Posts Tagged ‘family’

mary’zine #69: July 2014

July 2, 2014

me+dad

 

Daddy’s girl

This is the iconic photo from my childhood. I was a Daddy’s girl, to say the least. I loved that little lunchbox I’m carrying, and clearly I loved imitating him. He worked nights, and when I would get up in the morning I’d go running to see if he had left me a treat in his lunchbox. I was barely 3 years old in this picture. Within a year, I would have a new baby brother, whom I loved. True, there might have been more complicated feelings as well, but I don’t remember those.

My mother’s shadow over my lower half turned out to be quite fitting, but that’s a story for another day. (Or, see mary’zine #3, “the autobiography of my mother.”)

My friend Nikki and I were exchanging childhood memories recently. I have the story down pat, the whole time line: my grandmother died, my brother Mike died, Daddy collapsed at work with MS… all by 7 years of age. I thought that this was what Life was going to be: catastrophe everywhere, all the time… sometimes as highly determined as a dream… barely a decent waiting period before the next catastrophe came along.

I’ve had psychosomatic symptoms and ailments my whole life, beginning with carsickness on the way to Iron Mountain to see my dad in the VA hospital. I had been on long car trips before without any trouble. My precise memory of the bitter taste of the red carsickness gum I chewed during the drive is much more vivid to me than the feelings I must have had about my dad’s being sick or, indeed, about spending the hour or so with him in a cold room, barren of decoration, with formica tables and vending machines.

cartoon

 

Mike had died less than a year earlier; my feelings about his death had been locked away but could still be glimpsed in unexpected moments.

  • My only memory of his funeral is of the other people in the church laughing at me because I was crying. No, of course they weren’t really laughing. That was my projection. I painted this once, and it was very powerful.
  • The night of the funeral, my mother answered a prank phone call and cried into the phone, “I buried my son today!”
  •  I lay awake nights trying to imagine the eternity in which Mike would still be dead, still underground. I could imagine one year… maybe even two… but the years never stopped coming, and my imagination would give out long before the end.
  •  I don’t think God ever came into it. My only thought about God was that He turned on the street lights at night—a practical God, useful for some things but not exactly a comfort. He was a distant father, more distant than my own and thus barely visible and wholly unknowable.
  • Maybe I just don’t remember the comprehensive grief counseling I received… oh, wait, that never happened. I don’t remember hearing any explanations or comforting words from anyone, though there must have been people who cared. My parents were too caught up in their own grief to consider how I might feel about it. In those days, children were, epigrammatically, “seen but not heard.” And often not even seen.
  •  My father’s cry, “Why did it have to be my son?” would not be made known to me for another 30 years or so, but I must have intuited how he felt.
  • Loss seemed like the only sure thing. I felt like I was standing on the edge of life, observing but not quite believing that this was my world.

 

dreamstime_xs_21298577

Memory is not much help to me now. I was living as in a strobe-lit room—sights and sounds highlighted for seconds and then gone. Images standing in for feelings that were too complicated to be felt directly. Feelings annotated or supplanted with pictures from the outside. My inner life went underground… where my brother now dwelled and where, as far as I knew, my father might soon join him. And my mother, of course, surely sooner rather than later. I vaguely realized that I would join him, too, not in the sense of hearts in reunion, but in the sense of being put down into the earth, an incomprehensible reality.

My dad was at the Iron Mountain VA hospital for about 6 months. He was then transferred to the Milwaukee VA, and we had to drive down there and stay overnight with some relatives in their trailer. We had been plunged into poverty and despair overnight. It was a new world of harshly lit rooms and awkward visits with people—family in name only—who were worse off than we were. We had to sell our nice house on North Shore Drive and move into a crummy half-duplex on 22nd St. while our uncle Sonny built us a utilitarian box of a house next to his. I got to pick out the linoleum for my room, a sweet moment of independence in an otherwise powerless situation.

When my father came home from the hospital, I couldn’t believe it: This man was not my Daddy! I didn’t believe that someone had actually replaced him, like a pod from outer space, but I knew my father was gone, and I never forgave him, at least not during his lifetime. My anger was a complicated substitute for the depth of feeling I had to surrender, as if the feelings for my brother and for my dad were buried together in Riverside Cemetery. Daddy wasn’t dead yet, but his abrupt change in physical condition and personality was like a death. I was beginning to think I knew death all too well: It wasn’t just inevitable, it was everywhere.

My dad—perfectly reasonably—was also angry about his new status. How could he be a cripple in a wheelchair, he was an Irish drunk who raised hell with army buddies and his six brothers. He tried to make up for losing all power in the household by yelling at me and my sisters, complete with empty threats and clichés. “I’ll knock you for a row of Sundays!” “I’ll give you something to cry about!” I thought I wasn’t affected by it, because I knew who really wore the pants in the family. My mother had had to transform herself from a shy country girl to the caretaker of a man she no longer loved and responsibilities she had never dreamed of. She was 31 years old.

I still feel the poignancy of two scenes, neither of which I was there to witness. One day my father was upset and yelling, and my mother—at the end of her rope—wheeled him out to the road, where he had to sit, staring across at the woods, until she brought him back in. The second scene, which hurts me to this day, was when she couldn’t cope anymore and took him to a nursing home to live out his life. His plea (again, not witnessed by me, but just as starkly hurtful as if I had been there), “Don’t you love me anymore?” cuts through me, disarms and tortures me, even 40+ years later. He died 2 weeks later.

I was about 10 or so, he and I spent a lot of time together, but I’m not sure if it was my idea or if I had been assigned to keep him company and watch over him. When the VA gave him a set of woodworking machinery, there was a chance he would fall and hurt himself, so I spent time in the basement with him. I mostly operated the jigsaw. We made picnic tables and lawn ornaments. I jigsawed Mickey Mouse and the Boy Scout emblem, donkey heads, anything that needed to be cut in outline. We tried to sell this stuff in the front yard to the few people who drove by. We also went around to the homes of family friends with boxes of greeting cards to sell. One year we ran the concession stand at Henes Park. My dad was irritable and frustrated a lot of the time, and I was depressed and anxious. I lived for school, because it was orderly and mostly friendly, and my teachers felt like my salvation. Daddy had become a tyrant, my jailer, and I treated him as such: no sharing, no openness, no love or trust.

But when I was telling Nikki this old story that I’ve told so often, I felt a shift in my perception. I always thought of my dad as being an anomaly in the family, just as I thought we were middle class but for lack of money. I was convinced we were a normal family who’d had something abnormal happen to us. And he was the abnormal one. It all seemed like a tragic mistake, like it shouldn’t count. I responded only to the outer, saw him only as the other. Except for the disturbances he caused, I categorized him as irrelevant. His illness was unfortunate, but if the MS hadn’t gotten him, the alcoholism could very well have. We were a family of women and girls… and this lone annoying, inconvenient man. He made no decisions, except whether to watch wrestling or cartoons on TV. He and I stayed up late and watched Jack Paar together. I don’t have a sense of how we interacted, or even if we did. All that time together and not one conversation to recount.

Around 11 years old, I was molested in my cousins’ home next door. There was no question of telling either of my parents.

Playing with a broken pop bottle in the back yard one day, I pushed down on the edge and cut my finger. I still have the scar. I rushed inside… right past my dad in his recliner… and washed off the blood, applied a band-aid. He was not someone I went to for help or sympathy.

I was constantly afraid that my mother would be the next one to die or become disabled. If she was on her way home from work when WAGN reported that there had been an auto accident in town, both my dad and I would freak out—him outwardly, me all to myself, feelings tamped down. He yelled at my mother when she got home, probably from relief and embarrassment. She didn’t have much empathy for him, she was doing her duty. He had to know that.

The MS had affected not only his motor skills but also his brain. He would laugh inappropriately, in church and even when the minister came to the house to give him communion. I was so embarrassed by this. It was a helpless kind of laughter, nothing funny about it, impossible for him to control, so that it was more like seeing him piss his pants than have a genuine chuckle.

What I realized—like a punch to the gut—when I was telling Nikki all this was that I had placed him entirely outside my immediate, circumscribed self, as if we were nothing more than inmates in the same institution. We shared outward experiences but no emotional intimacy. My lack of affect with him was rehearsal for the several years of alienation I would soon feel from my mother. We were different species swimming in the same stream. Parallel play, parallel work, parallel life. I held him at arm’s length. Cried for him at his funeral and took his Johnny Cash record back to college with me… finally safe to idealize him a little bit. Took me 40-some years to even get a hint that we were inextricably entwined, reflecting each other’s pathology and self-consciousness. There was no question of love. Too close for love, maybe, too disappointed, too far off the track of what had started out to be a tight bond. Betrayal. He felt betrayed by his body (he would pound his jerky leg into submission), I felt betrayed by him. Ruptured, disrupted, an interrupted journey, deep trust summarily severed with no warning and not enough understanding to even begin to reconnect. As a child I observed and repudiated the outer events but retreated to and fashioned my own inner world There seemed no connection, no lifeline to climb up out of the pit, only straws to grab on to, as if I were perpetually drowning in one of those dropoffs in the bay that claimed my friend Francis when I was 10. In my world, Life handed you lemons, but all you had after a while was rotten lemons. Lemonade hadn’t been invented yet, in my mind. You didn’t so much fight to survive life’s lemons-as-lessons, you simply regarded them as immutable events, come down from on high, that had little to do with your tender self, as if you existed outside the skin and fabric of the others who habited your tiny world.

But we were father and daughter under the skin. He was not so alien, we were not so different. We projected our fears, feared some of the same things, felt inadequate and unloved, fought the unfightable with hopeless attention. Mirrored each other in a way I could never acknowledge. I removed myself as far as I could, put all attention onto Mama, she who held my life in her hands. Gave up on him, clung to her. He was dead to me long since.

I had put my money on black, cuz red hadn’t paid off in so long. Made an unconscious choice, intuited that loyalty to the intrusive mother was more expedient. She treated him like a nuisance, dodged his grabby hands as she walked past him. When she wheeled him down the hall to bed, he always gazed into my room as he passed. I felt violated, but I was unclear as to who was doing the violating, and why. I don’t know what he wanted from me, if anything. I disrespected his lost manhood. Disparaged his failure to best me in any sphere of knowledge—parroted my mother’s lack of interest in his country music or in his experiences in the war. He was history, but the body remained.

My mother was active, he was passive, I was passive. He and I were in the muck together, though I tried to deny it. We liked Johnny Cash, she liked Johnny Mathis. We listened to a lot of Johnny Mathis…. and on Saturday nights, Lawrence Welk. I would be taking my weekly bath, despairing at the sound of the awful musical bubbles coming from the TV. Once I caught my molester, John, watching me from the window. It was another moment I still feel acutely. I lived in a fish bowl, with alien fish. Unwanted advances: his fingers on my thighs, creeping toward the prize whenever he could maneuver me into position. I was, again, a passive participant. There seemed no way out. So I willingly went with him to the cedar grove, where I did his bidding: climbed a tree naked, lay down with him on top of me. In the basement, holding a burbling hose up to my privates while he watched. I don’t know why no one else ever seemed to be at home. These events took place in their own bubble. They bisected my real life, of school and family time, but I kept them separate as much as I could. The final straw came when we were at a drive-in movie, Mom and Dad in the front seat, me and John in the back, his fingers traveling up my thighs. I was ashamed that I allowed it to feel good. But I got out of the car and asked if I could sit up front. No one else ever knew what was going on.

I don’t know if my changing perception will make any difference in my life today. It all happened so long ago, but—as I’ve come to believe—the past is still here, it is wrongly considered to no longer exist. The past is embedded in the heart and in the brain that has never forgotten, though the mind long ago forced the knowledge out of consciousness.

I include the following poem for Nikki, who, through her compassionate questioning, helped me become more deeply aware of one of the great mysteries of my life:

 

Finding What You Didn’t Lose

When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved.
When someone deeply listens to you,
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind’s eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!
When someone deeply listens to you,
your bare feet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.

—John Fox

 

 

 

And here is another poem by John Fox. This one is for Everyone…..

 

Everything Is a Surprise

Death might be a moment
where being everything you are
is met by a welcome Surprise
and by a discovery you make
that it was, or actually
is perfectly fine
to be who you are,
is more than all right,
and it is only this Surprise
and your discovery of it
that went missing for awhile
in your life, or was so long
but not entirely forgotten.
But when Surprise meets you,
you discover that it is Everything
who will open arms wide to you,
pause for just a moment, even
step back slightly to await
your arrival (to give you a moment
to see) and yes, you will run forward,
full tilt, aware you might as well
keep running hard like that
because what else is there to do now,
aware, and even more, feeling assured
you could never knock Everything over
and are, at the same moment,
about to discover Everything
will never let you fall.

 —John Fox

 

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(A note about two of the illustrations: I drew the cartoon on page 1—with a mouse. I bought the image on page 2 from dreamstime.com.)

mary’zine #62: June 2013

June 8, 2013

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The Difference (King’s X)

 I walked through a garden
In the morning
I walked right into
A change

No words were spoken
Just a feeling
And I cannot explain
But I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference

Wind it comes and
It blows
Where it comes from
I don’t know

To look for a reason
Might just kill it
And I cannot explain
But I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference

I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference

And I cannot explain

 

7 days

Terry read us the above song lyric during the last sharing of the May painting intensive at the CCE Painting Studio in San Francisco. It fit my experience of the week perfectly. And now I face the challenge of using language to somehow “explain,” describe, or at least evoke it in some way.

As usual, I have lots of little things to share about my trip, some on the ground, some in the air, but one major theme has come up that doesn’t seem suited to intertwining with details about restaurants, traffic, and funny conversations. I’m not sure what to do about that. If I promise to put all that stuff at the end and call it The Lighter Side, can you stay with me here as I no doubt poorly “explain” the big thing that happened? OK, here goes.

Writing this the day after I got home, my mind is buzzing and my body is buzzing, but I don’t think they’re buzzing in the same direction. Or level. Or something. The mind is all earnest and heartfelt and wanting to share the strangeness and plumb the apparent disconnect between physicality and consciousness. Its agenda is to understand and thereby control the strange goings-on. But the body is all about the inarticulate but strongly felt sensations where old and new experiences and perceptions are stored. Far from languishing, it exerts its own control from down in the briny deep.

In the last issue of the mary’zine, I wrote about a body part that I loathe. But I have encountered new life, new blood in a region of my body that has been felt but unplumbed for a very long time. It is, for lack of a better term, the “lower region.” I would call it visceral, the “pit of my stomach,” but anatomically I don’t even think the stomach is that far down. I will just call it the “lower region”: the lower belly, just shy of the genital area but surely connected to it by plumbing (!) and magic.

So Barbara was talking about this “lower region” and about how much feeling and power is stored there. She was sitting cross-legged on the couch, and she gestured to the area on her own body, but I wasn’t sure what the perimeters were. I made her stand up and show me. I was really excited to know that something important goes on in that area, because I’ve had sensations there (rare but strong) since a young age. I couldn’t put a name to them, but I eventually came up with the words lovepityhome…. The love and pity seemed to be for my mother. I remember when I was about 12 years old she had bought me a pair of slacks for Easter. When I went into my bedroom to try them on, I had this intense sensation (quick, where’s my thesaurus?)—a short-lived piercing ache, an abyss of love closely linked to pain into which I could toss any number of words: regret? fear? guilt? the bleakness and joy of existence in this world? I wanted to escape my situation (home), but I felt inexorably tied to it, to my family whom I knew I would leave behind literally and in so many other ways. I knew my mother loved me. But her attempts to please me made me feel almost worse than her insensitivity to my feelings at other times. Her life was hard, with an invalid husband to care for and a family of five to support. She did her best, and maybe that’s why I felt that “strange brew” in my body. (The band Cream’s song “Strange Brew”—“kill what’s inside of you.”)

(I’m throwing a bunch of words on this, like sprinkling salt on a casserole. I hope it makes sense, on some level.)

I’ve had this sensation many times over the years, and I welcome it, I’m not sure why. It comes on its own, I can’t make it happen. And now that I know it’s an important part of the body’s feeling apparatus, uncontrolled by the mind—that ultimate emperor with no clothes—I want to become more aware of it and express it or follow it, or whatever will give it the freedom to flower.

I can’t believe that it took me more than a week to connect sex to this area. For almost the whole intensive, I was having strong sexual feelings, and by the last day it was clear that those feelings were being prompted by my new attention to this complicated area of my body. (“This old gray Mare still has some gas in her tank!”, I thought, or maybe that was Minnie Pearl.) I’m still not sure how sex enters into the love/pity/home theme, but I suppose it makes sense that the most difficult feelings, the ones most laden with significance and physicality, would all be related somehow.

