sent to test me again. More than that, I wonder how to live responsibly, consciously, in a universe that is paying such close attention.


Little brown bird sits half hidden
in a bush. The breeze ruffles
her feathers like leaves.
Subtle markings on her back
a perfect match for the dappled branch.
Then she betrays the camouflage
with a song.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #11 pt1 February 2001

March 21, 2009

sex, shame, and videotape

I used to think, like Tom Petty, that “the waaaiting is the hardest part….” After mailing each issue of the ‘zine, I’m on pins and needles, waiting for the responses to trickle in. I’ve never yet managed to feel confident enough about my writing that I’m—like—whatever…. But after “mary’s first porno” hit the streets (see #10 January 2001), I was especially nervous. I had great fun writing that piece, and I thought it turned out fairly light and humorous, compared with, say, The Story of O. But you never know if something that’s funny or interesting to you is going to translate to anyone else. And the responses I received to that issue tell me that the beauty (or not) of every piece of writing is in the eye of the beholder. I always thought that if only I were a good enough writer, everyone would like what I wrote. And now I know it isn’t true. What the reader brings to the page is every bit as important as what the writer puts on it. This is huge, for me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I discovered that waiting is not the hardest part. As it happened, the first response I got, two long days after mailing the first batch, was from someone I love and respect who was very uncomfortable with the porno story and said she would “never have gone there.” Instead of taking this at face value as an expression of her own feelings (which it was), I panicked. My blood ran cold, then red hot. It was my worst fear. I had crossed boundaries, broken taboos. I had offended my readers’ sensibilities. I had exposed myself, and now I couldn’t take any of it back. It felt like the biggest mistake of my life.

I didn’t know what to do. I had already mailed out most of the copies and was imagining that everyone I knew and cared about was cringing at my words and calling me a pervert. I pictured mouths dropping open across the land, one time zone after another. Why had I ventured out on such a creaky limb? What was I thinking? I planned all sorts of desperate measures. There were still eight copies to be mailed, and I thought about cutting that story out of those copies and pretending it was just a short issue. Restaurants and cats—let’s stay on safe ground from now on. I even thought of canceling my session with J that week. I couldn’t imagine facing anyone who had read that story. I spent most of the day in bed, under the covers, rigid with shame.

I tried to tell myself that people are responsible for their own feelings—that I was just the messenger bringing the message of their own shame or lack of it. But it didn’t really help. It simply wasn’t possible for me to believe that my friend’s response was hers alone. It triggered something too deep in me, too shameful, something of long standing—just as, probably, my story had done to her.

[2009 update: Recently, my friend asked me to send her the issue again, and she enjoyed it this time.]

Shame isn’t rational; it’s a powerful emotion, learned early. I can trace my earliest experience of shame (my earliest memory of it, anyway) back to the age of 4 or 5, when my cousin Donny and I—partners in pre-pre-pre-pubescent crime—were playing house. Husband comes home from work and finds wife taking a bath—naked, of course. I don’t know why we had chosen that particular scenario; we were much too young to have lascivious thoughts, and there was no touching. But I imagine kids play house in an attempt to manage feelings about the family, especially the feelings of powerlessness of being a child. And in a completely mundane sense, you don’t take a bath with your clothes on, and Daddy doesn’t come home from work naked! Anyway, when my mother came upstairs and found us like that, she completely lost it. I remember lying in bed later, banished to my room, hearing her turn away another friend who had come over to play: “Mary can’t come out now, she’s being punished.” More than the words, I felt the anger and disgust in her voice pour directly on my heart and brain, branding me. I was a tiny computer, processing the information: The body is bad. I have a body. Ergo, I am bad. (I was a tiny computer that hadn’t yet learned the classical logical fallacies.)

Back to the ‘zine. I e-mailed apologies to those I had addresses for and wrote notes to the rest. The responses have been incredibly affirming. I can’t quote from the wonderful phone calls I received, but here’s a sample of some of the mail (apologies in advance for the self-horn-tooting):

… I absolutely loved it; I laughed out loud the whole way through…. I hate thinking you spent one minute feeling you had to apologize. I guess that’s human nature though. And, just like painting, I imagine really putting yourself out there can result in major contraction and self-doubt as the mind scrambles for safe ground….