***

During the week I had the usual feelings of disconnect between painting and life. As in the song lyrics I quoted at the beginning, painting made a huge difference but it wasn’t possible to trace the connecting lines, connect the dots, explain a damn thing. On the painting I started after the talk about the “lower region,” I painted myself standing knee-deep in a body of water, and all my attention was on what was below the water—as if my own body were a mere afterthought. Barbara and I saw this at the same time, and it was very telling. I had to focus on my body, which was difficult because I couldn’t paint my feelings literally: A black or muddied band around the lower region wasn’t going to be enough. So I just painted, and I have no idea what happened. The painting isn’t finished, but I scanned a couple parts of it to show you.

img001 copy 3      img002

Looking at these images now, I’m struck by two things: The “lower region” I’m talking about has an eye in it. This makes me wonder if that part of the body, an apparent storehouse of denied emotion, is more wise and sensitive than we can imagine. And the larger eyes, especially as seen in the second image, project intense power. As I was painting, I had no idea that they meant anything, and they weren’t even in the “area” I wanted to concentrate on. But looking at them now, it seems obvious.

The sexual resurgence I started to feel during the painting week has continued. Have I unleashed something—my own Pandora’s box*—only to be stymied in the face of consequences? (*According to that bastion of scholarly research, Wikipedia, the “box” was really a jar; [“I left Pandora’s box ajar”?] The mistranslation was blamed on Erasmus of Rotterdam. But I digress. No, wait, I’m not finished. Zeus gave Pandora the jar, with instructions not to open it under any circumstances. Remind you of anything? Hint: apple, snake? What is it with mythological male figures enticing women to do “evil” (assuming evil = mere curiosity) and thus bring down the wrath of the very same gods (or God). By the way, Zeus didn’t punish Pandora for disobeying him—“because he knew this would happen.” It was a set-up from the beginning!)

Since the first insight about the “lower region” struck me, I’ve been discovering layers upon layers of repercussions. One of the major ones is not just sex but Desire. Desire seeks an object. Pandora’s container is easily unhinged when Desire is on the lam. Is Pandora’s jar commensurate with desire? or merely with fantasy? Does fantasy lead to recklessness…cracking the foundation of truth by placing unearned weight on it? or balancing rickety ladders on chair rails to reach a higher understanding? Can fantasy be a means to the truth? One of my dalliances, years ago, resulted in my seeing beyond the illusion of lust to the truth that both of us were in it for ourselves. There was a lot of hot body action but no true communion of souls. Just two female animals trysting under the stars (or in my office after hours, but if this were a poem I wouldn’t mention that). But talk about being alone when you’re with someone. Selfishness (whether the driver or the result of fantasy) is isolating.

So when I got home after the intensive, I found—or imagined—an object of desire in the form of an old friend who had once been attracted to me. It surprised me indeed to open that door and find her there… as if she had been sitting on the other side, waiting patiently. It was astonishing to think that this could be real. But would my desire for her be a welcome gift? Or would it be seen as a mixed message, a mixed gift, a once-nixed gift, a gift too old to be of value?

Desire: a hard pounding in my heart, a hurt before it ever finds its happiness, and also after.

I held Desire in until I couldn’t hold it anymore: the hot potato of love. I threw it to her—made my proposition. I wanted to make a deal. I’d pick door #1, the least threatening, the least life-altering, the maximum good with the minimum cost or hazard. Sex is infinitely malleable, is it not? Couldn’t we define it, indulge in it, as narrowly or as broadly as we chose? We had a long-lasting friendship, had been through a lot together. And there are no rules for being gay (one of the best parts, frankly). Straight people have several well-worn paths laid out for them, whereas we are always, of necessity, blazing our own trails.

Unfortunately, being human does have rules. Truth has rules, as well as hard-and-fast demands. Truth will not be cheated or betrayed. Truth cannot be faked, or extended like a warranty, or cut to fit the Procrustean bed. It just is. Truth is. There is nothing else. Imagine that! We dither and debate and put our thumb on the scale to give ourselves a small advantage, but advantage does not exist, it is ephemeral, and still a cheat in the long run. Truth is. Being is. Honesty is all there is. Existence is truth, with an unyielding foundation—or none at all; which is scarier? I think truth matters but is not material. There’s not even a choice. All of our choices are imaginary escapes. To be still, silent, unreaching, unmoving, even burning with desire… Desire is a gift because it is fuel for being, and being still. It does not require tossing itself like a hot potato, hoping for another to catch it, keep it, nurture it, and pass it back and forth until the heat disperses.

If I can’t toss my hot love potato to a suitable (and willing) mate, then what is there to do? Loving, longing, lounging, logging. OK, logging won’t help, but maybe longing. What does one long for if not the unattainable? And what does one do with a lifetime of repressed power? If I let it grow and be, it will guide me. It will guide me right back to myself, because, really, it’s the only place to be. Longing is not for something, it’s an expression of self. Putting oneself out there by going nowhere. I do not long for, I just long.

At least, now, in my semi-dotage—I put myself somewhere around October 12th in the metaphor of months equaling a life—I am surely still capable of spinning golden threads of illusion, but I am also a seasoned veteran of the ineluctable Real: the stronger force—the stronger desire—which is for truth. Truth of my feeling. Truth of my lover’s feeling. Truth of relationship and loving connection whether or not the connection is the one desired in the moment. Honesty in talking about these things with openness, understanding of risk, self-awareness, love for the other even when her truth means she has to reject the offer, the longing, the desire. One knows one is loved when one is turned down so gently, almost wistfully.

A crisis of faith would be to dwell on what might have been at the expense of what is. What is true. Right here, right now. There is no other place I want to be.

 I was alive and I waited, waited
I was alive and I waited for this
Right here, right now
There is no other place I want to be
Right here, right now
Watching the world wake up… in me.

(“Right Here, Right Now,” sung by Jesus Jones; slight edit by Mare)

*

*

*
the lighter side!

So now I’ll tell you about my flight to S.F. At Chicago O’Hare (an airline-sponsored ring of hell) we sat on the runway for the usual unit of time (long). I dozed off, having taken the requisite Dramamine and lorazepam, and awoke as if after an entire night’s sleep to hear the pilot announce, “Ready for takeoff.” I was alarmed and asked my seat mate, a young man, “You mean we haven’t even left yet?” He looks out the window and dryly points out the obvious, that “we’re still on the ground.” I can see a large American Airlines building in the distance and, indeed, I can see ground, but in my drug-addled state I thought for a moment that I had slept all the way to San Francisco and the plane was now about to take off for somewhere else. I just said, “Oh my God” and fell back asleep. I was glad later that I hadn’t jumped up and cried, “I forgot to get off the plane!” The only other time I spoke to that guy was when I saw a flight attendant preparing the pilot’s meal. We in first class had been given the choice of spinach cannelloni or chicken cacciatore, but when the flight attendant got to me, the cannelloni was gone already and she had to give me a detailed explanation of which passengers got first choice: global, premiere, super-duper (I quickly lost track of United’s superlative brand names), front to back of cabin, most miles flown, etc. (Those last two don’t even make sense: your seat in the 6-row cabin is not determined by your customer status). So I picked at the chicken, ate a roll, and pondered how even paying for first class doesn’t guarantee you’ll get all the perks. You get a hot towel, though, and hot nuts, which impress me a lot less than they did on my first first class flight. So when I saw what the pilot was getting, I turned to my seat mate and said, with heavy emphasis, “The pilot got a baked potato.” The guy had to remove one earphone to hear me. “What?” “The pilot got a baked potato.” We chuckled in mock outrage, and I was quite proud of my brazen importuning of this perfect stranger.

I’ve noticed a difference in how I deal with strangers these days, especially during a painting intensive. Everywhere we went in the City, I felt like I was facing each person we encountered with my “front” completely undefended. It seemed so much easier than trying to shrink back and hide behind an imaginary shield of invisibility. My back, of course, was spine-sturdy, a literal back-up should things go wrong. Sensing danger or disdain, the openness shuts down quietly, like a Kindle cover clicking quietly closed (I should have gone into advertising). A case in point: I did not feel open to my seat mate on the flight back home. There was something about him, or the way he ignored me, I’m not sure what it was, but I held myself back and we didn’t say a word to each other. I wasn’t hiding from him, just self-contained. Thanks, 12 years of somatic psychotherapy!

Terry and I had a great week—with each other, with the other painters, and with the many strangers and old friends we encountered during our daily rounds of lunch, dinner, and grocery shopping. We stayed in a different house this time, in Bernal Heights a block off Mission, and enjoyed the amazing views and spacious upstairs with a beautiful long table that was our command center for eating, computing, and piling stuff. It had lots of stairs to contend with, but I’m happy to report that I had no walking-related pains during the week. I had my cane along, but I was able to get around pretty well without it. This was huge… and stood me in good stead when I had to walk/scuttle/shuffle halfway across O’Hare to make my connecting flight home when the cart driver off-loaded me far from the gate. (A not very interesting story for another day, perhaps when I publish my Stories That Don’t Fit Anywhere Else, and Aren’t That Interesting Anyway.)

Driving all over the City (and dipping down into Marin briefly) in a cramped and weak-willed Ford Fiesta, I had a few close calls in traffic, but I got us home without any major damage to ourselves or the car, didn’t I? I mean, that red arrow at the ramp onto South 101 in Mill Valley was obscured by my sun visor. And that yellow car on Mission came out of nowhere! Plus, I had no choice but to blast through the red light at Sloat and Ocean, because I was caught in the intersection and had to keep going, I couldn’t go back: “I have to! I have to!,” I cried, as T gazed in horror at the three or four lanes of traffic to our right that now had the right of way. Occasionally, I let her drive and we both felt empathy for the other’s position: She had to make the crucial decisions when there was no traffic light to legislate our stop-and-go, and I experienced the helplessness of having no control over those decisions except to say “Wait!” or “Go, go go!”

***

Yes, I’m all over the place with my stories, but though the 7 days seemed to progress in a linear fashion—night/day, night/day—the way one remembers things is not linear at all. It’s all a mishmash in there, and one thought that rises to the surface may lead to another that is not obviously related. Welcome to the human brain.

***

New restaurants. L’Avenida is gone now, a huge disappointment. We tried to go to El Toreador in West Portal, but there was a long wait. So we strolled across the street to Spiazzo at 6:30 on a Saturday night and were surprised to get seated within 15 minutes. Excellent food, too. We also had two meals at Tacos Los Altos on Cortland in Bernal Heights. I enjoyed the super veggie burrito, but the second meal of steak enchiladas didn’t meet the high standards of Mexican food that I have become accustomed to in Wisconsin. (I had lunch at El Sarape after I touched down at GRB, because, well, when in Green Bay, eat like the Green Bayans do. My favorite Mexican-American waiter there always remembers me and my sisters, so I thought I was giving him and the restaurant a compliment when I told him that I preferred the food he was serving me to what I had had in San Francisco. Too late, I realized that I was saying more about my limited palate than I was about the heavily Midwesternized meals they serve around here. The waiter said he was from Los Angeles and preferred the food out there. Yeah, OK, never mind.

The painting week was filled with good will and great conversations with Penny R, Diane L, Diane D (who didn’t paint and could only join us for dinner on Wednesday and Friday nights, but her presence was a mitzvah as always), Sandra, Carol, Kate, Linda, Kyle…. Barbara was a delight and a challenge—deeply caring, deeply trusting of her own truth, and deeply in tune with our process(es). Even when I wasn’t sure I was “feeling anything,” it was clear that “something was going on”; I think painting has made me lose my words, or at least my exacting ones. Barbara pointed out that I’m comfortable in the world of language, and that living in the body is more difficult for me. The shift confounds me, because I’ve always believed that coming up with just the right word or string of words is as good as any inchoate “feeling.” I’ve always thought I would be more comfortable as a head in a jar (but not Pandora’s), as long as I could write or speak. Maybe with Google glass and other high technical arts to remove the body’s distractions from the interface, humanity will eventually do away with the physical world altogether?  (But I would miss cats; maybe I could have a cat head in a jar next to me. Oh, now I’m just being silly.)

One day in the sharing, I relayed a true story I’d read online about a man who had been swallowed by a hippopotamus. Turns out he wasn’t actually swallowed (I’d been thinking: There are only two exits—which one did he escape from, and how?). He told it this way: “I was aware that my legs were surrounded by water, but my top half was almost dry. I seemed to be trapped in something slimy. There was a terrible, sulphurous smell, like rotten eggs, and a tremendous pressure against my chest. My arms were trapped but I managed to free one hand and felt around – my palm passed through the wiry bristles of the hippo’s snout. It was only then that I realised I was underwater, trapped up to my waist in his mouth.” Eventually, the hippo “spit [him] out.” My favorite part was the guy’s conclusion: “Time passes very slowly when you’re in a hippo’s mouth.” I thought it was quite an instructive message, raising questions as to the nature of time, perception, and WTF he was doing that close to a hippo. (Answer: He’s a river guide—a one-armed river guide at this point.)

I think the biggest laff of the week came when Barbara told us about being hugged by a neighbor who always says, “God bless you.” Barbara was unsure how to respond. “You too” didn’t seem right. Even less so: “Back atcha.” I suggested she answer her in German, in which Barbara is fluent. So Amanda pipes up: “Gesundheit?” OK, so you had to be there, but the thought of saying “Gesundheit” to someone who’s just said “God bless you” was just too hilarious. We laughed like crazy persons.

Neither Terry nor I could sleep the night before we were to leave, so we started the “day” at 2 a.m. We followed her GPS to SFO, dropped the rental car off at Hertz, and parted on the air train because we were leaving from different terminals. It was bittersweet. At security, I was astonished to find that the TSA (now CSA?) were all very kind. I never thought I’d hear the words “Have a good flight” in that corner of bureaucracy. And instead of marching me off to the side and demanding that I surrender my half bottle of water or be “escorted out,” the woman who found it in my bag merely asked if I wanted to go outside the security area and drink it or if she should toss it. Faced with this display of rationality and human feeling, I was practically speechless. In the terminal proper, I stopped at a kiosk to buy some non-bomb-containing water, and I asked the seller why everyone in the airport was so nice now: they’d never been before. She responded… nicely… that it was better than being nasty, and I told her I appreciated it. It really made everything about the airport experience more tolerable.

My flight home was relatively uneventful—I especially appreciate the jet stream, if that’s what explains the much shorter time in the air when going east—except in Chicago (hub of all airline ills) where something happened to the “auxiliary power” and we had to wait on the plane for airport maintenance to come and fix it. The delay was probably less than an hour, but I always have a heightened sense of fear when I get that close to home and face the possibility of being stranded, as I did a couple years ago.

The cats were thrilled to have me home, and for the first day and a half they didn’t let me out of their sight. I’m sure my sister Barb did a great job of caring for them—including a repeat of the lying on the floor by the bed and singing “Jesus Christ Superstar” to Luther when he thought he had found a secure hiding place. She says he eventually got out from under the bed and walked slowly away… I picture him backing slowly away, with two paws out as if to say, “That’s fine, don’t get up.”

My method of unpacking after a trip involves several days and an attempt to expend no extra energy whatsoever. If I happen to be going into the bathroom, I’m happy to pick up a used Kleenex or a plastic bottle of lotion along the way and bring it with me. If I’m going downstairs, I’ll bring along a t-shirt that needs to go in the laundry, as long as I don’t have to go out of my way. This doesn’t work for very long, because eventually I have to take active steps to empty the suitcase and organize the clean vs. dirty clothes, but it lets me feel for a short time like I’m getting away with something.

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Oh, what will become of me?

Mary McKenney

mary’zine #58: October 2012

October 12, 2012

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

 
 

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

 
 

long day’s journey into Neenah

                         Neenah, Wisconsin      

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

the local nooz

(source: my niece)

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

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

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

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

 
 

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

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

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

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

 
 

new doctor

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

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

 
 

hard times

From huffingtonpost.com  9-20-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… And presumably their stock tips.
 

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

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

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

 
 

(this is already dated material, but whatever)

I finally got to sit outside on my back porch…

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

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

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

Amen.   


 
 
(Mary McKenney)

 

mary’zine #57: September 2012

September 9, 2012

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

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

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

the wisdom of Deadwood

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

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

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

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

 

after life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

the literal exegesis

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

the metaphorical exegesis

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

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

when bad things happen to good kitties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

some gratuitous images from the interwebs

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

 

 

Bonne chance to all people of leftish persuasion come November…

(Mary McKenney)

mary’zine #56: July 2012

July 24, 2012

 I’m just a person trapped inside a woman’s body.—Robin Morgan

Girlhood is a cruel joke played on those of us who did not come into the world obsessed with princesses and the color pink. In the 5th grade I realized that the 6th grade girls—like canaries in the coal mine of femaleness—had completely changed. They were getting all… girly… their whole focus was on their hair, clothes, behavior and appearance, which is to say on boys. I liked boys fine; but I had enjoyed a freedom with them that wasn’t based on my appearance or, god forbid, any semblance of demure behavior. I played sports, climbed trees, and all that. Yes, I was a “tomboy”—which only means that you’re granted the freedom of a boy up to the point where you’re supposed to turn into a “real girl,” like a bizarro-world Pinocchia who wants nothing of the sort.

I do believe that many or most children are born into biologically consistent “feminine” or “masculine” sex roles—that girls want their dollies and boys their trains and trucks, even before they’re encouraged in those directions by parents and society. But lots of us are born another way. It bugs me when lesbians (and tomboys) are considered to be aping male behavior—“penis envy” apparently arising from girls’ discovering they have nothing “down there,” whereas boys have something. (That’s an interesting theory. Use the same logic on other body parts. Is a mouth “nothing” and a nose “something”? Which would you rather do without?) No, we’re doing what feels natural, just like they are. To me, femininity, with its dress code and limited interests and second-class status, is a complete artifice. Many gay men are also into artifice—playing the highly exaggerated female or male. And of course there are “lipstick lesbians” and “bull dykes.” Everyone is just trying to fit in, to be themselves… to find a role that makes sense in a highly gender-based society.

And frankly, I think lesbians and gay men are a harbinger of where we could go as a species if we took the radical step of acknowledging the feminine and masculine qualities that everyone has to some degree, instead of insisting on the rigid sex roles that are still the norm. It’s true that all evolution “cares about” is propagating the herd… so in that strict sense, all that matters to the species as a whole is making more babies. You + me + baby makes 3. But humans have gone far beyond that basic math. And we need both women and men to use all the faculties at their disposal. It’s ridiculous to claim that “If everyone were gay, the species would die out.” (a) Not everyone is going to be gay, and (b) if we ever experience a shortage of humans, all people except the old and infertile have the ability to make more—and an amazing number of us, gay or straight, want to.

The following photos show the evolution of a girl from freedom through femaleness and on to personhood.

age 10, when I was still free (with Lana, a neighbor girl)

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age 15, in full defeat (my mother took this picture with her usual disregard for what I would consider “humorous”; but I must say, it expresses a kind of truth about my situation; I certainly felt trapped between icy weapons of ma’s destruction)

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

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age 44, fully myself, helping in the demolition of the space that would become the Center for Creative Exploration, A Painting Studio (330 Chenery St., San Francisco, CA  94131)

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  (cf.  ) Image

 

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F R A C T U R E D

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                                F A M I L Y

It’s weird how fast things can change. An innocent gesture, a passing comment, the smallest thing can mark the beginning of the end. In my family there has been a major rift in the time–space–recliner/couch continuum. The end has come for me and my brother-in-law, MP.

I first met MP at my father’s funeral in 1969. He and my sister K have been married for something like 39 years. But the longest I’ve ever been around him has been the last 8 years that I’ve lived back in my hometown in the U.P. It hasn’t always been easy, but I did think we had a bond of sorts. When I moved back here, K confessed that she was afraid MP and I would clash. I understood her concern, because he takes pleasure and pride in confrontation. He calls this “telling it like it is,” and “if you don’t like it, that’s your problem.” He’s alienated almost everyone he’s ever known, including his own family. And I—as you may or may not know—do not suffer fools gladly, so in a way ours was always a match made in hell.

But, for K’s sake, I did everything I could to make it work. I could almost always make him laugh, and when I couldn’t, I tried to overlook his mood—or challenged him when he went too far, such as the time he claimed to be “the boss of the family” and thus of me. While my sisters sat by in silence, I let him know in no uncertain terms that he was not “the boss of me” and if there was going to be a boss, it wasn’t going to be him: I was the oldest, he had married into my family, and if we were going to have a boss, it should be K, because I didn’t want the job.

So I adopted an attitude of strength, nonjudgment, and respect; it was sometimes difficult to maintain, but I genuinely enjoyed the banter that was our most frequent way of relating.

ImageThen this happened. We were over at K&MP’s house on a Friday night. These occasions have devolved from going out to eat together every week… to getting together every week but eating take-out… to going over there only by invitation… and now to Barb and me eating beforehand because, according to MP, it was “a hassle” to have the conversation about what everyone wanted to eat. (He never had to go pick up the food, so it was hard to believe it was really that big of a deal.) Anyway, Barb and I were invited over one night to see the Prowler travel trailer they’d just bought, and we spent the rest of the evening listening to our nephew rant about everything in his world: his girlfriend’s son, the school, the school bus, other drivers, his coworkers, his boss, and on and on. He used to be the sweetest person but has made himself over as a tough guy, apparently in his dad’s image.

At 9:00 we’re all standing around their tiny kitchen, getting ready to leave, and MP tries to get past me to get to the sink or whatever. Reflexively, I move back slightly so that he can’t get by. Yes! This is the kind of hijinks (“unruly and often hilarious but troublesome fun” [Urban Dictionary]) we North-Mid-Westerners like to get up to! But instead of saying “Ha ha, now move your ass,” he starts pushing me. I’m in stocking feet so slide right across the floor and up against the stove. I’m trying as hard as I can to push back against him, while K cries, “Don’t break my stove!” I’m laughing, I still think we’re having some good clean fun, or hijinks, as we have countless times before. But suddenly MP lets go of me and steps back. All my momentum has been going in his direction, so of course I fall and land on the floor hard, on my tailbone. I’m shocked, I can’t believe what has just happened. I’m going “Ow, ow.” K comes to help me up, but I tell her, “Give me a minute.” My nephew and his girlfriend take this opportunity to duck out the door, because what do they care, apparently. With some effort I hoist myself up by gripping the table and the countertop. I gather my bag, keys, and water bottle and mince toward the door. I don’t look at MP, but I kind of wish I had. What would I have seen on his face: a smirk? a look of concern? He had to have known I would fall when he let go of me.

K’s face as she hugs me good-bye is stricken. I don’t hear what Barb is saying to MP, but she later tells me: “This is where you say, ‘I’m sorry, Mary, I hope you aren’t hurt too bad’.” He just stares at her. Then Barb and I are out by our cars, she’s asking me if I’m all right to drive, offers me an Advil, hugs me a couple times. K and MP are standing in the doorway, MP looking contemplatively off into the distance, thinking who knows what.

Later that night I e-mail K to say, “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.” She thanks me for letting her know, because she was “worried sick.” I also e-mail Barb to tell her I made it home OK and am “fine.” I knew I’d be sore for a couple days, but I was still having intermittent pain 2 weeks later. I’m pretty sure you can’t break your coccyx (pronounced cock-sicks) without knowing it, but it was still a little worrisome.

Through the weekend, I kept thinking I was going to get a call or an e-mail from MP, apologizing—probably with a minimum of sincerity, but at least it would be something. On Sunday, I half-expected them to show up at my door, as they sometimes do when they’re out driving around the park. I don’t hear anything for the next week. Barb sees K when they go rummaging, but I don’t know if they talk about what happened. I finally decide that if I stay quiet about it, everyone will think it was no big deal and will breathe a sigh of relief that I have chosen not to rile MP, which would make life harder for K. It’s in no one’s interest for me to make a scene, even a mild one, because we are a family whose substrate is a rug bulging with the many interpersonal issues that have been swept under it. But I have chosen to consider my own interest for once. I will not and cannot let this stand.

So I write an e-mail addressed to both K and MP. I say I could accept that what he did was due to a momentary brain malfunction but that not apologizing is unacceptable. I hazard a guess that he might have been embarrassed and didn’t know what to say, but “I’m sorry” would be a good start.

ImageI had already begun writing about what happened. One of my favorite parts of preparing the ‘zine is looking through the images on dreamstime.com for possible illustrations to use. I start by looking for a cartoon of a boy pulling a girl’s pigtails, because that junior high dynamic seems like a possible explanation for MP’s actions. After much searching, trying different terms, I find a delightful image that personifies how I was coming to see the incident: a bizarre pas de deux between two old folks making fools of themselves, but all in good fun (until it wasn’t).

But I was jolted out of this hopeful fantasy when I got the replies to my e-mail.

K said she was tired of being in the middle (defending MP against others, and others against him), that he and I were both at fault, she loved us both, and she couldn’t choose sides.

I guess I understand the part about its being partly my fault. I was standing where he wanted to be, yes, and I resisted when he pushed me, like the uppity dyke I am.

MP’s response was in all caps and very hostile, along the lines of: YOU STARTED IT! and IF YOU THINK I’M GOING TO SAY SORRY, FORGET IT!  Actually, I thought it was interesting that he didn’t use any profanity. Was he restraining himself (as I was) for K’s sake? I hear tell she confronted him after I left: “What were you thinking?

Was he feeling emasculated? I have no patience for that claim. When they aren’t lording it over us, they’re having a pity party about their precious balls. Which are broken oh so easily, by us. I’ve read that women’s greatest fear of men is physical, whereas men’s greatest fear of women is being ridiculed. They don’t want us to have any weapons whatsoever! And since I must say it every time, by “they” I don’t mean all men, I mean those who have no respect for women. I’m not saying MP was consciously trying to hurt me, but what he did was deliberate and had easily foreseen consequences.

It’s not uncommon for the accused to turn the situation around and blame the victim. A man caught cheating on his wife cries, “If you hadn’t taken that job, I wouldn’t have gotten angry, and none of this would have happened!” (Army Wives, 7-15-12)

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I’m in shock for a few days. The feelings come and go (talking of Michelangelo). Every so often I get a fleeting sense of something else, a breath of fresh air. To have the truth out in the open, no more straining to keep my cool, to keep my mouth shut “for K,” to suffer in silence, or occasionally to stand up and say what I have to say… but always with the fear of capsizing the family boat.

During that time, contrary to my “bulging rug” metaphor (and the family boat, for that matter), I have this dream:

I’m standing in the small back entryway of the house I grew up in. There’s the outside door, the door into the kitchen, and the door to the basement. Except the door to the basement isn’t there… nor is the basement!! There’s nothing but Void. The outside door doesn’t have a lock on it, so there’s no way to keep anyone else from falling into the Void. Then I wonder how stable the floor under my feet is.

It only took me a few days more to become almost giddy with the realization that I no longer have to tiptoe around the elephant in the room. What if he apologizes, you ask? He won’t, trust me. It’s inconceivable. And even if he did, it would have to be in a parallel universe where I’m thin, can eat whatever I want, and the sexes are mutually respectful (to cite the three most important qualities of a parallel universe I’d want to be a part of). No, the die has been cast. Barb and I helped K celebrate her birthday recently, so I’m hoping the three of us will occasionally be able to get together on our own, “just us girls.” Then it will be K’s problem to deal with MP.

It’s no longer mine.

 

Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, I feel free. I feel free. I feel free. I feel free. I feel free. I feel free. I feel free. I feel free. I feel free.

            —Cream (“I Feel Free”)

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p.s: I was talking on the phone to P, whose yard is being professionally landscaped. It’s taken longer than expected, but she was pretty sure they would be done “today,” or certainly by tomorrow. I pointed out (as is my wont) that, according to my favorite ancient paradox, if they only did half of what they had to do every time they came, they would never finish. Eventually, they would be bringing one grain of sand. Then they’d have to find a way to cut each grain in half. When they got down to the atomic level, they’d have to go over to Switzerland and use the Large Hadron Collider to make smaller and smaller particles. If this were a fully developed joke, there would be a punch line. Alas, it is not.

 

Mary McKenney

mary’zine #51: September 2011

September 17, 2011

ode to Michigan

Henes Park, Menominee (photo by P. DuPont)

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A PRIMER

by Bob Hicok

I remember Michigan fondly as the place I go

to be in Michigan. The right hand of America

waving from maps or the left

pressing into clay a mold to take home

from kindergarten to Mother. I lived in Michigan

forty-three years. The state bird

is a chained factory gate. The state flower

is Lake Superior, which sounds egotistical

though it is merely cold and deep as truth.

A Midwesterner can use the word “truth,”

can sincerely use the word “sincere.”

In truth the Midwest is not mid or west.

When I go back to Michigan I drive through Ohio.

There is off I-75 in Ohio a mosque, so life

goes corn corn corn mosque, I wave at Islam,

which we’re not getting along with

on account of the Towers as I pass.

Then Ohio goes corn corn corn

billboard, goodbye, Islam. You never forget

how to be from Michigan when you’re from Michigan.

It’s like riding a bike of ice and fly fishing.

The Upper Peninsula is a spare state

in case Michigan goes flat. I live now

in Virginia, which has no backup plan

but is named the same as my mother,

I live in my mother again, which is creepy

but so is what the skin under my chin is doing,

suddenly there’s a pouch like marsupials

are needed. The state joy is spring.

“Osiris, we beseech thee, rise and give us baseball”

is how we might sound were we Egyptian in April,

when February hasn’t ended. February

is thirteen months long in Michigan.

We are a people who by February

want to kill the sky for being so gray

and angry at us. “What did we do?”

is the state motto. There’s a day in May

when we’re all tumblers, gymnastics

is everywhere, and daffodils are asked

by young men to be their wives. When a man elopes

with a daffodil, you know where he’s from.

In this way I have given you a primer.

Let us all be from somewhere.

Let us tell each other everything we can.

(Reprinted with permission of the author)

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Friday night light

I ended the #50 mary’zine by wondering if I was the “gorilla” in my family, the one everyone has to tiptoe around when s/he’s being moody or all judgmental and withdrawn. I am happy to report that the answer is “No”! (Or at least “Not that often!”) Turns out it was my brother-in-law MP all along. I know this because he’s come out of whatever funk he was in for several months, and he’s like a different person. Is it because he (a) retired from a job he hated? (b) is finally getting help from the VA? or (c) was released from the torment of a mandatory weekly visit from his sisters-in-law? Maybe (d) all of the above. For whatever reason, he’s been a joy to be around lately, and our Friday nights have a completely different feel. So far, there have been only 3 of these post-gorilla occasions, but I’m hopeful that it’s a permanent change.

Barb and I now wait for an invitation to join K&MP at their house, order takeout, and have television-cum-conversation in sometimes surreal combinations. MP still has control of the TV remote; some nights it stays off entirely while we chat and reminisce and make off-color references (me and MP) or converse like ladies (Barb and K), and K gets up repeatedly to fetch pop (“soda” to the rest a yooz) or bring a load of laundry down to or up from the basement. The rest of us sit on our asses until we have to use the bathroom. I more and more think that the content of the conversation is not the point, it’s the contact. So MP and I exchange “witticisms” while Barb and K and sometimes my nephew JP and his girlfriend have entirely other conversations that I only barely attend to. Or, JP and MP get talking about cars and trucks, while we “girls” try to make our voices heard on more domestic topics, the cats and so forth.

Sometimes, MP’s trigger finger gets itchy, and he randomly turns on or off the TV… just to see what’s on, I guess, and then to decide he’s bored. So all of a sudden, the news or a movie will come blaring on, to which we do or do not pay attention, depending. At one point we’re watching the news about a guy who spent 11 hours treading water while waiting to be rescued after his small plane went down in Lake Huron, and we see him in the water holding briefly to the tail of an airplane (which had to have been a reenactment—weird). He’s describing how he held on as long as he could, and then he says, “And then… she’s going down…,” and I pipe up, “Honey, this is neither the time nor the place,” and only K hears me, but she laughs harder than I’ve ever seen her laugh before, a kind of one-two punch as she registers the joke and then really gets it. MP and Barb have been talking about some problem with her car, and MP sees K laughing and wants to know why, and I’m like, you had to be there. Nothing worse than having to repeat a punch line. (And yet, that’s exactly what I’ve done here. Oh well.)

The next time we got together, I happened to have 2 Netflix DVDs, Source Code and The Adjustment Bureau, both sci-fi, not usually my cup of tea, but they were both a hit with the group.

One night, while K and Barb were picking up our burgers from Mickey-Lu’s, I asked my nephew if he was serious when he said he would have driven down to Chicago to get me when I was stranded at O’Hare Airport for 3 days last December. I was trying to think of a Plan B that would make me less terrified of flying to San Francisco the next time I go. He said he would do it (he used to be a long-haul trucker), but it would be nice if I chipped in for gas, and I assured him that I’d pay him whatever I would have paid for a night at the Hilton, and he was all for that. Then MP said he’d like to go along for the ride. The conversation got increasingly fantastical as one of them proposed that they could drive me to San Francisco, spend the 7 days of my painting intensive going up to Oregon to drop in on my friend P (whom they know), and then pick me up and drive me back home. MP figured out how much the gas would cost, while I silently considered the cost to my sanity of riding with those guys for several days. When K and Barb got back with our food, we told them what we had been talking about, and K grinned and said she could use a break. Barb thought she meant that she would come with us (whereas Barb would have to stay here to take care of all our cats), but I’m quite sure she was referring to a break from her dear husband.