… I appreciate your writing about the taboos and daring to go somewhere most people wouldn’t dream! So keep writing!


i say hurrah for MMMMMMaaaaaarrry. you crossed a line. marched straight into the wilderness of our shames and humiliations and sang out loud in a  manner that for others like me the air opened up, creating more space for courage and play and fun. i could FEEL the fun you had writing the piece, and that was a flavor that gave me a passport to enter into a space that has been off limits to me. limits guarded by my own quivering fearful shamedness. hurrah hurray for mary….


Dear Editor w/Vulnerable Heart….. I thought your porno piece was a riot! I loved it….

No apologies needed. Your writing, as always and no matter what the subject matter, is bright, funny, touching, and engaging. You bring renewed life and validity to the inner personal world, carrying your readers through the intriguing maze of observation and reflection. How’s that for a review?! Carry on!….


I was saving my mary’zine to savor with Sunday morning coffee, but the note I received today carried the imperative to learn the nature of your distress. I was sorry to hear that one person’s reaction to your recent edition caused such remorse that you felt compelled to apologize to your readers. Then I think, perhaps the apology wasn’t directed to your entire readership. Maybe I am on the list of “questionables.” If such is the case, please edit my name from that database, as I’m a true blue Mary McKenney fan. Your stories may be unique, but the feelings, and quite often, the experiences, are universal. Please, don’t stop taking risks with your writing. Please don’t stop exploring, and please keep sharing. Always a grateful and appreciative recipient of “mary’zine”….

Now that I can hold my head up again and face my adoring public, I can see that it was a liberating experience to write that story, because I unburdened myself of one of my darkest secrets: Yes, I used to be a librarian. But seriously, folks. As I replied to the last person quoted above, “In the past few days, I’ve learned a lot about the isolation of shame, and about the beauty and generosity of people like you who have welcomed me out of that isolation.” To hear so many strong words of support was like being welcomed back into the human family, from which I had exiled myself—to my own bedroom, to lie in the dark, being punished. My mother is gone now, but the software lingers on.

To be fair, not everyone was wildly appreciative of my story. One person bemoaned the fact that I had put the image of *n*s l*ck*ng into her head for the better part of the day. Actually, it was probably the worst part of the day. She said she wouldn’t want to pass this issue along to any of her friends who have small children. I agree wholeheartedly. You must treat the mary’zine as a controlled substance. Keep it out of the hands of precocious preschoolers, nosy fifth graders, randy teens. Avoid sharing it with the frail elderly, the weak of heart, the humor-challenged. Keep it away from homophobes, right-wing fundamentalists, cat haters, the mentally unbalanced, the stark raving mad, and anyone who’s likely to come after me with a gun. Other than that, please share the ‘zine (the blog) with your friends. Do your part to make the mary’zine (the blog) an underground sensation.

See, with the mary’zine, you never know what you’re going to get—hard-hitting news, human interest stories of compassion and rollicking humor, shocking revelations. Well, not so much hard-hitting news, I guess, unless you consider it news that my cat likes tuna-flavored laxative. Oh, and by the way, he l*cks his *n*s regularly.

lost weekday

Here but for the grace of God go you.

If it had been up to my mother, I would have had all my teeth pulled when I was 13. She herself had gotten full dentures at the age of 30, so to her it was just a matter of time, and why wait? “You know,” she’d threaten, “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Dr. NEM [Name Escapes Me] decided to pull them all and get it over with one of these days.” I was terrified whenever she talked like this. I thought frizzy hair was bad? I thought having pimples was bad? Try starting high school with FALSE TEETH. I lived in mortal fear of the dentist. Everyone in my family had bad teeth, but he held me personally responsible for every cavity. And the bastard did manage to pull most of my back teeth, but I escaped with the ones you could see. I had to eat like a chipmunk for years.

As an adult, I’ve had to endure countless hours in the dentist’s chair, making up for Dr. NEM’s handiwork. In the mid-‘70s, I had long bridges installed in all four corners of my mouth, and they have required continual maintenance over the years, usually involving ghastly feats of mechanical engineering. The record so far is 7 STRAIGHT HOURS in the chair as the valiant Dr. Johnson tried mightily to save a tooth by doing a root canal but had to give up eventually because it kept crumbling under the drill. By the end of the 7 hours, I don’t know who was a bigger wreck, me or her. I think we were both ready to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge—me with my mouth locked wide open, her leaning over me with the drill, making one last stab at saving the tooth.