So, recent Friday nights have been quite raucous, in a good way—though now and then the spice of contrarian politics rears its head. We’re watching a true-crime show when JP announces, “Criminals have more rights than I do!” I think he’s talking about rights in the courtroom, so I say that it’s not that “criminals” have rights, but “the accused” have rights, and any of us could be accused and would be glad for that. But he’s referring to the fact that the killer on the TV gets to keep filing appeals to have his sentence reduced. (It never was.) Then MP starts listing all the perks that prisoners get: “3 squares a day,” a bed, free education, free lawyering, etc. I point out that they can’t leave, and I suggest he go out and rob a bank and join them, if he thinks they have it so good. He gets frustrated and says I don’t understand. “I believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth: If you steal, you get your hand cut off,” he says. I tell him he should go live in an Arab country then. For every point he makes, I’ve got a response—a glib one, true, but it’s something, and I’m kind of having fun with it. But finally K chimes in and threatens jokingly, “I’ll have to send you all to your rooms if you can’t get along.” She would let the 2 guys rant and rave all night, but if I express even the mildest objection to something they say, oh-oh, it’s time to call it off. This annoys me no end, but OK, that’s just the way she is, can’t stand any vocal disagreement (though I know she disagrees with plenty). She’d rather everyone keep their head down and keep their opinions to themselves. So our “argument” winds down with one last response to the TV show, in which the mother whose son was killed says she’ll never forgive the killer. (I wish I could make my family watch Dead Man Walking, one of the most profound movies ever made.) JP leans over to me and says quietly, “I have trouble forgiving,” and I say, “Everyone does.” With that, our “point/counterpoint” is over, and I don’t get the sense that either of the guys holds my liberal-wacko opinions against me. In fact, MP goes on to talk about his horrible upbringing, getting beaten by his dad, no money, no privacy or individual ownership in a family with 12 kids, etc. etc. I listen sympathetically to this story I’ve heard many times before, and I feel deep compassion for him. I ask him why he’s feeling better lately, and he says his migraines are mostly gone now that he’s away from that job. This makes me happy, and not only because our Friday nights are more pleasant. Now if only K could retire from her factory job.

JP takes me outside to show me the trailer MP bought for hauling their 4-wheelers around. He’ll use it when he comes over to Aunt Mary’s house to plow the snow away and denude my lawn. I feel like I’m making a difference in this small town and in the lives of my family. A big part of it is financial: I pay good money for the plowing, the house cleaning, the what-have-you. And I love them, whether or not they “deserve” it, and whether or not I deserve to have it reciprocated. It’s a big feeling in this small town, in this big house, in this sometimes constricted heart. We all have trouble forgiving, trouble loving, trouble being true. But the more I leave it alone, trust myself, and not beat myself up for my many lapses in compassion, the more true I feel. And that feels good.

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inhabiting my life

I have a couple of friends who are going through some big changes, and it got me thinking about how I’ve probably made my last big change and I have nothing much to say when someone asks me “What’s new?” I dined out for years on my story of moving back to my Midwestern hometown from California, but I’m no longer special on that front. I had the same feeling of “This is it” when I was working at UCSF. Then, I had the “end of the line” feeling again when the Radiobiology lab got shut down and I was just old enough to retire from UC. My new “final” change (I thought) was starting my own editing business. No way was I prepared to even consider moving myself and Pookie lock-stock-and-barrel back to the formerly despised place of my birth. And now, after that miracle, for which “I changed my mind” is a woefully inadequate descriptor, here I am… rooted in my Michigan rootedness, not foreseeing any major changes coming up for me except, you know, death. (My deepest wish is that death will come before “human warehousing.” That was my mother’s deepest wish, too, but when her wish came true she resented it bitterly. Is there no pleasing some people?)

My friend T and I were talking about this, because she had had the same feeling of “OK, this is where I’ve ended up,” but now she had taken the huge step of leaving a long-term relationship and moving into a place by herself. I was feeling kind of envious of her new single life, because I remembered what a big, scary, exciting life-changer it was for me, back when I did the same. But she said something very wise, which was that, far from being confined and defined by my roots, I’m inhabiting my life. What I tend to think of as an absence of newness and potential is a genuine letting down and letting go of a lifetime of anxiety. I’m no longer searching for my self and my life’s work and meaning: I’m living it. Inhabiting one’s life may not have the gleam and glamour of being perpetually on the move (the famous rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic); it’s a different way of being. Long familiarity with depression and anxiety—and political and spiritual peer pressure at different times in my life—makes me suspicious of “being happy,” of enjoying my quotidian life “too much,” as if it’s a crime to just be. I’m following my interest wherever it takes me, the #1 lesson I learned from painting. Currently, it’s watching all the past seasons of Friday Night Lights, one of the best TV shows ever. And filling my head with ideas and my house with books. Enjoying my cats and my “yard birds” and other critters. Phone-talking and e-mailing with friends in faraway places. Getting together with sisters for trips to Green Bay or the movies. Watching Breaking Bad with Barb on Sunday nights. Writing this ‘zine. A life of quiet, which is essential to me.

So now I have a new way to view my life, not as an absence of Big Stories but as the reality of living: the gerund that trumps the abstract noun (grammar is life): the rootedness that is appropriate to my age and ideal to my space, my big house* and my beloved Henes Park, the memories that swim up from the depths as I drive past Bay de Noc Road and look down it toward the site of so many traumas and good things, too, the buttercups and violets, the freedom of woods and sand hills and no supervision as long as I stayed out of sight of the house. It all delights me now, the trees, the smokestacks, the beautiful bay and river, the working class feel of the place. The trust in myself to remain open to possibilities, to follow my (as it were) bliss. I’ve never been happier.

*Finally, for the first time ever, someone—my contractor’s brother-in-law—referred to my “big house” as a “nice big house.” And it is, but it was gratifying to be reminded that not everyone thinks I’m insane for occupying all this space.

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I suppose I could have ended on this positive note, but now I’m going to explore a potential outcome with darker overtones: the aforementioned human warehousing, a.k.a. forced group living reminiscent of ye olde dormitory life, with or without dementia.

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(illustration by Souther Salazar)

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the scariest F word (Future)

The world is subdued today. Like I am behind a veil, looking out. The colors pastel and faded, my senses dulled. My vision slightly obscured by the veil. It’s not unpleasant. But it can be dangerous. You think that you are hidden from them, behind your veil, and suddenly you realize that you’ve been visible the whole time. Exposed. —Alice LaPlante, Turn of Mind

Turn of Mind is a novel about a 64-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s. Nothing to do with me, of course, though I am 64, soon to join the entitled ranks of the Medicare’d for. I’m glad I don’t have the A-word disease yet, because, between the University of California and the federal government, I can hardly follow the instructions for filling out the forms for Part A, Part B, Part C, Part D, the plans (the plan… the plan…), the requirements, sign here, group number there, Do you still work? (not if I can help it), the dire warnings if you sign up for the wrong plan. A thick book Medicare & You (which is even more intimidating than Menstruation & You was, in the day) arrives in the mail, along with a virtually incomprehensible “explanation” of my future benefits from the Social Security Administration. For months I’ve been getting eager letters of invitation from every insurance company in the Midwest, hoping to snag some Alphabetical Part of my geriatric lifestyle. Before I started throwing them out unopened, I read one that tried to play on my Boomer sense of entitlement by asking, “Did you ever think you would be so popular??” “Why no!,” I thought. “Tell me more!”

The quotation from the novel elicited both a queasy memory and a sense of foreboding. I remembered, as a kid, singing to myself while seated under a hairdryer at the beauty salon, unaware that the sound that drowned out my voice in my own head did not prevent the other women in the place from hearing me. When I realized this, I stopped singing, mortified. (But why?—a question for another day.) And the foreboding thought was, Will that be me someday, “coming to” from a period of unself-consciousness only to wonder what I did or said while dissociating?

(When I looked up Dictionary.com to check the meaning of “foreboding,” I noticed an ad for Miracle Whip—a great name, you gotta admit. “We’re not for everyone,” it boasts. “Are you Miracle Whip?” This seemed an odd way to phrase a sandwich spread preference. Is it a new construction riding the coattails of “I am Mac” and “I am PC”? I’m not going to say “I am Mac” [though I am], and I’m certainly not going to say “I am Miracle Whip”—or maybe that’s one of the embarrassing-in-retrospect comments I will make while demented, especially since there’s bound to be some slippage: “I am Miracle!” “I am Whip!”)

Anyway, I’m of two minds about all this, because if you lose one mind it would be nice to have another one to fall back on, ha-ha {THEY’RE COMING TO TAKE ME AWAY}. In my present state, in which I am blessedly sane and composed {HAHAHAHA}, my desire for control of all aspects of my life is absolute. Never before have I had such freedom to indulge any whim… to sleep whenever, eat what- and whenever. And it kills me to think about having none of those freedoms anymore. Yet I have a concurrent fantasy of being so far beyond self-control that I would be relieved of responsibility or choice or filling out forms or paying my bills on time, or even having bills. Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up from that dissociative state and know you can’t be blamed for anything untoward that happened, leaving someone else, probably some poorly paid immigrant, to clean up the mess? As usual, I’m caught between extremes, and what will surely happen instead is that I will not be demented but will simultaneously have no control, like when I lived in a dorm at MSU. There, I quickly established myself as a rebel who sneered at mandatory group activities intended to socialize me into polite society. At least there was an alternative culture waiting to greet me in the late ‘60s, but who will I be forced to rub shoulders with if I end up in a nursing home? Will dementia be a preferable alternative to my lifelong social uneasiness, or will it make things worse? Will I be able to write about it? … because I think it would be quite interesting, if I could periodically regain lucidity long enough to turn on my laptop and send a few salient observations to my blog—they’ll let me bring my laptop, won’t they? or am I supposed to revert to the old-timey kind of old person who can’t see, hear, or walk and loves Lawrence Welk? I don’t live in the most modern-thinking area in the world, so I’m not sure how far I’ll be able to take my Web, Zine, and Painting lives. Speaking of which, what will happen to my paintings? And my painting process? Will I be allowed to paint naked women and eyes on trees during the Arts and Crafts hour, or will I have to go stealth and pretend deep satisfaction with outlining my hand to make a turkey for Thanksgiving? (The other side of the paper will hold my true imagery, the hearts, tubes, knives, blood, and “fabric of the universe.”)

I know I’m getting myself all in a dither over something that may never happen, but I am nearing the narrow end of the funnel, the last grains of sand in the hourglass (and no turning it over; Life does not work like Boggle), the final ride over the hump of the waterfall*, nothing known or (maybe worse) something known and horrible waiting at the bottom of the plunge, like reliving all my most embarrassing moments. The fact that I don’t think I’ve ever forgotten an embarrassing moment in my life may protect me from being blindsided, though blindsiding is exactly what happened to the woman in the novel I quoted, to my child self under the hair dryer, and to my adult self hobbling through SFO with a toilet seat cover hanging out the back of my pants. Is it too much to hope for to be conscious but not self-conscious, to be free and not care what anyone thinks? I’ve always felt unable to bend or blend, to go with the flow, skip over the rough parts. As a “psychic chiropractor” once told me, “You feel every bump in the road.” (Though I don’t think it took psychic abilities to discern that. I think it’s written all over my face, along with the map of Ireland.) I seem to be doomed to remain painfully aware of all my shortcomings: awkward, insensitive, judgmental yet lacking in judgment (“common sense”)—stop me if I’m being too hard on myself—and determined to be special if it kills me. In the plus column, I believe I have a good heart, but even that can turn on a dime and give a nickel change.

*Apropos of absolutely nothing, there are pictures circulating online of Niagara Falls without water. They had to dam the river in 1969 to do some sort of repairs (not sure how you repair a waterfall). I don’t know why it should affect me so, but there’s something about that big dirt-brown, naked-looking, scraggly cliff atop a giant collection of rubble, ugly without the flashy and powerful force of nature’s elixir tumbling down, stripped of its glory to reveal nothing but an ordinary sharp drop-off with the promise of a hard landing. It was like seeing the squat man behind the curtain, nature’s own Oz demystified…. as if all the great wonders of the world could be similarly deconstructed to expose the fact, finally and forevermore, that we live on a big, slowly-spinning-in-mid-air ball of dirt and rocks.

nude Niagara Falls, 1969

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“Twenty, twenty, twenty-four hours a day…”

Once a year, I have to drive down to central Wisconsin for a 15-minute drug-monitoring session with my psychiatrist—I’m still taking sertraline, a generic Zoloft. (“Sertraline” sounds like a top-of-the-line mattress.) Recently, Dr. V.’s office moved from Oshkosh to Neenah, thus shaving 40 miles off my round trip—from 200 down to 160. No, I couldn’t find anyone closer. And I like the guy a lot. (I wonder, though, how much satisfaction there is in being a psychiatrist these days: You’re basically a glorified pharmacist.)

Because I hadn’t been to this office (or Neenah) before, Barb lent me her GPS device. All I had to do was drive straight down US 41 for most of the way, but I discovered that global positioning doesn’t always help when you’re trying to position yourself locally. Turns out I was not prepared to navigate the Neenah version of “roundabouts.” I thought I had conquered the concept of a roundabout: Car goes in, car drives in a semi-circle, car goes out. But these ones were devilish, because there was a lot of traffic and I didn’t know where I was going. At the first one I encountered, the GPS voice, which I will call Gloria, told me to “enter the roundabout,” but I got confused (quelle surprise!) by the myriad of lanes and made a right turn instead. So Gloria directed me to make a left down the street, another left, another left, and a right and back to the roundabout. I didn’t fare any better this time. I didn’t know what she meant by “take the second exit” and I wasn’t at all sure who was to yield to whom. While watching for cars, I was trying to get a glimpse of a street sign, plus count “exits.” Again, I didn’t get off at the right place and I ended up going back the way I had come. Gloria, with the patience of a saint, or a robot, told me where to turn, turn, turn, turn and get back. Unfortunately, down where I was turning, I had to go through another roundabout, where there was less traffic, but I still made at least one wrong turn there and had to try again. I headed back to the Mother of all roundabouts, and this time I again missed the correct “exit” and found myself on the street going off to the left. (Actually, I may have repeated the “back from whence I came” move. It’s almost as difficult to describe it as it was to do it.) Every time I made a mistake, Gloria hesitated for a suspenseful 2 seconds and then said, “Recalculating.” Which I found re-dispiriting. By the end of my ordeal, I was saying out loud, “Don’t say ‘recalculating’!” So I approached the roundabout again, and this time the only option left open to me was to go straight, if only I could figure out which “exit” would take me in that direction.

It’s a miracle that I whipped in and out of 2 roundabouts a total of 6 times without getting creamed, or creaming someone else. I suspect that the locals watch out for us out-of-town bozos who’ve never been to the big city before: More than one driver waved me on when I hesitated, not knowing who was to yield. Frankly, I’d rather wait for a red light. As I said, I get the concept of the roundabout, but not knowing where I was going did a number on my brain. Plus, my brain takes everything literally and returns to zero after every mental calculation. It takes me a while to integrate what I’m seeing with what I already know; therefore, I’m not burdened by “knowing too much.” Boy, am I not burdened by knowing too much. This has served me well in my work, believe it or not, because every manuscript is a new puzzle to solve and I’m delightfully unbiased—that’s it, unbiased—as if seeing the words and ideas for the first time.

Fortunately, I had left myself enough time to make any number of dumb mistakes, so I still had half an hour to wait once I found Dr. V.’s office. When I got in there, I told him that I’m having the dreaded “restless legs syndrome” several times a week. (I should call it RLS, because “restless” sounds so trivial. “You have an ‘urge’ to move your legs? Well, I have an ‘urge’ to eat a dozen doughnuts at a time, but I restrain myself.”) You may remember that I spent an excruciating 8+ hours flying to and from San Francisco last December because of that terrible sensation in my legs. I had read that SSRIs can exacerbate the problem, so I had wanted to ask Dr. V. about reducing the dosage of sertraline. But I’d recently been reminded of what happens when I’m left to my own emotional devices (story for another day), and no way was I going back to a life of constant anxiety relieved only by bouts of debilitating depression.

So anyway—is it too late to say “long story short”?—Dr. V told me about the various medications that can help with RLS. He cautioned me about the side-effects, though. One class of these drugs is highly addictive, and the other can make you psychotic. I pondered the dilemma for a moment, forefinger to my chin, and finally said, “I’ll take addiction.” He said he wasn’t worried about that in my case anyway, because I don’t have “an addictive personality.” I asked how he knew, and he said, “Because you don’t drink a case of beer every night.” I almost asked how he knew that (I’ve spent 15 minutes a year in his presence, for a total of about an hour and a half), but I didn’t, because time was almost up. I’m not going to tell you the name of the drug, because one or more of you would surely look it up and tell me all the horrible things it could do to me. Come to think of it, one or more of you will probably tell me I shouldn’t be taking drugs at all. Well, forget that noise! (as we say in this part of the world). I remember when I had a 9-pound (as it turned out) ovarian tumor growing inside me and I was about to go under the knife in 3 days, when a “holistic” friend of mine urged me to drink some sort of special organic tea instead. But now I’m older, wiser, and definitely more stubborn, so I appreciate your (hypothetical) concern, but no thanks. I can’t get on an airplane again until I deal with this problem. Which reminds me, also, of the time another well-meaning friend assured me that my air sickness was psychological, so the next time I flew I didn’t take Dramamine. I figured, the plane doesn’t really have that much motion, like a bus does, so what the heck? But as the plane started to rise into the air, my stomach rapidly descended to wherever it goes when it wants to throw up. I hurriedly popped a Dramamine and held on tight until the nausea subsided. Actually, it’s not really holistic solutions I object to… it’s advice.

After I left Dr. V.’s office, I entered the address of El Sarape in Green Bay into Gloria’s positioning system, made it through the Problem roundabout with no trouble, and went on to have a delightful Mexican lunch. Then another hour to get home, where I collapsed in my comfy chair with my comfy cats and slept the day away. I was whipped. It was a miracle.

And now I shall say adieu. Make of this hodgepodge what you will. And like me on Facebook! (just kidding)

gratuitous woodpecker image (so many pretty things on the webs)

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Mary McKenney

mary’zine #50: July 2011

July 21, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bird Bath and Beyond

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

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

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

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

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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 #49: April/May 2011

April 28, 2011

if I had a hammer…

A couple of years ago, a church here in town had a sign out front at Easter time that read, “We use duct tape, God used nails.”

Now the sign reads, “We tried to use nails, but he got loose.”

Is this not the essence of vulgarity? (“morally crude”; “lacking in cultivation, perception, or taste”). The Easter bunny has more dignity.

Happy Spring!



but first… say good-bye to winter

Its being April already—almost May!—I thought I had overshot the winter window for writing about wet, cold weather. But we had snow on the 15th, and again on the 19th and 20th, so we’re still in its thrall. As I write this, it’s 46 degrees and I have a window open. The snow is gone, for now. I watch every day for signs that the buds will come out on the trees soon, and flare green.

The House Was Quiet on a Winter Afternoon

 Someone was reading in the back,

two travelers had gone somewhere,

maybe to Chicago,

 

a boy was out walking, muffled up,

alert on the frozen creek,

a sauce was simmering on the stove.

 

Birds outside at the feeder

threw themselves softly

from branch to branch.

 

Suddenly I did not want my life

to be any different.

I was where I needed to be.

 

The birds swirled in the dusk.

The boy came back from the creek.

The dead were holding us up

the way the ice held him,

helping us breathe the way

air helps snowflakes swirl and fall.

 

And the sadness felt just right,

like a still and moving wave

on which the sun shone brilliantly.

 —David Young

(Reprinted with permission of the author)


you don’t need a weatherman…

My sister Barb called one evening in early March to ask if my “hatches were battened down”: We were due to get hit by a big winter storm within the next 6 or 7 hours. “Oh?” I asked, only vaguely aware of the thing called “weather” taking place outside my cozy homestead.

About a year after I moved back to my hometown, she had called with another weather warning, this time about a tornado that was whirling and dervishing its way across northern Wisconsin and the U.P. I took her seriously and ended up in the downstairs bathroom, sitting in the tub on a comforter (wishing I’d brought a book), two cats closed in with me along with their litter box, food and water. I had my radio tuned to the weather channel, and the ominous, staticky voice (as if carried on radio waves from a ship on a distant ocean) kept announcing at-risk counties and specific deadlines (8:15 to 8:45) past which you could breathe a sigh of relief, assuming the tornado had not already whisked you and your pets and lawn furniture above the tree line. Luther was pretty copacetic—he’s a born follower—but Brutus was literally climbing the walls. At one point, sensing movement above my head, I looked up to see him hanging straight down, by his claws, from a swinging cabinet door. Hang in there, baby! So we hung in there until the weatherman announced the all-clear. I vowed never to be led down this bad-weather path again by my well-meaning sister.

But in this case, it was just snow on the way, predictable and fluffy. I had an hour before Van’s IGA closed, so I ran (drove) down there, delightedly rationalizing to myself that though I had plenty of “real” food on hand… egg salad, fresh bread, penne with Italian sausage, tomatoes, and cream (which I had cooked myself, personally!), and broccoli… if I couldn’t get out of my driveway the next day I would be seriously bereft of snacks. I knew, in the rational part of my brain, that it wasn’t going to be a huge deal, my nephew would plow me out and I could surely last 24-48 hours without potato chips, but the reptilian brain that’s addicted to said thin slices of spud and sea salt took the weather warning ball and ran (drove) with it. I stalked the aisles of the little store, assessing the best bang for my buck: Ruffles, Doritos, chocolate chip cookies? I needed eggs anyway, so I got those, and, in the spirit of “gettin’ while the gettin’s good,” picked up some breakfast sausage too, because I didn’t want to be caught without a source of protein. I took a stroll past the freezer section, eyed the Mackinac Island Fudge ice cream, but kept on walking, proud of this minor act of restraint.

I’m reminded of Anne Lamott describing her desperate purchases of alcohol back in the day. For better or worse, I’m my mother’s daughter more than my Irish alcoholic father’s. In my refrigerator are a few bottles of Bud Light and some raspberry-flavored Smirnoff that I bought longer ago than I can remember, plus a half bottle of gin in a cupboard that a houseguest left behind. It never occurs to me to drink any of them.

So… I slept for a few hours, and when I woke up the snow was coming down in droves, the poor birds were pecking around, trying to unearth (unsnow) the seeds and nuts they remembered from yesterday, and mourning doves were lined up on the fence, quite content, it seemed, to be sitting in a fluffy downfall, knowing that spring was near despite all evidence to the contrary. I don’t envy them their need to scavenge in harsh conditions, but, Ah, the beauty of flight, to live above it all.

The snow fell and the storm passed. Was it too soon to hope for signs of spring?

Yes, it was. Father Snow—or is it Mother who covers us with those cold but beautiful blankets?—was not done with us yet. Two and a half days after “the first day of spring”—an impractical joke that is played on us Midwesterners every year—we got the worst storm I’ve seen here, a total white-out. And it was the oddest thing: The temperature had been hovering just above to just below freezing, so Nature split the difference and brought us loud cracking thunder just as the snowish-rain or rainish-snow began to fall. For the next 36 hours it sounded like all hell had broken loose, as blinding blowing gusts of snow flung themselves against the windows, creating intricate crystal-doily designs.

In the daylight hours, I watched the birdfeeders blowing back and forth from white-thick branches, the little birds holding on to the perches for dear life and the bigger ones hunched together in the trees, feathers ruffling like petticoats in the wind. I felt especially bad for the one cardinal that comes around in the wintertime, contrasting gloriously red against the driven snow, because it has no one to be of a feather with. The squirrels are plentiful, but it’s hard to make out their relationships: no coats of a different color, and when we think they’re playing?… chasing one another up and down the tree trunks? No, it’s life and death, a Masterpiece Theatre of drama with a plot that’s impossible to follow. Is it brother versus brother out there, like in the Civil War? Are all the womensquirrelfolk back in some hidey-hole, keeping the home fires burning? Is it a tragic story?… or just one of the many quirks of Mother Nature, who put large populations of incompatible creatures on the earth and then made them compete for limited resources?

I was snowbound for an entire day, and when I woke up the morning after that, the sun was shining on the white wonder windless winter land. The birds were back in force, pecking holes in the snow so they could feast on the fat seeds that lay beneath. I stood at one of my upstairs windows and spotted a mixed flight of birds—united in their birdiness regardless of feather identification—rise up and flee en masse. That usually means they have seen me peeking through the blinds, but this time, right at eye level, I saw a small hawk sitting imperiously in the birch tree, its head swiveling and eyes beadily scanning for prey. It either didn’t notice me or wasn’t bothered—human-behind-glass, big deal. I watched the beautiful creature until it swooped down and through my yard and disappeared from sight.

I know that, to truly appreciate Nature, I’m supposed to be out there getting cold and wet and buffeted by the harsh wind, being One With It All. Maybe this is hubris, but I feel like we’re already One. I may be like a small Russian doll inside my house-within-a-bigger-Doll, seemingly uninvolved, unexposed, a creature intent on her own comfort, abstractly appreciating but not truly interacting with that which is “outside” me. But in a larger sense, none of it is outside, it’s all inside me, all the feeling that comes through sight and sound and caring-about and caring-for those innocent winged and fluffy-tailed ones that feast on my largess. I am practically bursting with involvement, my heart exposed, they are not background to my life, they and Brutus and Luther, my cats, are integral to my life, as are the sad-dog, sad-cat, sad-elephant or -horse pictures in magazines. They have a physical existence apart from me (especially the ones on paper), but I take them into my heart—no, they are already there, we coexist in our animalness, our together-on-this-earth-ness, our depth of love and hopeless signaling to or fleeing from one another, like birds of a different feather but One flightless shared soul.

changes in l’attitude…

In every pot of ointment soon appears a fly. Your good fortune lies in not needing to forget it or deny it. In every situation hides some creative chance.—Sidney Cox

Lately, the family seams are being stretched a bit. I blame the Republicans and my brother-in-law, not necessarily in that order. During the huge protests in Madison about the rights of public sector workers, there was a mostly unvoiced but palpable tension between the unionized retired teacher (sister Barb) and the nonunionized, still-working factory worker (sister K). Every night on the news, shills for the GOP hammered home the fiction—and the contradiction—that teachers are the New Elite who (a) think they’re better than their family members and neighbors who work in grocery stores and factories—as if Republicans were siding with the “true” working class—but (b) engage in “class warfare” against the poor, misunderstood plutocrats and fat cats. I have to hand it to those guys: They can twist words, and they know just whose neck to twist them around. Bankers are extolled as a class that “performs a wonderful service and creates jobs”—and does it for measly millions in bonuses and golden parachutes. Much is made of teachers working short days and having summers off. But everyone who knows a teacher knows that they rarely have an evening or weekend free of grading papers, planning ways to keep their students interested in class, or dealing with demanding parents. Barb spent at least half of each summer planning for the coming school year because the administrators kept giving her new classes to teach. She was as dedicated to her work and the kids in her charge as anyone I’ve ever known.

Nothing much was said around the family hearth (TV) on Friday nights, but it wasn’t too hard to see what was going on. K muttered that the protesters “couldn’t live there” (the state capitol in Madison) and offered up a coworker’s opinion that they could try Gov. Walker’s budget plan for a year or so, and if it didn’t help the economy, they could go back. Barb and I exclaimed in unison, “They never go back!!” Her statement assumed that the Republicans were just trying to do their best to help everyone get through the hard times. Her naivety was alarming. So there was bad (or at least slightly tainted) blood bubbling just under the surface, but both Barb and I were afraid to push it. K and my nephew believe that unions “do nothing for you but take your money,” so it was strange that they envied other union members who supposedly make too much. There’s not a lot of rationality when the non-college-going members of the family start spouting off. And I’m not being snarky, it’s just a fact that if your information comes only from the local TV news, you’re at the mercy of any well-coiffed reader of a teleprompter. According to one Green Bay news anchor, the teachers were not protesting but merely complaining. Words matter.

In other Wisconsin news, the lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, opined that if gay people are allowed to get married, people will surely want to marry their furniture. (I must have missed those marches.) “Can I marry this table,” she asks, “or this, you know, clock?” I would love to see this, by the way. Right now you can marry a serial killer or a drunk you just met in a bar as long as you have opposing genitalia. But if you want stable relationships, I can think of worse combinations than a guy and a table. (Two guys and a table would, of course, be outlawed.) Inanimate polyamory is another possibility: “And the dish ran away with the spoon” (but two forks? no way!).

A week after this mostly silent, thin-lipped brouhaha, I was uncharacteristically looking forward to seeing my peeps, downing a burger or two or a fish fry, watching some harmless crime shows, and hopefully having a few laughs. When I arrived, everyone else was already there, doing the usual comparison shopping between fast food places: “What are you in the mood for?” “I don’t know, what are you going to get?” Right off the bat I felt uneasy, I don’t know why—like I didn’t belong there. It could be because my nephew’s girlfriend always acknowledges (if you can call it that) my arrival by flicking her eyes over me and then looking away. OK, so she’s “nobody” in the grand scheme of things, but it’s annoying.

A new plan had been announced for Friday nights; now we were each supposed to pay for our own food, rather than take turns paying for everyone. I’m sure this had to do with my questioning MP (brother-in-law, a.k.a. blood-in-law) last week about paying only for his own food, so that (it seemed to me) he never had to spend a penny on anyone else. The “plan” is changed often, because my sister K is all about streamlining; she once suggested that we all eat before we get there, and I suggested that it would be even more efficient if we didn’t get together at all. Gosh, do you think my smart-ass self could be part of the problem?

After we ate our greasy portions of meat or fish, we checked to see what shows they had recorded during the week: not much, because there had been a lot of reruns. It was decided that we would watch “NCIS.”

It’s MP’s “job” (prerogative) to handle the remote… which becomes a problem when he falls asleep, which he does every week. When awake, he fast-forwards through the commercials, or mutes them if we’re watching live TV, but tonight he has to be nudged awake. So he hits the fast-forward button and apparently falls back asleep, because the rest of the show goes whizzing by, way beyond the one commercial break. “You went too far!,” my sisters cry. So he rewinds and then goes practically all the way back to the beginning. “Oh no! We’ve seen this part already!” I make one of my trademark, only slightly barbed, observations: “Maybe someone who doesn’t fall asleep should keep the remote.” He stops the show in the part we already saw (and it wasn’t that good the first time) and stomps out of the room, his usual way of expressing his annoyance with one of us “girls.” Barb hands the remote to K, thinking she can take over, and K says, grimly, “I don’t know how to use it.” And then she adds, “You shouldn’t mess with the guy who runs the TV.” That’s a criticism of me, for stating the obvious and not being willing to enable the man of the house in his delusions of grandeur. She’s quiet for the rest of the evening, and MP never comes back out, so I decide to leave early. Barb gets up to go too. Her approach to MP is not to let him know that he gets to her, so she calls out, “Good night, MP,” as she always does, and I don’t say anything because my attitude is—not to put too fine a point on it—“Fuck ‘im.” If K stood up to him once in a while, he wouldn’t be able to get away with that prima don act. But her attitude has always been that it’s better not to challenge him so as to “keep the peace.” An uneasy peace, if you ask me—if it’s any kind of peace at all.

I’ve been dealing with this situation for 6 and a half years now, with greater or lesser degrees of success…. trying to use humor to deflect his moods… keeping my mouth shut when he makes disgusting remarks about brothers of another color… trying, for the sake of my sister, not to cause a scene. But I know that this is just the “wages of family”—like the wages of sin—not death, but endless cycles of compromise and drama and rebellion, from each according to her ability to cope, to each according to his place in the family dynamic.

This straw having shattered the camel’s aching back, we all realized that something had to change. We agreed to “play it by ear,” and it was understood that we wouldn’t be getting together in the same configuration for a few weeks. The following Friday, Barb and I happily ate at The Landing, dining high on the hog, or at least the chicken—cacciatore and marsala—for a change. We entertained thoughts of future rendezvous at the local medium-to-high-end restaurants in the area: Table 6, Little Nugget Golf Club, Riverside Country Club. If we include Green Bay as a destination, the possibilities are, if not endless, at least more appetizing than the round of fast food places we usually have to choose from.

The following Friday sounded promising, as K, Barb and I were planning a sisters’ breakfast out and shopping. We arranged to meet at Schloegel’s at 8:00 a.m. I got there a bit early and waited in the Jeep for them to arrive… and soon, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but… MP. K had thought he was working that day, but he wasn’t, so she told him he “could come with if [he] didn’t want to be alone.” It felt bizarre to be sitting together in a restaurant so early in the day, especially when we had been expecting a laugh-fest sister-clatch. After breakfast (for which MP paid—reflecting generosity, or his assertion of control?) MP drove us to Peshtigo and Marinette to buy a recliner for Barb and miscellaneous necessities at Shopko and Penney’s for her and K.

I actually ended up buying some beautiful dining room chairs, so the day wasn’t a complete loss. MP stayed in the truck at each store, which I’m sure put pressure on my sisters to hurry through their browsings and purchasings. Oddly, I sat in the truck with him for much of the time, because my legs hurt and I didn’t need anything in particular. He was perfectly amenable; I actually feel very comfortable with him most of the time—it just seemed like he was exerting his control over K (indeed, all of us) by impinging on our sisterly fun.

Is this what being close to someone means—knowing their limitations, their ego-boosting delusions and self-serving grottiness, as well as you know your own? Being able to predict their reactions, their facial expressions, down to the last word and grimace, so that disappointment and a sickening sense of predictability surge up and crush the breath out of you the moment you clap eyes on them, before anyone’s uttered a word?  —Sophie Hannah

As family dramas go, ours is no Downstairs, Downstairs. Or maybe that’s exactly what it is. The complaints are petty, secrecy is prized, and self-awareness is “more honor’d in the breach than the observance.” Conflict is expressed in veiled glances, cold silence, and premature departures. For all my fancy talk and psychological sophistication, I’m as primitive as anyone else. I’d like to find a way to achieve harmony with my bloods and blood-in-law without exposing all the messy differences between us. I want them to be a book I’ve already read and can put down with satisfaction as I sip my glass of wine and perhaps take an aspirin for the slight headache caused by my intense concentration. One of my favorite memories* of college life was being alone in the apartment one night while my roommates were away; I finished reading Katharine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, heated up a can of tomato soup, and then went out for a long walk in the snowy, silent night. I enjoyed the feeling of being immersed in a drama that did not, strictly speaking, involve me… except as an engrossed but disinterested reader in a position to write several pages about it for Dr. Burhans. Literature allowed me to enter into relationships that distracted me from my own life and then to withdraw at The End. With one’s real-life relationships, there seems to be no End. (My mother died 20 years ago, and yet my blood still boils at certain memories of her.)

*I know, it’s pathetic: a favorite memory of college life is a night alone with a book? Welcome to my world.