Dr. Johnson quit the profession soon after that, I hope not entirely because of me. My current dentist, Dr. Potter, is a worthy successor. And he knows when to quit. When I went in for yet another root canal recently, he sawed off the bridge, examined the offending tooth, and declared it hopeless and pulled it instead. Unbeknownst to me, this was the high point of my day.

Dr. Potter is a great dentist and also one of the kindest men I’ve ever known, but he tends to say things like, “Let’s get Mr. Tongue out of the way” as he comes at me with yet another new contraption to stick in my mouth. I’m always on the verge of hysterical giggles when I’m there anyway, and that kind of remark doesn’t help. This time I beg him for a Valium or something to calm me down—apparently he doesn’t believe in nitrous oxide—and he gives me a pill called Atanol. I think it should be called Notatall, because it doesn’t do much—except I find it slightly easier than usual to deal with the tray of goop he puts in my mouth to take an impression for the new bridge. To keep from gagging, I have to YELL at myself (internally, of course), “Think about your nose!” for the 2 or 3 minutes it takes for the goop to set. He also gives me a high-dose “cocktail” of ibuprofen and acetaminophen before he pulls the tooth. And of course I’ve had several shots of Novocain. I neglect to tell him I have already taken two Excedrin that morning. I am better stocked than your neighborhood pharmacy at this point.

Getting on toward lunch, I start to feel a little weak, so I drink two small cartons of soy milk I have brought with me. I congratulate myself on my foresight. Dr. Potter finishes up and I leave, feeling a little sick to my stomach. The soy milk went down pretty good, but it comes up even easier in the restroom of the Sutter-Stockton garage. Also, my body chooses this moment, this place and time, to let me know that I now have urinary incontinence while barfing. Nice. My pants are soaked, so I get a plastic bag out of the trunk of my car to put on the driver’s seat. I pull out of the garage into the pouring rain, praying to make it home without further incident. I make it out of the city and through the rainbow tunnel into Marin, but by then it’s hailing, and I’m not feeling so hot. So I pull off at the Spencer Ave. exit above Sausalito and throw up in a paper bag. I look out the window and vaguely register that there is snow on the ground. I feel like I’m in a dream. A police car cruises slowly by. I wonder if they do police escorts for nauseated dental patients. I kind of hope he’ll stop and ask me if everything’s OK ma’am. I could use a knight in shining armor about now.

Suddenly, I realize the bag is leaking. I grab a newspaper to put under it, but not before my urine-soaked pants get dribbled on. Believe it or not, this sounds more gross than it felt at the time. There was a surreal quality to the whole thing, a kind of state you get into when it’s all about survival and you can’t afford to dwell on the gory details. I spend so much of my life worrying about things that could happen, and then when something does happen that I could never have anticipated, I just do what I have to do. It’s reassuring, in a way.

So I get home, throw up once more for good measure, and crawl into bed. I feel like I have had a day of chemo. Every time I get up and try to eat something—some nice hot soup, some nice hot tea—I feel too sick to finish it. Strangely, the only thing I’m able to eat all day is some leftover rice and lemon chicken at 8 p.m. Go figure. I sleep all night and get up at 5 a.m. feeling great.

I drive to Berkeley for my 9 a.m. therapy appointment. J has read the ‘zine by now, so we spend the whole hour talking about masturbation and other sexual topics. Before I wrote that story, I hadn’t used the word “masturbation” in 8 years of therapy. I have since used it approximately 82 times. It’s liberating. On my way home, I sing along with the Divinyls on the radio: “When I think about you, I touch myself.” I tell you, it’s everywhere.

I know this whole sex thing seems like a tempest in a teapot to some of you, but we don’t get to pick and choose our challenges. Sometimes it’s about telling it like it is and risking offense by “oversharing.” Sometimes it’s about enduring—improvising, surviving—when you thought you knew what the big challenge of the day was going to be. Root canal? Forget it. You’re going to spend the day losing your bodily fluids in a freakin’ hailstorm. And I have a feeling the challenges are not going to decrease as I get older. Time is accelerating—the past is bumping up against the future—and events are accumulating meaning like a snowball rolling downhill. Let’s get Mr. Tongue out of the way, shall we? It looks like it’s going to be a wild, wild ride.

[Mary McKenney]

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