Funny how fallin’ feels like flyin’… for a little while. —Jeff Bridges, singing in “Crazy Heart”

Yes, news flash: Real relationship is messy, and family relationships may be the messiest of all. The bond that holds us together is stronger than preference or delight; friends may float away if there’s a falling out, but there’s no floating and plenty of falling from the family tree—it’s all guts and no glory, unbreakable but no easier for all that.

The uneasy peace lasts for a few weeks. Barb and I have our Pleasant Valley Fridays, but there’s no clear sense of how things are supposed to change or who’s supposed to make the first move. Finally, we’re invited back, but I’m clear that I don’t want to simply revert to the same routine. There’s talk of going out for Easter brunch, if we can find a good one. Barb keeps me informed of all the news by e-mail, since my sleeping schedule is so erratic that it’s “better not to call.” (I got them to stop “dropping by” years ago.) So that’s a buffer that I cherish.

Then there are two strange occurrences. Though I’ve been grumbling about various annoying aspects of MP, I’m reading the New Yorker one day and come upon an article about a book he’s been waiting to come out for 3 years. In fact, the article is about how everyone has been waiting for it for 3 years: George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons. I cut the article out and mail it to him with a note signed “Love,” along with money for Josh’s last snowplowing of my driveway. It’s not that I decided to make up with him or anything, it was action first, and feeling followed.

Then, within a day of my attempt at rapprochement, MP becomes ill in the middle of the night and is taken by ambulance to Green Bay. It is feared that he has spinal meningitis. Barb e-mails me the news, and I call K to offer to drive her down to the hospital. She thanks me but later passes the news along, through Barb, that my nephew is going to drive her. I had not talked to her since our pseudo sister visit, but there is no hint of discomfort or caution. I have already made a gesture of peace to MP, which he will get when he returns home from the hospital, and the offer of a ride to K is not even a gesture, it’s just plain, down-home assurance: “I’m here if you need me.” Fortunately, MP didn’t have meningitis, it was an infection from a badly administered tetanus shot. The VA works in mysterious ways.

The following Friday, we all took our usual places on couch and recliners, and it was as if nothing had changed—and not in a good way. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I guess I’m still waiting for my creative chance.

Finally, we come to some good news. I underwent a screening for calcium in my heart arteries, and to my amazement, I scored 0%! The nurse couldn’t believe it either; she said she’d trade with me if she could. She went on and on about how great it was, exclaiming, “You’re going to live a long, long time!” And I kid you not, my first thought was, “Oh shit.” She followed that up with, “You’d better get your retirement money together!” Again, “Oh shit.” She was so enthusiastic on my behalf that it made me go all quiet and just nod and nod with a fake half-smile, even though I was thrilled also. Excitable people wear me out. After spending half an hour lecturing me about heart attacks and blocked arteries, etc. (Why? I’m obviously invincible, cardio-wise), she helped me on with my coat, complimented me on it, shook my hand, and walked me partway down the hall to be sure I found the right exit. I half expected her to ask if she could see me again.

I like when I hear something in passing, at random, a peep or a croak almost beyond my awareness, a peripheral vision of the ear. And it sounds so simple, obvious, what-else-is-new, and yet it sums up an essential fact of my being. This happened one day when I was listening to a podcast by the comedian Marc Maron (wtfpod.com). It was a simple statement that overeating isn’t about food, it’s about anxiety. Obvious, right? But it struck me, and stuck with me. Later in the day, I was thinking about how Barb was going to drive her son down to the Green Bay airport so he could return to Texas. And I had a familiar feeling of anxiety about her driving in possibly treacherous conditions. And suddenly I connected that feeling to my longtime dread, my constant wondering of, Who’s going to die next? When will the next tragedy strike? My grandmother, with whom I was very close, died when I was 4; my little brother died of leukemia when I was 6; and my father became incapacitated by multiple sclerosis when I was 7; it was as if he had died, because he came home after several months in the VA hospital so changed (physically and mentally) that he didn’t seem like my father at all. For the next few years I could hardly bear to let my mother out of my sight, because for all I knew, this was simply what happened: People died—in droves—dropped like flies—consecutively checked out every couple of years, and the next to go was surely my mother. When she would go down the basement to change a fuse, I would practically hold my breath, picturing her standing in the water that had spilled over from the wringer washer and being struck down by fuse lightning. Of course, there were many other scenarios, infinite ways in which death could come again.

I just thought of this, how my father, who was able to walk with a cane for a few years after his initial diagnosis, was eventually confined to his recliner and a wheelchair. His anxiety (and anger) expressed itself in the same way mine did, but a little more vocally. My mother worked at Montgomery Ward for a while, and he would listen to the radio when she went to work, and if he heard about a car accident happening in town, he would immediately think it was her, and he would get all agitated and call her at work to find out if she was all right. He was also extremely jealous (hey, me too!) and would accuse her of resting her breasts on the card table during our Scrabble games with their “handicapped” friends, supposedly as a way of enticing Vince, who had a milder version of MS. But my dad had an autoimmune disease, what was my excuse? Just growing up in that household, observing how the world seemed to work, how fears and frustrations combined to construct a personality, a point of view? I’ve always assumed that I took my cues from my mother, her passive-aggressive response to a life of hardship and enforced care giving for a man she had wanted to divorce before his illness… not that my circumstances were similar, but I surely adopted another of her defense/attack ploys: eating. Being an observant sponge, I took bits from Mom and bits from Dad and created my own chef’s blend of anger, anxiety, and food substitution.

life is short: eat the Doritos first

I was a skinny kid and adolescent; I weighed only 112 in college. So it wasn’t obvious that I had a thing about food. But I remember, as a teenager, lying on the couch watching “Perry Mason,” and a character saying, “I was so upset, I couldn’t eat.” And I thought, “There’s no way I wouldn’t be able to eat.” And that has proved to be true.

I went to NutriSystem the first time when I weighed 148. And everyone there exclaimed that I didn’t look like I needed to lose weight, but I was trying to nip myself in the bud. I got down to 117, prompting one of my friends to say I looked like a concentration camp victim. Now she’s lecturing me the other way. Of course, the weight slowly piled back on, like snow flakes that look so insubstantial drifting in the air but build up on the ground in minutes. The diet industry will never go away, because the process is stacked against you, like the odds in a casino. You deprive yourself for the period of the diet, and when you’re done and feel invincibly thin, a mouthful of the simplest food tastes like manna: a piece of toast with a bit of butter: heaven! But it’s not long before your taste buds long for Mexican food, or Chinese. And at first it seems you’re getting away with it, because your new pounds come on so slowly, like those snowflakes again. (Is every pound unique, I wonder?) The mantra of the diet industry is that you should change your whole way of eating, yeah, duh. But they count on no one being willing or able to do that. And programs like NutriSystem keep offering better and better tasting food (according to them), so you’re still rewarding yourself with food, just temporarily less caloric.

It feels good to be thin, but more important to me is that when I’m thin I look better, thus avoid (that particular) judgment from others—a judgment that is grossly unfair, but that’s human beings for ya. A thin person who eats like a pig with no visible consequences is envied… but an obese one on a perpetual diet is considered lazy and lacking in self-discipline. Nothing stands in the way of the media excoriating Midwesterners (especially), all that stock footage of headless fat people trudging toward their next meal, presumably. Fatness is immoral. Even pedophiles, though reviled, are understood to not be able to help it.

In a side note, you’ve probably noticed that those shots of the overly large on the evening news are all of white people, in some sort of perverse fear of accusing black people of anything… just as “white trash” is a respectable, widely understood term, but it would be unthinkable to refer to “black trash.” I read recently that the term “white trash” is actually an insult to black people, because if you drop the modifier “white,” then all you have is trash. I don’t buy this. “White trash” is an insult to poor white people, an acceptable target. Poor black people are equally (or more) despised, but it would be so impolite to admit it. Do I have to say this explicitly?—that I’m no apologist for racism: my point is that there are lots of ways that racism in this country has turned from rabid to subtle (but still real), and one of those ways is to divert attention from our uncomfortable feelings about race by attacking poor and working class whites for their (often rabider) racism and overall uncouthness, such as having poor taste in clothes and, you know, being fat.

I’ve always felt that I’m “afraid” to be hungry. It’s not that I went hungry as a child, but I have an association with food as a bulwark against… something…. In concrete terms, it seems that it keeps me from feeling sick. There is a sublime sense of security when my belly is full. So I’m thinking about my constant pursuit of food as a sign of my baseline anxiety. I stay up all night most nights, and so there are long, empty hours when I want to eat. The night after I rediscovered the association between anxiety and eating, I got through the night without going downstairs and raiding the freezer for ice cream bars; it wasn’t what I really wanted. What I really wanted was for no one close to me to ever die again.

Anxiety’s doppelgänger is anger. Another duh, I suppose. But sometimes insights catch you flat-footed, telling you something viscerally that you thought you already knew.

I was thinking about anger one day, and this is exactly how the sentence went in my head: “I don’t know why I’m still so hungry, I mean, angry.” Those words are already forever linked by being the only two words in the English language that end in “-gry.” As with the connection between hunger and anxiety, it helped for a few days to focus on my anger whenever I wanted to eat. But the internal forces demanding to be satisfied greatly outweigh (so to speak) those that are willing to face the truth. You can call it laziness, but I think it has more to do with an overwhelming sense that what your “better judgment” is asking you to do is simply impossible.

 

finally—family fun!

In our hiatus from Friday nights at K&MP’s, Barb and I usually get together to eat good food and watch quality TV or movies. The night before Easter, we ate at Table 6 (or Ta6le Six, as they like to call it—foiling all attempts at alphabetization). We both had versions of pasta carbonara/alfredo, plus salad. I tried a new sauvignon blanc from Germany, and Barb finally found a wine that was sweet enough for her—a Riesling—also from Germany. We passed on dessert. Then we went back to her house to watch 2 episodes of “Nurse Jackie” that she had recorded; “The King’s Speech,” which I had gotten from Netflix; and “Black Swan,” on Movies on Demand. All were excellent except for “BS,” which was compelling but extremely unpleasant to watch. When it was over, I actually wished I hadn’t seen it.

For Easter—a beautiful sunny day (52 degrees but felt like 70)—Barb and I went out to the country to have dinner with her daughter and her husband and two boys. We had ham, cheesy potatoes, jello salad (but good! with cranberries and walnuts), corn, rolls, lemon cake, and pumpkin bread. I ate exactly twice as much as I should have, then took home the equivalent of another 2 meals and repeated the whole experience later that night.

After dinner, we waddled out to the barn to see their newly acquired baby chicks and ducks. I held a little chick for a long time, stroking its soft yellow head and wishing I could take it home with me. (I don’t think the cats would mind, do you?) The chicks are for eventual egg-laying, but the ducks are pets. The 16-year-old named his duck Bruce Willis (no explanation forthcoming), and the 10-year-old named his Sarge. Since that one is a female, my niece asked him why the name? He said, “Women are in the armed forces, and they can be sergeants.” I thought this was hilarious and amazing. He is an extremely intelligent, loveable, creative kid. His older brother got a job for the summer, working as a receptionist in a nursing home. He aced the job interview when he was asked to waylay a resident who was trying to escape out the front door. He went up to her, asked if he could take her hand, and spoke to her so gently that she went with him without a fuss. He too is highly intelligent, an excellent student, and an athlete. And he and his brother are both avid readers! These lovely boys and their gentle, hard-working father contravene my long-held generalizations about males.

It was a beautiful Easter after all.

 Au revoir! Bon appetit!

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine #47: November 2010

November 7, 2010

Above is another of P. DuPont’s wonderful pictures of the Bay-called-Green. Every year or so, she comes to visit me for my birthday, which, unfortunately for her, is in late October, so she freezes the whole time. This year, she had an agenda: She had offered to paint my upstairs bathroom, kitchen ceiling, and part of another room where my contractor had repaired some cracks and plastered them over. I guess she likes to have a purpose in life. (I would rather pay other people to carry out my purposes in life, at least when they involve house maintenance and yard work. Of course, I “paid” her only in sparkling conversation.)

She also wanted to see the 49’ers game—a problem, because I got rid of my TV some months ago. (I’m not a TV snob; just wanted to save some money.)  I watch “Modern Family” on hulu.com, buy season passes to “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and “The Good Wife” on iTunes, and beg my sister Barb to let me come over and watch “Dexter” and “In Treatment” on Sunday nights (like an ex-smoker who doesn’t buy cigarettes anymore but cadges them off other people). Then it turned out that P’s beloved S.F. Giants were in the World Series, so it became a project to figure out how she could see or at least hear some of the games.

Oct. 27: As usual, I drove down to Green Bay to pick her up. She was supposed to arrive at about 10 p.m., but in the “It Goes Without Saying” Department, her plane was late. So I found myself sitting all alone—no passengers, no one else waiting for an arrival, not even an employee in sight—in the airport at 11:30, staring at the monitor of arrivals and departures, searching in vain for any record of her flight. We were apparently going to begin Airport Life anew the next morning at 6 a.m. I took this as a bad sign. It was an odd feeling, like I had missed the End of the World and was stuck there alone forever with only the peanuts and candy bars in the vending machine for sustenance. I called United, and the friendly robot voice informed me that P’s plane was indeed in the air between Chicago and G.B., so that was comforting. An employee eventually turned up, asked me where the plane was, and I told her it was expected at 12:03 but was already 20 minutes late. She chuckled at the fact that the flight had “dropped off the board a while ago” so she’d had to get the information from me, a mere nobody. I could have trashed the restroom and set fire to the seats in the waiting area while she lounged in some back room doing God knows what, but I guess they don’t worry about security at midnight in the middle of the week.

Oct. 28: P rooted around in the garage and found the paint my sister K had used for the kitchen ceiling—“Travertine Beige”—a really nice color that I call “Yellow”—and set about the task of repainting the large area that had been covered by my ancient fluorescent light fixture. Later, we drove back down to Green Bay for dinner at the Republic Chophouse, which P had found online. The food was excellent, and I couldn’t get over how nice the booths were: secluded, with generously sized, upholstered benches rather than naugahyde-over-foam repaired in spots with duct tape. I also exclaimed over the cloth napkins, told P I hadn’t eaten anywhere in 6 years where the silverware wasn’t wrapped and taped into a paper napkin (I exaggerated slightly, as is my wont). I have made the transition to hick in record time. On the way home we found the World Series game on the radio. The Giants had already won Game 1, so P was stoked. When we got back to my house, we tried to get reception on my tiny Sony radio, but it was hard going. Still, we managed to listen and marveled at the number of runs her team was racking up. In the eighth inning, with 2 out and a comfortable lead of 6 to nothing, she inexplicably decided to call C in Oregon to tell her about our day. I heard her asking C if the cat missed her. I took the radio upstairs, where the reception was only marginally better, and suddenly—I must have spaced out or just didn’t understand what was happening—the Giants got 3 more runs, and I’m yelling down to P, “9 to nothing! 9 to nothing!” She came upstairs and started looking for the game streaming online (never found it), while I continued to listen with the radio up to my ear, reporting on every pitch until it was over. It was a weird role reversal.

Oct. 29: To Menard’s (home improvement store) to get supplies for the bathroom paint job. P suggested a dark gray to cover the boring white, and while I was skeptical of the color she picked out, we appreciated the aptness of the name—“Family Ties.” (They don’t bother to name colors colors anymore.) I can barely walk lately, so after the excruciating torment of navigating the huge store—paint in one far corner, cashiers in opposite far corner—I mostly napped while she worked (she actually whistled) until it was time to go to the ritual birthday dinner at Schussler’s with my sisters (Barb and K) and brother-in-law (MP). They first met P not long after I did and get along fine. P and K, in particular, are hilarious together. They both laugh a lot, so the two of them in K’s kitchen trying to cut the birthday cake and transfer it to plates was apparently the height of comedy. P and MP talked football and baseball, and I sat in (K’s) recliner starring as the Birthday Girl and raking in the many generous gifts. The World Series wasn’t on that day, so we didn’t have to worry about finding the game.

Oct. 30: My birthday! I don’t remember much about it, actually, but I never forget a meal, so I can report that P and I had a wonderful dinner at The Landing, now one of two (S.F.) Bay Area-quality restaurants in “historic downtown Menominee.” My favorite waitress, Cindy, was working, and I got to brag about having a friend who not only came all the way from Oregon for my birthday but was painting my bathroom. Cindy was suitably impressed. She had met Terry and Jean (from Massachusetts), and Diane (from San Francisco) 2 years ago so has this image of me as someone who is much loved by friends from all over (which is true, amazingly enough). Conversely, when Cindy came by my sister’s garage sale last summer, MP could hardly believe that I knew someone locally that he didn’t know.

 

Oct. 31: I met the dog next door, who’s named Buttons and is as cute as one. I was outside feeding the birds and she was barking up a storm, anxious to get at me, so there but for the grace of 2 fences went my rabid attacker. When I turned to see what the commotion was all about, there was my neighbor waving at me. He and Buttons were both dressed for winter, and I was out there in a t-shirt and shorts. My body is apparently “burning up from the inside” (according to an alarming article I found online), so I’m always hot, and it might also be the cause of my sudden-onset “arthritis” in both knees. I’m not one to ask, “Why me?,” but it’s funny how put out I feel at having anything go wrong with my body, even at the age of the Beatles’ lyrics, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me….” Like: Am I really expected to hobble painfully for the rest of my life?

K called and invited us over to watch the Packer game and order pizza for lunch. I started obsessing about what to do, because we had already made plans with Barb. P calmly pointed out that we could go to K&MP’s for football and Barb’s for the World Series. Which is what we did. We brought take-out to Barb’s from our new Mexican restaurant, La Cabaña—I’m so excited—The citizenry has taken to La Cabaña in droves. It may not be the best Mexican food I’ve ever had, but it’s way better than Taco Bell or Taco John’s, and it’s run by real Mexicans. According to my haircutter, the owner worked in his father’s restaurants in Chicago and moved up here because he found the area so beautiful. I’ve heard all my life about how much Chicagoans love the U.P, which I guess they see as wild rather than boring. Well, come on down! Or UP, rather.

Nov. 1: By now, pages were flying off the calendar like in a Frank Capra movie. Only 2 days to P’s departure. She finished painting the bathroom and did a beautiful job; she was right about the color, a kind of gray/brown that changes subtly with the light. We went to Schloegel’s (family dining establishment) for supper. I had lobbied for Mexican again, but she didn’t go for that. So when she was perusing the menu at Schloegel’s, it took me a few seconds to respond to her idle question, “Have you ever had their taco salad?” When it finally hit me, I said, “If you order a taco salad, I’m going to kill you.” We both laughed like madwomen—the main pleasure in having her here, along with the long, leisurely talks that we usually conduct on the phone once a week. She’d overheard a woman in a nearby booth tell the waitress that she preferred Taco Bell to the new Mexican restaurant (which is next door to Schloegel’s) because it’s “pricey” ($7.99 for 3 steak enchiladas, rice, salad, and chips). Some people have also remarked that there’s a “language barrier” there, as if we have to point and grunt at the menu to be understood. We just don’t know how to handle the differently ethnic around here.

Nov. 2: P has a calming influence on me when it comes to doing what needs to be done. It was election day, and I had reluctantly concluded that I wasn’t on permanent absentee ballot status as I had thought—meaning that I had to go to the high school, find the gym, and remember how to vote in public. (I was a permanent absentee voter in California for many years.) I devoutly wished that I could just forget the whole thing, but I knew that both P and my sister (who wanted me to vote for certain school board members) wouldn’t hear of it. We also had to go back to Menard’s to see if we could find a match for the paint in the cats’ room*. And I had to buy food for the little beasts, and I wanted to get a sandwich for lunch because I knew I’d never make it to our 7:30 dinner reservation. I was stressing about the effort it would take to accomplish all this, but P couldn’t have been more calm about it—but then, she can walk.

*Yes, Brutus and Luther have their own room.

We made all the requisite stops and I even managed to get through it all without having to pee. The voting place was well hidden: I guess you’re just supposed to know where it is, having lived here all your life. It was annoyingly unorganized, but I got through it, and I later found out that one of the board members on Barb’s list won by 1 vote! Mine! She was happy about that, and in another example of my sudden wielding of serendipitous power, I mentioned that the flat white thing she described finding in her cat’s litter could be a tapeworm—and it was! She was ecstatic (that she was able to get him treated for it), and I felt, temporarily, like I could do no wrong. Didn’t last long, but you know.

That night P and Barb and I tried our newest restaurant, Table Six, which is upscale Italian. I can’t believe we now have two high-end restaurants barely a block from each other. The owners of The Landing are apparently all pissy about the new place and have gone to great lengths to keep Table Six customers from parking in their lot. Small-town rancor is alive and well. We were delighted to discover that the food at Table Six is excellent. Barb and I played it safe with lasagna, but P had steak and asparagus risotto (risotto? in Menominee?), which I know was great because I got the leftovers.

Nov. 3: I drove P to the airport and reluctantly let her go back to her life. I returned to mine by having an early lunch at El Sarape on the east side of Green Bay. I can’t get enough of Mexican food, it seems.

***

I rarely read the poems in The New Yorker because they’re usually so obscure, but this one caught my eye because of the title (I’m drawn to anything that mentions social security, having finally attained it.) I like the poem a lot and especially appreciate finding a new (to me) poet.

AT THE MANHATTAN SOCIAL SECURITY OFFICE

The mind seeks what is dead, for what is living escapes it. —Miguel de Unamuno

I’m practicing the stoic art of insouciance,

not because I prefer not thinking about

what signing up for Medicare means,

or why so many who came after me are being

called first, but because downstairs

my soul was examined for signs of violence

and duplicity. Its fatigue and ambivalence

weren’t visible, apparently. In the next row

a man is telling a girl bobbing to an iPhone

to sit still before the guard returns.

When I was her age signing up meant going

to Vietnam, which meant practicing

the Zen art of vanishing. At the windows

a blind man is asking why he didn’t receive

his disability payments in prison,

he needs his “…sustenance.” Behind me,

another man is asking to see my paper,

he’s looking for work, he says. Happy

to be free of “Afghanistan: What Could Work,”

I hand him my New York Review of Books.

Bismarck said explaining was a weakness.

As her father explains the necessity

of securing her future, the girl squirms.

She fears only boredom. I feared everything.

In five months my father would die

and mother and I would live on the $200 a month

his Social Security paid. At the windows

the blind man is practicing the existential art

of grovelling, exposing the stitches on his scalp

to a clerk who’s practicing the cynical art

of indifference. The girl’s soul, hovering near

the ceiling, is enjoying its moment of radiance.

My soul, fretfully pacing the water cooler,

is practicing the fatalistic art of understanding

that nothing can be done about Afghanistan,

that in order to influence the future we must kill it.

—Philip Schultz


my body, my (plunged, prodded, and poked) self

Last time, I left you with kind of a cliff-hanger about my medical condition. Well, I have neither fallen off the cliff nor been rescued in the meantime. The wheels of the medical-industrial complex grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.

At least it has been established that I do not have colon cancer, and I do not have breast cancer. That leaves xn places in my body where they may still find something horribly wrong. I feel like the elephant in the fable about the blind men touching its trunk, tail, ears, etc., and trying to guess what it is.

As part of the follow-up to my physical, I’ve had a colonoscopy, a mammogram, an ultrasound when they found something on the mammogram, and a biopsy of the something they found on the mammogram. Still to be resolved are the high cholesterol, high C-reactive protein (CRP), and abnormal white blood cell count. Oh, and a heart murmur. The high CRP was something I knew about before, but the lab tests keep coming back with wildly different results. When I went to a screening clinic for heart desire (Freudian slip! I mean “heart disease”!) a couple years ago, it was 10 (supposed to be no more than 3). A month or so ago, it was 29, and when they checked it again a week or so later it was 14. Also, my heart rate has been erratic at the doctor’s office—between 80 and 116 at different times, for no apparent reason.

Before the colonoscopy, a nurse who had just taken my blood pressure proceeded to ask me a million questions that I had already answered a million times. Those people are thorough—different nurses kept popping up and asking me my name and birthdate as if they were trying to catch me in a lie. While the first nurse was questioning me and entering my answers into a computer, another nurse was trying to get the IV needle in my arm. My sisters and I all have veins that strongly resist capture. So she’s fussing with my arms and hands, poking here and there, and the Question Nurse comes to “Do you have high blood pressure?” And I quip, “I don’t know, you tell me!” (See, she had just taken it. Do I have to explain everything?) And the Needle Nurse smiles! At last! Someone appreciates my feeble attempt at humor! And eventually the needle goes in, mission accomplished.

Part of my problem in joking with strangers is that I don’t have the courage of my convictions. I don’t sell it, or I don’t sell it with the requisite ha-ha or strong, confident deadpan. My deadpan only seems to work with people who’ve heard it many times before. I met my new doctor (I think I told you), and at my physical, he was crouched on the floor with one of my feet in each hand for some reason, while I sat in my “gown” on the end of the examining table. I thought of restraining my immediate association but then decided to go ahead. I said, “I’d like to see something in a nice loafer?” See, that questioning uplift at the end of the sentence conveyed my lack of confidence. He just said, “I can’t help you with that,” and when I croaked, “JOKE,” he said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were joking.” I don’t really blame him; he’s doing his thing, and I’m making some bizarre commentary that he has no context for. He’s Barb’s doctor, too, and she had an appointment with him a couple days after mine. She said to him, “It took you a while to get the loafer joke, didn’t it?” He had to agree.

The next time I saw him, I said, “I’ve never felt comfortable with a doctor in my whole life before.” He asked if I was comfortable there, and I said, “Very much.” He seemed pleased. It’s really true, and I still can’t believe it. Is it because it’s the U.P.—no, actually, it’s N.E.W. (Northeastern Wisconsin), but close enough—that they have to try harder? When you go to the hospital (“BA”MC) (I explained that last time, look it up), there are signs everywhere saying “Thank you for choosing BAMC.” And I always think, “I didn’t know I had a choice.” But maybe they’re sensitive because it’s common knowledge that “people from Menominee/Marinette go to Green Bay for health care, and people from Green Bay go to Milwaukee.” I suppose Milwaukeeans set their sights on Chicago. Anyway, everyone who works at the hospital here seems to be genuinely friendly and just busting out all over in their desire to please. That was not my experience in the real (S.F.) Bay Area.

***

So I’m lying on a hospital bed with an IV sticking out of my hand, waiting to be taken for my colonoscopy. Barb is sitting in the recliner next to the bed crocheting a scarf. (She is an inveterate crocheter, an unrepentant, unregenerate crocheter.) Mounted on the wall is a TV, which is showing a series of nature photographs, but because I don’t have my glasses on, all I can see are blobs of green and blue. I wonder idly what’s in the IV bag, and Barb thinks there must be a mild sedative, though I am feeling anything but sedated—or loopy, one of the consolations I was looking forward to after enduring the 6-hour trial of drinking 9 tall glasses of lemonade-like liquid the night before. (“Lemonade-like” in the sense that someone must have waved a lemon in the general direction of a small dune of powdered laxative before it got to me.) I insisted I wasn’t in the “feeling no pain” zone, but then I started paying closer attention to the blobs of nature on the TV and noticed that now there were fluffy white clouds streaming leftward against a blue background. And I started giggling. Like, if you’re feeling anxious about the soon-to-be hose stuck up your ass, surely you’ll be pleasantly distracted by these faux clouds drifting by. I pointed out to Barb that one of the clouds looked like Dick Cheney, but she did not find this quip amusing, and usually she’s highly amused by me, so that’s when I decided I must indeed be intravenously ingesting some sort of happy concoction. Then I had one of my patented epiphanies when I realized that, in the future, the world will be like the movie Beetlejuice in that there will be no “outside.” You’ll spend your life in rooms without windows (there will be nuclear winter beyond the walls, or maybe just abstract patterns or white noise) but you’ll have a TV monitor—or maybe they will have perfected the showing of images on your retinas—to feed you scenes of life as it used to be. Old people will tell their grandchildren about the far-away long-ago when you could actually be in the picture and surrounded by the picture as you were now surrounded by blank walls and closed-circuit TVs, and the young’uns will roll their eyes at Grandma and Grandpa’s lame, pointless memories, as they do now when we oldsters start waxing nostalgic about Grateful Dead concerts and safe, cheap recreational drugs. As I was going on about all this, I had the distinct feeling that Barb wasn’t listening. Well, at least I was amusing myself. I mean, somebody has to.

They finally come for me, and the last thing I remember is being told to turn on my side. Next thing I know, I’m back in my “room,” Barb is still crocheting, and I have disagreeable pain in my stomach, which lasts all the way through the recovery period and on to the car and the restaurant, Schloegel’s, where I’m desperate to eat something after more than 32 hours of fasting. I’m trying to discreetly let a little air out of my bum in little toots. The Recovery Nurse had said I could eat “anything” now, so I took her at her word and ordered Swedish pancakes and sausage—except that I told the waitress “Swedish meatballs and sausage,” and fortunately Barb noticed and I was spared a meat overdose. At the hospital everyone had been adamant that I wouldn’t remember a thing the doctor or the nurses said to me after the procedure, so I was equally adamant that I was perfectly alert, though I could tell that my glazed eyes betrayed me. And I did remember pretty much everything, which boiled down to “Don’t do anything for the rest of the day; tomorrow you can resume your normal life.” Since my “normal life” consists of not doing much of anything anyway, I did not find this instruction difficult to follow.

After we ate, I needed to get some groceries, and I asked Barb if she thought I “deserved” to buy a batch of bakery cookies after everything I’d been through, and she wholeheartedly agreed, which I knew she would. So I bought white chocolate-macadamia nut cookies, some broccoli, and the all-too-seldom-appearing cream of broccoli soup from the soup bar. I could give up cookies if I absolutely had to, but I couldn’t give up broccoli. Barb dropped me off at home, and I got set up in my comfy armchair with the cookies and a Thermos of water by my side and spent the next 10 hours alternately sleeping and waking up long enough to eat a couple of cookies, add a word or two to the crossword puzzle I was working on, and go back to sleep. I felt great when I woke up.

Oh, the doctor found a “medium-size” polyp in me that was presumably benign and sternly announced that I would have to have another colonoscopy in 3 years. Hey, piece o’ cake, doc. 3 years is like forever.

***

And on we go. Two days later, I went for my mammogram—which always makes me think of “candygram” from the “Saturday Night Live” sketch about the land shark; I picture a tech in a white smock knocking on my door with the coy implication that she has something wonderful to give me. I was sitting in the waiting room and looked up to see that several large panels in the ceiling—alternating with regular gray acoustic tiles—showed clouds and blue sky like in the colonoscopy room, but they weren’t moving. It was an odd look, and it made me wonder, Who designs this shit? And of course everything was pink. I hate pink, therefore I am not a real woman. (I was once told to my face that I wasn’t a real woman, and it’s surprising how much it hurt, as if I had been born with 2 heads or something. This was back in the ‘70s when I worked at Commerce Clearing House in San Rafael, and a coworker who’d been asked if she and her roommate [an obvious dyke] were lesbians said it was like being called a prostitute. Another coworker was describing someone as “queer,” and I, being newly recruited to the cause [though I never got my toaster], piped up, “I’m queer,” whereupon another coworker friendly to me said, “Oh, Mary, you are not.” I wasn’t sure how to take that, but I knew she meant well. That’s when someone else said, perfectly seriously, that I wasn’t a real woman. Thank God no one around this Bay Area seems to know what dykes look like, because if they did, half the farm women in town would be openly ostracized. I’ve gotten a couple of leers and sneers from men on diner stools, but I easily stare them down. Living here for me is like being an imperialist in a colonial outpost. Because you’ve been exposed to more of the real world than they have, you can culturally lord it over them. So the backwater men here still think they’re at the top of the totem pole, but I can pierce them with my unintimidated gaze like a lean and hungry yon Cassius—or fat and hungry in my case.)

***

So as I said, they found “something” on the mammogram, so I had to have a biopsy. The surgeon who did it is very well liked (I liked him, too), and my niece said he’s “the best cutter in town.” So I had a sodden thought: If he lived in the Middle East, he could be the best cutter in Qatar. (I swear I’ve heard that name pronounced the same as “cutter,” but the online dictionary claims it rhymes with: afar, ajar, all-star, armoire, and about 150 other words. I include this superfluous information just in case there are any poets out there looking for a rhyme for a small emirate—though it may be easier to use emirate in the first place. Mais non: There are over 400 rhymes for “emirate,” including Watergate, welfare state, and welterweight! I suggest you write about something else.)

The biopsy wasn’t a big deal, but the discharge instructions said I couldn’t lift more than 10 pounds for a few days. Guess who weighs more than 10 pounds each? Fatty McBrutus and Fatty McLuther. Even if I don’t lift them, they’re used to using my body, especially my chest, as an alternative bed-slash-stomping ground. I had to keep shooing them away or trying to hold on to them with only one arm. Try explaining that to a couple of selfish felines. But the excision healed up nicely, and the “something” turned out to be “nothing.”

At the follow-up appointment a week later, nice Dr. Surgeon called me “young lady.” I had vowed to educate the next person (always a man) who called me that in the mistaken belief that I would be flattered by the obvious lie. But it backfired on me. Dr. Surgeon said he was sorry if he offended me (though he was clearly the one who was offended) and that he thought of me as “young”—his last two patients had been 87 and 89. Well, OK. He then suggested that he call me “pleasant lady” because I’m “pleasant.” Was that a dig? By then I wished I had kept my mouth shut. What do you ever get for bucking the system, I ask you?

If you’re still with me, congratulations. You are a real trouper, which is why I’ve always liked you.

Cheers!

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine #46: September 2010

September 17, 2010

my body, my selves

It was my first time in a doctor’s office since the spring of 2000. The nurse’s first order of business was to weigh me—while I was fully clothed and wearing wooden clogs. So I figure 10 pounds of that were not me. Then she took me to an examining room where there were two chairs against the wall to my left, and she told me to sit in “the first seat.” Have I mentioned that I sometimes feel like Rain Man without a feel for numbers? Here is exactly what passed through my mind when faced with this seemingly simple command: Well, it depends where you start counting, doesn’t it? So I did a rapid calculation—too rapid for the ordinary human brain to comprehend—and chose to sit in the farther chair. This made perfect sense to me at the time, but of course she meant the chair closer to me, i.e., “the first seat.”

It’s as if my brain responds to cues that are completely generated from within. A person of normal intelligence would immediately know that “the first seat” was the first one she came to. I, on the other hand, had to turn it into a complex binary equation-cum-philosophical query into the order of numbers, and I don’t even think there is such a thing. In the 2 milliseconds I spent trying to work this out, I did not take into account the situation and the environmental cues, such as the fact that there was a small table next to “the first seat,” where the nurse was obviously going to sit to take my blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate. But no, I was operating in an intellectual vacuum. And I felt like an idiot when she made me move to the other chair. Now I contend that mistakes like this may be evidence of high intelligence (I’m only half joking): People with “smart people’s disease” see ambiguities where the average person sees only the obvious. I’ll bet you that if I were editing IQ tests today, I’d find many such ambiguities, as I do in papers on cardiac surgery or asthma. “Book-smart” people are often mocked for lacking in common sense, and this may be part of the explanation. Look at me, turning lemons into lemonade! I know I sound terribly full of myself, but I readily admit that my E and S Q’s (Emotional and Social quotients) are sadly below average.

I hasten to clarify that people of high intelligence who have no trouble distinguishing the obvious from the inexplicable are blessed with a refined sense of their surroundings and should be thankful instead of judging me for looking for a silver lining.

I’m not sure if the following is evidence for or against my theory. Lately I’ve been noticing that I use the phrase “didn’t occur to me” an awful lot. I bought a product at Mighty Pet that you add to your cat’s drinking water to keep his teeth clean or give him better breath or something. The directions said to add a capful of the stuff to 16 oz. of water. I didn’t have a big enough water bowl to hold 16 oz., so I bought a bigger bowl, but my cats wouldn’t drink out of it. My sister Barb asked if I tried putting half a capful into 8 oz. of water, and I had to admit it “didn’t occur to me.” One day I locked my keys in the car at a farm market. When I told P about it later, she said, “Good thing you have AAA.” And I thought, Damn! It didn’t occur to me! (A nice policeman helped me out.) Even after this realization, I started to worry in advance about my Jeep’s gears freezing in the Green Bay airport parking lot while I’m in San Francisco for the painting intensive in December, like they did last year. Finally, I remembered, Oh, yeah, if it happens again I can call AAA! I haven’t used my AAA card in 20 years, and somehow I had stopped connecting the $48 annual fee with actually needing the service.

Am I embarrassed to be making these revelations? Yes, a bit. But I’m more interested in observing the wormholes in my personal “brainscape.” (That word, which I thought I made up, is actually the name of “a database for resting state functional connectivity studies… [for] mapping the intrinsic functional topography of the brain, evaluating neuroanatomical models, and investigating neurological and psychiatric disease.” The website has a drawing of a brain with colored splotches on it, and it looks like a painter’s palette! Think of the connections!) I’m not a scientist, and I couldn’t be more surprised at what I ended up doing for a living (editing for scientists). Quirky writing and metaphorical exploration are much more fun for me.

As I chart the waters at the horizon of the flat earth of my life span, wondering if I’m going to fall off the edge or pursue the horizon as it gets farther and farther away—or, less poetically, as I get closer to oblivion—I’ve vowed not to repeat my mother’s mantra in her later years, “It’s hell to get old.” She was talking not only about the body complaints but about the brain blips that I am now very familiar with, the “I walked into this room and now I have no idea what I’m doing here” natural loss of short-term whatchamacallit, memory. She died before she got dementia, thankfully. I hear that dementia is frightening, but would it have to be? I hypothesize (i.e., wishfully speculate) that it may be possible to keep one foot, or two tippy toes, on a safe spot while surrounded by confusion and loss of identity. Could I have myself a laugh while the aides at The Home tut-tut about my wearing panties on my head? Not knowing which chair to sit in will be small potatoes indeed. Could self-acceptance go so far as to allow one to celebrate being painted into a corner, having given up real estate but found the perfect place to preserve the brain’s eyes and ears and low-level functioning? My doctors and alternative healers never knew that I cured myself of agoraphobia and lower back pain through reading self-help books. So can I take my night dreams of death-acceptance and my autodidactic survey of self and my experience of painting beyond anything in the known world and create my own befuddled but privately cherished corner of the universe? I almost look forward to testing this out.

*

I’ve written before about having odd sentences pop into my mind when I’m in the twilight zone between wake and sleep. Recent example: “We had to resign from school all the way in.” And a more colorful one: “We would definitely become topless bitches.” What goes on in there?

*

You’ve heard of “Overheard”? Well, this is a new feature: “Overread.”  In Bob Dylan in America, Sean Wilhentz quotes someone saying that Dylan wasn’t stoned in a session, he “wasn’t hooked on anything but time and space.” Am I the only one who finds this  hilarious?

back to my body

Because I’ve been AWOL from the medical-industrial complex for so long, I now have to get lab work, X-rays, and a full physical, including a colonoscopy, a mammogram, and a vaginal invasion. Oh Lordy. The sky over the doctor’s office is dark with chickens coming home to roost. Back in 2000, my last doctor “visit” (as if you sit around chatting over a cup of tea: “How you been?” “Good… you?”) had culminated in gallbladder surgery, a shot in the dark by a doctor who had no idea how literal my mind-body connection really is. (When I googled “mind-body” to find the noun that goes after it, a listing on the first page of results was for “pole dance classes.” I decided not to try to figure out the connection—ah, the word I wanted!). Like a whole string of other physical problems that were actually based in emotional trauma, sublimation, ignorance, or stress, the tightening band of pain around my abdomen was still there after the gallbladder was gone, and I think in the past 10 years I’ve hoped that I’d meet my maker by getting hit by a bus or falling out of a window before I had to go back into the belly of the beast.

The reason I was finally forced to return was pain in both knees that came on all of a sudden as I was walking down the stairs. The pain lasted for 6 or 7 weeks, and I could no longer talk myself into the “That’s OK, I’ll probably die of bird flu before it becomes a real problem” avoidance tactic. My sister Barb likes her doctor, so I decided to go to him.

I tarted myself up by shaving my legs (first time this century) and wearing my “Olds Cool” t-shirt so he’d know I’m hip and happenin’ despite my chronological age. I had to run over to Walgreen’s the night before to buy a shaver. That was a waste, because I didn’t have to take my clothes off for the “visit,” and the hair is just going to grow back. It didn’t occur to me (there it goes again) to shave my armpits. For my physical, which is in a week or so, I’ll be sure to do all the appropriate personal grooming.

“Dr. T” is youngish—early 40s, I’d say—and a handsome devil. He assured me that “we live in America” so I don’t have to do anything he recommends. What a switch. Doctors used to browbeat us about giving up caffeine and losing weight, and airlines barely registered our existence. He dictated all my vital information into a recorder as I was sitting there so I could confirm or correct it on the spot. However, I suspect that he adds an addendum after the patient leaves, because he didn’t reveal his first impressions of me (“Patient is a 63-year-old woman with bad skin, dykey haircut, weird taste in clothes, and overweight due to wearing heavy clogs”).

In my provincial, West-Coast-leaning way, I had figured that doctors in the Midwest would be subpar because, Why would they want to live here? But so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the competence and friendliness of everyone I’ve encountered. I had spent several hours at the hospital—which they insist on calling “Bay Area” Medical Center (“BA”MC)—when my sister K (ironically) had knee surgery last month. It was one big happy family as RNs, LPNs, and MDs stopped by her room to say hi to the three members of my family who have been going to them for various ailments over the years. My sisters introduced me, and I’ve finally lost the label “sister from California.” I have gone native at last.

tech-no-no-how

I don’t have a smart phone, but it’s still a devious little thing. It lives in my pocket and connives to perform various functions when I am leaning forward, squatting down, or otherwise causing one of the buttons on the front of the phone to ping. It might turn itself off (then on), go to my contact list, try to send a text message, come this close to going online. Once at 4 a.m., I heard the telltale ping in my pocket, and I took it out to see what it was up to. Nothing was pressing against it, so I didn’t think my body language had sent any unintentional messages. When I looked at it, the screen was showing my contact list at M. P—. Before I could press End—like grabbing the cat before it escapes out the door—it rang. I press Talk and there’s nothing. I say, “M—“? and my sister K says, “This is his wife, can I help you?” But if I called him, why did my phone ring? I quickly say, “It’s Mary!” and we have a confusing back-and-forth about why are you calling, why are you calling? I explain that it was my cell phone’s doing. As we’re about to hang up, K says, “Thank you for not being ‘the other woman’.” We giggle and say bye. Later, MP refuses to believe that my phone called him all by itself. I have since learned that this is called “pocket dialing.” You would think that the geniuses at Apple or wherever would have come up with a way to prevent this. Flip phones are still popular on TV shows, because they make a dramatic and satisfying snik when they snap shut. But with my slide phone I pay extra every month for junk text messages (received, not sent) and “Casual Data Usage,” whatever that is.

Later that day, I force myself to leave the house and drive the seemingly interminable 5.83 miles (per Mapquest) to Shopko to get a prescription filled. I pull into the parking lot and find a spot near the door to the pharmacy. The car next to me is just starting to pull out. I get out of the Jeep, lock up, and turn to see that the driver of the other car is my other sister Barb. Now, this might not sound that unusual, but I rarely see anyone I know when I’m out and about. In the 6 years since I moved back to my hometown, I’ve run into K maybe 2 or 3 times at Angeli’s, Barb once before at Shopko, and MP a few times on the road, where we wave and grin maniacally at each other as we pass, as if it’s the most amazing thing in the world. (To defend myself against the charge of not recognizing my sister’s car, she got rid of the big purple truck and now drives a generic black SUV.)

So my brain puts these two unlikely events together—the errant phone call and the precise juxtaposition of Barb’s and my shopping trips, and I think, This has got to mean something. I’ve never really believed in coincidence. I’ve been determined to make sense out of the world (or, if necessary, impose sense on it) since I was first capable of wishful thinking. I’ve gone through periods when absolutely everything seemed like a message from The Universe. One day in the 1980s I found a dime on the ground in each of three different counties: San Francisco, Marin, and Alameda. Instead of just glorying in my 30-cent windfall, I set the parameters for significance. Surely there must be a meaningful pattern here? But then what could I do with that information? Unless some psychology grad student was going around dropping coins all over the Bay Area to study, I don’t know, dime migration, there was no way to decode the mystery. (Strangely, each dime had a little metal tag on it… now I’m just being silly.) I think a mathematician would say that each dime-finding was a separate event, with separate odds. But I insist on taking geography and time into account, making it one multi-event with supposedly low, low odds. This is why I’m not a mathematician: the rules! the absolutes! Plus, no feel for numbers.

It was lovely when I took Deepak Chopra at his word that “The universe is infinitely correlated.” I can’t know definitively that it’s not, but it’s suspiciously comforting, like the idea that Jesus is waiting for us up in heaven—or is he coming back here first? I’m not clear on that. I’ve had a long love affair with synchronicity, but it presupposes an order that is not necessarily there. So I’m down to not believing in anything, really—not in a nihilistic, depressing way, but just standing here on the edge of the Unknown, open to possibilities and opportunities, without trying to fit scenarios onto it like it’s a paper doll with infinite wardrobe choices.

*

Here in the U.P. and N.E.W. (Northeastern Wisconsin; I didn’t make it up), the stories keep rolling in. A formerly close friend of the family robs a Cash&Go (Check&Go? Well, Rob&Go, now) across the street from his house, to which he drives right after the heist. An ex-wife gets arrested for shoplifting at WalMart. A long-lost brother is discovered after supposedly jumping out of a 7-story building in California. The police have identified him from his fingerprints, but there is still some suspicion on this end that it may not be him because “it’s not that hard to fake fingerprints.” It’s not? I feel like I’ve lived such a normal, unassuming life up to this point, but back here in my “boring” Midwestern hometown these bizarre happenings are commonplace, as if the real action takes place in the middle of the country while people on the coasts sit around reading books and thinking great thoughts.

People around here divorce and move their kids to Madison or Texas while the other spouse moves also and then bemoans how far away the kids are. Or lives closer but resents being invited to the ex’s new place only to find that he is expected to babysit while the ex goes out. This is considered unconscionable, even after I retort that he’s the father. People take drugs and deal them, start fights in bars, go deep into debt (“How can you afford that trailer, Brian?” “Go into debt!” [an actual quote]), lose track of their grown kids. A 37-year-old man is estranged from certain family members over his involvement with a much younger cousin; he got out of that situation only to move in with a man he supervises at work and then took up with the guy’s 21-year-old daughter, who now lives with them. The roommate is threatening various things. The “drama queen,” as he is now known, calls home to Mama, who can only give him advice he should be able to figure out on his own.

The saddest thing for me in this flurry of dissolution and dislocation is that I lost my connection with two of Barb’s granddaughters (who are sisters). They have different fathers and now live with their mother and another man who is not the father of their new little sister. When I saw them frequently, one of them told me she wanted to take an after-school gymnastics class at the Y in Menominee, but her parents said they couldn’t afford it. So, using Barb as a go-between, I offered to pay for the class. Word filtered back to me that she couldn’t go anyway, because she had no way to get there (2.74 miles). So I offered to pick her up at school and drive her to the Y, then back again when the class was over. It was only twice a week, and I had nothing better to do. There was no word and no filter after that, just a big silent door slam. Were they suspicious of my motives? That could just be my paranoia, but I’ll never know. I do know that people without money are innately suspicious of others’ generosity, seeing it as lording it over them. No one wants to be beholden. You have to have something of your own to believe that someone with more is not trying to humiliate you. With my grandniece, I just wanted to help out my extended family. But the family did not extend itself to me.

*

I love my mostly solitary life, but some days are packjam with human contact, and those are nice, too. One day I had delightful visits (real ones) with my niece Lorraine and my haircutter Lois. Later, I stopped off at Barb’s house to help her with a problem she was having with her computer. Then I lay down on her couch and found it overwhelmingly comfortable, so I stayed while we watched 5 episodes of “Nurse Jackie” and ordered a pizza. Finally, I stumbled on home to find an e-mail from a second cousin, Sharon, who was offering scanned images of old photos of my mother’s family. Over the next few days, we corresponded about the photos and traded family stories. It was slightly disconcerting to realize that I had never really thought about any of my ancestors beyond my grandparents’ generation. But here was evidence that I did not emerge full-blown from the forehead of Grandpa Larsen: a photo of my great-grandfather Pieter Larsen, sitting at a desk back there in the 19th century. It was humbling.

Although it’s perhaps natural to think of oneself as the glorious culmination of thousands of years of procreation, it also occurred to me that, in the great pantheon of life as lived by the great-great-greats, none of it has much to do with me. Let’s say I’m a drop of water in a tiny creek in a cow pasture. (My sisters and I played in one across the road from our house.) As that water drop, I’m all about the creek, the cows, the trees, the changes of weather. Then I find out about the rivers in the area—the Menominee and Peshtigo rivers and their tributaries, Wausaukee, Pike, Pemebonwon, Little Popple, Pine, Popple, Brule, Little Peshtigo, Thunder, and Rat. Then there’s Green Bay off Lake Michigan, and all the Great Lakes, and it just goes on and on. You could argue that, as a drop in a tiny creek, I am not a product of these larger bodies of water but an antecedent, and you wouldn’t be wrong—but if the creek dried up, the other bodies would not be affected at all. So there you have it: my watery analogy for the significance, to me, of my untold myriad of ancestors: I am but a drop (or a drip). So if I were found to be distantly related to, say, Captain Lars Larsen of the Viking Navy, it would add barely a molecule of significance to my life. I admit I’m curious about the McKenney line too, but I’m not going to search it out. I’d rather explore my more immediate influences—the creek waters of which I am a part, the stones in the creek, the cow pies—do they go in the creek too?—the spring flowers, buttercups, violets, the splashing of summer and the frozen rigidity of winter. My ancestors are part of the geologic/physiologic past that formed me, but I’d rather stay in the present than search for remnants of self in those long-ago, many-times-diluted family ties.

*

So, the X-rays of my knees came back with the diagnosis, “degenerative changes,” meaning arthritis. When I was having lower back pain for a year and a half in the early ‘90s, I read about a study in which the X-rays or MRIs of people complaining of back pain were no more indicative of degeneration than were those of people who had no pain. The inescapable conclusion was that doctors see structural changes and then attribute the perceived pain to those changes. The book that cured me of my emotionally based pain (Healing Back Pain, by Dr. John Sarno) includes several references to knees. So now I have my work cut out for me: If I can banish the pain in the next 2 weeks, I won’t have to get a cortisone injection and/or be crippled for life. The power of the mind (and the duplicity of the body) is strong indeed. But I plan to wrestle my errant brain cells to the ground, saving the few that will keep me babbling incoherently at The Home while chuckling up my sleeve in my safe corner, free to think and ponder the secrets of the universe to my heart’s content.

You are here. Which is “the first” number?

[Mary McKenney]


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